The Earhart was very busy with people coming and going. Indeed, no sooner had we left our shuttle than it was claimed by another officer and was jetting off again. We, meanwhile, had a meeting to attend in one of the cargo bays.
As we trotted through the corridors, the Earhart felt distinctly smaller than the Drakonia. The corridors, although not cramped, were certainly less spacious, but I should have expected that of a ship about one-quarter the size of the Drakonia. Hoards of people were going about their business. The Earhart had been undergoing upgrades and inspections during her months in dry dock, so the majority of her crew seemed to be arriving today. This perhaps added to the impression.
The cargo bay, too, was bustling with at least half her crew present. So many new faces to get to know, but among them should be some old friends as well. I could see we are quite a young crew too. I just hope our lack of experience doesn't hold us back.
As my eyes scanned the uniforms and faces, there was an air of excitement among us. My eyes were drawn to a group of people: marines, six of them. They stood out in their severe black colours and calm demeanours, and told me instantly that whatever our first expedition was, it had to be important. You don't get assigned marines to attend the Klingon's Spring Ball or whatever.
One of the marines looked particularly odd. Standing significantly shorter than the rest, he was quite stockily built with a bush of thick, black Klingon hair. His back was to me, so I couldn't see his face, but there was something else odd too. His stance was very ... feminine.
I craned my head to look closer and spied his hands: small hands with long, slender fingers. This wasn't a male at all. This was a woman, and then she turned around.
"Al!" I screamed and began barging my way past the people between us.
She looked up and as her eyes met mine, her face lit up.
"Jen!" she bellowed and ran towards me.
We met somewhere in the middle and hugged each other warmly.
"You look fantastic!" I screamed, and she did.
Dressed in the garb of a marine, her olive skin tones and thick, black hair gave her a healthy, natural glow that I'd never seen her with before. As a peroxide blonde, she had donned bright clothes and colours to compliment her big, curling locks. Now, her hair settled around her shoulders in typical Klingon splendour: a mass of unruly, crimped ebony hair feebly held back by a simple black cord. She stood taller too. Her shoulders were pushed back and her chin held high. Could I see the faint traces of brow ridges too?
"Yeah, well. Not a lot of time for fixing your roots as a marine so I've gone back to my natural colour. You look pretty good yourself, despite picking a fight with the nagagh tInr."
"Urtok ... nagagh tInr. It more or less means 'big tower'. It's what we call him. What? Klingon not in your diction?"
The room suddenly stilled. The Captain had entered.
T'Roc also seemed bigger than the last time I had seen her, and her presence was so strongly felt that she did not need to quieten the room. It did so naturally. To my surprise, Commander Jarrod was by her side. Casually, she pushed a nearby container to T'Roc's feet. T'Roc mounted it, signifying that a speech was forthcoming.
"Good afternoon, crew," she began. "And welcome aboard the USS Earhart. Today is a very special day. The Earhart will be setting out on her first voyage following her rebirth, her second maiden voyage if you will. She is newly fitted with the latest equipment and technology, has a new crew and Captain. Together, we will be taking her into the stars because we have a mission.
"But this is no ordinary mission. This is one at which we must not fail because this is our first one ... and because, it seems, that Starfleet is anticipating our failure. Why? Because we are what we are: an inexperienced crew lacking in skill and qualification—at least, that is what they tell me ... but I tell you this ...
"Our full crew should number one hundred and sixty-eight personnel. Our compliment is one hundred and forty, but that is not because I have been left with only the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel. Indeed, I have refused applications from personnel to join our crew. The Earhart has a reputation that she needs to dispel and she cannot do that with a second-rate crew. Each and every one of you has been personally vetted and selected. Each of you has been permitted to come aboard this ship because I have found something in you that is of great value to me. It may be your spirit, your personal experiences, qualification by experience, your academic achievements or character. Each of you, I WANT aboard this ship and each of you has a very important part to play.
"But do not puff yourselves up with misplaced pride. I and Starfleet are fully aware that for some of you, your time in Starfleet has been far from glorious. I have heard officers whisper in the comfort of their scotch and Romulan ale that we are little more than a 'shoddy assemblage of second-rate, poorly qualified Starfleet personnel assigned to an accursed ship', and it is true. Some of you have been able survive with your mediocrity. You have been allowed to misbehave and bicker like schoolchildren ... but playtime is over. You have donned the uniforms of Starfleet; now you will earn them.
"In the past twenty-four hours, I have come to learn that our mission, previously considered to be fairly routine, is likely to be a perilous one. So perilous, I must warn you. For those of you on the Professional Development Programme, you may have appointments with various Academies in nine months time, but there is a distinct possibility that you will be late for that appointment. You may not arrive at all. That is the gravity of this mission."
T'Roc paused allowing her words to permeate into each one of us and then drew a long, hollow breath.
"It was suggested that this mission should be handed over to a more experienced ship, but two things prevent that. The lack of an available starship and the uncertainty as to how serious this mission actually is.
"And now you are confused. I talk about a mission that Starfleet considers both important and perilous, and yet not serious enough to assign to another ship. That is because the situation is curious. In truth, we do not know what we will be facing, so let me tell you about the mission.
"As you know, the Earhart disappeared a little over a year ago. She disappeared without warning or trace and then reappeared four sectors away. Her databanks stopped abruptly without explanation and her crew was gone. Since then, probes have continually been sent into the area, but shown nothing. Then, four days ago, a carrier passing the area of the Earhart's disappearance picked up some unusual readings. They diverted to investigate and found a graveyard of corpses floating in space: the former crew of the Earhart. And then, thirty minutes later, they found they had company.
"Five life forms had materialised on their ship: more former crewmembers of the Earhart. Three of them materialised inside walls and bulkheads. The remaining two life forms were alive, but not well. Emaciated and dehydrated, their minds were blank. They died within hours.
"Starfleet do not know the gravity of this situation and probes have failed to reveal anything. It demands a starship to investigate, but until they know more, Starfleet are reluctant to recall and assign a more experienced ship to this expedition. So they are happy to send us, and if we are lost ... we are expendable.
"For these reasons, this mission is not compulsory. If you wish to reject it, you may do so. You will be taken back to the station, you will be assigned another posting and your records will not be blemished by your decision, but if you stay ...
"Ladies and gentlemen, you have one hour to make your decision. After that time, those wishing to leave should report to the shuttle bay. Those wishing to stay should sign onto the ship's crew registry, dock your belongings into your quarters and take up your stations. We depart in one hour, thirty minutes."