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Though it was not unusual for him to be called to the bridge at such an irregular hour, Captain Vanik was still surprised at the summons. After all, given their current assignment, what could possibly be so pressing?
Located well within the admittedly small sector of the galaxy that had been mapped and traversed by Vulcan ships, this area of space was one Vanik had traveled numerous times during his fifteen years as commander of the Ti'Mur. Other than its status as the location of a single minor conflict during the protracted war with the Andorians, the region offered little of interest. None of the planets in the area's lone star system were habitable, and they contained nothing of scientific or strategic value. The only quality the area possessed, in Vanik's opinion, was that it had few distractions to delay a vessel's journey to some other, more appealing destination.
Has this somehow changed?
He had only just settled into his evening's meditation when the message came from the officer on duty. Well aware of her captain's routine, Sub-commander T'Lih would not have intruded on his private time unless she believed it was a matter for his attention. Whatever it was that had prompted her call, it must be quite fascinating indeed.
Of course, Vanik reminded himself, further speculation serves no purpose. My questions will be answered in short order.
The turbolift slowed to a halt and the doors parted to reveal the Ti'Mur's bridge. Triangular-shaped, the command center was widest at the rear stations, with rows of control consoles to either side and angling inward until they met the immense viewscreen dominating the forward bulkhead. Unlike other areas of the ship, where lighting was adjusted in order to simulate the daily cycle on Vulcan, Vanik preferred the command center's illumination to remain at normal levels regardless of the time of day.
Each of the bridge's key stations was manned despite the lateness of the hour, just as they would be during prime shift, yet the captain also noted a crew member operating the secondary science console. A visual inspection of the weapons station showed that the defensive systems were not active, meaning that no threats to the ship had been detected. Even from across the room, he could hear the two separate conversations taking place between members of the bridge crew and detected nothing untoward being discussed.
Stepping from the turbolift, Vanik nodded in greeting to T'Lih as the subcommander noticed his arrival.
"Good evening, Captain," she offered as she rose from the command chair at the rear of the bridge. Like every other member of the ship's complement, T'Lih wore the standard gray uniform of the Vulcan Space Service. Impeccably tailored to her physique, the uniform possessed no decorative accessories save for the small rank insignia on the left side of her collar. Like Vanik's own, her features were lean and angular, but while his hair was gray and full-bodied, T'Lih wore her black locks cropped close to her skull in a manner that served to highlight the severe upswing of her pointed ears.
"And to you, Sub-commander," Vanik replied. "So, what is it that has attracted your interest?" Rather than take the proffered seat T'Lih had vacated, he chose instead to pace the room's perimeter, walking a slow circuit with hands clasped behind his back as he waited for the subcommander to make her report.
Moving to join her captain, T'Lih replied, "Fifty-two point six minutes ago, our long-range sensors detected an object traveling at warp one point three. A review of our data banks shows that it is of a type and configuration unknown to us."
"Life signs?" Vanik prompted.
"No, Captain. The object appears to be an unmanned drone. It is transmitting a recorded message that repeats at intervals of four point seven minutes. Translation efforts are already under way, and I have also ordered an attempt to determine the drone's origin point based on its current course heading."
Vanik nodded, pleased with the report and the subcommander's initiative, which also logically explained the presence of additional science personnel on the bridge. "Is it close enough for visual inspection?"
By way of reply, T'Lih summoned the attention of the junior officer working at the main science station. "Lieutenant Serel?"
The object that appeared on the bridge's central viewer in response to the science officer's commands was unlike anything Vanik had seen before. It consisted of a bulky cylindrical module mounted above a trio of squat engine bells. The cylinder's outer shell was composed of metal plating, and Vanik could see the join lines as well as the heads of dozens of fasteners that presumably attached the individual plates to a skeletal frame. Two antenna dishes were affixed to the cylinder's flanks, one of which appeared to have suffered damage. In fact, pockmarks and other blemishes were clearly discernible across the surface of the small craft.
"The damage is consistent with the effects of ion storms we have seen on our vessel's hulls," Serel reported from his station. "According to our scans, exposure to such a storm most likely occurred approximately eleven point six years ago."
"What have you learned about its level of technology?" Vanik asked.
"Though we will have to retrieve the drone in order to complete a thorough investigation," the science officer replied, "its propulsion system looks to be quite rudimentary. I would theorize that the warp drive was of an experimental nature, perhaps the first such test made by whoever constructed the object."
Interesting, Vanik thought. Given that the craft was obviously primitive, in all likelihood a first-generation deep-space vessel, that it had survived such an encounter relatively intact and still able to transmit data was a testament to its designers' craftsmanship.
Could this drone be the initial step toward first contact with a new species? Though he had worn the uniform of the Space Service for seventy-six years, he had participated in only one other introduction to an alien race. Vanik had to confess that the opportunity to do so again presented an intriguing notion.
