Seekers: All That’s Left 1
It was going to be a very busy day, Colleen Cook decided. That was a good thing.
Standing at the edge of the wide, shallow crater that was the focal point of Beta Site, the latest excavation area assigned to her team, Cook surveyed the area and noted that even now, less than twelve hours after the most recent earthquake, things were returning to normal in rapid fashion. Heavy equipment had been brought over from the main encampment to assist in the moving of excavated soil and larger rocks that had shifted during the quake and its handful of aftershocks. All four of the temporary shelters that formed the base of operations for her team at this location were once again standing upright, though Cook noted a new fissure that had opened in the ground at the dig’s far end. Several people—a few like her wearing olive-green Starfleet utility coveralls but most wearing civilian attire—were moving about the narrow crevice that snaked for almost a hundred meters across the crater’s floor.
“Lieutenant Cook,” said a voice from behind her, and Cook glanced over her shoulder to see her friend and colleague T’Naal walking toward her across the rocky terrain separating the crater from the larger encampment that was home to Cook and her team. A civilian member of the archaeological team, T’Naal wore a gray jumpsuit that sported several pockets and was similar in design to her Starfleet coveralls, and she carried a black satchel slung over her right shoulder and across her torso so that the bag rested along her left hip.
“Good morning,” Cook offered as the Vulcan moved to stand next to her at the crater’s edge. She then gestured to the scene before her. “You know, even though we’ve been here a month, I still stand here at the start of every day, look around, and get excited about what we might find.” As she spoke the words, Cook felt her cheeks warm in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, T’Naal. I know I must sound silly.”
Her companion shook her head. “You need not apologize, Lieutenant. I have worked alongside humans for many years, and I am familiar with a broad range of emotional displays. Compared to others I have witnessed, yours was most restrained, and oddly . . . refreshing.” She raised her left eyebrow, which Cook had come to learn was T’Naal’s way of conveying her various attempts at humor. The silent punctuation to her reply made Cook chuckle before she redirected her attention to the vista before her.
Beyond the crater and extending for several kilometers in all directions were the ruins of what Cook thought had to have once been a beautiful city. When an unmanned probe, three years earlier, had reconnoitered this planet, Cantrel V, its sensors had recorded images and evidence of nearly thirty such developed areas scattered across its three primary landmasses, along with numerous other smaller concentrations of industrialization. Landing parties from the first Starfleet ships to investigate the planet had come away with volumes of information hinting at the civilization that once had thrived here, including evidence of the global conflict that doubtless had precipitated its demise. Sensor scans indicated that the war which had ravaged Cantrel V had taken place more than four centuries earlier, and medical and forensic teams from those initial exploration efforts had collected and studied remains of beings believed to be members of the planet’s indigenous humanoid population.
As for the war, evidence of orbital bombardment was everywhere, leading to speculation that two or more factions may have utilized long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles, or perhaps even space-based weapons. The latter theory received an intriguing twist when the excavation of another dig site revealed a new set of remains that—while humanoid—appeared to be a different species from those previously retrieved and studied. Had the planet been home to more than one form of higher-order life? Perhaps one species had come here from some other, distant world. If that was the case, which race was native to Cantrel V?
“Every morning I come up here,” Cook said, “and every morning I ask the same question. What happened to these people, that war on such a scale was the answer?” She gestured toward the ruins in the distance. “It doesn’t make any sense. Based on everything we’ve found so far, this was a civilization that seemed to be doing everything right. Technological advancement, rudimentary space travel, the works.” She cast her gaze toward the horizon, where gray-white clouds were gathering and contrasting with the brilliant blue sky. “It doesn’t make any damned sense.”
“Agreed,” replied T’Naal, “particularly in light of our recent discovery.” The Vulcan paused, and Cook watched as she studied the devastated city beyond the dig site. “These people were on the cusp of faster-than-light travel. Our scans confirmed the presence of antimatter, still in a protected underground storage facility, and the remnants of a spacecraft fitted with a primitive warp engine not at all unlike the prototype developed by your Zefram Cochrane. The similarities are actually quite remarkable, though Doctor Cochrane’s design actually was more efficient than what we found here.”
The lieutenant could not resist a teasing smile. “You sound surprised by that.”
“It was not my intention to slight Doctor Cochrane’s work. On the contrary, his accomplishment is all the more impressive given the environment in which he was forced to work and the resources at his disposal.”
