October 28th 2297
Uhura shifted her gaze from the star field in front of the warp shuttle to her companion. "How much longer before we get back to the Hyperion, Tucker?"
Tucker consulted the display. "Three, three and a half hours, Captain. This buggys nice, but were not going to set any warp speed records with her. And the Hyperion has been moving away from us while weve been traveling."
"No joke," the captain sighed. "I still cant fathom why the ambassador from Troyius was so insistent that I had to tag along for the ride. I understand that he had to get to where he was going, and the need to send the shuttle, but his demanding that I come along was totally unexpected."
"Id guess its a status thing, frankly," Tucker returned without taking his eyes off the helm. "That, and I dont think the being liked eating alone. I thought he was going to empty out the dispenser he demanded Indri put on board."
The Bantu rolled her eyes. "Who would have believed someone that skinny could pack it away like he did? I wish I could gorge like that and get away with it."
"Hey, all it takes is extra hours in the workout area!"
"There arent enough hours in the day to burn off the amount of food he packed away," Uhura snorted. "Tell you what, talking about food has made me hungry. Im going to head back there and see if there is anything left. How about a cup of coffee and a sandwich?"
"You dont have to do that, Captain."
"I know I dont, Joe, but status isnt something Im hooked on, even if the Troyan ambassador is. And you didnt have to pilot the shuttle so Marsden could get the rest of his beauty sleep."
"Aw, he needed it, Captain." Tucker made a face, realizing the double meaning to what he had said. "What I mean is that Jims been doing some long hours studying hard preparing for the promotion to reach Lieutenant Commander, and hes been pretty tired lately."
Uhura headed back to the rear of the shuttle. "Im getting me a bite, either way. If youre hungry, Im delivering." She began working with the dispenser.
"Forget it, Captain." Tuckers voice suddenly had a tone of urgency and command in it. "And forget your sandwich, too. Make sure that that dispenser is tight and strap in, fast."
Without taking time to think, Uhura obeyed. "Whats the matter?"
"Theres a huge, ugly ion storm dead ahead, coming at us big time. It exploded out of nowhere, and its big and wretched. Were going to have to find somewhere to shelter." The reflection of Tuckers face on the forward windshield was grimly intent on the controls. "This oned be rough on the Hyperion, let alone a pipsqueak like this."
"Its too big to dodge?"
"Exactly." The lieutenant looked at the helm again. "Right between us and the Hyperion, to boot. No way around, Im afraid. And if that isnt bad enough, its ramping up fast. We are in one big cluster of trouble."
"We passed a system with a habitable planet about fifteen, twenty minutes ago, didnt we?"
"Yeah. Thats where Im heading. Look, if youre a prayin woman, Captain, nows the time for it. Im not sure well make that planet before the storm hits us, and its..."
Before Tucker could finish the sentence, the craft began to buck. He produced a couple of Klingon words that werent exactly wise to use in front of a Klingon. "Tell you what, Captain, even if youve never been the praying sort before, this is the time to start. The core of this monster just blew through the roof in intensity. Itd twist the pylons on the Hyperion into pretzels. If were not dirtside before the center hits, were dead and cremated."
The lights in the cabin suddenly went out, to be replaced by the soft, red glow of the emergency lights. Tensely, but silently, Uhura watched as Tucker fought the storm, heading for shelter on the nearby world. As his fingers neared the console, she could see small electric discharges grounding through Tucker. With a fixed determination, Tucker continued to battle the ion storm, bringing the shuttle close to the planet. Before Tucker could get the shuttle into the planets shadow, from under the console, there suddenly came a barrage of sparks, followed by a brief burst of acrid smoke.
"So much for navigation. At least were not out in the middle of interstellar space. Without impulse, were going to have to use atmospheric breaking to land, and its going to be manual control all the way." Tucker tightened his seat belt. "This is going get a whole lot rougher, Captain. Sorry."
True to Tuckers prediction, the shuttle began to shudder violently as it entered the upper atmosphere, then bounced off it like a stone skipping across water. Again and again, the craft shuddered and skipped, violently throwing Uhura and Tucker to and fro. Finally, the ship slowed enough to enter the atmosphere. As Tucker struggled with the manual controls, trying to optimize the ships attitude as it continued its descent, the crimson of superheated atmosphere partially obscured the view out the forward window.
With an almost painful slowness, the shuttle finally decelerated to a semblance of a reasonable speed. Before them, Uhura could make out a heavily wooded terrain, rapidly approaching. Still wrestling with the controls, Tucker guided the craft toward what seemed to be a hopeful place for final descent, clearly intent on using the friction of the shuttle colliding with the trees to brake the last of the ships speed. Fearful, but determined to master her fear, Uhura clung tightly to the seat she occupied. When collision seemed inevitable, she curled forward, trying to protect her head with her hands, hoping to use the seat before her as a shield. There was a deafening crash, an explosion, and she knew no more.
Reichard turned to Drevan, at Science Two. "Whats up, Drevan?"
"Sensors indicate that an ion storm has formed between the Hyperion and the warp shuttle."
"Its a bit tough to tell, Lieutenant Commander, but it looks huge, and its at nightmare intensity. Enough to send the Hyperion scuttling for shelter."
Reichard turned to Marsden. "Is there somewhere they can shelter?"
"Depends where they are. Near as I can estimate, Id say they werent too far from a modest planet with a breathable atmosphere. Drevan and his sensors arent going to be able to find them through the mess out there, so my guess is about all weve got. I know Tuckers smart enough to see this coming and find a safe port, so to speak, wherever he is."
"If hes got the time, Marsden," Drevan added. "This one came up out of nowhere, and its turning into a major mass of misery. There must have been a star that collapsed into a neutron star to power this."
"Is the Hyperion in any danger, Mister Drevan?" Reichard was suddenly all business.
"Minimal, sir. That is, unless we go after the captain and Tucker, which I wouldnt advise doing immediately. An ion storm like this one would blow half the circuits on board, and scour the hull smooth."
Marsden turned to face Reichard. The man was clearly torn. He slowly inhaled, then let the breath out. "Drevan, give Marsden the data on the storm. Marsden, assume Tucker made for the planet you mentioned. I want you to find a course to get there as soon as possible. I..."
