“While The Iron Is Hot”

ONE

Saturday, January 11th, 2155
Republic NV-02, Orbiting Mars

“…we’re gathered today notjust to bid farewell to Major Viktoria Lin Yu, known to many of us as Spectre…” Captain Tess Lane’s speech went in her thick Australian accent, “…but also because the food was delivered fresh from Mars, sparing us from the further abuse of that our chef takes so much sadistic glee in serving to us!”

A roll of laughter enveloped the room, the strongest coming from the chef himself, and then quickly died down allowing the commanding officer to continue.

“Major Yu was with us for three years as head of the Military Assault Command Operations unit detached to our little ship. She was the first military officer to step on board these decks, and I am sure most of us still remember our reservations we shared when she and her team arrived. Even I had some serious concerns and I was the one who requested her presence!” The Australian captain paused as she looked around at the room before carrying on. “Since that time though, Yu and her team have been through thick and thin with us: when Nausicaan pirates were attacking ships on our patrol route, getting into scraps with Klingon raiders, to rendering aid to colonial worlds stricken with disaster, to exploring worlds and civilizations. She and her team became close knit members of our crew, guardians of our away missions, dedicated defenders of our ship and fellow crewmen. We laughed, we cried, we fought, we joked…we even all dressed up in red uniforms on her birthday…and subsequently received a stern speech on ‘impersonating Royal Canadian Mountain police officers!'”

Laughter went throughout the crammed mess hall again, as the memories of that day came back into thought, and quickly died again to let Lane speak, leaving only smiles in their wake.

“So, to Major Viktoria Yu, I say…you have been a friend and a colleague. You’ve impressed with your skill and tactical acumen, surprised us with your curiosity of science and cultures, and as you leave us for your post on the Challenger, you leave us with fond memories in our hearts and an empty space in our ship…”

“Literally.” The science officer chimed in with a grin as the captain finished. “I think tomorrow will be first time in years that we’ll actually be to find the Anthropology lab available!”

Laughter erupted again from the assembled crew, this time with even more vigour at the unexpected ending from the chief scientist of the ship, and it continued for a good five seconds before the Lane gestured for everyone to sit down again. “Thank you for that, Lieutenant…and now, to say her piece, the woman of the hour, Major Viktoria Yu.”

Viktoria cleared her throat, smiled, and got up from her position at the long table at the head of mess hall, where the senior staff was seated. She glanced out at the rest of the mess hall, at the tables that were draped in white cloth and the blue jumpsuit Starfleet crew who sat there, her eyes picking out the grey outfits of her MACO team that peppered the sea of blue. “Thank you for the kind words, Captain. I’ll keep my speech short, as I know we are all looking forward to food that contains no re-sequenced protein.” She stated with a smirk and small chuckle. “I have come to admire all of you for your brilliance, creativity, and personality and I would like to stay among you all and continuing serving by your side, but Captain Karim’s offer of a position on the Challengertrumps all that, because honestly? Have you seen the MACO Commander’s Office on an NX-starship? It’s an actual office!”

She gave a mischievous grin and leaned forward. “Not, a walk-in closet with a desk and terminal which I am proud and honoured to leave, in the capable hands of my replacement, First Lieutenant Fatima al-Heidari, who shall be promoted to Commander of the MACO detachment as soon as I take a my last stop off the deck plating of this fine vessel that I have called home for the past three years. Fatima, I suggest you stretch first before doing paper work, believe me, with that desk, your legs and back will thank you for it. Now, with the Captain Lane’s blessing, let’s eat!”

Wednesday, January 15th, 2155
Orbital Station-One, Earth Orbit

“Major Yu?” A voice came from behind her, as Viktoria stared out of the bay window of the station’s observation lounge-alpha, taking in the star-field and silver dots of spaceships and orbital installations in the background. Slowly, Viktoria turned around to meet the man who the voice belonged to, a short fellow in a blue Starfleet jumpsuit with red markings on his shoulder and the rank pip on his chest of a Chief Petty Officer. He also wore a blue turban wrapped around his head, and had a sheathed kirpan dagger at his side, elements of his Sikh heritage.

“Yes, that’s me.” She replied.

“Chief Petty Officer Hansra Singh, Quartermaster of the ChallengerProject…I am here to pilot the pod that will take you to the ship.” The Sikh man explained as he gestured to hallway that led to the docking port. “Captain Karim is waiting to meet you in person.”