Nodding, Cook said, “Which makes what we’ve got here that much more bizarre. Unless we’re just totally misreading everything, these people were far better off than Earth was in the twenty-first century, so what the hell happened?” It was a common question put forth by members of her team, usually as part of spirited discussions over meals at the end of long days spent exploring the different excavation sites. For her part, the mystery was what had driven Cook to take this assignment, rather than one of the others calling for her particular skills. The planet teemed with questions in search of answers.
Following the discoveries made by the original survey teams, Starfleet had devoted personnel and resources to further exploration of Cantrel V, aided in no small part by the civilian colonists and scientists who now called this world home. While the colony itself had taken advantage of the planet’s temperate climate to build what was fast becoming a formidable agricultural community, archaeologists like T’Naal as well as specialists from numerous fields of scientific study sought answers to the mystery of the planet’s past and the people who once had lived here.
“Any news from Tài Shan?” Cook asked.
T’Naal replied, “Administrator LeMons sent an updated status this morning. She reports that they ultimately were unable to repair the faulty generator and were forced to replace it. However, work on the three buildings damaged during the quake is under way, and she expects those to be completed by tomorrow.”
“What about their casualties?”
“The four colonists who suffered minor injuries have all been treated and released to their homes. The colony’s primary physician has forwarded his report along with Administrator LeMons’s, and I have prepared all of that for your review once you return to base camp.”
Cook smiled. “What would I do without you, T’Naal?”
“You likely would perform all of these required administrative tasks yourself,” the Vulcan said, “but perhaps without my level of efficiency.” Once more, she arched her left eyebrow, and Cook fought back another laugh.
Though she was the officer in command of the Starfleet contingent assigned to Beta Site as well as overall leader of the entire combined team, it had taken Cook almost no time to form a productive collaboration with T’Naal, the civilian group’s senior member. They worked well together, helping one another as they each oversaw their respective personnel, and the Vulcan had gone to great lengths to ease Cook’s logistical burden as she dealt with all manner of reports and other administrative trivia as required by Starfleet Command. This also entailed doing what she could to support Morgan LeMons, the administrator of Tài Shan, the colony established eighteen months ago on Cantrel V.
One of numerous such settlements founded as part of the Federation’s exploration of and expansion into the Taurus Reach, Tài Shan was one of several success stories in this region of space. It had thrived even as other colonies encountered challenges ranging from disease and harsh environmental conditions to attacks from Klingon forces or other renegade elements. Cook knew from personal experience that Starfleet’s attention had been occupied by other concerns elsewhere in this contested wedge of space, whereas Tài Shan was one of several outposts that had managed to escape being impacted.
Reaching into her satchel, T’Naal extracted a data slate and handed it to Cook. “We have also received a preliminary report from Ensign ch’Dran. He and his survey team have completed a sweep of the underground caverns and prepared a list of those areas that currently are unsafe for our people. Those sections are being cordoned off until such time as Commander al-Khaled can dispatch engineering teams to assist us.”
“I was figuring as much,” Cook said. The earthquake had come early the previous evening, after everyone had cleared the subterranean areas of the excavation site for the day, and with only a few stragglers left in the crater itself. All the team members had escaped injury, left instead to deal with the cleanup. “I’ll take a little extra digging over broken bones or worse any day.”
T’Naal replied, “We were most fortunate. There are two tunnels that will require clearing, after which Ensign ch’Dran can continue his safety inspection to the rest of the cavern, but the delays should be minimal.”
“I’ll contact the Aephas when I get back to camp and ask Commander al-Khaled to get his engineers and their big toys down here. They’ll love being able to dig around in the dirt for a while.” Cook had not had the opportunity to speak to Mahmud al-Khaled, the commanding officer of the science ship Aephas, since the vessel’s arrival at Cantrel V two days earlier. He and his crew had spent the bulk of that time with the transfer of supplies they had brought with them, as well as assisting with various tasks in support of the Tài Shan colony. LeMons had doubtless been keeping al-Khaled and his people busy with the sizable list of necessary repairs or infrastructure enhancements, along with whatever desired or “nice to have” requests the Aephas and its crew could accommodate.
“You know the commander?” T’Naal asked. When Cook eyed her with a quizzical expression, the Vulcan added, “Your comments made it seem as though you were acquainted.”
Cook shrugged. “We served together, briefly, a few years ago.” In truth, she had only met al-Khaled once, three years earlier, on the planet Erilon. She had been an ensign assigned to the science department of the Starship Endeavour, and the commander had been serving as the leader of a contingent from Starfleet’s Corps of Engineers detached to the U.S.S. Lovell. The frozen world had been the site of a most unusual and classified archaeological expedition sanctioned by Starfleet as part of its larger exploration of the Taurus Reach. While Cook, at first, had considered the duty boring if not pointless, that opinion had been shattered once . . .
