Star Trek: The Lady and the Sword by TheLoneRedshirt
Summary: Star Trek: The Lady and the Sword" (formerly titled, "Steel-Edged Grace") is a TOS-era story centered on the first female C.O. of a Constitution-class starship. Captain Grace McAfee was first runner-up to command the USS Enterprise, losing out to James T. Kirk. Her consolation prize was command of the USS Ranger, an older light-cruiser which was destroyed by two mysterious vessels in 2266. McAfee is credited with saving her crew and driving off the attackers, but she loses her ship and goes through an inquest (which clears her of blame). In 2268, she is languishing as in instructor of advanced tactics at the Academy until a series of events change her destiny and place her in the center-seat of a starship.
Categories: Original Series Characters: Ensemble Cast - TOS
Genre: Action/Adventure
Warnings: Adult Language
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 12 Completed: No Word count: 28536 Read: 26599 Published: 25 Sep 2013 Updated: 06 Oct 2013

1. Prologue by TheLoneRedshirt

2. Chapter 1 by TheLoneRedshirt

3. Chapter 2 by TheLoneRedshirt

4. Chapter 3 by TheLoneRedshirt

5. Chapter 4 by TheLoneRedshirt

6. Chapter 5 by TheLoneRedshirt

7. Chapter 6 by TheLoneRedshirt

8. Chapter 7 by TheLoneRedshirt

9. Chapter 8 by TheLoneRedshirt

10. Chapter 9 by TheLoneRedshirt

11. Chapter 10 by TheLoneRedshirt

12. Chapter 11 by TheLoneRedshirt

Prologue by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
We begin our story with Captain Grace McAfee spending some leave time with her father, Professor Dennis McAfee. The Captain receives devastating news that will ultimately change the course of her career.
Star Trek: The Lady and the Sword
by TheLoneRedshirt


Prologue

Stardate 4733.6 (12 August 2268)
Kantal Hills, Rigel VII


Captain Grace McAfee adjusted the filter mask that covered her nose and mouth as she scanned the surrounding hillside for any signs of Kaylar warriors. Satisfied that they were not being observed by the giant hominids, she turned to watch her father, Dr. Dennis McAfee move with sure-footed ease around the archaeological study site.

The elder McAfee was chair of the Department of Xeno-archaeology at the University of Colorado on Earth. Dr. McAfee and ten of his graduate students were conducting a study of one of the ancient town-sites on Rigel VII. Once believed to be the center of culture in the populous Rigel system, the seventh planet had been inexplicably abandoned several centuries earlier, save for the savage Kaylar.

Captain McAfee had agreed to take some of her accumulated leave time to accompany her father on his trip, ostensibly to enjoy some father-daughter time but mostly to keep her father out of trouble. Dr. McAfee was a brilliant and experienced archaeologist, but he tended to be cavalier about his personal safety. Grace absently rested her hand on the type II phaser that hung on her waist, an item her father had protested but her own insistence (and stubbornness) had won out. She remembered too well the account of how Chris Pike’s landing party had been attacked by the fierce Kaylar when they had come to close to one of their fortresses.

Grace smiled as the form of her lanky father hopped and bobbed about different points of the site. He reminded her of some gangly sea-bird hunting its prey in shallow water. The talc-fine dust from the old town site swirled through the air, partially obscuring their visibility and necessitating the use of filter masks. She glanced at the horizon, noting that the lilac-colored sky was beginning to darken towards purple.

“Dad!” she called out, over the wind. She had to call a second time before her father straightened and turned.

“What is it?” he called back.

She pointed to the western sky. “The sun is setting. We need to get back to the ship before dark.”

Dr. McAfee struck a comical pose as he stared, hands on hips into the darkening sky. By his expression, one might suppose that the star Rigel had personally offended him. Then, he shrugged and a crooked smile broke out on his face.

“Alright, boys and girls,” he called to his assistants, “the gallant Captain has ordered us back to the Norlin.”

The graduate students did not seem nearly so disappointed to leave as the professor. A few stretched fatigued muscles, stiff from crouching over sensor packages, seismographs and soil collection equipment. They made their way to the Scarab landing craft, brushing dust from their coveralls and shouldering their equipment.

Captain McAfee gave the surrounding one more visual scan before joining the rest on the landing craft. Moments later, the gold and silver Scarab lifted into the air, gracefully turned on its axis, then rapidly disappeared from view as it headed toward orbit.

* * *

The SS Norlin was one of two research vessels owned by the University of Colorado. The ship was a retired Starfleet survey vessel purchased by the University and refit as a research vessel by a private shipyard. The Norlin could accommodate 20 people in relative comfort while providing laboratory and classroom space. Most of the small vessel’s functions were automated, so the actual crew consist was four plus twelve passengers comprised of Dr. McAfee, his students, and Captain Grace McAfee.

Grace stepped out of the community head and padded toward her cabin, rubbing a towel over her thick, brown hair. One nice luxury item on the Norlin was a shower with actual water. Sonic showers were fine, but McAfee always felt cleaner after a nice, long encounter with steaming water. Wrapped in a thick robe she mused, I certainly don’t look much like a Starfleet captain at the moment.

Entering the cabin, she saw her Andorian cabin-mate seated at the computer terminal, surrounded by a stack of data slates. V'Shaali, her father’s assistant, smiled as Grace entered the room.

“What are you smiling at?” asked McAfee as she continued to rub her hair vigorously.

“You look like an Arkelian monk in that robe with the towel around your head.”

McAfee extended a middle finger in way of reply. V'Shaali shook her head. “That was very un-monklike of you.”

“I just want to it clear that I am not a monk,” replied McAfee, draping the towel over a chair and grabbing a hair-brush.

“I will be sure not to repeat that mistake,” relied the Andorian, dryly, as she turned back to the computer.

“Hey, Vish, why don’t you take a break? You’ve been transcribing reports since we got back on board.”

“Dr. McAfee needs to collate the data so he can transmit his findings back to the University.”

“You need to tell Dad that slavery is illegal in the Alpha Quadrant. While you’re at it, ask for a raise. I know the University doesn’t pay enough for you to work for him.”

V'Shaali smiled demurely. “It is rewarding working for your father, Grace. He is an extraordinary man.”

“True, but don’t say that around him. It’ll go to his head.” Grace ran the brush through her wavy brown hair and stared at the mirror. An attractive woman in her mid 40’s stared back with brown eyes that were bracketed by faint lines and high cheek bones. A pug nose and full lips complemented a squarish face. She did not consider herself beautiful by any means, but at least her face wouldn’t stop a chronometer.

The cabin door chimed. Grace placed the brush back on the dresser and called, “Come.”

Dr. Dennis McAfee entered the cabin, still in dusty coveralls, his graying hair mussed and wind-blown. “V'Shaali, I was wondering if the transcription was ready?”

Grace crossed her arms and cocked her head. “Look, you old tyrant, give Vish a break. She’s been working non-stop since we got back to the ship. Why don’t you get cleaned up and I’ll meet you in the galley for some supper. Maybe, if you’re lucky, Vish will have your report ready to go.”

Dennis McAfee raised an eyebrow at his daughter. “And who put you in charge?”

“You did, remember? That was part of the deal for me coming along, that you would do what I asked you to do.” Grace wore a smug smile.

Dr. McAfee frowned, “I don’t remember ever . . .”

“There you go,” continued Grace as she gently pushed her father from the room, “you’re getting forgetful in your old age. Now, shower, food, then report . . . go, go, go . . .” She made shooing gestures toward her father who retreated reluctantly down the corridor. As the door slid shut, she turned to the Andorian with a triumphant grin. V'Shaali gave grace a baleful look.

“It is not respectful, the manner in which you treat your father,” chided V'Shaali.

“It’s a human thing, Vish. He knows I love him. Now seriously, why don’t you take a break?”

The Andorian looked doubtful and was about to reply when Grace’s terminal chimed. McAfee toggled the reply stud.

“Captain McAfee, go ahead,” her voice reflexively in command mode.

“Yes, Grace, Captain Kholdarian here. You have a priority communiqué coming in from Admiral Komack of Starfleet.”

McAfee’s eyebrows rose in surprise. She turned to V'Shaali and spoke apologetically. “Vish, I’m sorry, but I need to take this in private.”

The Andorian rose and nodded in understanding. “Certainly, Grace. I guess now is a good time to take a break after all.” She smiled and exited the cabin.

Grace sat before the viewer, all too aware of her disheveled appearance, but one did not leave the sector commander waiting. “Patch it through, please, Captain.”

The face of the Norlin’s captain disappeared from the viewer to be replaced by the visage of Admiral Komack, Sector 9 Commander. She was puzzled to be contacted by her former commander. Her current duty as an instructor at Starfleet Academy had moved her from under Komack’s command since the destruction of the Ranger two years earlier.

The gray haired Admiral nodded in greeting, giving no mention to McAfee’s appearance. “Captain McAfee, it’s good to see you again. I trust you are well?”

“Very well, Admiral, and you?”

“I’ve been better,” he replied, his bushy brows knitting together. “Captain, you’ll be hearing about this on the news-nets in a few days, but I wanted to give you a head’s up. There’s been a royal cluster-frak with a war games exercise involving the Enterprise and a battle group of Connies. The Excalibur was heavily damaged and the Lexington took some hits as well.” Komack paused, hesitating, “Grace, everyone on Excalibur was killed.”

For a moment, McAfee couldn’t breathe. She stared blankly at Komack for several moments before recovering her thoughts.

“Jeff? Captain Harris, I mean . . .?”

Komack shook his head. “I’m sorry, Grace.”

McAfee closed her eyes, forcing her emotions to the background for the moment. When she opened them, they were clear and fierce.

“What happened, Admiral?”

“Enterprise was testing a new computer system in a war-game scenario. The investigation is still on-going, but something went wrong with the M-5 computer; it took over and attacked the other four ships with full-power weapons. Captain Kirk was finally able to disable the computer, but the damage was done.”

“Who was responsible, Admiral?” she asked with preternatural calm.

Komack’s frown deepened. “It’s too early to say, Captain. But if you are thinking this is Kirk’s fault, I don’t believe that to be the case. He’s on record as being against this experiment. Turns out he was right.”

Grace nodded. “I see. Thank you for letting me know, Admiral.”

“Better to hear it from a friend than from some buffoon on the holo-net.” The Admiral paused, considering his words, “Look, Grace, I know there’s no love lost between you and Kirk, especially since he beat you out for command of Enterprise, but from where I sit, it looks like he did everything in his power to try to prevent this tragedy. There will be a formal inquest of course, but that’s my two credit opinion.”

McAfee sighed and slumped back in her chair. “Admiral, I don’t hold it against Kirk for getting the Enterprise. I’m over the disappointment.”

“Even though you think you were the better choice?” he asked with a slight smile.

“Even though I know I was the better choice,” she replied with a smile of her own. The smile faded quickly. “Do you know of any arrangements for Captain Harris, his funeral, I mean?”

“His parents were notified this morning. I understand they will return the recovered . . . crew members to their home worlds. It may take a couple of weeks before Harris is returned to Earth. I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Thank you, Admiral, I’d appreciate it. I want to be there.

Komack closed the connection and the viewer went dark. Grace sat numbly in the chair, her gaze unfocused. After a few minutes, her shoulders began to shake and she lowered her face into her hands, sobbing deeply.

To be continued
Chapter 1 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
Captain McAfee attends a funeral and has an awkward meeting with Captain James T. Kirk.
Chapter One

Stardate 4739.6 (28 August 2268)
Starfleet Academy, San Francisco, Earth


Captain McAfee walked briskly across the Academy quad, passing the Tucker Engineering Building and two new dormitories before nearing her destination, the old faculty office building that dated back to the original Presidio.

A few students nodded in greeting but quickly made way, seeing the flinty look in her eye. Captain McAfee was not in a good mood.

A cadet carrying a dummy phaser rifle and walking off demerits, paused and offered a rather smart rifle salute. McAfee grunted but continued her resolute march to her office.

Inside, the old building was considerably darker and cooler than the sunny summer day she left outdoors. Eschewing the turbo-lift, she stepped quickly up the old wooden stairs, her bootfalls echoing in the stairwell as she worked off nervous energy.

Finally, on the fourth floor, she moved down the carpeted hallway until she came to a tall, wooden door with frosted glass. Adjacent to the door was a sign with the room number and her name. She opened the door, and managed not to slam it once she was inside.

Her office spoke of an old and rich academic heritage. The paneled walls gleamed and tall bookcases contained eclectic items from numerous worlds. Awards, citations, family holo-pics and even a few actual books vied for space on the shelves. McAfee’s two diplomas, one from the Academy, the other a Master’s degree in Interstellar Relations from Columbia University, adorned a wall near the single tall window.

She unfastened the collar of the uncomfortable dress uniform tunic and settled into the large, leather chair behind the old oak desk that was centered in the office. She paused a moment, frowning in thought, then opened the bottom right-hand drawer revealing a bottle containing a glowing blue liquid. She retrieved the bottle and a glass from the drawer and stared at for a moment. With a sigh, she placed the glass and the bottle back in the drawer and closed it.

Leaning back in the chair, she relished the cool leather against her neck. The funeral for Captain Jeff Harris had ended a little over half an hour earlier in the Academy Chapel. Two admirals, a family minister, and Jeff’s brother had all spoken over the flag-draped casket. Grace had sat immediately behind Jeff’s parents and watched his mother weep soundlessly throughout the service. McAfee didn’t remember much of the eulogies, just a few random words about duty, honor, sacrifice . . . Blah, blah, blah.

She vaguely remembered seeing Commodore Robert Wesley and a few other Constitution-class commanders, including Jim Kirk. She had left as soon as the service was over, in no mood for conversation.

A knock on her door caused her to frown in irritation. “My office hours are posted by the door, mister. Read them and go."

To her utter astonishment, the door began to open. She stood from her chair, prepared to verbally flail the hide from the offending cadet.

But, to her greater surprise, it was not a cadet with a death-wish that intruded, but a fellow captain, namely, James T. Kirk.

Kirk wore an apologetic look on his face. “Captain McAfee? I’m sorry to intrude. I was hoping I could speak with you just a moment.”

More curious than angry, Grace gestured to one of the wing-back chairs facing her desk. “Please. Have a seat.”

Kirk moved into her office, looking vaguely uncomfortable, whether from the dress uniform or something else, she couldn’t tell.

Grace didn’t like feeling off-balance, so she decided to take the initiative. “I was going to have some coffee. Would you like some?”

Kirk smiled as he settled into the chair. “Yes, coffee would be fine.”

McAfee moved to the beverage servitor on the credenza. “Cream? Sugar?” she asked.

“Black is fine, thanks.”

She added some sugar and a bit of cream to her coffee before carrying a cup to Kirk, who nodded in appreciation. She retook her place behind her desk, taking a sip and regarding her younger colleague. This wasn’t the brash, cocky young Starship captain renowned as a lady’s man throughout the quadrant. The man sitting before her looked tired and haggard. In spite of herself, McAfee felt a twinge of sympathy for Kirk.

He took a sip of his coffee and placed the cup on a side table. Leaning forward, he pursed his lips, seeking a way to begin. Grace sipped her coffee in silence, allowing him to gather his thoughts.

“Captain McAfee,” he began at last, “I know that you and Captain Harris were . . . close. And . . . I am the one responsible for his death. For that, I am profoundly sorry.”

Grace placed her cup on the desk. “Captain, my understanding is that the whole thing was a terrible accident. You eventually shut down the M-5 computer, probably preventing more deaths.” She paused, frowning. “Pardon me for saying so, but isn’t this a conversation you should be having with Jeff’s parents?”

Kirk nodded. “I already have.”

“Oh,” said McAfee, abashed, “Well, that was decent of you. But I still don’t see why you felt the need to come here. Jeff and I haven’t been a couple in over five years.”

Kirk gazed at her with unnerving intensity. “That may be. But you can’t tell me he didn’t matter to you; there was still a connection, wasn’t there?”

Part of McAfee wanted to tell Kirk to get out, to tell him it was none of his god-damned business, but she merely nodded. “Yes,” she said, finally. “Yes there was.”

He nodded, then cleared his throat. “Captain, I . . .”

She held up a hand. “Look, Kirk. Can we knock off the ‘Captain’ stuff? Just call me Grace and I’ll call you Jim. It doesn’t mean we’re going steady or anything like that.”

Kirk chuckled and he seemed to relax a bit. “Thanks. Being back here at the Academy, well, it brought back memories of standing at attention before Captain Ashrood’s desk. I feel a little like a plebe again, walking through these halls.”

But the levity quickly faded. “Grace, I know technically I didn’t kill Jeff and the 412 others who died on Excalibur, but I was in command when my ship fired on her and the Lexington.” He paused, “M-5 was in control, but it was still my ship and my responsibility. Do you understand?”

Grace thought back to those awful hours on the Ranger when her ship was dying, their attackers still unknown, and the awful fear that her crew might perish. Thankfully, none of them did, but it had been a very near thing. If the Potempkin had not arrived when it did . . .

“Yes, I think I do understand.” She regarded him, seeing him in a different light. He might be cocky, even reckless at times. But Jim Kirk cared. He cared deeply for his friends, his colleagues, and yes, even his rivals.

Kirk nodded. “I thought you might. I had to let you know . . . that I am sorry.” He shook his head. “I’ll never forget standing on the bridge, seeing my ship fire a full-power phaser salvo at Excalibur, and I . . . couldn’t . . . stop it.” The anguish in his voice was palpable.

“Jim, I honestly don’t blame you for what happened. But if you need forgiveness, well . . . I forgive you.”

Kirk let out a breath and smiled. “Thank you.”

She smirked. “But you’re not getting off the hook for that ‘handsome woman’ crack you made at the New Year’s party on Starbase 13 two years ago.”

His face reddened. “First, I had a little too much to drink that night. Second . . . I didn’t know you could hear me.”

“I didn’t. But word got to me.” She smiled at his discomfiture. “Sorry about the ‘pretty little man’ crack.”

He laughed, now at ease for the first time since entering her office. “I’ve been called worse.”

“I can believe that,” she said. She fixed him with a gaze. “Truce?”

Kirk nodded. “Truce. Friends?”

“We’ll see. I’m still ticked that you got the Enterprise instead of me. It’s galling that in the 23rd century, there’s still a 'good ‘ol boys club' and they all command Connies.”

Kirk wore a knowing grin. “Perhaps. But things change, Grace.”

She frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean? What have you heard, Kirk?”

