Chekov straightened as his sensors registered something out of the ordinary. He studied them intently for a moment, anxious not to make any mistakes. He wanted to get a good report from the captain on this training cruise aboard the Pollux. "Captain, Ive detected a ship two parsecs ahead."
"What do you have, Midshipman?" Paula Vyne asked.
"A ship about half our mass, Captain. Warp capable. The computer doesnt recognize her, but she seems to be in trouble. Her engines are inactive, and shes just drifting," Chekov reported as he studied the readings on his console. "Im not sure about life signs, maam. Im picking up something, but its not distinct."
"Being urgent, maam," Lethende added, waving a tentacle for emphasis. "Not liking readings from engines. Anyone on that ship not having long."
"Can you give me an indication as to how long, Midshipman Lethende?" Vyne asked.
"Being fortunate if having six hours left, Captain," Lethende said. "Trying to be more precise when having better readings."
"Let me know the moment you have, Midshipman. Set a course, Midshipman Chekov," Vyne ordered. She fully intended to offer aid to the alien ship but she would have preferred a less tight time limit. "Lieutenant Helford, Midshipman Chard, get me all the information you can on that ship." She barely heard the acknowledgements as she considered the options open to her. "Commander Oakham, unless we can refine our readings, Im reluctant to beam aboard anything as vague as the life signs Midshipman Chekovs picked up, so I want you to take a team over and find out whats going on over there."
"Aye, maam." John Oakham considered for a moment. "Just a security team, I think, plus Lieutenant Helford from Science. Midshipman Chekov, Ill take you. You can learn about the ship you detected and work as another science officer, should the need arise." He pondered, only to find he was being poked hopefully by a minor tentacle that had snaked unobtrusively around the bridge. "Midshipman Lethende, a simple would you consider me? would be quite sufficient!"
Lethende ignored the chuckles. "Being sorry, Commander, but liking to go. Learning about alien technology, liking to learn more. Taking?"
Oakham was not sure how someone who did not possess a face could look at him hopefully, but Lethende was managing it. "Very well, Midshipman. We might find we need an engineer." He raised resigned eyes as he found himself patted approvingly. The being had come with excellent reports from the Academy and their chief engineer was very impressed but it certainly had a very non-Human approach to the correct behaviour to display to senior officers. He made a note to ask Chekov later if it was true the Salixa had once patted Admiral Nogura on the head.
Oakham eyed his two midshipmen for a moment as they assembled in the transporter room. The closer scans of the ship had revealed a breathable atmosphere but a gravity of only point six. "Just remember about the gravity and be careful. Experience shows low gravity can actually throw you more than zero g until you get used to it. Midshipman Lethende, that wont give you any problems?"
"Salixa being versatile, Commander," Lethende assured him.
Oakham knew they did not have any time to waste, just as he knew why the chief engineer had chosen to be on duty in the transporter room. "Places, everyone. Put us in a corridor away from the life signs, Commander."
Rebecca Frome had only just confirmed Lethendes report on the state of the alien engines. Although the closer scans had revealed the ship should be safe for another four or five hours, the chief engineer intended to keep a transporter lock on the entire team until they were safely back on the Pollux.
The team materialized in a corridor of the alien ship. Chekov did not have any difficulty in remembering his training not to move; he knew that was already so ingrained he would never forget it. He had been stunned by Oakhams cheerful announcement the first officer was taking him to act as one of the science officers. That indicated a level of trust that was both gratifying and unnerving; he was determined not to do anything to show he did not deserve it. Beginning his scans had been as automatic as remaining still.
Oakham looked at Helford. "What do you have, Lieutenant?"
"The only life signs are exactly where the ships sensors detected them, sir. Im also picking up some indication of organic matter at various sites throughout the ship, possibly bodies."
Oakham looked grim for a moment. They already knew something was very wrong aboard the alien ship but there had been the possibility that her crew had simply abandoned her due to the engine malfunction. "Lets find those life signs!"
They rounded a corner and stopped abruptly as they received immediate evidence that something catastrophic had happened to the crew. Two blue feathered bodies lay in the corridor, and Helford immediately announced they were both dead.
"Any idea how or why?" Oakham asked, as he eyed the aliens warily. The book stated it was improbable a disease would pass from one alien race to another, but it was not a possibility anyone took lightly. "Midshipman, let me hear your opinion, too."
Chekov moved a little closer to scan the alien carefully. "Im not detecting any wounds, sir, but there are a number of broken bones. Im not as sure about signs of illness. I cant see any obvious indications."
He scanned the avians, cautiously turning one over and stretching out a wing; they needed to find out more about this new race. "From the body shape this is a ground dwelling avian, possibly with wings used for display. They arent large enough for flight. Its similar enough to Earth birds as they have a crop that contains a mixture of grain and meat so they appear to be omnivorous, sir."
Oakham considered a moment, before he pulled out his communicator and had the two bodies beamed over to the Pollux and straight into isolation. If they were the ones unlucky enough to prove the book wrong, then their chief medical officer would need the bodies to study. If they had time, he intended to collect the rest of the unlucky crew and return them home, wherever that was. That was very important to some races.
"Lets head for the life signs," Oakham decreed. "If this is an illness, they could be in the equivalent of a Sickbay. We might be able to help."
"I wonder if the gravity fluctuated, sir?" Chekov suggested, as the idea occurred to him. His encounter with the Phloxi had taught him quite a lot about the avian races of the Federation. "That might not leave physical signs, but all the alien avian races we know would soon be crushed if the gravity went up much beyond what theyre evolved to take. I remember how nervous the Phloxi were on Earth, even with gravity neutralizers. It could account for the broken bones."
"Good point. Ill mention it to Doctor Padstow. Ive never met any of the avian races myself, as a matter of fact," Oakham said amiably. He was a strong believer in encouraging young officers and the even younger cadets he encountered. "Can you get any more detail on those life signs yet?"
Chekov was studying his tricorder as intently as ever. He was determined not to disappoint Oakham or Vyne. "Only to the extent I can separate them into nine distinct life signs, as opposed to a mass, sir, and that theyre entirely motionless. Theyre still in the same position they were when I first detected the ship but I simply cant make sense of them."
"Lieutenant Helford?" Oakham asked.
"Thats all I can determine too, sir."
"That sounds more like a Sickbay by the minute," Oakham commented, "with some very sick patients."
