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Old February 6 2012, 05:33 PM   #118
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Location: The void between my ears
Re: Writing Challenge- The winning entries.

"Beginning Again"

by The Lone Redshirt

January 2012 Challenge Theme – A New Day is Dawning

7,283 Words

Stardate 53376.7 (17 May 2376)
Deep Space 3

Lt. Daniel Norden peered through the transparent aluminum viewport at his new (though temporary) billet – the USS Kearsarge (NCC-21507), a space-worn Block II Miranda-class frigate – one of the lucky few of her class and vintage that had survived the Dominion War relatively unscathed.

Relatively, for there were obvious patches on her – shiny Tritanium plates that contrasted with the dull finish on her original pitted and streaked hull like fresh bandages over grimy and blistered skin. As with many of her sister ships, the rushed repair work was slap-dash, the seams rough and uneven. The yard workers had not even bothered to repaint her name and registry, so the lettering read:

NC - 21 07

Norden wondered how hard it would have been to paint on the missing letters and numbers? It was a sobering reminder of the depleted state of the fleet that ships were sent back into service in such a shoddy state, particularly since the war had been over for nearly six months. The war had been won but the peace apparently was still in jeopardy.

He absently flexed and clenched his left hand – the synthetic skin still tight and the regenerated nerve endings still tingled. His personal repair work was necessitated by plasma burns he suffered when the Horatio had been ravaged by a pair of Cardassian frigates. At least the Starfleet surgeons had managed to match the pigmentation of his new skin with his old – down to the reddish hair and freckles. His real scars – unlike those of the Kearsarge – were hidden within.

Three weeks in a Starbase hospital (two in a drug-induced coma) were followed by a month in therapy, then accumulated shore leave back home on Earth.

That had been the worst.

His fiancé, Amy, had broken off their engagement (she needed time to ‘think things over,’ as if four years had not been enough.) Then he had learned that a board of inquiry was investigating the loss of Horatio, with pointed questions aimed at the engineering department – of which he had been assistant chief. He had thus been passed over for promotion to lieutenant commander, even though Captain Tarkalian had assured Dan that he was on the short list.

And now, he was being assigned as a “Mission Specialist” to the Kearsarge. Officially, he was not even part of the command staff of the ship – he was a glorified passenger with one job – to oversee a modification to the warp drive that would supposedly allow the ship to safely traverse a black cluster.

A very, very bad idea to Norden’s way of thinking. Not that he’d had much choice in the matter. Still, serving as Mission Specialist for Project Athena beat sitting in an office on Earth or some Starbase.

Lt. Norden picked up his clamshell case and cast another look at the Kearsarge. It would probably be the last he would see of her exterior for several weeks – a thought assuaged by the fact that Kearsage was uglier than sin.

As he turned to make his way to the airlock leading to the ship, he felt a sudden sense of unease – a vague feeling of deja vu. An involuntary shiver ran down his spine and he suddenly had a strong urge to turn and walk away.

Yeah – that’s the ticket. Add desertion to your list of woes. Get your ass on the ship, Dan old boy.

He shook his head fractionally, angry at his momentary anxiety attack and walked briskly to the airlock.

* * *

“So you’re Norden. Welcome aboard, Lieutenant.” Captain Francis “Hokie” Poiroux, C.O. of Kearsarge, gave Lt. Norden a perfunctory handshake and indicated a vacant chair across from his desk. Poiroux settled into his own chair with a grunt and folded his hands across his middle, regarding Norden with hooded eyes.

Captain Poiroux was in his early sixties, his thick, wavy hair – once dark –was now a dull slate gray. Bags hung under his eyes like sagging hammocks and a thick mustache obscured his upper lip. A toothpick hung from his lower lip, ticking up and down as Poiroux gave Norden the once-over.

Norden didn’t mind the scrutiny. The board of inquiry back on Earth had been more thorough than a Proctologist.

The Captain glanced at the PADD then back at Norden. “Mission Specialist, huh? I ask for a new Tactical Officer and they give me a frickin’ Specialist. ” Poiroux tossed the PADD on his desk with asperity.

Norden gave an apologetic shrug. “Sorry sir. I just go where I’m told.”

Poiroux grunted. “Don’t we all.” His Cajun accent, though muted, was distinctive. “Hell, it’s not your fault that Command still can’t figure out what to do with everyone coming off busted starships.”

“No sir.”