But the captain of the Enterprise merely stood, ignoring her question. “Thanks for the coffee, Grace. . . and for understanding.” He pulled his communicator from his hip and flipped open the grid.

“Kirk to Enterprise.”

“Enterprise, Spock here.”

“One to beam up, Mr. Spock.” He flipped the communicator shut. This time, his grin was very cocky. “See you around the galaxy, Grace.”

“Dammit, Jim Kirk, what have you heard?”

But Captain James T. Kirk disappeared in a kaleidoscope of transporter effect and could no longer answer.

To be continued
Chapter 2 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
Grace McAfee is summoned to appear before Admiral Nogura.
Chapter Two

Stardate 4741.4 (2 September 2268)
Starfleet Academy, San Francisco, Earth


Tuesday afternoon at 1250 hours, Captain McAfee silently observed her advanced tactics students work through their first exam of the semester. The only sound was the occasional cough and the tap of styli on data slates. She sipped her luke-warm coffee and checked her chronometer before standing from her seat behind the lecturn.

“Time,” she called. “Please sign your work before downloading your answers or you will receive a failing grade on the exam. Don’t forget, this Friday we make our first visit to the Kobayashi Maru simulator, so do not be late!” She glanced significantly at a tall, fair-skinned young man on the front row who tried to appear inconspicuous. “Also, read chapter three regarding Garth of Izar before class tomorrow. Any questions?”

Most of the cadets were gathering their slates and data cubes, when an Asian female cadet stood. “Captain McAfee, I have a question, sir.”

“Cadet Shinkala, go ahead.”

The young woman glanced nervously at a few of her fellow cadets who in turn nodded encouragingly. “Well, sir, we, that is, I was wondering why Captain Kirk did not initiate the self-destruct sequence on the Enterprise rather than allow his ship to fire on the other vessels. If he had done so, he might have saved the lives of those on the Excalibur.”

McAfee took a sip of her coffee. “Is that your opinion, Cadet Shinkala?” she asked evenly.

To her credit, the young cadet maintained eye-contact with McAfee. She gave a curt nod. “Yes sir, it is.”

“I see.” Grace walked behind the podium and leaned forward on her arms. “Did you come up with this on your own, or was this a group project?” she asked, not unkindly. Shinkala again glanced at her fellow cadets who now seemed greatly interested in the trees outside the large windows.

McAfee smiled. “Never mind, Cadet. I commend you for having the courage to ask the question. And let me assure all of you,” she said, her voice rising in volume, “that was an option that Captain Kirk considered.”

She turned her attention back to Cadet Shinkala. “Cadet, yours is a good question and deserves an answer. But I need to give all of you a word of warning. If at some point in the distant future, God help us, the admiralty should see fit to bestow on any of you command of a starship, rest assured that every major command decision you make will be scrutinized, challenged and second-guessed by people hundreds of light-years away that have no clue what you’re facing. That is called accountability, which is a good thing in an open free society such as ours.” She paused, turning her head to make eye-contact with each of the gathered cadets.

“There is a danger, however, that fear of that scrutiny can make you timid, hesitant, a deadly trait in combat or any situation where a split second decision means the difference between life and death, for you and for your crewmates.”

McAfee moved off the stage to stand closer to the cadets. She folded her arms and continued. “Back to your original question, Cadet Shinkala. It is no secret that Captain Jeff Harris of the Excalibur was my dear friend. I mourn his death; it hurts, very deeply. But I’ve been able to view the official record of the events, an advantage you have not had, and I am convinced that Captain Kirk took every step possible to prevent what occurred. In fact, he did consider the self-destruct option. The M-5 computer precluded that possibility. Kirk was finally able to convince the computer that its actions were wrong, forcing an auto-shutdown. By doing so, he managed to save over 400 lives, that of his own crew.”

She paused again, taking in the young faces. She wondered how many would have to make the call that would cost the lives of some to save the lives of many.

“One more thing. I would suggest you spend less time listening to the opinion generating jack-asses on the news-nets and more time on your studies. It might help you gain a greater sense of perspective. Cadet, thank you for a thoughtful question. You’ll gain some bonus points for that.” She glanced again at her chronometer. “Class, dismissed!”

The relieved cadets made their way out of the lecture hall as Captain McAfee gathered a stack of data solids. She noticed Cadet Shinkala approaching.

“Yes, cadet? Was there something else?”

“Sir, I apologize if I was out of line with the question.”

McAfee smiled and placed a hand on the cadet’s shoulder. “No apology necessary, Cadet. At least you had the courage to voice what others in here were wondering. But think through what you hear on the news-nets, okay? A lot of it is uninformed B.S.”

Shinkala smiled. “Yes sir, I will.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

As the cadet exited the lecture hall, a familiar figure came in. Lt. Simon Collins, McAfee’s administrative assistant, hurried up to her, his cheeks flushed. Obviously, the Lieutenant was in a hurry.”

“Simon, slow down; you’re setting a bad example for the cadets,” admonished McAfee.

“Sorry sir,” said Lt. Collins, catching his breath, “but you received a call from Admiral Nogura’s office at Fleet Command. The Admiral expresses his complements and desires the Captain to meet him in his office at 1400 hours today.”

McAfee looked surprised. “Nogura? Wonder what he wants?”

“Sir, I can’t say. The Admiral’s aide just said to be there.”

Grace smirked. “And I sure don’t want to keep the Admiral waiting.” She shoved the slate and data-cubess into Collin's arms.

“Simon, you’ll have to handle my Situational Analysis class. Run this presentation. No, the orange cube, that’s it. Thankfully, most of the class are plebes so they’re probably too intimidated to ask a question you can’t handle. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Yes sir, I’m on it. Anything else?”

“If I don’t come back, pack up my stuff and ship it to my Dad in Colorado.”

* * *

Thirty minutes later, Captain McAfee stood impatiently in the ante-room of Fleet Admiral Heihachiro Nogura’s office at Starfleet Command. An attractive Commander in a red mini-skirt guarded the Admiral’s inner sanctum from behind a large, oval desk centered in the waiting room. Commander Fournier was polite, efficient and totally tight-lipped concerning the reason behind McAfee’s summons.

“Commander, it would help if I knew how long this will take. I have a full slate of classes this afternoon.”

Fournier smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, Captain, but the Admiral has a very full schedule today and he’s working you in as it is.”

McAfee mentally counted to ten. “Commander, I didn’t make an appointment. The Admiral contacted my office ordering me to be here this afternoon.”

“Then I’m sure the Admiral had good reason for doing so. He will be with you momentarily.”

McAfee resisted the urge to grab the Commander by the collar of her uniform and shake her. Instead, she walked to the window to take in the view of San Francisco bay and the Golden Gate monument.

She sensed, rather than heard someone approach her from behind. Turning, she faced a gray-haired Asian man who wore a warm smile. Dark eyes crinkled happily on the old man’s face.

Fleet Admiral Nogura reached his hand out in greeting, the gold braid on his tunic reaching nearly to his elbow.

“Captain McAfee, it is good of you to come on such short notice. I do apologize for taking you away from your students, but I have a matter of some importance to discuss. Please, won’t you join me in my office?”

McAfee reciprocated with a smile and took the Admiral’s hand which was warm and dry, his skin almost parchment thin. His grip, however, was very firm. The Chief of Naval Operations was not as frail as he appeared.

They entered a spacious office with a high ceiling and a magnificent view. Nogura led McAfee to a seating area by the transparent aluminum windows. Two sea gulls wheeled by, the thick windows muffling their squawking. A silver tea service was centered on the table and the Admiral poured tea into two china cups.

“I hope you like tea; it is about all I drink these days. Would you care for cream? Sugar? Lemon?”

McAfee accepted the tea with a bit of cream and sugar and took the proffered chair. Nogura also sat, crossing his legs and staring out at the magnificent view.

“You know,” he began, “the main reason I came out of retirement was this window. I love to sit here and look out at San Francisco bay. It’s the best part of my job.”

Not quite sure how to respond to this thread of conversation, Grace merely smiled and said, “Yes sir.”

Nogura took another sip of tea. Still staring out at the seagulls, he remarked, “I understand you do not like the new uniforms for females.”

McAfee blinked. The highest ranking admiral in Starfleet had summoned her regarding her fashion opinion? “Um, that’s correct sir.”

The old man nodded. “Understandable. The miniskirts were not the best choice, in my opinion. Still, we in Starfleet must deal with many considerations, some tactical, some political, some cultural. If you ever get to sit in this office, you’ll see.”

Grace was completely confused. “Yes sir.”

“We had to accommodate the sensibilities of the Andorians and the Tellarites to keep them in the fold. Not an easy task, I must say. Still, decisions were made, things were done, and here we are.”

Grace blinked. “Where is that sir?”

Nogura turned and chuckled. “Where indeed, Captain.” He turned his chair to better face her, his expression more serious.

“In the past two years, we lost two Constitution-class starships, the Intrepid and the Defiant, and now a third, the Excalibur is in space-dock with serious damage. That is one-quarter of our heavy cruiser force out of commission. A bad situation, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes sir, I would.”

“On top of that, the next order of Constitution-class ships, the Bonhomme Richard subclass, has been delayed as we shift production from the San Francisco Fleet Yards to Utopia Plantia and Andor. It will be at least three years before the first of these ships is complete. Add in the public relations disaster of the Federation-class fiasco and the disaster with the M-5 computer and Starfleet’s popularity is at an all-time low with the public.”

“Sir, begging your pardon, but I don’t understand what this has to do with me?”

The Admiral smiled. “My apologies, Captain. But please allow an old man to explain things in his own way. I promise I will get to the point soon.”

“Yes sir.” She glanced at a chronometer on the table and sighed inwardly. So much for making her final class of the day. Poor Simon.

“Are you familiar with the philosophy of fung shui, Captain?”

“Uh, no sir, I can’t say that I am.”

“Balance and harmony. They can be applied simply, as to decorating an office such as this,” he gestured around, “or to interstellar politics. The difference is merely scale.”

Grace nodded, grasping the idea. “Okay, I think I’m following you now.”

Nogura looked pleased. “As I stated before, the Federation has made numerous accommodations to the Andorians and Tellarites since the founding days. Unfortunately, these accommodations tended to tacitly endorse sexism within Starfleet. You yourself, have quite forcefully made the case that no female has served as commander of a heavy cruiser.”

McAfee swallowed. “Sir, I did not wish to cause you any problems.”

A white eyebrow shot up on the old man’s forehead. “Do not apologize for your opinion, Captain,” he said sternly. “Your point was well taken. That is the main reason I have summoned you today.”

Her eyes widened. “Sir?”

“I intend to return a semblance of balance and harmony to Starfleet as the new CNO. Unfortunately, I am too late to address the uniform issue. That will have to wait a few years. But I can do something about our unbalanced command structure.”

He retrieved his cup and took a sip of tea and stared back out the window. “Some in the admiralty advised that we scrap Excalibur due to her extensive damage. I believe that to be a mistake and have convinced the Federation Council that it is more cost-effective to repair her than wait three years for the next new heavy cruiser to be completed. Excalibur will need a new Captain and crew. I am offering you the position of commanding officer.” He replaced the delicate cup on its saucer and placed it on the table. Turning to her, he smiled.

“Of course, if you wish some time to consider . . . ?” he began.

“When do I start, sir?” she interrupted, a wide grin on her face.

To be continued
Chapter 3 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
Captain Grace McAfee is now the first female C.O. of a Constitution-class starship. But USS Excalibur is a mess following the M-5 incident, requiring months of rebuilding, and McAfee has to assemble a new crew from scratch beginning with the senior officers.
Chapter Three

Stardate 4741.6 (2 September 2268)
Starfleet Academy, San Francisco, Earth


The sun was beginning to set over the bay when Captain McAfee finally returned to the faculty building. She headed straight for Lt. Collins' office which was adjacent to her own. Her ebullient mood was tempered by a degree of guilt over abandoning her assistant. She entered Collins' office to find him calmly working at his computer with a partially finished sandwich on his desk.

“Simon, I apologize for leaving you in a lurch. How did it go this afternoon?”

Lt. Collins smiled. “No problems at all, Captain. When I realized you might not make it back for the final class, I checked the computer to see if any of the faculty had taught the Basic Tactics course. Turns out that Commander Gunthorpe used to teach it all the time and he was available. I gave him a call and he was very happy to fill in, said he owed you a favor or two.”

A smile of relief spread across McAfee’s face. “Great work, Simon. I can always count on you to get my back.”

Lt. Collins waved aside the compliment, though it was obvious he was pleased by her words. “Happy to be of service, Captain. May I ask how your meeting with Admiral Nogura went? No problems, I trust?”

Grace settled into the chair opposite Lt. Collins' desk. “You may ask, and no, definitely no problems.” She paused, still wearing a goofy grin.

Collins raised his eyebrows and made a ‘go-on’ gesture with his hands. “And?” he pressed.

“You are looking at the new commanding officer of the Excalibur.”

Collins' grin widened, he stood and extended his hand. “Outstanding! Congratulations, Sir! This is long overdue.”

Grace shook her aide’s hand warmly. “Thanks, Simon, I appreciate it.” She sighed, “There’s a lot I have to do before assuming command. Let’s get together at 0800 and start making lists.”

“Aye sir,” he paused, his face becoming more somber. “I must say, I will miss working for you. It’s been a privilege serving as your aide these past two years.”

Grace rested her chin on her fist and regarded the young officer from her chair. “Simon, how long has it been since you served on a ship?”

Lt. Collins furrowed his brow and rubbed his chin. “Well, to be honest, about ten years. I served on the Baton Rouge straight out of the academy as logistics officer. After that, I served a similar role on Starbase 12 before coming to the Academy.”

McAfee nodded. “Sounds like you’re due some ship time again Simon. How would you like to be my Yeoman on the Excalibur?”

Simon blinked. “Really? Are you sure, ma’am? There are bound to be a lot of officers with more experience.”

Grace waved him off. “Drop the modesty, Mister. You’re the best damn aide I’ve ever had. You anticipate what I need and exemplify the word, 'efficiency.' Hell, you know how disorganized I can be . . . I really need you, Simon. How ‘bout it?”

The smile returned to Lt. Simon Collins' face. “Just say the word, sir.”

* * *

Stardate 4755.2 (5 October 2268)
Workbee A-922, Earth Orbit


“Captain McAfee, I must warn you, she’s still a mess. We’ve made progress but the old girl took some nasty hits from Enterprise, bloody damn M-5!”

Commander Trevor Phillips, Earth Spacedock Engineering Manager, added his editorial opinion in his distinct Yorkshire accent. The tall man with brown hair and a neat moustache, guided the workbee expertly past open-frame spacedocks servicing vessels of various classes.

Captain McAfee and Lt. Collins stood by, watching other smallcraft and workpods flitting around like June-bugs. Simon winced as their workbee appeared to be on a collision course with a Deuterium tanker, only to have Commander Phillips send the small pod into a stomach-clenching dive under the lumbering vessel before straightening out on the other side.

“Heavy traffic this morning,” commented McAfee dryly, with a sidelong wink at Lt. Collins.

“Really? Hadn’t noticed,” replied Phillips. He gestured to starboard. “The Lady Lex is about to launch. We fixed her up better than new in just six weeks!” he said with obvious pride.

McAfee and Clark stared out the viewport at the gleaming starship, bathed in light from her spacedock berth. The USS Lexington was an impressive sight, her hull once again a gleaming white and her plating pristine. The massive starship seemed to be straining to leap once more into the void.

“Good Lord, it’s huge.” whispered Lt. Collins with genuine awe.

“They always look bigger on the outside, lad,” replied Phillips, “But she is a fair sight, I’ll give ye that.” The engineer couldn’t hide his obvious affection for the starship.

Captain McAfee thought back to the dinner she had shared with Commodore Wesley and Captain Voorhees the other night. She had been pleasantly surprised by the warm reception she had received from her new colleagues. As they were about to depart, Wesley had given her a word of advice. “Trust your instincts, Captain. The rulebook was written by desk-bound pad-pushers. And be sure to take good care of your ship and crew. They’re the most important things in your life for the next five years.”

Grace had pondered the advice from the legendary starship commander. Robert Wesley was very different from James Kirk, yet, there were definite similarities, qualities that enabled them to command a starship and her crew. She hoped she had the same stuff.

Her reverie was broken by Commander Phillips. “Here we are. Like I said, a sorry mess, but I promise ye, she’ll be the best Connie in the fleet when I’m done with her.”

For the very first time, Captain McAfee gazed at her new command and she had to reluctantly agree; Excalibur was indeed, a sorry sight.

“My God,” Grace breathed, taking in the devastation.

“Don’t blame the Almighty,” reproached Phillips, “’Twas that devilish M-5 computer that did this. It knew exactly where to hit her, used Enterprise’s phasers at full power punching through her hull like it was wet paper. The poor blighters never knew what hit ‘em.” He gestured to the primary hull, the forward third having been mostly cut away.

“The first salvo likely depressurized most of the primary hull. The power surge overwhelmed the back-up systems, causing a cascade failure of the integrity field and emergency bulkheads. Add to that the energy that was crackled through her, the one’s that didn’t die of asphyxiation burned to death.”

McAfee had seen holo-pics of the damage, but they didn’t convey the utter savagery that had been bestowed on the starship. In all honesty, she now understood why the admiralty had wanted to scrap her.

Excalibur was a pitiful shadow of her former self. Much of her hull-plating was gone, as were her warp nacelles and pylons. Teams of space-suited engineers crawled over structural members, removing damaged components as workpods with tractor beams lugged materials around. The view reminded her of flies swarming over a dead carcass.

“Commander, when will she be ready?”

Phillips pursed his lips in thought. “Well now, seeing as how we’re still taking things apart, I’d say nine to ten months, minimum.”

“I see,” said McAfee. She continued to gaze at the mangled ship for several moments as Phillips maneuvered the workbee around, allowing them to observe the ship from all angles. She spoke again, maintaining her gaze out the viewport.

“I suppose you can do just about anything with all of this equipment, the tractor gantries, spacedock facilities and all.”

Phillips snorted. “Most certainly. We could build a starship from scratch, given the opportunity.”

“A lot easier than serving as a shipboard engineer, though. I mean, on a ship, you don’t have all of the support facilities, no orbital factories, no nice-cushy starbase. Seems like it takes more . . . I don’t know, ingenuity, to serve as a chief engineer on a starship.”

The Commander’s neck was growing nearly as red as his shirt. “I’ve done time as a chief engineer, Captain. I’m no bloody greenhorn.”