"Or a brig, sir," Peter Clifton put in. As a security officer, his mind ran along different lines.
"Or a nursery." Chekov refined his readings. "Sir, the mass of these life forms is only a fraction of that of the aliens we found."
"I was going to say just as long as its not a slaver but I ought to rephrase that. If it is, Im glad weve found her." Oakham lifted his hand for silence as they reached the end of the corridor. Down the intersection was a closed door. He looked at the midshipman. "The life forms are behind that door, right?"
Oakham looked at Clifton. "Any nasty surprises?"
Clifton scanned around the door. "Not that I can detect, sir." He eyed him firmly. "So with your permission?"
"Go ahead, Lieutenant." Oakham stepped back. He would have preferred to go in first, but Clifton was right; it was his job, not the first officers.
"Commander, circuits for this compartment not connecting to rest of ship. Having independent power source," Lethende reported. "Also independent ventilation system and gravity."
Oakham looked at it thoughtfully. "Could still mean either a sickbay or a brig. Theres a good case for either being independently powered and ventilated."
"Commander, this not being normal." Lethende was still working in a whirl of tentacles that meant everyone except Clifton was watching it in fascination. "Independent systems being installed in a hurry, but designed so that all remaining power on ship keeping this compartment operational after warp core ejected. Thinking crew doing that when knowing engines going beyond repair. Thinking intending to jettison warp core to protect just this compartment, but being killed before being able to do so."
"So whatever is inside there is so important, the rest of the crew were prepared to die to protect it?" Oakham mused.
"Midshipman Chekov, I think you may have hit the nail on the head with that idea of a nursery," Oakham said. "I cant think of any race that wouldnt put protecting its children first in such an emergency. If there are any, I dont want to meet them!"
Clifton worked for a few moments. Chekov watched intently, trying to work out precisely how he was deciphering the alien system and wondering if the lieutenant would explain to him later. He might be faced with the same problem himself one day and without someone with Cliftons expertise on hand; he needed to know more.
The door slid open, and the security officer stepped through, only to stop abruptly. "Oh!"
"Lieutenant?" Oakham moved forward. Clifton had served on the Pollux for several years and this was the first time Oakham had seen him thrown.
"Youd better take a look, sir," Clifton answered, his expression peculiar.
Intrigued, they followed him into the compartment, only to stop in surprise too as they saw the answer to their questions. Whatever had happened aboard the alien ship to kill the crew, they had made certain this compartment was safe because it contained nine large, mottled, green eggs. Oakhams jaw dropped. Whatever problems he had considered he might find, this one had not crossed his mind. "Given our time limit, this could present us with some serious complications! Lieutenant Helford, Midshipman Chekov, give me an evaluation of the condition of those eggs."
"The shells are blocking the scans to some extent, sir. I can detect a life form inside each one, but not their condition or stage of development. We need to evacuate them, sir, but I would postulate a transport isnt feasible. If the embryos are still developing we might cause serious harm." Chekov answered at Helfords nod, after she had glanced at his tricorder.
"These are still the only life forms you can detect?" Oakham began to think. The midshipmans suggestion they could not transport the eggs made sense, but it only added to their problems.
The commander pulled out his communicator and requested a shuttle, explaining briefly why. "Mister Clifton, take Midshipman Lethende aft and see if you can find an airlock or a shuttle bay."
"Midshipman Chekov, you stay here and keep an eye on things. Work out the exact conditions well need to provide for the eggs," Oakham continued and gestured to Helford and the two guards. "Youre with me. Lets find the bridge and see if we can learn where this ship originated. Were going to have to return these eggs."
Chekov took another reading of the eggs before he settled down next to them. He had seen an ostrich egg once, but these were much larger. He hoped the Pollux would be able to care for them until they could return the eggs to their home planet. Whatever had happened to the crew, he could only respect their determination to ensure their young survived; that meant the avians were probably people with whom they would be able to deal. "Chekov to Pollux."
"Pollux," Vyne responded. "Problems, Midshipman?"
"Not precisely, maam, but Commander Oakham left me to take care of the eggs when he headed for the bridge," Chekov explained. "Could I request that the shuttles gravity be set to point six and the same for wherever you assign them?" Chekov replied.
"Consider it done. Any other specific conditions?"
"The lighting is Earth normal, maam. The humidity is forty-eight percent and the temperature is thirty-five degrees Centigrade," Chekov reported. "The eggs are laid on a bed of sand with a cable heater underneath to keep the temperature stable."
"Sickbay will have everything ready by the time you get back. Anything else?" Vyne asked.
Chekov took another scan of the eggs, only to jump as one suddenly rocked. That was a complication he had not anticipated, and his first impulse was to reach for his communicator to summon Oakham or Helford before he paused. There was nothing they could do about this; it was far more important for Oakham and Helford to discover where the avians home planet was and they did not have any time to waste. He could signal the Pollux, but no one there knew any more about the eggs than he did.
The midshipman told himself firmly it was time he stopped needing his hand held; he had been left here, and it was up to him to deal with the problem. This was precisely the sort of situation he was being trained to handle. The mental talking to did not prevent Chekov from swallowing as he saw that all nine eggs were now rocking. He could hear the persistent tapping of the chick avians inside, and he started to wonder if they would get the eggs over to the Pollux before they hatched. That question was abruptly answered as one egg split in half and a small grey head with bright green eyes lifted to chirp enquiringly.
"Dont worry," Chekov responded, automatically seeing the need to reassure a frightened chick. "Were going to take care of you until we can take you home."
The other eggs were cracking now, and he continued to talk soothingly to the little hatchlings as they crowded around him. It was several moments before, to his horror, he realized the universal translator had kicked in, and they were exchanging a conversation, albeit at a chick level. "Mama! Mama!"
Chekov sank back on his heels as he remembered a characteristic of those Earth birds whose young had to be able to walk within minutes of hatching; imprinting. He wondered how he was ever going to be able to explain this particular predicament, only to jump as he realized one persistent chirping was that of his communicator. "Chekov."
"Is something wrong, Midshipman?" Oakham demanded sharply. He had been signaling for nearly a minute and the lack of response on an unknown alien ship had made him consider sending one of the guards back to investigate. He might have got a response, but the midshipmans voice had contained a decidedly peculiar note.
"I dont think Im not sure how to explain, sir," Chekov began.
