Part of Challenger: While The Iron Is Hot


Challenger NX-03
Saturday February 8th, 2155
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“So, Admiral Gardner will make his speech and then he’ll play the video of Doctor Cochrane’s speech at the ground-breaking of the Warp Five Complex. This will be your cue to lead the senior staff from the observation deck and to board Challenger.”

Captain Lloyd Burton was standing in front of the long wall mounted mirror in his quarters getting changed into his uniform jumpsuit. While he was pulling it over his shoulders his Yeoman, Crewmember First Class Jamie Harris was explaining to him the step-by-step guide to what was going to happen during the Challenger’s official launch ceremony. 

“Is the Foreign Secretary joining us then?” Burton asked as he pulled up the middle zip on his uniform. Normally he wouldn’t dare to be having a meeting with Harris while he was getting changed but he got back late from his family’s gathering last night, he had overslept and Challenger was going to be launched in two hours’ time.

Harris, who was sitting at the captain’s desk, was reading off from the computer tablet with all the details on it. He pressed a few buttons to look over the day’s schedule and found the answer. “No. Once Challenger is launched, we’re to enter orbit and the Secretary’s transport will dock with us once she has left Paris.”

Burton nodded, reminding himself of that fact as a mental note. The entire schedule for the day’s events had changed several times over the last few days and they had only received the latest update three hours ago. Luckily though Harris had been up and was able to prepare the captain. “The last revision I saw, it stated the Foreign Secretary wasn’t expecting a formal greeting party. Is that still the same?”

Harris nodded quickly this time. “She has stated she doesn’t want to, and I quote here, ‘all the pomp and circus are not needed when a crucial mission needs to get underway’. She is still adamant she doesn’t want to pile any more pressure than what you and the rest of us are already under, especially with this being our shakedown cruise and first mission.”

Burton was now pushing the creases out of his uniform as he checked himself out in his reflection. “Secretary Campbell seems to be quite the approachable person from what I’ve read, heard and seen.” He commented.

“Yes sir. Once she is on board, we are expected to depart Earth orbit at once and then meet the joint task group on the edges of the Sol system. Then we will be on our way to Denobula.” Harris included. “Once the Secretary is settled on board you, Commanders Levesque and Stanton will be sharing lunch with her.” He added.

“Do we have the Secretary’s diet requirements?” Burton asked as he sat on the edge of his bed to put his boots on. 

“We do sir. Chef Lawson has already received her details and those for the rest of her staff. Stewards have also been assigned to them if they require anything, but the Secretary has informed us her staff is aware they shouldn’t get in our way of running the ship.” Harris answered.

“How many members of staff is she bringing?” Lloyd inquired as he put on his left boot. 

“Four.” He returned before explaining whom. “That includes her chief of staff, her personal assistant and two other advisors.”

“Right, between you and our new communication’s officer ensure the crew are all briefed on what is expected on board.” Burton ordered. “Is there anything else that has changed Jamie?”

Harris shook his head. “No sir. I’ll upload and send the new schedule to the rest of the senior staff.”

Now dressed, the captain stood back up. “Thank you, Jamie. I’m going to go and grab a very quick breakfast and do the final tour. I’ll see you at half past nine for the pre-launch gathering.” 

Harris rose from his chair too. “Thank you, sir.” He said and then left the captain alone. 

Burton took one more glance at himself in the mirror. He looked slightly odd. He had shaved the normal short stubble he would wear, and his uniform looked more formal than it normally did. He took one more deep breath before leaving his room and making his way to the mess hall to grab a mug of tea and a bacon sandwich for his breakfast.

Subconsciously, he felt the light touch of fingertips brushing against the bare curve of his side, running along the length of his ribcage. The gentle touch elicited a reaction, goosebumps rose as he stirred with a soft moan. Drawing open each eye, he blinked repeatedly in an attempt to will away the fatigue that seemed to invisibly coat his body. “Hi.” His voice was very soft, barely above a whisper.

“Hey yourself.” Her voice rivalled his softness yet was beautifully vibrant none-the-less. She grinned, framing perfectly white teeth as raven-coloured hair cascaded around the hand that pressed into a cheek, an elbow perching her onto her side as she closely watched the boy, at least thirty years her youth.

Alcott reached out to pull her close, their naked bodies pressing together intimately. Her back to him, he leaned in to lay a kiss onto the smooth, supple skin of her shoulder. He breathed deeply, taking in the faint scent of lilac, the woman’s preferred scent of shampoo.

“Sleep well?” She asked.

He murmured an affirmative as he buried his nose into the nook of her neck, laying tender kisses along its taught length. The tightness in his embrace intensified as his mood changed from fatigue to an excitement only known to a boy.

She chuckled at feeling this change, wiggling her hips in such a way as to excite him further. For a moment, she remained still but then slowly pulled away. At first, he believed it was a game of teasing, but when she pulled her naked form from the bed and started to dress, he quirked an inquisitive eyebrow.

She turned to face him, pulling on her brazier. “I’ve to admit, I let you sleep a bit longer than you should have.” She giggled mischievously.