"Lieutenant Commander, I am picking up the warp shuttles subspace emergency beacon." TSoral turned to face Reichard. "As best I can triangulate it through the storm, it is near or on a planet in a star system not far off their return course."
"Marsden," Reichard ordered, "find a way there, through the storm if you have to. Try to stay in survivable areas. Maximum survivable warp. Drevan, how soon will the storm abate enough to let us through?"
The Andorians antennae drooped slightly. "Not soon enough. This storm is still increasing in power. It doesnt look like itll hit its peak in less than eight hours and more likely twelve. Itll be another six to twelve hours after that before it dies down enough to be safe to enter. Its going to have to abate a great deal more than that before we can move them back to the ship. Im willing to bet that the warp shuttle isnt going to be spaceworthy, with the beacon going off, so I have to assume wed need to send down one of the standard shuttlesand I wouldnt want to risk using one of those in anything even a few percent as intense as this is. Thatll be a couple of days, maybe more. About all we can do, for now, is hope that they got down in one piece, and can hold out until we get there."
Reichards jaw clenched tightly in frustration. He turned to TSoral. "Get me Indri. There has to be a way of doing better than that. There has to be."
Uhuras first awareness was that it was raining, and she was getting wet. She opened her eyes to see a pathway before her, littered with chunks of broken trees and pieces of the shuttle. Around her, there was the last few meters of the shuttles hull; before her was a gaping open area where the rest of the shuttle had broken away. Half dazed, she stared ahead of herself wondering where the forward part, with Tucker on board, might have landed. Her left leg intruded into her consciousness; it hurt. Looking down, she could see where a piece of the wreckage had gashed the outside of her thigh for several inches. She released the seat belt and tried to reach for the emergency medical kit.
Although the leg bore her weight, it wasnt without complaint and a resumption of bleeding. With the medical kit freed, the captain sat back, twisting to examine the wound in greater detail. It looked deep, but no bone was exposed, and it didnt look to her like there was much, if any, injury to the underlying muscle. Carefully, she dressed the wound the best she could, pulling the outer dressing tight enough that, she hoped, the wound would pull together and tolerate walking better. There was a pre-loaded, pre-set hypospray marked "For Pain." Briefly, she considered using it on herself, but decided against it, at least until she knew how things stood with Tucker. He might need it worse than she did. The fact that he hadnt found her first caused Uhura to worry that he might be worse off than she was. Teeth gritted against the anticipated pain, Uhura stood.
Once on her feet, it seemed that the dressing had done some good. Standing still wasnt exactly comfortable, but it was far better than it had been. She repacked what was left in the medikit and closed it, tucking it under one arm. The path to wherever Tucker might be was obvious, even if strewn with debris. Picking her way carefully over the limbs strewn on the ground, Uhura made her way forward, watching carefully for hostile fauna, straining for evidence of her comrade, often slipping on the wet limbs, struggling to stay upright and to keep her grip on the medical kit.
Just as she began to think she would never make it to the forward remnant of the shuttle, she saw it lying on the ground, canted off to the left. Tucker was clearly still unconscious, hanging to one side of his chair, looking like a discarded rag doll. Spurred on by her compatriots obvious need, Uhura made her way to his side. Even before her fingers sought his carotid pulse, she knew Tucker was dead, but she checked, just to be sure. The skin on his neck was only barely warmer than the humid air around her, and there was no pulse.
Too exhausted to weep, Uhura sat on the remains of the control console, hugging the medical kit as if it were her lone link to reality, rocking to and fro in her grief. It was the throb of her thigh that forced her into action more than concern for herself. Before anything else, she decided, she had to take care of Tuckers remains. Opening the medical kit, she used the hypospray marked "For Pain." Whatever was in it failed to erase the discomfort completely, but it brought it down to a level that was much more bearable.
Closing the kit again, she braced it against an exposed strut and cast her eyes around the wreckage looking for something to use as a shovel. A strip of hull ceramic caught her eye. One end was slightly pointedjust enough, she hoped, to make digging a shallow grave possibleand the other, just curled enough to use as a handle. Hefting it, she was amazed at how light it was.
Carefully clambering down from the remains of the nose of the warp shuttle, Uhura found a clear area of ground, slightly sheltered by the wreckage. Using her make-shift shovel, she scooped a shallow grave, surprised at how soft and easily turned the soil was. Then, with some difficulty, she disentangled Tuckers remains from the restraints, laying him to rest. Once the soft soil had been scraped over Tuckers remains, the captain found a pair of reasonably straight sections of trititanium strut and, using some wire she pulled from under the console, lashed them into a rough cross that she put at the head of his grave.
The task done, she looked down at the place where shed put Tucker. I dont even know if he had any religious preferences, Uhura realized. I guess I knew more about his professional skills and preferences in recreation than I did about the real person behind it all. She knelt by the head of the grave, her grief overcoming her tiredness, tears suddenly flowing down her cheeks. "I wish Id known you better, Joe. There was time enough; I just never took the time to do it. May God grant you mercy, now that youre in His presence. After getting the shuttle down, and managing to keep me alive in the process, Id say you deserved a good deal of mercy."
Ultimately, Uhuras training overcame her emotions. For Tucker, she could do no more. Her task was to survive until the Hyperion could rescue her. Wearily, she made her way back to the stern of the shuttle. There wasnt enough shelter there to be safe, but there was food and water that she could harvest to take with her to where she could shelter until the ion storm abated and the Hyperion came for her.
A pity the ambassador insisted that there wouldnt be any weapons on board, the captain mused. A phaserd probably be the only way to start a fire in this rain. And it wouldnt hurt to have one on the off chance theres hostile fauna around. She gathered up the medical kit and began the return trek. Come to think of it, I think there was a good sized knife or two in the dining facilities the Ambassador demanded, and a powered carving tool I used on that haunch of beef he wanted carved. Not much of in terms of weapons and tools, but better than nothing. I guess ingenuity is going to have to make up the difference.
TSoral turned to Commander Reichard. "Engineering, Commander."