“No, definitely not, Mr. Phillips. I’ve read your personnel file. Seems you were transferred to your current billet against your will.”

He turned his head sharply to face McAfee. “Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but what the hell are you playing at?”

“Just this, Mr. Phillips. I need a chief engineer. You have served as a chief engineer . . . at least until you told Captain Fesaan to, and I quote, 'Sod-off you blue-skinned idiot.'”

Phillips’ jaw muscles twitched, but he did not immediately respond. Finally, he muttered, “Bloody fool nearly got the lot of us killed.”

Grace nodded, still looking at the work underway on Excalibur. “So it would seem. At least, the board of inquiry agreed with that assessment. But somehow, a very capable engineer got lost in the shuffle, to languish in a repair facility.”

“I’m doing alright,” he replied, stiffly. “It’s important and rewarding work.”

“I’ve no doubt it is,” replied McAfee, evenly. “But let me ask you, Commander, do you want to spend the rest of your life as a mechanic in a glorified repair shop, or would you like to take another shot as chief engineer on a starship?”

Phillips remained quiet for several minutes, as did McAfee and Collins. They continued to orbit the damaged ship, when the Commander finally spoke.

“I would need the freedom to pick my own engineering team.”

Grace glanced at Collins with a wink, then looked at Phillips. “I have no problem with that, as long as it’s understood I have final say.”

Phillips nodded, as he deftly guided the workbee between the spacedock’s framework. “And I don’t need some tight-assed first officer looking over my shoulder. I have my ways about calibrating engines. My methods may not be regulation, but they by-God work!”

Grace glanced at the braid on his arms. “Well, you are a full Commander. I think we can allow you to run engineering without supervision, so long as you understand that my word is by-God law.”

Phillips turned again, staring at McAfee. The Captain held his gaze with equal intensity. They maintained their stare-down to the point where Lt. Collins' eyes were beginning to water. Finally, the Commander broke eye-contact and stared out the viewport.

“She’ll be ready in six months, Captain. You have my watch and warrant on it as Chief Engineer.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Phillips,” replied McAfee as she returned her gaze out the viewport.

* * *

Stardate 4757.7 (7 October 2268)
Starbase One, Earth Orbit
Temporary Office, C.O. USS Excalibur


“What about Pyotor Bruscalion?”

Lt. Collins shook his head. “He just received his promotion to Captain.”

“Damn. Any word on Commander Cho?”

“He took a medical discharge. Apparently he never recovered from that case of Denebian Fever.”

With a sigh, Captain McAfee tossed the data slate on the desk of her temporary office and leaned back in her chair. “How hard can it be to find a first officer?”

Lt. Collins wore a sympathetic smile. “Just bad timing I guess, what with the new promotion list just coming out and several prospects retiring. I’m sure you’ll find the right candidate soon.”

“Too bad you’re not ten years older,” she groused.

“Captain, I haven’t even been through command school yet, I don’t think I’m qualified.”

“Hell, Simon, I know that. I just need someone I can trust . . . like I trust you.” She stretched and stifled a yawn. “Let’s take a break, we’ve been at this for hours.”

“Yes sir. Look at the bright side, at least you have your Chief Engineer and Chief Medical Officer. That should count for something.”

“True, true,” She was still pleased with herself for landing Commander Phillips, despite his crusty personality. Then, as a bonus, she was able to acquire the services of her friend and former CMO on the Ranger, Dr. Kim Moon Chang, who was currently on assignment at the hospital on Starbase 15. Kim had been very pleased to accept the billet on the Excalibur.

“Can I bring you anything, Sir?”

“No, Simon, but thanks anyway. Take the rest of the evening off. Catch a holo-flic or take a trip planet-side. I’ll grab something in the officer’s mess in a little while.”

“Yes sir, goodnight Captain.”

“Goodnight, Simon.” McAfee stared at the stacks of data-slates containing personnel files on dozens of Starfleet officers.

“How hard can it be to find a decent first officer?” she muttered to herself. She considered moving on to the other senior slots: Science Officer, Security Chief, Tactical, etc., but she really wanted to involve her exec in the process.

She reached for her coffee cup, finding it empty. Grimacing, she considered a refill, but the acid churning in her stomach made her put aside that consideration. Too much caffeine and too little food were a poor combination.

Glancing out the viewport of her office, she could make out the framework of several spacedocks. Unfortunately, Excalibur’s berth was too far distant to see, hidden beyond the curvature of the Earth. She had thus far resisted daily commandeering a workbee to check the progress of repairs. No point scaring off Commander Phillips. She would limit her visits to once per week, at least for now.

The buzz of the door enunciator caused her to turn back from the viewport. She supposed that Lt. Collins had forgotten something.

“Come!” she called, stacking the slates and tossing the coffee cup in the ‘cycler.

To her surprise, her guest was not Lt. Collins, but a tall, dark-haired man wearing a red tunic and commander’s stripes. She could not help notice he was quite handsome, with chiseled features, broad shoulders and an engaging smile. This made her think of James Kirk and she immediately went to yellow alert.

“Captain McAfee?” inquired the Commander. McAfee thought she detected a faint accent, Mediterranean, perhaps.

“That’s right. And you are? . . .”

“Espinoza, Commander Raul Espinoza, sir. I understand you are seeking a first officer for the Excalibur?”

Her brow furrowed. “That’s right. What does that have to do with you?”

“Captain, I’m here to apply for the position. I’m your man.”

* * *
Chapter 4 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
Commander Espinoza lays out his case as to why he should serve as First Officer but events from his past may torpedo his chances.
Chapter Four

Stardate 4757.7 (7 October 2268)
Starbase One, Earth Orbit
Temporary Office, C.O. USS Excalibur


Captain McAfee stared at Espinoza with open incredulity. “Well, damn, Commander, you’ve got brass; I’ll give you that. Why should I consider you for my first officer?”

“If I can have ten minutes of your time, I will tell you.”

She glanced at the chronometer, then back at the tall, dark and handsome officer, before making a decision.

“Tell you what, Mr. Espinoza, I’m about to walk to the officer’s mess. You have between here and there to catch my interest. If I like what I hear, you can sit with me and we’ll discuss the possibility. Otherwise, we can shake hands and you can let me eat in peace. Deal?”

Raul inclined his head. “Fair enough.”

“Alright, let’s go. You’re on the clock.”

McAfee stepped smartly into the corridor, surprising Espinoza who had to hurry to catch up. They stepped onto a waiting turbo-lift to descend three levels to the Commons Deck.

“Your name wasn’t even on the list of available officers, Commander. That would seem to be a strike against you. Also, by the color of your tunic, you’re either in security or engineering, not command. Strike two. Lucky for you I’m not aware of an apparent strike three . . . yet. Your turn. Start talking.”

“I served as Second Officer on the USS Cairo,” he said, simply.

McAfee stared at the dusky skinned man. “Computer, stop lift.”

The station’s computer instantly complied, causing the lift car to pause between levels. She searched his face carefully, looking for any sign of subterfuge. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, she spoke.

“You served with Bryce Allender?” she asked, softly.

He nodded. “Yes sir. He’s the one that suggested I come see you.”

She considered that. “Alright, that’s easy enough to verify, and if true, definitely a point in your favor. But tell me something, Commander. If you were second officer on the Cairo, how did you escape court-martial along with the rest of the senior officers?”

A sad smile crept across his face. “That’s just it Captain, I didn’t escape court martial. None of us did. I just now received my promotion to commander, even though I’ve been on the list for six years.”

That certainly explained why Espinoza was not on her first officer list. She had thus far limited the search to candidates with at least two years in grade.

“Computer, resume,” ordered McAfee and the lift began to move once more. “Tell you what, Commander, you’ve at least piqued my curiosity. I’m not making any promises, mind you, but I’ll give you a chance to make your pitch while I eat dinner.”

Espinoza followed McAfee into the spacious officer’s mess on the Commons’ deck. He declined food, but McAfee availed herself of soup, a sandwich and an apple from the bank of food slots. They found a somewhat private table away from the few other officers that were dining at the late hour.

“You sure you don’t want something, Commander? The station food isn’t too bad.”

“Thank you, no, I’m fine Captain.” He clasped his hands together on the table and appeared to gather his thoughts.

“You are, of course, familiar with the events of Stardate 3378.9?”

McAfee nodded as she chewed a bite of her turkey sandwich. Who could forget? That was the date that the destroyer, USS Cairo, in violation of several Starfleet directives, crossed into the Romulan Neutral Zone and rescued two transport vessels that had blundered into Romulan space.

The Cairo defended the civilian vessels from an attack by a Romulan D-7, one of the ships acquired from the Klingons. The Cairo took heavy damage and numerous casualties, but bought the 500 civilians enough time to make it back to Federation space and safety.

Captain Allender, McAfee’s old shipmate from their days as junior officers on the Canberra, was regaled as a hero by the press and the colonists. Unfortunately, the acclaim did not shield the command crew of the Cairo from the wrath of the admiralty, who decided to make an example of Allender and his senior officers.

In point of fact, Allender had defied the sector commander’s direct order to break off his rescue attempt and return to Federation space. Ultimately, Allender resigned his commission and left Starfleet. The other senior officers were reduced a grade in rank and cast off to mundane jobs on remote stations or support ships.

“Yes, Commander. I remember it all too well. Tell me, what have you been doing since? . . .”

“Since the court-martial, you mean?” Espinoza smiled bleakly and McAfee noticed the lines of stress near his eyes, the wisps of gray in his hair.

“I spent an interesting year as First Officer on a prison transport ship. That was when I traded in the gold shirt for this red one. After that, I was ‘promoted’ to Security Chief on Deep Space K-4, which, considering its remote location has been a very restful if uninteresting assignment.”

“So how did you come to be here, Mr. Espinoza? It must be at least a ten day trip from that station.”

“More like two weeks. I had some accumulated leave time, which will run out the day after tomorrow. After that . . .”

“After that, you’ll be AWOL,” she finished, “considering there’s no way you can get back in two days.” She shook her head in wonder. “You’re taking a hell of a chance, Mr. Espinoza. If I don’t take you on as First Officer, you’ll be going back to your brig, only on the wrong side of the force-field.”

“Yes sir, that’s true.”

“So, I’m supposed to feel sorry for you and do you a favor because you served under an old friend of mine, right?”

Espinoza leaned forward and spoke quietly but with earnest. “Captain, I’m a damn good officer, that’s something else you can verify. All I’m looking for is a second chance. I’m not ashamed of anything in my past and I’m proud to be associated with the Captain and crew of the Cairo. If you’re looking for a First Officer that can do the job and do it well, I’m your man!”

McAfee regarded Espinoza with quiet scrutiny. “One question, Mister. If you had it to do over again, would you still have followed Captain Allender into the Neutral Zone, knowing it was a direct violation of orders and several Federation statutes?”

“To save the lives of those civilians? Without hesitation. At least I can look at myself in the mirror, Captain.”

Grace tossed her napkin on her tray, clasped her hands together and shook her head slowly. Espinoza sat in silence, merely watching her. Finally, she pinched the bridge of her nose, in a vain attempt to stave off the headache that was building.

“Be in my office at 0830, Commander. I still have some questions for you.”

Raul relaxed slightly, a slight grin on his lips. “I guess this means I didn’t strike out?”

“Let’s say you’re standing on third base with two outs. You’re not home yet. Where are you staying?”

“I have a room in the Transit Officers Quarters.”

“Good. I am about to stay up very late checking you out very thoroughly, Commander Espinoza. If I find one single blip other than the Cairo incident that I don’t like, I’ll personally call your base commander and have you shipped back in irons. Got it?”

“Yes sir. And thank you, Captain.”

“For what? You don't have the job yet.”

“I know. But thanks for giving me a shot.”

She nodded. “That was for Bryce. Everything else will be up to you.”

* * *

Stardate 4758.1 (8 October 2268)
Starbase One, Earth Orbit
Temporary Office, C.O. USS Excalibur


Lt. Simon Collins whistled as he carried two cups of coffee down the corridor toward Captain McAfee’s office. He managed to also carry three data slates tucked under his arm. The young officer had learned very early how to save steps and time any way he could. He enjoyed serving as McAfee’s aide, but she could be a demanding taskmaster, so it was to his advantage to stay a step or two ahead of her.

The office door slid open upon sensing his bio-signature. As he stepped in, he came to an abrupt stop, shaking his head at the sight before him.

Grace McAfee was asleep with her head cradled on the desk. The light from the computer screen created multi-hued shadows across her hair which cascaded down across her face.

Collins cleared his throat. McAfee jerked awake and blinked, looking around her desk in a disoriented manner. Squinting, she looked towards Lt. Collins.

“Simon? What time is it?”

“Oh-seven fifty five, sir. I take it you spent the night here?”

She straightened, wincing at a twinge in her neck. “You take it correctly. Now I’ll take some of that coffee you’re holding.”

Clark set the steaming cup on the desk before McAfee, who accepted it gratefully. She took several sips of the hot coffee, wincing again and trying to work the kink out of her neck.

“Captain, why don’t you go get some rest? I’ll get things straightened up in here.”

She shook her head. “Negative. We have a prospective First Officer coming by in half an hour.”

Collins looked surprised. “Really? That was fast.”

“You have no idea.” She rolled her neck again. “Tell you what, I’m going to catch a quick shower and change my uniform. If Commander Espinoza gets here before I return, keep him entertained.”

“Shall I regale him with poetry or perhaps a Broadway show-tune?” he asked, straight-faced.

“Stow the comedy routine, Mister. Just have more coffee waiting when I get back and I’ll overlook it.”

“Aye sir. Anything else?”

“Yeah. Get in touch with Commander Phillips. Pass along my compliments, etc. etc. and see if he’s available for a meeting, make it 1230, and see about the Chief Steward sending lunch down here.”

“Got it. Do you want me here?”

“Yes, you take good notes. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

* * *

Freshly showered and feeling somewhat more human, Captain McAfee returned at 0815 to find that Commander Espinoza had just arrived.

“It would seem I saved you from Lt. Collins' poetry,” quipped McAfee.

Espinoza looked puzzled. “Beg pardon?”

She smiled. “Never mind, it’s just a lame joke between me and my Yeoman. I assume you two have made introductions?”

“The Lieutenant was kind enough to get me some tea.”

“The Lieutenant is on the ball this morning, that’s more than can be said of his Captain. Have a seat, Commander, let’s talk. Simon? Why don’t you grab some breakfast while we meet.”

“Yes sir. When do you want me back?”

“Give us an hour.”

Lt. Collins exited and Grace gestured for Commander Espinoza to take a seat. She sat down behind the desk, stifling a yawn.

“Long night?” he asked.

“Yes, thanks to you.”

“Sorry,” he said, shrugging.

“Don’t be. It was time well-spent.” She leaned back in her chair. “You have a glowing resume’, Mr. Espinoza. I’ve talked to your former commanders, at least the one’s I could reach. You seem to have a strong work ethic and exceptional leadership qualities. Without exception, they all recommended you for the first officer slot on Excalibur. However . . .”

Espinoza’s smile faded. “Yes?”

“I need to ask you about one particular incident.”

“What would that be?” His voice remained calm, covering his apprehension.

“About six months ago, a prisoner in your charge was rather seriously injured, requiring a lengthy stay in the station’s sickbay.” She glanced at the data slate before her.

“According to the incident report, the prisoner ‘slipped’ in his cell, resulting in a broken nose, three broken ribs and multiple bruises. It seems the prisoner corroborates the official account.” She placed the slate back on her desk and rested her chin on her folded hands.

“I did a bit more digging. It also seems that the prisoner was a repeat offender and had been known to use his wife as a punching bag and had just broken his young daughter’s arm. Am I correct thus far?”

Espinoza’s expression was stony. “You are.”

She nodded. “Commander Espinoza, I am not naïve enough to believe the concocted pile of steaming manure contained in this report. Understanding that, did you in fact, beat the living daylights out of this walking piece of human debris?”

“Yes sir, I did.” Espinoza appeared calm, resigned perhaps to having blown his opportunity for redemption.

McAfee stood, as did Espinoza, who supposed the interview was at an end.

“Commander, why don’t you report to the quartermaster before checking into the BOQ.”

Espinoza looked puzzled. “Sir?”

A slight smile formed on McAfee’s lips. “I don’t condone what you did, Commander, and if you ever file a false report as First Officer of Excalibur, I’ll have your stripes. But I’d be lying if I said that, given the opportunity, I wouldn’t have administered a beating to that miserable bastard myself. Now, get on to the quartermaster and pick up some gold tunics with the Excalibur flash. Be back here by 1215 and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew. Actually, you’ve already met half of them. You can meet our Chief Engineer at least, then we’ve got our work filling over 400 other slots.”

The Commander stood, momentarily speechless. He was not quite sure he believed what he heard. McAfee cocked her head.

“Is your hearing alright, Commander?”

“Ah, yes sir. Thank you, sir!” He was grinning broadly now.

She nodded. “I’d say, ‘welcome aboard,’ but that’s a few months premature. Go on, get squared-away. I’ll take care of the transfer details with your old C.O.”

Espinoza turned and made his way to the door. He turned back upon reaching it. “Captain, I appreciate the second chance. I won’t let you down.”

Grace smiled wearily. “Commander, you’re gratitude is duly noted. Now, please get the hell out of here; I need a couple of hours sleep before lunch or I’ll be grouchier than usual.”

* * *

As efficient as ever, Lt. Collins was able to procure a nice lunch for the gathered officers of the Excalibur. Their newly minted First Officer, Commander Raul Espinoza, was resplendent in a fresh gold command tunic with the stylized sword and Cochrane delta flash of the Excalibur on his chest. Commander Phillips was arrayed in faded and stained engineering coveralls, but he too wore the Excalibur patch. He was sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea and gamely fielding questions from an eager and curious Lt. Collins.

“So, Commander, why is it that Excalibur’s registry number is NCC-1664? I thought the Constitution and Enterprise were the first two ships of the class.”

“Lad, that’s one of the common misconceptions about the 12 Connies. Constitution and Enterprise were the first two completely new ships in the class, built from the keel up.

Excalibur, Intrepid, Constellation and Republic were all older ships that were rebuilt as Connies after 1700 and 1701 were launched. They maintained their old names and registries, even though they were completely re-built. If you were to put them all side by side, you’d notice subtle differences, especially with the Republic. She still has her original engineering hull which has a decidedly different shape.”

“They were all originally of the old Republic-class, right Mr. Phillips?” added McAfee.