Brow furrowed, he turned to glance at the chronometer.

“Audrey!” He yelped in frustrated shock, hastily pulling himself from the bed. “I’m going to be late for the christening ceremony.” He stated flatly, forgetting his body’s current state as he rushed around the room to find all of his discarded clothing.

“You looked so peaceful and, well, after last night’s… extracurricular activities, I thought you could use the extra five minutes.” She grinned, zipping up her own uniform jumpsuit. “Besides, you’ll make it in plenty of time.”

He shook his head, “I can’t find them.”

“Find what?” She asked inquisitively, yet already knowing.

“My briefs… where did they go?” He replied, glancing under the bed.

She simply shrugged, a bemused grin accentuating the sharpness of her cheekbones. Audrey pulled her hair into a tight ponytail as she turned to glance in the mirror. Adjusting either sleeve cuff and smoothing out a wrinkle, she turned to pass behind Ezrah, gently slapping his rear as she made for the door.

“I can see myself out, love.”

Ezrah stopped, pulling himself prone and immediately going to Audrey. The stark contrast of clothed to nude would have tantalized any onlooker. “Thank you.” He needn’t have said anything more; both invariably understood the nonverbal exchange. The last two days would be the last the two would share genuine time with one another. Prior to Ezrah leaving with the Captain for his meeting at Starfleet Command several days prior, he’d received an communiqué from Audrey that she was on a short leave from the Columbiato take care of some family business prior to the ships departure for their next mission, one of a diplomatic nature that was to work in conjunction with that of Challenger‘s. Audrey skirted the details, affirming that Ezrah would learn the specifics from Captain Burton soon enough.

In truth, after Audrey had been reassigned to Columbia as their helmsman, he hadn’t thought he’d ever see her again; the very nature of the NX-class was to remain out of port for extended periods of time, conducting missions of peaceful space exploration and scientific discovery. Although her absence hurt him terribly, he understood this to be an inherent part of a Starfleet officer’s duty. In her own defence, Audrey hadn’t wished to have absent from her lover; but duty came first and there was really nothing she could have done to change this very complicated fact. Circumstances, however, had benefited both and the two had taken ample advantage of the situation for one last chance to see each other.

“Good luck, Ezie.” She hugged him tightly, the two sharing one last kiss before she turned to leave. Since his second year at the STC, Audrey had looked out for Ezrah not simply in a professional and mentoring capacity, but also a very intimate one. The relationship had elevated to a level that their ability to keep it a secret had become terribly difficult. As her own superiors started to question the relationship, Audrey knew that the only way to protect both of their careers was to apply for a reassignment away from the STC. In the beginning, the two had attempted to maintain the relationship, but found it more than cumbersome due to their respective responsibilities and duties. At the end of his third year at the STC, Audrey and Ezrah had mutually decided that the relationship could no longer thrive under these conditions and that they should take a break. Although it hurt both terribly to admit this, they knew it was the only viable option. 

That didn’t, however, stay them from taking advantage of one another’s company if and when the opportunity arose. Ezrah was delighted to see Audrey after so long. He’d even gone so far as to sneak her on board the Challengerso they could share in one another’s company. It was a risk he was willing to take, even if for one last goodbye.

Turning, he sat on the very edge of the bed as the doors to his personal quarters closed. His eyes remained intent on the place where Audrey had just stood. They took on a misty characteristic before he tried to shake the sadness away. Although it hurt him to see Audrey go, he didn’t have time to think about those feelings. He’d stow them away to cope later. For now, he had a ceremony to get to.

“Now, where did I leave those briefs?”

Commander Stanton was sitting in a corner of the mess hall, with a table to himself as he worked on his breakfast; he was barely aware of what he was eating, as he tried to balance his mind between the technical manuals that was in front of him with the recent sting of having to say goodbye to his partner. Lieutenant Commander Rodham had left early in the morning, so that he could pilot one of the shuttlepods carrying admirals and other guests to the ceremony – a condition of his leave, and they would not be able to see each other again before the ship departed, except from the observation deck of the Warp Five Complex.

He pushed around some oatmeal unenthusiastically, before abandoning it and trying some of the bacon on his plate. He did have to admit that the food was good, at least, aboard Challenger, but he was not especially excited to be leaving; unlike every other soul on the ship. Of everyone aboard, it was very probable that he wanted his job the least, at least at that particular moment in time.

Alcott stepped through the doors to the mess hall, adjusting the cuff to the right sleeve. He’d just returned from the launch bay, hoping to savour in a more proper goodbye; yet, Audrey had already managed to board the last of the remaining shuttlepods departing for Earth. Shuttlepods three and four were being used to ferry dignities and high-ranking officials from Earth to the Warp Five Complex prior to the start of the commissioning ceremony. He knew that Hathaway was piloting one of the two; the other however, he assumed, was being piloted by a representative from Starfleet Command, perhaps Rodham.