"Overhead, TSoral." Reichards voice belied the stress the man was feeling.
"Indri here, Commander. I think I have an approach to getting to the captain sooner."
"Fill me in."
"Once the storm dies down to where the Hyperion can navigate safely, at least with the shields up, the main limiting issue will be using the shuttle, and the interference with scanning to find Tucker and the captain. We wont be able to use the transporters because of the storm either. But if we use the Hyperion and its shields as a protective barrier, moving close enough to the atmosphere that a shuttle"
Reichard nodded, interrupting. "I see what you mean. Good. Prepare to get that rolling." He turned to Science Two. "Mister Drevan, how soon?"
"Twelve hours, max, more likely eight."
"Marsden," Reichard turned to the helm. "Prepare trajectory, starting in six hours. Take what Indri gives you and exploit it the best you can."
"Yes, sir. Request permission to take the shuttle dirtside."
There was a slight softening of Reichards face. "Jim, Id planned to take that risk myself. I cant ask you to do that."
Marsden shook his head. "Lieutenant Commander, Tucker took what should have been my place on that shuttle, mostly because Ive been doing too many long nights studying for the test for promotion, and I was beat. I owe him. I need to do this, sir."
"I understand. I guess Id feel the same way. Youll need at least one or two others; someone from Sickbay, and someone that can take the helm if you need it. Maybe Hardav?"
"With all due respect, Commander, I want Running Bear and Eletto, if theyll volunteer."
"Why?" Reichards forehead was wrinkled with puzzlement. "Lately, it seems like theyre on every away team; isnt anyone else worth having?"
"If the shuttle is wrecked, which we must assume given the data that we have, Uhura and Tucker will probably have sought shelter elsewhere. Assuming that the ion storm will still be raging when we get there, theres no way were going to be able to use tricorders to find them: theres going to be too much static. That pair can read more from footprints in the dirt that Drevan can with a scanner, under the circumstances. No disrespect intended, Drevan."
The Andorian turned to face Marsden. "None taken, Jim. Sometimes, I think that pair of loonies are clairvoyant, and I dont even believe in such things. Ken, I agree with Lieutenant Marsden. With that pair, youve got medical and engineering covered, with the ability to find em if theyve wandered away thrown in as well. Cant ask for more than that."
The commander recognized the wisdom in the request. "Off hand, it sounds like we need to get Greggson and a couple of security people trained to track; when this is over, Im going to see what I can do about that." Reichard shook his head, as if clearing it. "TSoral, get me Eletto first."
Uhura loaded the last container of water into the makeshift bag shed made out of a couple of cushion covers, some wire and significant ingenuity. She hefted it by the shoulder strap shed improvised out of a couple of sections of restraint belt. It was heavy, but if it was more than a day or so before the storm abated, she knew that shed wish there had been more. Emergency ration bars werent her favorite food, but the remaining power in the food dispenser wasnt enough to last long; ration bars would keep for days, and sustain her physically, even if they left a good deal to be desired otherwise.
Before she moved away from the remains of the warp shuttle, Uhura opened the medikit. The medication for the pain had worn off some time ago, but she had decided to see how long she could go without it. Her Bantu ancestors may have gotten along without such resources, but she had reached the point where she was unwilling to do so any longer. The hypospray hissed against her skin, delivering another dose. Within minutes, the throbbing pain in Uhuras leg receded to a dull ache again. Amazed by the width of the damage, she lifted the bag with the food and water onto one shoulder, and hanging the improvised strap for the medical kit onto the other, she started to move into the woods nearby, hoping to find a tree she could climb and nest in but still be able to see the shuttle when rescue came.
Other than the persistent drip of water from the trees, and the incessant patter of the rainfall, the forest was eerily quiet despite the occasional flashes of lightning. Under her feet, the soil was soft, almost spongy, but surprisingly, not yet muddy. Curiosity getting the best of her, the Bantu stooped and looked at the ground. Other than the areas that had been scraped clean, the ground was covered by a tightly woven mass of what looked like a moss or some small, vine-like plant that wound around itself. Moving onward, she wondered briefly whether there was any animal life at all.
One tree, at the edge of the path carved by the shuttle, caught her eye. There was a branch not too far from the ground, and just above it, a pair of branches coming out of the trunk near enough to each other that they might make a decent place to sit. The captain moved toward it, angling along the path the shuttle had carved in the forest, climbing up a felled trunk that looked to be nearly two meters in diameter.
As she reached the top, she realized that there were, indeed, dangerous lifeforms on the planet: protruding from under the trunk, thankfully very obviously dead, was a creature that looked like a cross between a mountain lion and a grizzly bear. The gaping mouth displayed what were clearly the teeth of an aggressive carnivore. Uhura moved a little further down the trunk to where the spongy ground was clear. Even dead, the beast was something that she didnt want to be too near, at least with no better weapon than the knife she carried. Carefully, trying to protect her injured leg, she lowered herself down the far side of the trunk and began picking her way toward her chosen roost.
Off to her right, Uhura heard a scratching, scrabbling sound. Instinctively, she crouched and turned to face it. Rather than a dangerous carnivore stalking her, the captain saw a creature, perhaps a little larger than a Labrador retriever, struggling to reach the berries hanging on a branch nearby. The lower portion of the creatures body was trapped between the soft soil and a large, heavy branch. In the length of time it took Uhura to assess her situation, the creature realized she was there and turned its large, warm brown eyes on the woman.
From deep in her past, the memory of her dog, Mbwa, intruded into her memory, as he lay on the ground dying after a surface transport had run over him. Slowly, she moved toward the branch the creature had been struggling to reach, bending it down to bring its fruit into the creatures reach. Hungrily, it grabbed the branch, stripping the fruit and wolfing it down. It harvested the last handful, looked at them then looked up at Uhura, extending the handful of berries to her. The look in its eyes made its meaning clear across species lines: it was offering the berries to her, perhaps in gratitude.
The Bantu smiled, pointedly keeping her lips together to hide her teeth. She reached down and gently pushed the hand back to the creature. With her other hand, she reached into her makeshift bag, drawing out a bottle of water and a cup. Moving with deliberate care, she poured a small volume of water into the cup, then offered it to the creature before her.
