The poker game was going well-at least for everyone except Will Riker-which meant it was going VERY well for everyone else. It spoke volumes as to the seasoning of those present that when the proximity alert sounded, there was a moment of contemplation, assessing the hand before them, before laying cards face down and proceeding to the front of the shuttle. No one rushed, each crew member slid into their role with the ease of familiar competence.
Just as they had filled the four Command chairs in the nose of the shuttle, the smooth baritone of the Captain sounded behind them.
"What have we got?"
"It's a debris field of some sort, wasn't on the star maps..." Will pushed commands on the computer console.
"Slow to one quarter impulse." The Captain ordered. "Let's have a look."
"Sensors indicate the debris is titanium, duranium, zilcon, transparent aluminum..." Data broke off the list, noting he was supplying more information than needed, "It appears from the composition, this was a Federation vessel."
"Where are we?" The Captain inquired.
The Doctor was filling the position of Navigator on this trip, and had already called up the information. "Just leaving the Ninan system, we won't be in direct communication range with the Enterprise for another two hours."
"Send them a subspace, tell them to divert course toward us. This could be the Kearsarge." The Captain's voice was grim. There were no known destroyed ships, in this quadrant, only missing ships.
"Subspace message sent," Counsellor Troi confirmed from Communications.
The large shuttle bucked. Will's hands dove for the manual controls.
"Mr. Data!" The Captain snapped, grabbing the handles on the rearward two seats to keep his feet as another jolt rocked the ship.
"There is nothing on the sensors, Sir, except the debris." All eyes were drawn to the viewscreen displaying the millions of pieces of ship glittering around them. The proximity alarm had been silenced, but it's steady flashing amber was the only alarm. With the battering the shuttle was now experiencing, the cockpit should be lit up like a carnival.
"We're losing power. Down to seventy-three percent." Data reported. The Captain had retreated to his seat. "Still not reading anything. No power fluctuations, no matter, no life signs."
"There's something, but... 'it'... is beyond our level of... what we can measure or scan." Deanna said softly, unsure.
"Get us out of here, Number One."
"Working on it." Will replied with less deference than he would show on the bridge. But he was physically engaged with trying to get the shuttle on a course out of the debris field.
"Power at sixty-nine percent and dropping steadily." Data reported.
"Options, Doctor Crusher?"
"Closest Class M is an unnamed planet by the white dwarf Paga. There are better choices further out..."
"I believe proximity may be our first priority." Data said, his tranquil delivery belying the meaning of his words.
"It'll be hot. And there's not much oxygen, but... enough." *Barely,* the Doctor added, under her breath.
"Doctor, set the coordinates. Counsellor, send a distress call with our location and heading." The Captain paused, "Get us there, Will." His voice softened.
Jean-Luc looked around the cabin. If whatever was out there was enough to pulverize a starship, a shuttle did not have much of a chance. On the other hand, he trusted no one more than the crew around him to find a way to beat the odds.
The shuttle continued to dip and tilt, like an ancient sailboat caught in hurricane seas. "Power now at forty-nine percent." Data reported.
"Shut down all unnecessary systems. Limit life support to minimum." The Captain's visage was grim. But short term discomfort was well preferable to death.
Few words were exchanged after that. Everyone's attention was concentrated on getting to the small planet they could now see. The jolting and bucking calmed to the occasional shudder.
"Power holding at twenty-seven percent." Data reported, when they had been out of the turbulence for a time. The temperature in the cabin had dropped, their breath made puffs in the chill.
"Is it enough for shields for atmospheric entry?" The Captain queried.
"It is, Sir, but depending on the atmosphere's density, we may not have much left for thrusters and dampers." Data looked over at the First Officer.
"So, we'll do it the hard way." Will's smile was almost feral, his eybrow raised in challenge, his hands still on the manual controls.
"I'm awfully glad you were along on this one." Beverly said. Will was still the best shuttle pilot on the Enterprise. While Data might be able to technically compute descent speed and re-entry angles at inhuman speed, Will had the feel and finesse to coax a ship for all she was worth.
"Approaching the planet's gravity well." The Doctor announced. "You can pretty much pick a spot, Will, there's not much there except desert."
"Try to avoid rocks, will you Number One?" The Captain's attempt at levity worked, chuckles puffing into the dark cold.
Deanna reached out, she felt apprehension, and some fear, but overwhelming those typical, expected emotions, were confidence and trust. Their straits were not nearly as dire as they could be, it seemed. She opened her mind to Will's, conveying the sense of assurance the Captain and Doctor felt in him. Adding her own.
Nagging behind the more positive emotions though, she felt a bleak despair from Beverly that she was trying valiantly to push away. Deanna looked at the Doctor, to see her gaze on the Captain. The empath's heart bled a little with the intensity of the feelings the Doctor let escape for a moment. Then, as if she were putting on a jacket, Beverly covered up the longing and regret, and deliberately focused on Will and encouraging thoughts. Deanna tucked the information away as the bumpy ride began again.