It had been unusual seeing Rodham again, he was a part of Alcott’s past he’d have liked not to revisit. The circumstances in being reintroduced were even more bizarre. Yet, how could he fault Professor McSteamy and McHotty? They were, after all, a couple; it only made complete sense that they’d like to share in one another’s company as much as possible prior to the Challenger‘s departure. Who knew how’d long it be before both men managed to see one another again, especially with Rodham’s name being thrown into the lot for the final selection of the Discovery‘s helmsman? Contrary to the two men, who shared an eight-year relationship, Audrey and Ezrah didn’t share one any longer, not since before his graduation at least. This, well, this was merely a chance meeting for one last goodbye, one last chance to see each other before they both parted ways for who knows how long. It had been nice to see Audrey, but the experience had left a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach.

The Ensign approached the food cabinets, opening one of the few that were marked eggs and bacon. He toasted a few slices of wheat toast and poured himself a glass of freshly squeezed tomato juice. A few pads of butter, a dollop of ketchup and a spoon full of grape jelly added to the plate finished off the meal. Gripping the handles to the tray, Alcott turned to see that the mess hall, to his own delight, was virtually empty. The cabin, nestled in silence, contained only two other occupants; a crewman he’d not met before and, in the far corner of the mess hall, Professor McSteamy.

Alcott bit his bottom lip, wondering if he should approach the Commander, who outwardly appeared utterly morose in his solitude. But perhaps he prefers a bit of privacy right now. Alcott thought before shaking the thought from his head and taking steps towards the Professor’s table, or I could simply do as McHotty had suggested and try to befriend the Professor.

“Excuse me, Professor, may I join you?” The uncharacteristic deep tenor of his own voice caught Ezrah somewhat off guard, but his tone was soft and the words polite none-the-less.

“Oh…sure,” the engineer replied, looking up from his technical manual. “You know, I’m not really a professor anymore,” he added, contemplatively. He surveyed the ensign for a moment, wishing very much that the incident the day before had been avoided; he hadn’t seen him since, and wasn’t especially keen on discussing it. Such indiscretions were not part of his normal personality, especially not around students, even if Ezrah was now an Ensign and not a Cadet, as he was a Commander and not a Professor.

Alcott shrugged as he set the tray down and pulled out the chair positioned beside the Commander. “Meh, you’ll always be a Professor to me; that is, if you don’t mind?” Ezrah understood it to be a slight breach to the decorum protocol, but it was difficult to envision Professor McSteamy as anything but an academic, perhaps in time that would change, but for now the title of Professor seemed more appropriate than, Commander or even Chief. The term also did well to place Alcott a bit more at ease both professionally and personally; he couldn’t quite understand why as of yet, perhaps the Professor served as a subtle form of regularity, something constant in a career filled with unknowns.

“If it makes you feel better,” Stanton replied, looking at him for another moment. He wasn’t demanding in respect to protocol, but he knew that there were lots of other crewmembers who had at least seen him as a professor, if not who had taken classes from him, over the past few years; he wondered if he’d be ‘Commander’ to anyone. “It does make me feel a little old, though,” he added, with only a small smile, as ate some more of his breakfast, slowly. “At least the food is good here,” he mused.

“Old?” Ezrah quipped with astonishment at the Professor’s confession. “You can be any more than, what, forty?” He jested, placing the white clothed napkin over his lap. “Although you’re looking remarkably well preserved…it must be all that…” Alcott looked over at the Professor’s meal, “oatmeal you’ve been eating.” Smearing a smaller amount of butter than grape jelly on a slice of toast, Ezrah took a bite from the bread corner as he grinned mischievously.

“When I graduated from college, you were twelve,” Stanton replied, attempting to sound disgruntled, though his nervous tick of fidgeting with his hair showed itself, before he had a chance to stop himself. He looked down and took a bite of his oatmeal. “Must be filled with chronitons,” he said, dryly.

Ezrah chuckled, “I guess it helps that I like ’em older.” The joke probably didn’t make any sense to the Professor, but it made Alcott laugh regardless. “So, I’m sorry about yesterday… really I am. I didn’t mean to offend.” He took a bite of eggs, avoiding the Professor’s gaze in the process.

“It’s ok; you meant well,” Stanton replied, softly. “It wasn’t especially commander-like for me to storm off,” he added, with a sigh. “Though, I’ve never really been all that commander-like.”

Alcott shrugged, “You certainly weren’t expecting this, were you?” He asked simply, gesturing with a fork around him, meaning the Challenger.

“I was expecting to be grading exams, right about now. The Challenger‘s an amazing ship, but I had planned on waiting for Discovery. Plans are fragile things, though,” the commander replied, after eating a piece of bacon. “I like the challenge; I just… well, you know. You know a lot about me… a lot more than most ensigns should know about commanders,” he added, half-smiling, as he thought about it.

“What do you mean?” Alcott cocked his head to the side, curious at the Professor’s proclamation. Alcott consumed another forkful of eggs, followed by a bite of toast.

“Sorry; that was sort of two different ideas,” Stanton said, quickly. “You know that I’m preoccupied, and you know… uh… stuff… about me, so I should shut up and stop rambling about my own issues; you should say something. That’s what I meant,” he explained, as he busied himself with his oatmeal, again.

