The following page is dedicated to Sal’s investigation of the Ancient Ruins found on Zoalus IV, a planet on the rim of the galactic arm whose night sky has very few stars and a dark purple rift which is the outer Orion Arm.

CONFUSED
Sal was confused. Had his translator program been not operating at its top efficiency? Certainly it was imperfect. It had no way of deciphering the sequences containing only the symbols that Dr. West had identified as low-order. There were no references other than a subjective opinion that they represented phonemes of a spoken language. The program really had no way of even deciphering the distinctions between the thousand or so prefixes used in combination with the high-order symbols.

But, the title page of one of the documents from the fourth expeditions was flashing in his memory. The symbols were larger and bolder than any other. They had to be important but he couldn’t read them. He couldn’t understand what they said. But he did know some of the principle symbols and these words contained those. They were paired up, next to each other, like the West language analysis paper had stated. Perhaps he could get a general idea about what the title was by looking at them.

The first symbol-pair was ‘unity’. The second pair was a trait of the FATHER icon. It represented the ‘protective’ characteristic of this personality. The third was not one of the principle symbolic pairs, though. It was a minor pair that was in another table in her paper. He thought about it and the table was just not returning to his memory. However, if he continued to imagine the other table he may lose the title page image all together. He risked it and continued to think.

The third pair was a scientific term meaning ‘orbiting celestial body’. Sal when back and then reassembled what he had in his mind.

Roughly, it was “unity protective orbiting body”.

The Zoalus didn’t seem to be a graphically oriented people. Diagrams and pictures were scarce in the documents that had been given to him. This made deciphering the language almost impossible. One needed references which would link terms with actual objects and actions that these objects did. This was how Sal imagined all language was constructed. Zenolinguistics was definitely not his strong suit at the Academy. And that was many years ago. He could barely remember the names of his instructors, let alone the other classmates. There was one, however. She was prominent in his memory right now for some reason. She was Italian like Sal. Unlike Sal though, she was actually born in Italy. ‘What was her name?’ he thought.

‘Maria Bella Scintilla!’ He almost said it audibly. Maria had been studying transporter technology and Sal had got ‘caught’ in one of her unauthorized experiments. She had literally transported him out of the test lab to a sidewalk café in Italy. At least that’s what Sal thought at first. It was actually another holographic lab nearby. When she had discovered that she’d actually transporter Sal, she terminated the holographic interface and they appeared in her lab together, alone.

The mind was a bizarre thing. Sal looked at the controls in front of him briefly and then back at the captain who had his hand on his chin. The rest of the crew seemed frozen in their places. Time had stopped. Sal shook his head and turned back to the controls. His mind drifted back to the Zoalus image, the Title Page. Many of the romantic languages placed descriptive words after the subject noun with which they were associated. Perhaps THAT was why he had thought of Maria?

‘orbiting body protective unity’

‘Planetary Protection Unit’

It was a document concerning the planetary protection system.

Okay. So what? The papers received from Dr. Phantos clearly stated that there was a planetary defense system on line which had been impeding the progress of all expeditions that had attempted to investigate the planet’s surface. So, why was this paper so important? Why was it popping into his memory while he was on the bridge in the middle of a potentially dangerous situation? What was he missing?

It wasn’t just the similarity of the romantic languages. He thought about Maria because of the mission that he had prepared for hours before entering the sim lab that day. It stuck in his mind because of how the mission had been described to him. Their mission would be to establish standard orbit around a class-M planet that had as yet been visited by any known race. This would be a preliminary observation and no personnel would be transporting to the surface. The hitch was, however, that there was a planetary defense system that had to be avoided. Sal had wondered while preparing his flight plan, why would they have built a planetary defense system if they had no prior knowledge of alien species?

The Rosetto Stone

Ethan snapped his paperback copy of The Art of War closed. It was late. He climbed from his bunk and stuffed the book into his duffle. He then paused for a short stretch and strolled out the door.

Some negotiation of the QoB later and he entered the galley from the central corridor. Save for Sal Rosetto – one of the QoB’s scientists, recalled Ethan – it was largely empty. He wasn’t sure what Sal was doing, but he’d apparently annexed most of the table, having covered the surface in a spreading flood of documents and tablets. There was a soft rustling of papers and occasional tapping. As the other man seemed busy, Ethan opted not to interrupt by saying hi. Instead he cornered, walked toward the preparation area and frowned.

There were dirty dishes in the sink, left from some of the crew’s evening meal. Not one to which he’d been invited, but that wasn’t necessarily a snub from the crew. There wasn’t a lot of room for even the entire crew much less guests.

The QoB’s crew didn’t strike Ethan as slobs. Obviously they managed to keep up with the daily stuff. The preparation area looked clean except for those few dishes. But given the time of night, others might have seen the stack of dishes and decided it wasn’t their turn to clean up or argued they hadn’t made the mess. Ethan was different; his philosophy was different. Certain things just needed to be done by whoever was there to do them when they needed to be done. In some cases, like dishes, that time was better off being immediately and, though he wasn’t a crewmember, he was there so he might as well get it done.

He’d learned a long time ago that no job was beneath the team-player and those who thought otherwise wouldn’t last. Much of who he was had been built around that concept; it was an integral part of his driving force. Cooperation was about respect, exclusive of rank, rate or other status. Sometimes that meant pulling more weight than expected. How did that saying go? ‘Never give 100%; anyone can do that. There are times when you’ll have to give 200% and fill both your role and your [buddy’s].’ Well, his mother hadn’t exactly put it that way; she’d been talking about marriage and parenting, but it more or less fit.

No point in complaining or holding back. Get it done now and no one will have to come back later, he reasoned. Food could wait. Ethan grasped up a sponge, turned on the sink and got to work.

Sal had not been completely oblivious to the motions of the newest crew member. He too had frowned at the dishes earlier but had decided that they could wait until he was at a breakpoint in his research. He had spent the last several hours poring over the documents and images of the Zoalus artifacts. Although he had been complete enamored by Dr. West’s analysis of the glyphs, his translations seemed to be nonsense. ‘The blue man brought quickly from friendship’

He was beginning to get frustrated and tapped needlessly at the tablet display in front of him. Finally, he simply tossed it onto the pile of papers that lay strewn across the table, got up from his seat and walked over to where Ethan stood. There was a small dish towel hanging on a hook and Sal grabbed it up and started to wipe the dishes that Ethan had just cleaned.

“Thankless work, isn’t it? Dishes I mean.” Sal wasn’t afraid to lend a hand in domestic chores. He was practically living alone for the last six mons on K’Normia in their vacation cottage. There were no servants and the replicator was limited to food processing. He might as well have been camping out on the plains of Mars. Life on QoB wasn’t what one would called extravagant but Sal had enjoyed the escape; the departure from his sanitized life in Southgate. You pulled your own out here but you only did what was required of you and no one expected anything more.

After the events on Tranquility, Sal was having second thoughts about his taking this job but now that they were finally back to exploring, which was why he’d come out to the cluster in the first place, he was starting to enjoy his little assignments. The pay left a lot to be desired but that was at least something of which he had little worry. Also, he liked Pher and Chris and Troy. Even Shane was wearing nicely on him. The others, the crewmembers that they had recently taken on were still pretty much strangers to him. This one here kind of interested him. Vulcans had always interested Sal. He was curious of their motives but knew that logic did not define them. There was always more to the puzzle with Vulcans. One just had to look for it.

Ethan glanced with a lifted brow at Sal and found he was uncertain how to respond. His gaze narrowed. What would a Vulcan say? Would they pull out the catch-all, apathetic ‘indeed’? Or would one wax philosophical and articulate some kind of valid nonsense on how the reward of ‘thankless work’ was in the result, or, in this case, having clean dishes? Slowly a subtle smile grew as he thought over his dilemma.

“Well, thanks for your help,” he replied, settling on what felt like a more human approach. He shut off the water and gestured toward the table as he dried his hands. “You’ve been hard at work.”

After placing the last dish back into the cupboard, he replaced the towel on its hook and followed Ethan back to his work. Ethan had picked up a couple of pieces of paper and was casually glancing at them. Sal was usually not shy when it came to his work but he was a bit embarrassed by his current dilemma.

“I have been preparing for our meeting with Dr. Phantos’ people and the other scientists on this expedition. This culture is fascinating. It seems to be unlike any that the Federation has encountered and yet extremely, pardon the expression, human.” Sal didn’t want seem candid; to offend the Vulcan. “Note the use and mixture of geometric and psychological symbolism in their text. It is reminiscent of the ancient Earth cultures.”

Sal approached the table and picked up the tablet that he had tossed down earlier and tapped it back to life. Dr. West’s analysis of the Zoalus’ glyphs returned to its display. She had depicted a circle of eight symbols, labeling them Father, Warrior, Seeker, Sage, Mother, Amazon, Companion and Mediatrix. From each she had drawn various branches with additional terms and symbols. The structure was patterned off of one of the artifacts that had been recovered by a past expedition. That image was a wheel or tree shape constructed of these glyphs. Each grouping diverged and had become progressively smaller and longer in sequence. It had reminded Sal of a mandala.

“I have always been interested in alien cultures. That was one reason why I had joined Star Fleet. I’m guessing my curiosity comes from my mother’s side of the family. She would see the rich beauty in all of these glyphs. Have you studied Xenolinguistics?”

“Xenolinguistics?” he repeated. He over-pronounced the e and first syllable a bit – a side-effect of the faint contrast in Ethan’s dialect compared to the Martian-born Rosetto. It was a mixture from two distinct regions, the second having tempered the first in his adolescent years. Professor Henry Higgins would have had a coronary.

“No. But, uh, isn’t that normal for most sentient cultures; the mixing of symbolism in languages? I mean, it seems to me that most species start out on emotional instinct so, logically, their sense of expression would be based on what they psychologically identify with. I wouldn’t say its human so much as evolutionary. Even Vulcans had an extremely emotional history before they embraced stoicism.”

“Very true”, Sal commented as he tapped away at the tablet in his hand. “Here’s something that you mind find of interest. There seems to be a cyclic behavior in the Zoalus system of ten days due to its primary; a gaseous giant that should appear very large in the Zoalus sky.”

Sal was always intrigued by the rich variety of planetary systems that contained class-M objects. This provided many unique environmental conditions like those that existed, albeit temporary, on the Xorax Colony. There, its seemingly endless winter was merely another cyclic event in that planet’s elliptical orbit. There were long winters and summers as the planet reached its apogee. On Zoalus, according to the system schematic diagram, there were long day-cycles but the tilt of the planetary axis did provide seasonal changes. This was not uncommon.