"Try!" Oakham saw two security guards grinning at him expectantly as they recognized the signs of a midshipmen who had just landed himself in trouble.
"The eggs have hatched, sir."
"Any problems? Do the chicks, er chicks seem all right?" the commander demanded.
"They seem fine, sir, only " Chekov took a breath.
Oakham responded automatically to the consternation in the young voice. "Midshipman Chekov, what have you done?"
"They imprinted on me, so they seem to think Im their mother! Sir?" he added nervously, as the silence stretched.
"I was trying to think of a suitable term for such an achievement, Midshipman, but it seems to be eluding me," Oakham informed him tartly. "Do you see any reason why they couldnt be beamed back to the Pollux?"
"Not as long as its into point six gravity, sir."
"Right, lets get off this death trap because Commander Frome is not happy with the readings shes getting from the engines. You and your new family beam over first, while I tell the Pollux we dont need the shuttle. Well do the explaining once were home. Oakham out."
Chekov sighed and signaled the transporter room. "Midshipman Chekov here, maam. The eggs have hatched so Commander Oakham wants us off the ship as quickly as possible. Could you set the gravity in the transporter room to point six and then beam me and the nine avians with me over, please?"
"Beaming you over now."
Chekov found himself in the transporter room, his new family chirping happily around his ankles. He saw Fromes eyes widen as he lifted the chicks gently off the transporter platform, and she realized what they were saying, but the engineer did not comment. She merely beamed over Clifton and Lethende, before she tensed. One hand opened the channel to the bridge as the other locked onto the remaining personnel. "That ship is going to blow any second, maam. Prepare to raise shields the moment I get the last team back."
Oakham and two security guards appeared, a little startled at the lack of any warning, but Fromes words provided explanation enough. "Shields up now!"
"Shields up," Vyne confirmed, as the Pollux began to turn away. She was barely clear before the alien ship exploded. "No damage. Is everyone all right down there?"
Oakham moved over to the intercom, his eyes on the nine grey feathered chicks close to the midshipmans feet. "Were all fine, maam, but we do have a somewhat unusual problem."
"Get yourselves cleared by Sickbay, Commander, and then well hold a meeting in the briefing room," Vyne ordered.
Oakham realized another problem had just presented itself. "Maam, could I request the ships gravity be set at point six between the transporter room and Sickbay, in view of our guests? We cant leave the transporter room without it."
"You couldnt put the chicks on an anti-grav sled?" the captain asked.
Oakham looked at the science officer and got a shake of the head in return. "I feel that would be inappropriate, maam. The hatchlings have a psychological need to be in physical contact with Midshipman Chekov."
"Consider it done, Commander, but I cant wait to hear why. Right, youre free to leave. Let me know when Sickbay clears you."
"Aye, maam." Oakham looked at his team. "Right, Sickbay." He only shook his head as nine tiny beings scurried after the midshipman, chirping cheerfully.
Lethende curled a tentacle around its friend. "What Chekov doing now?"
"Youll hear when I explain to the captain," Chekov sighed as he wished the security team would stop grinning at him. The security divisions aboard his previous ships had informed him he was going to make exactly the type of officer they liked, one who made sure they were never bored. The faces of the security guards on the Pollux were beginning to wear exactly the same expression.
Sandra Padstow gazed in amazement at the nine tiny, feathered beings that arrived with the senior midshipman. She had been expecting only the usual routine checks on a boarding party beaming back from an unknown alien ship, and she had wondered at the change in the ships gravity. "Would someone care to bring me up to date? The only involvement Ive had so far is some dead aliens in my isolation area."
"We need mandatory checks, Doctor," Oakham gestured Chekov onto the bed, "starting with Midshipman Chekov since hes the one whos been in direct contact with these beings."
He stopped as the agitated chirping from the hatchlings as Chekov moved out of their reach rendered speech impossible. He watched resignedly as Chekov climbed off the bed and knelt down to reassure the chicks; the moment they were in contact with him, the shrill cries changed to contented chirps. "I think youre going to have use sensors for his check. As I was saying, when we found nine eggs I left him to keep an eye on them, but they hatched, and the chicks think hes their mother!"
"They imprinted?" The doctor eyed Chekov in dismay. She could visualize without any difficulty the problems that could cause.
"Im afraid so," the young cadet replied glumly. Chekov did not know what would happen next, but he did not see what he could have done to avoid this. He could not have left the hatchlings frightened and alone, and he had no idea how long it would be before they found the avians planet.
"Doctor, just clear us, please," Oakham said firmly. "Then you can listen in while we report to the captain."
"Aye, sir." Padstow forced her curiosity back under control and cleared the rest of the team. At Chekovs request, she scanned the hatchlings. She was able to tell him they seemed healthy enough before she considered and told him to bring them to Sickbay for a check-up at least twice a day, so she could gather data. She looked at the first officer. "The chicks dont pose any risk to us. Commander. They were in a protected environment inside their eggs and they hatched into an equally protected one before they beamed over to the Pollux."
"Come on in, Commander." Vyne took in the new additions to her crew. "Bring me up to date!"
"Midshipman Chekov, the explanation seems to be in your department," Oakham invited.
"Aye, sir." Chekov saw the mixture of expressions from the department heads, who seemed to be either stunned or amused. His friends simply looked resigned as they waited to hear what he had done this time. "Just after I spoke to you, Captain, one of the eggs started hatching."
"Why didnt you call me or Lieutenant Helford?" Oakham asked.
"There didnt seem any point, sir. What you were doing was too important to interrupt, and it wasnt as if I could summon anyone who knew more about the situation," Chekov answered. When the hatching had happened so quickly after that, he had simply not had the chance. "As the hatchlings had only just started tapping at the shells, I thought it would take some time for them to break through, and wed still be able to get them across to the Pollux, but I only had a moment or two before the first shell cracked. The chick started chirping, and I spoke to reassure it. Then the others hatched, and I carried on talking. It was a minute or two before I realized the universal translator had kicked in, and the chicks were calling me mama!"
"Well, that certainly explains why you were so long in answering your communicator. I must have been just another chirp!" Oakham said resignedly.
Chekov blushed. "Yes, sir." He looked apologetically at Vyne. "Im sorry, maam. I know this could cause a lot of problems."