Alcott couldn’t help the broad grin and chuckle at the Professor’s reply. “You’re about as tactful as I am at this whole… personal talk thing.” He joked, gently poking at the Professor’s bicep. “I think you and I can agree that we’re both in the same situation here… the only difference is, you haven’t seen me in all my glory whereas I… well, yeah.” He paused, blushing at the slip of tongue. “But! I think we can both help each other out. I have to admit, I don’t let people in very easily and I’m sort of a lamebrain at saying the wrong thing… at the wrong time… but if you’re up for it, I think we could be good for one another.” He urged.

“Well… I was ordered to make friends,” Stanton replied, somewhat cryptically. “I mean, yeah, it’s always good to talk,” he added, blushing a little for a number of reasons, including the fact that he had been touched, something that he didn’t normally like.

“I’d like for us to be friends, but not because we were ordered to.” Alcott replied seriously. “But if you’re willing to give me a chance, I might surprise you.” He looked into the Professor’s eyes for a long moment, his own light-blue coloured orbs conveying his statement with absolute genuineness.

“Sorry; I was just remembering something Alex said the other day,” Stanton replied, sheepishly. “I… well, I’m sure we’ll become pretty close, being stuck on this ship,” he added, before attempting to clarify, “I mean…yeah.” he ended up saying.

Alcott reached out and gently gripped the Professor’s wrist, “awwww, come on… It’s not so bad here, I suppose. Although, I guess I’m being a little biased, you didn’t really have a choice in your assignment, I did. But I chose the Challenger, for many reas-.” Alcott paused for a moment, glancing at the Professor, “wait, what did Alex say?” He grew nervous, unsure of what McHotty may or may not have shared.

“Well, before he visited, he said that he wanted me to have made five new friends by the end of the week,” Stanton replied, his posture stiffening in a barely perceptible way, at being touched again. “We also said that we wouldn’t miss each other and that we’d do our jobs poorly… Last time, I took it pretty hard,” he added.

If Alcott had been anyone else, he may have missed the minute change in Professor McSteamy’s posture. Because he grew up with a mute mother, he had the inherent ability to detect even the slightest of body gestures. It was an important aspect of signing; to not only translate one’s hand gestures, but also their body language, no matter how small. For the signing community though, touch was an intricate part of their language, it was a way in which they could convey their feelings and emotions; when language failed, the practicality of physical touch took more importance. Alcott had relied on this aspect of communication his entire life, often neglecting to remember that not all people were receptive to touch. To him it was a foreign concept, like two puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together. He remembered in his childhood that other children sometimes took offense to this, but most were very understanding and remained open minded. In Professor McSteamy’s case, all he could do was apologise and try to explain.

“I’m sorry… you’re not fond of touch, are you?” He noted softly.

“I’m just not used to it; I tend to stay inside my personal bubble,” The commander replied.

Alcott nodded, “For me, it’s hard to communicate without using touch. It’s such an important part of how I communicate with others, that I often forget that some simply don’t like to be touched.”

“Is there any particular reason?” Stanton asked.

“My mother is mute, as was I until about four years of age. Signing uses touch as a way to convey our feelings and emotions, when words simply won’t suffice. I assure you; it wasn’t an attempt to make you feel uncomfortable.” Alcott concluded sincerely.

“Ah, well, I understand. I didn’t think you were, I’m just… not used to it. My family’s pretty reserved, and I just never… Well, I never really developed a very touchy-feely personality,” the commander replied, looking at him.

Alcott smiled, “I find that hard to believe considering what I saw yest-.” He caught himself before finishing the sentence. “So, reserved, right…. um, I get that.” He cleared his throat, sipping from his beverage waiting for the awkward moment to pass. “So, um, what is it that you like to do… for fun I mean?”

Stanton looked at him wide-eyed and blushing for a moment, before speaking. “Well… I like tennis… and reading… and, well, sometimes I like to build little model ships,” the engineer said, slowly. “I’m really not all that exciting,” he added, with a smile.

Alcott wasn’t quite certain as to why he continued to reference yesterday’s stumble upon Professor McSteamy and McHotty, perhaps because the imagery was seared into his mind’s eye; whatever the case, he made a mental note to try and never reference it again… ever. “Hmm, I’ve never played tennis before, perhaps you could teach me.” Alcott wasn’t terrific at sports but enjoyed playing them none-the-less. The building models sounded interesting, Alcott had never dabbled in that either, but thought that perhaps he might not have the detailed eye for something like that. Alcott did read quite often, virtually whenever he had a spare moment or two… it was one of his favourite pastimes. “‘It’s sometimes those of us whom we perceive as being boring that surprise us the most when the time comes and it truly matters.’” Alcott quoted the Denobulan writer Frilox, one of his absolute favourites. “What about music? Do you have any favourite composers or vocalists? Oh!” He suddenly interjected, “what about an instrument… do you play?”