“Correct. ‘Course, technically, there isn’t a Republic-class anymore, even though the Republic still exists. She’s a Connie now, like her sisters.”

“Not to borrow trouble,” interjected Espinoza, “but now all the older Connies are gone, lost in action, except the Excalibur, and she was nearly destroyed too. Coincidence, Mr. Phillips? Or something else.”

A troubled look appeared on the Chief Engineer's face. “Those were all top-line ships, Mr. Espinoza. I doubt any of the newer ships would have fared any better,” but his voice betrayed his own doubts.

“But don’t you be fretting about Excalibur!" Phillips continued with conviction. "When I’m done with her, she’ll be better than new. We’re bringing her up to current build standards, same as the Kongo. She’ll be more than an equal to Enterprise, Lexington, Potempkin . . .”

“Could you share some specifics, please, Commander?” asked McAfee, hiding an amused smile behind her coffee cup.

Phillips cleared his throat, realizing he was sermonizing.

“Certainly, Captain. We’re strengthening the internal bracing, installing a new bridge module, faster-regenerating phaser banks, even an aft torpedo launcher, not to mention hundreds of small but significant upgrades in ship-wide systems. With the new upgrades, she’ll give Enterprise a run for fastest ship honors, and she won’t come apart at the seams the first time the shields fail.”

“Mr. Phillips, I’m no engineer, but I know enough that when you add a system, say a new torpedo launcher, you give up something else,” pressed the Captain.

A small smile formed on Phillips craggy face. “Yes sir, that’s correct.”

“So, what do we lose with the new torpedo launcher?”

“Not so much, an airlock . . . and the bowling alley.”

Lt. Collins blinked in amazement. “The ship has a bowling alley?”

Phillips sipped his tea and winked at the Captain. “Not anymore, lad.”

“Alright, Mr. Phillips thank you for the status report of Excalibur. Now on to staffing matters. Here’s where we stand . . .” continued McAfee.

To be continued
Chapter 5 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
Captain McAfee enjoys some stick-time in a starfighter and meets Lt. Commander Heath Forester, their new Senior Helm & Tactical Officer.
Chapter Five

Stardate 4770.1 (15 December 2268)
Starbase One, Earth Orbit
Temporary Office, C.O. USS Excalibur


Personal Log, Stardate 4770.1, Grace D. McAfee recording. I am pleased with the progress being made on the Excalibur. Instead of the wreck I first saw, she’s beginning to look like a real starship again. Commander Phillips says we should be able to take our first on-board look-see this week, though I think he’s reluctant to let us see too much of his work-in-progress. Engineer’s pride, I suppose.

I’m also quite pleased with the progress made in putting together a crew. Kudos to Commander Espinoza in that regard. He’s put in stellar work locating candidates and interviewing officers. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we still have not landed a Chief Science Officer. I certainly hope we can rectify that this week.

Dr. Chang is itching to get in sickbay and begin the process of outfitting her facilities and getting to know her doctors and nurses. In the mean-time, Kim and her staff are staying sharp, putting in hours at Starfleet Medical in Atlanta.

Finally, I received word that we will be assigned to Sector 9 under Admiral Komack, once we launch early next year. It will be good to begin our mission; I’m more than a little sick of this office.


Grace saved her log entry and rubbed her eyes. She looked around the small office, her home for the past three months and likely at least three more. Was the office getting smaller, or was it her imagination? Huffing out a breath of frustration, she stabbed the communicator button on her desk.

“McAfee to Lt. Collins.”

“Collins here,”

“Simon, I have a severe case of cabin fever. See what you can do about getting me a fighter, failing that, a shuttle, a workpod, hell, a hot-air balloon would suit me right now. I’ve got to get some stick-time or I’m going to go stark-raving nuts.”

There was a chuckle over the open link. “I’ll see what I can do, ma’am. Anything else?”

“I’ll dance at your wedding if you can just get me a fighter, Simon.”

“Sir?”

It was her turn to laugh. “Never mind. Let me know if you have any luck. McAfee, out.”

She didn’t have to wait long. Ten minutes later, Collins was back on the communicator.

“Captain, it’s Lt. Collins. I have a little surprise for you. Can you meet me in hangar bay four in fifteen minutes?”

“That was fast. What do you have for me?”

“I’ll keep it a surprise for now, but I think you’ll be pleased.”

“Okay, Simon, you’ve got my curiosity piqued. I’ll see you in fifteen.”

In a quarter hour, Captain McAfee made her way into the expansive hangar bay, one of six on the massive starbase. Numerous smallcraft from workbees to agile fighters to runabouts crowded the deck. McAfee saw Lt. Collins approaching and went to meet him.

“Well, Lieutenant, where’s this surprise you promised?”

“Follow me, Captain,” he responded with a smile. He led her past a phalanx of Star-sabre fighters to a quartet of shuttle-craft, parked side-by-side. Clark made an expansive gesture at the four shuttles.

“There you are, sir. They're all yours!”

She looked puzzled and vaguely disappointed. Flying a shuttle was about as challenging as riding in a turbo-lift. “Well, which one did you line up for me?” she asked with feigned enthusiasm.

Collins' face fell. “Captain, why don’t you take a closer look?”

Noticing the crestfallen expression on the Yeoman’s face, she sighed and moved closer to humor him. A smile spread on her face when she noticed the markings on the shuttlecraft. Each carried the designation, USS Excalibur.

“Our shuttlecraft!” she exclaimed. “When did they arrive, Simon?”

“They were delivered late yesterday. The base flight commander had to certify them before turning them over to us. I received his okay this morning for us to keep them stored here until we can take them on board Excalibur.”

“Well this is a nice surprise, even if Excalibur’s shuttle bay isn’t ready.” She walked around the four boxy ships, noting their names: Pendragon, Guinevere, Lancelot and Galahad.

“I was surprised there wasn’t a Merlin in the group,” opined Lt. Collins.

“If I recall correctly, there’s a cutter named Merlin in the Border Service. Are any of them fueled and ready for flight?”

“Actually, I just wanted you to see these. Your ride is over here.” Collins gestured back toward the brace of sleek fighters that were angle-parked a few meters away.

Her eyes narrowed and the feral smile of a fighter pilot spread across her lips. “Now you’re talking, Mr. Collins. Well done!”

She followed the Lieutenant to the first StarSabre in the line-up, with tail number 0182. It was a two-seat Mark II model favored by the Sol Defense Wing. She favored Collins with a sly smile. “Want to come along?”

Collins shook his head with feigned regret. The young Lieutenant still had nightmares from the last time he went for a “ride” with Captain McAfee in a fighter. He tapped his slate for emphasis.

“Can’t, I'm still working out delivery schedules for ship-board furnishings.” He gestured to the far wall. “The locker room is right over there and a pressure suit is ready for you. Enjoy your flight, sir.”

“I intend to. Thanks, Simon.”

The Captain made her way quickly to the locker room and found the requisite pressure suit and donned it with practiced ease. She walked out to the StarSabre, a glossy white helmet tucked under her arm and made her external inspection of the craft before climbing nimbly up the ladder. Wriggling into the form-fitting seat, she strapped in, connecting communication and life-support umbilicals. The smell of familiar materials tickled her nose, the dry, slightly asceptic smell of the air flow, the polymers in the well-worn seat and the faint tang of transtators warming up. To Grace, they were wonderful, familiar smells.

She lowered the helmet’s visor into place which turned on the internal head’s-up display. Activating the on-board computer, she began to run through the all-important pre-flight checklist. Even though it had been over a decade since her stint as a fighter pilot during the last war with the Klingons, all her actions came as though performed just yesterday. Satisfied that everything was functioning properly, she toggled the communicator.

“StarSabre Oh-one-eight-two to Starbase control, requesting immediate flight clearance and a departure vector for an Earth/Saturn circuit.”

“StarSabre 0182, this is Starbase control. Please taxi to airlock two. Once outer doors are open, you are cleared for vector tango three one. Be advised we have inbound traffic bearing 18 mark 126. Have a good flight, sir.

“Starbase Control, StarSabre 0182, acknowledged and thank you.”

McAfee brought the fighters twin engines to idle, a low hum resonating through the hull. Activating the graviton beams on the landing skids, the StarSabre rose very slightly from the deck. She followed the taxi-line on the deck to the second of three large airlocks that served this particular hangar. Once inside, the inner doors trundled closed and pumps began their job of decompressing the airlock. Momentarily, red lights on the outer clam-shell doors began to flash and the large doors began to open, slowly but inexorably. In fifteen seconds they were open wide enough for her departure.

She reached for the throttle controls, allowing the impulse manifold time to build ionic pressure, before pushing the throttles wide-open. Even with the inertial dampeners and the g-suit, McAfee felt the heavy pressure of g-forces shove her harshly into her seat. Her lips peeled back from her teeth in a grimace as she tightened muscles to prevent vision-fade and a potential black out.

As the inertial dampeners caught up with the sudden acceleration, a smile spread on McAfee’s face as she maneuvered sharply away from Starbase One. The StarSabre was streaking ahead at one-half impulse in mere seconds, rapidly devouring the distance between the Earth and the Saturn.

God, I’ve missed this! She thought, reveling in the fighter’s nimble handling. She pushed the StarSabre to its handling and acceleration limits, exulting in the sheer joy of flying a high-performance space craft.

Maybe just a quick buzz of Titan base before heading back. Too bad there’s no ordinance for target practice on the old weapons range, she thought as the fighter approached one-half light speed.

* * *

Stardate 4770.3 (15 December 2268)
Starbase One, Earth Orbit
Temporary Office, C.O. USS Excalibur


Still smiling after her joy-ride in the StarSabre, McAfee made her way back to her office after grabbing lunch in the officer’s mess. At 1300 hours she was scheduled to meet her new senior Helm and Tactical Officer, Lt. Commander Heath Forester.

She considered snaring Forester in the slot something of a coup. He had an excellent reputation as a pilot and helm officer, and was held in very high regard by his peers and former commanders. Lt. Commander Forester had declined several ship-board billets over the past few years, likely due to the prolonged illness and death of his wife and concern for his teenage son. Thus, he had languished as an instructor at the Academy’s Flight Training Range on Saturn.

Apparently Forester now felt his son ready for a time of separation and he had agreed to throw in his lot with Excalibur for the next five years. At least, McAfee hoped that was the case.

Grace settled in behind her desk, checked her messages, then poured some coffee from a thermal carafe on her credenza. She picked up a data slate from her desk, which obediently activated upon sensing her bio-signature. It opened to Lt. Commander Forester’s personnel file.

The Captain absently stirred cream and sugar into her coffee as she read Forester’s file for the second time. It was an impressive record, yet vague in certain areas. Considering his sterling reputation, she was surprised that he was still a Lt. Commander at age 39. Typically, someone at that age with his sterling record would be a full commander, possibly even a captain. She thought of Captain Kirk, still in his mid-thirties and grimaced.

The enunciator buzzed and she glanced at the chronometer. 1252. If it was Forester, he was a bit early.

“Come.”

Instead of Forester, Chief Engineer Trevor Phillips stepped into the office. Grace raised her eyebrows in surprise, for Phillips seldom came to her office except when summoned for a meeting. Nearly all his time was spent on Excalibur.

“Commander, is everything all right?”

Phillips’ epic moustache twitched as his face broke in a crooked grin. “Oh, yes sir, everything is very fine indeed. I was just wondering if the Captain would care to inspect the progress on her ship?”

McAfee blinked. “We can go on board?”

“Yes sir, ‘course there’s still many areas o’ the ship not ready for habitation, but I can at least give ye a look at engineering, the bridge and sickbay. We’ve got the fusion reactors on-line, so she’s got atmosphere and she’s warming up nicely, though ye might want to wear a jacket yet.”

“Mr. Phillips, you’re a miracle worker!”

Phillips snorted. “Miracle worker? I think not!. I just work hard for a living, unlike some engineers I know. Well then, I’ve told ye my news. Let me know when you’re comin’ over so we can get the corridors cleared a bit.”

He touched a finger to his forehead, a rather touching parody of a salute and departed. She could hear him muttering, “Bloody Scotsman and his damned reputation . . .”

* * *

Five minutes later, the door enunciator buzzed again. This time, it was Lt. Commander Heath Forester, exactly on time. The two officers shook hands and McAfee indicated a chair for Forester to sit.

“Coffee, Commander?”

“Thank you, no, I’m fine Captain,” replied Forester. McAfee detected a faint British accent, soft indeed compared to Commander Phillips strong Yorkshire dialect. He was a fit-looking man with short, blond hair and chiseled features. He appeared relaxed and reserved, but not to the point of being aloof. His eyes scanned the small office, taking in minor details: framed citations, models of starships and . . .

His eyes locked on a model of a Consolidated Aerospace Mustang Starfighter. An appreciative smile formed on his face and he pointed at the model.

“Captain, did you fly one of those?”

She turned to see the object of his attention and nodded. “Sure did. Flew off the Ark Royal during our last dust-up with the Klingons. We went up against their early Raptor fighters and a few Hammerheads.”

He turned his gaze back to her, obviously impressed. “I was still at the Academy when the cease-fire was signed, so I missed out on any combat missions.”

Something unreadable crossed McAfee’s face. “Be glad you missed it, Mr. Forester. I’ve never been more terrified in my life. I had two Mustangs blown up under me. The second time, I spent a month on a hospital ship.”

Forester’s gaze caught a significant citation that was nearly hidden behind the assortment of model ships. “That’s the Star Cross, isn’t it?” he asked, quietly.

A small smile reappeared on her face. “Yeah. I said I was scared, but that didn't prevent me from being one hell of a fighter pilot. But enough about me, Commander, let’s talk about you. I’m curious as to why you’ve spent the last eight years as a flight instructor. No offense, but that’s a long time away from a fighter wing or ship duty.”

Forester nodded. “Yes sir, I suppose it is. You probably are aware that I am widowed and have a son?”

“I am. My condolences for your loss, Commander.”

“Thank you. Monica, my wife, developed a debilitating illness when she and Kieran were living on Starbase 15 and I was serving as helm officer on the Kiaga. She would seem to get better, then relapse. I requested a transfer to the Academy so she could continue her treatments at Starbase medical. In the end, though . . .” his voice trailed off and he shrugged.

“She was a fighter, but she died despite the best efforts of Starfleet’s finest physicians. Our son, Kieran, was only ten when she died. I needed to be near him, to help him get through our loss together.”

“You are obviously devoted to your family,” McAfee observed. In her heart, she felt the dull ache that resided there, ever since the day her own mother had left her and her father. A different loss, to be sure, but the pain was still real.

“I have tried.” He said this without bravado, simply stating fact.

“Mr. Forester, if you come on this mission, what will you do with your son?”

“My brother Morgan and his family live on Mars. Kieran will stay with them for the duration; they get along very well.”

“Five years is a long time,” observed McAfee.

“True. Kieran and I have discussed this at length, Captain. He has urged me to accept this billet. I will, of course, visit him whenever leave time allows.”

“Rightly so.” McAfee stood. “Tell you what, Commander, I’m itching to step foot on Excalibur. Our Chief Engineer has okayed a limited tour of accessible spaces. Why don’t you join me and we can continue our conversation.”

Forester stood and smiled. “Thank you, sir. I’d like that.”

“Good! You can meet our First Officer and CMO as well. I want them to come along too.”

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, Captain McAfee, Commander Espinoza, Dr. Chang and Lt. Commander Forester were en route to the Excalibur’s dock via workbee.

The petite Asian physician was speaking softly with Forester. “I understand your wife succumbed to Brelais’ disease.”

Forester nodded. “That’s right Doctor, though to this day we’ve no idea how she contracted the disease. She never visited Delta IV. For that matter, she never encountered any Deltans, to my knowledge.”

Chang wore a sympathetic expression. “Apparently there are other species that can carry the virus without being affected. Unfortunately, we still don’t understand how it is transmitted, much less how to treat it in a non-Deltan. I know it must have been a very difficult time for you.”

Forester nodded, appreciating Chang’s kind words. “It was, but the passage of time helps.”

They were interrupted by the Captain’s voice. “There she is!”

Forester and Dr. Chang moved forward for their first glimpse of the starship.

Excalibur now was a gleaming jewel, her new hull plating a vivid white. She was a lovely sight despite a few gaps that remained to be filled here and there. Her new nacelles stood atop straight and pristine struts. The updated Bussard collectors lacked the spikes of the earlier units, but otherwise the nacelles looked very much like the originals. The ship still lacked her name, registry and pennants, but those would be added in short order.

The Captain maneuvered the vessel under the massive saucer, lining up the workbee with an airlock on the engineering hull. The tiny pod slowed, contacting the starship with a faint kiss as magnetic grapplers held the workbee fast to the hull.

“Cycling airlock,” announced Espinoza. They waited a moment for the lock to pressurize and a green light illuminated by the hatch.

McAfee felt butterflies in her stomach. She was about to board her new command for the first time. Espinoza turned and smiled.

“After you, Captain,” he said, gesturing toward the hatch.

Grace finally breathed. “Thank you, Commander. Let’s do this.”

The hatch slid open with a muted hiss and the interior lights from the starship spilled into the small workbee. McAfee walked through the hatch and the airlock into a well-lit corridor. Lining the corridor was an honor guard festooned in red shirts. A bosun’s whistle piped shrilly and Commander Phillips stepped smartly forward.

“Attention on deck!” Phillips roared in his distinctive accent. “Excalibur actual, arriving!”

“Permission to come aboard, sir?” she asked, following time-honored tradition.

“Granted! Welcome aboard the starship Excalibur, Captain McAfee,” said Phillips, who appeared quite pleased with himself.

The Captain looked around the spotless corridor. “Nicely done, Mr. Phillips, I’m impressed!”

“Thank you sir. Unfortunately, much of the ship is still a bit ‘o a mess, I regret to say. But I believe you will find the accessible areas in acceptable shape.”

Looking at the gleaming surfaces in the corridor, she had no doubt it was clean enough to eat from. “Show us what you can, Commander. I know Dr. Chang is anxious to organize sickbay.”

“Right then,” he turned to the assembled engineers. “Well done, lads. Dismissed!” The honor guard moved off, presumably to don coveralls once more and get back to work. Phillips turned to the quartet of officers.

“If you would follow me, please.” He led them around the curve of the corridor to a turbo-lift door, which opened at his approach. Stepping inside, Phillips barked, “Engineering.”

McAfee was surprised by the speed of the lift, far faster than those on the starbase. Phillips caught her surprised look. “I took the liberty of boosting the velocity of the lifts by 15%. No point in crew members lolly-gaggin’ around between decks.”

