December 4th 2297
Captain Uhura of the U.S.S. Hyperion heard an agonized groan from off to one side. She swiveled the center chair to face her chief science officer, who was leaning forward, holding his head in his hands, his antennae almost hanging limply. "Drevan, are you alright?"
"More or less, Captain. Im not physically ill, anyway." The Andorian straightened up. "Its just the file on our new mission."
"Oh, come on, it cant be that bad. Were just going to pick up a research probe thats managed to get stranded." She shrugged. "How bad can it be?"
"Bad. If it were easy, theyd just have beamed the probe up all by themselves and been done with it." He shook his head. "What they didnt warn us about was the totally insane planet were dealing with. They must have been hunting for the weirdest planet they could find."
"Odds on, its the only place they could study whatever they were studying. Whats so bad about it?" Uhura was clearly curious.
"First of all, theres the gravity. Try this on for size: the equatorial gravity is about forty-five gs." The Andorian ran his hand through the snow-white hair on his head. "Thats the good news. Polar gravity looks like its on the wrong side of a hundred gs."
"Thats ridiculous. How does something that weird happen?"
"Because of the other joyful tidbit. This planet has an absolutely obscene rate of spin. Let me put it this way, if you start a bout of sneezing at sunset, youre going to miss most of the night. If its bad enough, you might miss all of it. The planets rotational period is just less than five and a half minutes long."
"Okay, Ill grant you, thats bizarre. Whats that got to do with transporting the probe up? Im missing something here, Drevan. Is there some sort of bizarre field or other?"
"Off hand, I suppose the gravitational field is plenty weird enough, but I suppose they may be looking for the presence of a new kind of field. If Ive got things straight, they were trying to refine a couple of points on the Lemoyne description of matter and energy. Its still not cut and dry even now, you know." Drevan looked back at the file on the readout. "The real problem was the supposedly soft landing. It wasnt exactly soft. Before the research team lost subspace contact with the probe, it was tilting over, as if one of the legs was buckling. Subspace communications probably went out when it fell over. Thankfully, they had the wit to put in a radio backup. Unfortunately, the probe appears to have rolled into the planets equivalent of a sea; so much for the radio backup. Between not being able to tie into a homing beacon, not being able to find the thing by scan, and the obnoxious axial spin, theres no wonder they sicced us on it rather than do it themselves."
"Oh, quit your whining, Drevan." Ingram swiveled to where he could see the Andorian. "Its not like youre going to have to solve this, you know. Thatll be Engineerings problem; you get to be friendly advice, remember?"
"The ensigns logic is impeccable." TSoral looked at the Human then the science officer. "You need only define the problem."
As he listened, Drevan perked up. "Hey, thats rightI get off easy." A relieved smile filled his face. "Ill just transmit this to Indri and leave the rest to himat least, until were within scanning range. Thats a relief!"
"Sam, do you have the location of the planet in question?" It was, in Uhuras opinion, time to get practical about the situation.
"I have; the course is logged in and ready to execute on your command." The helmsman looked at the display. "Itll take a couple of days to get there."
"Then get us moving. And Drevan, let Indri know Ill expect to see something together to retrieve this in two days time." Uhura turned back to the forward viewer, leaning back in her chair. "This should prove interesting, to say the least."
The captain closed and signed the electronic log. "Marsden, take the conn. Indri said hed have a prototype solution together by now, so Im going to go down to Engineering to see what manner of gadget theyve got prepared to hunt for the probe." She stepped into the turbolift, emerging in Engineering. A quick look around found Indri, tricorder in hand, kneeling near what looked like a thick metal plate with two pieces of bar stock on the back of it. The captains determined stride took her to the engineer quickly. "Hows progress on the gadget for the surface?"
"Looks like its ready to go, Captain. Want a demonstration?" Indri stood, clearly eager to show off his little creation.
"Doesnt look like much, but appearances can be deceiving." She shrugged. "Show me what it can do."
"Hey, Running Bear," Indri called around the corner. "Put Junior here in motion."
The plate suddenly began moving around the engineering deck floor, almost as if it were gliding on air, finally ending up at Uhuras feet. She looked down at it. "I cant see how it moves; does it float on a field or something?"
"Nope. The bottom is a high strength piezoelectric. We use field circuitry to generate a properly-oriented electric field, raising tiny ridges on the underside, then move them, dragging the plate along." He looked at the machine. "Even close up, you probably couldnt see the ridges; theyre small, but theyre numerous, and strong. As complicated as it was to get that going, its easier than trying to build something like an axle and wheels that can handle the gravity down there. We had to embed the physical circuits, so that the machine is essentially a solid block. Most of the circuitry are Briggs field circuits. Field circuitry is terribly wasteful of energyit takes ten, maybe a dozen times as much power to keep field circuits going compared to standard duotronic circuitybut given the need to minimize the mass of this thing, it seemed easier to build in a small Lemoyne-Briggs transformer, install a matter-antimatter reactor and put up with the extravagant power demands."