“Well, I usually like Classical music or Jazz. I used to play the clarinet, but I was awful,” Stanton replied, after a moment of thought. “I hadn’t really thought about tennis on the ship; I think the gym has space that can be converted for that,” he wondered aloud. “So, are you a musician?”

“Learning a new sport would be interesting, if the gym could be converted for such, I’d be interested in at least learning the fundamentals.” Alcott pushed his tray of half-eaten food aside, no longer hungry or interested in it. “I’ve been trying to teach myself the cello; I’m picking it up quicker than I had expected, which is a pleasant surprise. Otherwise no, not typically.” He confessed. “I wonder if there is an area in the gym that could be converted for dance?” His eyes were intent on Professor McSteamy’s.

“Well, it’s a big open room, so… presumably?” Stanton said, in an uncertain tone. “I don’t really dance, so I don’t know what… equipment… you need for that,” he added, thinking about it.

“Well, nothing too drastic… a few mirrors, perhaps a balance bar and some floor mats. That’s about it.” He rattled off excitedly. “I could teach you… to dance I mean. You teach me tennis; I teach you how not to have two left feet!” Alcott offered with a nod of his head as he gently chewed at his bottom lip. If the gym could be converted, perhaps he could finally get back into dance, enjoying the best of both worlds.

“Well… I’m really not that coordinated; I don’t know if it’d be a good idea,” Stanton said, trying to say no without actually saying it, as he finished his breakfast.

“Aww come on! It’d be fun and you wouldn’t look at all awkward in spandex, you could even send McHotty a picture of you… that would sure as heck get his warp core humming!” Alcott’s face drained of colour as he smacked a hand over his mouth and eyes went wide. Inwardly he relentlessly chided himself for letting slip his and Audrey’s nickname for Rodham. “You didn’t hear that.” The plea muffled through his hand. Ezrah cursed himself and his youthful indiscretions.

“I… um,” Stanton started, closing his eyes for a moment. “I should probably go get the actual warp core humming,” he said, looking at his wrist chronometer.

Ezrah nodded very slowly before replying, “Yes, of course. I should probably go… do something.” He finished, absolutely mortified.

“H-Have a good day, ensign,” Commander Stanton said, before returning his breakfast dish to the proper place in the mess hall, and then quickly leaving the room in the direction of main engineering.

His eyes followed the Professor’s departure before he allowed his forehead to meet the table’s surface in personal defeat, “So awkward! So very awkward!”

The crewman sitting across the mess hall merely snickered before continuing to eat their breakfast, evidently amused at the social fumbles.

As Stanton entered engineering and began bringing the systems online for launch, he couldn’t help but wonder at that comment that the young ensign had wanted him to forget. It was quite possible, he decided, that he had found someone who was more awkward than he was.

Almost an hour later Commander Stanton straightened his uniform in a barely perceptible way as he crossed the threshold from the D Deck corridor to the upper level of main engineering. The compartment was already abuzz with activity, as engineers went about their assigned tasks. It was slightly less full than it had been during the past few days, with the absence of yard engineers, but there was a definite energy about the place as everyone prepared to make the final step from having an incomplete hulk to a functional starship — the launch. Unlike Enterprise, Challenger was more than prepared for her upcoming mission; the parameters were clear, and the ship itself was in top shape. Stanton had made sure of that; the last several days had been spent crawling through every access space on the ship, checking every single system from the main computer to the new reinforcements in the structural integrity field to the new formulation for the ship’s warp stress coating.

“Lieutenant, have the team leaders meet me in front of the gravimetric field distortion manifold in five minutes,” Stanton said, as he came up to his second in command. The Asian woman nodded curtly to him, before going off to complete her assignment. As she did so, Stanton took another walk around engineering, taking note of all the enhancements that had been made to the basic design of Earth starships since the last time he had served the fleet in a space bound role.

As a professor, he had been on the forefront of instruction and the theoretical aspects of engineering, and indeed had come up with several of Challenger‘s innovations in his own laboratory, but there was a certain level of apprehension to be felt about transitioning from shore duty to an active starship. Most of that stress translated into excitement, but he felt a certain amount of trepidation as he looked at the large reactor sitting in the middle of the room; he would be the first engineer to see it put through all of its paces, and to manage the, for the time, gargantuan staff aboard the ship. He carefully climbed down the steep steps to the lower level of engineering, to meet his now-assembled staff.

“Alright, everyone. We know our jobs. We’ve been planning this for a long time. Things are going to go smoothly, today, as long as we remember our training, and do our jobs,” the Commander said, as he looked around at them. 

He was three full steps in rank above all of them; none of the officers were more than a few years out of their initial training, and there were relatively few senior enlisted members of his department. It made him somewhat nervous; he was expecting a Lieutenant or possibly a Lieutenant Commander as a Second Engineer, but he had forced himself to take faith in their assignments, just as he had forced himself to accept his own assignment to the ship. 

“I know that I am not who you trained with,” he started. “Well, apart from those of you who I’ve had in class,” he added, when he recognized a few faces, to a few laughs. “But… We can do this. I’m really proud of everything I’ve seen here, and I know we’ll do fine,” he concluded, as he looked around some more. “Dismissed,” he said, remembering it that time, before climbing up onto the reactor platform.