“I see,” said McAfee with amusement. “That’s very, uh, efficient.”

Phillips nodded smartly. “That it is, sir.”

The lift car slowed and came to a smooth stop on the engineering deck. The Chief Engineer led the officers through the cathedral-like space of main engineering. Work was still underway as workers moved purposefully about up ladders, floating on a-grav disks, crawling inside access panels and waving about diagnostic instruments. Phillips beamed with paternal pride.

“We’ll have the warp core in place within a week, and the engines ready for a test start in two. Impulse engines are already installed and the fusion generators are functioning. I’d wager we’ll be buttoned up and ready for trials in six weeks.”

Six weeks! Thought McAfee with amazement. That was nearly a month and a half earlier than the original six-month projection. She folded her arms and grinned.

“Now you’re talking, Mr. Phillips.”

“That I am. Come along then, let’s have a look at sickbay and the bridge,” said Phillips, before glancing at one of the engineering snipes hovering overhead.

"Halverson!" he bellowed. "Mind the flux polarity or I'll be sending your besotted ashes home to your mum!"

* * *

To be continued
Chapter 6 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
The crew of the Excalibur say their last goodbyes before their official launch. And on Canaris IV, scientists at the Salem Science Station make an ominous discovery.
Chapter Six

Stardate 4792.4 (1 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Spacedock, Earth Orbit


Captain’s Log, Stardate 4792.4, Grace D. McAfee recording. We are T-minus three days and counting until the launch of Excalibur. Commander Phillips and his engineering team are to be commended for having the Excalibur 'buttoned-up and ready for trials' in record time. The ship is fully outfitted with supplies, furnishings, weapons and a crew of 435. One of the last billets filled was that of Chief Science Officer in the person of Lt. Commander R'Shraan, a brilliant but stoic Andorian. His family is part of the Jinaar sect of Andor, a patriarchal religion where females are usually subservient to men. He has shown me all due respect, but I sense he is struggling with the notion of serving under a female commanding officer. As long as he does his job and follows orders, I can live with that.

Our family day for the crew is tomorrow. I’m anticipating a large number of spouses, children and parents on board for a tour of the ship and to say their farewells to loved ones. It will be crowded, but worth the slight inconvenience.

We will conduct our shake-down trials as we transit to sector 9 and await our first assignment. From my last conversation with Admiral Komack, things are quiet in the sector, at least at present. We’ll have a large patrol area; the only other dedicated vessels in sector 9 are the Yorktown and two light cruisers, the Saratoga and the Reliant.

I am pleased with how the senior officers are coming together as a team. Although they have disparate personalities and backgrounds, they have shown themselves to be highly professional and competent leaders. I’ve no doubt that cohesion will be put to the test at some point, sooner or later.


McAfee closed her log entry and leaned back in her desk chair. It was good to be in her quarters on the ship, though she missed having a view-port. Unfortunately, the admiralty deemed it unwise to berth the C.O. on the outer edge of the hull which was more vulnerable to attack, thus, she was forced to settle for a room without a view, albeit a nice and spacious room.

The enunciator to her cabin door buzzed and McAfee stood. “Come,” she called.

Dr. Kim Moon Chang entered, a pale blue labcoat covering her darker blue mini-dress. Chang was an attractive, petite woman with long, flowing black hair and dark almond-shaped eyes. She looked a decade younger than her 38 years, but she was a skilled surgeon and one of McAfee’s closest friends. The two had served together when McAfee had been Captain of the Ranger.

Dr. Chang stopped in the middle of the cabin, crossed her arms and shook her head.

“What?” asked McAfee.

“Grace, are you going to wear pants for the next five years?” Chang asked, referring to McAfee’s choice of uniforms.

“I hardly think I should run around naked,” replied McAfee with a smirk. “It would be bad for ship’s discipline.”

Chang made herself at home on McAfee’s sofa and crossed her trim legs. “You know what I mean. As the first female C.O. of a Constitution-class starship, you’re setting an example for the other females on this ship, hell, for the whole fleet!”

“Exactly!” countered McAfee. “That’s why I don’t want to dress up like a Rigellian Butterfly Dancer.”

Chang shrugged off the sarcasm. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Grace. You’re going to make the women that choose to wear the dress feel uncomfortable, like you don’t approve.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “For God’s sake, Kim! We’re talking about Starfleet officers and crewpersons, not a bunch of Girl Scouts. And when did I become the final authority for Starfleet fashion, anyway? I see I haven’t kept you from wearing the cocktail dress.”

“That wouldn’t have been true when I first came on board the Ranger. You intimidated the hell out of me back then.”

That brought McAfee up short. She stared at her friend, incredulous. “You’re kidding.”

Chang shook her head. “I was a very new and young CMO. You were a tough as nails ex fighter-jock who could stare down a pissed-off Horta. If you had worn feathers I probably would have too.”

Grace sighed. “Look, Kim, I’ve already made it clear that the women on this ship have the option of the dress or the pants. Isn’t that enough?”

“It would have been, but it’s pretty well-known your opinion about the uniforms. You made enough racket with the admiralty over it.”

Which was true, of course. Grace had lobbied against the uniform changes to no avail.

“Look,” continued Dr. Chang, “all I’m saying is that you should at least consider wearing the dress on occasion, maybe once or twice of month. That’s all.”

Grace’s jaw tightened. “Doctor, as you said yourself, I’m the first female C.O. of a Connie. I have an Andorian male for a CSO who’s probably ready to pull off his antennae because of me. I have a first officer that looks like the lead actor in a romance-flick, not to mention some members of the 'good 'ol boys club' in the admiralty just waiting for me to screw up. I don’t have the luxury of looking ‘feminine,’ at least for now.”

Chang shook her head. “So, you want to be one of the boys, is that it Grace? Well, gee, why didn’t you just say so? I can put you on a hormone replacement regimen and schedule you for surgery at your convenience. Do you want to go by Greg or George?”

McAfee turned her head sharply and glowered menacingly at her friend and physician, before her face broke and she began to giggle. Kim followed suit, laughing loudly.

Grace wiped tears of laughter from her eyes when she could speak again. “Did you come here just to harass me, or did you have something else on your agenda?”

“Both, but I’m done with the harassment for now. Do you want to grab some lunch?”

She glanced at the chronometer and nodded. “Sure, I’ve still got an hour before my meeting with Commander Espinoza.”

A mischievous smile played on Chang’s face. “Must be painful, having to spend time with him,” she said innocently.

“Commander Espinoza is an officer and a gentleman. You are a quack with a dirty mind. And I haven’t missed how you look at Lt. Commander Forester.”

A rueful look formed on Chang’s face. “Mr. Forester seems to always have his shields up. I don’t think he’s over his wife’s death.” She stood and made her way to the door.

McAfee accompanied Chang into the corridor. “As far as I know, there’s no statute of limitations on grief, Doctor.”

* * *

Stardate 4793.2 (2 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Spacedock, Earth Orbit


Captain McAfee and her father, Dr. Dennis McAfee, strolled through the corridors of Excalibur, occasionally stopping to greet a crew member or a visiting family member. The ship was unusually crowded as families had one last opportunity to spend time together before the Excalibur departed.

“This is very nice,” remarked Dr. McAfee, as two children, laughing and dodging, ran past them in the corridor.

“Glad you like the ship, Dad,” replied Grace, smiling.

“I was speaking of all the families on board. Pity that Starfleet doesn’t allow families to stay together when they send you off to God knows where.”

“Families on a starship?” Grace chuckled and shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Dad. There are too many hazards out there to have families on board. It would be a distraction. It’ll never happen.”

She regretted her choice of words when she saw the sad look on her father’s face. “Oh, come on Dad, you know what I mean. Don’t start worrying about me; we’re going into a relatively quiet sector with a good crew and well-armed vessel. I’ll be fine.”

Dennis McAfee smiled gamely. “That’s what I keep telling myself, Gracie.”

“Well . . . good,” replied Grace, wishing their conversation had not taken a maudlin turn.

“Did you ever hear from your mother?” asked the elder McAfee.

Grace shook her head. “Not a word. I left a message with her current boyfriend.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. She hasn’t been a part of my life for thirty years.”

“It does matter!” Dr. McAfee said, stopping suddenly and facing his daughter. “She should be here for you, regardless of her feelings towards me!”

Grace placed a hand on her father’s flushed cheek. “Dad, you’ve always been there for me, sitting through all of those swim meets, the ski trips, my graduations and even when I went through the inquest after I lost the Ranger. I’m glad you’re here.”

Dennis McAfee rubbed an eye. “Now you had to go and get mushy,” he groused, but he was smiling.

“Come on, let me show you the geo-physics lab. I know you’re about to have kittens to see it.” Grace took her father’s arm, tucking her arm in his, and led him to the turbo-lift.

* * *

Fourteen year-old Kieran Forester took in the Excalibur’s bridge with open-mouthed wonder. Heath Forester watched his son with a mix of pride and amusement.

“This is your station, right?” asked Kieran, standing by the helm.

“That’s right. Have a seat.”

The boy eased into the chair, taking in the control panel. He pointed out various switches.

“That’s the impulse variator . . . those are the thruster controls . . . and this is for pitch, yaw and roll . . . right?” Kieran looked at his father expectantly.

Lt. Commander Forester smiled and nodded. “Very good! Now take a look at this.” The Commander activated a control and the targeting scanner rose from its housing. Kieran grinned and peered into the hood.

“This is new, isn’t it?”

“That’s right. Enterprise and Lexington just had the new targeting system added. We’re the third Connie to be retrofit. Kongo and Potempkin were the first ships built with the Tac-4 targeting system.”

They were interrupted by the voice of Commander Espinoza over the ship’s intercom system. “All guests, our visiting period will conclude in thirty minutes. Please begin to make your way to your assigned transporter room or to the hangar deck if you arrived by transport. Alpha shift, stand by to assume your stations at 1400 hours. Repeat, our visiting period for family and friends will conclude in thirty minutes. Alpha shift, stand by to assume your stations at 1400 hours. That is all.”

Heath Forester turned back to see a solemn expression on Kieran’s face. “I guess I need to get to the transporter room,” said Kieran, quietly.

“We have thirty minutes yet. Let’s stop by my quarters on the way. There’s something I want to give you.”

The two Foresters departed the bridge, Kieran casting a final wistful glance over his shoulder as he stepped onto the turbo-lift with his father.

They made their way down to deck five and Lt. Commander Forester’s quarters. Kieran wasn’t particularly enamored with his father’s cabin, which weren’t nearly as interesting as the bridge.

The elder Forester entered the code to his private safe and pulled out a small folding case. Intrigued, Kieran took it from his father. He opened it and his face broke into a wide grin.

“Wow!” he exclaimed, as he pulled the antique time-piece from the case. “Is it some type of chronometer?” he asked.

His father nodded. “That’s right. It’s called a pocket watch. It’s been in our family for nearly 400 years. It belonged to one of your ancestors who worked for the Great Western Railway in England at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s been passed down from oldest son to oldest son all these years and still keeps excellent time. Here, let me show you."

The elder Forester wound the stem and the watch began to tick, the second hand moving smoothly within its smaller dial. "I think it’s time I passed it on to you.”

Kieran held the watch carefully for several moments, then replaced it in its velvet-lined case. His smile faded and the serious look returned to his face.

“What?” asked his father.

Kieran swallowed. “I . . . I’d rather not take it just now. Why don’t you give it to me in five years, when you get back.”

Heath looked carefully at his son. “Are you sure?”

The boy nodded. “If that’s okay with you. It will give me something else to look forward to.” His adolescent voice cracked, betraying him.

Heath regarded his son with quiet affection. “If that’s what you want, son, alright. Uou can have it when I get back. Deal?”

The smile returned to Kieran’s face. “Deal.” They shook hands.

Commander Forester towseled his son’s thick blond hair. “I suppose we best head on to the transporter room.” He stood and the two exited his cabin. As they approached the transporter room, he gave his son a side-long glance.

“Son, I do have an important task for you. I need you to take care of it today, understood?”

“Yes sir. What is that?”

“Get a haircut.”

* * *

Stardate 4793.8 (2 February 2269)
Earth Colony Salem Science Station
Canaris IV, Sector 009


“Hey Ibrahim, take a look at this.”

Ibrahim Rustamzadeh sighed and looked up from the library computer terminal. “What is it now, Charlie?” He was weary of the interruptions from his star-gazing friend.

“It’s a ship, at least I think it’s a ship. Whatever the hell it is, it just entered orbit.”

Rustamzadeh shook his head. “You are mistaken. The supply ship is not due for another week.”

“I didn’t say it was the supply ship. But something is in geo-stationary orbit, right overhead. It’s big, too.”

Ibrahim sighed again and stood. At this rate, he’d never finish his research project. “Alright, alright, show me.”

He walked over to Charlie Fountain’s station and pulled up another chair. Peering over Fountain’s shoulder, his brow furrowed in puzzlement.

“By the Prophet,” he murmured, frowning, “what is that thing?”

Charlie leaned back and crossed his arms. “Hell if I know. It’s all I can do to get any kind of lock on it, but . . . there it is.”

On the screen was a blurry image of some sort of ship. It was oblong and tapered, but with no visible means of propulsion. The thing was dark, though being on the night-side of the planet may have explained that.

Ibrahim looked at the readouts on the screen and frowned. “Your sensors need to be calibrated.”

“They are. I checked. Twice.”

“No, your sensors must be wrong. Look, according to this, that ship is over a kilometer long.”

“Yes, I noticed that Ibrahim. The sensor readings are correct.”

Rustamzadeh ran a hand through his long beard. It was a gesture of self-comfort, something real and concrete and familiar, unlike the image that loomed on the screen before him.

“I tried hailing them, if you’re wondering,” continued Charlie. “No response.”

Ibrahim licked his lips which were suddenly very dry. “Bring satellite G-5 in closer and run an active scan.”

Charlie raised an eyebrow and glanced back at his colleague. “Um, what if they think we’re being too nosy?”

The bearded scientist snorted, partly in derision, partly due to nervousness. “Just do it, Charlie. You’ve learned all you can with passive scans.”

Fountain shrugged. “You’re the boss,” he said as he signaled the satellite to adjust course and approach the dark and silent vessel.

To be continued
Chapter 7 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
The Excalibur is finally underway and en-route to sector 009 when they are diverted to the Canaris system.
Chapter Seven

Stardate 4793.8 (1 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Spacedock, Earth Orbit


Grace McAfee regarded her image in the mirror and frowned. Her reflection frowned back and crossed her arms. She gazed at herself in the mirror, staring balefully at the gold mini-dress in which she was attired. Truth be told, she was a striking figure in the dress, her legs long and shapely, her figure very trim. Years of swimming and good genes helped in that regard.

“Damn you anyway, Kim Chang,” she muttered as her door enunciator buzzed.

“Come!” she barked.

The door to her quarters slid open and Lt. Simon Collins entered. “Captain, I need you to initial these . . .” Clark’s voice trailed off and he stopped in his tracks, staring at the Captain.

“Think very carefully before you open your mouth, Simon,” McAfee warned.

Her Yeoman swallowed and quickly regained his poise. “Ah, I see you decided to wear the ‘other’ uniform.”

“A safe enough answer,” replied McAfee with a wan smile. She took the data slate from Clark and scratched her initials on the screen.

Collins decided to step further out on the limb. “Sir, I have to admit I’m curious; I thought you didn’t like the dress.”

McAfee handed the slate back to Lt. Collins. “Let’s just say I decided to pick up the gauntlet that our CMO threw at my feet.” She smiled but her eyes were still flinty.

“Anything else, Mr. Collins?”

“No sir.”

“Carry on then.”

Collins beat a hasty retreat from her cabin. McAfee considered changing back into her normal uniform attire when the enunciator buzzed again. She sighed, wondering what Simon had forgotten.

“Come!”

Instead of Lt. Collins, Dr. Kim Chang entered. “Grace, I need to . . .” she stopped abruptly and let out a laugh. “I don’t believe it!”

“Shouldn’t that be, ‘I don’t believe it, sir?’” said McAfee with ill-humor.

“Oh, get over yourself. I certainly did years ago. So you’re actually going to wear the dress, huh?”

“I look like a cocktail waitress at a Starbase bar.”

“Hell, Grace, you’re gorgeous! Best damn legs I’ve ever seen on a starship C.O., although I’ve heard Jim Kirk’s are pretty nice.”

McAfee snorted. “Thanks, I think.”

“Grace, what’s the problem? You didn’t wear this much when you were on the Academy swim team.”

“I’m not a cadet any more, Kim, and I’m certainly not going to traipse around in a swim-suit, at least not on duty.”

Dr. Chang cocked her head and regarded her friend. “Speaking of which, when was the last time you took a break? Have you even seen the ship’s swimming pool, much less gone for a swim?”

“There’ll be time for that later, Doctor.”

“Grace, as your physician and your friend, I’m telling you to take the time now. I don’t want to be the one to relieve you of command because you’re huddled in a corner, sucking your thumb and banging your head against the wall.”

McAfee rolled her eyes. “Noted. I’ve got to get to the bridge. You can follow or leave a note here, your choice.”

“Oh, I’m going with you. I can’t wait to see the expressions on the faces of the bridge crew when they get a load of them gams!”

Stardate 4794.0 (2 February 2269)
Earth Colony Salem
Canaris IV, Sector 009


“Scans are inconclusive,” remarked Charlie Fountain. Dark circles rimmed his sleep-deprived eyes. He stifled a yawn and stretched.

Ibrahim Rustamzadeh shook his head in frustration. “This makes no sense. We can see it, it has size and mass, but there are no energy emissions at all. How did it even get into orbit?”

Fountain leaned back in his chair and sighed. “No energy signature, no ion trail, no warp signature, it’s like it appeared out of thin air . . . well, thin vacuum I suppose.”

Rustamzadeh had earlier summoned the rest of the colony’s science specialists and they had been analyzing the sensor data for hours, all for naught. It was early morning local time, and the gathered scientists were suffering from fatigue and frustration.

“Perhaps we should take a shuttle and approach the ship?” suggested Dr. Tammy Howard, their resident astro-physicist.

Ibrahim frowned. “Too risky, I don’t want to jeopardize any lives, especially since we have no idea what we’re dealing with.”

“But Ibrahim, we’ve already exhausted every other avenue. We have a satellite stationed less than a kilometer from it and it’s done nothing. Surely the risk is acceptable.”