“Then, let’s not keep her waiting.” The Major stated as she began walking to the port. “Please lead the way, Chief Singh.”

The quartermaster nodded and led the MACO officer to the nearby pod. As the doors closed behind them, they sat down in the cramped transport pod and then detached from the station and began to move quickly towards the nearby dry-dock complex.

“Have you ever been on an NX-class before, Major?” Singh asked as he piloted the small vessel.

“No, spent the last three years stationed on an NVthough.” Yu answered as she leaned back in her chair and began looking towards the dry-dock displayed in the distance through the cockpit window.

“If it is not out of my realm to say so, you are in for a treat then.” The quartermaster said with a grin beneath his beard. “The Challengerhas seven decks, dedicated facilities for training and briefing. My team just finished installing the last few equipment lockers in the MACO storage area the other day in fact, it’s rather a large room. There’s lots of space for storing whatever equipment you’ll need.”

“When will that equipment arrive?” Yu asked as eyes caught a glimpse of the ship’s hull through the gaps in the dry dock’s arms.

“The pulse phase pistols, hard-shell backpacks, and grenades have arrived and currently being stored in the dry-docks cargo bay, waiting to be loaded into the newly finished stocks on F deck.” The Chief responded. “The pulse phase rifle shipment and EVA gear will arrive in two days. They were held up due to a shipping error with the manufacturer. We got a container filled with old Winchester model three plasma bolt carbines instead. I can secure a few of those for your use if you wanted to use such antiquated weapons instead.”

“No, that will be fine, thank you Chief. The barrels are a bit long for use in deck to deck close quarters combat anyways…not as easy to maneuverer around corners as the pulse phase rifle…what about the melee gear?”

“A shipment of type-two tonfa-style stun batons and several utility survival knives are currently en route on a sub-light transport from the lunar colonies. Don’t worry Major, the ship will not be leaving dock without all its equipment on board.”

“I seem to remember that the first NXleft without its phase cannons installed.” Major commented with a smirk.

“With respect, Major the Enterprisehad to leave in a hurry, and they didn’t have me as a quartermaster!” Hansra replied with a laugh. “I used to manage the cargo loading at San Franciso spaceport, compared to that, this is nothing!”

“I used to be on an emergency response team stationed out of Cape Breton spaceport, I believe that.”

“Besides, despite all the little ‘hiccups’ in the scheduling and deliveries, Captain Karim and Commander Burton have been able to keep us on track for our scheduled launch.”

Viktoria suddenly glanced quickly over to Hansra, a look of concern showing past a break in the cold professionalism that usually marked her face. “That wouldn’t happen to be Commander Lloyd Burton, British fellow, would it?”

“Yes, that he is actually.” Hansra answered, his brow rising against the folds of his blue turban in mild surprise. “You know of him?”

“We used to serve together on the NV-02 a few years back. What’s his position in all this?” Viktoria said with some concern showing in her voice.

“He’s the Deputy Construction Manager and will be Karim’s first officer and armoury chief when the Challengerleaves dock. If you want, I can arrange for you to meet with him after the Captain, perhaps catch up and discuss old times?”

“No,” Viktoria said with a resigned sigh. “I think it’s better if I just speak with the captain and then go check on my team’s facilities.”

Besides,she thought, the last thing he needs is me around, possibly bringing up bad memories. This will teach me to always check the full staff manifest for before accepting a job again. Damn it.

“How long before we dock?” She finally asked after a silent moment.

“Three more minutes, Major.” Chief Singh answered as he manoeuvred the pod around a dry-dock arm and giving Yu her first view of the ship that was about to become her new home.

Monday, January 20th, 2155
Columbia NX-02, Earth orbit

“Are you sure this is a good idea Commander?” Ensign Feng asked as he looked nervously over Nicole’s shoulder. Feng was the newest member of the Science Department aboard Columbiaand Nicole had taken it upon herself to get the newly graduated Ensign up to speed. She had however hoped that he would have gotten over this nervous phase a bit faster.

“You saw the same data I did. The substance is completely inert without some kind of energy running through it.” She replied somewhat tersely. 

