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Captain’s Log. Stardate 6012.9.
The Enterprise has concluded a successful week charting the Wyvern system, a region devoid of intelligent life but full of fascinating planets, moons, asteroid belts, and radiation fields, or so my first officer informs me. In the meantime, with no immediate crisis on the horizon, the crew is looking forward to some much-needed recreation . . .
“Mister Spock,” Lieutenant Uhura said. “Do you have a minute?”
The Vulcan science officer looked up from his scanner. “At our present cruising speed, we are not expected to arrive at Starbase 13 for another 72.03 hours. You have my attention for as many minutes as you require. How can I assist you?”
It was a relatively quiet moment on the bridge. The U.S.S. Enterprise was cruising at warp 2 through the interstellar void, with the Wyvern system receding in the ship’s aft sensors. Captain James T. Kirk listened casually to the conversation behind him as he reviewed the latest maintenance reports from engineering. A yeoman offered him a fresh cup of coffee, which he gratefully accepted.
“Oh, I doubt this will take 72.03 hours,” Uhura quipped. She wandered away from the communications station to confer with Spock at his post. “I’m just organizing this year’s holiday party, and I wanted your input.”
Spock arched an eyebrow. “I am not certain that I am the appropriate officer to consult on such a matter. Levity is hardly the Vulcan way.”
That’s putting it lightly, Kirk thought. He wondered what Uhura was about.
“Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about,” she said. “As usual, the holiday party embraces the varied cultures and traditions of the ship’s entire crew, celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Diwali, Ramadan, mololo zam, and the Saturnian Blessing of the Rings, but I admit that I’m not terribly familiar with the customs of your people, Mister Spock. Are there any Vulcan holidays or rituals you would like us to include in the festivities?”
Kirk rotated the captain’s chair around to observe Spock’s science station. The general chatter on the bridge died down, the better to eavesdrop on this increasingly intriguing conversation. Kirk suspected that Chekov and Sulu and the rest of the bridge crew were listening in as well. Even though they had all been serving beside Spock for at least four years now, there was still much they didn’t know about Vulcan life and customs. Spock, like the rest of his people, tended to be rather close-lipped on the subject.
“You need not trouble yourself on my behalf, Lieutenant,” he said, “although you are to be applauded for your efforts at inclusiveness, which are very much in keeping with the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC.”
Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, Kirk translated mentally. He was quite familiar with the motto, which was one of the fundamental touchstones of Vulcan civilization. It had also been one of the guiding principles behind the formation of the Federation itself. No small surprise, considering that Vulcan, along with Earth, was a founding member of the UFP.
“So you never celebrated any holidays at home?” Uhura pressed. “Not even when you were growing up?”
“That is not entirely the case,” Spock admitted. “My father occasionally indulged my mother’s fondness for certain Terran holidays, most notably the human custom of St. Valentine’s Day.”
Uhura reacted with delight to this unexpected revelation. “Why, Mister Spock, that’s positively romantic!”
“On the contrary,” he stated, “it is simply logical. In a universe populated by myriad species and cultures, respecting and accommodating each other’s disparate traditions is the only rational response.”
“Well said, Mister Spock,” Kirk said, joining the discussion. “I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who famously stated that a barbarian was someone who confused the customs of his own tribe with the laws of the universe. Or words to that effect.”
Kirk half expected Spock to make some gibe about humans being well equipped to comment on the topic of barbarism, but the Vulcan refrained, possibly because Doctor McCoy was not in earshot. Bones was presently holding down the fort in sickbay, dealing with an outbreak of Therbian fever among the crew, which meant there was nobody on the bridge to provoke.
“A most civilized sentiment,” Spock said instead, “particularly for an Earthman of his generation.”
“What about you, Captain?” Uhura asked. “Can we expect you at the party?”
“Er, we’ll see,” he hedged. After the Helen Noel incident a few years back, he was still a bit leery of holiday parties. Such celebrations were good for morale, but too much fraternization could lead to some awkward moments afterward. Thank goodness Helen eventually transferred over to the Reliant, he thought. “It depends on what my schedule is looking like.”
Uhura wasn’t going to let him off that easy.
“I’m sure the whole crew is hoping you’ll attend, sir. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”
She had a point, he admitted. Maybe if he just made an appearance?
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to disappoint the crew—”
An urgent chime from the communications station interrupted him. Uhura hurried back to her post and adjusted her earpiece. All talk of parties and holidays was instantly put aside as she resumed her duties with her usual brisk professionalism.
“Captain,” she reported urgently, “we’re receiving an emergency distress signal from Ephrata IV.”
“Ephrata?” he echoed. “The Institute?”
It had to be. As far as he knew, there were no other colonies or settlements in the Ephrata system. Indeed, the Institute had chosen Ephrata IV because of its remote and isolated location, far from the hustle and bustle of more populated systems. Seclusion was considered more conducive to serious study and contemplation.