The midshipman was certainly right about that. Paula Vyne wondered how the avian race to which the hatchlings belonged would react when they heard. "Its a complication we could well have done without, but Im not blaming you, Midshipman. I understand why you opted not to disturb Commander Oakham, and it wouldnt have made any real difference if you had. Imprinting was going to happen to somebody. At least we managed to get the chicks off the ship alive. Doctor, do you have anything on what happened to the crew?"
"Severe gravity fluctuations, maam," Padstow responded at once. "Id estimate it pulled at least three standard g, maybe four, and the crew just couldnt take it."
Vyne looked at her first officer. "Commander, did you manage to find their home system?"
"Regrettably no, maam. We were just starting to get somewhere when Commander Frome had to pull us back," Oakham said. "I can tell you the direction from which the ship came and extrapolate her course. Whether its toward their home world, I cant say."
"It will have to do," Vyne told him. "If that crew had long enough to rig a compartment to protect the eggs, then they had time to send a distress signal. We dont need to find their home world, just the ships that are going to head this way in response."
Vyne surveyed the midshipman. Chekov had not stepped out of line, merely making a sensible decision, and she had seen the anxiety in his expression. "Now, do you think you can leave the chicks with anyone else?"
Chekov could feel the hatchlings pressing against his feet. "No, maam. I think this is instinctual behaviour, perhaps left over from pre-sapient times. The chicks may have some language, but I doubt theyre capable of understanding if I tell them Im going to come back later."
"So they wont leave you, but theyve been well enough behaved in here," Vyne looked thoughtful. "That means you ought to be able to work on that project for Lieutenant Helford, even in Sickbay. Well give it a try anyway."
Oakham grinned. "Chicks and all, maam?"
"Chicks and all."
Helford coughed. "If I might make a suggestion, maam. Let me program one of the cleaning robots to accompany Midshipman Chekov. I doubt if the family are ship trained."
"Ah, good point, Lieutenant."
Anne Clarke straightened as her sensors revealed the signs for which they had all been looking. "Commander, Ive picked up the signatures of three ships that match the avian ship. Theyve detected us and are heading in this direction."
"Red alert." Oakham and the rest of the crew of the Pollux were hoping fervently they would be able to meet the aliens on peaceful terms and Vynes orders had been clear; the Pollux would go to red alert but her phasers would not be brought on line and her photon torpedoes would not be loaded; the crews would merely stand by. "Captain to the bridge. Midshipman Chekov to the bridge. Midshipman Clarke, put them on screen the moment you can get a fix. Miss Shenley, how long before theyre in communications range?"
"Two point four minutes, sir," Shenley responded.
Oakham only nodded. He would have been ready to open contact with the alien ships, but with that timetable, Vyne would reach the bridge before Shenley could open communications. As if in answer to his thoughts, the elevator doors opened to allow the captain to enter the bridge. It took a little longer for Chekov and his entourage to extricate themselves, but the midshipman was soon by the bridge rail. "Midshipman Chekov reporting as ordered, sir."
Oakham rose. "You have the bridge, Captain."
"I have the bridge, Mister Oakham." Vyne listened to her first officers brief report. She met his eyes and nodded in answer to the unspoken message. They would both have preferred to encounter only one alien ship. "Can you tell me any more about those ships, Midshipman Clarke?"
"Theyre half our mass, maam, and possess shields." Clarke studied her readouts intently. "Theyre armed, but they dont have weapons on line, so I cant give you any more information on what exactly they are."
"Communications range in ten seconds, maam," Shenley warned.
"If you get any more information on those weapons, Midshipman Clarke, split the screen and put it up for me to see. Ill have you and the family standing next to me, Midshipman Chekov." Vyne tugged her tunic straight. "Put me on."
"Youre on, maam."
"This is Captain Paula Vyne of the U.S.S. Pollux. We are a Starfleet ship of the United Federation of Planets, an association of beings committed to living together in peace and friendship. We were exploring this area of space when we came across a disabled ship that matches the configuration of your ships. I regret to say the crew were all dead."
"Answering signal coming in, maam," Shenley interrupted. "Visual."
"On screen," Vyne ordered.
The screen cleared to show a number of blue-feathered aliens identical to the dead crew the boarding party had found on the first ship. "I am Captain Malanna of the Dhyatalpa. We are responding to the distress call from one of our ships but from what you say, we are grieved to learn we are too late, Captain Vyne. Are you able to tell us what happened?"
Vyne knew that was a test. If the Dhyatalpa ship had had time to send a signal, then they had been able to tell their planet what had happened; Malanna, not unreasonably, wanted to know if her version was going to match theirs.
"My boarding party only had a short time aboard her before the ship blew up, Captain Malanna, but they were able to deduce that the crew had been killed by severe gravity fluctuations. It had surged to four times what they were used to and crushed them; their hearts failed under the stress. We did bring what bodies we could back to the Pollux. If it is in accordance with your custom, we will be only too willing to return them, otherwise we will despatch them into the nearest sun."
The alien head cocked on one side. "We would be grateful for the chance to take our people home, but allow me to say this without offence. You are the first aliens we have met, and yet you would do that for beings so different to yourselves?"
"You arent so very different, Captain Malanna, not where it matters," Vyne told him quietly. "My boarding party reported the crew of the alien ship were avians, true, but they also informed me that crew had spent the last hours of their lives rigging up a compartment on their ship in order to protect the nest of eggs they had on board. We think they planned to eject the warp core to ensure the safety of that compartment, but the gravity fluctuations killed them before they could. That one act told us they were people with whom we could empathize and like. They are certainly people whose devotion to duty we can respect.
"As for the difference in our appearance, Midshipman Lethende, would you move within visual range, please? Midshipman Lethende is training to be a Starfleet officer."
"Aye, Captain." Lethende moved to where the Dhyatalpa could see it and waved a friendly tentacle. "Being pleased to meet new friends."
"I am pleased to meet you, Midshipman Lethende," Malanna responded before he shook himself out of his fascination to concentrate on the only priority. "I must ask, Captain Vyne, the eggs? What happened to the eggs?"
"They were unharmed, as far as we could tell, but "
"But?" the alien captain interrupted anxiously.
"Before we could bring them over to our ship, they hatched." Vyne gestured to the cadet. "Midshipman Chekov had stayed to watch over them. The shells blocked our scans. All we could tell was there were living beings inside, but we decided it would be too risky to subject the eggs to matter transmission if the embryos were developing."