At first, Ethan minimally responded with a short nod. He’d barely caught himself earlier and was mentally cringing at his slip. But it seemed Sal hadn’t noticed or put much importance on his third-person reference to the Vulcans. It was just one word and he might have taken it as a distinction between proto and modern Vulcans rather than a mistake. He relaxed for a bit.

“No offense. I’m more interested in knowing how that affects daylight cycles; how many hours of sunlight we’ll have,” replied Ethan.

“According to these calculations there should be over twenty hours of daylight on average,” Sal was shocked by this realization. He never did get used to the long days on Tranquility. This would be even more extreme but it was not unusual. The fact was, most planetary systems had their own unique day/night cycles. This one on Zoalus was similar to what Vulcan days were. “This should be something that you are quite accustomed to, Ethan; long days and nights.”

“I had been meaning to ask.” Sal paused and looked at Ethan’s facial expressions. He wasn’t necessarily probing. It was simply Sal’s curiosity, “How much Vulcan blood do you actually have? I mean, it’s obvious to me that you are not 100% Vulcan because of your reddened skin tone.”

“Hmm.” Ethan flatly frowned. He finally sat down in a chair across from Sal and suddenly wanted to rub a hand down his face in mild exasperation. First it was Soora who condemned him for not recognizing her as Vulcan – the girl with the human left ear. Was he supposed to be some kind of wizard?

Now Sal was asking innocent questions because he didn’t look green enough. He knew that Vulcan blood was green – oddly enough, it wasn’t blue like the mollusks that also had copper-based blood on Earth. But he’d always thought that the effect Vulcan blood had on their skin tone was lessened by its rusty color when deoxygenated; sort of how deoxygenated human blood had a bluish tinge and played a part in the blue appearance of their veins. Was there really that large of a difference between fair-skinned Vulcans and humans? Romulans, maybe, but he’d never noticed it being quite that pronounced in Vulcans. He knew a few humans that looked as pale and a few Vulcans that looked as ruddy in comparison. And maybe this uncanny ability to read that much in the difference right off was just a phenomenon of Bull’s Head.

He could lie; tell Sal that he was another mixed-breed like Soora, but what was the point anymore? If they don’t all know by now, they’ll figure it out eventually, he relented to himself. He wasn’t fooling anyone. He’d known from the beginning that this type of cover wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny; that honestly hadn’t been the point. He wasn’t taking his situation on the Qob lightly and rushing to make the truth generally known. But now that they were catching on one by one, it was more insulting to try and keep the game going.

“Oh.”
Sal noted Selek’s restlessness and knew that for whatever reason this guy had been role-playing. It wasn’t really Sal’s concern. Apparently he had his motives, Sal simply ignored the comment and quickly changed the subject. Sal picked up another tablet and recalled some information provided by Dr. Phantos, “So what do you think of Dr. West’s analysis of these vowels?” This was one of the things that had been bothering him. There was something wrong with her work but Sal could put his finger on it. Perhaps he was just too close to the work. He continued, “I don’t know what it is but something just doesn’t seem right… You see how she’s paired the single and doubled symbols?”

What they were looking at was a table of the lower-order glyphs. Dr. West had laid them out in their independent use followed by and English word that contained a similar sound. She had another table that contained each glyph doubled. In this table she showed that the doubled-symbol was representative of another sound. There were a total of 40 distinct sounds mapped out on the two tables. She stated that her research had been based on the analogy of one hundred other humanoid languages. These were the most common sounds used. She had chosen this method because the architecture found on Zoalus was representative of a humanoid culture.

Ethan’s brow knit together as he regarded the scientist. He was surprised by Sal’s response and wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was almost blasé, like Sal passed people on the street everyday who thought it was perfectly normal to pretend to be Vulcan. It wasn’t settling well with Ethan; didn’t give him much of a hint on how Sal might use the information. It made him feel more uneasy than any reaction he’d encountered yet. He almost missed the point of what Sal was saying.

“Huh?” He focused on the tablet Sal was showing him. “Yeah, the, uh, vowel sounds. What’s the problem exactly; they don’t work like you expected?”

The other thing that had come to Sal’s attention was the gravity on Zoalus. It was about 80% standard. It actually sounded much like a paradise which was most likely why there had been so much interest in these ruins; temperate climates, breathable atmosphere, no other races squabbling over assumed rights, what else would be a better investment than to plant a new resort civilization away from any probing fingers or wandering eyes.

Sal forgot about his tasks at hand for the moment and imagined contacting Harry’s father and making another unprecedented purchase. Did the old man still have the pull that he had years ago? Sal didn’t know. They had never ventured to far away from the K’Normian system in their dealings. He’d only wanted to provide for his daughter which was why Sal had been helped to build Southgate. This was something completely different and Richard was weeks away by the fastest transport. Here, in the Rimward expanse, they were days away via sub-space. Sal placed the thoughts to the back of his mind. This would have to wait until they had a better handle on the real situation on Zoalus, until he had knowledge of and the reason for their disappearance.

‘Huh,’ Sal thought to himself, ‘Was this guy even listening to him?’ He looked at Selek, sizing him up with his response. “Yeah. I have applied Dr. West’s translation to these images of recovered artifacts and the resultant text is one step above gibberish. It’s as if the gears line up but the machine is running backwards.”

While talking Sal was shuffling through the papers that he had on the table and he eventually presented Selek with the one to which he was referring. He had a small grin; one of embarrassment of his seemingly disorganized state. Sal then pulled out yet another image to be used for comparison. He then picked up the other tablet, tapped it a couple of times and then showed the results to Selek, expecting… Well, Sal really didn’t know what to expect. He was fishing for answers; hoping that this guy may see something that he’d overlooked.

Ethan was quiet for some time as he looked over the references. What was he supposed to do? If Sal thought his results were near gibberish, for Ethan all of it was completely meaningless and looked like some child’s scribbles. Like little dancing things only a kid would understand.

He stopped and momentarily looked up at nothing in particular. Or dancing men, he thought. If only it was that easy, but tricks used for figuring out ciphers in English were unlikely work as well on alien languages. There was definitely a pattern; the puzzle was figuring out how it all fit together. But the real riddle was how Ethan, without years of training and study, was going to help figure it out.

Idly he began to tap on the tablet that lay on the table. Page after page on the alien language passed through his hands and back to the piles of documents. He was so utterly lost on how he could possibly help or where to begin that the chime of the tablet came as a surprise.

Then it spoke: “thoy.”
Ethan knit his brow at it in confusion. Three of the alien symbols blinked back at him; somehow through his tapping he had combined them into a single, pronounceable syllable.

“Sorry, I was tapping on it. I’m not sure what I did to it,” he said and began to slide the tablet back toward Sal. He stopped half way as suddenly remembered the sequences of his tapping, so he repeated it. Sal smiled widely as the tablet thought a moment and then spurted out, “thoy-dok cha-sher-bak”.

It was strange to hear the tablet speaking a language that had not been spoken in 650 years. It was a language that no human had ever heard but it was now, suddenly a living, breathing language. Sal now accepted the tablet from Selek and hi-lighted an entire paragraph-like grouping of symbols. It thought a short moment and then began speaking to them. It sounded smooth and fluid.

Now Sal looked to Selek, “What you ‘did’ was crack a code that leading scientists have been trying to break for 25 years, sir! This is absolutely amazing.” He looked at the tablet and then back at Dr. West’s distribution. The tablet had re-ordered all of the symbols, pairing the vowels into monophthongs and diphthongs. It had also placed the consonant pairs into a similar, sound-based order.

Sal tapped on the ‘translate’ function and then the tablet stopped and started again. This time it was speaking in English:

“As the boy walked down the street he saw his mother from a distance. She was wearing the scarf that he had given to her last full-day. He waved and crossed the street to speak with her directly. It had been three phases of Shelok since they had talked and he was happy to see her again.”

Sal looked at Selek whose facial expression told the entire story. Sal knew that Selek had very little knowledge of Xenolinguistics. His actions here were, however, exactly what was required to nudge the deadbolt that had kept so many previous explorers returning with a mere external impression of the Zoalus culture. Without knowledge of their literature, the ruins and artifacts were dead and unconnected. Sal thanked his new friend with a customary hand shake and promised him a return favor of his choice. He didn’t know what would be appropriate. Vulcans rarely accepted gifts as a gratuity. Gifts were usually more of a personal nature and since Sal knew very little about Selek, a proper gift would be impossible.

As Selek grabbed a bite to eat and then left the gallery/recreation room, Sal returned to his papers with a new vitalized vigor. The smile on his face would be difficult to remove. He wanted to share this with Harry but he knew that without the details it would be very hard to appreciate. She would have to be happy with fixed images and brief captions.

There was more work to do. This was simply a new beginning, a departure from what all of these scientists had been standing upon. Sal was no more a xenolinguist than Selek. His forte’ was navigation. His personal interest in alien cultures was about to be placed on the block for intense scrutiny by archaeologists who had devoted their lives to its science. They knew much more than him and would not be intimidated by Sal’s little puzzle-piece. This rearrangement would have eventually been discovered by one or more of these people sooner or later. He thought for a moment, ‘Perhaps they have already reached this discovery?’

Now, Sal realized that simply blurting out this discovery may not be the proper tactic in this situation. He did not want to alienate these scientists or bring embarrassment to himself either. He picked up a tablet and reviewed another paragraph-like structure in yet another document. This one contained diagrams and what looked like mathematical formulae. He high-lighted and then translated the title:

MULTI-DIMENSIONAL COORDINATE SYSTEMS

He looked at the terms in their native form, knowing from other documents and established data that he was looking at numbers. But this was not simply numeric information. It was broken up by other symbols and Sal assumed that they represented variables in equations. The first section was similar to Euclidian two-dimensional relationships. The Zoalus use of NOT made some things more difficult to see, however, Sal found that other terms and relationships were more visible in the formula. Sal tried his high-light/translate method but the tablet seemed to struggle with these terms. The numerals were clear but the references and their associated values didn’t match constants that had been established for thousands of years. He thought that perhaps there was still something missing in the translation rules. It was entirely possible. He hadn’t even reviewed the changes that Selek had made himself; not in any detail. He didn’t know what to think now. He decided that whatever he did would have to wait until after he had some sleep.