“So, it gives me great pleasure to once again launch another fine vessel and with her a crew that has already been tested. We wish her godspeed and clear horizons!” 

A round of applause and cheers filled the observation deck after Admiral Gardner had finished his speech before handing over to the speech that the inventor of warp drive gave many years ago via video recording. Now as Captain Burton led his senior staff through the decks of their ship the words the admiral had spoken were resonating in the captain’s mind. Everyone knew that the crew had dealt with its first crisis; many wondered how they would fare in deep space. Only time would tell Burton imagined. 

The lift ride up to the bridge was silent. He shared the small cart with his first officer, armoury officer, pilot and new communications officer. Burton had yet found the time to properly get to know his new linguistic expert. He made a mental note to find the time to speak one to one with Hennessy. 

Burton looked at the others in the lift with him. A mixture of excitement, anxiety and concern filled the atmosphere. He admitted to himself he felt a combination of those feelings. This was it he would be sitting in that centre chair for the first time. He felt his stomach do several back flips as the doors eventually opened. He allowed for the others to go first and soon came in after Levesque.

Stopping in the centre of the room he looked at them all before speaking. “Well here we are,” he said. The night before he had practiced a speech in his mind, however he couldn’t remember it for the life of him. So instead he took his chair with an audience watching him as he did it. He felt he did it with ease and confidence. He sat up tall but relaxed into the quite modern chair. He looked at his communication officer. “Ensign request permission to leave.”

Over at communications, Ensign Hennessy lifted the wireless listening device, placing it in his ear. He pressed a button on his control panel and spoke a few words quietly and then waited.

“Control grants permission for the ship to depart, Captain,” he finally said.

Burton then turned to his helm officer. “Take us out Ezrah. Nice and smooth.”

Alcott was seated comfortably behind the helm console, eyes intent on the various control panels. At hearing the Captain’s order, he glanced over his shoulder and smiled back in response. “Aye, sir. Preparing to disembark.”

His hands manipulated the various console interfaces, depressing several strings of commands into the plotting computer. “Releasing berth umbilical cords.” Alcott announced as the computer acknowledged the command. On the bridge, there was a muffled vibration that reverberated along its length of bulkhead, a physical signal that the umbilical locks had disengaged; red indicator lights flickered to green in confirmation of this. “Now disembarking the Warp Five Complex at port speed, coordinates three-seven mark five should provide a respectable distance from dock, sir.” Alcott finished, sliding the manual accelerator upwards with his left hand while his right adjusted thruster control. “Professor Stanton, port ventral thrusters are a little sluggish, Sir.”

I’m diverting some extra power down there,” Stanton replied, considering correcting the ensign on his title, but then thinking better of it, as he adjusted the power flow to that particular thruster unit. Commander Stanton was in Main Engineering monitoring the ship’s power levels closely as it slipped out of the dock. The engine design was proven, but there were a few enhancements from the last unit off of the line, including more sophisticated plasma accelerators and a more robust power distribution network. So far, everything seemed to be going as it should have been, and Stanton couldn’t help but be excited. The engineer went back to his other tasks, in preparation to take the ship into warp for the first time. He was confident that the ship would be able to do so, but there was always an air of nervousness that came with operating such a major component for the first time.

On the bridge Alcott activated the applicable thruster control once again, “that’s much better; thank you, Sir.” 

With a smooth, steady gracefulness, the Challenger slowly slipped from within the confines of the Warp Five Complex.

Alcott could feel the pressure of his heart beating against the inside of his chest cavity in concealed excitement and a tinge of fear; he hoped their departure had been smooth enough for the Captain. “We’re now clear of the structure, Captain Burton.” He noted as the ship continued to pull forward in space. He adjusted his posture, hoping to relax a bit of tension caused by his rigid posture.

The large leather seat was comfortable to be in. Burton was finding himself starting to relax in it which wasn’t helping him to try to keep up the appearance of being poised and ready as the ship took its first few strokes out on to the waters of space. When Alcott announced they were finally free of the superstructure the captain sat up straight in his chair as he handed out the next set of orders. 

“Mister Alcott put us in synchronous orbit above Paris.” He ordered hoping their guests wouldn’t be too late. 

“Aye, Captain.” Alcott replied. His hands danced over the helm controls, pleased at how quickly and efficiently the systems were responding. Alcott could certainly feel a significant difference in how the Challengerhandled when compared to a shuttlepod; it was a little less fluid, a little more cumbersome, but easy enough to steer none-the-less. Entering the necessary calculations, Alcott directed the Challenger to the appropriate coordinates, adjusting the ships speed when necessary. “Entering geosynchronous orbit with Earth, Captain; our orbit should match that of Paris, France.”

Burton looked over to his science officer. “Commander Levesque, scan for Secretary Campbell’s transport.” 

“Aye sir.” Levesque replied as she looked down from the view screen to her console. Switching the main sensors to manual it took her only a few moments to locate the Secretary’s ship. “Got them coming up from Paris, bearing two-seven-two mark seven-five.”

