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Chapter 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

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