Survive And Thrive

by Mylochka

(Standard Year 2248)

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“I figure I gonna transfer outta this outfit soon,” Lieutenant Noel DelMonde pronounced, surveying his fellow crewmembers with lazy discontent from atop his perch high atop a stack of storage containers.

“Why?” his friend Lieutenant Jeremy Paget asked, dialing up the field radius of the anti-grav unit on the box he was trying to wrestle onto a transport sled. “They workin’ you too hard?”

Del ignored his sarcasm as he shone a portable light down into the unit to verify its contents. “I t’ink I done rode this pony as far as it gonna take me.”

“Really?” Paget asked with more interest than he’d shown the other four hundred and thirty-two times his crewmate has made such an announcement since the leave DelMonde had spent with Ruth Valley on Naios. “Why?”

The Security Officer was desperate to have something to occupy his mind that would stop him from dwelling on the inescapable creepiness of where they were.

“Ever’body hate me,” the Cajun complained, as seemingly unaffected by his surroundings as if they were classifying and loading equipment in a shuttle bay instead of the vast, hollowed out body of a dead, alien, planet-killing monster.

"I don't hate you," Paget assured his friend automatically.

The engineer looked down to raise an eyebrow at him.

It had been a rather challenging week.

The Security Officer sighed. "N.C., you know I don't hate you,"

"Maybe not most o’ th’ time," the Cajun grumbled, sealing up the port on the container.

"I'm guessing this is another G7-A-C12?" Paget speculated, detaching a pair of anti-gravs from the box on the sled and tossing them up to his partner.

"You be guessin’ right," DelMonde confirmed, attaching the units to either side of the box.

Jer unhooked keypad from his belt and punched in the designation. G7-A-C12 was a code that identified the type of equipment stored in the box and both where and how the container should be stored when it arrived on the U.S.S Hood. "Admittedly, last week was not... exactly your best, but people don't hate you."

"Really?" After attaching the guidelines and activating the anti-gravs, DelMonde stepped onto the stack of containers adjacent to the one he'd been working on. "Name three people on board who don't hate me."

Paget grabbed the guidelines and pulled the box towards him as the engineer used his bootheel to push it in the right direction from above.

This section of the interior of the planet-killer was sealed off from open space. It had been equipped with enough artificial gravity and environment to make it habitable for the team of Federation scientists who had been sent to investigate the inner workings of this dead monster. The gravity was turned down at present to make the task of packing and offloading the equipment the team had left behind a little easier for the crew of the Hood.

"Jacobs doesn't hate you," Paget pointed out, naming the ship's chief engineer.

"An’?" DelMonde prompted, bending down to shove the container free when it scraped against the unit he was standing on.

It was admittedly hard to come up with a second name at present. "And I don't hate you," Jer said, tugging the box downwards as the engineer climbed down a level on the pyramid of containers they were working to categorize and load onto transport sleds.

"You not count," Del informed Jer, pushing the box down towards him.

"Hold up, Lieutenant!" a voice called as the sound of a transport sled drew near. "We'll get that for you!"

"I've got it, Len," Paget insisted as a young ensign from Ordnance and the crewman accompanying him parked their empty sled and galloped up to take control of the storage container.

"Looks like you've got another boat full of G7s already, Lieutenant," Crewman Yates commented cheerfully as they stacked the container atop the others.

"Yep," Paget affirmed.

There was a short awkward pause during which none of them said anything about the fact that all the other Security officers of Paget's rank and above were assisting teams from the Science division catalog equipment and specimens that merited high-level Security clearance and that all the engineers of DelMonde's rank and above were busy hammering out the logistics that were going to be involved in hauling the planet-killer into the nearest sun for incineration.

"I can lend Yates to you for a while," Ensign Dombrowski offered sympathetically.

"That's okay, Len," Paget refused politely. "We're good."

"Okay, Lieutenant." Dombrowski stepped behind the controls of the transport sled. The ensign moved the vehicle forward so that his assistant could park the empty sled in its place.

"See ya later, Lieutenant!" the crewman called as he jogged away to catch up with the slow-moving sled.

"See?" Paget turned to DelMonde. "Dombrowski and Yates don't hate you."

"They not hate you," the engineer corrected, as he unsealed another container. "The foul-tempered son o’ Satan you workin’ wit’, though? That another question entirely."