“Put it up, Ensign Hennessey.” Burton ordered with a nod to his communication’s officer. 

The main screen changed to show the approach of a standard Earth transport ship rising from the French capital. The transport was about three times the size of a standard shuttlepod and had no armaments to speak of. It was outfitted with a warp drive and could only achieve speeds up to warp one point four. 

“Give them permission to dock.” Burton ordered before standing up from his chair. He looked over to his Armoury Officer. “Commander Callahan, the bridge is yours. Once the Secretary and her staff are all safely aboard and her ship has departed then get us under way at full impulse to meet up with the task group. By the time I get back up here, tell Commander Stanton I want us to go to warp.”

Callahan nodded, and hit the comm on the tactical station to discreetly summon the relief armoury officer to the post. Had this been a run-of-the-mill departure from spacedock he might have been inclined to assume command from his station; it wasn’t as if he couldn’t see the whole of the bridge from there or keep track of multiple issues at once. But this was no run-of-the-mill situation; this was leaving spacedock for the first time, with a dignitary on board, no less. The last thing he wanted was for something to go wrong on his watch because he hadn’t been paying enough attention.

Not to mention that before Challenger he had never been a part of a ship’s command team, never been anything more than a lowly Armoury Officer on the senior staff. John Callahan wasn’t accustomed to not being experienced at handling the situation before him. When it came to the Big Chair, he was green as likely as anyone on the bridge, and had no desire to make a fool of himself. But, “aye, Captain,” was all he said as he rose to his feet, his voice not betraying an inch of the self-doubt he felt.

Burton turned to Levesque. “Commander, you’re with me.” He motioned as he led them to the lift to go and meet with the secretary at the airlock.

Stepping into the lift, Levesque quickly took up position next to the Captain and waited for the door to shut. Neither said anything for a moment. Whether they were both observing a moment of professional silence or that neither knew exactly what to say, she didn’t know. 

“Very good speech sir…brought a tear to my eye.” Levesque finally said, a grin plastered across her face.

Burton turned to Levesque and gave her cheeky wink as the lift descended towards their destination.

As Burton left with Commander Levesque, Callahan crossed the bridge to the captain’s chair. It loomed at him ominously. He was pretty sure chairs weren’t supposed to loom.

Then again, his instructions were simple and clear, and without further ado he sat himself down. Nothing went wrong at that first hurdle. It was pretty comfortable, really.

“Ensign Alcott, confirm when the Secretary’s transport is away; we don’t want to waste time twiddlin’ our thumbs,” he told Ezrah, perhaps redundantly.

Alcott turned in the chair and nodded towards Callahan, “Aye Commander!” There was a visual representation of Challengerdisplayed on the flight control console. There was a steady red light over the starboard docking port indicating it was currently in use; data streaming vertically beside the display indicated that it was a docked vessel, providing its designation as well as the docked craft’s most basic specifications. When the ship was prepared to depart, the steady red light would then start to blink and when the craft departed the light would switch to a steady green. Ezrah closely monitored his station, waiting for any changes to be reported by the computer or also manually.

Callahan forced himself to stop tapping his fingers on the armrest and instead hit the comm on the small control panel there. “Engineering; the captain’s going down to meet the VIP,” he said, each letter strung out in his Texan drawl. “That makes it about your fifteen-minute warnin’ on us goin’ to warp if you got anythin’ needing ironing out last-minute, sir.” He added the ‘sir’ specifically and with genuine respect; Callahan knew it was his own nerves making him fuss excessively and deferring to Stanton’s rank made it easier to sound like he was being helpful or procedural, rather than nagging the man about his own engine room.

“Acknowledged. I’m tracking down a minor power variance in the third stage starboard plasma accelerator, but we’ll be ready by then, bridge,” Stanton replied, as he looked at his master control board. He could see that one of the accelerators was sporadically dipping in power consumption, hopefully just as a response to being brand-new. Minor power variance or not, the ship was totally ready to go, in his opinion.

Callahan let out a deep breath and leant back in the captain’s chair, trying to make his back unknot. He was not made for starship command; had never wanted it or even dreamt of it. Even on something as simple as keeping the ship stable while they docked with another ship wasn’t making him worry, per se – but his thoughts were more concerned with the million-to-one odds of something going wrong, which he simply dismissed out of hand or confidently knew were dealt with when he was sat at tactical. It was ridiculous.

He glanced around the bridge. “Anyone know where we might get a recordin’ of the ceremony?” The thought only occurred suddenly, and he cursed himself inside for not thinking of it earlier.

Captain Burton stood up straight as the airlock went through the final cycle before it unlocked and allowed the door to swoosh open. Levesque was standing to his right, per protocol, when their guests finally arrived. Burton had given her an assuring smile prior. This was it. Their first mission was under way. He prayed he didn’t muck this up.

