Stardate 4793.8 (1 February 2269)
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?”
“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.
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.”
“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)
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)
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?”
“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 Notes: The Excalibur is finally underway and en-route to sector 009 when they are diverted to the Canaris system.