The Rosetto Stone: Too Good To Be True

Sal awoke in his bunk distraught. He usually slept very well on QoB but for some reason he had tossed and turn for several hours until he finally gave in to sleeplessness, got up, dressed and found his way to the bridge. It was empty except for the 2nd in command, Chris Nickles, who huddled in the command chair shaking quietly to himself. Sal politely nodded and wished him a good evening. He received only indiscriminant grumbles in return for his efforts. He didn’t press his luck and walked over to the helm controls.

All was as expected, ‘Steady As She Goes’. This was the part that ‘Dirt-Lovers’ hated; thought was incredibly boring and deemed a necessary evil. Interstellar spaceflight was vast distances and unimaginable to most people who spent their lives within one star system or worse, one planet. Sal thought it must be like those people of the late 21st century, Earth, who were just exploring their own system. Mars was over three weeks away and the colonies on Europa and around Titan were just glimmers in the eyes of wild scientists or science fiction writers.

Sal looked at the forward viewer and stared for what seemed like hours. He had been in this seat before, traveling from one system to another, covering the distance, but this was distinctly different than what he had expected. The sky outside of any stellar system was filled with points of light in almost every conceivable direction but that wasn’t what he saw ahead. It was a ghostly image with fewer and fewer stars in their path. Beyond were still stars but their distance was so great that only the brightest and largest ones pierced the darkness. The others simply formed a deep purple haze across the viewer. This was why ancient humans named it The Milky Way.
Shaking himself back to reality, Sal quickly flipped over to a tactical view and checked the tracking systems which kept QoB in sync with the other two vessels of their rag-tag convoy. There was nothing unusual here either and although he was quite pleased with the situation, he couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Still, he had nothing to report and so he set the helm back to auto and quietly left the bridge bound for his quarters.

His was the first stateroom after leaving the neck of QoB. A drink dispenser sat in the hall just outside his door. He grabbed a cold tea and re-entered his room. The lights came on and he could see the pile of papers he’d left hours ago stacked neatly on his desk. Sipping his tea, he picked up the tablet that had the translator routine loaded. Then he scanned in another of the images provided by Dr. Phantos that came from the first expedition. The image contained several paragraphs of the alien text and was accompanied with diagrams that were dominated by circles and arcs. It appeared to be some kind of mathematical or scientific document which, he thought, was the reason that the expedition had taken it.

‘High-light then translate’

Gibberish…

Sal sighed deeply and looked at the document, then at the tablet. He reviewed the code behind the translate function to insure that nothing had changed from before. It was the same. It had to be ‘luck’.

Being a meticulous scientist, Sal rechecked the document that he and Selek had used and it translated just fine. This was the progress of science; one step forward and two steps back. Sal would have to regroup and reevaluate exactly what Selek had done and determine why it seemed to work. ‘Well’, he thought, ‘At least I won’t be sitting here twiddling my thumbs.’

Sleep Deprivation

Sal stared out into the vast emptiness of the space ahead as he waited Joe’s next moved. His thoughts were elsewhere which was hard to believe considering the given situation of Raiders, but with Sal, he worked better under pressure. He always had. It was something that he just couldn’t explain but he was always thinking of nine things at once. The current thought that was bothering him was the night before; what had caused him to oversleep; what he had read in the Zoalus’ documents from the first expedition. He still could not determine whether he had been awake or asleep. His mind was mush and he didn’t know what to believe. All he knew was that he had to get back to his tablet. He felt like a fugue.

A fugue? What the hell was a fugue? He searched his memory for references. The term was almost as alien as this script that he had been deciphering. It was back on the El Paso; where he’d first heard the term. He had not been sleeping well and went to see the doctor on duty. She described it as “a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the acts performed”.

He recalled the events prior to his panicked awakening where he had rushed to the bridge to find QoB under attack by raiders. It was a struggle but he forced himself to remember the moments.

Sal found his head lying on the tablet. He had a scribe in hand but he couldn’t remember exactly what he was working on. He slowly regained consciousness and rose and looked around the room. It was dark except for the study lamps receded under the upper storage cabinet above his desk. His half empty glass of tea sat on the back shelf and the tablet had gone into stand-by mode. Sal had no concept of the current time nor did he want to know. Something had wakened him and he scanned the room to find what.

The green ready light was flashing on his other tablet but Sal didn’t see it right away. He shuffled some papers and looked on the QoB-net via his console logon. He had no messages, not that he’d expected any. The last message that he’d sent home included the caveat of ‘will be out of contact for several weeks’. But he thought that perhaps Joia had overlooked this. It wasn’t uncommon, but he’d hoped that Harry would have reminded her nonetheless. There were no new messages and so he concluded that the net had not caused him to awake.

Then he saw the other tablet with its ready light beckoning his attention. He pushed some papers out of the way and pulled it closer. It sprang to life. As the display filled Sal slowly recalled instructing the tablet to analyze the differences between the “Selek” vowels and the “West” vowels. The result included several references to the way one constructs their mouth and/or moves it when uttering the defined sounds. It would seem that Dr. West had used a visual methodology in her assignments and having never spoken or heard the language there would be no other method that would have been better. Any method chosen would have been equally good.

It was coming back to him now. Why then did the “Selek” vowels not work on the diagram? He tried the “Selek” vowels on another passage recovered by the first expedition:

“When there was in the beginning a man’s advent into the plane known as Koal, it became a living soul, amenable to the laws that govern the plane itself as presented, the son of man entered the plane as the first man. Hence it was the son of the first cause making manifest in a material body.

This is not the first spiritual influence, spiritual body, spiritual manifestation on the planet, but the first man – flesh and blood; the first carnal house, the first amenable body to the laws of the plane in its position in the universe.”

This definitely wasn’t a scientific document. They didn’t have a resident theologist, not even an amateur one as far as he knew. Perhaps one of the members of the team on the Verbistul had studied the religious sciences. Dr. Phantos had not mentioned it in any of the documents he had sent. He read on.

“Then, though he were the first man, the first son in spirit and in flesh, it became necessary that he fulfill all those associations, those connections that were wiped away in the experience of man that which separates him from his maker.

He, that first consciousness, is that first spoken of the beginning and that first light manifested. First it became physically conscious in this body, the body of first Chial. And as in Chial we all die, so in the last Chial – the savior, becoming the Jeshudah—we are all made alive.

For know that he who was lifted before the crowd when Shelok turned red was also he that first walked among men at the beginning of man’s advent into flesh! For he indeed was and is the first Chial, the last Chial; that is the way, the truth, the light!”

…continued

Sal had experienced some bizarre beliefs in his travels. It never seemed to amaze him just how many takes there could be on the same theme. His father had been religious, a spiritual man who had spoken to God in his own way. They had lived too far away from town and so as a youth, Sal never attended any church or belonged to any specific organized religion or anything. They had the family Bible, of course. What household on Mars didn’t? Live there, rural life at least was Hellish and brutal and anytime man is faced with such desperate situations he has always turn to God to get him through.

So now Sal was standing over his helm console, hands on the buttons and ready for anything and what was he thinking about…God. Was this one of those desperate times? He didn’t believe so. Although this wasn’t exactly a picnic in the park, Sal was comfortable with the turmoil. Mental multi-tasking was simply Sal’s way of managing the stress levels. Back in Southgate in intense business meetings with suppliers, Sal would always be thinking about Joia’s latest musical piece and the last run of the merlot at the new facility and Harry’s new dress that she had been showing him the night before. This was no different to him.

But the question was, why did the “Selek” vowels work on this document? Sal needed to look at the documents again, all of them. There had to be a reason that some of them translated fine with the “Selek” vowels while others remained gibberish. If he had learned anything in his years it was that all things make sense. There was always a reason that things were the way they were. Nature was simply following its own rules. Sometimes when we first look at things it seems like it is just the opposite, but, never had Sal found this to be true in the end. The laws of nature were an ultimate truth, sure as Sunday.

The Discovery — Joint Log by Sal Rosetto & Alex Macen

Sal was off-duty, officially. There wasn’t really a set schedule on QoB however Manning wasn’t a tyrant either. Four standard hours was the limit expected for a crew member to be actively working. Obviously, off-planet life was never scheduled around night and day. There wasn’t such a thing. This was why the standardized STARDATE was established in 2162. A Stardate, or standardized day, which is about 27 old-Earth hours, was near enough to an Earth-day and Mars-day, that it was easily accepted and adopted. Within this new time-base was also reestablished a universal unit of measure known as the parsec. This new value was only about 3% less than its original value which was based on the average distance between the Earth and its sun. The new parsec, however, was based on the velocity of light. One parsec was redefined as the distance that light travels in 100 million seconds. This was called the standard-year (light-year) and 1000 Stardates make up one standard year. As with all standards, however, there were exceptions and the chronological age of a species has always been based on their homeworld’s orbital period. The stardate was only used off-planet between worlds where no other reference was available.

Sal was tired and hungry and made his way up to the mess where he could relax and get something to eat. The ship was quiet as most of the crew was either sleeping or over on the Verbistul where there was more room. The science vessel was half again the size of QoB and their forward lounge had quickly become a quite popular meeting place. Being an old Klingon vessel, there was not much room dedicated for comfort on QoB. Sure, the crew quarters had been modified and enlarged but there just wasn’t space available for such things as recreation rooms or lounges. The Verbistul, however, had three such lounges and the forward lounge included a full bar, dom-jot and billiard tables as well as several conversation pits. It also had a forward-looking port that spanned the length of the room. Many people sat and gazed at the star field at the tables that lined this wall.

Sal reached up and opened a cabinet, pulled out some Earl Grey tea and placed it into a clean cup. He then filled it with water and heated it. Replicators were another luxury not available on QoB. He was slowly getting used to this life but it had not been easy. As he sat down with his tea and PADD, Alex Macen walked into the mess. This was the engineer assigned as liaison between QoB and the Verbistul.

Alex walked in groggily, his face dotted with a myriad of shapes. Some were triangles, others little circles, and a few streaking lines running along the sides. Red and inflamed, his face didn’t make a very good pillow as it lay smacked against the grate of the metal floor in his tiny Klingon accommodations for the past six hours. There may have been a bed within that room but he didn’t notice one among the dimly lit, concrete & metal construction of the cell. He had a Raktajino – or something similar to it – in a large mug within his right hand. A powdered pack of the stuff was sitting in his room as some complimentary gift to his arrival – it tasted awful but kept him awake.

“Morning,” Alex initially said, one hand gripping the piping concoction in one hand, the other feeling against the creases his face had temporarily garnished from the metal floor. He started to yawn, but instead paused as he noticed Sal was deep within a PADD, his interest in science getting the best of him.