“Yeah I know, but we all saw what happened when it was hit by the plasma rifle burst…”

“Which is why we aren’t going to use plasma energy in our tests. I have no intention of blowing up this whole lab, especially not while I’m in it. Besides we also saw what it could do with the right energy source, a perfectly natural, renewable energy source. Ensign, that’s worth a little risk!” Nicole said the excitement rising in her voice. 

“What’s worth a little risk Commander?” Nicole heard a female voice ask from the doorway. Turning around she was greeted by the none-too-pleased visage of her Captain and friend Erika Hernandez.

“Just doing some tests on that substance we found on P-X-L-eight-eight-seven.”

“That’s the one the Seffrans were using as their camp’s power source wasn’t it?” Hernandez asked, her interest piqued as she came up beside Nicole to get a better look as Feng made a discreet exit to the Science Lab anteroom.

“Yeah that’s it. They also used it interchangeably for their lights, equipment and some of their ship’s systems.” 

“I do remember you mentioning that it was a highly efficient use of power.”

“‘Extremely efficient’ would be a better way to describe the substance’s properties.”

“Didn’t you also say there were some issue with artificially creating it and compatibility issues with our EPS systems?”

“Well yes…but I’m working on it.”

“And didn’t you also say that if you weren’t able to make any progress by the time the refit was finished you would take a break from your tests.” Hernandez asked turning to face Nicole, a stern look now spreading across the Captain’s features.

“I do vaguely remember mentioning something to that effect, yes.”

“And…”

“And that I would get off the ship for a couple of days, which I did by the way!” Nicole said now on her feet mirroring the Captain’s stance. 

“Going down to Starfleet Science to drop off test samples and research data does not count in any way, shape or form.”

Normally Nicole would have deferred to her superior but this time she knew what Erika was trying to do. In the few short years they had known each other Erika had become well aware of Nicole’s near constant family troubles. This was just the Captain’s latest attempt at “fixing her problem”. And it wasn’t that Nicole wasn’t grateful for the effort but she was getting a bit tired of the awkward homecomings.

“Look Captain…Erika… I appreciate what you are trying to do. Really I understand and a few years ago I’d have agreed with you, but I’m tired…tired of the long silences when my parents ask about what I do out of politeness not real interest. When they are actively holding back their urge to try to get me to change my mind!” Nicole let out her voice rising a bit.

“Well…I certainly understand why that could be frustrating, but it also sounds a bit hollow.”

“You thought that was hollow….” Nicole said more to herself than Hernandez as she slumped back against the lab table.

“Coming from you, yeah it kind of does. We’ve been on this ship for almost a year now and I’ve known you a whole lot longer.

In all that time I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen you give up on something you really wanted. And I know you sure as hell weren’t happy about it. So what’s different this time?”

“I haven’t exactly given up; I’m re-evaluating my options in Zen-like seclusion. Besides I still have Claudia.”

“Who you call but rarely go see.”

“I’m never on Earth, how else am I supposed to keep in touch?”

“You’re on Earth now, sort of. What’s your excuse?”

“I haven’t gone because she would probably do the same annoying mother hen, pestering that you do!”

“Well, she sounds like a very bright and intuitive woman and you should listen to her.” Hernandez said, breaking the tension between them. Despite how hard she tried, Nicole couldn’t keep from smiling at Hernandez’ comment. 

“You know that is almost the exact thing she said about you when we last talked.”

“Like I said, smart woman.” 

“You know, I’m usually the one doing the mentoring and doling out the sage advice.” Nicole said, some humour returning to her voice.

“Yeah well I have my moments. So are you going to listen to your ever wise Captain and take a couple of days?”

“Yes, after…after I run this test.” Nicole said avoiding Hernandez’s glance.

“You will do anything to put off something you hate, won’t you?”

“Yeah, so I have it all set up. So would you like to be my lab assistant?” 

“Um, no. I’ll just watch from the bleachers, out of projectile range.”

“Coward!” 

“When it comes to one of your experiments, you better believe it.” The captain said as she moved behind the lab’s protective screen. But before Nicole threw the switch the comm panel came to life.

“Bridge to Captain Hernandez. We need you up here Captain. There’s been an accident.”