The Security Officer sighed. Although DelMonde had not spoken of it at all, working in this site of so much death and destruction must be grating on the engineer's too-sensitive nervous system. Over the past three days, the Cajun had grown increasingly sharp-tongued and foul-tempered. Working inside the belly of this monster had put everyone's nerves on edge. It would be one thing if his ill-humor was vented only on persons of Yates and Dombrowski's low-seniority ilk. However, displays of unacceptable levels of irascibility on the Cajun's part had be spread liberally enough up the chain of command to prompt Mr. Brandt, the Hood's first officer, to decide that DelMonde's superlative engineering skills could best be put to use inspecting the contents of storage containers very, very far away from where anyone else of the lieutenant's pay grade and above was working and that Paget's considerable talents were best put to use in making sure his temperamental friend stayed out of everyone else's hair.

"They weren't even paying any attention to you," Jer said, lining up his supply of anti-grav units for easy access.

"That jus’ how it look on th’ outside," DelMonde retorted. "On th’ inside, they both steamin’ cauldrons o’ hate ruminatin’ on how my spectacular failin’s as an officer an’ a gentleman garner me as much unmerited attention as my occasional -- but equally spectacular -- successes, puttin’ me undeservedly in line fo; advancement over hard-workin; an’ deserving; but decidedly unspectacular Starfleet personnel like themselves."

Paget took a moment to decide whether DelMonde was being telepathic or paranoid. "You're just making that up," he said, deciding on the latter.

"Well... Actually Yates was t’inkin’ ‘bout lunch," the engineer admitted. "And Dombrowski was once again experiencin’ pleasure in your company that his tiny li’l pea-brain can't quite classify correctly as yet -- but they coulda been t’inkin’ that. Lottsa folks do."

Instead of arguing with his friend, Paget crossed his arms and frowned up at the curving, ribbed insides of the monster that formed the ceiling above them. Instead of becoming acclimated to the unpleasantness of being inside this mechanical horror, he could feel himself becoming more and more uneasy. Being on the site of a crime scene of this magnitude could not help but set the policeman's brain inside his head to working overtime.

Working on this boring detail was giving him time to sift though all the facts he knew about the past of this killing-machine and about Starfleet's plans for its disposal. The more he thought about it, the more a nagging voice in the back of his head kept telling him something was amiss. Something wasn't adding up. Something was very, very wrong...

"VND 374," he said, speaking the bland designation Star Fleet had given to this monster. "Why VND?"

"Very Nice Day, I'd guess," DelMonde supplied acidly. "They hopin’ t’ make it a vacation spot."

Since the engineer had made a game of coming up with a new, more ridiculous way of filling out the acronym each time he questioned the designation, Paget didn't feel obligated to respond. The "374" in the name was no mystery. L-374 was the name of the last solar system this killing-machine had eaten before the Enterprise's Captain Kirk had managed to explode the Constellation inside its belly.

Jer paused once again to remember his three Academy classmates who'd shipped out on the Constellation. An awful death. Stranded on a doomed planet. Helpless to stop the hideous thing their equipment would have allowed them to see coming for them...

"Voracious New Demon," DelMonde guessed grimly as if reading his thought.

Paget took in a deep breath as he took out his keypad and opened a data file for the container his partner was checking.

"Let it go, Jer," the Cajun advised gently. "Not’ing we can do t’ bring ‘em back. An’ now this t’ing gonna be cut up an’ tossed into a sun. Might not be justice, but at leas’ it'll be an end to it, non?"

The suspicion that somehow the nightmarish threat embodied by this hunk of alien metal was not over was the thing that kept setting Paget's teeth on edge.

“Why all the hurry now?" he asked, voicing the second question he kept coming back to. "Scientists have been stationed here for three years trying to figure out how what made this thing tick. Now they're transferred back to Headquarters so fast that they're not even given time to pack up their equipment."

"Like anyone in they right mind not try t’ weasel out o’ packin’ this mess up," DelMonde said, frowning down at the collection of spare parts below him.

"Instead of hiring a civilian contractor, we're pulled off patrol..."

"Jer, I know that ‘cause o’ my mouth you an’ me has pulled a work detail that could be done by a pair o’ chimps in overalls," the engineer interrupted, "but you know that this ain't some old minin’ station wit’ a burnt out power core. An’ from what you say, the Klingons been snoopin’ ‘round..."

Paget lifted an eyebrow. "I said that?"

"You said that two ships had gone missin’ near here. Now, I not claim to be no detective, but when ships start t’ go missin’ near some kind of Top Secret Federation research outfit that happens to be near th’ edges o’ Klingon space..."

"So you think the scientists were evacuated and we're being pulled off patrol to destroy this thing because Starfleet has decided that Klingon spies destroyed those two missing ships?" Paget asked, putting his friend's supposition in the form it was taking in rumors floating in subspace chatter he'd been monitoring.