She nodded appreciatively. "I see; that makes excellent sense. Whats with the two bars on the back? Anchors for the field circuits?"
"Field driven arms; we move them with modified tractors, like the Orions used on Diego Shengmins life support suit."* The engineer reached into a pocket, extracting a modest sized hexagonal nut. "Running Bear? Want to try some catch?"
"Youre on, boss man." The plate shifted back, leaving room for Indri to throw the nut. "Lets see if the systems on this thing are as good as we think they are."
Indri hefted the metal nut then suddenly threw it at the machine. One of the arms flipped up, deftly snatching it out of the air.
"Nice catch. Im impressed, gentlemen." Uhura turned to her chief engineer. "I take it that its not autonomous?"
"Its not. Turns out, it was wretched enough powering the circuitry weve built; adding autonomy would have cost us, oh, maybe thirty to forty times as much power. Particularly given the uncertainties about the surface and all, it seemed that having control from the ship was the better decision." He looked at the machine then back at the captain. "We took extra effort to be sure that it was as rugged as possible; were not going to lose communications with this thing, at least not due to the circuitry failing. You could whack on this thing with a five kilo sledge and not significantly scratch it, even at fifty plus gs. Now all we need to do is find that probe and get it."
"Ill have Drevan on it shortly; rumor has it that well be in orbit in a couple of hours. Since it was Ingram that started the rumor, Im willing to believe it." She nodded. "Im heading back to the bridge. Its looking good, Indri. You guys have done good work, here."
"The proof is in getting the probe returned, Captain." It was Running Bear, looking around the corner. "Ill be impressed with us when that thing is in the hold. Remember the Fifth Law of Thermodynamics."
"Im not an engineer; I never learned it."
Indri grinned. "You dont have to be an engineer to know the Fifth Law of Thermodynamics. You want to quote it, Running Bear, or shall I?"
"Ill let you have the pleasure, Chief."
"Ok. Fifth law of Thermodynamics: Its never as easy as it looks. Surely youve learned that by now." The chief of engineering winked.
All Uhura could do was laugh in response. "That, I knew; I just didnt know it was a law of thermodynamics. I guess Ive learned something new. Anything else that I need to know about the machine?"
"Well be recording everything that we see and hear." Indri turned to look at the machine. "Weve got the equivalent of a tricorder, of sonar, vision, hearing and a couple of other things built into this." He looked back up at the captain. "Including ground-penetrating radar. We sort of figured, since we were going to be down there, we might as well learn as much as we could. Doing that didnt take a whole lot of extra effort or power, to our surprise, so we did it. Never know what might be useful."
"Indri, you and Running Bear are marvelous; you always manage to exceed my expectations. You remind me of Scotty." She patted Indri on the back as she spoke. "And I know you consider that high praise."
"The highest, Captain, and Im sure I speak for us both when I thank you for the compliment." The engineer bowed slightly. "Running Bear and I will do the best we can to continue to deserve it."
"We all count on it, gentlemen." Uhura made her way to the turbolift. It slid open, and she entered. "Hopefully this will be an easy one."
The turbolift slid closed. Running Bear looked over at his superior officer. "Somehow, I have the feeling this isnt going to be a simple scoop and run, boss; I just cant tell you what has me worried."
"Past experience, my friend, past experience." Indri turned to face the Illiniwek engineer. "That, and the Fifth Law of Thermodynamics."
"Preparing to establish orbit, Captain." Marsdens fingers moved swiftly over the helm. "Maybe I should say struggling."
"Whats the matter, Jim?" Uhura picked up a metal stylus, preparing to sign an electronic document that appeared on the readout on the arm of the conn. There was a small arc between the stylus and the readout. "Thats not right. TSoral, Id like to speak with Indri." She tried to put her stylus down; the metal object floated. "Theres another one that just isnt right. Drevan?"
"Looks like this planet has an immense magnetic field, Captain." The Andorian stared, wide-eyed, at the console before him. "Just be glad theres no metal in your uniform and that youre not wearing any jewelry. Things could get pretty hot, pretty fast."
"Well, Im wearing my wedding ring; doesnt that count?"
"Oh, yeah, forgot that. Just careful how you wave that hand around is all; the current the magnetic field generates might get it a bit on the hot side. Dont want any burns, you understand." Drevan shook his head. Before he could say anything else, Indris voice came through the overhead.
"Indri here. How may I help, Captain?"
Uhura rolled her eyes. "Your call, Indri. It appears we have need of dealing with a rather intense magnetic field from the planet. Any way of shielding the ship from it?"
"Im sure something can be done. I..." Indris voice was interrupted by what sounded like popcorn popping. "Okay, Im assuming that you heard that. Running Bear is reporting that we are having trouble with large amounts of debris hitting the hull, despite the deflectors; at this point, Im going to recommend bringing up the shields."
"Ingram, get on it."
"Yes, Captain!" The Human tapped a set of controls on the weapons console. "That should do it."
