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Part of Challenger: The Sky’s The Limit

PROLOGUE – DAY 47

Challenger NX-03
Friday, July 25th, 2155
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You have all done your best and I can’t ask anymore from you. It’s time to face reality, as we can’t keep going on like this. We’ve lost two decks; primary systems are failing, and life support is barely operational. Challenger can no longer protect us.” Captain Burton paused as he took a breath and shook his head in disbelief at where they found themselves in this moment of time. The entire crew was assembled in the crew lounge; those injured were lying on the makeshift medical beds while the rest of them were all huddled together in small groups dotted around the room. The room itself was barely lit and had all of its doors either blown off from the bulkheads or were hanging from their hinges. The smell of scorched metal was pungent. Tables and chairs were stacked at one end of the room or scattered around like pieces of a broken jigsaw puzzle.  All of the crew had their focus on Captain Burton as he spoke. He knew none of them would want to hear what he was saying. Their miserable faces told him that. None of them looked like the crew he had taken out of space-dock months ago. He hadn’t seen them this low since Captain Karim’s death. He continued talking as he walked in between them, “I promised myself that I would never give this order, that we would always make it back in one piece,” Taking in another breath he stopped as he reached one end of the room and turned to look at them. Hands on his hips, he finished his sentence, “but asking you to stay would be asking you to die. You will proceed to the escape pods and abandon ship.”

Those last words hung in the air like thick acid fog and caused a bitter taste with everyone who was in the mess hall. Everyone’s defeated expressions suddenly looked worse than what they had been moments before, yet Captain Burton had to be honest with them and they needed to hear it. It was a decision he had mentally wrestled with over the last few days. He had agonised over it and had only discussed it with Stanton before sharing his decision with what was left of the senior staff one day ago. Now he stood before everyone and gave out what could be considered his very last order to his crew. Deep down Burton hoped that was not the case. In the distance he could hear some of them crying over their current predicament. He too found it hard to accept it as well and was doing his best not joining in with them. He had to remain strong, yet if he could feel his eyes becoming watery. He was the commanding officer and he had to lead his crew to victory even if that meant them all leaving the ship behind. 

“You will make your way for the Minshara planet we were originally heading to. You’ll need to keep a strict radio silence to avoid being detected by any enemy ships. Once you’ve landed then find somewhere to set up a shelter. You’ll have to rough it until you’ve been able to determine what you can use from the land to survive on.” Burton had started to walk in and around the makeshift beds again. He was taking his time to look at everyone, as he knew this was important that they felt he valued every single one of them. “Some of the senior staff and I will remain on board as long as possible. We will try somehow to find Commander Levesque and her missing group.” He paused after he said those words as he passed Corporal Jenkins and rested an assuring hand on the young man’s shoulder; it was a small gesture just so that Jenkins knew that his captain understood how hard he was finding to cope in their current situation. Jenkins had lost his fiancé and his heartbreak was plastered across his expression. Burton knew they had all been affected in one way or another since all of this started and none of them would be the same once it was over. Burton drew in a breath and finished his speech as he approached Ben-Ami. “I’ve decided to promote our good doctor to Lieutenant Commander.” He shook her hand in a half-hearted attempt to congratulate her. “Lieutenant Commander Ben-Ami will be in command of you all. You’ll take your orders from her and when we find each other again,” He paused as he knocked on a nearby table in a vain attempt to gain some luck from the fates (deep down he realised the table was not made of wood but carrying out the gesture made him feel good), “and we will, we will find each other again, I expect all of you to be in good health and in one piece with some interesting adventures to share. That’s an order!” He took one more look around the room. His strong conviction that they will meet again had to be what drove them now. “Godspeed.” He finished on.

Burton watched solemnly, attempting his hardest to keep it together still, as one at a time they shuffled out of the room. As Jenkins walked past him, he could hear the young MACO sniffling and trying to hold back the tears that stung his eyes, instinctively Burton just put his arms around the man just as if he was one of his younger brothers. “We’ll get through this Liam, I promise.” He whispered into the man’s ear.

“Thank you, sir.” Jenkins whispered back before letting go of his commanding officer and leaving with his comrades.

Eventually Captain Burton was just left with his senior staff. They all looked as exhausted and deflated as he did. Not one of them had a uniform on that didn’t have a scratch or a piece missing from it. Like their uniforms, they all looked dirty too from smudges of dirt smeared across their faces, necks and arms. Any part of their skin that was exposed was also complimented by an array of bruises and cuts. Their hairs were all dishevelled. None of them had washed in days. What they had been through over the past month was a living hell. He looked at the woman that stood the tallest in the room. These last few months he had grown accustomed to her and was starting to be able to read her body language and guess what she was going to say before she said it. 

“Sub Commander, I can hear your objections already.” Burton uttered softly.

T’Plau raised her left eyebrow; surprised he was able to predict what she was going to say to him. She spoke up anyway, “Given Challenger’s damaged state the probability of it surviving another battle is negligible sir.”

Burton smiled at her Vulcan pessimism. “I know but I owe it to Nicole and the others. We won’t leave them behind.”

“I respect your decision.” T’Plau said with a hint of reluctance in her voice, finally admitting defeat in trying to convince the captain to reconsider his decision. She knew that neither her nor Stanton could change his mind when it came to the plan to rescue Commander Levesque.

Burton looked to his Chief Medical Officer; he wanted this moment to quickly go away so he could remove the heartbreak he was feeling and concentrate on getting on with his work. “You ready to go Kefira?”

She nodded and smiled half heartily at her comrades one more time. “I wish I could stay.”

“Just don’t get too comfy in those escape pods!” Commander Stanton said from where he was leaning against the wall, arms-crossed, trying to lighten the mood, if that was possible. His head was so far backward he looked as if he was trying to use the wall as a place he could sleep against; his entire demeanour displayed his fatigue too. 

She smiled at him, appreciating that he tried to share some humour with them. “We promise not to.” Ben-Ami said looking to her three other travelling companions: Major Yu, Ensigns Conrad and Hennessey. 

“Keep them safe Major.” Burton said to his MACO commander who just quietly nodded in response. “And Ensign Conrad, make sure you bring back Shuttlepod One in good condition.”

“I’ll do my best not to scratch her paintwork sir.” Conrad responded, also trying to keep the mood as light as possible.

Burton looked at them all individually again. “Good luck.” He said, indicating for them to get going. They all said their goodbyes, which included them all hugging one another apart from T’Plau. Unexpectedly she gave them the Vulcan salute and said goodbye to them by reciting Surak’s famous phrase of “Live long and prosper”. 

They soon departed from the ship. 

Once the last escape pod launched, Captain Burton stood back as he read the computer monitor saying the final lifeboat was clear. He then looked to Commander Stanton and Sub Commander T’Plau. The three of them were the last ones left on board. Around them, just like every other corridor and room on board, was what was left of the wrecked ship. Challenger had taken a pounding that had almost destroyed it. Whereas before they would have been standing in a well-lit clean corridor, now they found themselves standing among collapsed bulkheads, burnt out circuitry. A few overhead lights flickered on and off alongside an annoying buzzing noise filling the air. The atmosphere was filled with a thick sense of defeat left behind by their crew.

Burton turned to his two remaining officers and whispered as he took in the scenery around them, “Tell me something, how did we end up here?” 

Sub Commander T’Plau considered the captain’s question as she thought back to when it all started…