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Chapter 2

Consciousness was fading quickly for her, but still she gripped the throttle control, keeping it pushed forward, begging the small craft to keep racing into the expanse of night.

Gods be merciful, let me find the Birds.

Weeks, months - dare she even think a year? - had blurred together as the small ship hurtled through space, just another of many similar missions in recent years. The search had started centuries ago, when the first of the Great Birds had been seen, flying high above in the heavens. Only in recent decades had they taken flight themselves, desperate to find their watchers.

She gasped, finding it harder to catch her breath. She blinked her large eyes, trying her best to stay awake. Strapped into their seats beside her, her colleagues sat hunched over their controls, their dull-brown faces resting on the control surfaces. She grimaced, shaking her head again to keep awake.

They had pressed further into space than any of her people's other ships. The journey had taken much longer than they had planned for, and she realized now why the scientists had spent such time planning their flight so meticulously.

They were weeks overdue. Food was almost completely gone. Fuel supplies were dwindling. But, even more harrowing, was the loss of breathable air. They would suffocate and die before they or the ship starved.

She blinked furiously again, the edges of her vision darkening. She took her hand off the navigation control to rub her long neck; it was starting to get sore, and her head was starting to feel heavier than she had known before.

I have...to stay...awake. We have to get back...we have to get as close as we can to home...

She shuddered, gasping for air again. Her hand had slipped off the throttle control, and the sudden jerk as the ship decelerated had startled her awake. She quickly pushed her hand forward, feeling the small craft rumble around her as it sped up again.

She blinked her eyes, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the viewport. Long, slender neck, topped with a narrow head, large black eyes set like black jewels in her iridescent skin, the long horn atop her head, sweeping back and connected to her neck by a sail of translucent skin. She was transfixed for a moment - she hadn't noticed her reflection or looked at herself in a mirror in the time they had been in space.

She was startled by the deceleration of the ship again, waking her from her thoughts. Red lights flashed at her, and the steady whine of the ship's engine faded. She slammed the throttle forward again from where she had slowly brought it backward, but nothing happened. The stars gradually stopped streaking past the windows; the hum of the ship's hull died.

All that was left was silence. Silence and darkness.

Gods be merciful.

She bowed her head forward. They'd failed in their mission and, in doing so, sealed the fate of their people. There wouldn't be any more time to search the heavens. The day was nearly upon her planet.

Please.

She shouted in surprise, blinking her eyes as a brilliant flash filled the forward viewports. As she continued to struggle for breath, she found herself transfixed with a giant, glowing blue circle, set like a gaping mouth beneath a sleek, silver saucer. Dark lines curved around it, and hundreds of viewports shone like stars from the metal body. Behind, two glowing red slits of light stared her down from long pylons, barely peeking out from behind the rest of the saucer.

Gods...it's not a Bird. It's...

It's a Sword.


She flared her nostrils. Perhaps the gods were merciful after all.

===


"Sensor sweep, now," Jessica ordered, staring at the miniscule craft they had just dropped in on. It looked oddly reminiscent of the first warp ship of Earth, the Phoenix, that she had seen once as a girl and a few times on trips to the Smithsonian while she had been at the Academy. A long, tubular fuselage, two outboard pylons with nacelles at the end of each. The biggest difference between the two was that this craft had a cluster of three smaller, squatter nacelles at the tip of each pylon rather than the single, elongated pylons of Earth's first venture into the realm of faster-than-light.

Lieutenant Nizeri Sano quickly read off the report in front of her. "Power is fluctuating throughout the ship, and judging from the warp trail they decelerated gradually - more than likely they've run out of fuel. I am reading four biosigns, but I think only three are alive, and barely." She bit her lower lip nervously, continuing to search her report for important information. "Atmosphere in what is probably the main cabin is almost entirely carbon dioxide, though it looks to be because they've run out of breathable air; I'm not reading any gases being stored on the ship in any form."

Jessica frowned at the news before she shrugged, considering, "Carbon dioxide from respiration is a good sign."