As an El-Aurian, he certainly wasn’t a top notch one. With over three hundred years under his belt, his intelligence, or rather maturity seemed to be but the fray of a greenhorn fresh from some military academy. Though he spent the last two hundred years of his studying over fifty different species, including Humans, he at times could be flaky with his information. The rest of the time he was a resolute genius. Maybe it was some sort of savant El-Aurian condition, either way it at times made him apprehensive that he’d forget how to pilot a ship right when an Asteroid Field showed up, but ironically cocky when someone mentioned a topic or study he was certain to know of. In the end, it probably was just a bad case of strong wits, and poor common sense. The markings of the floor riddled against his face gave homage to this.

Though his species has been upon Diaspora for some time now, ever since the destruction of their home by the Borg, he hasn’t seen another of his kind in over eighty years. He was pretty much out casted from being the norm of the rest of his people. His people focused on seeking knowledge, and then sharing it and spreading it among others. Alex sure searched for knowledge, but rarely had he shared it without personal gain. It seemed profit clouded his judgment, and information had a worthy price on any market. Whatever the Intelligent yet dumb El-Aurian did, it was always to better his income, or his own knowledge, to lead to profit. The symbiotic relationship he had with the Verbistul and QoB was a little off from the norm stated here – but in the end Alex was paid well for his work, and he always got his checks on time. This liaison job is just a testament to the efforts – it wasn’t every day a mercenary crew could utilize a man with four centuries worth of knowledge behind his eyes and deep in his brain.

“What’cha looking at?” Alex remarked, sipping the Klingon coffee casually as he pulled over a stool, trying to peer over and glance at what the science officer was gazing upon.

“Good morning, Alex.” Sal looked up from his reading. He was reviewing his diametric analysis of the Zoalus language; a dictionary-like compilation based on Jillian West’s papers. It was definitely not considered light reading but he needed something to wind him down and refocus his energies. The captain had unofficially assigned him to Mr. Macen; told to keep him occupied and ‘out of trouble’. He wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Manning was still much of an enigma to Sal; a man of mystery with several pots on the burners. “Did you sleep well?”

This was a rhetorical comment and he brought a smile across his face knowing that the accommodations on QoB were less than desirable. Macen, to him, looked like he had just been run over by some Orion Speeders and left for dead. Sal could definitely relate and imagined it was like his first sleep on QoB in his not too distant past.

Sal was familiar with the El-Aurian and had had at least one business acquaintance of that species. There was also another El-Aurian on the El Paso with whom he had befriended but that was many years ago. Their nature and mannerisms, the way they carried themselves was obvious to Sal and he warmed to them quickly. He thought perhaps it was their child-like quality. They tended to have insatiable curiosity in whatever subject had interested them. The one on the El Paso, whose name had escaped Sal at the moment, was a medical officer. He just remembered her as an older woman who always had a kind ear. She was a very good listener and Sal had shared many personal issues with her during their off moments between duty assignments. He wondered if Alex had known that he was aware of his status; whether he knew that Sal knew he was El-Aurian. Alex had not introduced himself as such and had only briefly mentioned his extended age.

He set down his PADD and got up to refresh his tea and help Macen with his preparation of his morning beverage of choice, in this case — Raktajino. Sal knew that QoB’s services were, how do you say politely, ‘rural’. “I must apologize, Alex. That beverage service doesn’t work. There is some coffee in the cabinet near your left hand. It’s individually packaged but much better than the mud you might find smoldering on the coffee maker in the science lab. Troy likes to let it brew for a week before consumption, I think!”

He laughed to himself as Alex grimaced as he looked down toward his cup. Now that Sal mentioned the alternative of human coffee, his Klingon variant appeared to have congealed to the consistency of some dirty dark paste, smoldering much like the aforementioned science experiment gone wrong in the lab. His grimace turned to laughter as he dumped the muck down the waste disposal in favor of a labeled Columbian variety of coffee. The creation in his mug now much more relatable to the stuff Sal was drinking. He lowered himself onto a stool sipping the Columbian coffee black. He used to douse the stuff with creamers and sugars, but ever since getting food poisoning within his first week aboard the Verbistul – he was almost positive it was from that sour milk – he has learned to cope with the bitter taste as opposed to directly injecting himself with the caffeine he desperately needed after that night of restless sleep.

“Thanks for the warning.” He said, referring to the muck now sifting itself inside the trash disposal, “I thought I could smell something from the lab with the consistency of burnt rat” he remarked with a chuckle to his rather off-key joke.

Alex adjusted his vision now, the dim lighting of the entire facility a bit of an endurance to overcome at first – it reminded him of a late 20th century submarine he had seen his father in photos of in their measly Earth shanty he was conceived of in the star-crossed love of two now long dead El-Aurians. Gotta love the tenacity of humanity to frantically and nearly destroy their entire civilization in that nuclear war, and how he alone barely made it out alive. His parents, both naval officers for some now long gone and nameless nation, were not as fortunate. At first, his family, like any El-Aurians, was simply seekers of knowledge, but it was soon replaced with a sense of patriotism his parents died to protect – again for a now nameless and unknown nation.

Those thoughts, buried deep within his past and somewhere within him, would creep every now and then, and nibble at his character, and emotion. The photo shot into his mind for but a moment as he spoke to Sal. His character wavered in his voice for but a moment, but his emotions remain repressed, himself able to hold back the contempt in front of Sal. He simply offered him a smile as he got himself cozy in the dark, filthy, and cold mess hall, “As for sleep, I could say I’ve had better,” Alex replied to his list of questions, “but that’s not important now really is it? What are the results of our last sensor sweep?”

Sal thought for a moment trying to recall the hours since they had spoken and exactly what he had done. The preliminary sweep had not taken very long at all and in fact was nearly complete when Macen had left earlier. But that was merely a passive sweep meant to collect general information concerning the atmosphere, climates, lifeforms and terrains. This was a Class-M planet which meant that it contained an appreciable amount of liquid water on its surface. The sweep had provided Sal with a detailed map of the surfaces above and below the level of the oceans.

Directed by his own interests, Sal had proceeded to run an active scan of Site 8, the Устата на Бог. This was the site that had reportedly contained the sky-scraping buildings as well as the tree houses. The active scans that he had performed on this area had returned some interesting results. There was an additional lifeform that had not turned up on the preliminary scans and this had baffled him at the time. He opted to wait further analysis until he had opportunity to show the results to someone more familiar with biological systems; some one like Macen here. Sal had hoped that Macen could provide some answers.

“I’m glad that you asked. As a matter of fact, I did encounter something that you might find of great interest. This item seems to register as a lifeform but only showed up on the active scans. This is rare, indeed, to my limited knowledge. The only record I could find of such an animal was in some early 23rd century archives, classified as lifeforms from outside of our galaxy. It had been recorded by some doctor named McCoy.”

“We can go review the data in the Forward Sensor Room. I have a lab set up there and even have a coffee pot that you can use if you’d like.” Sal motioned a finger toward the cabinet again. “Grab a couple of spares for yourself and that box of Earl Grey if you please.”

Alex tapped against the rim of his ceramic mug, nodding. The idea of a creature missing out on his preliminary scans, and only on an active sweep, was puzzling to him. The reference to a McCoy creature was also unique to him, he had not heard it in his biological history and knowledge of the events claimed by the Scientist named Sal – he never really cared to pay a lot of attention to Federation activities. With as much neglect as he could give the organization – once the most powerful in the Quadrant – he didn’t really dwell in the activities they made during their first century or so – only paying much attention beyond the times of the Enterprise B Class.

He pondered however, wondering what the creature might be in regard to his active scans. There was a lot of radiation involved in a simple Class I sweep – it had to be troubleshot as to what was detecting the creature.

“Well then,” Alex finally said, after a minute or so of deep thought. “It appears we have two mysteries to solve then: What this creature is, and if your coffee maker’s any good. ” he chuckled as Sal was already on his was out the door ahead of him down the corridor. Alex fetched the tea Sal requested and followed shortly thereafter.

Waiting for Alex to catch up, Sal paused before proceeding down the gangway to the main deck. He then climbed down and headed through the corridor and dog-legged across the bridge to a door on the other side of the gunnery turret. This was the forward sensor room and it was quite a bit larger than what Troy had been using as a Science Lab.

Most of the space was occupied with boxes of various content, but Sal had cleaned up an area in which to work; a place of his own on QoB. His coffee maker was on a shelf in a corner and Sal pointed it out to Alex for future reference. He then sat down at his console and began typing away. There were not too many choices for seating and Alex made do with some stacked crates, pulling them over to the console area and looking over Sal’s shoulder.

Sal brought up the detailed scan to which he was referring and the monitor showed several worm or snake-like creatures scampering around in a syncopated pattern. There had to be some logical reason for this but it was just not within Sal’s realm of knowledge. He knew little beyond the basics of husbandry which he’d learned from his father out of necessity as a youth. He showed Alex the basic operation of the console and then rose offering him to sit down and examine the data for himself.

Alex at first wavered at the sight of all the equipment – call it sensory overload. What seemed like some sort of chaotic construction slowly fell into order and control as Sal pointed out the coffee maker, made him a seat at the console, and began typing away to pull up the preliminary reports. While the reports were being drawn up Alex had brewed himself a fresh cup, sipping at it casually as it kept his mouth busy in some form. He listened to the keys crunch against one another until finally, Sal paused. He turned and gave Alex the gesture that he was ready to let him take a look. Alex obliged.

“Mhmm,” “Uhuh…” “I see…” words like these rambled on as Alex took in the findings, cross-sectionalized them with some data he had on his own personal PADD, and slowly built a chart that was appearing on the screen. Though it was indeed a Biological survey, it quickly turned into what appeared some sort of statistical nightmare: data plots, charts, graphs, and correlations all over the viewer in Alex’s workspace. It seemed haphazard to many, but it was how Alex confirmed his findings.

After some time of this mumbling, this chart construction, and this detail dissection of but a few square kilometers, a solution was found, and ready for examination.

“It’s the delta bandwidth.” first these words appeared from his lips, enticing Sal. Alex’s eyes remained focused against the viewer, watching precariously as the data slowly melded together in his head – all the various correlations, causations, data, and thesis to his research.

“The computer here classifies it as Species XJY006. Reptilian in nature: snake-like, with a cold blooded Irysium-based circulatory system. The creature would appear to be like a giant rubber tube – black in composure with no definite end or beginning, much like a worm. It appears it is feeding off the delta bandwidth radiation from our ship. Whether or not Sal was really paying attention was irrelevant to Alex; he spoke to himself verbally at this point.