"I not know not’ing ‘bout all that," the engineer replied warily. "But if the Klingons was to get a hold o’ this t’ing an’ figure out a way to restart it...."

"Do you think it can be restarted?" Jer interrupted.

The engineer paused, sat back on his heels and looked up at the curving dome of alien metal stretching above them. "I not wanna bet my life that I could figure out how t’ get it goin’ again all by myself," he decided after a few minutes. "But I not wanna bet th’ lives o’ half the galaxy that a bunch of Klingons couldn't."

"So you think it's possible?" Paget asked. "This thing has had a starship exploded inside it. It's been dead for three years. How is it even slightly plausible that it could be brought back to life?"

"I ain't said that it could be!" DelMonde growled. "Don't go puttin’ words in my mouth like you got me on trial for somet’ing."

"Sorry." Paget tossed an anti-grav up to his partner.

"Although..." the engineer's gaze was drawn up once more to the arch of metal above them. "When you t’ink ‘bout it... To get here, this t’ing got to have traveled through open space fo’ who knows how long... It lives by eatin’ planets… which don’t exactly go down like a tub of marshmallows… There would have to be redundancies… backups… ways t’ store energy fo’ long hauls… It‘d have to be self-sus...."

After his friend's sentence trailed off into nothing for several seconds, Paget guessed, "Self-sustaining?"

"Von Neumann Device," DelMonde said suddenly.

"A Von Neumann device?"

“A machine that can rebuild itself." DelMonde's eyes scanned over at the irregular and almost organic lines of the planet-killer's interior. "They as close t’ autonomous as a hunk of metal an’ circuits can get. Designed t’ repair an’ replicate itself usin’ materials from th’ environment around it."

"On the face of it, that doesn't necessarily sound like a bad thing," Paget commented, thinking of the type of technology necessary to build and maintain space habitats.

"One of ‘em single-handedly destroyed th’ original civilization on Cestus III," the engineer reminded him. "To deal wit’ their industrial waste problems, they invented a Von Neumann device that ate garbage. Worked real well..."

"...Until it decided it could also eat people," the Security Officer finished, remembering old horror holos he'd seen as a child.

"The two thirds o’ the population that managed to avoid becomin’ monster-chow were pretty nearly wiped out in th’ effort it took to finally destroy th’ t’ing,"

"Damn." Paget's gaze also fastened itself on the weirdly glittering crooked ribs of the dead metal monster.

"It been illegal t’ try t’ build one in Federation territory fo’ th’ past century or so. They can toss you in a penal colony fo’ jus’ t’inkin’ ’bout it."

Paget blinked. "Really?"

"Well, no," the engineer backtracked. 'I guess a person can t’ink all they want to. But as soon as you start writin’ stuff down an’ braggin’ to your friends ‘bout it, you can wind up wit’ a couple somber-faced representatives of Starfleet Intelligence showin’ up at your door."

Jer grinned. "You speaking from experience?"

His friend returned his smile. "No -- You best mark it down, Jer. That an example of a way I coulda got in trouble but didn't."

Paget didn't remark on how rare such examples were.

"No," the engineer continued. "I never had no use fo’ that fancy-pants, pie-in-the-sky, purely theoretical design stuff ‘til I was at the Academy."

"If you can't build it," Paget said, speculating on his friend's motivations, "then what's the point?"

"Exactly," DelMonde confirmed. "Ruth said it happened to her, though. Got chewed out pretty good an’ almost kicked out o’ Alterra for some stuff she tried t’ put in a paper."

Paget nodded. "Sounds like something that would happen to her."

"Yeah." DelMonde snorted as he bent to place the anti-gravs on either side of the box he was standing on. "Tell her she can't do somet’ing an’ you make it 99% likely she gonna go at it wit’ a will that make Joan of Arc look like a wishy-washy teenager who jus’ wanted to play dress-up."

"That's our Ruthie," the Security Officer grinned as he caught the guidelines the engineer let trail.

"A Von Neumann design more up her alley," DelMonde commented at he activated the anti-gravs.

"As a computer specialist?"

"Yeah." The engineer shoved the container free from the stack. "Systems design an’ all. A Von Neumann device call fo’ some pretty slick AI."

"I can imagine." When Paget had loaded the container onto the empty cart, he looked up to see his friend sitting on the side of a container looking up at the planet-killer’s sparkling dead gut. "So that's what you think this thing is? A Von Neuman device?"

The engineer shrugged. "That's what I think VND could stand for. I not know not’ing ‘bout this place...."

"If the scientists here found evidence that it was a Von Neumann device -- that it could self-replicate and self-repair. Would that be enough to justify shutting down research...?"

