"Captain," began Lieutenant Grexi from the communications bay, "Im detecting a low-strength distress signal."
"Can you identify the source?" asked Captain Hikaru Sulu as he sipped his tea. It had been a quiet few weeks on the bridge as the Excelsior was simply star charting this previously unexplored sector.
"Affirmative, sir. Its from the Federation colony ship Venus." The Edoan adjusted the gain on his console. "Its an automated distress call from the ships disaster beacon."
"Whats our position, Navigator?"
"Epsilon Acacia," the Kzinti growled softly. "Were twenty-six lightyears beyond the previous limits of Federation exploration."
Sulu glanced at Ensign Tork who was adjusting his scanners. "Source of the signal, Science Officer?"
"There is a marginally inhabitable class L planet, fourth from the star. The signal is coming from a mountainous region in the northern hemisphere," the Andorian answered.
Peterson spoke up from the tactical station. "Captain, the Venus disappeared in 2279. She and her passengers and crew were assumed lost in space, possibly the victims of Tholian aggression. There were nearly eighty colonists and six crew."
"Thank you, Lieutenant." He glanced at the helm officer. "Lieutenant Fulton, standard orbit."
"Itll be a tricky orbit, sir," she replied as the Excelsior lazily approached the ringed planet. "The planets spin seems to be irregular."
"How is that possible, Mister Tork?" And how is it you failed to mention that to me the moment I asked you about the source of the signal? Sulu wondered silently.
"This planets crust and mantle are relatively thin, and the inner core seems to be off-center. This is very intriguing, Captain. With forces like these at work, Im surprised the planet hasnt literally exploded."
"Im detecting some humanoid lifeforms, but Im unable to get a clear reading. However, theres plenty of water, even though very little of the planets native foodstuffs are going to be edible," the science officer explained.
Sulu realized he needed to ask for additional information. "Could you explain why?"
"Certainly, sir. The flora of the planet below is predominantly alkaloid in chemistry. There appear to be some exceptions, and as long as the colonists were able to make use of them, its quite possible they have survived."
Commander Michael Floyd cleared his throat softly. "Permission to lead a landing party down below and reconnoiter the situation."
The ships red alert klaxon suddenly blared, demanding attention from everyone.
"Status!" ordered Sulu.
"Incoming meteor swarm, sir. A sizable one at that," reported Ensign Patric Bianci from the weapons station.
"Increase shields to maximum," said Sulu and Floyd in unison. The two men faced each other, and neither backed down by blinking.
"Aye, sir. Shields to maximum."
"Science officer," the Excelsior captain began, "how often do meteor swarms strike this planet?"
"Judging from my scans, sir, quite often. The rings of this world are composed of the shattered remains of a captured asteroid or small moon that was torn apart by the surging tidal forces from the irregular core. The storms are generated by the same forces that will make orbiting this world a challenge for our helmsman," Tork explained.
Sulu made up his mind. "Commander Floyd, I want a landing party as soon as possible. Include yourself, a science officer, and Security Chief Janson and two of his men."
As Floyd stepped to the communications bay to make arrangements, someone else got the captains attention. "Request permission to join the landing party, sir!" came Kenyatta Fultons voice.
"Denied," Sulu said softly. "Im aware of your personal situation, Lieutenant, but right now I need you here. This orbit isnt one Id trust to many of my crew."
"Yes, sir," she replied, a little dejectedly.
"Any further orders, Captain Sulu?" Floyd asked from in front of the turbolift.
"Yes." The captains gaze focused on another meteor swarm. "Watch for falling rocks."
Commander Michael Floyd was never one for small talk. He was a man of action, and his orders were to lead the landing party in the search for survivors from a lost colony ship. As they stepped on the transporter pads, he issued orders: "Spread out, Delta formation. Do not make contact with the colonists unless they initiate it. Phasers on stun. Tricorders on full scan. Were going to a good look at the situation before we say, how yall doin."
The responses from Ensign Tork and Lieutenant Commander Janson were subdued. The Andorian clearly didnt understand Floyds remark, and the intensely British security chief obviously chose to ignore it completely. The two security guards just nodded.
