I apologise for the delay in posting. I've had a few problems recently that have kind of eroded my motivation. I also had great difficulty with this chapter. I'm not happy with it, but think it better to post something
rather than leave it any longer.
UES Enterprise. Orbiting Galador III.
October 19th 2151.
"With respect Captain, I don't think this is a good idea." Hernandez said.
Captain Archer spun the locking wheel for the hatch to the open position. "Why is it that people always say 'with respect' or 'permission to speak freely' when they're criticising your ideas?" he asked rhetorically. "Just once I'd like to hear some one say 'with respect captain, that's brilliant'."
They stepped out into the main corridor, sealing the hatch behind them. This access way lead almost from bow to stern, and was one of the few passages where more than two people could walk abreast. During the maiden voyage it was kept in separate sections for safety reasons, but everyone agreed it was annoying to constantly have to open and close the hatches, so they were now left open during normal operations. The automatics would shut them if there was a change in alert status. Quite apart from making intra-ship movement more convenient, being able to see more than a few metres ahead helped reduce the low grade claustrophobia that so often characterised ship board life.
"Look, you want to scan the battle site at Galador V---" he said.
"It is our assigned mission." Hernandez interrupted, and immediately regretted the chiding tone in her voice.
Archer paused, before replying "As is exploration, Commander."
He nodded, dismissing the matter. "So this seems like the best solution. I'll take a small survey team down to the planet, you head on to the battle site, do all you need to do, then come pick us up. Simple."
She was shaking her head. "Sir, without warp drive it'll take us two and a half days to get there. Another two and a half to get back. Factor in at least two days to carry out the mission and we'll be away for a week, minimum. Possibly longer. A radio signal would take nearly an hour. So what if something goes wrong?"
Archer paused. "Ah. I see your point. If something does go wrong....you'll just have to manage without me." Though he kept a straight face and steady tone, his eyes twinkled mischievously.
She put her hands on her hips. "That's not what I meant and you know it. What if something goes wrong down there?. You'll be on your own."
"We're going to the same area where probe three landed." Archer said, ticking the points off on his fingers. "Warm climate, environmentally suitable for humans. No indication of intelligent life. No large predators. No evidence of significant risk from pathogens, and our medicines seem effective in dealing with all micro organisms that we have discovered. Doctor Locke is accompanying us. Geologically there is some activity, but the chances of an earthquake or volcano are so low that...well, according to head of the geophysics department, Professor Partridge would be elected Pope before that happens. His exact words, by the way.
"All the UESPA people going know what to expect. They've read the book on how to do it. Just to keep you happy some of our people are security trained, and armed with rifles. We've also got some of Mr. Reed's marines joining us..."
"Yes sir. I read the manifest. The absolute minimum required by regulations for this sort of mission. On your orders, sir."
"Well I like to think I'm a good judge of these things. This isn't my first survey, Maria, I do have some idea of how it's done. Besides, I'm sure you'll be needing as many marines as possible while I'm away, so it'd be unfair to take them all."
Her brow furrowed. "Sir, why would I nee..." she began.
"Besides which, do you really think the Professor would be coming with us if she thought that there was the slightest risk?"
That was a good point. Partridge cheerfully described herself as an absolute coward. Apart from some nerves about the journey itself---she had a tendency to travel sickness---she had enthusiastically volunteered when Archer had announced the mission the previous day.
Hernandez said "To be honest, I don't see why you should have to go down there at all. Can't we do practically everything from orbit?"
"Practically everything isn't the same as absolutely everything. Besides, we didn't come all this way just to look out the window at planets. Where's the fun in that?"
"Er, excuse me? Guys? Er, how do you fasten this harness?"
"It's simple, professor. Put your arms through the shoulder straps, and fasten the others around the waist and chest."
"Yeah...it's that last one I'm having problems with."
Corporal Autumn James paused in her task of stowing her rifle, and looked round. The shoulder straps were indeed in place. So was the one at her waist, though that looked a little loose. The one above that, however, was no where near long enough. Polly had hold of the ends in her clenched fists, arms quivering with effort as she struggled to stretch them together. "Now that's weird."