"Shields are up, Indri. Is that going to handle the magnetic field?"
"No, but I believe I can find a way of grounding the hull sufficiently to handle the problem." There was a brief silence. "Would it be possible to get a little further from the planet, say three or four times further out, for a little while? That would make the task less difficult."
"Ill see to it immediately." Uhura nodded to Marsden, who moved into action. "Anything else?"
"I dont suppose you could arrange for our search and retrieval mission to be on a more congenial planet, could you?" Indri didnt sound particularly hopeful.
"Afraid not. Anything within reason?" Secretly, Uhura wished she could grant Indris wish, but she knew better.
"I suppose not, but it was worth a try. Well get on grounding out the hull. How soon will you want to deploy our little device, Captain?"
"As soon as Drevan can fix the location of the probe with some certainty. Perhaps within the hour." She looked over at Drevan, who shrugged and kept on working. "Or maybe a little longer. Ill call. Bridge out." Uhura looked at Drevan again. "What results, Drevan?"
As the captain was talking, Diskartedor arrived on the bridge, signaling the beginning of the turnover to Beta shift.
"Theres a lot of territory to cover, Captain." The Andorian kept his eyes glued to the displays before him. "Im working on it. It clearly hasnt stayed where it landed, not if the readings they sent are worth a hoot." Drevan continued working as he spoke. "It cant be far, though. I... Ah, found it. Uh, maybe not; it just disappeared again. And its backway elsewhere. Its gone, now."
The captains eyes widened slightly in astonishment. "Want to explain yourself, Drevan? It cant be here again, gone again."
"Yes, maam!" The Andorian looked up. "Would you mind telling that to the sensors here? They totally disagree with you, Captain. Im getting readings that make me wonder if some misguided sadist is fooling with the scanning software. This just isnt right. Has Davids been up to his tricks again?"
Diskartedor, who had taken Ingrams place at weapons, swiveled around to where she could face Science One. "Just as a matter of curiosity, are you scanning using electromagnetic radiation or subspace scanning protocols?"
"Electromagnetic, Diskar. Subspace doesnt have the resolution to find the probe, and its a horrible energy hog, anyway." Drevans forehead wrinkled slightly. "Why?"
"Just something I remember reading up on a couple years ago; an Illyrian by the name of Asetoohoko did some work on atmospheric dynamics. If I recall the math correctly, that atmosphere down there is going to be a problem. Probably six, possibly seven distinct atmospheric layers with different refractive indices, wind speeds and whatnot, with the thickness of the assorted layers varying quasi-randomly over time." The Illyrian pulled a wry face. "Try doing a little bit of checking on that. If Im right, thats going to distort the living daylights out of your scans."
"Atmospheric refraction of the scanning wavelengths, hmm... Good thought. Lets look at the atmosphere another way... Will you look at that?" He looked up. "Youre right on the money, Diskar; six layers, with the interface between each layer bucking and boiling like crazy, with winds blowing every which way but sane. Tell you what: how about you casting one of those green eyes of yours on the changing location the scanner comes up with, and see if you can get a rough average on this. Possible?"
"Ill cast both of them, with the captains permission." Diskartedor turned to face Uhura, who nodded her approval. The weapons officer made her way to the science console. For several minutes, she stared at the console, concentrating, then tapped rapidly on it. She nodded to herself. "This should do it. Its plus or minus not less than fifty-four point seven meters, you understand, but its a whole lot better than shooting in the dark."
"Ill go with those coordinates and do a bit of subspace scanning to see what weve got to work around." Drevan focused on the displays before him. "Oh, joy, oh, rapture. Even allowing for the doubt in the position, it looks like weve got a real challenge. Its far enough under Swaartes version of an ocean that it needs to be pushed up onto the shore before the transporter can lock on and transport it." He stared at the ceiling in a very Human expression of frustration. "Someone please, tell me nothing else is going to go wrong."
"Drevan! Shame on you." It was TSorals voice, thoroughly serious. "You should not ask people to tell you lies. They cannot know that."
Suppressing her amusement with difficulty, and well aware that the Vulcan communications officer intended no jest with her remark, Uhura looked over at the helm. "Diskar, how about getting us far enough out that were not going to have as big a problem with this planets field? Marsden, if that gets us to where we can ditch the shields without the hull getting pounded, please do so." She turned back to Science One. "Have you got the position of the probe fixed well enough to provide coordinates to transport our little search and rescue device down?"
"Ive located a place on the shore that should do nicely; its within two hundred meters of the probe, as I read the scan, for whatever thats worth. The only problem is going to be the current, so far as I can see, and that should be manageable." Drevan pulled a wry face. "I think. Who knows what kinds of other things that sort of environment might offer?"
"Well find out. Get the coordinates to Indri, and lets get moving." Uhura leaned back. "By the way, Indri told me that this little gadget is going to be gathering reams of data along multiple channels. You and Ginpili might want to look at it as it comes in; you never know what you might find."
