Enterprise sailed toward the planet at low warp, setting an almost leisurely pace in keeping with the mood of the crew. Even though only a portion of them had been able to take part in the recent shore leave on Risa -- the self-proclaimed pleasure planet -- the mood of relaxation had been contagious. Throughout the ship, people were considerably less stressed and actually appeared to be enjoying the often repetitive tasks of maintaining the ship as it traveled through space. Of course it helped that no one had fired upon the ship in several days.
In their current mission, making contact with a new species was primarily the responsibility of the senior staff, while the rest of the crew continued their day-to-day work, eagerly anticipating data regarding the latest alien interaction. Once the data began streaming in, their fun began. Each department would glean bits of information most suited to its field of study and then examine it, learn from it, and prepare a report. The reports would be logged, compiled, and forwarded to Starfleet, where the folks back home would have their own fun. Being on the front line of exploring new worlds and new civilizations made even the lowest ranking crewmembers beam with pride over the importance of even the most menial of jobs.
True, there had been some awkward first contacts, the Klingons and the Andorians came to mind. Despite his crew's best efforts, the Klingons had been downright hostile. The Andorians dubbed the humans "pinkskins" and judged them guilty by association, but they seemed to be thawing...a little. The same could not be said of the race that was humanity's very first alien encounter, the Vulcans.
Captain Jonathan Archer thought over those first contact situations as he walked through the corridors of Enterprise. Their next mission promised to be almost as relaxing as the recent R&R had been -- or, he hoped, even more so considering his visit to Risa had ended rather abruptly.
Archer always looked forward to the thrill of making contact with new alien races even more than the rest of his crew did, although he tried not let it show through the professional air expected of all Starfleet captains. It was often difficult for him to keep in mind that with every thing he said and every move he made, he was representing the entire populace of Earth. It was daunting to say the least.
"Mornin', Captain," Commander Charles "Trip" Tucker said as he and Sub-Commander T'Pol caught up with Archer as they passed the mess hall.
"Sir." The Vulcan nodded her greeting.
"Good morning," he replied. "Have all the preparations been made?"
"Yes, sir," T'Pol replied. "We should be entering the star system shortly."
"They don't have a problem with us dropping by?" Archer asked as he entered his private mess followed by the officers. Stepping up to the serving station, he poured coffee for himself and Trip. Archer then poured T'Pol her mug of hot water and noted silently as she added a slice of lemon.
"Living dangerously?" teased Trip.
As the ranking officers on Enterprise, the trio had grown into a rather comfortable and sometimes even informal working relationship. Archer and Trip had been friends for years and quite often fell into casual banter when discussing official business. However, as a Vulcan, T'Pol had been much slower to understand the benefits of such a friendly, informal atmosphere, but had been gradually coming around as she grew more comfortable with the erratically emotional crew.
"On the contrary." T'Pol ignored Trip's teasing and continued her report. "The operations supervisor said they haven't had visitors in nearly six months."
A sly smile came to Trip's face. "Is it really a matriarchal society?" The grin broadened as his mind played over the full implications of his question. "Do the women make all the decisions?"
"Until recently," T'Pol explained, apparently without noticing the subtext in Trip's sudden interest in the colony's hierarchical structure. "But in the last decade, the Paraagan males have made great strides to acquire equal rights."
Accepting his own cup of coffee from the captain, Trip conspiratorially added under his breath, "Still, it'd probably be best if we didn't get too flirtatious."
"Probably," Archer agreed, knowing that the odds of his chief engineer making such a breech in protocol with the colony's leaders were slim, but probably higher than the possibility that he would do such. Back to the topic at hand, Archer was impressed by the accomplishments of the society they were about to visit. "I read that the colony started off twenty years ago with just thirty miners and now there are over three thousand. They have schools, landscaped communities, and even some kind of museum."
The three officers took their seats around the table, their empty breakfast plates waiting to be filled. They often dined together in the captain's mess, and their places had already been set for them as their meal was being prepared by Chef.
Trip considered the accomplishments of the Paraagans. "You think twenty years from now there'll be Earth colonies out this far? Human kids growing up on 'New Sausalito'?"
Archer thought over the idea while a flood of possibilities flashed through his mind. Their mission could easily involve discovering those suitable environments in which Earth could expand its borders into space. Early human exploration had always been motivated by the search for new land. Though Starfleet's interests were primarily scientific, it wasn't too much of a jump to add territorial concerns to the list.
"If my father was alive, he wouldn't doubt it for a minute," Archer said, referring to the man who had introduced him to the concept of space exploration, inspired his interests, and helped nurture them. "We're making history with..."
"...with every light-year," Trip continued the sentiment in unison with his captain and friend. "You know, I think I've heard you say that at least half a dozen times."
Archer was a bit embarrassed at being caught in his inspired ramblings. He took an almost gleeful pride at being given the opportunity to live out his dream, and his father's as well. It certainly wasn't his fault that every now and then he was awestruck by the enormity of what his crew was doing. The first humans to travel so far out into space, visiting new planets. How many other people woke up this morning to prepare for a meeting with a new race of people?
The com chirped, rousing Archer from his thoughts. Getting up from his chair, he took a few steps to the companel on the wall and pressed a button to make contact with whoever was paging him. "Archer here," he said into the air.
"The Paraagans have given us clearance to enter orbit," Ensign Mayweather's voice came over the com system.
"Have you received their landing protocols?" T'Pol asked from her seat.
"They're coming in now," Mayweather confirmed.
"We're on our way," Archer replied.
Trip and T'Pol were immediately out of their chairs.
"I hate meeting new people on an empty stomach," Trip said, looking down at the still empty plates.