“A Class I sweep runs the entire major bandwidth spectrum to scan and identify the creatures. This includes the delta bandwidth, and each bandwidth sweeps through the entire sector in about thirty-five seconds. These creatures are causing black streaks in the data stream – as they absorb the entire delta bandwidth spectrum when it hits them, while our other bandwidths pass right through and identify them for us. It’s a little strange, but it might justify their activity. These snake-like reptiles feed off the delta bandwidth and likely other spectrum of energy to fuel their bodies and keep them warm.”

“The thing is…” Alex again noted to himself, but only briefly “This star doesn’t appear to emit a high amount of delta bandwidth radiation….”

“Anyways,” he continued, “This would likely explain on the delta bandwidth layer there were long streaks of unavailable data near clusters of these creatures. We should probably run a high-intensity delta-band sweep for this sector – it’d prove the hypothesis and might tell us how these and maybe other creatures found here react to delta band radiation. Your thoughts?”

The River Towers
Sal crouched in a corner of the room near a wall that seemed to have warmth. It also had a low hum to it which eventually lulled him to sleep. The synapses of his brain, however, were firing on all cylinders. Everything that he had learned and could remember from his days on border patrol told him that logic, above all, always seemed to govern mechanical devices. The bottom line was that these drones were mechanical. He concluded that there may have been some adaptable routines built into their original programming but this could not ever subjugate the base processes that were running. What Sal had to do was to determine why these drones were on the surface in the first place. A culture this remote from the mainstream had no reason to fear interstellar invasions. They had no contact with any other races, or at least to date, there was no record of any contact. So the pending question on Sal’s mind was: “Why would the Zoalus build planet-wide defenses?” This answer would govern the logic of the drones’ original programming.

It would be several hours before his tricorder could decipher the text of the operations manual that they had discovered. It was only speculation that it was even a manual. For all they knew it could have been a romance novel that a worker had been reading. The structure of the symbols, however, looked highly organized and official. There were bolder and larger symbols at the top of each page and the content seemed to be numbered, bulleted and tabulated like a procedure would be. This was why Sal had thought that it may be important enough to immediately process.

An hour before the group had stumbled upon this outlying structure which jetted out from the river bank and cantilevered over a small water fall. The building consisted of several towering sections estimated at 20 meters each and these lower rooms that seemed to adjoin the towers. The towers contained large conduits that traced their length and entered rooms below. There were hatchways at varying intervals with automated doors in each of the towers. Their use was unknown. There was also what looked like automated hatchways that led to the rooms below. None of these hatchways would open for the party. There was no access panel that they could find. At the top of each tower was an umbrella-like structure whose purpose also eluded the group. Sal had hoped that this document would shed some light onto this structure.

The results from Sal’s tricorder began to scroll. He stopped on an analysis of the text on the title page. This document was exactly what he’d hoped to find; details of the primary functions of the drones. It appeared as shown:

OBPoF IDM n R qb NF ma GDI

[practicality, acumen, cool, experience, good reasoning, good sense]
[benevolence, religious charity; God’s love, God’s grace; good will]
[of]
[environment]
[and]
[society]
[harmony, togetherness]

For the sake of clarity before Sal relayed his findings to the other members of the group, he took it upon himself to eliminate the original symbolic language and piece together the basic content:

Primary Functions:
• Inspect equipment, structures, or materials.
• Control machines and processes.
• Identify objects, actions, and events.
• Handle and move objects.
• Get information needed to do the job.
• Make decisions and solve problems.
• Monitor events, materials, and surroundings.
• Repair and maintain mechanical equipment.
• Communicate with supervisors, peers, or subordinates.
• Organize, plan, and prioritize work.
• Update and use job-related knowledge.
• Work with the public.
• Evaluate information against standards.
• Establish and maintain relationships.
• Estimate sizes, quantities, time, cost, or materials needed.
• Judge the value of objects, services, or people.
• Schedule work and activities.
• Think creatively.

Other functions:
• Use hands to handle, control, or feel objects, tools, or controls.
• Repeat the same movements.
• Stand for long periods of time.
• Walk, stand, kneel, stoop, or crouch while working.
• Bend or twist the body.
• Hold an appendage in one position while moving.
• Make quick, precise adjustments to machine controls.
• Move appendages while remaining in one place.
• See details of objects that are less than a few feet away.
• Grasp, move, or assemble objects.
• Lift, push, pull, or carry heavy objects.
• Understand the speech of persons.
• Determine the distance between objects.
• Support the body for long periods without getting tired.
• Speak clearly so listeners can understand.
• Bend, stretch, twist, or reach out.
• React quickly.
• Adjust body movements or equipment controls to keep pace with speed changes of moving objects.
• See details of objects that are more than a few feet away.
• Be physically active for long periods without getting tired.
• See differences between colors, shades, and brightness.
• Coordinate movement of several parts of the body, while the body is moving.
• Keep or regain balance.
• Focus on one source of sound and ignore others.
• Choose quickly and correctly among various movements when responding to different signals.
• Move appendages quickly.
• Hear sounds and recognize the difference between them.
• See objects in very bright or glaring light.
• Make fast, repeated movements.
• While looking forward, see objects or movements that are off to the side.

Communications Network:
• Enable inter-drone commanding and data sharing
• Utilize wireless protocol for general command structures
• Pass learned information through entire network using satellite links
• Use error correction techniques and noise filters

The document also contained what appeared to be an extensive database of general knowledge concerning the plant and animal life forms. There were details on life cycles, pollination, pruning frequencies, seeding techniques, and animal behaviors. It also discussed associated maps which were to remain dynamically defined and updated via the communications network.

This structure and others like it were described as maintenance sheds where the drones would return for equipment, modifications and to recharge their power cells. The towers housed huge and powerful transmitters used to communicate with other facilities and the satellite network which orbited the planet. These energy beams were highly focused and used line-of-sight and point-to-point protocols.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Sal had some ideas but was not ready to present them to the group. He was not convinced that what they were dealing with was a ‘defense grid’ at all; not in the current technological sense anyway. There was definitely more to this puzzle and Sal ‘loved’ puzzles.

The analysis of this document had provided some insight into how the Zoalus language was used in an official capacity. What they were looking at was most likely a government document and anyone with experience reviewing government documents would know that it’s written in a sort of legalese so that all of the bases are covered. The sentence structures are exacting and have gone through several iterations and revisions. The document contained many ‘High Ordered’ symbols which meant that these terms were also just as exacting. They had specific meanings so that their use could not be misinterpreted. Sal wanted some time at a console to work on his translator. This language intrigued him and he wanted to fully understand it. That wasn’t going to happen as long as he was here on the surface. Still, unless they were to capture one of these droids and take it back to QoB, it was the only option available that would allow him to conduct live experimentation.

There was a strong wind whipping outside and he could presume that a storm approached. He could hear the whistling sounds because the seal on the passageway into the tower nearby had long since worn away. He suspected that this was probably the case on most of them that were still in use. His eyes were already closed as the vibrations from the wall began to soothe him mentally. Before he realized it he was in a deep state of REM.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

“Joia!”
He called into the empty darkness. There was no discernable echo which he took to mean that he was not inside. He could not see anything, however. There was not even an ambient light available for his pupils to absorb and his brain to collate into an image. He had to rely on his other senses to get his bearings.

The first was his sense of balance which told him that he was on a planet. This was not artificial gravity. There was an acute feeling that some people got when they were under the influence of artificial gravity. Sal had discovered this years ago back on Mars or actually from his first visits to the shipyards in orbit there. He presented it to one of his pilot friends and they told him that there were a very small percentage of people who could sense this. They said that Star Fleet was extremely interested in these people; wanted them in the fleet because they could better adapt themselves to changing gravitational environments.

“Joia!”
He called again and still got no answer from his daughter. He also sensed that she was in some kind of danger but he couldn’t focus on exactly what that danger was. Her lack of response made him anxious and he began to run in a chosen direction even though he did not know where it would lead him. Surprisingly enough, he was not stumbling and his feet met the ground beneath him evenly with every stride. He couldn’t judge how fast he was moving but knew that he was indeed running. He felt the gravity pull on him as he expanded another leg.

He checked his garb to see if there might be some kind of illuminating device on him that he could use. He was wearing a suit, a woolen suit, one of the many that hung in his closet. He usually kept his communicator in the inside right breast pocket. That would provide some ambient lighting, he thought. He reached in and it was right where he’d thought it would be and without missing a stride he pulled it out and activated it. The screen was extremely bright to him and he turned away momentarily as his eyes adjusted.

To his amazement, he WAS in a room. He stopped running and began to look around, pointing the communicator outward in every direction. While he looked at the walls that surrounded him his mind was attempting to rationalize why he had not reached any of them. They were not that far away. The walls looked peculiar, though. They seemed to extend below where he had imagined the ground to be. He had to be atop a platform high in the air. Pointing the communicator downwards he found that he was right. He was on some kind of pillar. It had rotated freely beneath him. He could walk or run in any direction and physically he would not move off of the pillar.

This was not some holo-deck trickery where most of the experience takes place in one’s mind. This was physical. Just how the platform predicted his moves before he made them was unknown but it was doing it, none-the-less. He could not get any closer to any of the walls, not by walking anyway.

He turned his attention to the walls and discovered that there was writing on them. It was writing that he could interpret as if he’d learned it as a lad, but it was definitely not English. It was not the Terran alphabet or any other that he had learned of seen. He seemed to know this instinctively and it puzzled him.

Then it came to him like a suggestion from the unknown. This was the Zoalus language as it was meant to appear. The font was not as perfectly formed as it had appeared in the documents and data that he had been reviewing, but the symbols were definitely represented. He could read them clearly and distinctly but his mind was fogged by something. He couldn’t focus on their meaning. There was a noise that was repeating and it was becoming increasingly irritating to him. It was like a banging sound, like pounding on sheet steel. He looked in every direction but could not tell from where the noise originated. It grew in intensity and soon that was all he could hear. His eyes were forced… open!

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

It was daylight, morning and he was still curled up against the cold wall. Ethan stood over him with a smirk on his face. Sal struggled back to consciousness and rose to his feet. The rest of the group was already up and about.

Sal shook the cob webs out of his head, got up and gathered his belongings. His was a small pack. He preferred to travel light. Coffee would be nice but he wasn’t gonna get any this morning. He’d have to be satisfied with a juice-tube and he bit it open and sucked down the contents. It was concentrated and exploded into his mouth and his eyes opened quickly. Sal stuffed the empty tube back into his pack and returned to collecting his things. He had a couple of reference tabs along with his PADD. The reference tabs contained images of the mandala-like symbol as well as the phonetic analysis that he and Ethan had reworked. Sal’s mind, always active, started reciting the Zoalus alphabet.