"Chief Hamilton," Floyd addressed the transporter operator. "Energize."
Five columns of silver appeared on the planets surface. Quickly taking up the triangular formation with both the security guards moving to their rear, the landing party took in the view. The planets surface was rocky with an occasional scrub brush of some sort here or there, and the sky was a deep gold, as though colored by the dust from the planets surface.
Ensign Tork leaned toward Floyd. "Sir, as expected, the planets atmosphere is contaminated with a variety of minerals and ores. Well need to be sure and use filter masks if were going to be here for any length of time."
The executive officer nodded. "Worse than that, I suspect Doc Cord is going to have to ventilate the lungs of any survivors we find." He took a shallow breath. "Reminds me of back home when the Okeefenokee is on fire."
"The what, sir?"
"A large swamp in Southeast Georgia. It catches fire from time to time as a part of its natural renewal cycle. The foresters let it burn to a degree, but the resulting smoke can get carried hundreds of miles. If the weather conditions are just right, it even can still become an health hazard. This reminds me of trying to breathe that in."
"If youre through with the ecology lesson, gentlemen, I suggest you both come take a look over here." Janson was positioned on the edge of the precipice, oculars in his hands as he surveyed the valley. "There are definitely survivors, although Im not sure if theyre still civilized."
The science officer and executive officer both crept up to the edge of the ridge, and pulled their oculars up to their eyes. "Damn," they said in unison.
The encampment looked little more than a rocky crevasse in the side of a mountain. A muddy river flowed down the valley, and there was an aqueduct system that carried water to the crevasse. There was a scraggly garden, and despite looking well-tended and cared for, the plants were sickly looking, brownish, and almost unrecognizable for the plants that they were. "Is that corn?" asked Floyd.
Janson nodded. "Okra, and potatoes, too."
Tork adjusted the focus of his oculars. "The crops they have planted dont seem capable of supporting more than a dozen people. Most of the colonists have probably perished."
Floyd saw what he knew would be downstream from the colonists new home: a cemetery. He counted quickly. "Forty-two. Half of them are still alive."
In one of those actions common to all humanoids across the galaxy, Tork frowned. "Thats highly unlikely." The Andorian met Jansons eyes, and both of them shared a glance that Floyd missed completely.
The executive officer took out his communicator. "Floyd to Excelsior."
"Captain, there appears to be some survivors, perhaps as many as half of them still alive on the planets surface. Request permission to approach."
Janson had his communicator out as well. "I would advise caution, Captain. Although theyve constructed some amenities, the colonists might not react well to our presence."
There was a brief pause. "Mister Floyd, proceed as you think best. Mister Janson, approach with side arms drawn. Sulu out."
That response satisfied both officers. "After you," Janson gestured to the encampment. Floyd drew a deep breath and proceeded down the hill.
The survivors were a bedraggled lot, Floyd decided. There were no children. No animals running about. They saw them approaching from a distance, and had plenty of warning that they were about to have company. By the time the Excelsior landing party had entered the camp, the colonists had assembled.
One man, tall, almost impossibly thin with gray, thinning hair, stepped forward. "Im Captain Emory Anderson of the Venus. Welcome to Roanoke." He chuckled.
A woman suddenly broke down into tears, and ran into Floyds arms, burying her face into his chest. She was wailing unconsolably.
"Mister Agar?" the executive officer addressed one of the security guards who came up and helped free Floyd from the womans clutching hands. Once freed, he stepped toward Anderson. "Thank you, Captain Anderson. Im Commander Floyd from Excelsior. Were here to rescue you."
The colonists cheered, and Anderson smiled paternally at them, silencing them after a moment with just a look. "Were glad to hear that, Commander." The captain looked at the sobbing woman. "Youll have to forgive Mrs. Oglethorpe. Im afraid shes been slipping into madness for quite some time." Anderson turned to face the crowd behind him. "Avery, would you fetch your wife?"
"Of course, Captain, immediately!" A short, balding man, again almost impossibly thin rushed up. "Come on, Callie. Its all right. Its over now. Were going home."
The woman tucked herself behind the security guard. "No, no. Go away. Im safe now."