"Oxygen breathers?" Obruz replied, to which Jessica nodded. He tapped the commbadge on his chest. "Transporter room two and Sickbay, prepare for emergency site-to-site transport of four biosigns to Sickbay. Standby for coordinates."

"Nizeri, send the lock-on information to the transporter room."

"Aye, ma'am."

"Transporter room copies. Energizing."

Jessica grinned as the next voice chimed over the intercom, the young voice sweet music to her ears as the woman counted aloud. "One, two...three...and four. We have them all here," Justine Dubois confirmed. "We'll get to work stabilizing them down here. Sickbay out."

Jessica looked over her shoulder to where Seymour was seated, poring over the information at his own console. "Sonia, lock onto the ship and tow it into the shuttle bay."

Seymour nodded, quickly executing the commands without a word. The display of silent obedience surprised Jessica. She quickly shook her head, focusing again on the image in front of her.

He knows it's time for his evaluation. He'll obey, put on the good officer act, and then go right back to it once I'm done. She frowned, watching the small warp-ship disappear into the Rafale's shuttlebay, nestled comfortably next to the runabout Ronfaure. It won't work for him.

"Nizeri, let's go meet our visitors. Dossu, you have the bridge." She stood from her chair and followed the Trill into the turbolift as Obruz took her seat.

"I have the bridge, aye."

===


The early shift in Sickbay had been a blur of preparations since Justine had come on duty to replace S'Tel. It hadn't been a secret why the ship had changed course and increased speed; Jessica had been extremely excited the night before about the prospect of a possible "first contact" situation, talking for an hour before finally falling asleep midsentence.

Justine smiled, brushing a stray lock of brownish-purple hair out of her face. Ever since the two had become an item, she couldn't remember seeing Jessica ever being as happy as she had been in recent weeks. As she thought more about it, she couldn't remember being happier either, a thought that made her feel just slightly guilty in the pit of her stomach. The feeling never lasted for long - the benefit of her empathic ability to pick up on and even be influenced by Jessica's emotions - and she certainly did love Jessica.

A nurse brought her a PADD with the first of the aliens' readings, and the smile faded from Justine's face as she came crashing back to reality. The four aliens were unconscious, all of them hypoxic. It would be difficult to know just where to start stabilizing them all. "Thanks," she told the nurse as she took the PADD before looking around at the four biobeds. Heart monitors beeped slowly on all but one of the beds; a lone Vulcan nurse was busy checking his readings before finally pulling a sheet over the still body. He turned towards Justine and ever so slightly shook his head. Justine nodded, understanding the man's silent report before turning to the next bed.

She suddenly found herself remembering her clinical evaluations at Starfleet Medical, and how frustrating it had been to be the doctor on duty then with no guidance from her instructors. Now, she found herself in similar circumstances: S'Tel had left her alone to manage Sickbay while the Vulcan woman rested. She didn't mind; she knew she was more than capable of doing the job alone. The additional help, however, would have certainly been welcome in this instance.

"Doctor Dubois!" Justine was pulled from her thoughts suddenly as a nurse called for her. The woman looked frantic as she waved Justine and others of the medical staff over. The diagnostic displays were flashing red, and the beeping of the heart monitor was slowing steadily.

Justine checked her tricorder, waving the auxiliary sensor over the scrawny alien's body. It was wearing a uniform similar to the other three aliens, designed specifically for space travel. Patches were sewn on the chest with alien letters - probably the name of their dying guest, his home, his job. Justine frowned, snapping the tricorder shut and pressing her fingers at the base of the alien's long, thin neck. "C'mon," she muttered, moving to the base of its skull. Its dull brown skin and hard features gave Justine the impression that she was searching for the pulse of a piece of rock.

"We're losing him," she yelled, finally giving up and moving to the instrument tray a nurse had brought over. She picked up a hypospray and loaded it with a tri-ox ampoule. She plugged a smaller lectrazine ampoule into the secondary port and brought it to the alien's neck.

A hand clamped down over hers quickly, holding the hypospray millimeters from the visitor's neck. Justine looked up at the nurse - Nurse Bernacki, a fellow ex-Merveille medic. He looked panicked. "Are you even sure that's safe?"