The creature ate the last of the berries, obviously still very hungry, and took the cup. First, the being sniffed the contents carefully, then sipped it. Realizing that it was water, it drank the cup dry. Large, brown eyes looked at Uhura again. She extended the bottle. The little creature did the same with the cup. Uhura brought the cup to a centimeter or so of being full. This little fellow knows a cup, and how to handle it, she mused. There is intelligence behind those eyes, real intelligence. Im probably breaking the prime directive, but there are limits.
As the creature drank the water, Uhura looked around for a branch she could use as a lever, and something that she could use as a fulcrum. With only a little effort, she found both. She rammed the end of the lever into the soft soil beneath the thick branch on the little creature, then shoved her fulcrum as close to the log as she could. Pulling hard with her arms, she lifted the branch a little bit, but not enough for the creature to free itself.
Determined to do for this creature what she could not do for her long lost pet, Uhura climbed onto the branch she was using as a lever, slowly and carefully walking along it. Her weight managed what her strength could not: with the fallen branch sufficiently off its back, the creature pulled itself out of the soil and made its way off into the forest. She stepped off her precarious perch.
Uhura smiled. "Goodbye, little friend." Somehow, rescuing the creature had given the captain a renewed sense of hope. For no good reason, she left the cup behind her, perhaps thinking to leave a reminder of herself if the creature ever returned, knowing that in a few days at most, it would disintegrate. She made her way to the tree.
Trekking the rest of the way to her chosen tree was uneventful. The first branch was lower than she thought, being barely higher than her shoulders. Climbing up onto it was comparatively easy, although painful for her wounded thigh; the transition, however, to the two limbs she had planned to use as a roost was more challenging than she had expected. By the time she was straddling the two limbs, her leg was throbbing again; no matter how she squirmed, she couldnt quite get into a position where she felt comfortable.
Frustrated, she struggled to her feet again. Using the powered carving knife, she removed a branch a few centimeters in diameter a hands breadth or so from the trunk. Hanging her makeshift tote from the stump of the branch, she cut the harvested branch into sections, laying them between the two branches, forming a rough seat. Bringing a second branch down, and hanging the medical kit from its remnant, she stripped the bark from it, using the bark to lash the seat together and to the branches under it.
Uhura sat down: the result was much better. She reached for the medical kit, intending to dose herself for the pain, again, but stayed her hand. Falling was too much of a risk. There was still bark left from the second branch, so Uhura wove it into a single, long rope. Passing it around the trunk, she resumed her seated posture, tying its free ends just below her ribs. Not necessarily up to Starfleet levels, but better than nothing. She pulled an emergency ration bar out of her tote, with a small flask of water.
Oddly, the emergency ration bar tasted remarkably better than she remembered it having done when she had last tasted one. After a few swallows from her water container, she returned it to the tote. Comfortable except for her throbbing thigh, Uhura decided it was time to take action to control the pain. That given, she leaned back against the trunk. Overwhelmed by the stress, she slowly drifted into a deep sleep.
As the limited light that filtered through the rain began to fade, small feet moved back to where Uhura had left cup. First one pair, then another, another and yet another appeared. The small crowd of the little creatures stood, softly making noises to each other. One, the creature that had been released from under the log, gestured and pointed, walking along the discarded lever until the log shifted again. The remaining creatures nodded, amazed by what they had seen. Considerably more of what seemed to be discussion ensued before they disappeared into the darkness, taking the cup with them.
Eletto ran the list of possibilities he might face on the planets surface through his head again, trying to be sure that he had everything he might reasonably need to handle it all. There was a profuse supply of medical resources, a couple of coils of rope, climbing gear, a good knife; the physicians mental eye ran down the list hed memorized long ago, ticking off the implements he expected to need for the rescue. So engrossed in his task was he that he failed to hear the approach of his superior officer. It wasnt until MBenga stretched out his hand and took Giacs shoulder that the physician turned his head.
"Keme, sorry, I didnt hear you coming."
"Does the captain have any favorite, high-calorie, low-weight foods? I was thinking of packing a couple of things like that, just in case shes disoriented and hungry. In the past, its been really helpful when Ive found folks."
"Anything chocolate, especially if its cream filled; a chocolate sponge cake, maybe, with filling and frosting. Ghassi can probably get around the food dispenser programs protective programming and get what you need whipped up." MBenga looked at the pack Eletto had been reviewing, then back at his friend. "Id say you were ready for almost anything short of a major armed assault." The Masai stared silently for a moment before saying anything further. "I wish I could go instead of you."
Eletto stood, turning to face the chief medical officer, somehow managing to keep the hand on his shoulder. He reached up, putting his hand on MBengas, looking up into the taller mans eyes. "I know, Keme. I wanted to be with my wife, Louise, there in the emergency area, and later, in surgery, when they brought her to the hospital after the accident that took her from me. We both know you have to stay behind, and we both know why."
Sighing, MBenga turned away from Eletto for a moment. "I know, but thats exactly why I wish I could be there. You know I..." The broad shoulders bowed. "I..."
Reaching out, Eletto turned his superior officer around, holding him by his shoulders, looking him squarely in the eyes. "I know, Keme. You love her, and you wish youd told her that before she left. Worse yet, youre afraid you wont ever get to tell her, now."
The Masai just nodded silently.
"Keme, believe me, Ill do everything I can, more if I can find a way to." He held his hand up, silencing his companion. "Trust me, Keme. Hard though it may be to believe, I feel like I owe her. I was rotting away on Kahla, spending more time talking to history students about things from my birth era that they thought they knew more about than I do, even though I was there. Since Ive come on board the Hyperion, Ive lived more than I have since the Enterprise left me on Kahla years ago. I want her back on the bridge almost as much as you do."
The two men locked eyes with each other. MBenga finally broke the silence. "Youll do the best you can, Giac, I know you will. I just want to tell her, so she knows."
"Dont worry, my friend; I think she already knows, but Ill find her, so you can tell her."