The low ordered symbols were completely phonetic and one could literally ‘sound out’ the sequence. He and Ethan had no idea how the sounds were assigned to the symbols but they had separated the vowel and consonant symbols based on the ability to pronounce a sequence. Like many languages, there were consonant pairs that probably merged together. These seemed to be rare in the Zoalus text. Most syllabic phrases were two or three symbols; a vowel surrounded by consonants. Sal had written a program that would synthesize a voice from a specified sequence. He could rotate through random assignments and the voice would attempt to speak the sequence using the newly selected sounds. When he wrote it, Ethan seemed a little confused, seeing absolutely no immediate use. There was no way to know which consonant sound went with which consonant symbol. The same was true for the vowels. Sal just liked that the program worked and they listened to the PADD spew out strange vocal sequences that sounded like some kind of spoken language. Then Sal could tap an icon and the whole sequence would sound completely different but still fairly organized and intelligible.

Sal thought about all of this while he finished repacking and joined the group. His thought was that maybe, just maybe, they could actually ‘SPEAK’ to these drones; issue commands. He knew that if they were programmed for voice commands then these commands would have to be spoken in the native language. All he had to work with was a tabulated list of words in what seemed to be an appendix. Some of these words contained High-Ordered symbols. Without a better understanding and more references, these would be impossible to pronounce correctly. He had found these after everyone else had fallen asleep. He wanted to present them to Pher before they headed out. This was on his mind as he approached the group dragging his pack to his shoulders and wearing a tired frown and slightly drooping eyes.

The Mandala Room
Sal looked on the inner walls and soon found another symbol cluster. Assumption, the fuel on which he was running told him that these clusters were merely room names of a sort. There had to be more chambers than this. Pressing lightly with his hand, an opening appeared. He saw the light was different in the next room. It was darker and the walls were not the antiseptic eggshell of this room. They were a soft green.

He looked at Chris and said, “I’m going to check this out. You could flag the others to come in out of the rain. I don’t think our friends come in here. I actually think that that is why the doors are hidden as such. They seem to require a warm touch to operate.”

He was just thinking aloud again. He really had no idea how the doors worked. He had been thinking ‘open’ both times. Perhaps it was a combination of his thoughts and tactile interface with the symbols. This cluster was nothing like the one on the outer doorway or its counterpart inside. Chris didn’t respond right away. Sal wasn’t looking for approval either and he turned back and walked through the passage which led into the next room.

The room contained tables and other wire-framed furniture. Apparently they had once been covered with an organic material which had long disintegrated. It was strange but it was not in disarray. These people, whoever they were, had just walked away from all of this, 600 hundred years before Sal was born.

Being the curious type, Sal tried everything; pushed down on the bare springs that once supported a fabric pillow; rapped on the table to determine its solidity. He was finished sneaking around and trying to hide from everything that moved. The last time he checked he was a member of the top of the food chain. Of all of the species of animated lifeforms, they had not found any more complex and more organized than the humanoid. The opposing thumb had been the key to the success of many races. Those without them never developed beyond their immediate environments to venture out into space. There were the few, the elders; that had grown beyond their physical existence, but most of these had also developed intellectually and wisely chose to not interfere with the curious humanoids and their quests.

Sal thought about the metaphysics of their current dilemma and wondered if the Zoalus had also risen beyond their physical captivity. It was highly unlikely because there was lack of evidence. Elders seldom left traces of their previous life. It was probably purposeful; the way it had been done since time had begun. Intellectual maturity was beyond the comprehension of humanoid societies because there was no frame of reference. Sure, they could speculate as many, of the fourth dimension, but it could not get past the practical science. For the layman, the whole concept of Warp Technology was other-worldly. There were three physical dimensions in which we live and breathe. Nothing unreal exists. That was simply how we experienced the universe, riding the endless wave-crest of Time into the future.

Warp drives were common knowledge to Sal as he grew up. And therefore, the fourth dimension existed even though it wasn’t something that one experienced. It was how humanoids had traveled beyond their lonely stellar systems within their own lifetimes. Without such technology, visitation of any race to another cradle of life was impractical.

Sure. There were records of successful generation-ships, ship than traveled at speed less than light for hundreds of years. But the passengers who arrived at their destination had little in common with those who set out on the journey. Sometimes the arriving people like the ancient Vulcans who became the first Romulan people, had no idea why their ancestors even left. Society changes with time.

Even primordial bacteria mutates as it seeds life on new abodes. The DNA strands are bombarded with random chemical compounds as the solid body that houses the suspended life passes through gaseous anomalies in the vast emptiness of space between the stars.
The Zoalus, like all races fit into one of these two categories but without further data Sal had no idea which one. There were no visual images of these people but from the architecture one could determine that they were humanoid and approximately 2 meters in height. They also apparently breathed oxygen as this planet was most definitely a class M and about 5 billion years old. Their written language was highly structured which meant that they possessed advanced intelligence. Still, no other race known had ever met them. There were no other records of this society other than what was left behind on this lonely orb.

The program that Sal had written based on Dr. Weston’s research made many assumptions. It had been thought for many centuries that all spoken languages were based on the same 40 odd sounds that all known languages used. There were many methods used to represent these sounds symbolically but detailed analysis usually resulted in isolating these basic building blocks into vocally uttered syllables. This method had been used successfully by the Federation for over two hundred years as the members encountered new races and peoples. Dr. Weston and now Sal had no reason to assume that the Zoalus were any different. And so the program had isolated the 20 simple symbols as being assigned to and associated with the audible structure of the spoken Zoalus languages. The sequences contained syllabic structures which could be formed.

The other assumption that this software had made was also based on the generalized concepts that all spoken languages seemed to contain. Words were a combination of syllables and used to form sentences of thought. Some of these words were used to identify objects were as others were used to describe action or change. Two mysteries remained, however. The first was the actual assignment of these sounds to their symbols. Until this was determined, speaking this ancient tongue was impossible. The second was even more obscure than the first. It was the purpose and meaning of the other twenty complex symbols, the symbols that were represented on the faces of the object they had found. They had special meaning and Sal needed to find some kind of frame of reference here to determine this.

Most cultures had used some kind of pictorial art form to bridge this gap. Languages were based on objects that existed within the environment of the species. The Zoalus seemed to have excluded imagery of their species in their art which was very unusual for advanced cultures. This was one of the primary reasons why archaeologists had been baffled by what they had found here. Not only were there no photographic portraits there has never been even so much as a stick figure found to describe the Zoalus physique. It is only assumed that they were bipedal and walked upright as most humanoid species. Another assumption was the opposing thumb appendage which had been found to be important in cultural development.

One science would clearly have to resort to using pictorial representation and that was medicine. Sal needed to find a hospital or life science college. Their text books he reasoned would have examples of bone structures and anatomies of their genus. The document that had described the gardeners, the original purpose of the drones, contained pictorial representations of thousands of plant and animal life forms that flourished on the planet. But nowhere, and Sal thought it to be purposeful, were there depictions of the Zoalus people; not even for the purpose of scale. This was found to be a very common use for self-image. It was almost fanatical, he thought.

Then he found the mandala. It was embossed into the ceiling of the next room that he found. The room was most definitely an interior and contained no windows and yet it seemed brighter than the rest. The walls were pearly white and the ceiling almost translucent. The primary focus of the mandala seemed to be eight bipedal figures that stood upon eight distinct ‘high order’ symbols. Sal pulled out the dodecahedron and found the same symbols upon it. They were equally spaced upon its surface as were they represented here in the mandala. Each figure had its own unique features but all were bipedal and humanoid in appearance. One figure held a pointed shaft and another cupped a small flame. There was one who seemed to be cradling an offspring and one reaching for the heavens with a light in its eyes. They were the archetypal characters to which Dr. Weston had referenced in her dissertation.

Each figure stood upon a high order symbol which was in-turn supported by three other high ordered symbols. Although the subordinate symbols were duplicated, each group formed a unique pairing. Sal squinted to see even more detail in the mandala. There were a third and fourth layer to this design. These layers contained pairings of these high ordered symbols and all were uniquely paired. No two were alike. This mandala was the key to the Zoalus high order language.

Sal knew that each archetypal character was unique in its own right having their own sense of value to themselves and the world around them. They were representative of mental personalities. All cultures had these symbols and it was thought that it was the understanding of the ‘human condition’ that set apart these intelligent species from other life forms.

He did not know what kind of room that he was in but it seemed to have a religious overtone to it. There were concentric circles of stone benches directly below the mandala and the room measured in his opinion some 20 or 35 meters across. Hundreds of people could occupy this chamber on the benches provided. In the center was a raised platform; an altar of sorts which had a smooth flat surface. Sal moved toward the center and noticed that each pillar that supported the central altar was translucent. Within each were sculpted statuettes of the figures in the mandala. There were eight supporting pillars. This was indeed an important find and he needed to show the others.
Lights danced around him spinning and spinning. He was trying desperately to focus on consciousness as thundering bolts from every direction stabbed at him. It was intensely beautiful and at the same time crisply painful. Sal had forgotten exactly where he was; who he was. He was remembering things that seemed to belong to someone else.

Red planet with a pale sky and endless rows of crops cutting across the plain; this was home. He could hear a voice calling out to him as he watched a distant sun setting. The cold was growing and he needed to get inside. There was shelter ahead from which the voice emerged. It was a female voice. He focused on the figure as he approached and then another sharp strike. In a flash, all turned black and lights burst brightly on and off. There was a sudden silence like the emptiness of space and he found himself gripping the controls of an Atmo-Shuttle zipping through a rich cloud layer. Behind him people were screaming. Some were in pain while others seemed to be trying to settle the situation. He looked down at the gauges and displays and quickly determined that the situation was desperate. The turbulence was pushing back on his grip, pulling him to and fro in his seat. Their altitude was dropping rapidly and termination was evident. He had thrusters he noticed and pointed them forward for braking as the ground was closing in. The co-pilot was busied with com-traffic. She was speaking with the commander, planet-side. Spying a clearing, a break in the endless forest, Sal pulled back and brought the shuttle softly onto the surface. A dust cloud formed at their touch-down and began to clear as he made his way aft checking the passengers as he headed for the rear hatch control. Sal’s hand pushed down and the atmosphere rushed in. Black again. He was spinning and out of control. He was no longer near gravity, weightless and floating free. Flashes of light forced his eyes closed. He was again disoriented. The flashing stopped and he focused on his surroundings. It was the bridge of the El Paso and they were dead in space. Emergency lighting was activated and there was panicked cries coming over the intercom. To his left he saw Flannigan. His blood floating in free-fall, the life had gone from his body. Susan Curtis was crying and others floated wide-eyed and drained. This battle was over. It was a hard situation and he felt the weight of it tugging on his emotions and ripping at his heart. Then thunderous pounding began, like the sound of steely drums. He could feel the warmth of fire and strong gravity again. His eyes were clouded and his mind fuzzy. The spinning stopped again and he cupped his cocktail stopping it from spilling. Everyone was laughing and enjoying the show. It was evening and the bonfire lit the open area between the circled cabanas. Harry was next to him; at least he thought she was. He thought he recognized this and remembered but he was not certain. Her eyes were brighter than he could ever recall and she wore a smile that would light a world. He looked at her but his eyes lost their focus yet again and felt the spinning sensation overwhelming his balance. Sal focused his thoughts and forced himself back into reality.