"At least theres one good thing about this whole, crazy mess." Drevan shook his head gently, trying unsuccessfully to keep his antennae from wobbling. "I just hope communications wont be as scrambled as the scans are."
"They will be handled by a subspace channel, Drevan." TSoral tilted her head to one side. "I have worked with Indri to build in a self-correcting encoding scheme. Even moderate interference will not cause a significant data loss."
As the conversation progressed, the remainder of the Beta shift arrived, taking their places. Relinquishing the center seat to Reichard, Uhura moved to where she could look over Drevans shoulder as he and Ginpili stared at the readout. "If were not able to scan worth a hoot, how are we going to be able to transport this thing down?"
"Not a problem; the transporter uses a phase conjugate reflector; that pretty much gets past the distortion, over the tiny lengths of time it uses. That, and its in more than just three dimensions; its in the full ten, most of which are as calm as calm can be." Drevan looked back at his console. "But its a good question; its just not a problem. The problem is targeting it."
Uhura nodded. "Good enough. Get the coordinates to Indri; lets get his gadget down there and get the probe rescued."
"Hes already got them, Captain. Hes waiting for you to give the order to transport it."
"Thank you, Drevan. TSoral?"
"Order transmitted, Captain." The Vulcan looked up. "It should be registering on Science One in a few moments."
"What in space?" The Andorian science officer leaned forward, his antennae stiff with surprise. "Okay, this isnt funny. Even allowing for the atmospheric distortion, this shouldnt have happened."
"What shouldnt have happened?" Uhura was clearly less than pleased.
"Where the rescue mechanism landedits oh, a hundred fifty or so kilometers from where the probe is." The Andorian scratched his head. "Give or take, I mean. The scans estimate anything from a hundred twenty-five to nearly two hundred kilometers between them." He tapped on the console before him. "Oh, great. Well, that explains it. I forgot that the transporter fields arent going to be refracted by the atmospheres antics, but the image on scanning is."
"Great. Can you beam it up and try putting it down closer?" Uhura asked.
"Begging the captains pardon," Diskartedor said, deferentially, "But off hand, I wouldnt care to bet that we could do much better than what weve done." She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "If the atmospherics are as irregular as they looked a couple of minutes ago, we could end up spending all day beaming the thing up and down, and not do any better. It seems to me that the best thing to do might be to use the scanning capacity on our device to help us find the crashed probe."
"You win the point, Diskar." The captain turned to TSoral yet again. "Better warn Indri that this is going to take a little longer than wed planned."
"He probably expected it, Captain," Marsden quipped. "Something about the Fifth Law of Thermodynamics."
"Thank you, Mister Marsden," Uhura chuckled. "Indris already introduced me to that. Once is enough. More than enough."
Reichard moved to take Running Bears place at the control console for the surface probe. "So tell me, hows progress? Have you located the disabled probe yet?"
"Not yet, Ken." The engineer relinquished his post, doffing the headphones he was wearing and giving them to his relief driver. "My guess is that its going to be a while. Our little mechanism is moving forward, but not at a breakneck speed."
"Well, that too, but thats not the big problem. Were dodging humps that form in the crust; thats the main problem. It takes time to run around the end of the things and get back on course." Running Bear stretched slightly as Reichard sat down. "Just watch out; if you try to climb over one, were going to have trouble. Theyre usually only three, maybe as much as ten, centimeters wide, mind you, but with the devastating gravitational pull here that can really get nasty in short order."
The lieutenant commander donned the headset. "Whoa, what is that noise? It sounds like an army of psychotic drummers trying to beat the daylights out of a steel plate."
"Rain. Its not an issue that wed anticipated, or wed have tapped the power it generates to help power this little buggy," the Illiniwek answered. "The impacts generate compression waves in the machine, which generate currents in the piezoelectric on the bottom, generating electric fields, which complicates moving the thing. That, and there is a tiny charge on the droplets. Thankfully, Indri and I designed the field circuits so we could modify them from orbit; were having to ground the machine out once in a while."
"I guess Ill get used to the noise. Any other friendly advice?"
"Drive slowly, dont try going over hogback ridges or the like, and keep in touch with Drevan or Ginpili, whichever of them is on the science station. Its weird down there. If the activity doesnt bother you, we plan to set up a remote science console down here, so theyre at your elbow. That, and either Indri or I plan to be within voice range for the duration. Never know when a quick engineering consult may be needed; just holler." Running Bear stared at the visual display. "Despite hitting like a meteor, for instance, the raindrops are too small to be seen. That, and Junior moves forward like its moving through molasses, if you ask me. On top of that, it seems like were somehow dislodging pebbles and getting hit by them. Shouldnt be happening, but it seems to be."
"Your warning is duly noted." Reichard began piloting the probe. "How do I know which way to drive this thing, anyway?"
"Upper right hand corner, the thing that looks like an old analog clock with a single hand. It points in the direction that the Hyperions sensors guess the probe is. Noon is straight ahead, from our probes point of view. Do your best to keep it at noon, and youre doing all you can do." Running Bear moved to the turbolift. "Happy hunting!"
