"Captain," Spock informed them evenly from his position at the helm of the shuttlecraft, "it appears that our long-range sensors have ceased to function."
Kirk stared at the Vulcan for a moment, then glanced around the shuttlecraft as though some answer could be found in McCoy, the gray walls, or the empty seats, fitted with harnesses for this trip in case of turbulence. He caught Bones' worried eye for a moment before turning his attention fully back to Spock. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Spock said, "that whatever has been disrupting subspace communications in this area, and preventing our transporters from functioning, seems to have expanded its scope." He paused for a moment and entered several commands in quick succession into the computer. This he followed up with, "Fascinating."
"How much will this affect our mission?" Kirk asked.
Spock punched a few commands into the computer, waited a moment, then reported, "It may impede our ability to land on the planet's surface."
Kirk and McCoy exchanged glances again. "How badly?" Kirk asked.
"And just say it outright, Spock, please," McCoy interjected.
Now Spock turned away from his instruments and faced them. He hesitated before speaking, and Kirk tried to read the emotion that passed, ever so subtly, over his face. Worry? Annoyance? "Assuming that our shorter-range sensors maintain their function, I believe that I can bring us to the surface in a controlled crash. Assuming we do so within the safety margin, there is no reason that the craft should sustain more than minor damage."
"And our other option is to regain orbit and wait for Scotty to pick us up?"
"I see," Kirk said. He fell silent as his mind worked.
They were heading down to the planet because it blocked subspace transmissions, not in spite of the fact, though Spock had been certain their sensors wouldn't be affected. Starfleet had long known about the planet's existence and its peculiar nature, but had ignored it for several years on the grounds that it was useless to build a base upon, far out of the way of most ships' paths, uninhabited, and apparently void of any useful natural resources. Federation scientists had been generally content to attribute the planet's communication-blocking abilities to unspecified anomalies in its magnetic field.
It hadn't been until Spock, who found the anomalies "fascinating" in their own right, had petitioned both Kirk and Starfleet for an exploratory mission that anyone had really considered one. He hadn't faced opposition from either. After all, the latest Klingon encounter had left Scott happy to spend some time nursing his engines to health in orbit around the star system's only other planet (a class B behemoth about an hour away by shuttlecraft), and the rest of the crew to enjoy a short reprieve from duty. Kirk had joined Spock on the scientific mission for the official reason of "exploring new worlds" and for a less official but more truthful lack of anything better to do while Scotty effected repairs. He'd suggested that McCoy come along-study the effects on the human body!-and the doctor had agreed with only minimal grumbling. They were scheduled to rendezvous with the Enterprise in the planet's orbit in a little under six hours.
"Well, Jim, what are we waiting for? Let's get back into orbit," Bones said. "I don't need to be a doctor to point out that crashing would be detrimental to our health."
Of course, Spock wouldn't like the idea of wasting such an opportunity for scientific inquiry, but, Kirk thought, the Vulcan would just have to deal with it. This wasn't a crucial mission and Bones was right. "Bring her back into orbit, Spock," he said. "We'll contact the Enterprise from there if we can. If we have to, we'll just wait."
Spock acknowledged the order and hunched over the controls once more. Then he straightened up. He looked, as best as Kirk could tell, mildly perturbed. "I can't," he said.
"You can't?" McCoy demanded. "What do you mean, you can't?"
Kirk waved a hand to quiet him. "Explain."
Spock addressed Kirk. "The mechanisms for plotting and establishing an orbit are also dependent upon our long-range sensors, a fact that I had failed to consider."
"This is just wonderful," Bones said. "Wonderful! How did we not see this coming? How did you not see this coming, Spock? You of all—"
"Bones," Kirk said sharply. The doctor pressed his lips together, folded his arms and sunk back in his seat. Kirk thought for a moment, decided he wouldn't accomplish anything from his seat, got up and walked over to Spock. He peered over the Vulcan's shoulder at the controls. "What'll happen if we try?" he asked.
Spock sighed, ever so slightly. "We are… flying blind, Captain. We would likely overshoot or undershoot the attempted orbit, at best wasting fuel and jeopardizing our return voyage, at worst," he paused, "burning up."
Damn, Kirk thought. This was supposed to have been a completely routine mission, a diversion to appease Spock's curiosity and pass the time while the ship was in orbit, and now they were on the verge of being bested by a simple sensor malfunction. That's not how this is supposed to go. He leaned over the console further, but of course nothing he saw contradicted the Vulcan's words. "And if we land?" he prompted. "That's no better if we can't attain orbit again without our sensors."
Spock didn't answer for a moment. "I believe," he said finally, "that from a stationary position on the planet's surface, I could manually calculate a suitable trajectory. Assuming that nothing impeded us-"
Kirk frowned. "And you're sure there's no way of contacting the Enterprise? All communications are out?"
Spock nodded. "Yes, Captain."
Kirk chewed the inside of his cheek and tapped his fingers against the console for a moment. Deciding. "And we don't have much time."
"In approximately six-point-eight minutes we will have no choice but to attempt to land," Spock said. "To remain in this trajectory longer would be to risk an uncomfortable impact, and our chances of successfully regaining orbit would then decrease by several orders of magnitude."
Bones mumbled something inaudible behind them. Kirk waved a hand to quiet him, and locked eyes with Spock. "We'll attempt a landing. I don't want to risk a burn-up."
Then something smashed into the shuttlecraft. Kirk had turned to retake his seat when the floor jerked up beneath them all and he fell heavily back, sitting down awkwardly on the console. He stood up quickly and turned to his first officer. "Spock! What was that!"