He was on Zoalus in the Mandala Room. This was now! He opened his eyes and the lights around him continued to dance but he had broken the bond. He was quite aware of his surroundings. He heard strange alien chants. They repeated over and over and he picked out a rhythm of eight multi-syllabic phrases. The lights spotted on a different figure with each beat of the chant. They crisscrossed the mandala in a distinct pattern as the voices filled the room. Sal struggled to remember what had happened, what he had done to initiate this. His head was still somewhat foggy and light. He felt like he was coming down from a serious dose of alcohol.

The Brush
Racing in his mind as his eyes darted North and then South, the electro-chemical impulses that were known as Sal Rosetto searched for resolution to the Zoalus’ culture and the gardeners-gone-bad but found only frustration. He required more data; more factual stimuli and pieces to the puzzle. This was what he lived for. He thrived on mysteries which was what had been missing in his life back on K’Normia. He loved being a family man and wouldn’t sacrifice his parenthood for anything in the universe but his soul yearned for adventure. Life, before Harry, before marriage, had been on the edge and changing everyday. Yet he realized his own youthful whims of greener pastures. Life had chapters and this, the new adventure that he had set himself upon, was just another one. Turning the page doesn’t negate the previous ones. You are the entire novel and the plot continues to move forward as the climax builds.

Sal stood upright gazed over the foliage across an open plain upon which the rising sun set. The illuminated clouds were tall and distant. He was not a meteorologist but he knew that there was a storm in their near future. The winds had begun to pick up, more than they had since their arrival, and the trees had started to bend and sway. It wasn’t overly noticeable except for a keen eye’s detection still he could see the periodic directional changes in the breeze and the rustling of the local wildlife. The flights of the winged creatures had become shorter and more purposeful. Sal pulled his pack off while continuing to follow the group, opened the flap and checked to see if he’d remembered his poncho. It was bright orange, there, beneath the food packs. There was a sigh of relief that went unnoticed by the others and he returned his pack to his shoulders and continued through the brush.

The buildings that he had spied were at least 3 clicks away and a good hike but he thought they’d make it there before the weather turned for the worse. There didn’t seem to be anything of significance between them, just more over-growth and a small depression which he assumed was a creek bed. It wasn’t wide enough for anything more than that and so he wasn’t that concerned. Still, he thought he should alert the others as they approached.

“We have a water crossing ahead, guys. Not a big deal. It’s probably just a small creek or rill.”

Sal was leading the way, taking long strides over the brush and trying to move as quickly as he could without being completely obvious. They hadn’t seen another gardener since the last one who had either missed them or chose to ignore them. He was pretty certain that there would be more as they neared the buildings but there didn’t seem to be any out here.

Moments of Clarity
The Klingons thought the whole concept of worshipping a corpse was ludicrous. They believed that once a person was dead, what remained was simply an empty shell to be discarded. The person now resided within the minds of those who remembered them. There were many known cultures who had shared similar beliefs however, Sal’s didn’t. He watched from a distance, crouched at the doorway, as two of the drones had doubled back to seemingly recovered their ‘injured’. This was strictly a ‘human’ trait; no man left behind. Here were robotic automatons acting like soldiers on the battlefield. It was a sight that was not unfamiliar to him and he fought to forget the past but he knew that he never would.

Sal continued to watch with curiosity as the attending drone stretched out one of its appendages to the fallen one. There was a whirring sound and he watched how the attending one lit up. After a brief moment, the fallen one turned cold and silent and the other picked up the drone and dove silently back into the underbrush. It seemed touching and disturbing, this moment of death and Sal mused several moments on it. He clutched his shoulders as the cold rain left him in chill.

But his mind, as usual, was firing on multiple planes focusing briefly on this thought or that and then spinning off into a new direction. Slowly the pieces of the puzzle assembled themselves and Sal received short bursts of clarity where he saw the completed picture. They were not long enough for him to consciously be aware but they existed and he could not deny them. There was humanity here and that was the gift of which those men of the cloth speak.

He watched as Pher tended to Ethan. She was graceful in her moves and yet all the more purposeful and careful not to attract the attention of the other drones. In the bushes with the rain pouring down was the second in command; the family man who no longer had the watch. Sal didn’t know his full story; only the rumors that had spread between the various crew members who had come and gone since his arrival on QoB. It was funny, in a curious sort of way, that Pher, Chris and the Captain seemed to know all about him but he still knew very little about them. That was most likely their intent because this space out here was very cold and black. It was not remorseful to the dead or faithful to the kind-hearted. And with a torrent such as that hovering on every horizon the mud between you and the bunk below was thick. It was a bridge or a drench and you were brothers or you were enemies.

This life was much different than what Sal had expected. He knew there would be times that they’d be hand-to-mouth between lucrative jobs but he didn’t realize that he would enjoy it as much as he did. He’d done something selfish and down right stupid by exploring this structure alone but Chris had come for him. He realized that had Chris not shown up then he’d still be trapped inside; his fate unknown. Although he had momentarily broken the bond that had taken him on his little trip, he also realized that it would have eventually regained footing in his mind. That chamber, the Mandala Room as he’d named it, was a one-way ticket. You did not leave. You were ‘let’ out.

Dr. West’s diametric of the human condition returned to his conscious as did the Zoalus’ chanting. He thought about the eight archetypal characters that she had described and began to comprehend how the 64 syllables of each chant phrase represented much more than a single word. They were emotional as well as descriptive. They evoked feelings. Sal now knew that these eight symbols were very important to the Zoalus; they were the Zoalus. They represented all that these people believed, all that they cherished and hated as well as all that they knew and respected. They were logical and irrational and could take on many forms with their own distinctness without losing the common bonding that held the society together.

He thought about the symbol pairs below each figure. The significance here was that every pair was unique yet it gave balance to the figures as a whole. They were, the eight figures, one. Like a governing body, the mandala represented the balance of power. There were long-held traditions that were ‘tried and true’ coupled to an excitement of the unknown and a yearning to belong.

Sal was digressing again. What was important? What was of immediate causality? What of this language and culture could help the team complete their objectives? Sal thought the key was in controlling the drones. He imagined that they had once received verbal commands from their previous masters. They were, modified and not alike, all keen to the sounds that the group made and moved accordingly but Sal knew that for these ‘garden variety’ drones to perform their duties for their ‘clients’ a certain amount of impromptu response was necessary. They would have to understand verbal requests that may or may not be exactingly perfect, grammatically speaking.

But there was still the issue of the symbol-to-sound assignments. To solve this, Sal thought he must get back into the Mandala Room. There were plenty of symbols and of course the chant phrases. He closed his eyes and tried to remove himself from his immediate surroundings; put himself back in the Mandala Room and looked up at the imagine in his mind of each one of the figures on the ceiling. The symbols below each one formed somewhat of a triangular shape terminating where the ceiling met the chamber wall. The symbols didn’t stop there, however. They continued down the wall forming a column of symbols. These were different ones though. Each pillar contained only the low-ordered Zoalus text. Sal wished that he could have tricorded them so that he could examine them in detail now.

Sal opened his eyes once more and watched the ‘investigator’ and its party follow the other drones into the forest mist and looked to see if Pher needed any help with their fallen comrade. Ethan, as far as he could see, seemed no worse for wear; mostly frightened out of his wits. Sal had first-hand knowledge of this feeling. Even though he now knew that these drones were designed to tend and maintain the landscapes, being under their watchful scrutiny and examination was a harrowing experience. Sal wanted to speak again but remembered what Chris had just said and didn’t want to attract any more attention to himself or they others.

Back In The Brush: Joint Log

Sal lifted his head above the brush and turned back toward the building long enough to see what was going on. The drones that were in and about the building were emitting laser beams in random directions. The red heat filled the area and trees and small bushes were chopped up radically and set afire. The building had sustained minor damage, but what was infinitely more interesting was the vessel rising slowly above the Port City. Sal stared at it probably too long as he tried to analyze its design.

It wasn’t of known technologies he thought but couldn’t be certain. They were still a distance away from the city and it looked like it was only about 30 to 50 meters in length. Propulsion was also a mystery. The vessel seemed to hover quite stable. Sal couldn’t see much detail without visual aide but he could see that it had at least one lower gun turret or something protruding below its main deck.

There was a sharp pain in his shoulder probably due to his impact with the wall moments ago. He wasn’t immobile but he wouldn’t be doing calisthenics in the morning. He was tired and what he wouldn’t do for a good old cup of java right now was on his mind.

Sal stopped running and crouched down in the bushes watching the action. He noted that the drones didn’t really seem interested in them. They were fighting each other. He thought about this for a long time and rationalized that this was unusual and illogical. Why would there be factions? And if there were factions 600 years ago then why would there still be fighting. The dominate faction would have destroyed the others long ago. This was something new. There was something that he had not been told about the previous expeditions.

Looking toward the creek, Sal saw that the others had gathered near its edge and had also stopped running. He walked over to join them and see what their next move would be.

“Stay low and don’t huddle too close,” Pher said as Sal approached, looking to the others as well, not just Sal. “If they get lucky, I want only one casualty! Stay behind some sort of rise. These things like energy weapons. If you can’t see the city armaments, they haven’t got line of sight on you!”

“This smells like a war, guys. One side wants to kill anything living? The other doesn’t? Don’t know about you guys, but I think I’m with the no genocide faction. That would be the side that tried to kidnap Ethan. They seem to be providing distraction and cover fire to cover our retreat. If they are doing it on purpose, we owe them, maybe, sorta. I’m guessing the genocide faction won the war, which was suspended when they ran out of people to kill. Both sides are using similar technology, built by the same people. No genocide faction has better sensors. Genocide faction has more guns, definitely more big guns.”