"Do you think?" Polly said, giving up. "Salome managed no problem." She gestured down the row of seats.
"It is a bit tight." Salome Murry admitted cheerfully. One of the civilian scientists, and the wife of Jeff Murry, she was an enormous black woman with a gap in her front teeth, a large gold crucifix round her neck and a deafening laugh. She gave vent to the latter now.
"I'm glad you're amused." Polly said. "I don't like travelling at the best of times, I don't want to do it without all possible precautions. And why the hell do we have to go in this thing anyway?" She gestured around at the hold they were in.
"The regular shuttles are too small for all of us, and picking up the landing probes too." Corporal James said, while examining the safety harness. "The Beowulfs are plenty big enough."
"Yeah," Polly sighed, "I just don't like the idea of using a military craft."
Enterprise carried two Beowulf Landing Craft. Developed using lessons learnt in the Axanar war they were the most efficient means of delivering small payloads to and from orbit in Earth's fleet. The interior hold was modular, quickly changeable to suit the mission profile. It currently held fourteen seats, enough supplies for a full month if need be, the scientific equipment necessary for the proposed survey, a rather cramped lavatory compartment, and a small electric quad bike. There was also room at the back for the three landing probes, though they would have to be disassembled to fit in.
"Technically," James said, "the Enterprise is a military craft. I can't work this out. These harnesses are designed to hold really big marines in full armour, backpacks, the works. It should be plenty long enough." She paused, and glanced over at Tipping, a fellow marine.
"Maybe that's the problem." he said, scratching his nose. "If you're wearing all that gear, you're going to be sitting forward a bit, ain't ya? So the straps are designed for all that. Now the professor, right, she's not got all that stuff, OK, so she sits back in the chair. So I reckon once the shoulder straps are tight enough, the one across the...across...er...won't fit."
"I see." said Polly. She regarded the marines steadily for a moment, seeing which ones would meet her gaze. "So what do you propose?" she asked, giving Salome a knowing glance.
James clicked her teeth thoughtfully, and looked up and to one side, left fist under her chin, index finger extended alongside her mouth. The stereotypical 'thinking' pose. Polly looked on in amusement. She was curious as to what they had planned for her.
"I have an idea." James said.
The whine of engines in preflight mode filled the shuttle bay. It wasn't quite loud enough to require shouting, but everyone had to raise their voices to be understood. Trip Tucker and Malcolm Reed were in discussion. Reed held a computer pad, Trip held Porthos. The little dog saw Archer enter and tried to leap free, but the engineer kept a firm grip until the captain was close enough to take him. "Here ya go, cap'n."
"Thanks Trip. It's a pity you're needed on ship, it looks like it could be quite nice down there." he said, scratching the dogs head.
"Ah well, ah'll just have ta go next time."
Reed cleared his throat and held up the pad. "The marine volunteers. Just four, as you ordered. I can get some more if you change your mind..."
Archer studied the pad. "No, no. This should be fine. Let's see...Corporal James, Troopers Dumont, Tipping and Grant...any idea why they volunteered?
Reed nodded. "Well, James has been wanting to get a bit of command experience for a while, even something like this would count. Plus of course, the Professor's going, which for Autumn is motivation enough. Grant's a trained sniper, but she's a bit out of practice after all this time on the ship, she'll be getting her eye back in with a few rounds."
Archer grimaced, clearly displeased at this idea. Reed continued hurriedly. "Regulations state we have to send a field medic, and Dumont volunteered. He seems quite excited by the thought of exploration. His mum's in UESPA, you know. And Tipping...well, we encouraged him to go. Couldn't stand his moaning any longer. Get him off the ship. Do us some good at least."
Archer handed the pad back. "Alright, that sounds fine. Are you sure you don't mind a couple of non-marines flying that thing?" He nodded his head towards Beowulf Two.