Reichard settled in, familiarizing himself with the terrain and the controls. The terrain was predominantly flat, with occasional low ridges and even rarer cracks in the surface; it was reminiscent of a stone-paved sidewalk. Any ridge or rise or split in the way, on the whole, had to be avoided; unless it was remarkably smooth in profile, the device simply could not maneuver across the ridges crest, and the thought of what the gravity might do to the vehicle if part of it projected over the edge of a crack was intolerable. It simply wasnt that flexible. Despite that, he felt that he was making reasonable time, given how slowly the probe seemed to move and how much of his time seemed to be spent heading directions other than straight toward the crashed craft, including all too much backtracking. It hardly felt like any time had passed before Indri came up behind him. "How goes the effort, Ken?"
"Tolerably. Three steps forward, two back, really. How come such short tours of duty, anyway?" Even while talking, Reichard got up, surrendering the controls to the engineer.
"Simple sense, Ken." Indri sat down, taking the controls. "If we learned anything from Skyf, it was that we need more of the crew experienced in remotely controlling devices outside the ship. Keep the shifts short; get more people involved. You never know when we might need that." He studied the screen. "This isnt moving as fast as Id like."
"Just remember who designed it, Mister Engineering," Reichard quipped. "Whats the hurry? I thought you wanted to have time to get lots of people get experience logged with this thing."
"Running Bear and I looked over the design of the probe were rescuing. Looks like were up against a ticking clock; the thing was never designed to handle the pressures of being under Swaartes version of water. Our computer simulations suggest that the ceramic will be slowly cracking. Three, maybe four days at the most, and the sea flows in, shorting everything out and destroying all the data." Indri studied the display. "If we dont find a way of hustling this up a good deal, were not going to make it."
"Figuring out a way to dodge the ridges would help a lot, frankly. Im heading for the bridge as soon as I get something to eat; Ill see if Gin can give us a hand. Happy hunting, Indri." Reichard headed for the turbolift. "Holler if you need me to take another shift."
"Dont hold your breath waiting for that." Indri focused on the display before him, the weird landscape moving slowly but steadily. "Theres a line a kilometer long waiting for a turn with it, but if you learn anything useful from Gin, let me know, or whoevers on the controls."
"Youve got it." Reichard stepped into the turbolift. "Ill be on that right after a quick bite."
Reichard had hardly taken his place in the command chair when Ginpili, the Tellarite science officer, turned to face him. "Lieutenant Commander, we have a problem."
"Ensign, where this mission is concerned, Id be most pleased if we had only one problem." Reichard turned to where he could see her. "Whats the new issue?"
"Contrary to what we had been led to believe, it would appear that the planet is not lifeless."
"Thats a surprise; Id have never thought that a lifeform could survive under those obnoxious conditions. Is the lifeform a threat to the machine that we have on the surface?"
"I cant say for sure," the Tellarite responded. "But its going to be a potential threat to the mission. We may have already fallen in the slop trough on this one."
"Witless reject of your mother, explain yourself," Reichard spoke as a Tellarite would.
"You remember calling up here and asking Drevan and me to see if we could figure something out on the pattern of the ground humping?"
"I remember." Reichard scratched the side of his face. "How does that fit in with this?"
"It seemed best to try to find some sort of pattern in the sounds the mechanism was picking up from the ground, then analyze that. The fastest and easiest way we could think of was to feed the audio records into the semantic analyzer. Its programmed to find recurrent patterns, after all; thats the first phase of handling an unknown language." The science officer wrinkled her nose in frustration. "It found lots of patterns."
"Okay, Ginpili, Im losing the connection here. How does this relate to lifeforms and our mission being potentially jeopardized?" There was clear confusion on Reichards face.
"Like this. Listen." Ginpili tapped on her console. On the overhead, an unfamiliar voice filled the bridge.
"Man, that thing is tough."
A second voice responded. "It definitely is tough stuff, Skraal. If Id been hit by a falling stone like the one we just lobbed at that thing, Id be in pieces. This critter has to be almost indestructible, believe me."
"Thats a side point," a third voice offered. "I still think this is some sort of probe, a machine like that piece of junk that ended up in the ocean. Look at the marks it leaves behindridges, almost perfect circular arcs, rather than the more ragged dent-and-drag marks lifeforms we know make. Maybe one of the off-world lifeforms has figured out a trick to get into orbit and move between the stars. I say we catch it and take it apart to see how it works."
"If you cant crack it with a ballistic pebble, Dun," the second voice replied, "how do you plan to open it? With your sharp wit? Im telling you, this is from another planet, just like the subspace stuff is. Probably from another star system, I suppose."
"Youve been hit too hard by the rain, Oorweeg, I can tell." It was the third voice again. "How many times have we tried to get something into orbit around this planet? There just isnt enough energy around to put something into orbit, let alone hurl it to another star. You dont have to remind me that faster than light travel is possible, at least in theory. Its just getting off planet far enough to do it thats impossible."