The bearded scientist shook his head. “No Tammy, I will not place any of our lives in danger over this. Besides, the shuttles have no better sensor capability than the satellites, so what’s the point? There doesn’t appear to be any landing bays or docking ports on that thing, so boarding it is out of the question.”

Dr. Howard, did not reply, but her expression indicated she wasn’t pleased with Rustamzadeh’s decision. She walked back to her sensor station, shaking her head slowly.

“Charlie,” began Ibrahim, coming to an abrupt decision, “open a channel to Starbase 27 and apprise them of our situation. Perhaps they have a starship nearby that can check this out for us.”

“Sounds like a plan,” yawned Fountain, who stood and made his way to the subspace transceiver.

* * *

Tammy Howard sat again at her multi-screened workstation and frowned. Okay, we’ve scanned this every conventional way we can and have nada. She crossed her arms, glaring at the screens as if they had somehow betrayed her.

Time to think outside the box, she thought, before speaking aloud. “Computer.”

“Working.”

“Recalibrate gravity readings from target into the negative range.”

“Recalibrating . . . target maintains null value for gravity fields.”

She tapped a stylus against her lips. “Recalibrate energy readings from target into the negative range.” Howard knew this to be foolish, since anti-energy did not exist, at least in the physical universe.

“Recalibrating . . . target value is currently at negative three-point-zero-one-three ergs and falling at point-zero-one ergs per hour.”

The stylus dropped from Dr. Howard’s hand and her eyes widened in surprise. “Computer, confirm last statement.”

“The energy value of the designated orbital target is currently at negative three-point-zero-one-three ergs and falling at point-zero-one ergs per hour.”

“Computer, anti-energy does not exist. Explain your findings. Are your sensors faulty?”

There was a significant pause as the computer processed Dr. Howard’s request before it answered.

“Self-diagnostic check indicates that sensors are functioning within normal operating parameters. Insufficient data to explain cause of negative energy readings.”

* * *

Across the room, Charlie Fountain frowned as he attempted to open a sub-space channel.

“Hey Ibrahim! We’ve got a problem.”

Dr. Rustamzadeh moved by his colleague’s chair. “Now what?”

Fountain pointed at the screen. “The sub-space transceiver is operating, but it’s not producing enough output to broadcast our signal. It’s like there’s some sort of power loss, but I can’t find it.”

Ibrahim peered at the viewscreen when a wave of dizziness passed over him. Reflexively, he grabbed Fountain’s chair.

“Ibrahim? Are you okay?” asked Charlie, concern apparent in his voice.

“Just fatigued,” replied Rustamzadeh, who eased into a chair. The Bahraini scientist suddenly felt drained, as if all his strength had been sucked from him.

A loud clatter behind him provoked enough of an energy surge to force him to turn. Dr. Tammy Howard lay sprawled on the floor, her chair turned on its side.

“Tammy!” exclaimed Fountain, who rose from his station and moved to assist her. He made it about three steps before he also crumpled to the floor.

Ibrahim Rustamzadeh watched helplessly as his colleagues, his friends, lay unmoving on the dura-crete floor. But try as he might, he could not move.

He discovered he did not have the energy to stand.

Neither did he have the energy to speak.

His eyes closed as the last of his muscular control evaporated.

No longer even able to breathe, Rustamzadeh’s last living thought was, Why?

* * *

Several hundred kilometers overhead, the mysterious ship broke orbit, gathered speed and disappeared from normal space.

Stardate 4794.7 (4 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Spacedock, Earth Orbit


Captain McAfee was the epitome of serenity as she sat quietly in her command chair on the bridge, partly because she was once more wearing her familiar, comfortable uniform with pants, partly because of her exceptional poker face. On the inside, however, butterflies were performing acrobatics as the weight of the moment pressed upon her. The months of rebuilding the Excalibur were over. The long weeks of putting together a crew, conducting drills and trying to form a cohesive team were finished. Now, in just a few moments, the time for preparation would end, and the five-year mission would begin, under her command.

The bridge was an arena of focused, quiet activity. The tools and technicians were gone, replaced by the alpha-shift bridge crew and a few extra observers in the persons of Commander Espinoza and Dr. Chang, both who loitered near her seat.

Even Commander Phillips was on the bridge, making a rare appearance at the engineering station. McAfee hoped no one else would arrive for their departure. Such a crowd might make viewing the screen difficult.

“Spacedock Control reports all gantries, gangways and umbilicals are retracted,” announced Lt. Amy Norquist from communications. “We are cleared for departure.”

And here we go, thought McAfee. Aloud, she said, “Thank you, Lieutenant. Mr. Forester, please take us out, ahead slow.”

Lt. Commander Forester moved his hand gently across the thruster controls. “Ahead slow, aye,” he responded in his typical, calm manner. “Aft thrusters firing.”

Small maneuvering jets of compressed gas provided just enough thrust to help the starship break inertia. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the Excalibur moved forward from its berth and once more into her element. Floodlights illuminated her pristine hull, highlighting her name and registry.

“Clear of spacedock,” announced Forester. “We are free to maneuver.”

“Ensign Hrehk, lay in a course for Starbase 27. Mr. Forester, ahead one-half impulse until we clear the system.”

Hrehk, a young Tellarite male with red-gold fur, deftly plotted the course with his stubby digits. “Course plotted and laid in,” he announced with a surprisingly pleasant tone for his race.

“Impulse engines on-line . . . engaging at one-half impulse,” announced Forester from the helm.

A low hum rose in intensity and faded as Excalibur’s impulse engines pushed the starship rapidly toward the edge of the Sol system.

“Aft aspect on viewer, please,” ordered McAfee. The main viewscreen revealed the rapidly diminishing image of Earth, shrinking from a blue and white orb to a mere point of light in short order.

“Captain, I recommend we not exceed warp 4 just yet. The engines need a break-in period,” remarked Phillips from engineering.

“Noted, Commander,” said McAfee. “Forward aspect on viewer.” A faint Mona Lisa smile adorned her face, a tacit expression of the pleasure she felt to finally be underway. She cast side-long glances at the First Officer and Chief Medical Officer.

“Do you two intend on standing all the way to Starbase 27?” she asked.

“It would be nice if you offered a chair,” quipped Dr. Chang.

McAfee smirked. “Chairs are for the one’s actually doing the work, Doctor, not for spectators.”

Chang raised a dubious eyebrow. “Then why are you sitting?”

Espinoza cleared his throat, “With your permission, Captain, I’ll return to working on the crew rotations.”

“Don’t mind us, Commander, this is a friendly feud between me and the good Doctor,” replied McAfee.

“Nonetheless, I think it’s safer if I’m out of the cross-fire.” He nodded at the two women before leaving. “Captain, Doctor.”

Dr. Chang followed the handsome officer with her eyes as he stepped into the turbo-lift. McAfee rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“What?” asked Chang.

“Nothing,” she said smiling.

“Well, I better get back to sickbay before Dr. Kasharian re-organizes everything, again.”

“Problems with your staff, Doctor?” Grace asked.

“Nothing I can’t handle. Mikail is just a neat-freak, that’s all.”

“Unlike a certain CMO I know?”

“Hey! My system works, I just don’t like Kasharian moving everything around each time I step out of sickbay.”

“Then don’t let me keep you, Doctor,” Grace said with a grin.

“Okay, I can take a hint. See you later.” The petite CMO stepped lithely from the command well to the upper level of the bridge and into the turbo-lift.

McAfee turned to see Lt. Commander R'Shraan eyeing her from the science station. The Andorian turned back to his sensor hood, but not before Grace caught the look of disapproval on his face.

For a split-second, McAfee was indignant, but she quickly quelled her emotions. With his sensitive antennae, it was nigh impossible for R'Shraan to have missed their conversation. Still, she had no intention of altering her behavior to assuage the Andorian’s sensibilities.

Her ebullient mood soured somewhat, she turned her gaze back to the viewscreen as Jupiter slid past off their port side.

* * *

Stardate 4796.3 (6 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Entering Sector 009, Warp Factor 4


Captain’s Log, Stardate 4796.3, Grace D. McAfee recording. We are now entering Sector nine, our area of operations for the next few months. Excalibur is performing flawlessly thus far, as is her crew. On our current course and speed, we should arrive at Starbase 27 in four days. After we check in with Admiral Komack and on-load additional mission modules, we’ll have an opportunity to explore. I have to confess, I’m anxious to finish our shake-down and begin our real work out here.

McAfee sipped from her coffee cup and watched the star field streak by on the main viewer. She knew of many officers, even a few captains that found bridge duty tedious. Not McAfee, she always enjoyed being on the bridge, even during the long, quiet hours of inter-stellar transit. There was something profoundly humbling, yet awe-inspiring about space travel, something she hoped she’d never lose. The vastness of the universe and the seemingly endless possibilities for discovery were a continuous source of intrigue. She longed to know what lay beyond the next star.

“Captain, incoming message from Starbase 27,” announced Lt. Norquist.

“On screen, Lieutenant.”

Norquist’s hands moved quickly over her board and the image on the main viewer morphed from a jeweled nightscape to the office of Admiral Komack.

McAfee inclined her head respectfully. “Admiral, what can we do for you?”

“Captain McAfee, we’re unable to make contact with the Earth colony on Canaris IV. It’s likely a simple equipment malfunction, but the science team there is normally very punctual about checking in.”

“And you’d like us to check on them?”

“Correct. As I said, it’s probably a malfunction in their communications equipment.”

“But?” pressed McAfee.

“But,” continued Komack, “I’ve known Ibrahim Rustamzadeh for ten years. The man is a stickler for protocol and punctuality. I cannot recall a time when he failed to check in. Presently, you’re the closest vessel we have to the Canaris system.”

“Understood, sir. We’ll change course immediately.”

“Thank you, Captain. Keep me apprised. Komack, out.” The Admiral’s image disappeared, replaced by the streaming stars.

“You heard the Admiral, Mr. Hrehk. Lay in a course for the Canaris system.” She tapped the comm. button on her chair.

“McAfee to Engineering.”

“Engineering, Phillips here.”

“Mr. Phillips, our break-in time is over. I need warp six, can you deliver?”

“Aye, warp six and a bit more if you need. It’ll do the lads good to stretch our legs a bit.”

“Thank you, Mr. Phillips,” replied McAfee with a smile. “Tell the 'lads’ well-done.”

“I shall. Just give us fair warnin’ if you’re plannin’ on any foolishness.”

“I’ll do my best, Commander. McAfee, out.” She straightened in her chair. “Navigator, do we have a course set?”

“Yes sir.”

“Very well. Mr. Forester, execute course change, ahead warp factor six.”

The Excalibur made a graceful turn to port and streaked toward the Canaris system.

To be continued
Chapter 8 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
The Excalibur arrives at Canaris IV but the landing party finds more questions than answers.
Chapter Eight

Stardate 4796.6 (6 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
En route to Canaris IV, Warp Factor 6


“Lt. Norquist, I want you to begin hailing the Salem Colony at fifteen minute intervals. Let me know if you receive a reply,” ordered Captain McAfee.

“Aye, sir.” The blond-haired communications officer adjusted the receiver in her ear and turned to her board.

Commander Espinoza stood by McAfee’s chair, hands clasped behind him. “There are a dozen possibilities why Starbase 27 lost contact with the colonists: power failure, sun spot activity, operator error . . .”

“All true, Commander,” replied Grace. “Still, this outpost is rather isolated. They’d make a tempting target for someone up to no good.”

“Klingons?” Espinoza queried, with skepticism in his voice, “We’re a long way from the border, Captain.”

McAfee shook her head. “The Klingons aren’t the only ones out here who don’t play nice.” She turned to address the Andorian Science Officer. “Mr. R'Shraan, what can you tell us about Canaris IV and the colony?”

R'Shraan turned from his sensor shroud and straightened.

“Canaris IV is a marginal Class-M planet, closer to Class-L, actually. It’s the only habitable planet in the Canaris system, though I would not call it hospitable. Outside of a narrow temperate zone near the equator, most of the planet is desert, except for the polar caps. The oceans have a very low ph level, making them too acidic for most life forms. The atmosphere is thin but breathable.”

“Sounds like a charming place,” opined Espinoza, sarcastically. “Why place a science colony there?”

“I was coming to that,” replied R'Shraan, miffed by the interruption, “For all of its lack of ‘charm’ as you put it, Canaris IV is of great geological interest to the scientific community. The planet is rich in valuable mineral deposits, though at such depths as to make mining difficult. It is very active seismically, and also provides an opportunity to observe the binary stars of the Canaris system.”

“What of the history of the colony, Commander?” asked McAfee.

“It was established thirty standard years ago. Dr. Ibarahim Rustamzadeh has served as director from the beginning. He’s well-respected by his peers and has maintained a good working relationship with Starfleet. Currently, there are 110 members of the colony, counting family members.”

“Kind of small for a colony,” remarked Espinoza.

“As I said, Commander, Canaris IV is not the most hospitable of planets,” pointed out R'Shraan with a hint of impatience, “although I suppose ‘outpost’ might be a more suitable term than colony.”

“What about defenses?” pressed McAfee.

“An interesting aspect of the colonists is their adherence to a pacifistic philosophy, hence the name, ‘Salem,’ which I understand is a Terran term for ‘peace.’ They have no weapons of any kind and have even refused rudimentary shield generators which were offered by Starfleet.” By R'Shraan’s tone, it was obvious he disapproved of their choice.

“Leaving them wide-open to anyone with mischief on their mind,” brooded the Captain. “Helm, ETA to the Canaris system?”

“Twenty minutes to the system boundary,” replied Forester.

“Any luck with communications, Mr. Norquist?”

“Negative. I’m confident our signals are getting through, but there’s no response.”

“Very well. Go to yellow alert. Mr. R'Shraan, begin scanning the Canaris system for any other vessels. Shields up, Mr. Forester.”

* * *

Stardate 4796.6 (6 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Entering the Canaris System


“Now entering the Canaris system,” announced Forester.

“Drop us out of warp, Mr. Forester, ahead one-half impulse,” ordered McAfee. She turned toward the science station. “Anything on sensors, Mr. R'Shraan?”

The Andorian Science Officer was peering intently into the sensor hood. “No vessels within sensor range, Captain. However, it is possible that a vessel could be hiding behind one of the planets or just beyond sensor range. I recommend caution.”

“Duly noted, Commander,” McAfee replied dryly. “Lt. Norquist, any response to our hails?”

Norquist turned and shook her head apologetically. “None, sir. I’ve tried every channel on every frequency. I even tried radio. Nothing.”

McAfee nodded, a sick sense of foreboding descending on her. “Keep trying. Helm, take us into standard orbit around Canaris IV.”

In a few minutes the Excalibur began orbiting the brown and green planet. McAfee stood and regarded the world with its random patchwork of gray clouds and occasional splotches of blue-green seas.

“Not exactly a vacation spot, is it?” remarked Espinoza.

“No, but it serves as home for over one hundred people,” responded McAfee. “Any life-signs, Mr. R'Shraan?”

The Science Officer looked up from the sensor hood and shook his head somberly. “None at the colony site.”

“Maybe they relocated, or went underground?” suggested Lt. Norquist, hopefully.

“Perhaps,” said McAfee, her tone neutral. “Mr. Norquist, summon Dr. Chang and have her meet me in transporter room two. Notify security I want a detail ready to beam down as well. Mr. Espinoza, you have the bridge, Mr. Forester, Mr. R'Shraan, you’re with me.”

“Captain,” interjected Espinoza, “Do you think it’s wise to beam down?”

McAfee fixed her gaze on the First Officer. “We need eyes on the ground, Commander. We’re not getting any answers up here. Keep scanning the system for other vessels; it’s possible there’s a cloaked ship out there. If you should come under attack, you are to break orbit immediately and defend this ship, understood?”

Espinoza did not look particularly happy but he nodded in acknowledgment. “Understood, Captain.”

* * *

Five minutes later, six individuals materialized in a grassy open area surrounded by several domed dura-crete structures. A steady wind droned, blowing dry, brown leaves around in tiny eddies. A child’s swing squeaked discordantly as the breeze moved the chains back and forth.

Lt. Commander R'Shraan and Dr. Chang both activated their tri-corders, the oscillating noise adding to the eerie sense of desolation.

“It looks to be abandoned,” remarked Forester as they all glanced around.

"This is interesting," murmurred R'Shraan as he scanned their surroundings with his tri-corder.

"Interesting enough to share?" demanded McAfee.

"All of the vegetation in a three kilometer radius is dead."

"Maybe some sort of blight infected the plants," opined Forester, "that could explain why the colonists moved."

"But not why they are incommunicado," noted the Captain. “Let’s spread out. Lt. Sharma, Crewman Noles, check out the perimeter of the compound. Doctor, you and Commander Forester search the buildings on this side of the square. Commander R'Shraan and I will check out the science labs. Sing out if you find anyone or anything that might give us a clue to the colonists’ whereabouts.”

The landing party headed off in their assigned directions. McAfee and R'Shraan entered the science building which bristled with antennae and sensors.

“No lights,” remarked McAfee. R'Shraan walked to a control panel.

“The switches are on, must be some sort of power failure.” The Andorian frowned. “Which makes little sense, these science colonies use very reliable fusion generators with redundant back-up systems.”

“Maybe they were hit with an electro-magnetic pulse?” suggested McAfee.

“A possibility,” but R'Shraan sounded doubtful. The two officers removed small flash-lights and activated them. The bright beams of light cut through the murky darkness of the windowless building.

And onto the first body.

McAfee and R'Shraan hurried to the still form and knelt. The Captain felt for a pulse at the neck and shook her head.

“Dead,” said McAfee flatly. She pulled out her communicator and flipped open the grid.

“McAfee to Dr. Chang”

There was a momentary pause. “Chang, go ahead.”

“Doctor, we’ve discovered a body in the science building. Head on over here.”

“We’re en route, be there in a minute.”

McAfee flipped the communicator closed and replaced it on her hip. R'Shraan was running the tri-corder over the body, a human woman in her mid-thirties McAfee guessed. There were no visible signs of trauma, nor was there any blood present. The Andorian glowered at his scanner and turned it off.

“What?” asked the Captain.

R'Shraan shook his head. “Nothing, aside from the fact that she is dead. Perhaps the Doctor’s medical tri-corder will provide more information.”

At that moment, Chang and Forester trotted in the entrance.

“Over here,” called McAfee.

Dr. Chang knelt by the body as Captain McAfee stood. “Did you two find anything?”

