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Chapter 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

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