"Thatll be enough, you two," the first voice interjected. "Save the scientific debate for later. What it is looks totally irrelevant to me; at the moment, we need to deal with this thing."
Ginpili tapped the console before her. "Enough said?"
"Too much said." Reichard turned to ODoul. "Deanna, it looks like weve got a sentient lifeform down there; we need to communicate with Starfleet Command. This is a Prime Directive issue."
"Id like to debate that," Diskartedor offered. "Even if it is, weve already stepped in things here, neck deep. The best we could manage is damage control, and it sounds like thats not on the roster."
"Diskars right," Blakesley chimed in. "And they clearly have theorized interstellar flight. They just havent gotten off planet to use it. Sounds like theyre aware of the possibility of off-planet intelligent lifeforms. They may be now convinced of it. Probably are. The Prime Directive might not apply."
"You make a good case, Jeff, and so do you, Diskar." Reichard rubbed his chin. "Id still like some input from Starfleet Command. Gin, get the stuff the semantic analyzer has generated prepared to transmit. Deanna, connect me. All of you be ready to help me talk our way out of this, if need be."
Ingram looked up from the control console, to see Indri coming around the corner.
"Hi, Sam. How goes the project?"
"Not nearly fast enough, Indri, at least if I get the story right from Greggson. Im getting the hang of dodging the humps on the ground, at least." Ingram adjusted the controls slightly, keeping his eye on the display before him. "The stuff from Drevan and Ginpili is helping a lot. Still dodging falling rocks, though; thats a little more troublesome."
"Well have one of the science officers down here at your elbow in about twenty minutes; maybe thatll speed things up a bit. Glad to hear youre having less trouble with the humps, and I think we might be able to do something about the rocks. Just let me under the console a moment." Without waiting, Indri ducked behind the display, a small microphone and cord in hand. "One of the things Gin discovered is that there is an intelligent lifeform down there; thisll let you communicate with them. Just have a care that you dont scare em off."
"Theres no camera, so this is audio, not video. No need to worry about my face scaring anyone." Ingram grinned as he delivered the quip, then suddenly grew serious. "Although maybe I ought to scare them off, Indri; this gimcrack of yours has been taking a major pounding."
"From what Gin says, they might be convinced to speed our trek to the damaged probe; time is of the essence, and all that." The engineer straightened up. "This is where you ask them to quit throwing rocks; politely would do nicely. Whatever seems to be language will be pumped through your headphones. Happy negotiating." He headed for the turbolift. "Im going to get Science down here."
Another rock hit the probe Ingram was controlling. Leaning slightly forward, he spoke into the microphone. "I get the point; you dont like me. Would you mind knocking off tossing the rocks, already?"
From a distance, there was a sound of muted conversation. Finally, a voice answered. "You can understand our language?"
"Nah, that was just a lucky guess, making random noise," Ingram shot back. As he did, three creatures that looked like oversized amoebas came into view. "Of course I understand you; how do you think I caught on that the rocks were getting thrown? I snooped on you talking to each other about throwing things at me. So, is it asking too much to have you quit it?"
"I suppose not." The voice hesitated for a minute. "Youre not hostile or anything, are you?"
"After the load of gravel youve hurled at me, I ought to be, but Im not. I just want to retrieve the probe that landed wrong a little while agoa piece of junk, I believe you called it, so you probably dont want to keep it. Any chance you remember where to find it, so you can take me there, and I can take the thing back with me?"
"Taking you to it shouldnt be a problem; retrieving it isnt going to be possible." Even through the universal translator, the voice sounded convinced.
"Dont underestimate me. Look, do you have a name? Communicating with you and your friends there is going to get annoying without some names, here."
"I am Oorweeg; my companions are Skraal and Dun. We call our kind Platmaak. How about you?"
"Hi, Oorweeg. Hi, Skraal. Hi, Dun. Call me Sam; we call ourselves Humans, mostly. So how about showing me the way to the probe? And maybe since you live here, you can help me dodge these obnoxious humps in the ground."
"Rand is what we call them; handling them is just a case of knowing where and when theyll appear. Dun, here, is really good at outwitting that," Oorweeg said. "But why should we bother? All we want is for you to go away. Since youve don't know, you happen to be in the middle of a game preserve that has some decidedly carnivorous, large-sized predators. Thats why we were trying to either drive you off or knock you out; we had you figured to be some sort of predator that migrated down from one of the higher gravity areas of the planet. Now that we know youre intelligent, we just want you to stay safe, and that means leaving by the shortest route."
"Ill leave as soon as I get what Im here for, Oorweeg, not before. You want rid of me faster? Get me to the damaged mechanism faster. Easy enough, right?" Ingram knew he was skating on thin ice with the remark, but it seemed a worthwhile gamble.