Spock had stumbled forward into the console, but he righted himself and replied, "We've been hit. Without the sensors—I can't ascertain by what. Shields holding at seventy-six percent."
"Can we divert any power?" Kirk said.
"Not without—" Spock was cut off in mid-sentence by another blast. The shuttlecraft heaved and something blew out on the main console in a shower of sparks. Kirk was thrown against the nearest wall but he pushed himself up and returned to his position behind Spock, gripping the lip of the console for support. Spock was wincing when Kirk arrived but the Vulcan straightened and said urgently, "Captain, I suggest you secure yourself before we are hit again."
Kirk ignored him. "How bad is it?"
Spock pressed several buttons on the smoking computer. "Shields at forty-three percent," he reported. "Communications out, but useless in any case." He paused. "Captain, if we do not attempt a landing within the next one-point-seven minutes…"
"What about getting out of this thing's range?" McCoy called from behind them. "Getting into orbit! Can't we adjust it if we overshoot?"
Spock shook his head, though he remained absorbed by the information being displayed rapidly on his console. He was gripping it with one hand while he input commands with the other, checking readouts faster than Kirk could be sure what each one was or meant. He replied without turning his head. "Doctor, we cannot safely attain orbit, nor do we know what this 'thing's' range is," he said. "Captain—"
Another blast cut him off. This time he and Kirk both stumbled but managed to remain standing. Smoke rising from the console was beginning to fill the cabin and for a moment Kirk waved it uselessly away.
"Dammit Jim, what's going on!" Bones yelled from behind them, where he was stilled strapped into his seat. "Spock said this planet was uninhabited!"
"According to the last Federation census it was," Spock replied tersely over the noise of the sputtering console. The spooked urgency in his tone sent a rush of fear and adrenaline through Kirk. If Spock was afraid, there was something to be afraid of. "Captain, we have just under one minute. We must attempt to touch down before it is too late."
Another blast. This one dislodged Kirk from his position and he landed uncomfortably on his ass, his legs splayed out before him, nearly on top of Bones' feet. Wincing at the ache in his tailbone he stood, shaking off McCoy's hand as the doctor tried to shove him sideways into a seat. "Land, Spock!" he yelled over the hissing of equipment and the roar that was now accompanying their unshielded trip through the atmosphere.
Spock had also been thrown by the last blast, but had already regained his footing and was once more steadily punching commands into the computer. Another blast knocked the Vulcan forward into the controls and sat Kirk heavily back into the seat that McCoy's well-intentioned shoving had put him in front of. He struggled up again, shouting, "Spock! Shields?" only to be pressed down again by another buck of the shuttle.
"Gone," Spock reported. Kirk could see a blistering green burn marring the side of his first officer's hand and exposed wrist. "I am now attempting to guide the shuttlecraft down, but we have passed the margin of safe landing. Captain, I advise that you strap yourself in. Impact expected in approximately two-point-eight minutes."
The shuttlecraft rocked again, and Kirk nearly slid out of his seat. He decided that it probably was time to put on the harness on and fumbled with it as he ordered, "Spock, you too! Secure yourself!"
Spock sat down at the seat behind the helm but continued to work the controls feverishly, ignoring the still-dangling harness.
"Spock!" Kirk yelled. He felt a strangely motherly urge to get up and put the Vulcan's harness on for him, but he wasn't sure he had time and was even less sure that Spock would appreciate the effort.
"Two minutes," Spock reported.
"You'd better know what you're doing, Spock," McCoy muttered.
"Attempting to adjust for lack of sensors," Spock said. "One minute thirty seconds."
Another few seconds passed before Kirk realized that the blasts had stopped and the shuttlecraft was no longer bucking. Were they out of range? Out of sight now that they were so near the planet's surface? Or presumed destroyed? Or something else? He realized with a rush of helpless frustration that he had no idea who or what had been firing on the shuttlecraft, or why, or what would happen to them even if they did manage to land without destroying themselves. He hated this kind of mystery when his crew, his friends, were at stake.
"One minute," Spock said.
"Buckle yourself in, Spock!" McCoy yelled.
They could see the planet easily in the viewscreen now, as the shuttlecraft's short-range sensors were able to pick up on its features. It was mostly brown and gray and icy, with a few patches of muted black-brown dotting the tundra, and it was approaching far too fast.
"Engaging forward thrusters," Spock said aloud to no one.
But although Kirk could feel them slowing, his body pressing forward against his harness, the ground was still hurtling up at them. They were going to crash.
"Thirty seconds," Spock said. He had half-stood again in his feverish navigation. "Attempting to compensate…"
"Dammit, Spock, you're as breakable as we are!" McCoy yelled. In response the Vulcan sat again and began to mechanically pull his harness over his head with one hand, still inputting commands and guiding the craft down with the other. He managed to get the straps on but didn't bother to buckle them, distracted suddenly by something on the screen that required both of his hands and all of his concentration.
"Ten seconds," he reported, his tense baritone cutting through the noise from spluttering equipment and the rushing atmosphere outside. "Nine…eight…seven…"
Kirk braced himself and glanced at Bones, who was gripping the edges of his seat and had his eyes closed against whatever fate they were speeding down toward. Kirk preferred to stare into the viewscreen as the ground hurtled up at them.
Then they hit at an angle and Kirk was vaguely aware of the lights going out and the right side of the shuttlecraft caving inward before his harness snapped free and he was catapulted toward the helm, where a panel sparking brilliantly in the darkness stopped him short.