"Midshipman Chekov, when the eggs hatched, did you speak to the hatchlings?" Malanna interrupted more anxiously than ever. The strange aliens seemed to have done the best they could for the eggs, but they could not have known of the crucial factor.
"Yes. Im sorry, Captain Malanna," Chekov began.
"Sorry?" Malannas beak gaped open for a moment. "No, it was essential that you did!"
"But the effect its had on the chicks, Im not sure how to explain." Chekov looked at the alien in confusion.
"You spoke to them. That is all that matters."
"I think were talking at cross purposes, to use a Human expression," Vyne said. She knew how worried Chekov was over what had happened. "Something that is very easy to do when two people know as little about each other as we do. Captain Malanna, we think weve created a problem, but I get the impression you dont think we have?"
"No," the alien captain responded. His head cocked on one side again. "You are clearly unsurprised our children hatch from eggs. May I ask, if the question is not offensive, if Humans do?"
Chekov answered at Vynes gesture. "No, Captain Malanna. Humans have two sexes, males, such as myself, and females, such as Captain Vyne. We are mammals, and our females bear live young, usually one at a time. There are two reasons why finding Dhyatalpa young hatch from eggs did not surprise us. There are many non-intelligent avian life forms on my home planet that do the same, and we have a few avian races in the Federation who also use that form of reproduction. It seems tied to the avian life form."
"Fascinating!" Malanna replied. "The question was not offensive?"
"No. Please ask whatever questions you wish. We will inform you if we cannot answer any of them," Vyne said.
"I will say the same," Malanna sounded a little absent as he considered the best way to explain. "The reason I asked if you had spoken to the children, Midshipman Chekov, is that for Dhyatalpa children that is absolutely essential. If they do not hear speech within moments of hatching they never develop the ability to talk. If you had thought of them as animals, no, that is too insulting after the way you have responded to the plight of my peoples ship, but if you had not spoken, the children would have been mindless for the rest of their lives. They would have been little better than animals. All we would have been able to do would be to care for them until the end of their lives. I can assure you that if they had lived, one member of the crew would have stayed with the children in order to speak when they hatched or there would have been no point in saving them at all!"
Chekov gazed at him in astonishment. "Then I can only be pleased I did, Captain Malanna. I certainly didnt expect an answer, as a newly born Human child wouldnt have been able to respond. It was simply automatic to reassure the children."
The alien head cocked on one side again. "Then why did you apologize for doing so?"
"Because its introduced a complication we were not expecting, Captain Malanna," Vyne told the alien. "Midshipman Chekov, would you demonstrate?"
"Aye, maam." Chekov had learned that the hatchlings were quite happy as long as they followed him closely. If he moved away from them too quickly, they panicked. He vaulted over the bridge rail; seconds later, the hatchlings were scurrying after him to cries of mama!
"Oh!" Malanna did not seem able to make any other response. After a few moments he added, "We did not expect this. Would you be kind enough to wait a moment until I summon my doctor?"
"Wed certainly be pleased to see a Dhyatalpa doctor, Captain Malanna. Weve cared for the children as best we can but it would be very reassuring to have your doctor confirm that," Vyne said. She had heard her own doctor on the subject. Padstow was extremely concerned over the care the alien children might need and that they might not know enough to provide. "Youve already told us of one aspect of their development where the correct response was absolutely critical and that it was by sheer chance we were able to fulfil it."
"The children appear as healthy as my own hatchlings were at that stage." Malanna studied what he could see as the chicks clustered around Chekovs feet, telling him reproachfully he should not leave them. "Their language skills certainly are."
"After what youve just told us, Captain Malanna, I am extremely relieved to hear it," Vyne answered, as the alien doctor appeared.
Malanna introduced the doctor as Leragon and brought her up to date. She gazed out of the screen, mystified. "I truly do not know what to say. I have never heard of such a thing, but then, I do not think eggs have ever hatched off Dhyatalpa before. If the ship had not been damaged, the eggs would have been safely home."
"If I might explain what we think happened, Doctor Leragon?" Chekov suggested diffidently.
"Please do, Midshipman Chekov. I would like some clue as to where to start thinking about this," Leragon responded.
"The avian life forms we have on Earth are divided roughly into two types," Chekov explained. "One has helpless, unfeathered young and cares for them in a nest until they have grown their feathers and are able to fly. Others nest on the ground. Their young hatch able to walk and with a coating of down. Because they must leave their nest and be able to follow their mother almost immediately and stay with her, they have a protective mechanism called imprinting. This means that they consider the first life form they see after hatching to be their mother. Even if it happens to be a completely different species it becomes the creature they must follow at all costs. I would deduce that before your people became intelligent, the hatchlings had the same mechanism. It has become concealed in the need to hear speech because, for obvious reasons, you ensure someone is always with eggs that are due to hatch. When the chicks found themselves with only me, they imprinted on me."
"That makes sense," Leragon agreed. "I do not know what to do about it, but it makes sense."
"Do you know how long this imprinting lasts in the species on your planet, Midshipman Chekov?" Malanna asked.
"I looked it up, sir. As the avians in question are non-intelligent, parental care lasts only a comparatively short time, and so the imprinting effect vanishes. It might help if the chicks had people of their own race around them. So far, with the exception of Midshipman Lethende, theyve only seen Humans or similar humanoids." Chekov looked at Vyne and indicated the alien ship; she considered for a moment, then nodded. "I am willing to bring the chicks to your ship, if you wish?"
"That implies a great deal of trust in us," Malanna answered after a moment. "I promise you, it will not be misplaced. You have my assurance you may return at any time you or your captain wish."
"Coming too?" Lethende asked hopefully.
"Would you allow Midshipman Lethende to come too, Captain Vyne?" Malanna asked. "I am truly intrigued to find friendship is possible between such different beings."
"It is one of the aspects of meeting other races we value most highly, Captain Malanna." Vyne smiled. "Is it permissible for Midshipman Chekov, Midshipman Lethende and the chicks to beam over to your ship?"
"That will not be a problem, Captain. We have matter transmission ourselves, though we prefer to reserve it for emergencies," Malanna replied. "So if you will use yours?"
"Of course." Vyne hid her relief at how well this initial contact had gone. That might be explained by the fact the Dhyatalpa did not have any previous hostile encounters to make them wary. She would have to find a way to warn them about some of the more unpleasant races they might meet, though in this sector they ought to be safe from both the Klingons and the main slaving races such as the Orions.