Bringing up the rear, Ethan went prone against the reverse slope of the creek’s bank for cover and briefly glanced at Pher further downstream. Save for her sound tactical advice, much of what she had said slipped beyond his concentration on the battlefield. With a battle this close, there were only a few things he bothered absorbing at that moment.

This was nothing like the battles that Ethan had experienced before; those between sentient beings. Sentient beings had to cope with uncertainties. There was no fear or moral conscience on this intense and soulless battlefield. Some of the drones’ reaction times were a fraction slower; noticeably behind the others and inaccurate as a result. They were probably being directed or controlled somehow. Yet every drone was scoring a 100% firing rate; no hesitation; absolute and staccato aim and fire. Posture, submit, flight or fight – the only response the drones seemed to recognize. Complete destruction seemed to be their only solution.

Tossing a strobe to distract the drones while the team escaped the building had proven pointless. The drones were so intent on ‘killing’ each other that they hadn’t noticed the team’s movement and they could use that to their advantage. Ethan thought ‘Enemy of my enemy.’

It also meant the drones had no compunctions or reasons to stop until the entire problem was erased from the battlefield. It meant they were likely to use whatever means necessary to win. There was an artillery platform out there; an entirely new problem. There was no way of confirming the platform’s full range of armaments at this distance. Not every species used only energy-based weapons, despite apparent preference. Not every weapon was limited to line of sight and, if they had the means, it wouldn’t stop the defenses from estimating the team’s position. It wouldn’t stop them from sending in ground troops to recon by fire or drive them out into the open. Nor was there any sure way of telling who actually had control of the platform before they used it. All things they didn’t want to risk finding out the hard way.

Ethan didn’t want to stay long enough to discuss intent with the drones. The danger was high that they might get swept up by the battle or become the next target if the modified drones won. That they were built by the same people who had won the war years ago or were providing cover fire was surplus information for the moment. If the modified drones won the current fight, Ethan had no doubt they’d be on the team like white on rice in a snow storm; targeting him again, if there was any consistency to their actions.

The team wasn’t prepared to hold out or even properly react to an engagement with force. That an aggressor would get off the first shot was a given; Ethan had come to accept that fact a long time ago. But with cold weapons, it was guaranteed that the drones would get in more than one shot if not score hits before the team could respond. If the team was going to escape notice and attempt to make it back to their shuttle, now was the time to do it, while drones were too busy fighting drones.

Quickly, he moved back toward Pher and went prone again on the rise of the creek bed beside her. “We need to keep moving while we can,” he advised; eyes out and speaking as low as possible. Maybe they could follow the creek and use its steep banks for cover before cutting a hard ninety toward the shuttle.

Chris had been running along but not to close to the others trying to keep some distance between them all. As he topped the hillside to the creek bed he turned for a moment to see if anything was after them. For a change it wasn’t; at least not at this time. He took a sigh of relief wondering what the hell was going on; Drones fighting drones. Maybe some of them were trying to help? Who knew? He then heard Pher give her command and dropped below the side of the creek bed and acknowledged the other two officers comments about getting back to the shuttle. He was in agreement with that, even though it meant the swim again.

Sal turned to listen to Ethan coming up from behind. He was in agreement with getting off this battle ground and wasn’t ready to start communicating with any drones regardless of its affiliation. He knew, however, that once he was back on the shuttle and preferably back on QoB that he’d be able to decipher this language. They could return with a brand new weapon in their stores….LANGUAGE.

“Pher, what do you think? Follow the creek bed? It’s noisy but keeps us low. They don’t seem to be very interested in us at the moment anyway. We could make a run for the shuttle!”

He wasn’t sure that this would work. His shoulder was killing him but he kept the pace trying not to let the pain get the better of him.

“Sounds right, Sal”, Pher stood half-erect, looked about and spoke. “Downstream, I think. Follow me!”

The Power Grid
As the Andorian cruiser approached, Sal looked down at his monitor screen. They were in standard orbit about Fesoan, the Homeworld of the Andorian people. It was a cold world and every continent was touched with blankets of snow and ice. He thought about how life may have developed on such a hostile world and how the human race and other earth fauna had survived its many ice ages. Andoria was much like Mars but larger and much more humid. Though bitter cold, there were oceans of water dominating the southern hemisphere. The mountain range that spanned its equator was surrounded by lush and dense conifer forests.

He watched as the high cloud formations danced below. It was well known that the winds of Andoria were ferocious. This had much to do with the proximity of Tsubar, the gaseous giant that the planetoid orbited. Its gravitational forces had shaped the surface of Fesoan and kept the ambient surface temperature fairly constant. For 9 day-cycles in the Andorian year, this massive body eclipsed the distant sun and the entire planet was covered in darkness. The return of the sun had been celebrated for thousands of years as an awakening and rebirth.

This was the first time that Sal had met an Andorian. He had read the data stored in Memory Alpha. It was required reading material. They were a highly emotion and some what violent society. Possession took on a whole new meaning and formed the basis of their geo-political stew. The Andorian with the most toys ruled. That was simply how it worked. They respected those in power and yet thrived on their defeat.

Sal would be a mere assistant to the Federation team who had been detached to aide a government expedition exploring a new geo-thermal energy source. He knew little about geo-thermal activities. It was his mapping skills that had interested Commander Phillips. Sal was always fascinated exploring. That was why he had joined Star Fleet and this was an opportunity of a lifetime.

The Andorian Cities were primarily built underground due to the extreme conditions on the surface. They had constructed a maze of tunnels and passageways that interconnected their populous regions. Some of them were thousands of meters long and they reminded Sal of the root structures of the grasses on Mars. According to the mission brief, they would be traveling down one of these lone tunnels and then taking a branch that would lead them deep beneath the Aeson Rift. This was one of the deepest crevices on Andoria and there would be 5 kilometers of frigid ocean above them.

The Andorian cruiser had pulled along side and Sal was ordered to the transporter room. He stood, nodded to the captain and proceeded to his quarters to grab his personal affects. He’d be gone for at least five weeks and the El Paso would be leaving orbit after the team had transferred over to the Fintalric; the Andorian vessel. The Fintalric was designed for atmospheric flight modes and would be taking them to the surface city nearest the rift, Konadeo. It would be approximately a forty-five minute trip. From there they would board a subterranean shuttle that would take them to First Camp.

First Camp was a city-sized complex deep beneath the Fesoan surface. Any expeditions into the rift were initiated here. There was a translucent glow that seemed to have no source as Sal and the rest of the team exited the shuttle. It was an eerie feeling and the air was dense and humid. At a constant 25 degrees centigrade, he welcomed the warmth and walked with a pride in his step. It was a pleasant contrast to the -28 degrees on the surface. He perused his environment and saw that most of the Andorians here were scantily dressed with simple tunics and short legans. He was comfortable in his short-sleeved uniform, tossed his pack on his back and followed the group toward a three story structure that seemed to be the center of local activities. The cave that they were in didn’t seem like a cave at all and this had come as a shock. It was not what he had expected at all. The ceiling was almost not visible due to the high water vapor. There was a mist but it wasn’t suffocating. It was actually quite nice.

They entered the building and were lead into a large conference room. Finally they would rest. Refreshments were offered and soon the room was filled with chatter. It was a light-hearted gathering and their host was telling funny stories. Sal watched quietly while scanning the room. A young Andorian woman approached him and asked to share conversation. He motioned for her to sit and she did without hesitation. Her hair was pearly white and her flesh an intoxicating surreal blue-green. She had a warm smile and a soft voice which made him feel at ease. They were chatting about nothing mostly; just general small talk sparring for position and feeling each other out. Sal could tell that she was used to dominating a conversation and he let her exploit her assets as he listened intently. She was telling him about her home town; where she lived on Fesoan. She had never left the Andorian system before but enjoyed meeting and working with humans. Her forte was geology which was why she had been selected for this expedition but Sal could tell that she was a very social person.

“So, tell me about Third Camp.”

“Well, we won’t arrive there for another week. It is much warmer there as there is an exposed mantle surface. The force field has only recently been installed and provides protection from the extreme radiation. This is where we’ll be working most of the time however we will not stay there for periods longer than six hours. Second Camp has residential facilities. It is two days travel from here.”

“The mantle? Seriously? Wow!” Sal exclaimed. “So how does all of this work?”

“It’s really quite simple, Sal. We drill two holes next to each other that reach the mantle. The holes are then connected by fracturing the hard hot dry rock between them. Water poured down one hole will rush through the fracture and rise up the other hole as super-heated steam. This energy is used to generate power and the steam is returned to its source. It’s a completely closed system and has a very low environmental impact.”

“And so why are we here? What is so special about this site?”

“The Konadeo plant is the largest of its kind that actually uses the ocean as its source. The key to this system is the return. The directional force field inside the rising shaft allows the steam to rise beyond the floor of the ocean and eventually escape back into the open sea without the sea back-feeding.

“Each hole is 500 meters in diameter and over 5 kilometers in length. The Third Camp is situated about 200 meters below the sea floor. It’s where the energy exchange units are housed. In an almost organic fashion, power conduits spread from this point to nearly 1.5 million subterranean distribution nodes that are used to power a third of the planet.”
Sal was overwhelmed by the immensity of the system that Daeni was describing to him. He was still unsure as to why he had been selected for this mission. That was dancing in his head as she finished her lecture and saw that his drink was empty.

“Thirsty?”

Sal nodded and she led him to a replicator.

“So what do you do, Sal?”

“I’m a Navigational Engineer.”

“Navigation? Like interstellar navigation? What are you doing here?” Daeni laughed and then stammered a bit, “I mean… I didn’t mean it like it sounded… What task have you been assigned here on Fesoan?”

“I suspect that it was for my mapping skills. But from what I have seen I am not going to be very useful.”

“Ah, so they haven’t told you.”

“Told me what?”

“The power conduits; the ones of which I spoke. As I stated, they are almost organic. We do not have a diagram of their exact interconnection. You will be assisting me to map them.”

He was three for four weeks with Daeni at his side. They became good friends and Sal had resolved the Andorian power grid problem by sending tracer elements down the power conduits. Once he had inserted the tracers into the power stream the system mapped itself. Every little turn and corner was traveled and recorded into the array of tricorders they had placed.

He wondered why he had recalled this mission. It seemingly had nothing to do with his current situation. They had got away from the drones for the time being and were dredging through the creek bed toward the coast.

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