Now’s not the time to be dwelling on that again. You’ve got work to do.
She was reaching into a pocket of her coveralls to retrieve her communicator when the device emitted a pair of beeps, indicating an incoming call. Extracting the unit from her pocket, she flipped open its gold antenna grid.
“This is Ensign ch’Dran, Lieutenant,” said the voice of the Andorian officer who served as one of Cook’s team leaders when her contingent of Starfleet archaeology and geology specialists were scattered across the different dig sites. “We are still conducting our safety sweep of the area, but we have found something you will want to see. The quake caused a new sinkhole to open approximately five hundred meters from the crater, and if our tricorder readings are correct, it may provide us with access to an entirely new area of the subterranean ruins.” Cook noted that he sounded somewhat out of breath, as though he had been running or climbing or performing some other rigorous activity.
“Ensign, are you all right?”
Ch’Dran replied, “Yes. I attempted to climb down into the new opening to determine if there was a safe means of entering the new cavern, and part of the hole collapsed even farther. Two of my people had to help pull me clear.”
“Well, stop doing that,” Cook said, her tone growing harder. “Nobody goes down there until we verify its safety. That means you too, Zet.” She should have known he might attempt to check things out for himself. Despite all his training as a field archeology and anthropology officer, Ensign Zeturildtra ch’Dran possessed a penchant for taking unnecessary risks while performing his duties. His one saving grace was that he limited the straining of protocol to himself, rather than risking the safety of his team members, but she had counseled him twice on this behavior since arriving at Cantrel V. Cook made a note to revisit the subject with ch’Dran at the next available opportunity.
“Understood, Lieutenant,” replied the Andorian. “I have already established a security cordon around the new site, and we are in the process of scanning for possible cave-ins as well as the threat of toxic gases that might have been released from underground pockets. So far, we have found nothing. However, you should be aware that my civilian counterpart is most anxious to investigate the new find. Despite my warnings, Mister Gillespie is most insistent that he and his team be allowed to descend into the cavern as soon as possible.”
Rather than responding to ch’Dran, Cook instead directed an exasperated look to T’Naal. As much as the ensign might irritate her with his occasional need to strike out on his own, James Gillespie had proven to be a monumental pain in the ass since his arrival on Cantrel V. Headstrong and possessing an impressive list of credentials following decades of work as a field archaeologist and professor at one of the most prestigious universities on Mars, Gillespie harbored almost no patience for protocol, bureaucracy, and even—on occasion—civility. He also made a habit of reminding all who might hear him of this disdain, and Cook in particular had been on the receiving end of his ranting more than once.
“Your boy’s acting up again.”
T’Naal replied, “He is not my offspring.” Stepping closer, she directed her voice to Cook’s open communicator. “Ensign ch’Dran, this is T’Naal. Inform Mister Gillespie that he is to refrain from entering the new cavern until further notice.”
“Acknowledged. Thank you for your assistance. Ch’Dran out.”
No sooner had the conversation ended and Cook was about to contact the Tài Shan colony administrator than her communicator beeped again. She frowned at the device in her hand. “Seems I’m popular this morning.”
“It would appear so,” said T’Naal.
Cook tapped the control to switch the communicator to the new frequency. “Cook here.”
“Al-Khaled here, Lieutenant,” replied the voice of the Aephas’s commanding officer. “I’ve already notified Administrator LeMons about this. Alert all your people that our long-range sensors are detecting the approach of an unknown vessel.”
Frowning, Cook asked, “Unknown? As in it’s too far away to identify?”
“Unknown as in it’s like nothing on file anywhere in our computer’s memory banks. Whoever’s flying it isn’t responding to our hails, and they’re definitely heading for us. We’re heading out to meet it before it gets here, but until we can get some idea of who they are or what they want, make sure all of your people are on full alert. Start moving them to designated emergency stations and await further instructions.”
Her mind already racing with the various orders to be issued and tasks to be performed, Cook said, “We’re not set up for any sort of defensive action down here, Commander. This is a civilian colony, and we’re just guests in their house.” Tài Shan, while possessing little in the way of weapons, had constructed a series of underground shelters to serve as a degree of protection. It was a practice mimicked by many colonies established in the Taurus Reach after a few such settlements had fallen victim to Klingon or Tholian attack. Would such defensive measures prove sufficient, if the situation came to that? “All we can really do is just hunker down and hope for the best.”
There was a brief pause, and Cook thought she could almost hear al-Khaled release a small sigh, before he replied, “Then start doing that.”