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Chapter 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

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