"... Evacuatin’ like it a house on fire, then cuttin’ this monster up an’ tossin’ it into the sun?" DelMonde finished for him. "Oh, yeah."

"And all the rumors about Klingons is just misdirection to deflect attention..." Paget said, adding a little speculation of his own.

"...An’ make folks keep way th’ hell away." DelMonde's expressive features twisted into a speculative frown. "Tell me ‘bout them two ships that disappeared, Jer."

"One was a small research vessel funded by a university on Deneb," Paget reported, climbing up to join his friend. "The other was a small exploratory expedition by a commercial mining concern."

DelMonde crossed his arms. "Kinda funny that Fleet would let scientists an’ miners into an area they t’ink is crawlin’ wit’ Klingons."

"Kinda," the Security Officer conceded, taking a seat on the container. "But from what I understand the planetologists were refused several times before they finally got clearance to enter the system and the miners exceeded the parameters of the flight plan they'd filed in a ‘do what you really want to then ask permission later' sort of move. But yeah, kinda funny."

"An’ they both disappear in the debris fields ‘round the destroyed planets o’ the L-375 system?"

Jer didn't remember telling him that. "You have an idea?"

"Not’ing I wanna say out loud yet." DelMonde chewed his lower lip speculatively as he continued to scan the hull of the planet-killer. "I gonna assume that if we in a High Security area engaged in a highly sensitive mission that entails puttin’ young Len Dombrowski behind th’ controls of a suped-up go-kart instead of mannin’ the Hood's phaser banks, that we also deployin’ shuttle patrols t’ extend our sensor range in case we attacked by some o’ these theoretical Klingons that supposed to be sneakin’ ‘round the place?


"I suppose it would be pretty easy fo’ a high quality security fellow like yourself t’ get himself assigned t’ one o’ those patrols?"

Even though Paget could tell the two of them were on the cusp of embarking on actions that were probably as dangerous as they were ill-advised, he had to grin. "All I'd have to do is ask."

"An’ how hard you t’ink it be t’ convince Brandt that you need t’ take me along wit’ you?"

Paget considered the sort of argument he'd have to make to convince the Hood's First Officer to give DelMonde an assignment that would: 1) make it unlikely that the engineer would bite the heads off any more innocent crewmen or unlucky junior officers who were foolish enough to blink in his direction, 2) increase the difficulty of DelMonde and Lieutenant Kane carrying out their loudly declared intentions to murder each other, or 3) make it less probable that the engineer would have occasion to explain his objections to a course of action proposed by a fellow officer to Mr. Brandt by employing vivid metaphorical imagery that evoked a picture of a group of over-enthusiastic Tellurite prostitutes committing physical impossibilities on an unsuspecting dwarf.

Jer nodded. "I think I can manage."


"...Benedicta tu in mulieribus." The sound of Noel DelMonde's voice echoed sweetly through the shuttlecraft as he worked. "Et benedictus fructus ventris...."

On one hand, it was a good thing that once they were alone in space, far from the jangling emotions of their crewmates, DelMonde finally felt relaxed enough to sing to himself. On the other hand though...

"What do you know I don't?" Paget asked with a worried frown.

The Cajun looked up from the contraption he was assembling on the deck near the rear of the small craft. "Huh?'

"You drag me out into open space talking about Klingons and Von Neumann devices," the Security Officer pointed out as he navigated them ever closer to the edge of the glowing, churning miasma that was all that remained of one the planets cut to bit by VND374. "And then you start singing funeral songs and building a phaser cannon."

"Funeral song?" The engineer snorted as he exchanged the tool in his hand for one in his kit. "You a heathen, Jer."

Paget had to grin. "Don't tell my father that."

"Oh, there a world o’ t’ings I need t’ not tell your daddy," the Cajun affirmed as he welded another length of pipe into place. "Most folks t’ink of "Ave Maria" as a Christmas song."

"Ora pro nobis peccatoribus Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae," Paget quoted the Latin lyrics as he corrected their course to avoid an asteroid-sized chunk of rock that came floating unexpectedly in their direction. "'Pray for we sinners now and at the hour of our death'? Sounds like a funeral to me.”

The engineer shrugged as he fitted a bulb-like device into a opening near the top of his construction. "Well, they's lots o’ stuff in there ‘bout th’ Baby Jesus too."

"So why are you suddenly in the mood to sing about the Baby Jesus?" Paget asked, compensating for the spiking radiation levels around them.

"It jus’ happen t’ come into my head. That's all." DelMonde pressed a button that caused his creation to briefly whir and blink. "The acoustics in here are good when they take th’ extra seats out."