"I think your presence here has finally pushed Mrs. Oglethorpe over the edge."
"Thats quite all right, Captain. With your permission, Id like her beamed up to Excelsior and let our medical staff have a look at her."
"Quite unnecessary, Commander. Well beam up together, if you dont mind. No need to show any favoritism."
Avery Oglethorpe stood there, as if shamed.
Floyd turned to the man. "Youre her husband, Mister Oglethorpe. Ill leave the decision up to you. Would you like your wife beamed up for treatment, or would you prefer she beamed up with the rest of you?"
Oglethorpe looked as though a great wave of fear washed over him. He looked at Anderson for guidance, and made his decision. "She will be fine here."
Anderson smiled beatifically and signaled for two of the colonists to help. "Take her into the cave. Help her regain her composure if you can."
"No! NO!!!" she screamed as if terrified of that prospect.
That clenched it for Floyd. He took out his communicator. "Excelsior. Two to beam up. Lock onto Mister Agars communicator, and beam him and the woman with him up. Have Sickbay standing by. Shes hysterical."
Grexis baritone voice rang out. "Yes, Commander. Two to beam up. Medical team standing by."
Floyd closed his communicator, and turned to meet a scowling Anderson. The transporter effect shimmered around the woman and security guard, and they were gone. "Sorry, Captain. I think she needed more than you could offer her here."
Anderson leaned forward, his height almost ominous. In a whisper, he demanded, "Dont usurp my authority here again, Commander."
The Excelsiors executive officer apologized. "Sorry, Captain, I just acted in what I thought was in the best interests of your colonist. It wasnt my intention to embarrass you in front of your people. Im sorry if it seemed that way."
Apparently somewhat mollified, Anderson forced a tight smile. "Im sure you meant no harm, of course, Mister Floyd. And youll have to forgive me for being sensitive to such things. But a tight sense of discipline is whats helped us to survive."
"Completely understandable, sir. In all honesty, you have my utmost admiration for surviving in such inhospitable conditions."
"Come, let us discuss the matter of getting these good people up to your ship."
As Floyd went off with Anderson, Ensign Tork and Lieutenant Commander Janson spoke quietly with each other before following the colonists into the cave.
Getting the colonists coordinated took no effort at all on the part of the Excelsior landing party. Captain Anderson organized the details. Without any instruction or input from Floyd, he had assembled the colonists, limited their belongings to one small bag, and gathered them together at the entrance of the cavern.
"Youre to be commended, Captain Anderson," Floyd remarked at the gathering. To the survivors, he said, "Weve got enough accommodations for you aboard Excelsior. Things will be tight for a few days until we rendezvous with the Al Rashid. Shell be taking you to Starbase 211 where youll be able to decide how you want to proceed."
Tork and Janson came up from behind the colonists, a small bag in the security chiefs hands. "Commander, a word with you, if you please? In private," Janson asked softly.
"Cant it wait? Weve got the colonists ready to beam up."
"Sir, theres something you need to know, to be prepared for." The Andorians antennae were all aquiver.
Floyds communicator chirped. "Floyd here."
"Mister Floyd, this is the captain. We need to talk."
In the Excelsiors primary briefing room, the senior officers of the starship had gathered with Captain Sulu at the head of the table. "Bring him in," he said quietly.
Two security guards walked in escorting Captain Anderson. They stood at the far end of the table. Sulu picked up a small hammer and tapped the bell before him. "This inquiry is officially convened on Stardate 9604.3. All senior staff are present, Captain Hikaru Sulu presiding."
"Whats this about?" the leader of the colonists asked.
"Were conducting an investigation, sir," explained Floyd. "We just need to ask you some questions."
"Have a seat, Mister Anderson," offered Sulu. The chair was a standard one for such an inquiry, equipped with a verifier.
"Im Captain Anderson," he said before sitting.
"Captain?" Sulu repeated. "According to Federation records, you were the Venus communications officer, not its captain."
"I assumed command of the Venus survivors after the crew was killed. I was confirmed as Captain by the colonists," Anderson answered.
"I see." Sulu stared into the eyes of Anderson as though he were some malevolent monster. "Computer, verify the statement."