The Captain sighed. “Relax Lieutenant,” he said, noting Norden’s clipped answers and defensive posture. “I’m not pissed off at you. My problem is with this modification to the warp drive. We spent the better part of two months getting patched up only to be pulled back into space dock for ‘classified upgrades.’ My people are getting antsy and bored – a bad combination – and now we learn we get to be part of some half-assed experiment? I don’t like it Lieutenant, not one bit.”

Lt. Norden had no response to that other than, “No sir.” Truth be told, he had limited knowledge of the “modifications.” Someone up the ladder had decided that he, being an engineer, was somehow qualified to oversee the test of the upgrades.

Poiroux eyed the taciturn officer. “You’re a quiet one, Norden. At least you’re not trying to blow smoke up my ass – I’ll give you credit for that.” He stood, signifying that the meeting was at an end. “Just see that your ‘experiment’ doesn’t hurt my ship or anyone on it – clear?”

Norden nodded. “As crystal, sir.” He sounded more confident than he felt.

The Captain held Norden’s gaze a moment longer. “One other thing – I know that technically you’re TDY on my ship, but we are still short-handed and both my XO and Chief Engineer are new to the ship. Hell, the XO doesn’t have combat experience. He spent the war as some admiral’s aide. From your file I know you’ve got a lot of solid experience and your previous commanders thought highly of you. And, reading between the lines, it looks like you got the shaft when you were passed over for promotion. I may not be able to help much there, but if you’ll help out with engineering and bridge duty – – I’ll see if I can put in a good word for you; maybe see that you get a fresh start.”

It wasn’t much of a promise and the praise was damnably faint, but Norden appreciated the gesture nonetheless. For the first time, he smiled.

“Thank you, Captain. I would appreciate being . . . useful.”

Poiroux nodded. “Good. Go see the XO, Lt. Commander nor’Ykan – he’ll get you assigned to a cabin and on the bridge rotation. We depart in three hours and it will take us three days to get to the Black Cluster. According to our orders, this experiment should last about a week to ten days, then we return, download our telemetry, run a systems diagnostic, inspect the hull and do it again, right?”

Dan nodded. “Yes sir – that’s my understanding.”

Poiroux grunted. “Yeah it all sounds so simple. Too simple.” He jerked his head in the direction of the door. “Off with you, Mr. Norden. I’ll see you on the bridge at 1600.”

* * *
Lt. Commander Nilyas nor'Ykan was typical of his race. Like most natives of Rigel VII, he had iridescent bronze skin, golden eyes and unruly brass-colored hair that branched out in seemingly random directions. Nor’Ykan was a friendly sort and talked in a rapid-fire manner which could be perfectly normal for Rigellians or a sign of nervousness.

“Where did you last serve, Dan?” asked the XO as they took the turbo-lift to deck 5 and Norden’s new quarters.

“I was assistant engineer on the Horatio, at least until the battle to retake Deep Space 9.”

The XO paused before a cabin door and keyed in a security code. “What happened?”

Norden shrugged. “I don’t remember much. When I woke up almost a month later, I was in a hospital bed on Starbase 356. Horatio was destroyed in the battle along with over 300 of her crew. I was one of the lucky ones that survived.”

“I see,” replied the XO. It was obvious that the Rigellian felt awkward, so Norden let him off the hook.

“Thanks for showing me to the cabin, Commander. I understand I’m to report to the bridge at 1600 hours?”

Nilyas nodded, grateful for the change of subject. “That’s right. If it’s alright with you, I’ll put you at the engineering station. We’re short-handed and Lt. Hawser, our engineer, would prefer to be in main engineering when we launch.”

Norden almost pointed out that his own feelings in the matter were irrelevant. But the Rigellian XO was going out of his way to make him feel welcome, so he merely said, “That sounds fine sir.”

“Good. Well, I’ll let you get settled in. See you at 1600.” Lt. Commander nor’Ykan beat a hasty retreat.

Dan didn’t blame him. In his experience, those who did not see combat during the war became uncomfortable around those that did, particularly those who had been injured.

Or, as in Norden’s case, had their ship destroyed and hundreds of friends and colleagues killed.

He entered the cabin, dismissing the XO from his mind. “Lights,” he called out.

The computer dutifully complied, revealing a cabin similar to tens of thousands like it on thousands of starships across the quadrant. It provided adequate space and comfort and was almost completely lacking in charm. Blue-gray walls curved upward to a ceiling festooned with light panels, environmental vents, and subtly lettered access panels. There was a standard sized bed, a desk with computer terminal and chair, a small bedside table and a sofa. Thankfully, the cabin was devoid of the insidiously awful artwork common to many ships.