Awakening to the steady patter of endless, gentle rain, Uhuras first thought was to wonder if it ever quit raining on the planet. Her second thought was her leg. If anything, it hurt more than it had before she had dressed it; she could feel every heart beat in her thigh. Looking down, she could see that it was swollen, and through the rent in her skirt, she could see a red line traveling up from it a little ways. Just to be sure, she wiggled her toes: she still could move them, and could feel them move. That much was good.
Carefully, she reached for the medical kit, opening it. She pushed the end of the hypospray filled with medication for the pain against her leg. Nothing happened. Double checking the unit, she tried again. Clearly, it was exhausted. Frustrated, she foraged in the kit, turning up a hypospray labeled "dendromycin." Whether or not it would be effective against the microbes assaulting her leg, Uhura was uncertain, but she was sure that she wasnt allergic to it. The hypospray hissed, delivering the dendromycin to an open area on her wounded leg. Once the medical kit was closed and hung again, the captain got a flask of water and another emergency ration bar, slowly nibbling it and sipping the water.
Uhura looked around at the landscape before her. Off to one side, she could see the slowly increasing brightness of what had to be the sun rising behind the clouds that were endlessly drenching her. Mentally, she logged that as east, meaning that straight ahead of her would be just a little east of due south. Before her, at least beyond the long, ragged strip of destruction left by the now destroyed shuttle, she saw undulating, wooded hills stretching as far as she could see. About a quarter of the way to the horizon, or so it appeared, and to roughly west south west as she figured it, there was a clearing, with what looked like tilled fields and a cluster of crude wood and thatch huts.
Idly, the Bantu wondered if the little creature she had met the day before lived in the village. She knew she would never know for sure. At best, the village looked to be the product of a late Stone Age, possibly early Bronze Age technology; the Federation would never allow contact at this level of technological development.
The throbbing of her leg brought Uhuras attention back from the panorama before her. Reaching for the medical kit again, she dug out more bandaging material. Carefully, she removed the old dressing. The wound did not look good; not only was it bright red, it was full of foul material. As best she could, with her limited resources and through the haze of pain, she cleaned the wound and bandaged it back up again. It still hurt, but it was a little less than it had. Below the level of the wound, her leg was swelling, as well; to a smaller degree, so was her right leg, at least from the knee down.
Spending another night sleeping sitting up was clearly out of the question; there would be blood clots in her legs, if not something worse to face. A more comfortable roost was probably not a bad idea, either. Untying the bark strap that had held her against the tree through the night, she stood up, leaning against the trunk of the tree to stabilize herself. As she stood, a wave of dizziness swept over her for a moment, taking several minutes to clear. Before she started moving again, she decided to tie her bark rope around her waist and around a branch overhead, just in case.
Her minds eye flashed back to her grandmother, Ugogo. Grandma Uhura had always insisted that all of her descendants learn what she called "The Old Ways," which boiled down to Ugogos idea of how the Bantu had handled activities of daily living before the Europeans and Arabs had arrived to confuse the issue. Like it or not, every couple of years, she would get one or two of her grandchildren together with her and disappear off into the brush for a week or two, living off the land. She wouldnt even let Nyota bring her beloved Mbwa along. What had been an annoying eccentricity to the adolescent was now, to the stranded starship captain, a chance of survival.
Eyeing the smaller branches around her, she remembered seeing Ugogo weave them into a cross between a nest and a hammock; that seemed to be the only safe approach. There were enough to get started; probably only a few more would have to be harvested to do the job. Almost as much to get her mind off the insistent complaint of her left thigh as to provide a place to rest, she set to the task. It almost seemed to her that she could see her grandmother standing over her, directing, criticizing and guiding as she did the work.
It was almost local sunset when Uhura finished the task. Carefully, tying herself to one branch with the bark rope around her waist, she crawled into her new nest, pulling a layer of leafy branches over her to use as a blanket, both for warmth and protection from the unending rain. Reaching into the medical kit, she gave herself another dose of dendromycin, then raided her dwindling stash of food and water for a bedtime feeding.
Unaccountably exhausted and shivering, she closed her eyes. In her mind, she brought up MBengas face, looking at it and wondering if she would ever see him again. There was so much she wished she had told him, so much she wanted to say to him. She drifted off into a fitful sleep, dreaming of her chief medical officer.
Marsden looked back at Eletto and over at Running Bear, making sure both men were adequately strapped in; they were. Reviewing the preflight checklist one last time, the lieutenant looked out at Indri, who was standing at the shuttle bay controls. "Ready to go when you are, Indri."
"Let me check with the bridge to be sure theyre ready." Indri looked away from the shuttle for a moment, then looked back. "Reichard says theyre ready to go, too. Review the maneuver with me, Lieutenant. TSoral has you patched in to the bridge, so Lieutenant Commander Reichard will be listening, as well."
"On your signal, I will exit the shuttle bay, then hang dead in space until the Hyperion re-orients itself so that the shields can deflect as much of the ion storms fury as possible. When Drevan signals that he is satisfied that we are adequately protected, I move straight into the atmosphere and begin a search pattern looking for the warp shuttle, starting at the approximate area of the subspace beacon."
"Perfect." Indri turned to his control console. "Youre cleared to move. Good luck, Jim."
"Thanks." Marsden moved the shuttle out of the shuttle bay door. "Im clear, Hyperion. Awaiting clearance to enter the atmosphere." Still safely protected by the larger ships shields, the Fermat rested comfortably as the larger ship moved to provide the widest shadow possible. Above the shuttle, the impact of the particles from the ion storm created a rapidly shifting constellation of sparks on the Hyperions shields. Below them, the brilliant sparks caused by a tenuous atmosphere hitting the shields began to appear, and almost as quickly, disappear.
"The shields between you and the atmosphere are down, Jim. Youre cleared for descent," Drevans voice announced across the communicator. "Well be waiting for your call to get you."
The lieutenant moved the craft toward the planet, into the atmosphere below. Above, the shields of the Hyperion snapped back into action, and the larger craft moved somewhat outward. Within moments, the shuttle was passing through a dense layer of clouds.
"Well, this ought to be good protection from the ion storm, Running Bear. Is it like this all over the planet?"