The threesome moved aside, talking amongst themselves. Oorweeg spoke up again. "Well, technically, we should talk this over with Waan, our group leader, but given that itd probably take longer to do that than just to get rid of you by proving you cant get the defunct probe, weve agreed to take you there. Dun will lead."
"Lead on, Dun." The ensign moved the surface probe to make it look like he was checking their faces.
As Dun, and Skraal lead the way forward, Oorweeg taking up the rear guard position, Ingram following along in the middle. True to his promise, Indri arrived with Diskartedor and Drevan in tow, sitting Drevan at the makeshift science console. Before Indri could speak, Ingram did. "Tell you what, how about getting Diskar a padd so I can scratch down a few noteswhats going on, these three beings names, whatever she might need to know about things."
"I brought one with that in mind, Sam." Diskartedor produced a small padd from under one arm. "I was hoping youd jot a few notes for me." She slid into the chair as Ingram abandoned it. "I take it the three blobs are the escort."
"They sure are. Oorweeg, Skraal and Dun; I still cant tell them apart to look at them, though." Ingram started jotting on the padd. "It looks like the biggest problem youll be facing is dodging the ridges."
"I dont think so, Sam." It was Drevan. "Back behind you, theres an oversized something stalking the buggy and its three escorts. The three Platmaak are maybe a quarter the size of our machine down there, maybe a bit less; the thing thats following is easily three, maybe four times as large as the machine. You might want to let your companions know."
"Gotcha." The Illyrian leaned into the microphone. "Hey, guys, whats that thing trailing us? It looks pretty big and mean to me."
Oorweeg stopped, presumably turning to look back. "Not cheerful; its a leeu, one of the largest and meanest predators in the preserve. Dun, step it up a bit; maybe we can get away from it. Skraal, you still have a couple of pebbles to hurl?"
"Nothing thats going to slow down a leeu, trust me." Skraal seemed to move a little faster. "And I wouldnt bet on the creature losing interest easily, either. Were in... Hey, Dun, whats with the sudden stop? We need to be running for our lives, not lollygagging."
"Were squished totally flat, Skraal. Theres a skeurdal in front of us, and theres no way we can cross it. Better turn and prepare to fight."
Ginpili studied her display. "Im figuring skeurdal probably refers to the crack thats formed across the path in front of you, Diskar. Looks like its only a couple of centimeters wide, and crossable."
"For me, maybe. Think Id be safe letting my three companions use the machine as a bridge?"
"As I read the specs on it, yes." The Tellarite studied her display a moment. "If youre going to do it, better do it soon. That whatzit is closing, and if things spring on this crazy world, it looks like it might."
Gently, Diskartedor moved the machine towards the edge of the crack. One of the three Platmaak turned. "Are you crazy, Sam? You get your nose over the edge of that skeurdal, and gravity will pull every drop of fluid tissue in you over the edge, then either pull the rest of you with it or rip you in two. Youve got a better chance facing the leeu than of crossing that thing."
"Im not as liquid as you guys are." The Illyrian slowly edged the machine forward, deciding not to confuse the issue by correcting them on the name. Under its leading edge, one side of the rift began to crumble. She shot the arms forward, taking some of the machines load off one side and transferring it to the other. "Im not worried about the leeu hurting me; I dont want it hurting you." Gently, she moved the probe forward until it was roughly centered over the split in the ground. "That thing looks like its going to spring. Cross over on my back. Hurry. I can handle the load, honest."
There was a brief pause, then one of them tentatively crossed over. The leeu, no doubt sensing that its intended prey was getting away, sprang forward. The other two Platmaak scurried over, followed by Diskartedor moving the probe the rest of the way across. She nodded, speaking into the microphone. "Thats got that solved."
"Dont bank on it, Diskar. Look at what its doing."
Seeing that Skraal, Dun and Oorweeg were moving away as rapidly as they could, Diskartedor looked behind, to see what Ginpili was talking about. The great blob that the Platmaak had called a leeu was on the edge of the rift, shifting its mass upward and downward, crushing its side of the rift, slowly but steadily closing it. It would, she realized, only be a matter of time before the creature was across and chasing them again. The Illyrian looked at the controls in front of her; one control indicated a ranging laser with an adjustable intensity. Grateful that the engineering team had included it, the weapons officer targeted the near side of the leeu, ran the power up to its highest setting, and fired. The creature backed away, hurt but not stunned. Diskartedor fired it again, with hardly more effect. A third dose of phaser energy convinced the leeu to hunt elsewhere. Slowly, the oversized ameba-like being moved away. Satisfied, Diskartedor moved the probe toward the Platmaak.
"Nice work. Never knew weaponry like that existed, to be honest." The voice was Oorweegs. "How does that work?"
"Cant say I know the details, any more than I suppose you know the details of how youre able to move." She shrugged, well aware she couldnt be seen. "I just do it, and it works. How much more do I really need to know?"
"Sams got a point, Oorweeg," Dun offered. "I suppose its time to get going, anyway. Come on." Dun moved forward, the others following behind.