"Evasive answer. Subject is relaying a partially accurate account," reported the computer as the triviewer on the briefing room table showed a readout of Andersons lifesigns.
"Perhaps I should have said after the crew had died instead."
"Can you explain what happened to the Venus?" asked Floyd.
"We were struck by a meteor shower as we entered this system. Our shields were down at the time for repairsthe Venus was an old ship."
"So your ship ended up in orbit above Epsilon Acacia Four?" asked Ryan Peterson, the tactical officer.
"We called it Roanoke, after the lost colony of North America."
"How many survived this encounter with the meteor shower?" asked Chief Engineer Maliszewski.
"As of today, forty-four."
"And how many as of the time your ship assumed orbit above Roanoke?" asked Sulu.
Anderson didnt answer.
"Would you like legal counsel, Mister Anderson?" asked Janson.
"No," he answered. "It wont change things, will it?"
"No, it wont," Floyd answered honestly.
"The ship survived the encounter with the meteor storm outside the system, but we were crippled and orbiting the planet was practically impossible. We beamed down en masse with all our gear and provisions. Unfortunately, the planet was barely habitable."
"What happened to the other officers of the Venus?"
"They immediately set themselves as a junta of sorts. They made sure they were getting the best of the rations, and even more than their share of them. People were starving. The crops failed. People were dying. Some of the colonists came to me, including their leader, Avery Oglethorpe."
"So you overthrew the other five officers of the Venus?" asked Peterson.
"We did. We put them on trial."
"And executed them?" asked Janson.
"Only each of them was found guilty by a jury of twelve men and women. We had five trials, five juries, sixty jurors, and five convictions. Do you know how many died in the two years they ruled?"
"Do you?" Sulu leaned forward.
"Sixteen. Far too many. Plus, of course, the five officers of the Venus."
"So we buried them and got started on an irrigation system for the garden."
"Incorrect," the computer reported.
Anderson sighed deeply. "We were short of proteins. Our livestock had been eaten by those bastards rather than being used as breeding stock." He buried his face into his hands.
"My God..." Sulu couldnt believe what was unspoken. "You ate them?"
Andersons head nodded, and he leaned back in his chair, wiping away a tear. "It wasnt by choice, you know. It had become a necessity." He turned to Janson and Floyd. "Youve seen our crops!"
Tork nodded. "Its not large enough to provide sustenance for your survivors." The Andorians antennae furled. "Its never been enough, has it?"
"We took the remnants after curing the meat and buried some of them in the caves where we grow mushrooms. We ground the bones and mixed them with the ash from our fires and used the mixture as fertilizer." Anderson looked at Sulu with conviction. "After a few months, we thought we were going to make it. And thats when the blight hit our gardens. It didnt kill them; just stunted them. We were on the precipice of dying as a colony."
"And thats when you enacted drastic measures," Janson finished for him. The British security chief leaned forward. "Thats why your colony has no children. You were using them for food, werent you?"
"Not really." Anderson countered. "The Muritza couples baby was still-born. They came to us and suggested that we not allow the...protein to go to waste." He ignored the horror on Doctor Cords face. "We didnt waste a thing. Even the afterbirth became food for the colony. Other couples babies were also still-born. Apparently the lack of nutrition and maybe something in the environment stopped us from having babies. Then couples even stopped trying."
"And thats when you turned on each other?" Peterson looked as though he was going to be sick.
"Ever read Shirley Jacksons The Lottery?"
"Its required reading in many schools even today," Cord answered. "So this is why Callie Oglethorpe is cowering in Sickbay?"
Andersons face confirmed her suspicions. "She lost the lottery moments before you arrived. It was her turn to become part of the colony as a whole, to sacrifice herself so that others would live. It is the ultimate expression of love for the colony."
"Oh, yeah, she has a lot of love for the colony. So much so that they had to sedate her to get her off Agars arm. He had to receive medical treatment for the contusions he suffered from her hands gripping hold of him." Janson crossed his arms.
"You have no idea what it was like. Of course some of the colonists couldnt see their deaths were a love offering for the colony. I had to impose the will of the colony on those who refused to put the needs of the many above their own selfishness."