The engineer turned back to face the physician. "Pretty much, other than a few small areas, Giac. Thatll make searching from the Fermat a lot easier, but if we have to do a search for tracks, well..."
"Lets not be negative, here," Marsden interjected. "Theres hardly anything in the database on this world, and even less on its lifeforms. Looks like you may have a hit on the scanner, Running Bear."
The Illiniwek Indian turned to his console. "Talk about hitting it hot. Thats the wreckage of the shuttle already." He turned to face Marsden. "Looks like this is probably the front end; odds on, thats where theyd have been. As torn up as the shuttle is, though, Ill bet theyve abandoned it for somewhere drier."
Marsden nodded. "Ill head for the front end, then. Coordinates?"
Running Bear tapped his console, transferring them. The shuttle moved toward the area. Before Marsden could set the craft down, Eletto interrupted him. "Dont, Jim. Is there a way you can hover over Running Bear and I while were on the ground? We cant transport, but if you open the door, we can drop to ground without making a mess of any tracks that might be left. You land this on the area cleared by the shuttles crash, and you might hide the tracks that we need."
"Point well taken, Doc; Ill hover a meter or so up, and you guys drop. We can worry about getting on board once you have the captain and Tucker located." Good to his word, Marsden maneuvered the shuttle just next to the remnants of the forward end of the shuttle. Eletto dropped to the ground. As he moved to follow him out the open hatch, Running Bear turned. "Well leave the communicators on, so you can hear us real time." The Illiniwek dropped to the ground.
Eletto pointed. "Only one survivor."
Running Bear turned to see the makeshift cross, nodding. He squatted, pointing. "Look at the prints. What do you think?"
Squatting, Eletto looked at the soil. "Prints deeper toward the middle, I think; the stride with the left one is shortened, and the print is shallower. Two sets of prints in that stride. Im thinking the captain, with a sore left leg."
"The away prints overlap some of the ones coming this way; she must have been in the rear section and come forward. That would make this Tucker."
"Agreed. Marsden, you read us?"
"Loud but with static. Captains on the loose, wounded. Want me to place a retrieval marker?"
"Better do. Well arrange for proper burial later." Eletto turned to Running Bear. "Tracks go that way. You lead; Ill look for deviations."
Running Bear moved without comment, clambering over the fallen logs, the older Eletto at his back. The engineer stopped abruptly, pointing at a comparatively clear area between two fallen trunks. "What do you make of that?"
Beside what was clearly the print of a Starfleet issue shoe sole, there were several smaller prints. "If I were at home, Id say there were three, maybe four unusually large raccoons through here, possibly walking on their hind legs." The doctor looked up at his companion. "Were not the only one tracking her."
"Then wed better hurry; those prints arent new." Running Bear moved with a swiftness that fit his name. Only moments passed before the pair arrived at the remnants of the stern Eletto leapt into the compartment, Running Bear studying the ground.
"Blood on the chair, here, Running Bear, but the emergency medical kits gone. Im guessing a laceration, probably, hmmm, left thigh, which matches the tracks. Whats on the ground?"
"Gentlemen," Marsdens voice came over the comlink, "I have no idea what may have been on the ground before we arrived, but a rather large entity is moving toward you. Scans still arent working well enough to give any useful input, but I can see this thing in the trees."
"Looks to mass about 35 or 40 kilos?"
"Negative, Running Bear. Closer to 60 or 70 kilos, Id guess, maybe a shred more."
Both men crouched, back to back, phasers suddenly in their hands, scanning their environment. Out of a tree nearby, a beast vaguely reminiscent of a mountain lion hurled itself at the two men, meeting phasers on stun as it came. Eletto looked over at Running Bear. "Thats not what was following her."
The engineer made no answer. Instead, he dropped to the ground, studying the signs. He pointed, then led diagonally across the swath of downed trees. From his higher perch, Eletto scanned the edge of the devastation caused by the shuttle, hoping to see signs of Uhuras presence. Nothing caught his eye. "Jim, is there a way you can safely use the shuttle to leap-frog me over Running Bear? Maybe drop me near the edge of this mess, five or ten meters to my right of where the line hes on would hit it?"
"Can do. Brace for a tractor."
Eletto felt himself lifted. As he flew over Running Bear, the engineer looked up and waved, pointing at a cadaver near him. It looked like it was a beast of the same sort that they had taken out with their phasers. Eletto nodded. Instants later, he was deposited a meter or two shy of the edge of the forest, and began hunting for tracks. It wasnt long before he saw them, leading to a treeand over-run with smaller prints.
"Marsden, get Running Bear here. Ive got her printsand the prints of the pack of creatures that have been tracking her."
It was still dark when Uhuras eyes popped open. It wasnt her leg: it still hurt, but it wasnt nearly as bad as it had been when she went to sleep. She strained her ears, hoping to hear a clue about the reason for her awakening. Nothing reached her, other than the sudden certainty that she was sharing the tree with something else. Struggling to make no sound, she pulled one of the knives loose from the makeshift sheath she had made for it, and snaked her arm out from under the leaves she was using as a blanket.
From somewhere above and to one side of her, she heard a small branch brush against something. In her imagination, Uhura saw a living version of the dead beast she had seen on the way to the tree. How long ago had that been? A day, maybe two, she thought, but she wasnt sure. Alert, she did the only thing she could do. She waited. Two thin slits appeared near the trunk, looking for all the universe like a cats eyes in the dark of night, reflecting the scant light back at its environment; from below them, there came the sound of heavy breathing.
Primeval instinct began to rear its head, but the captain squelched the urge to run. There was no way she could win a race with whatever this was, not with an injured leg. The slits moved nearer. Uhura freed her other arm from the leaf cover, making the softest rustle. The heavy breathing stopped approaching for an instant, then resumed. Under the added weight of the approaching creature, she could feel the branch bowing slightly. There was a hissing sound, followed by an almost imperceptible thud, then the sound of something large and heavy hitting the ground. Both the deep breathing and the thin slit eyes were suddenly, inexplicably gone.