“No one was in the first building. We were about to check the next one when you called,” replied Forester. He glanced down at the dead woman, a sad expression on his face. “Any idea what happened to her?” he asked.

“Not yet. Did the first building you checked have power?”

“No sir, but there was ample light from some windows. One odd thing, though.”

“What’s that?”

“I noticed the hallway in the first building had some of the old emergency glow-panels in the ceiling. For some reason, they weren’t working. Damned odd, because they are pretty much fool-proof. I’ve never known of one to fail, yet none of them were functioning.”

As McAfee pondered this new piece of information, Dr. Chang stood, still looking down at the corpse. She shook her head.

“I can’t tell you the cause of her death, but I know how she died.”

“What do you mean?” asked McAfee, frowning.

Chang turned to face the Captain. “All carbon-based lifeforms are basically very advanced energy storage devices. We take in food and convert it into energy or store it as fat to use later. That energy gives us life, it drives our neurological systems, our vascular systems, allows us to breathe, to walk around, everything.”

“And?” pressed McAfee.

“And this woman has been completely drained of energy.”

“The woman is dead, Doctor,” interrupted R'Shraan, “that would seem to be a foregone conclusion.”

Chang shook her head. “No, I mean she was drained. Something literally sucked the life-energy out of her.”

McAfee, Forester and R'Shraan were quiet for a moment as they absorbed this news.

“What could have done this?” asked McAfee, finally.

“Like I said, I can’t tell you the cause. I’ve never encountered anything like this before.”

They were interrupted by the beep of the Captain’s communicator. She flipped it open.

“McAfee here.”

“It’s Lt. Sharma, Captain. We’ve discovered several bodies on the recreation field,” there was a pause before the Indian officer continued, “Sir . . . they’re children.”

Grace looked up sharply at Chang. The CMO’s eyes were wide. “Understood, Lieutenant. Stand by, I’m sending Dr. Chang and Commander Forester to your location.” McAfee made a sideways gesture with her head. Chang and Forester moved quickly to join the redshirts.

“Sir?” continued the obviously distraught young officer, “What happened here?”

“We don’t know yet, Mr. Sharma, but I promise you, we’re going to find out. McAfee, out.”

Grace looked at the stony-faced Andorian. "Mr. R'Shraan, let's continue our search. Maybe we can find some answers in the labs."

R'Shraan nodded. "The computer logs might shed some light on what has transpired."

Grace's communicator again beeped for attention. With a sigh, she flipped it open.

"McAfee, go."

"Espinoza here, Captain. We've just picked up a ship in the system. It's not answering our hails but it's heading . . ." The transmission ended abruptly in a squeal of static.

"Excalibur, do you read? Commander Espinoza, please respond."

Captain McAfee adjusted the gain on her communicator but there was no sound but the moaning wind outside.

To be continued
Chapter 9 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
Unable to communicate with Excalibur, the landing party continues to seek answers to the deaths of the Salem colonists. Lt. Commander R'Shraan discovers a possible explanation that defies the laws of the physical universe.
Chapter Nine

Stardate 4796.7 (6 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Canaris System


Ship’s Log: Stardate 4796.7, First Officer Raul Espinoza recording. It has been over an hour since we lost contact with Captain McAfee and the landing party. At the same time communications went down, we also lost our ability to gain a transporter lock on our people, though sensors show them to be alive and well. I can only postulate that the culprit for these system failures is the vessel that is now approaching us. Per the Captain’s directive I have ordered us to break orbit and intercept that ship. It is my intention to dissuade them from entering Canaris IV’s orbit, by whatever means necessary.

“Time to intercept, Helm?” queried Espinoza.

Lt. Daniel Mobutu, the Kenyan helmsman, checked his instruments before responding. “At our current speed, we should rendezvous with the target vessel in 23 minutes.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Ms. Norquist, any luck contacting the landing party?”

“No sir, I’ve run diagnostics twice. The subspace transceiver is operating properly, but somehow, the signal dissipates once it gets past our shield envelope.”

Espinoza frowned. “How is that possible?”

Norquist gave him an apologetic look. “I don’t know sir.”

“Not good enough, Lieutenant. I need answers and I need an open channel to the landing party. Get on it!”

“Aye, sir,” replied the blond communications officer, chastened.

“Ensign T’Nir, what can you tell me about that vessel?”

The young Vulcan woman straightened from peering into the sensor hood. She turned to address the First Officer.

“The vessel does not match any ships in our database. It is 1273.28 meters in length with a draft of 341.09 meters. Our sensors are unable to ascertain its mass or composition, nor can we detect any means of propulsion.”

“What about weapons or defensive capabilities?” pressed Espinoza.

“None are apparent. However, considering the limitations of our sensor sweeps, I would not rule out the presence of offensive or defensive weaponry.” T’Nir hesitated momentarily, as if wanting to add more. Espinoza noticed.

“Go on, Ensign, I need all the data you can provide.”

“Sir . . . I was going to add that there are energy readings that defy plausible explanation. Our universe is governed by Skolian-Newtonian physics, yet these sensor returns are providing data that defy these laws. I can only postulate that our sensors are malfunctioning.”

“Have you run diagnostics?”

“Affirmative. Our sensors are functioning within point zero zero three percent optimum. Logically, our diagnostics system must likewise be malfunctioning.”

Espinoza gazed intently at the young officer. “Ensign, what are the odds that both our sensors and the diagnostic subroutine would fail, considering the triple redundancy in each system?”

T’Nir did not hesitate. “Twelve to the ninth power against,” she replied calmly.

Espinoza turned back to face the viewscreen and the mollusk-shaped vessel that was approaching.

“Then I would suggest you begin to explore the impossible, Ms. T’Nir. We may be up against something that doesn’t play by the rules of our universe.”

* * *

Stardate 4796.8 (6 February 2269)
Salem Colony, Canaris IV


Lt. Commander Heath Forrester and Dr. Chang trotted across the open area that separated the science building from the living quarters as they made their way toward the recreational field. The sun was beginning to set and long shadows played across the ground. Pink stratus clouds crossed the purple sky in corrugated rows. Dr. Chang noticed that the temperature had dropped even as she hurried to keep pace with Forrester.

They began to descend an embankment leading to the open field when Chang’s heel caught on a root and she stumbled forward. With amazingly quick reflexes, Forrester managed to catch the CMO before she took a nasty tumble. She smiled gratefully at him.

“Thanks! These boots weren’t designed for graceful running,” she quipped, while gazing into Forrester’s eyes.

“No problem, Doctor,” Forrester replied, quickly releasing her arms. He averted his gaze as if embarrassed.

“You can call me Kim. All my friends do.”

Forrester hesitated, then gave a curt nod in their direction of travel. “We better get on down there before it gets dark.” He resumed his descent toward the field.

Chang sighed and followed him, being careful to watch her footing. You’re a tough nut, Mr. Forrester, she mused.

* * *

“Here’s another one, Mr. R'Shraan.” Captain McAfee trained her light on the still form of a woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties. She had apparently fallen from the chair which also lay on the floor.

“And two others here,” replied the Andorian Science Officer. “I believe this is Dr. Rustumzadeh,” he said as his light played across the bearded features of the late Science Director for Canaris IV.

McAfee straightened. “There’s nothing to do be done for them. See if you can retrieve any data from the computer.”

Reshraan nodded. “I will try. But it’s likely whatever caused the power disruption and . . .” he paused gesturing to the bodies, “the casualties, likely corrupted the data as well.”

“As you said, give it a try, Commander. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Speaking of luck, any ideas on getting power back up?”

“I’m not an engineer Captain,” R'Shraan replied curtly.

She could not see the Andorian’s face in the gloom but McAfee did not care at all for his tone.

“Lose the sarcasm, Mister! I will not tolerate it. You are a Starfleet officer, first and foremost. I don’t give a damn if you’re the Science Officer or Morale Officer; I expect you to do your best at any task I assign you. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” R'Shraan replied icily.

“That’s more like it,” she replied, her calm tone belying the anger she felt. “I’m going back outside to see if I can raise the ship. Let me know if you make any progress.”

* * *

Dr. Chang felt a stitch in her side as she continued to run after Forrester. She gasped for oxygen in the thin atmosphere.

Forrester noticed that she had fallen behind and stopped. “Doctor? Are you alright?”

“Just . . . having some . . . trouble . . . catching my breath.”

She reached into her med-kit and pulled out a hypo. Inserting an ampule of blue liquid, she pressed the hypo against her forearm. The instrument emitted a slight hiss as the medicine was pressured into her body.

Almost instantly, Chang’s breathing slowed to a more tolerable rate. Forrester gave her a questioning look.

“Tri-ox,” she explained. “I have asthma, and the thin atmosphere was getting to me.” She eyed him curiously. “It certainly doesn’t seem to be bothering you any.”

“I did some mountain climbing in my younger days,” he explained. “The thin air doesn’t bother me so much.”

“Lucky you,” she said, sarcastically. She shivered slightly. “Is it just me, or is it getting colder?”

Commander Forrester looked up at the sky. The purple and pink were gone, replaced by a clear and dark night sky bejeweled with stars.

“Desert areas tend to get cold at night. With no cloud cover, the heat of the day will dissipate quickly. We better hurry and get to the field and fetch Lt. Sharma and Crewman Noles. It will likely get much colder before sunrise.”

It took Forrester and Dr. Chang only two more minutes to arrive at the recreation field. In the twilight, they could just make out Sharma and Noles standing over three small bodies.

Forrester glanced down at the still forms of the children, two boys and a little girl. They looked to be no more than eight or nine years of age. Near the bodies, its head draped across its paws, was a beautiful Golden Retriever that looked as if it were merely asleep.

“They’re so small,” remarked Lt. Sharma, quietly, the distress evident in his voice. Forrester placed a hand on the young officer’s shoulder.

“Nothing to be done for it, Lieutenant” he said. “Doctor?”

Chang was running her Feinberger scanner over the bodies. She straightened, shaking her head.

“Same as the others we found. Their bodies were completely drained of energy.” She glanced at Sharma. “For what it’s worth, I doubt they felt any pain.”

The security officer nodded morosely.

“We need to get back to the main compound,” said Forrester. “There’s no telling how cold it may get.”

“But what about these children?” protested Lt. Sharma. “We can’t just leave them out here!”

“Yes we can, Lieutenant,” replied Forrester, calmly. “They will still be here in the morning.”

“But what about predators?”

“Lieutenant, there’s nothing left alive within scanner range. I’m more concerned about hypothermia than some bloody scavenger. Come along, let’s go.”

* * *

Captain McAfee stared up into the starry night sky, wondering if one of those points of light might be Excalibur. She absently rubbed her arms against the frigid dry air. The continuous low moan of the wind added to the chill and the sense of desolation she felt.

Some first mission, Grace! You’ve managed to end up stranded on a dead planet and you don’t know if your ship and crew are still in one piece. What a great way to begin a five-year command.

She knelt and plucked up a handful of brittle, dry grass. Apparently, whatever had killed the colonists had also killed the plant life; the grass was dry and gray, crumbling easily in her hand as if after a year-long drought.

“Captain.”

Startled, she stood quickly and turned. R'Shraan had managed to walk up within mere meters of her without her hearing him. She was shamed that he had so easily approached without her knowledge. Get your head in the game, Gracie, she chided herself.

“Commander,” she replied evenly. “Any luck with the computers?”

Even though it was nearly dark, she could make out the outline of the Andorian and the stiff posture with which he carried himself. Obviously, he still felt stung by McAfee’s recent dressing-down.

“I managed to download some of the memory files onto my tri-corder. I could not access the computer core itself but the data solids were usable. The data, however, makes little sense.”

McAfee frowned. “Explain.”

“Are you familiar with the concept of anti-energy?”

“Sure, from some of my Academy classes. It’s not supposed to exist in our universe, right?”

“That is correct, based on H’kluraan’s theory. However, one of the scientists here, Dr. Howard, discovered this during one of her sensor sweeps.” He handed her the tri-corder.

McAfee peered at the viewscreen, the blue light giving her features an almost Andorian appearance, and lifted a puzzled eyebrow. One line of data caught her eye:

“The energy value of the designated orbital target is currently at negative three-point-zero-one-three ergs and falling at point-zero-one ergs per hour.”

She glanced back at the Science Officer whose face remained in shadow. “How is that possible?” she murmured.

“It shouldn’t be possible. Yet, according to the logs I down-loaded, the computer and sensors were operating normally. And considering what happened to the colonists and the power sources here, the data fits, as impossible as that may seem.”

A horrible thought struck McAfee. “And I ordered Excalibur to intercept that ship if it returned.”

R'Shraan was quiet for a moment. “Captain, the sensors on Excalibur will provide them the same data. It is likely Commander Espinoza will realize the danger in time.”

Part of McAfee was surprised that the acerbic Science Officer would try to offer her hope. “Let’s hope you’re right, Commander. But even if he does, what can they do? How do you counter a phenomenon that should not exist in our universe?”

This time, R'Shraan had no answer.

To be continued
Chapter 10 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
Excalibur encounters the source of the deadly anti-energy while the landing party weighs their options and discover something unexpected.
Chapter 10

Stardate 4796.8 (6 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Canaris System



“Commander? We’re close enough to the object for a visual,” announced Lt. Mobutu.

“On-screen, Lieutenant,” ordered Espinoza. "Maximum magnification."

The main viewscreen shimmered before focusing in on their quarry. The massive vessel hung in space, a dark silhouette against the star field. Espinoza stood and folded his arms as he gazed at the mysterious interloper. The bridge was silent, save for the chirp of instruments and the faint hum of the environmental system. Finally, Mobutu broke the silence.

“Big, isn’t it?” he asked, a note of awe in his voice.

Espinoza nodded, more to himself than in acknowledgement of the young helmsman’s comment. He glanced toward the communications station.

“Any response to our hails, Lieutenant?”

“No sir. I’ve boosted the gain but they still can’t or won’t acknowledge our signal.”

“Ensign T’Nir, analysis, please,” ordered the Commander.

The young Vulcan raised up from the sensor hood. “Very limited data, Commander. In some respects, the object acts much like a black hole, yet there are no apparent gravitational anomalies. It is definitely drawing energy from its surroundings, but I have no explanation as to how, other than to postulate that it indeed utilizes anti-energy.”

Espinoza frowned. “You said ‘object’ rather than ship.”

T’Nir inclined her head. “That is correct, sir. We have no firm data to indicate whether this is an artificial construct or a natural phenomenon. And, as it appears to operate contrary to the physical laws of our universe, it could possibly fall into a completely new category, a hybrid, perhaps.”

“Are you saying it could be . . . alive?”

T’Nir straightened, her brow furrowing. “I . . . did not mean to imply that, sir. Yet, considering the totally alien nature of the object, I cannot rule out the possibility.”

The First Officer was about to reply when the Excalibur shook violently and the bridge lights went out. For a moment, the bridge was plunged into inky darkness and silence. Just as suddenly, emergency lighting flickered on and the whirr of systems coming back to life brought the bridge back to a semblance of normality. Espinoza felt a momentary wave of dizziness and grabbed the arm of the command chair for support.

“Status!” he barked, settling awkwardly into the command chair.

“Reports of power failure coming in from all over the ship!” announced a harried Lt. Norquist as she struggled to field all of the inter-ship queries.

The communicator on the command chair beeped for attention. Only a handful of officers could bypass Norquist for the C.O.’s attention. Espinoza had no doubt as to who was calling. He punched the acknowledgement switch.

“Bridge, Espinoza here.” He said, with greater calm than he felt.

“This is Phillips," bawled the Chief Engineer. What the devil is going on up there? We damn near lost containment of the warp core with that sudden power drain!” Espinoza could hear the shout of voices and the sound of general bedlam from main engineering.

“That’s what we’re trying to determine, Commander,” replied Espinoza with restraint. “Damage report, please.”

“Outside of nearly getting our collective arses blown to hell an’ gone, there’s no apparent damage. We’ve gone to secondary systems but there is a definite drain on our energy reserves. Power output from the fusion reactors has dropped 15% and it’s still fallin’, though I’ll be damned if I know why. I’ve got the mains off-line ‘til I can figure out what happened.”

“Our mystery ship happened, Mr. Phillips. Apparently, we got too close to its anti-energy field. Keep me posted on your progress; I’ll keep you apprised of the situation as we gather more information.”

“Well that’s bloody decent of you,” muttered Phillips, sarcastically, as he abruptly closed the channel.

Espinoza glanced at the viewscreen. The mysterious object appeared unchanged, still a black ellipse against the sky.

“Mr. Mobutu, what is our range to the object?”

Espinoza noticed that the Kenyan was rubbing his head as if in pain. Mobutu glanced at his controls. “280,000 kilometers, sir.”

“Back us off to 500,000 klicks and maintain that separation if the object moves our way. Ms. T’Nir, can you tell me if the object caused our sudden power loss?”

She nodded. “Almost assuredly so. There was a sudden surge in negative energy readings just as our own power levels dropped.”

“Our shields sure didn’t help,” muttered Mobutu.

“No, they didn’t,” agreed Espinoza. He glared out at the object, frustrated by their apparent failure to learn anything helpful as well as their close call. He turned back to the communications officer.

“Lieutenant, any headway in contacting the landing party?”

Like Mobutu, Lt. Norquist was rubbing her head. She straightened at the sound of Espinoza’s voice, blinking her eyes as if to regain focus.

“Sorry sir, I got a little dizzy for a moment. I believe I’ve figured out a way to contact the planet. If we use our main deflector dish and direct a focused beam toward the planet, we could piggy-back a sub-space transmission. Resolution would be poor and audio only, but we just might punch through enough to make contact.”

The First Officer smiled for the first time in hours. “That’s thinking outside the box, Lieutenant. Well done! Get on it right away and pull anyone you need to help you.” He activated the communicator on the arm of his chair.

“Espinoza to Sick Bay.”

“SickBay, Dr. Kasharian here.” The Serbian’s thick accent boomed through the speaker.

“Doctor, have you had any reports of vertigo or other ill-effects the past few minutes? I experienced a slight dizzy spell just as the ship suffered the power loss. Some of the other bridge crew members were likewise affected.”

“Yes, we’ve received complaints of dizziness, headaches, sudden fatigue and so-forth. I got light-headed myself, but mine cleared up shortly after the lights came back on. Have you any idea what happened?

“Apparently our mystery ship is the culprit. We’ve increased our distance and seem to be out of range of the anti-energy field.”

There was a momentary hesitation on the other end of the channel. When Kasharian spoke again, his tone was somber.