"Perhaps you can find a Paraagan male willing to prepare you a substantial meal," T'Pol suggested, implying that she hadn't entirely missed the sexist undertones of the earlier part of the conversation.
Archer enjoyed seeing Trip caught off guard by her comment. He remembered how difficult things had been when she was first assigned to join them on their mission to return the Klingon, Klaag, to his homeworld. With every passing day she seemed to be better ingratiating herself into the crew and even developing a rather dry sense of humor. That's not to say that the crew was entirely at ease with the Vulcan science officer, but things were definitely getting better. Archer felt that the close Vulcan/human interaction was having a positive effect on T'Pol. The way she regarded humans had changed dramatically since her first days on the ship.
In much the same way, Archer knew that she had been changing his opinion toward Vulcans on the whole. Her calm, steady manner often provided the stability he needed in extreme situations, and her mere presence on his ship helped him better understand some of the misconceptions he had concerning her race.
"So what kind of greeting should we expect from the Paraagans? Are there any ceremonial customs we need to be briefed on?" Archer asked as they made they way to the launch bay. The main level of the bay was up one deck, but they could get to the shuttlepod just as easily by going through the lower level on E-deck.
"While the Paraagans as a race do observe a number of ceremonial customs," T'Pol explained as they continued their way around the corridors in the outer rim of the deck, "the colony has eschewed some of those customs. Their society has developed more of a...nonconformist attitude."
"Sounds like my kind of people," Trip said.
"There are no ritual greetings to my knowledge," T'Pol concluded, ignoring that last comment.
Archer nodded to a passing crewman. "You know, we should really consider bringing some kind of gift from Starfleet in these situations. We might want to design some kind of commemorative souvenir that is indicative of Earth culture."
"How 'bout one of them night-lights in the shape of Zefram Cochrane they sell in the gift shops in the Embarcadero," Trip suggested with a laugh. "Kids just love those things."
Archer chuckled at the idea as well, knowing it was purely intended as a joke. "That's not exactly what I had in mind."
"Not all races appreciate the custom of exchanging gifts," T'Pol reminded him as they reached the launch bay. "Some people may see it as an insult, no matter what the gift."
"Even so, I hate going places empty-handed." Archer tapped a button to open the hatch. "Maybe I'll discuss it with Admiral Forrest during our next briefing."
"If you insist," T'Pol replied as they entered the launch bay.
He had gotten used to T'Pol's tone of disapproving acquiescence; he'd heard it so many times before. At least I've been hearing it a lot less lately, he thought as they climbed up to the main level.
"The shuttle's ready for departure, Captain." Lieutenant Malcolm Reed's head popped out the hatch upon hearing their footsteps approaching. "I've completed the preflight."
"Good job, Malcolm," Archer replied, stepping into Shuttlepod One along with Trip and T'Pol. He was always pleased when his ship ran like a well-oiled machine. It was a testament to his own abilities that his hand-picked crew always functioned in top form, especially considering they had departed Earth far earlier than they had planned and, as a result, had been playing catch-up for months. Having the shuttle ready for departure by the time he stepped into the launch bay was what Archer expected of his tactical officer. Enterprise was easily becoming the example of what a Starfleet ship should be.
Pulling the hatch shut behind them, Reed took his seat at the helm, making final preparations to launch as Enterprise hovered in orbit. The planet was a swirling mass of blue and green -- somewhat unexpected for a world that was a mining colony.
From the underbelly of the ship, the bay doors slowly opened and Shuttlepod One drop-launched into the cold expanse of space. Reed fired the engines and began the slow and deliberate descent toward the planet. As they approached the atmosphere, sunlight streamed through the pod's ports.
Working judiciously at the helm, Reed was concentrating on the procedures for entering the planet's atmosphere. "This should take a bit longer than usual."
"It wouldn't be very polite to ignite their atmosphere," Archer casually observed, intentionally concealing any tone of concern in his voice. "When are you supposed to close the plasma ducts?"
Focusing on both his captain's question and the task at hand, Reed continued to work the helm. "The protocols said fifty kilometers, but to be on the safe side, I'm going to lock them off at about seventy-five." With a few more buttons Reed confirmed that the plasma ducts were closed and locked. Going over procedures in his head, he double-checked his own work, knowing the importance of the calculations.
As Reed continued working at the helm, Archer knew it was best not to distract the lieutenant, so he busied himself by mentally preparing his opening greeting to the Paraagans. At the same time T'Pol moved up to speak with him on that very same subject.
Taking the jumpseat beside Archer, T'Pol expressed her concern. "Although the matriarchal elements of the culture have diminished, it might be best if I were to ask..."
But she never finished the sentence. A series of blinding flashes of light burst through the ports, illuminating the compact shuttlepod, followed by the sounds of a massive explosion.
Archer grabbed for a handhold as the shuttle was rocked hard by a massive shockwave. He watched his crew go flying as the ship was buffeted by the explosion, and he could feel it flipping end over end.
"Report!" he yelled, but knew it was pointless. Reed was no longer attending to the helm, as he had been flung to the side.
The ship tumbled through space and Archer heard a muted thud that he could only assume was one of his crew making hard contact with some part of the ship interior. His senses were assaulted by the sights and sounds of the out-of-control pod as his mind tried to fathom what was going on.
Outside the small vessel a titanic explosion expanded in all directions for kilometers. It began in the heavens as the very air around the shuttle caught fire and spread down to the globe. Flames plumed off the land and spread faster than any wildfire could ever move as the blaze quickly covered the entire world.
Once the blast subsided and the smoke cleared, the swirling blues and greens of the planet were gone -- replaced only by scorched and dead land. The ground continued to burn in patches everywhere, looking like small fires from space, but in reality each covered kilometers and kilometers of barren expanse.
Copyright © 2002 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.