Justine shook her head. "It's the best we can do right now without knowing anything else, Shelton!" She pushed her hand forward and triggered the device, injecting a mixture of lectrazine and concentrated oxygen into the alien's body. The heart monitors spiked for a moment, steadily sounding. "They're all oxygen deprived - get masks on the others for now."

The display flashed red again, just as a loud bellowing issued from an adjacent table. She looked over to see the other brown-skinned alien thrashing wildly, its black eyes open wide in panic as it stared and reached for the alien lying in front of Justine. It bellowed again, sounding in agony.

The Vulcan nurse moved quickly to the alien and after a moment's hesitation, quickly reached down to the base of the alien's neck and squeezed. The alien's eyes snapped shut, its bellow cut off in a gurgling noise as it fell back limp on the bed.

The team all paused for a moment, watching as the monitors continued to show a steady heartbeat for the alien. Bernacki let out a quick breath before turning back to the dying alien in front of him and Justine. Justine blinked a few times, looking back down to focus again on her patient. "Glad that worked," she said softly, checking the readings on her tricorder.

"Would not have been a conversation I'd have wanted with the Doctor or the Captain," Bernacki agreed. "Not exactly the best way for a First Contact to go...Vulcan death pinch." He frowned, activating the clamshell controls. "He's still not responding, ma'am. Recommend using the defibrillator..."

"That seems as equal of a risk, Nurse Bernacki, as we do not know how strong of an electric shock will be effective for this species." The Vulcan had come up next to the bed, opposite the Human nurse, glancing over at the readings. "I believe it is going into shock," he offered, looking back down at the alien.

"Well, would you like to be the one doing the rescue breathing then, Sovot?"

"Shut up, both of you," Justine interrupted. "Shelton, begin compressions; Sovot, assist." She turned around as Bernacki lowered the clamshell and clambered on top of the biobed to begin CPR, snapping her fingers at another nurse hurrying by. "I need another lectrazine ampoule, quickly!"

The monitors were flashing red now, and a steady hum made everyone turn to look. Bernacki and Sovot were still performing CPR, though Bernacki was starting to look weary from the exertion.

Justine finally shook her head, sighing sadly. She put a hand on Bernacki's arm. "There's nothing we can do."

Frustration fell off the man, crashing into Justine in waves as he finally stopped, staring down at the brown alien's lifeless body. Finally, gritting his teeth, he nodded, moving to get off the biobed.

A familiar push at the edge of Justine's thoughts caused her to turn around; an instant later, the doors to sickbay parted as Jessica and Nizeri entered the chaotic scene. Jessica covered her mouth with a gasp, looking at Justine wide-eyed; the doctor inclined her head towards the office, prompting the captain to meet her inside. Nizeri followed them in.

"Justine, what happened here?" Jessica asked without preamble.

Justine opted to sit on top of the desk in front of the two women, not wanting to sit in S'Tel's desk chair. The smaller woman shook her head, rubbing her eyes tiredly as the excitement of the previous few minutes finally wore off. "One was DOA...there was nothing we could do. The others were unconscious, so we worked to get them stabilized." She blinked her eyes a little as she felt them tearing up. "The one he...his heart..." She mumbled a bit more, looking down and closing her eyes. "Couldn't...I'm sorry Jess."

Justine felt Jessica's hands on her arms, pulling her forward. "It's alright, hon. You did your best." There was a light pressure on her forehead as Jessica kissed her and a wave of comfort washed over her.

Nizeri coughed a little. "I'm going to...um...see what we need to do to communicate with them." The Trill left, leaving the two alone.

Justine lifted her head to properly kiss Jessica. "I'm sorry, Jessiy. I don't know what I could have done, not knowing much else about them."

Jessica shook her head, doing her best to look reassuring. "It wasn't your fault, ma Soleil." She gave Justine another squeeze before releasing her from the embrace and straightening her jacket. "I'm going to see what I can do to help Nizeri. Keep monitoring our guests; as soon as they're awake, we need to make proper contact. I just hope the universal translator works..."

===


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