“Commander, I just ran a quick scan on myself, nothing definitive, you understand, but based on my own energy loss, I would estimate that a five minute exposure to the anti-energy field would cause a person to lapse into a coma. Ten minutes would be lethal.”

Espinoza’s jaw tightened. “Understood, Doctor. Thanks for the warning, please advise me if anyone begins to exhibit similar symptoms.”

“You can count on it. Kasharian, out.”


* * *

Stardate 4796.9 (6 February 2269)
Salem Colony
Canaris IV



Captain’s Log, supplemental. The temperature has dropped rapidly as night has fallen on the Salem Colony. Fortunately, the dura-crete structures are well insulated and should provide ample shelter despite the lack of power.

Our landing party has completed its search of the colony. As we feared, there are no survivors. Every man, woman and child has succumbed to the effects of anti-energy.

Still no contact with Excalibur. We can only hope they are safe and trying to determine the intentions of the mystery vessel. I must admit it is frustrating to be stuck on this planet, quite literally in the dark.

In the mean-time, Commander R'Shraan is attempting to restart one of the fusion reactors while Mr. Forrester is checking out the colony’s shuttle craft. One way or the other, we must find a way off this planet or at the very least, restore a means of communication. Until we succeed, we will explore every available option.


McAfee flipped the communicator shut and stared up at the stars. The night sky was crystal clear, offering a spectacular view of the cosmos. A low wind howled as if to mourn the victims of Salem Colony. Somewhere up there was her ship. She longed to be there, on the bridge of her starship, not stuck in this place of death.

“If wishes were horses we all would ride.” Her father’s voice gently chided her. It was a favorite expression he had often used when she was a little girl.

The thought of her father warmed her spirit and a small smile formed on her face. She heard footfalls behind her and turned to see Dr. Chang approaching. The CMO was briskly rubbing her arms to ward off the cold.

“As your physician, I must point out that you’re in danger of freezing your ass off out here.”

Grace smiled. “It’s good to know all of those years of medical school are paying off.”

Chang paused and stood by her friend and gazed heavenward. “Think they’re still up there?” she asked, quietly.

Grace followed the CMO’s gaze into the night sky. “Yes, they’re up there alright.”

The beautiful Asian woman directed her gaze toward the Captain, moonlight playing across her features. “You sound so certain, Grace. How can you know for sure?”

“I just know,” McAfee said quietly.

The two women stood together silently for a few minutes, staring at the stars, each lost in the solitude of their private thoughts.

“Grace, assuming we get off this rock, how do we stop something that shouldn’t even exist?”

“I’m working on it,” replied Grace. “And I’m sure Commander Espinoza is on top of it as well. We’ve got good people, Kim, I would say the best in Starfleet. It’s our job to handle situations like this.”

“Funny, I don’t remember the recruiting officer saying, ‘See the Universe! Encounter mile-long, energy-sucking ships! Die on a dried-up rock on the wrong side of the galaxy!’”

“You left out, ‘Freeze your ass off.’”

Chang stuck out her tongue. McAfee raised an eyebrow.

“Why, I believe that’s insubordination, Doctor.”

“Guilty as charged, Captain McAfee, sir. Throw me in a warm cell somewhere. You can even let Mr. Forrester have at me with a whip.”

McAfee laughed. “You, Doctor, are a twisted woman. Let’s get back inside. The cold has obviously affected your mind.”

McAfee and Chang made their way back across the quad and past the darkened residence buildings. McAfee tried not to think about the dead that now inhabited those silent spaces. Moving briskly, they quickly arrived at the main research building where they found Lt. Commander R'Shraan at work with the recalcitrant reactor.

“Report, Commander,” ordered McAfee.

The Andorian Science Officer glanced toward McAfee then back towards his tri-corder. He shook his head in obvious frustration.

“I’ve had no success in reactivating the reactor, Captain. It seems that the phenomenon that drained the energy from the surrounding area also degraded the Deuterium fuel. The reactor itself is fine, but without fuel . . .”

“ . . . No fusion reaction,” finished McAfee. She placed her hands on her hips and exhaled sharply. “Very well.” She frowned in thought momentarily, then her face brightened.

“What about the fuel storage bunkers for the shuttle craft? Aren’t those usually buried deep underground?”

Reshraan nodded, a small smile forming on his face. “Yes . . . Yes, I believe you are correct, Captain. It is quite possible that underground bunkers may have been spared from the effects of the anti-energy.”

“Check with Commander Forrester,” directed McAfee. “He . . .”

They were interrupted by the sudden chirping of the Captain’s communicator. She grabbed it and flipped open the grid.

“McAfee here,” she said, with barely concealed hope.

“Excalibur to . . . tain McAfee . . . in please.”

Though the signal was weak and filled with static, the sound of Lt. Norquist’s voice was the sweetest sound that McAfee could recall hearing in a very long time. Dr. Chang was smiling broadly and even the acerbic R'Shraan looked pleased. The Captain adjusted the gain control on her communicator before replying.

“McAfee here, we read you Lieutenant. Ship’s status?” she queried.

“We’re okay, sir. Please stand by for Commander Espinoza.” There was a moment’s delay before the voice of the First Officer came over the channel.

“Captain, are you alright?” The concern was evident in Espinoza’s voice.

“The landing party is fine, Commander. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the Salem Colony. There are no survivors. Have you located the alien vessel?”

A burst of static drowned out the beginning of his reply. “ . . . about an hour ago. We suffered a temporary power loss when we closed within 280,000 kilometers. The effects disappeared when we backed off. No casualties or serious damage to the ship, but Dr. Kasharian believes that exposure to the anti-energy would be lethal in about ten minutes.”

McAfee glanced at Dr. Chang who frowned as she absorbed this information. R'Shraan pursed his lips in consternation.

Espinoza continued. “We can be back in orbit around Canaris IV in about two hours, Captain. We’re keeping the mains off-line as a precaution, but we have full impulse capability.”

Grace shook her head. “Negative, Commander. I don’t want to risk losing contact with that vessel. Send a shuttle to pick us up. It won’t take any longer than Excalibur could at impulse. If that alien ship moves, you stay with it, understood?”

“Understood, Captain. The vessel has been holding station for more than two hours. No response to our hails, it’s just sitting there.”

“And as long as it stays put, it can’t do any damage,” replied McAfee. “We’ll sit tight until the shuttle arrives. You sit on that vessel. Don’t lose it, but don’t take any unnecessary risks until we learn more.”

“Acknowledged. We’ll have a shuttle headed your way shortly. Do you need any supplies or equipment?”

McAfee thought about the bodies that lay around the colony. They would need to be identified and properly bagged and stored in stasis. But that would have to come later. She sighed.

“Not at this time, Commander. Have the shuttle pilot land in the quad area. We will be waiting in the research building. McAfee, out.”

“Yes sir, Excalibur, out.”

She flipped the communicator closed, the initial euphoria over hearing from Excalibur tempered by the knowledge that a massive and deadly alien vessel still lurked in the Canaris system.

Chang appeared thoughtful. “Captain, we may not have to worry about the victims, at least not right away.”

McAfee frowned. “What do you mean, Doctor?”

“The bacteria that enable decomposition . . . well, they were wiped out along with the rest of the life forms in the vicinity. Our presence has re-introduced some of those bacteria into the atmosphere but it will take some time for them to multiply to the point where they can do much. In short, this compound will act much like a stasis chamber, at least for a while.”

The Captain nodded. The knowledge brought a degree of comfort, knowing they would not have to face an even more terrible situation when they returned to the planet. She was about to reply when her communicator chirped again. She flipped open the grid.

“McAfee, go ahead.”

“It’s Forrester sir, we need Dr. Chang urgently in the shuttle hangar.”

McAfee turned her head sharply toward the CMO who was listening intently. “What’s wrong, Commander? Who’s injured?”

“Lt. Sharma and I are fine, Captain . . . we’ve discovered a survivor.”

The Captain blinked in surprise. Chang was already shouldering her medical kit and hurrying for the door. McAfee strode briskly to catch up as did R'Shraan.

“We’re on the way, Commander. McAfee, out.”

To be continued
Chapter 11 by TheLoneRedshirt
Author's Notes:
The landing party discovers a survivor and a clue to how they might deal with the anti-energy threat.
Chapter 11

Stardate 4797.0 (7 February 2269)
Salem Colony
Canaris IV


Captain McAfee, Dr. Chang and R'Shraan hurried as quickly as possible through the darkness toward the shuttle hangar. The starlight provided scant illumination but their eyes were now well adjusted to the gloom, allowing them to distinguish pavement from landscape. The hangar was almost a kilometer from the research building so it took them several minutes of jogging to reach it. McAfee spotted a small point of light moving back and forth. Crewman Noles was waving his flashlight, providing a beacon for the approaching officers.

“I’ve got to get out of the chair and into the pool more often,” thought McAfee as she caught her breath. Aloud, she said, “Noles, where is the survivor?”

“Follow me please, sirs, and mind your step; it’s as dark as a tomb in here,” replied the red shirt.

“A particularly poor choice of words,” grumbled Dr. Chang, just loud enough for Grace to overhear.

The three officers followed the crewman closely, his light creating mysterious shadows along the hangar walls. McAfee could make out the familiar shapes of several shuttle craft lined up in an orderly manner. By their general outline it was apparent they were several generations old.

They wound past tanks of coolant, storage bins and diagnostic equipment before finally coming to another small-craft. McAfee was surprised to see light spilling from the shuttle’s open hatch, much brighter than she would have expected from their small personal lights.

“In there, sir,” directed Noles. “We found her just a few minutes ago . . . I think she’s in pretty bad shape.” The concern in the young security rating’s voice caused Dr. Chang to push McAfee and R'shraan aside. Grace did not protest, but allowed the CMO access to the shuttle.

The ambient light from the open hatch allowed her to identify the shuttle as a very old shuttle-pod, possibly from an NX-class ship. Such craft dated back to the late 22nd century and most had been scrapped decades ago. She was surprised that the colony would have such an antique in their inventory.

Setting aside thoughts of the shuttle-pod's history, she stepped through the hatchway and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. Heath Forrester stood slightly stooped over as the ceiling height in the small ship did not allow him to stand fully erect. He nodded to McAfee before turning his eyes back down to the deck. Her eyes followed the direction of his gaze.

Dr. Chang already had her medi-kit open, a Feinberger scanner emitting its musical, whirring melody as she ran it over her patient. Lying on the deck, curled in a fetal position was a human girl who looked to be in her mid-teens. She was a lovely child, thought McAfee, with curls of auburn hair and porcelain skin. Her eyes were tightly closed, however, and her mouth was pulled down in a frown, as if she were experiencing a bad dream.

“Doctor?” queried McAfee.

“Not now,” replied Chang, sharply. “I’m trying to figure out what’s happening here; these neurological readings are odd.”

The Captain turned back to Forrester. “Report, Commander.”

Forrester leaned back against the bulkhead as best he could, folding his arms. He maintained his gaze on the unconscious girl.

“We were checking out the various shuttle craft, trying to see if we could find one that was operational. It was a slow-go considering the lack of power and light in here. All of the Class-C shuttles are totally dead, power cells completely drained and their fuel degraded into ordinary water.”

He turned and placed his hand on the back of the pilot’s seat, a momentary wistful expression on his face. McAfee understood the look. Forrester would love the chance to fly the vintage craft.

“Lt. Sharma came across this shuttle-pod, here in the back of the hangar. First time I’ve seen one outside of a museum. To be honest, we nearly passed the old girl by but I began to pick up faint energy readings coming from on board. We popped the hatch and to our surprise, the lights came on. Our second surprise was finding this young lady lying as you see her. At first, we thought she was another victim like the rest, but I could see she was breathing. We tried to wake her, but she was unresponsive. That’s when we contacted you.”

McAfee nodded, her brow knitted in thought. “The question remains, how did this girl manage to survive the anti-energy field? And how is it that an obsolete shuttle-pod still has power when every other power source on this planet has been sucked dry?”

* * *

Stardate 4797.0 (7 February 2269)
USS Excalibur
Canaris System


Shuttle Bay

Lieutenant Clark Terrell worked through the pre-flight checklist for the shuttle Lancelot, whistling softly as he proceeded through the important ritual. Finally, he initialed the data slate and lifted his eyes toward the ceiling of the shuttle.

“Computer, all shuttle systems are on-line and operative. Do you confirm?”

“Working. Confirmed, pre-flight check is complete. All on-board systems operating within acceptable parameters. Flight time to Canaris IV, one hour, fifty-two minutes at one-half impulse.”

“Thaaank-you,” he replied, though the sarcastic tone was lost on the computer. Terrell was about to close the hatch and signal his readiness for departure when Lt. Simon Collins suddenly appeared and clambered on board.

“Whoa! I thought you were going to leave me!” announced Collins as he slid into the right-hand seat next to Terrell.

The dark-skinned Canadian lifted an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware I was ferrying passengers, Mr. Collins.”

Simon grinned with good humor. “I twisted Mr. Espinoza’s arm to let me tag along. He probably agreed just to get me off his back.”

Terrell shook his head with good-natured exasperation. “Whatever. Make yourself useful and button up the hatch.” He keyed the communicator. “Lancelot to shuttle bay control. We are ready for departure.”

“Acknowledged. Depressurizing hangar . . . opening bay doors . . . You are clear for departure, sir. Have a safe trip.”

“Copy, control, and thanks. Lancelot out-bound to Canaris IV.”

Terrell adjusted the throttle controls and the impulse engines hummed to life. The shuttle craft lifted from the hangar deck and moved through the open doors of the shuttle bay. Once clear of the starship, Terrell advanced the controls, bringing the small craft to one-half impulse. Setting their course for Canaris IV, he engaged the auto-pilot and turned to face Collins.

“Okay, Simon, why the hurry to hitch a ride? My understanding is I’m simply to pick up the landing party and return to the ship. This isn’t a sight-seeing trip.”

“I know that,” replied Collins, somewhat testily. “But," he paused. It dawned on Terrell that Collins was actually embarrassed. Simon continued.

“Look, I’m yeoman for the Captain. Basically, I’m a glorified secretary; I take notes, keep track of her schedule, make sure she stops long enough to eat . . .” He stared out through the forward port.

“I just wanted a chance to do something, even if it’s only a milk run to pick up the landing party.”

Terrell leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head. “Come on Simon, we’re barely out of space dock. This is a five-year mission after all. There will be plenty of chances for you to explore new worlds, etc. etc. There’s no need to be anxious.”

Simon sighed. “Easy for you to say. You’ve logged thousands of star-hours on ships of the line, you’ve already been through command training, you’re on the short list for lieutenant commander . . . hell, you’ve got more commendations in your file than many captains. I imagine you’ll be in command of your own ship inside ten years.”

Terrell frowned. “How do you know so much about me?”

Collins rolled his eyes. “Please. I’m the Captain’s yeoman. It’s my job to know this stuff.”

Clark Terrell bobbed his head, conceding the point. “Okay, that may be true, though I think you’re blowing smoke up my ass about me commanding a ship in the next decade. But Simon, you’ve landed a sweet billet! How many officers do you know who wouldn’t gnaw off a leg to get a chance to serve on a Connie? Man, you need to quit worrying about stuff and enjoy what you’ve got. If you want to do more than keep the Captain’s calendar, tell her! Who the hell has her ear if you don’t?”

“You think I should?”

“ ‘Course I do!” Terrell replied with conviction before turning back to stare out the portals. A small smile played on his lips.

“Worst that could happen would be for her to transfer you to a Deuterium tanker, making the Centauri to Epsilon Eridani run.”

Simon winced. “Captain McAfee wouldn’t do that.” He paused. “At least . . . I don’t think she would.”

* * *


Stardate 4797.1 (7 February 2269)
Salem Colony
Canaris IV


Dr. Chang finally straightened after tending to her young patient and stepped out of the shuttle-pod to speak with McAfee and the others. R'shraan and Forrester were talking quietly. The Captain stepped away when she saw Chang approach.

“How is she, Kim?”

Chang sighed. “She’s alive and stable, that’s about all I can say for the moment. There’s some unusual neural activity going on in her brain, similar to REM sleep, except she shows no inclination of waking up. Her vital signs are strong and there are no apparent injuries. I'll need to get her to Sick Bay before I can know more.”

McAfee frowned. “How is it she survived?”

“I wish I knew. My guess is it’s somehow related to her being inside this shuttle-pod when the anti-energy field came through.”

McAfee glanced back at Forrester and R'Shraan. “We were just discussing that. There must be some connection between her survival and the fact that the shuttle-pod is still functional.”

Chang spread her hands. “Okay, great, we seem to be in agreement on that point. That doesn’t begin to explain how or why!”

R'Shraan and Forrester broke off their conversation and joined the Captain and Dr. Chang.

“I have a theory, Captain,” began R'Shraan, “but it would be helpful if we could get this shuttle-pod to the ship so I can conduct some tests.”

Even in the dim light, they could see McAfee frown. “The shuttle craft that’s en route from Excalibur doesn’t have a tractor beam. I don’t see how . . .”

“I can fly her back, Captain,” interjected Forrester. “She’s in fine condition and her fuel did not degrade like on the other shuttles.”

“Out of the question, Commander. I’m not going to risk your life, having you fly an antique that belongs in a museum.”

“Her safety certificate is up-to-date,” he pressed, “and I checked her logs. She’s been in regular service for the colony and was flown just last week.”

McAfee fixed the earnest helm officer with a flinty gaze that was sharp enough to penetrate the murky light. To his credit, Forrester never blinked.

Finally, she gave a curt nod. “Very well, Commander. I’ll allow it. But only because it may hold the key to dealing with that mystery ship out there.”

Forrester held his excitement in check and merely nodded. “Thank you, Captain.”

“Don’t thank me, Mr. Forrester. Remember, if you get yourself killed flying this relic, I’ll be the one who has to explain it to your son.”

Forrester jerked back, stung by her remark. McAfee softened her tone.

“Look, I appreciate your willingness to put your neck on the line, Commander. You’re not the only ex-fighter jockey here. But I can’t afford to have my senior officers acting in a reckless manner; it sets a bad example for the rest of the crew. You don't have anything to prove, Mr. Forrester."

McAfee moved back towards the front of the shuttle-pod to speak to Crewman Noles. Forrester watched her and spoke softly to Dr. Chang.

“Has she always been such a hard-case, Doctor?”

Chang smiled and patted him on the arm. “Just wait ‘til you get to know her.”

To be continued
This story archived at http://www.adastrafanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=1708