"Permission to come on board?" Chekov had realized as the transporter beam seized him, he had not thought to ask about Dhyatalpa boarding protocol so he had decided to stick to his own.
Captain Malanna had been standing next to his own transporter operator. He joined his officers in blinking at the midshipman in astonishment. "Why do you need to ask permission when you come at my invitation, Midshipman Chekov?"
"That is our traditional way of boarding a ship, sir. As I didnt know what your protocol was, I considered it would be polite to use our own," Chekov explained. He broke off as the hatchlings began to shriek in terror. Swiftly, he knelt so they could cluster inside the shelter of his arms. As the little beings scrabbled to get as close to him as possible, he asked, "Whats the matter?"
"Danger! Danger! Danger! Mama save! Mama save!" The hatchlings chirps rose to a shrill note.
"I wont let anything hurt you. These arent bad people. They wont hurt you. They like you." Chekov tried to soothe the chicks, but their panic stricken shrieks continued. He looked at Malanna. "Captain, this isnt working. We cant let them get in this state. Well have to beam back."
"By all means!" Malanna and his officers were even more affected by the distress of the hatchlings than the midshipman.
Chekov pulled out his communicator. "Pollux, beam us all back immediately, hatchlings, too."
"Beaming you back now," Fromes reassuring voice answered at once.
Vyne turned as the midshipman and his entourage reappeared on the bridge. "Midshipman Chekov, what happened? What went wrong?" She gestured to the screen. "Captain Malanna tells me it was impossible to keep the chicks on his ship."
"It was, maam. They went into a state of total panic." Chekov looked extremely harassed as he answered but the little avians were still very upset. It was difficult walking without stepping on them, they clustered around him so tightly. "The hatchlings are so imprinted on me they didnt recognize the Dhyatalpa as their own people at all." He looked at the alien face on the screen. "Im very sorry, Captain Malanna, but the reason they reacted as they did is because they think theyre Human!"
Oakham eyed him in dismay. "When you introduce a complication, Midshipman, you dont do it by halves, do you?"
"I knew that was what imprinting meant, sir, but I didnt think it would affect the hatchlings to the extent they would panic at the sight of their own people," Chekov answered unhappily.
"Where do we go from here?" Vyne looked questioningly at her midshipmen. "Any ideas?"
"What about signalling the avian races in the Federation and asking if theyve any experience of the problem, maam?" Clarke suggested. "We might be able to adapt something."
"Worth a try." Vyne nodded approval. "If that is acceptable, Captain Malanna?"
"By all means, Captain Vyne," Malanna agreed immediately. "I found the reaction of the hatchlings most distressing. We must find a way around this, but you already know this has never happened before."
"Would Doctor Leragon be willing to board the Pollux, Captain Malanna?" Vyne asked. "It is still essential the chicks are thoroughly checked by someone who knows if theyre being treated properly. They might be able to cope with just her, if there were plenty of Humans around. If they dont panic, perhaps we could gradually add Dhyatalpa until they get used to seeing your people?"
"That sounds a sensible way to proceed," Malanna agreed. He had not known what to expect on meeting his first aliens; that they had been only concerned to help the crew of the damaged Dhyatalpa ship was enormously reassuring but he simply did not know what to do about the complication that had arisen. He was only sure the Humans were not to blame; they had only sought to help, and if Chekov had not spoken to the hatchlings, they would have been irreparably damaged.
"We could let the hatchlings see themselves in a mirror, too, Captain," Chard suggested, as he wondered what would happen if they could not extricate Chekov from this predicament.
"They could see themselves, Midshipman Chekov, and an adult Dhyatalpa, you mean?" Vyne eyed another of her midshipmen approvingly.
"It is clear we will have to work aboard your ship for the moment, Captain Vyne, though I am sorry I will not be able to ask Midshipman Chekov about your Federation. It sounds an admirable organization and one we would be interested in joining," Malanna said.
Vyne smiled. "If youre agreeable, I can send a team over to your ship to answer all your questions and tell you what Federation membership entails, while we work on the problem of the children here."
"Please." Malanna considered for a moment. "I invite you and your ship to Dhyatalpa, Captain Vyne. You have offered only aid to my people and we can only offer friendship in return."
"Im delighted to accept, Captain Malanna. Ill report to Starfleet and get those requests for information off to the avian races."
Oakham smiled as the Dhyatalpa doctor stepped warily off the transporter platform. If the avians had only just perfected the device, he could understand why she was uncomfortable about using it. "Welcome to the Pollux, Doctor Leragon. This is our chief medical officer, Doctor Padstow."
"Thank you for the welcome, Commander Oakham. I am delighted to meet a colleague, Doctor Padstow," Leragon replied. "When I took up medicine, I certainly did not expect to become the first Dhyatalpa to board an alien ship! I suppose I am fortunate you evolved at the same gravity we did."
"As a matter of fact we didnt, Doctor Leragon," Padstow answered. "Our natural gravity is nearly double this, but we altered it to provide a suitable environment for the chicks."
Leragon stopped abruptly. "You did that for them?"
"After we knew too heavy a gravity had killed the adult Dhyatalpa, we didnt see there was any choice," Oakham explained. "With no idea what effect our standard gravity would have on the children, we erred on the side of caution."
"I can only say how grateful I am for your consideration." Leragon was still shaken by how determined the strange Humans had been to care for orphaned alien children. "As will my people be when they hear. Are the avian races within the Federation restricted then to the lighter gravity worlds?"
"When they leave their own gravity they wear gravity neutralizers, but they do usually choose to remain in their natural gravity," Padstow told her. She did not think it was the moment to tell her colleague that was because the thought of the neutralizers failing made the light-boned avians so nervous.
"This was very remiss of me, but I did not ask how a lighter gravity affects your people, Commander, Doctor? I hope your consideration for the welfare of our children has not made you too uncomfortable?"
"Humans are one of the most adaptable species known, as are Salixa," Oakham assured her. "So, we just feel a little light."
"Would it be permissible to mention the idea of a gravity neutralizer to our scientists or would you feel we were stealing your technological ideas?"