“Put it on the screen,” he ordered.
Uhura consulted her control panel and displays. “I’m trying, sir, but there’s interference with the visual component of the signal. I’m mostly getting audio only.” She turned toward the main viewer at the front of the bridge. “Coming through now.”
On the screen, a burst of visual snow replaced a view of the starry vista they had been traversing. The head and shoulders of a humanoid figure could be only dimly glimpsed through the chaff. A feminine voice, punctuated by static, cried out in obvious distress:
“Help us! This is the Ephrata Institute, requesting immediate assistance. . . .” Crackles and pops obscured the audio, so that only snippets could be heard. “ . . . disaster . . . casualties . . . gravity of the situation . . .”
Kirk thought he recognized the voice. He leaned forward in his seat, trying in vain to make out the figure’s features.
Doctor Collins was an old family friend from Iowa who had often played bridge with his parents when Kirk was growing up. Last he heard, she had accepted a position as president of the Ephrata Institute. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her in person. Probably at Sam’s and Aurelan’s funeral. As he recalled, she’d come all the way from Alpha Centauri to attend his brother’s and sister-in-law’s memorial services on Deneva. Kirk had been touched by her thoughtfulness.
“Elena!” he said. “What’s happening? What’s the nature of your emergency?”
“It’s no use, Captain,” Uhura said. “This signal was sent days ago. We’re only just now receiving the signal.” She fiddled with her controls. “Unable to establish direct communication with Ephrata at this time.”
Frustration gnawed at Kirk. Out here on the final frontier, remote settlements like the one on Ephrata were often cut off from relief or communication for days, weeks, or even months at a time. For all he knew, the disaster at the Institute had come and gone—and Elena and the other scholars were already dead or dying.
“Emergency!” she repeated. “Gravity . . . the weight of worlds . . . help us. . . .”
The transmission ended abruptly. Nothing but snow and static filled the screen.
“That’s all, Captain.” She hit a switch, and an endless sea of open space returned to the viewer. “The signal appears to have been cut off at the source.”
“Understood.” Kirk would have liked more information, but his course was clear. Their routine call on Starbase 13 would have to wait. “Mister Sulu, set a course for Ephrata IV. Warp factor 6.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” The helmsman consulted the astrogator located at the helm and navigation stations. “Estimated time to Ephrata system thirty-nine hours, seventeen minutes.”
Damn it, Kirk thought. He found himself wishing that the Institute had chosen a location somewhat less off the beaten track. “Any chance that another vessel might have already responded to that distress signal?”
“Unlikely, Captain,” Spock reported. “As you know, Ephrata IV is isolated by design. The Enterprise is the only Federation starship in this sector, and the odds that a private or commercial vessel would be in their vicinity are roughly seven hundred sixty to one.”
“I was afraid of that,” Kirk said. Aside from the typically precise probability, Spock hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already suspect. The Enterprise was probably the only chance those people had, if they were still alive to be rescued. He turned to his first officer for guidance. “Your thoughts?”
“There is insufficient data to reach any definite conclusions,” Spock said. He called up the latest reports and information on Ephrata from the ship’s memory banks and swiftly reviewed the relevant material. “The Ephrata Institute appears to have been thriving. There is no indication that the settlement was encountering any significant difficulties. A supply ship, the Yakima, visited the planet six months ago and reported nothing untoward. The Institute’s primary output was academic papers and research studies.”
“And then what happened?” Kirk wondered aloud. “An epidemic? A natural disaster? An alien attack?”
“The last is improbable,” Spock said. “The Ephrata system is safely distant from the Klingon, Romulan, and Tholian borders. And the surrounding systems contain no potentially hostile species with warp capacity.”
Kirk wanted to believe him. “What about some enemy unknown to us?”
“Always possible, Captain, but it is uncertain where precisely such a threat would originate.” Spock eyed Kirk with concern, and a hint of compassion. “I take it you know Doctor Collins?”
“Very well,” Kirk admitted, but did not elaborate. There would be time enough to fill in Spock and McCoy on his personal connection to this crisis; the rest of the crew didn’t need to worry about their captain being emotionally compromised. Kirk stared at the distant stars ahead, mentally willing them nearer. Thirty-nine long hours stretched out before him. He briefly considered upping their speed to warp 7, even over Scotty’s inevitable protests, but thought better of it. Warp 7 would place too great a strain on the ship and its resources, and they had no idea what they were in for once they reached Ephrata. He didn’t want to face the crisis ahead, whatever it was, with a ship and crew at anything less than peak efficiency, ready for anything.
“Total population on Ephrata?” he asked.
Spock had the data at his fingertips. “Seven hundred and eighty-six, plus or minus various guest lecturers and teaching assistants.”
“Nearly eight hundred souls,” Kirk repeated. Including Elena Collins.
He wondered how many, if any, of the scholars were still alive. And what exactly he would find on Ephrata IV.