Fearful, but relieved, the Bantu restored her knife to its sheath and relaxed as best she could, trying to hear any other noises that might herald a threat. Only the gentle rustle of the leaves above and the brush below reached her ears. Slowly, she drifted off again, wondering if she was just delirious.
Cautiously, mustering every trick for stalking unseen that he could remember, Eletto moved along the line of the tracks. The Illiniwek suddenly appeared at his side. "Giac, weve got worse trouble than we knew." Running Bears voice was a barely audible whisper.
Eletto dropped his voice to the same level. "Worse than a pack of unknown creatures tracking a wounded friend? This I have to hear."
"Before Marsden picked me up, I found a site where it looked like a pack of these things used a lever to lift a branch and rescue a fallen comrade. Were dealing with an intelligent lifeform, herepossibly at the technical level of the American Indians when the Europeans arrived, give or take a little."
The information stung. Both men knew what contact with the Europeans had done to their respective ancestors, long centuries ago; neither wanted to harm another culture. "Ill go forward alone, Running Bear; you stay invisible as best you can. Maybe theyve moved on, and left the captain alone. But be ready, just in case, okay?"
"Ill be watching from above, too, Giac," Marsdens voice added. "Good luck."
Running Bear and Marsden watched as Eletto crept forward along the line of the tracks, moving almost silently and invisibly.
Giacs palms grew sweaty and his mouth, dry as he followed the tracks forward. In the unfamiliar territory, it was hard to judge the age of the tracks with any confidence, but some of them seemed to be fairly recent, perhaps less than half a day old. Before him, he saw a tree with what looked like a branch bower in the space between a pair of branches, perhaps four meters off the ground. Hanging near the trunk, on stumps of severed branches, were a standard issue medikit and a makeshift knapsack that looked like it had been crafted from materials scavenged from the wreck. Freezing for a moment, the physician pointed.
"I see it," Running Bear whispered. "Looks like weve found her."
Before he could reply, Eletto found himself confronted by a row of creatures, all but one sporting bows with arrows to the string, and pointed at the center of his chest. Hoping not to scare the beings, Eletto moved as slowly as he could, standing on his feet before them. The one not carrying a bowEletto assumed he was the leader of the grouplooked Eletto in the eyes. Determined to brazen it out, the physician returned the gaze, opening his hands and turning them palm outward, holding them slightly away from his body, hoping to appear peaceful. The arrows tracked his movements faithfully.
From his standing posture, he could see the carcass of a beast almost identical to the one Running Bear had found. This one was lying not far from the trunk of the tree that the creatures were guarding, one of the small arrows protruding from its flank. Judging from the size of the arrow compared to the size of the beast, it was obvious that the arrows were tipped with a singularly potent poison.
Elettos eyes flitted to the woven branch bower that he was sure held Uhura, fearing that he would see evidence of the beasts last meal. No evidence of such carnage was visible. For several moments, Human and creatures held their positions, almost in a stand off. Concern for his captains welfare drove Eletto to take the next move.
"Little friends, I mean no one harm. The one in the tree," Eletto pointed to where he hoped to find Uhura, "is one of our kind. I and my friends have come to rescue her. She is hurt, or so we believe. Let me go to her. Let me help her. Please."
The physician stood, stock still, his hands at either side, palms outward, waiting for the creatures to respond. The one without a bow stepped forward, its hands clasped behind its back. Perhaps a meter or less before Eletto, it stopped, produced a cup from behind itself and set it on the ground before himself. Once the cup was safely settled on the soft ground, the being turned and walked back to its own kind. As it did, Eletto saw an area on its back that had been scraped raw.
The being reached the others, turning to face the Human. It was more the Cherokee in his soul than the physician that suddenly understood: the being was offering him a chance to prove himself. Eletto knelt, looking at the cup; hed had coffee in identical cups too many times not to recognize it as standard Starfleet issue. From his back pack, the Human drew a flask of water, filling the cup. Standing, again, he stepped back. The little creature moved to the cup again, sniffing it, then tasting it. He drained it, then held it toward Eletto. Again, the physician filled it, this time staying upright. Seemingly satisfied, the being moved back to its fellows, showing them the cup. There was some soft chittering among them. In a moment, the arrows were gone, the bows slung over their furry shoulders.
Taking their actions as permission, Eletto moved toward the tree, clambering up to where the woven branches were. Uhura was there, as he expected, but wielding a moderate sized carving knife, staring at him, her mouth open in a semi-snarl. The physician was unsurprised. It wasnt the first time that hed seen someone become disoriented, confused and paranoid after being lost for a day or more.
From the look on her face, he suspected that she might be semi-delirious, too, perhaps from an infection somewhere. Keeping his eye on the knife, he moved along the branch on the side away from the knife, pulling an opaque plastic container from his backpack. The physician opened the package, exposing an iced chocolate sponge cake. Eletto moved forward, slowly. As he came close, Uhura swung the knife at him. He grabbed her wrist, simultaneously shoving the confection into the captains open mouth. Surprised, she chewed and swallowed.
"Ive more, Captain. Let me have the knife, and let us get you back to the ship."
The tension came out of the Bantus arm. Deftly, Eletto retrieved the knife, substituting another sponge cake for it. Greedily, the captain ate it, following it by water from the flask he offered her. Sensing that he had her on his side, Eletto opened his medikit, extracting a hypospray and gave her a dose of something for the pain. Uhuras eyes glazed over and fluttered shut.
Quickly, the physician removed the layer of branches covering his captain, and began assessing her with the resources he had. The medical tricorder was useless, he realized; there was still too much static to get any useful readings. Relying on the skills he had learned in an earlier century, he set to his task the best he could. The leg was clearly infected, and not doing well; that much required no great training to recognize. Nothing seemed broken, but the captains belly seemed stiff and hard to the touch, and her skin was warm, if not hot to the touch.
"Running Bear, were going to need a stretcher to carry her back to the shuttle," Eletto whispered to his communicator. "Under the circumstances, I think we should keep the Fermat out of sight as best we can."
"Agreed," Marsden offered. "Ill put it down on the debris. Running Bear, if youll come for the stretcher?"
"On the way, Jim."