Monday January 27th, 2155
Denver, Colorado, United States of America, Earth

The rectangular-shaped kitchen table was positioned towards the very middle of the kitchen, the focal point in a room that measured just shy of the largest in square footage amongst the many others comprising the Alcott home. The theme throughout was dated country, not western mind you, but rather that of an old country farmhouse, perhaps pulled from an old magazine of Better Homes and Gardens. The Alcott family had assumed permanent residence for more than five generations. The home had been well-tended to, retaining many of the Victorian qualities of its original construction, further emphasized by the shabby-chic features added to by its various caretakers from years past into the present day. It lacked many of the attributes and amenities often found in more modern homes, but that didn’t seem to bother those that lovingly referred to this place as home and possibly served as one its draws.

The kitchen table was laid with a concord grape coloured tablecloth, its surface was laid dishevelled with used stoneware plates and beverage cups, sterling silverware was stained with chocolate frosting and yellow cake crumbs that seemed to match the remnants left on the cloth napkins. Balloons of varying shades in colour hung limply in the air, while streamers and confetti dusted the oddly skewed high-back chairs and black and white chequered kitchen floor. Torn wrapping paper, ribbon and bow littered the floor, their prior contents removed with excited haste. The neglected half-moon shaped leftovers of a chocolate frosted vanilla cake sat forgotten atop its proud pedestal.

Now empty, the kitchen served as a real time capture of a celebration interrupted. Its once buzz of activity had been relocated, humming near the pair of solid mahogany doors that led out onto the ample girth of the front porch, which extended the entire length of the front of the house. Although mostly quiet, there were moments of intermittent sobbing as the group of eight circled two individuals.

‘Why must you go now?’ The words were never spoken, but signed; the deliberate flare of her hands conveyed each word while tears slowly slid down each cheek.

“There’s something that’s happened and I need to go.” He both spoke and signed the reply, gently wiping away each tear as he pulled his mother into a firm embrace. She pressed her face into the meat of his shoulder, tears soaking into the thin material of his black t-shirt. As he held his mother, he felt his father’s strong arms wrap around him, then his brothers, sisters and those of his grandparents and cousin. They stood like this for a very long moment, each weeping and sobbing. It was a difficult goodbye, not knowing when they would be able to see one another again… if they would see each other again.

‘Be safe. Stay strong. Come home to us.’ His mother signed as he slowly descended the brick steps leading to the sidewalk where the transport waited patiently. He nodded coolly, wiping away a stray tear. Reaching the very bottom step, he turned one last time to see his collective family huddled together, their own eyes misty and brave smiles were attempted and valiant waves filled the air. He returned a meek wave himself before taking a deep breath; his chest puffed as he turned away and disappeared into the small confines of the transport.

Today, Ezrah Alcott had just turned twenty-two years old and had been celebrating with his family when he received the communication from Command, ordering him to report on board the Challengeras soon as was possible. No further detail was provided aside from a brief statement indicating there had been a “situation” of some kind. He wasn’t due to report on board for another week, but unusual circumstances had warranted this change and so he would dutifully comply and follow his orders. He neither liked nor looked forward to the prospect of leaving his family under such very short notice. The fact that he had only one week before departing had been difficult enough; now having to leave under such short notice and under the current circumstances was boarding on unbearable.

Yet, he had chosen this life and intimately knew the unique demands being a Starfleet officer entailed. He’d worked far too hard over the last four years, dedicating his every waking moment and giving so much to earning his commission. It had been a vehemently difficult and arduous road, but one that he embraced with outstretched arms and an open mind. And his hard work had paid off, even though the most difficult and perplexing of hardships; at the conclusion of those four years, he’d been approached by Captain Rani Karim of the Challengerand personally asked to start his Starfleet career as the ships chief helm officer.

It was an unprecedented offer and one that he simply couldn’t turn down. He was well aware that this assignment would take him away from his family for extended periods of time, years at the very least. But he regaled the idea of serving on board the third class of starship produced of its kind, built specifically for venturing out to explore the farthest reaches of the galaxy. And behind the controls steering that vessel he would sit. It filled him with pride and a patriotic sense of ownership. To serve as a representative of Earth and to have been personally selected from amongst some of Starfleet’s best and brightest, well, it made his heart pitter-patter.

Although this wouldn’t have been how he’d have liked to experience the bon voyage, why delay the inevitable? So as he sank back into the seat of the transport, he wiped away one final tear before instructing the driver of the intended destination, the sadness of saying goodbye now giving way to the excitement of new beginnings and the prospect of venturing out to explore the very unknown.