Stardate 4797.0 (7 February 2269)
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)
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)
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
Chapter Notes: The landing party discovers a survivor and a clue to how they might deal with the anti-energy threat.