"Self-preservation, you mean," Tork remarked drily.
"And how many colonists have been sacrificed for the colony?" Sulu wanted to narrow it down.
"Twenty-two men and women have made the ultimate expression of love for Roanoke."
Ariel Cord was straddled atop Sulus naked buttocks, leaning forward, putting her entire weight into the massage she was administering to his back. While he often preferred getting worked on by the ships masseuse, a rather muscular young woman who wasnt afraid to pound his back into submission if it meant releasing all the tension there, tonight he wanted to be alone with his lover.
"So what have you decided to do about the Roanoke colony?"
"Anderson wants to return to the surface, to live out his life on the colony so many have given their lives for. He hopes that others will come with him."
"Hes delusional, of course. He has a messianic complex that rivals that of Kodos the Executioner." She leaned forward, pressing on both sides of his lower spine.
Sulu didnt answer.
At first, she didnt realize his silence was damning, then: "They want to return to the colony with him?"
The Excelsiors captain nodded. "Some actually do. Some frantically dont, like that woman in Sickbay."
"Are you going to let them?"
"Thats what Ive been pondering for the past hour. Ariel, if I send them back down, even with provisions, the colony will be dead within the decade. Theres enough radioactive materials down there to kill them all. Its why their babies are stillborn."
"You could leave them with foodstuffs and fertilizers and other things to make the colony viable, including enough hyronalyn to treat the radiation."
"They will continue to use their lottery. Or even if they abandon it for a while, when things go bad...and they probably will with a colony this small...then theyll adopt it again."
"So what are you going to do? Youve got to arrest them all, dont you? Theyre all guilty of murder and/or accessory to murder."
"There are only three options. One: We take them to Starbase 211 for reintegration into Federation society, while sequestering Mister Anderson at the Tantalus Five Rehabilitation Colony. Two: We leave them here at the Roanoke colony without any supplies. Three: We leave them here with enough supplies to give them a fighting chance."
"This deep into the Beta Quadrant, Federation supply ships wont be regularly visiting the colony. Weve already been dealing with piracy issues. Have you thought of letting the colonists decide their own fate?"
"If we do, the colony wont have enough members to actually be viable," Sulu answered. "And who would want to relocate to a colony of cannibals?"
The question went unanswered as the couple spent the rest of the evening in silence.
"Good morning, everyone," Sulu addressed the assembled colonists in the rear hangar deck of the Excelsior. "Ive picked a rather remote location aboard my starship to give us as much privacy as one can muster aboard a ship of the line."
Forty colonists and their leader stood before Sulu amid the crates and supplies stored on the deck. The captain himself was standing on a crate of thermocrete, Janson and Floyd stood next to the crate on either side. "It is clear that the Roanoke colony has had perhaps the most horrific of situations to deal with that I have ever heard of in all my years in Starfleet. Some of this horror comes from your own doing, some of it does not."
Sulu scanned the crowd. The only colonists not present were Avery and Callie Oglethorpe who even at the moment were undergoing psychoanalysis with Doctor Helen Noel, the ships psychologist. "Im here to give you a choice for your own future today. Mister Anderson has decided he wants to return to Roanoke and continue to attempt to eke out whatever meager existence he can. He wants to know if any of you wish to accompany him."
"Whats our other choice?" came a voice from the back of the assembled group.
"We will arrange a rendezvous with one of the Sixth Fleets transport-tugs, and have you taken back to Starbase 211, a relatively new base in this sector. From there, you will undergo some rehabilitation and then reintegration into Federation society."
"Sounds like a no-brainer to me!" came the same voice.
Anderson leaned forward. "Captain Sulu, if I may address my colonists?"
As the leader of the colony climbed atop the crate, Sulu hopped down. Floyd leaned forward. "Did you hear him? His colonists." Sulu nodded, but motioned his executive officer to silence as Anderson began to speak.
"My good friends, Captain Sulu has graciously promised me that he will supply us with all the materials his ship can spare, enough to raise our standard of living on Roanoke to what weve all dreamt of, to what we deserve for all our suffering. We will have food stocks, water purification, radiation medicine, and even grains that can be planted, grains suitable for this world. He even has promised to arrange a shipment of livestock via the same transport-tug he spoke of. We will never want for food or water again. We can make Roanoke a paradise."