While he waited for his companion, Eletto removed the dressing over Uhuras thigh. The wound was clearly festering, to his eye, although it didnt seem quite as bad as he had feared. Reaching into his pack for what he needed, he applied a new dressing to the wound, then followed it with doses of three different antibiotics. For the moment, he realized, it was wiser to cover all the possible bases, at least until they could get her to where they could be more specific. His hand went to Uhuras wrist; the pulse was barely perceptible, and almost too rapid to count. As Running Bear arrived with the stretcher, Eletto checked her mouth, finding it drier than hed expected.
"How is she, Giac?"
Eletto looked up. "She needs Sickbay, preferably soon. Looks like shes got a major infection, possibly abdominal injuries, and shes dehydrated to boot. Shes going to make it, but its going to be a bit of a battle, Im afraid, at least for a couple of days."
Running Bear laid the stretcher out across the branches and the two men moved the captain onto it. With a little effort, they managed to lash the ropes onto the handles of the stretcher and lowered her down toward the ground. To their surprise, they saw the small creatures below them catching the stretcher and gently lowering it to the ground, guiding it to a clear area. One of them, the creature with the wound on the back, laid the cup on the stretcher beside her and stepped back. Eletto and Running Bear dropped out of the tree, moving to the captain.
Prime Directive be hung, Eletto thought to himself. Theyve been guarding the captain, and Ill bet they killed that carnivore to protect her. I owe these beings. He pulled his knife out of his knapsack, unsheathed it, and cut the ropes off the stretcher. Putting it back into the sheath, he turned to the creature, offering the handle of the sheath knife. "Thank you, little friend. You guarded Uhura well and bravely. Let this be my thanks for your efforts."
The creature looked at the offered gift, its head nodding in an almost Human fashion. Looking Eletto in the eyes, he gently pushed it back to the Human in gentle but firm refusal, gently patting him on one hand as if to express thankfulness for the declined offer. Suddenly, the creatures were gone. The two men picked up the stretcher and hurried toward the Fermat.
Reichard sat in the center seat on the bridge staring at the mainviewer, the only clue to his tension being the whiteness of his knuckles as he grabbed the arm rests. The room was silent, waiting for news.
"Lieutenant Commander, I have a transmission from the shuttle. They have found the captain injured, and are bringing her back. Theyre bringing Tuckers remains with them, too."
The lieutenant commander nodded. "I want MBenga up here, now. Get Davids and Webb to the shuttle bay with a litter. Let Indri know were going to be picking them up shortly."
"Dont you want MBenga down in the shuttle bay, too?" Drevan asked.
"It would not be wise." The voice was TSorals. "Humans are too prone to allowing their emotions to interfere with their judgment."
Before Reichard could answer, MBenga stepped out of the turbolift.
"Captain MBenga, you have the conn." Reichard stepped out of the center chair and moved to the helm. "Im taking over the helm for the moment."
"Dont be ridiculous, Reichard," MBenga snapped. "I may have the rank of Captain, but that doesnt make me able to command this ship. Im still just a doctor, remember?"
"Theyre bringing Uhura back," Reichard replied calmly. "I need to be on the helm to get her back on board. Youre the senior most officer available to me, Captain. Take the conn."
The Masai pulled a wry face. "To put it bluntly, you want me to sit down, shut up and stay out of Sickbays way."
"You said it; I didnt." Reichard began running his fingers across the control surface at the helm. "We cant pick the captain up without someone in the hot seat. Everyone else on the bridge is spoken for but you. Make your choice, Doctor."
Uncomfortable, but clearly aware of the fact that he had been outmaneuvered, MBenga took the center seat. He turned to Drevan.
"The Fermat is approaching, Captain," the Andorian responded, not waiting to be asked. "Helm, prepare for intercept."
"Positioned and ready. Have Indri drop the shields as soon as they are in range." Reichards voice was a controlled monotone, quite but intense.
Moments ticked off silently. Drevans voice relieved the tense silence. "Fermat aboard, Captain MBenga."
The physician turned to the helm. "Mister Reichard, get us out of this storm as quickly as you can. Let me know when were in the clear, then you can have the conn back." He turned to face the mainviewer. "And good job, all of you. Thank you."
Uhuras first thought was that she was comfortable and dry, and thankful for it. She could feel the soft warmth of sheets against her, rather than leaves. Where on the ship she was, she wasnt sure, but she was confident that she was on the Hyperion again. Opening her eyes, she looked to one side and saw the walls of a cubicle in Sickbay. Something soft and warm touched her brow.
"Nyota. Its good to see you awake again."
There was no mistaking the voice: it was MBengas. Uhura turned, smiling. "Keme. Its good to see you too." The smile vanished from her face. "Joe Tuckerhe deserves a posthumous citation for getting that shuttle down. We lost impulse before we hit the atmosphere. He rode that shuttle down with nothing but determination and wits to land it."
"Thats what Marsden says, too. To hear Eletto tell it, theres a furry little critter on the planet that deserves the equivalent; the little fellow had a platoon of its kind guarding you and the tree you were in. They almost didnt let Giac and Running Bear rescue you, the way I hear it."
"Ill have to get the story from one of them, but maybe later." She shook her head. "Im still awfully tired. I cant believe that I should be, but Im still beat."
MBenga shook head. "Youve every right to be. That leg of yours was a mess; you had a hunk of seat cover driven into it, half way to the bone. On top of that, you had a couple of broken ribs and a lacerated spleen, and were dehydrated to the point of shock. Davids said that he figured youd have been dead in a couple of more days." MBenga stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. "Im glad we found you in time. Theres something I need to say to you, Nyota."
Uhura reached up, putting her finger on MBengas lips. "I think theres a lot that we both need to say to each other, Keme, but this is hardly the place. Some things, a girl doesnt want to hear when shes flat on her back in a biomonitor bed." She smiled. "Lets find a more romantic place to say them than this one."
MBenga nodded, taking the finger from his lips. "As soon as possible, then." He kissed Uhuras hand.
The Bantu closed her eyes, a smile on her face. "Yes. Soon. Very soon." Content, she drifted off to sleep.
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