The two Starfleet officers were now facing Secretary Campbell along with four others. Madelyn Campbell was a tall woman who stood with an air of confidence. She had brown hair that was bobbed just below her ears and deep brown eyes that showed compassion in them. The secretary wore a grey skirt-suit with a white blouse underneath. Pinned to the collar of her jacket was a silver brooch that had an English Celtic style to it. She greeted the captain with a warm smile.

“Secretary Campbel, welcome aboard Challenger.” Burton greeted her as he extended his hand to the politician.

Campbell took his hand and shook it gently. “Thank you captain, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Burton replied before gesturing towards Levesque. “This is my first officer and chief science officer, Commander Nicolette Levesque.”

Campbell extended her hand towards Levesque. “Greetings commander.”

“A pleasure Madam Secretary.” Levesque said, taking the woman’s outstretched hand in her own.

The secretary then turned to the man who had been standing to her side. He was of a similar height and age as her. He had brown hair too that was starting to recede with a few hints of grey hair appearing around the edges. “This is my husband and chief of staff Robert Campbell.”

Once again Burton and Levesque shared a handshake with the secretary’s husband. Campbell went on to introduce the others as members of her staff that would be helping her with the negotiations on Denobula. The formalities were now over, the airlock door had now closed behind the Challenger’s new guests. 

“Let us show you where you will be staying.” Burton said as he gestured for them to head towards the nearest lift. He looked to Commander Levesque. “Commander, please inform the bridge to get us underway.”

“Aye sir.” Moving away from the group for a moment Levesque activated one of the nearby com-panels. “Bridge, the Secretary is aboard, her ship has disembarked too. You are cleared to engage at your discretion.”

The group then moved off with Burton and Secretary Campbell walking side by side at the front with Levesque following with the secretary’s husband next to her. The rest of the secretary’s staff brought up the rear. 

“So captain, how has your crew dealt with your recent losses?” Madelyn inquired, as they turned right taking the long journey around E deck to get the lift that would take them to G deck to the guest quarters. 

Burton took in a breath before answering the question. “They’ve adjusted as well as you could expect ma’am. They’ve placed a lot of focus on getting Challenger ready for launch.”

Robert Campbell then spoke up. “Commander Levesque, I understand that you were originally on-board Columbia?”

“Yes sir, as Chief Science Officer. I had been aboard her since she launched last year.”

“Was it hard to leave Columbia?” He inquired as they moved past the entrance of cargo bay one. 

“Yes and no. I have a lot of friends aboard Columbia that I will miss. Captain Hernandez and I go way back. She actually recruited me off the Intrepid. That being said I’ve been in Starfleet for twelve years and this is my fourth assignment. After a while you get used to it.” She replied with a slight sigh.

The group soon turned right again passing a few enlisted officers’ quarters. The conversation was flowing considerably well. Burton then decided to turn his attention about the mission at hand. “Ma’am do you see any issues in the Denobulans not wanting to join the Coalition?”

Campbell smirked at that and gave her husband a quick glance before answering. “That’s funny, my son Thomas asked the same thing before we left.” She continued. “My heart says there shouldn’t be any issues besides assuring them of the benefits of joining it; however experience has taught me to prepare for the worst.”

“The Secretary spent six weeks trying to convince the Denobulan Premier to reconsider his position on relations with Earth after the Xindi attack.” Her husband remarked.

“One of the toughest tenures during my ambassadorship to Denobula.” Madelyn added. “However Premier Nerlox was eventually swayed.”

The group eventually reached the doors to the lift and the captain pressed the button to request its presence. The doors soon opened, and he led them all in the lift. It was a bit cramped but breathable. He couldn’t quite reach the button to take them to G deck, so he winked to Levesque to do it for him.

Catching the gesture from the Captain, Levesque tapped the control panel and the lift began to descend. 

The lift soon moved at full speed, heading down to the bottom deck of Challenger. As soon as they reached their destination the doors swished open and Lloyd led them out. 

“Have either of you dealt with the Denobulans before?” Madelyn inquired as they filled out of the lift.

Burton nodded. “I once visited Denobula Triaxa two years ago. My ship was assisting one of its colonies with relief efforts after it was struck by devastating seismic activity.”

The Foreign Secretary looked to Levesque. “And how about you commander?”

“A few times aboard Columbia, our route brought us near Denobulan space; we’d often run across a trade ship from one of their colonies. We actually managed to pull one of them out of a tight spot once. There was also this one doctor I knew back when I was an Ensign, but that’s a story for a different time…” Nicole trailed off trying to avoid the knowing glance coming from the Secretary.

Burton then motioned for them to carry on walking. “G deck is pretty much assigned to guests. If you need anything stewards will be available. Just make a call to our senior steward, Petty Officer Rose Buck and she will be able to deal with whatever requests you have.”

The captain showed the secretary to her quarters that contained a double bed that she would obviously be sharing with her husband. 

“This is fine captain. Thank you.” She said as she looked around the room.

“Your belongings will be brought along shortly by Crewmen Proude and Spargo.” Burton assured them. “We’ll let you settle in and then please join us for lunch at twelve hundred hours in the captain’s mess.”

The captain and his first officer soon left their VIPs alone to get used to their accommodation. So far so good, Burton thought.