"Captain Anderson," a middle-aged man at the front of the crowd, "you have our deepest respect for leading our colony through the trying times, the desperate times, but its time we admit that this world is never going to be a paradise, that all our efforts will not bring the dead back to life."
"But if we abandon Roanoke," Anderson answered, "have we not invalidated the sacrifices of those who died so that we could live?"
"Some of us would rather try to forget and forgive ourselves for forcing innocent people into making that sacrifice."
Rather than let the situation dissolve into a rancorous affair, Sulu spoke up again. "We are not going to force anyone to decide one way or the other. Right now, we want you to return to the barracks weve quartered you in. You can discuss the matter with your families and friends, and when youre ready to make a decision, each and everyone of you will report to Mister Floyd," he nodded toward his executive officer, "or Mister Janson," he nodded toward his security chief, "and let your decision be known. Those of you wishing to return to Roanoke will be transported there immediately, and we will beam down your provisions before the end of the day."
"How long will we be allowed before our decision must be reached?" asked Anderson.
"The people of Roanoke will have until 1800 ships time to decide," Sulu answered, "but you yourself will be detained until 1800. We want each man and woman to make their own decision, without undue influence, Mister Anderson." To the crowd, he said, "You have eight hours to decide."
At 1315 ships time, Lieutenant Commander Timothy Janson reported to Captain Sulu on the bridge of the Excelsior. "Everyones decided now, sir."
"As you thought: Mister Anderson is the only one who will be returning to the surface of Roanoke. The rest are heading for Starbase 211."
"Have you informed Anderson of their decision?"
Janson shook his head. "I havent the heart to."
Sulu leaned toward his security chief. "Timothy, have you ever seen a situation this bad?"
The Brit nodded. "Once. The Jericho colony had reverted to complete cannibalism and atavism. They were little more than animals. We lost two men to their cook pots before we were able to return to our shuttlecraft."
Sulu could barely understand that level of barbarism. "Well, let me be the bearer of bad news to our guest. Where is he?"
"Ive had Mister Agar with him all day in Rec Room Two, the library. Hes not a bad sort, Captain. Hes just lost his mind. I think they all have. Its just that the rest of them may recover, and he never will."
"Here you are, Mister Anderson," Sulu said cheerfully as he walked into the library.
The colony leader was reading a padd. "These new readers are much better than the clunky devices we have on Roanoke. Ill have to ask you for some of them to take with us."
"You can have the one in your hand, sir, but Im afraid thats all youll need."
"What do you mean?"
"The rest of your fellow colonists have decided they want to return to Federation space by way of Starbase 211.
"All of them?"
"All of them."
"I had thought that some might make that decision, but all of them?"
"All of them."
Anderson stood slowly. "Then Ill be beaming down alone shortly, Captain."
"Sir, you dont have to do this. You can come with us."
"Nonsense, Captain. Roanoke is a viable colony, and with the provisions youve promised, the colony will prosper."
"Im not sure that one man qualifies as a colony."
"Are you rescinding your offer of provisions?"
"Not at all, sir."
"Then Ill be ready within the hour. Id like to take along some reading material."
"Of course, sir. Help yourself to anything youd like."
It was sundown on Roanoke. Anderson looked over his provisions and nodded in approval. "Be sure and thank your captain for me, Mister Floyd."
"I will, sir. Are you sure Mister Agar and I cant change your mind?"
"Not at all. Well be fine here."
Floyd looked up into the darkening sky, and saw a large star rising on the horizon. "Well, thats our ride, Captain Anderson. Good luck, sir."
"Thank you, Mister Floyd. Dismissed."
Floyd and Agar headed out into the dark. "Excelsior, two to beam up," the exec spoke into his communicator.
And with their departure, Emory Anderson of the Roanoke colony sat down to continue reading the book hed begun on the starship. He glanced up as the star sped away in a flash of rainbow-colored light. Hed never read Defoe before, but the irony was inescapable.
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