"Im sure our chief engineer would be willing to discuss it with your people, Doctor," Oakham told her. "We have very strict laws about sharing technology, mostly because weve learned that showing less developed races advanced technology can cause a lot of problems. But your people are at the stage, that of leaving their home system, where weve found we can interact without causing any problems. Your people will probably find once they have the idea they can develop or adapt your existing technology anyway."
"We are only too grateful for your determination to do the best for our children."
"Were just pleased we reached your ship in time to save the children and very sorry we didnt get there in time to help the crew."
"Something Midshipman Chekov wanted me to ask you, Doctor Leragon," Padstow said, "is how much of his explanations can the children understand?"
"That is certainly a pertinent question, Doctor Padstow. I wish I could give you an answer that would help, but the truth is I cannot. The children may be able to speak, but we have never asked them to understand that the being they think of as their mother is in fact an alien.
"Every clutch contains nine eggs, three males and six females. We decided centuries ago that in order to avoid a catastrophic population explosion, we had to limit our breeding, so only one female from each clutch will lay another. The family themselves decide who it will be and, as their own genes are being carried on, the whole family cares for the eggs. The other females help in brooding, and the males help provide for the children. They are surrounded by adults who love them, but the conversations are centered around love and reassurance. Only when the children themselves begin to ask more than basic questions do we consider they are ready for more."
The two Humans and the Dhyatalpa doctor entered the rec deck. Chekov had been watching for them, and he walked across the deck, the children following, without coming too close to the Dhyatalpa doctor. It was close enough for Leragon to use the scanner she had brought, and she soon informed her hosts that the readings on the children showed they were in good health. She eyed them in amusement. "Would I be correct in deducing those exhalations are sounds of relief?"
"They are," Padstow answered. "We really were concerned about that, especially after what Captain Malanna told us of how important hearing speech is when the children hatch. It was unnerving to learn of how much harm we could have done to them out of sheer ignorance."
"We would not have held you responsible if you had not spoken to the children, but we are so happy Midshipman Chekov did," Leragon answered.
"So, assuming Midshipman Chekov has to continue caring for the children for the moment, are there any more such crucial stages we have to expect?" Padstow asked.
"There is no other aspect of childhood that is as crucial as hearing speech." She fluttered her wings for a moment. "None of us have ever had to consider early childhood from the angle of explaining to an alien who has inadvertently become the mother of Dhyatalpa children. We truly cannot think of anything to add to the care he is already taking of the children. I am sure though, that it will ease Midshipman Chekovs entirely ethical worries, if I manage to remain here!"
"Im sure it will," Padstow chuckled. "It will certainly ease everyone elses, too! Right, lets try moving a little closer. It may have been seeing so many Dhyatalpa that caused the problem the first time. Midshipman Lethende isnt having such an effect."
"I have never thought the fact hatchlings have feathers of a different color to be a disadvantage before," Leragon said. "In this instance though, the fact adults have blue plumage is."
They moved closer to where Chekov was sitting with the children clustered around his feet. The hatchlings were cheeping cheerfully to him as usual. As Leragon approached, the cheeps changed to ones of enquiry. "What coming, Mama? What being?"
"This is Doctor Leragon. She is a Dhyatalpa, just like you," Chekov answered carefully.
"Thats because Doctor Leragon is a grown up Dhyatalpa. You are Dhyatalpa chicks who only hatched yesterday," the midshipman told his small family.
The boldest of the hatchlings advanced warily towards Leragon, who kept very still. After a moment, the others followed. "Dhyatalpa?"
"That is right. When you are older you will have blue feathers, just like mine," Leragon told them.
"Mama no feathers."
"Im not a Dhyatalpa. Im a Human."
"Stay with Mama." The hatchlings returned to cluster around Chekov.
"That went very well," Padstow remarked. "I think if we work on that, and if you stay around, Doctor Leragon, I really think we can transfer the chicks affections."
"I have the president for you now, maam."
"Put him on." Vyne looked at the avian face on the screen. The beaked mouth was unable to show any expression, but the wattles on each side were flushed with the green that showed pleasure. She had Starfleets approval to visit the Dhyatalpa nestworld and build on the favorable impression they had made by saving the hatchlings. The Pollux had already received a formal invitation from the planet, but Vyne knew she and her crew had reason to be grateful for the data from Malanna on Dhyatalpa harness insignia; no one had worked out a way to tell one alien from the other without it. Priguls harness was more jewelled than any she had seen so far. "Greetings, President Prigul."
"Greetings, Captain Vyne. I am only too pleased to be able to thank you and your crew personally for saving the children."
"Were just pleased we were near enough to be of help, sir," Vyne assured him.
"My Council and I were particularly impressed by the conduct of the young midshipmen you have aboard and about whom Captain Malanna has told me," Prigul continued. "Would it be permissible to invite you and them to a formal meal, as you return the children to us? I realize the problem caused by them imprinting on Midshipman Chekov is not entirely solved, but Doctor Leragon reports favorable progress, and she is sure it will be overcome in a few days."
"I would be delighted to accept, sir," Vyne responded gracefully.
Vyne smiled at her midshipmen. "You all look suitably immaculate. As you know this is a formal meal, and were setting a precedent. Youll find yourselves doing this all too often when you dont have any idea of the protocol. Even on Federation planets, its easy to get caught out. If you do think youve made a slip, the best line to take is to ask if you have and then apologize. If youre not sure what to do, ask. Some races will take offense at that but not many. Its still likely to land you in less trouble than forging on regardless."
"Understood, maam," Chekov answered for all of them.
"Right, lets collect Leragon and then board." Vyne eyed her midshipmen cheerfully. "I hope no one is too disappointed, but since I very rarely get the chance to fly any more, and weve decided not to subject the chicks to the transporter, Ill be piloting the shuttle."
"This is a beautiful planet," Clarke remarked as they left the shuttle. There was a reception committee waiting a short distance away, but they had a few moments as Chekov carefully lifted the hatchlings down, Lethendes wary tentacles making sure no one jumped. Their scans had shown a pleasant planet in good environmental health, and the shuttle had been directed to land on the edge of a beautiful park.
"All the family present and accounted for, maam."
Vyne smiled. "Then if you would direct us, Doctor Leragon?"
The hatchlings followed Chekov, making curious comments and asking the midshipman questions. The little Dhyatalpa were already growing more independent and moved much further away from him than they had at first as they explored the new environment. Leragon stopped as they reached the waiting Dhyatalpa and introduced the team.