"As long as the ship's CO has officially requested it, all the paper works done and the replacement crew are fully qualified, it's all in order." Reed said.
The captain nodded. "OK then, I'll just go check on things on board."
Trip said "All your bags are stowed, cap'n, ah put 'em a'board myself."
"Thanks Trip. See you guys later. Oh, and Maria. Try not to wreck the ship. We've not finished paying for it yet."
Archer shut the hatch behind him. They weren't ready for take off, not yet, but the engine noise was getting on his nerves. He put his dog down, and strode towards the seating area. "Right, how's everybody doing? I hope we will....oh, good grief
"Yes," said Partridge, "I had a bit of trouble with the harness, so these chaps came up with a clever way of securing me to the chair. Rather innovative of them, wouldn't you say?" She nodded her head, the only part of her body she could now move, towards the marines. Three of them had carefully cultivated innocent expressions. The fourth, Grant, shook her head ruefully and mouthed nothing to do with me
An intricate, criss crossing web of bungee cords held Polly firmly in place. Each elasticated cord was about half a metre long, though it could stretch far beyond that, and was a military olive green. The metal hooks at each end had been carefully applied to the seat, the cord itself coiled about her body. There were so many she was practically mummified, though the marines had taken care to ensure some features were left unobscured.
Handing his dog to Jeff Murry, he looked around the hold. The civilian scientists generally seemed amused, as did most of the crewmen present, at least until they caught his expression. Finally he turned to the marines. "So. A problem with the harness, eh?"
The fašade began to crack, Dumont and Tipping seeming to shrink into themselves. They half turned to James, who managed "Err, yes sir."
Archer let the silence go on uncomfortably long, though not uncomfortably to him. "And you tried to fix it."
"Er, yes sir."
James swallowed noisily. "So, sir, I thought we'd better, that is, the Professor wasn't safe, so we.....I'll try again sir!"
"Yes you will. And something tells me this time you'll fix the problem. Now I'm heading up to the flight deck, to see how things are going, and I expect it to be sorted by the time I get back." He leant closer to Partridge and said quietly "And you, Professor. Please don't encourage them, they're bad enough as it is."
She just grinned back.
He paused at the bottom of the access shaft. A flight of stairs so steep that they were practically a ladder lead upwards, The voices of the current flight crew drifted down, going through the pre-flight check-list. Rather than risk interrupting them at a crucial stage, he waited until they reached a natural break point before ascending. "How's it going?"
Hoshi Sato swivelled in the system operators seat and smiled. "A little slower than a regular crew, maybe, but we're getting there."
"We'll be ready to leave on schedule." Travis Mayweather added.
"Good, good." Archer said, glancing between them. He knew that the two of them didn't really get on, but from what he'd observed they were treating each other with professional courtesy. "Looking forward to it?"
Sato nodded enthusiastically. "Yes sir! Camping out on a strange new world, it'll be fun!"
Mayweather was less lively. "A change of scenery will be nice. Plus it's always good to get some small craft hours in."
That confirmed what Archer had suspected. The helmsman had no interest in the mission itself, and just wanted to do something different than fly Enterprise in straight lines. "Well, no hot-dogging OK? I don't think your cargo and passengers could take it."
Mayweather spread his hands wide. "Hey, this trip'll be so smooth you'll not even know you're moving."
why he volunteered," Hoshi said with a smirk, "he's hoping to charm Polly with his gentle technique."
"No it isn't!" he said quickly. Too quickly. He caught himself and looked embarrassed.
Archer nodded knowingly. "I'll let you two finish. Let me know when you're ready to launch."
The bungee cords had disappeared by the time he returned to the hold, and the safety harness fit Polly correctly. Apart from Grant, who was still trying to indicate via body language that she had nothing to do with it, the marines had the expressions of naughty school children caught in a particularly stern teacher's gaze. Many years previously Archer had met a Vulcan diplomat with an expression so saturnine it chilled the blood. No anger, no threat, no emotional display of any kind, just an impassive mask more disturbing than any scowl or grimace. His own version was nowhere near as effective, but still left the marines squirming nervously. Sometimes, just sometimes, it's good to put the fear of God into people.