He tossed his clam-shell case on the sofa and checked out the head. No surprises there – a sonic shower, sink and toilet. Everything looked clean – sterile actually.

Norden returned to the main room. He considered ordering a beverage from the replicator, but he wasn’t thirsty. There was no point checking the computer for messages since there was no longer anyone in his life to send one. His parents were dead and as for Amy, well . . .

He walked to the oval-shaped viewport and stared out. His cabin faced away from the station, affording him a view of the stars. A Steamrunner-class ship glided slowly by but otherwise the vista was still and silent.

Once more, that vague sense of disquiet ran soft tendrils through his mind. He closed his eyes, as if to grasp a fragment of memory or dream . . .

. . . to no avail. With a sigh, he turned from the viewport and began to unpack his carry-all.

* * *

The bridge module of the Kearsarge had been upgraded, whether as a result of battle damage or scheduled refit, Norden neither knew or cared. He’d served on Miranda-class ships before and actually preferred the older, classic bridge design. Sometimes progress wasn’t really progress. The new design seemed more cramped, less crew-friendly. Even the captain’s chair seemed less prestigious, smaller somehow upholstered in a non-descript brown.

He sat idly at the engineering console – a seldom used station at the rear of the bridge. Captain Poiroux sat in the command chair, scowling silently to himself as the crew prepared for departure stations. Norden wondered if something was troubling the Captain or if surliness was his normal state.

Ahead of the Captain sat the helm officer – a Vulcan female, and the Ops officer – a dark skinned jay-gee by the name of Warren Rainer.

The XO stood near the Captain. Hovered might be a better word, for he continually glanced at Poiroux, posing questions and making comments. For his part, Captain Poiroux replied in a series of short grunts. Dan could imagine Poiroux fitting in well on the bridge of a Klingon ship.

Immediately behind the command chair were the tactical and sensor stations – both unoccupied at the moment. Opposite Norden’s station was environmental control – likewise vacant. It seemed that Captain Poiroux did not like a crowded bridge.

“We have clearance for departure, Captain,” announced Rainer from Ops.

“’Bout time,” groused Poiroux. “Ensign Vynaar – thrusters at station keeping. Mr. nor’Ykan – the ship is in your hands. Give the order.”

Norden thought he saw a sheen of perspiration on the Rigellian’s face. Or perhaps it was the play of light on his iridescent skin. Regardless, his orders, though somewhat quiet were precise, providing maneuvering orders to the helmsman in a timely manner.

Kearsarge backed away from her docking point and turned gracefully away from Deep Space 3.

“Ahead one-quarter impulse until we reach the outer markers,” ordered the XO.

The Vulcan helm officer complied and the ship began to surge forward as the ion-mass drivers kicked in. As the Kearsarge picked up speed, a low rumbling noise reverberated through the hull. Norden could feel intermittent vibration in the deck plates. Frowning, he turned to the engineering panel.

“Temperature spikes in the starboard exhaust manifold are creating the harmonics,” he announced. “Nothing serious, but I would recommend that we don’t exceed our current speed.”

Poiroux grunted an acknowledgment and tapped his combadge. “Bridge to Engineering.”

“Engineering - Lt. Hawser here.”

“Mr. Hawser, why are my engines running rougher than a Klingon’s backside?”

“We’re working on the problem, Captain. It looks like sediment in the Deuterium feed lines. Apparently the dock-workers didn’t flush the new tanks after they installed them.”

Captain Poiroux muttered something in his Cajun dialect that didn’t sound complimentary. “Can you flush them while we’re underway?” he asked, his annoyance apparent.

“Yes sir, we can switch to the auxiliary tanks for the time being. The ride should smooth out shortly.” A pause. “Captain, it would help if we could have a proper shake-down cruise.”

“You’re already on it, mister - three days to the Black Cluster. You have that long to work out the bugs, so get on it. Poiroux, out.”

Norden felt some sympathy for the Chief Engineer. Three days was not nearly long enough for a thorough shake-down. Yet he also had to wonder why Lt. Hawser and his engineering team had not discovered the sediment in the Deuterium tanks before launch. An old adage was to never trust the inspection report from a civilian dock worker. Always go back and check the work yourself.

From the expression on Poiroux’s face, Dan was pretty sure the Captain had the same thought in mind.

* * *
"You are beginning to damage my calm." - Jayne Cobb
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