"Welcome to our nestworld, Captain Vyne, you and your midshipmen," the leading Dhyatalpa responded. "I am First Minister Simbeka. If you will come with me, I will conduct you to President Prigul. Do you find our climate pleasant?"
He indicated the trees and shrubs filling the park. The planting had clearly been carefully chosen so that the shades of green and the many flowers formed a harmonious picture. The number of brightly colored insects and small birds flying around the area as they recovered from the arrival of the shuttle gave a clear indication of the abundance of other lifeforms. The only difference to an Earth park was the absence of benches. Instead, large trees with low branches had been cultivated to serve `as perches. Behind the trees the party from the Pollux could see the graceful spires of the city. The walkways linking the towers revealed Dhyatalpa might be flightless, but they did not have any fear of heights; the walkways did not have any railings.
"Very pleasant, First Minister," Vyne replied easily. "My species is able to cope with a wide variation of temperatures but that does not mean we find them all comfortable. Your climate is equivalent to an early summers day."
"We are most interested in the different races that form the Federation. We were quite unsure if we would find other intelligent races at all or what they would look like," Simbeka said. "If it was interesting to see such strange beings existed, it was something of a relief to learn from Captain Malannas reports that people who look much like us are also Federation members."
"I can understand that, First Minister, but youve already shown one characteristic that means youll be able to fit in with the other races of the Federation," Vyne assured him.
"We have?" Simbeka turned to look at her. "That is very reassuring but I cannot think what it is."
"You can look at us and see people, First Minister."
"Welcome to my planet, Captain Vyne, Midshipmen." Prigul moved forward as soon as the Starfleet team appeared. He had known of the desperate race to try and reach the damaged ship in time; it was the subsequent signals from Malanna that had kept the Council in almost continuous session as they tried to decide how to proceed. It had been a relief to find the first aliens they had encountered were friendly and ethical. "The team who boarded Captain Malannas ship were very honest about the fact we might encounter people who were hostile as well as those who were friendly. I think we are especially fortunate that our first aliens are people brave enough and ethical enough to risk your lives to save people you had never met."
"Starfleet prefers to help where we can, Mister President. When we found the crew of your ship had willingly sacrificed their own chances to ensure the children survived, we knew they were people with whom we would develop a mutual beneficial relationship," Vyne responded, as she looked up at the avian. Dhyatalpa were over two meters in height, and despite their apparently fragile appearance, they had been the top predator of their planet.
Prigul gestured to more Dhyatalpa, who were hovering anxiously. "This is Nurnia, Nemu, Nethia and Nille. They are the clutch sisters of Nema who laid the eggs and, by our custom, they will take over the care of the children. That is why the eggs were being returned to Dhyatalpa, after her death and that of the sister with her. Potia, Parha and Plumu are the clutch brothers."
"We are only too grateful you both saved our sisters eggs and our children from mindlessness," Nurnia told them. She and the rest of the clutch had still been grieving over losing Nema and her sister when the news had come of what had happened to her eggs. "It was still extremely disconcerting to hear of the effect an alien being there when they hatched had on them!"
"It had an extremely disconcerting effect on Midshipman Chekov too, Nurnia," Vyne told her. "One thing he didnt expect to encounter in a Starfleet career was motherhood! Doctor Leragon, perhaps you would be kind enough to bring everyone up to date?"
"Of course, Captain Vyne." Leragon wished she could share the alien captains assurance. She had never had any ambitions beyond being a good doctor. "You are aware of the plan we have been following, of allowing the hatchlings to see more and more Dhyatalpa?"
As she received assents, she continued. "That has worked well. I am not certain if it is cause or effect, but as you can see, the chicks have become much more confident and less reliant on being in contact with Midshipman Chekov every moment. It will still take a few days, but I am certain we can persuade them to take to you. It will be a great advantage to have you and your clutch brothers and sisters here, Nurnia. The sooner the hatchlings meet you, the better. It would have been cruel to let them fix their affection on me and then for me to hand them over to you. Now, it will be possible to make a serious attempt to persuade them to transfer their affections."
"That is an excellent point, Doctor Leragon, and one that had not occurred to any of us," Prigul told her. "I am glad it occurred to you."
"What we propose now, if that is agreeable to you, Nurnia, is for Midshipman Chekov and the children to go home with you. Once the children are used to you, he will try leaving them for short periods. If they are happy with that, it should be possible to persuade them to remain with you," Leragon continued.
"And if it is not?" Nille asked anxiously.
"Then, if you will allow it, President Prigul, I will stay here until the children are old enough to understand what happened." Chekov had already decided about that and when he had taken his concerns to Captain Vyne, she had sympathized and promised to arrange matters with the Academy.
"But you are in the middle of your training!" Prigul exclaimed.
"When Starfleet hears what happened, theyll grant me leave to take time out, sir," the midshipman told him. Chekov hoped fervently that would not be necessary; he knew how miserable he would be if he had to miss out on returning to the Academy with his friends, but he also knew it was not in him to simply abandon the hatchlings.
"Starfleet will make sure, should it be necessary for Midshipman Chekov to remain, that his training does not suffer for it," Vyne assured the aliens.
"Nice to see you back, Midshipman Chekov. We heard the sigh of relief when the Dhyatalpa decided the chicks no longer thought of you as their mother right up here in orbit!" Vyne smiled at a very relieved young cadet. "Of course, after your exploits during this training cruise, Id have been justified in sighing in relief if youd remained!"
With a planet of aliens eager to meet the people who had rescued the Dhyatalpa children, she had been able to rotate her crew through some welcome shore-leave as she and her senior officers began the negotiations which would enable the Dhyatalpa to join the Federation. The reports coming from the home of the family to which Chekov had taken the hatchlings had been steadily more encouraging. He had been able to leave the chicks for longer periods each day without them panicking, until the Dhyatalpa had decided he could safely leave them to their uncles and aunts. They probably still thought he was their mother, but they were quite happy without him.
Vyne was delighted with the way things had worked out. They had made a positive first contact with the Dhyatalpa and from what they had seen, the aliens met all the criteria for Federation membership. Now, all they had to do was to complete their training cruise.
"I just hope nothing else comes up," she said to herself. "Navigator, what are you waiting for? Plot us a course for our next destination. Helmsman, get us there in a hurry!"
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