He looked round, noting that everyone was now on board. "Scott, what's our load status?" Even though he could see for himself, it was good procedure to double check.
Crewman Scott looked at her pad. "All crew, passengers and cargo have embarked, all hatches are sealed. We are ready for lift. Even Porthos." she added. The little dog was looking forlorn in a padded travel cage strapped to a chair.
"Very good. Inform the flight crew." Archer said. He took his seat between Polly and Porthos.
"John, I'm not so sure it's such a good idea to bring him along." Polly said. "We've not detected any predators in the landing area that are a significant threat to us, but he's a lot smaller. The ferrekats are carnivorous. They might look upon him as a tasty treat." 'Ferrekats' was the nickname given to the creatures detected by lander three, that resembled a cross between ferret and meerkat.
"I'm not leaving him behind, he's a dog. He needs to go for long walks outdoors. It's no good for him to be kept cooped up all the time. I'll just have to keep him on a leash. I'm sure you'd approve of that." he added wryly.
Polly glanced at the marines. "Oh. They put so much effort into setting that up. I couldn't bear to disappoint them. They're adorable really. And have you noticed where they've put their helmets?"
Archer hadn't. The marines were in camo uniforms and light body armour, and wore green berets. The standard battle helmets were stowed in a special rack, almost opposite where Archer sat now. One was placed facing forward. The other three were at odd angles. He looked at them, working out lines of sight.
"Corporal James?" he called.
"I've been thinking, Corporal, that you and you're people may be able to help us, in the gathering of scientific data."
She glanced at her colleagues. "Certainly sir. How can we help?"
Archer looked straight in the eye. "As I understand it, you have cameras, video cameras, embedded into your helmets. Indeed, as I recall, they came in quite useful as to identifying that alien you and Hoshi met."
"Er...yes sir." James said, glancing at the helmets.
"So I was thinking, they'd make good data gathering tools down on the planet. You wouldn't have to do anything unusual. Just go about your normal routine. Although...just to be sure we have as much data as possible, make sure you don't start recording 'till we get down there. And just to be certain....why don't you all just wipe the memory on your wrist computers right now."
James' voice was resigned. "Yes sir." She hit the appropriate controls, then held her arm out to show Archer that the memory was clear. Dumont and Tipping did the same.
"Don't bother, Grant." Archer waved the sniper away. "Something tells me you hadn't recorded anything yet."
Hoshi's voice crackled over the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have received clearance for take off and will moving to the launch pad momentarily. Please ensure you are strapped in and all cargo and baggage is secure."
Besides Archer Polly suddenly tensed up, gripping the armrests like a vice. "Oh, I really hate flying." she said to no one in particular.
"How did you know they'd focussed their helmet cam's on you?" he asked, hoping to distract her by changing the subject.
She snorted, and a touch of colour came back to her cheeks. "It's me John. If there's a camera within a hundred metres pointing at me, I know abo...whoah!"
That last exclamation was triggered by a sudden movement to the left, and echoed in a whine from Porthos.
"It's alright, it's alright." Archer said, not entirely sure who he was trying to comfort. "That's just the platform moving us to the launch area. Nothing to worry about."
"Yeah." Polly said glumly, then added "I might be sick on you."
The tannoy boomed through out the shuttle-bay. "Beowulf two is away. All stations, secure from launch positions."
"There are times when I think Captain Archer does not take his responsibilities seriously." Hernandez muttered.
"Maybe. But he usually gets the job done." Trip drawled.
"Oh really? Then what about..." she broke off, face clearing as a thought struck her.
"Yeah, now you're figgerin' it out."
She looked straight ahead. "He's not on the ship any more. I'm in charge. And he deliberately left me the maximum marine complement regulations allow. Damn, I should have seen it sooner. Major Reed! Put your people on stand by. It looks like we'll get to do those combat drills after all."