He heard a telltale tone from Serel's console and turned to see the junior officer rising from his chair. "I have a report on the status of our translation efforts, Captain," Serel said as he crossed the bridge to stand before Vanik and T'Lih. "The object has sustained considerable damage during its journey. Much of the message is garbled beyond our ability to decipher. However, I was able to isolate several passages. The people who constructed the drone call themselves the Dokaalan, and the device itself was not launched from their homeworld as part of an exploration initiative. Rather, it seems that the message is a distress call."
Vanik's right eyebrow rose in response. An entire planet calling for help? What could have prompted such a desperate act? "Did the message include a reason for their plea?"
"Yes, Captain," Serel replied. "Their planet was undergoing global seismic events that threatened to destroy it, and science specialists among their people predicted total obliteration within one of their years. Though they had discovered the ability to travel at light speeds, they possessed no space vessels capable of transporting people to another habitable planet. They therefore sent out a trio of unmanned craft in the hopes of contacting someone who could come to their aid."
Already beginning to surmise the likely outcome of this scenario, Vanik was nevertheless obligated to consider what course of action, if any, he could undertake in response to the distress call. "Are we able to determine where the object originated?"
Turning to the secondary science station, T'Lih said, "Sub-commander Taren?"
"According to our sensor scans of its onboard systems," Taren replied, "it appears to have traveled on a constant course at a consistent speed for thirty-eight point three years. This places its likely origin point in an area of space that according to our databases is presently unexplored."
It took little effort for Vanik to comprehend the futility of the Dokaalan's actions. Even if the drone had been able to travel at a faster speed, had its creators not understood the improbability of making contact with anyone possessing the resources to render assistance on such a scale? Perhaps they had, and yet the dire situation they faced nevertheless compelled them to make the attempt.
"Given what has already been learned," Vanik said, "and presuming the Dokaalan scientists were correct in their original predictions, it would seem the time to provide assistance has long passed." It was an unfortunate determination to reach, he knew, but the facts currently available to them seemed to support no other conclusion.
"Captain," T'Lih said, "we could deploy a reconnaissance probe back along the drone's original course. It will take several months to reach that area of space at the probe's maximum speed, but it will be able to ascertain what ultimately happened to the Dokaalan homeworld."
It was a logical suggestion, and one Vanik at first supported. However, as this matter involved a species never before encountered, it was an issue that would have to be decided upon by the Vulcan Science Directorate. Only that august body possessed the authority to permit any interaction with a new race, a precaution intended to prevent the accidental introduction of technology, science, or even ideas that might prove too advanced for a culture not yet ready to possess such knowledge.
Besides, the Ti'Mur had other priorities. High Command had instructed Vanik to deviate from its current patrol in order to observe the latest activities of Enterprise, the deep-space exploration vessel recently launched by the humans from Earth. Though the humans themselves held little interest for him, Vanik nevertheless had kept abreast of their progress, especially regarding their efforts to perfect warp travel and push farther away from the confines of their own star system.
It had long been the opinion of High Command that the humans bore watching. Though they had proven to be somewhat innovative in their own way, they had also demonstrated that their inexperience in dealing with a larger celestial community, to say nothing of their own arrogance and overconfidence, likely would be their undoing.
Since Enterprise had left Earth, its crew and particularly its captain had managed to make quite a nuisance of themselves. That much was amply demonstrated when the vessel departed Earth on its inaugural voyage, deep into the heart of the Klingon Empire of all places. Only fortunate happenstance had prevented their initial contact with the Klingons from dissolving into an unmitigated disaster, and Vanik believed that the ultimate ramifications of the haphazard encounter were yet to be realized.
Then there was the recent debacle that had unfolded at the monastery on P'Jem. The Enterprise captain, Archer, had revealed the presence of the top-secret observation facility hidden beneath the monastery to Andorian operatives. Now that station and the vital data it provided about ship movements and other activities within Andorian space was gone, and the damage Archer had inflicted on Vulcan's intelligence-gathering operations would take a long time to repair.
Given all of that, Vanik could understand High Command's wishes that the Earth ship be monitored. He simply did not agree with the dispatching of a Surak-class vessel to do it. He hoped that Enterprise would be able to avoid trouble for the few days until the Ti'Mur was relieved by another vessel.
"Sub-commander T'Lih," he said, "prepare all of the information you have for transmission to High Command. In the interim, divert from our present course long enough to retrieve the drone, then adjust our course and speed to make our appointment on schedule."
"Yes, Captain," T'Lih replied, and set about relaying the necessary orders. As Vanik paced back to his command chair, he watched and listened as his bridge crew turned to their various tasks, satisfied that they would carry out their duties with their usual impeccable efficiency.
Settling into his seat, the captain realized he was actually looking forward to what a full examination of the alien object might reveal. If nothing else, the effort would pass the time until the rendezvous with the Earth ship.
It would be up to High Command and the Science Directorate as to whether a vessel was sent to discover the origin of the alien drone and perhaps to learn what had happened to those who had dispatched it, but Vanik for one hoped the attempt was made. Given the calamity they had apparently suffered, it would be unfortunate if the mystery of the Dokaalan were to remain unsolved.
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