The craft had been refitted for a two-man patrol. Two bunks could now fold out into the space normally taken up by passenger seating. "Gives you a lot more room..."

"Sure does."

"... For building a phaser cannon," Paget finished, to show he'd not forgotten about the three-foot tall device DelMonde was working on but pointedly not talking about.

"This not no phaser cannon," the Cajun replied easily, as he tested the mobility of what was unmistakably a firing barrel.

"Then what is it?"

"It jus’ a ..." DelMonde paused as if searching for a way to describe his large, obvious weapon as something other than a large, obvious weapon. "Jus’ a... great big ol' gun."

"And why are you building a great big ol' gun?"

"You th’ expert on this sort o’ t’ing, Mr. Security Man," his friend replied irritably. "Why does anyone build a great big ol' gun?"

"Because they plan on shooting something," Paget answered, frowning at the whirling mass in front of them and thinking of the two ships that had disappeared.

"C'est vrai." DelMonde nodded as he checked the power levels on his creation. "You got it."

"And what are you planning to shoot?"

"Maybe not’ing," the engineer grumbled, still apparently unwilling to divulge the theory of his that they were pursuing.


"Or maybe Klingons," his friend replied, referencing the official explanation both of them had already half-dismissed.


"Or if we end up goin’ into that mess there..."

The rocky miasma churned like some sort of zero-G hellmouth.

"And why would we want to do that?" Paget asked pointedly

"Well..." The engineer grimaced as the miasma belched out a slow moving fireball. "It would seem to indicate a certain loss o’ sanity an’ good judgment..."

"That it would.”

DelMonde crossed to the controls and scanned the forward sensor panel. "But if we see somet’ing..."

Like what?"

"We know when we see it," the engineer assured him tersely as he headed back to his ‘gun’.

"And we're going to shoot at it?" Paget theorized.

“You see them rocks out there?” DelMonde asked, turning and pointing at the viewscreen.

“Yes,” the Security Officer answered as two chunks each larger than the shuttlecraft collided in front of them, sending a messy shower of debris in all directions. “I’m paying a lot of attention to those rocks... lots and lots and lots of rocks.”

“Deflectors alone not gonna keep us from gettin’ smashed flatter ‘an dirt,” DelMonde replied tightening a connector on his creation. “We gonna have to shoot a path clear fo’ ourselves."

If we decide to go in.”

“Yeah.” The engineer grimaced at the swirling mass before them. “If we go in.”

The Security Officer frowned at the weapon his friend had created. "Doesn't your gun need to be on the outside of the ship, then?"

"They's an access hatch right above me."

Paget raised an eyebrow. "You're just going to open that up?"

DelMonde chuckled at this purposefully ridiculous suggestion. "Yeah, I look pretty funny floatin’ out there in space tryin’ to hold my breath long enough to aim this t’ing, non?"

"No funnier than you always look."

"I'm gonna bolt the housin’ to the hatch. I route th’ controls through th’ navigation panel so we can operate it from there."

Paget eyed the weapon dubiously. "Will it fit?"

The engineer pressed a control and the entire assembly folded down into a square package that was small enough to carry like a piece of luggage. "See? Pocket-size."

The Security Officer was still frowning. "And you made this out of spare parts you found in the shuttle's equipment locker?"

"Not exactly," the engineer admitted.

Paget's mind immediately went to the largest source of surplus equipment they'd encountered recently. "You didn't take anything out of the stuff we just put in storage, did you?

"I might have borrowed an item or two," the Cajun confessed gruffly. "That stuff jus’ gonna be layin’ ’round for who knows how long. An’ Jacobs told me I could take what I needed."

"Take what you needed out of equipment from High Security Restricted area?"

"Well, that what I meant when I asked," the engineer retorted defensively. "If that not how he took it, then that not my problem..."

Paget sighed and shook his head. "I hope not."

"We might not use this t’ing at all, Jer," DelMonde replied, touching the control that expanded the device out to its full height so he could step back and admire it. "I might jus’t take it back an’ mount it on th’ wall as a conversation piece..."

The Security Officer's eye was caught when an indicator on his panel lit up unexpectedly. "Uhmm..."

The Cajun was instantly alert. "What?"

"That thing that you said we'd know when we saw it..." Paget doubled checked against the computer records of the reading he thought had registered. "It wouldn't happen to look like the energy signature of weapons fire where no weapons fire should be, would it?"

"Buckle up, Mr. Paget," the Cajun advised grimly as he broke out the tools he'd need to make his weapon operational. "We're goin’ in."


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