Diskartedor shifted the microphone away from herself, to talk to her friend at the science console. "Gin, as I read things on this display, those creatures bent the probe a whole lot less than I would have expected, based on my estimate of their mass. Is there something funny about the atmosphere?"
"Plenty, believe me. Its made almost completely of volatile organics, and at the temperature and pressure down there, the mix is a supercritical gas. Theres almost certainly a lot of buoyancy going on." Ginpili looked over. "The oceans are probably a similar mix of less volatile organics, evaporating and recondensing as rain, just like water does."
"Okay, Gin, I missed supercritical gas in science class. Im not following this."
"You remember the ideal gas equation?"
Diskartedor nodded. "You bet; its math, after all. The Federation notation is PV=nRT, pressure times volume equals amount of material times a bugger factor times temperature. Had to derive it from first principles in second grade."
"Then you remember that the derivation assumed that there was minimal interaction between the gas particlesperfectly elastic collisions and all that, right?" The Tellarite shifted slightly in the chair to see her companion more clearly. "Now, how would that change if there were considerable interaction between the molecules?"
"You get a liquid." Diskartedor pulled a wry face. "My science isnt that bad, Gin."
"What if it were enough to deviate widely from an ideal gas, but not enough to go liquid?"
"So youve got something between a liquid and a gas that has properties of both, but isnt exactly either, like a gel is somewhere between a solid and a liquid." She shrugged. "So?"
"We call that a supercritical gas, and Swaarte seems to be a whole atmosphere of the stuff." The Tellarite returned to her console gleefully. "I dont think anyone has seen this much supercritical gas in one place ever before. Anyway, buoyancy is the answer to your questionand the amount is just what youd have predicted based on the math. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful."
Tolerantly, Diskartedor turned back to her terminal. "Just remember to keep your eyes open for indications of that crashed probe, witless sow. The last thing we need is to miss the thing, you know."
"Dont worry; Ill be watching. Closely." Ginpili turned her attention back to the monitor, and her task.
Time moved past slowly; Diskartedor was replaced by Marsden, then Blakesley, then TSoral. Drevan relieved Ginpili at the task of studying the inputs and trying to find hints of the lost probe, and then was replaced by Ginpili again. Suddenly, the science officer turned. "Ocean, less than a hundred meters from you. I think Ive got the damaged probe located, but you need to get closer to the ocean; Id make for bearing 047. Talk to your escort, TSoral, and see what they say."
TSoral turned to the microphone. "I think Ive spotted what we are after. We need to move to the edge of the ocean over there."
"You go, Sam, if you dare. Theres a lot of meanness in there that loves to throw a pseudopod onto the beach and find something tasty to eat, like you." Skraal moved away. "Any closer than this is potential suicide."
"I dare. You guys can stand and watch the results." The communications officer reoriented the device to move in the direction Ginpili had indicated. As he moved it, the Tellarite gave course corrections.
"Make a hard 90 degree turn, into the ocean; its straight ahead, about ninety-eight meters into the soup they use for water." Ginpili leaned forward with excitement. "Were almost there."
"I believe I see our target." The lieutenant commander steered the machine as instructed. As Skraal had predicted, by the time he had maneuvered the machine close to the shore, a large pseudopod erupted out of the ocean, grabbing it. Taking a cue from Diskartedors earlier experience, the Vulcan ran the targeting laser up to maximum energy and fired it several times. Swiftly, the pseudopod pulled back into the fluid. "I guess I do not taste as nice as I look." Without waiting for a response, she ran the machine into the ocean.
"Got it!" Ginpili almost exuded excitement. "Not fifty meters. Bearing 341, and move straight on. I can almost taste the victory."
"I appear to be experiencing a problem with movement; there seems to be an impoverishment of friction between the ridges on the bottom of the device and the sea floor." TSorals voice showed concern. "Progress forward is slowed, more than I would expect from the increased viscosity."
"Probably the buoyancy and the fact that youre trying to move across their equivalent of mud." The Tellarite looked at the Vulcan. "This could be a problem; weve still got to get that probe above the surface to beam it out. Im open to ideas. Despite your problems, you seem to be closing in on it well."
"I have a thought, if Indri can manage it." TSorals eyes stayed fixed on the display before her. "I project that I will have the probe grasped in approximately seven point two minutes."
"Ill get Indri and Running Bear up here, then. While theyre coming, tell me the plan."
Durok made his way into the forward cafeteria and looked around, clearly hunting for something or someone. After a moment or two, he spotted Drevan in one corner, sitting in front of his padd, with a plate of finger food on one side and a tall glass of some beverage on the other, clearly intent on whatever he was studying on the padd. Without any effort to be quite, the Tellarite descended on the science officer, who was so deeply engrossed in what he was doing that he didnt even notice the approach of the other being. When waiting produce no sign of a response, Durok decided to speak first. "Dont you ever sleep, Drevan? You did your tour of duty on the bridge, then put in hours at the auxiliary science station down where theyre steering that gadget on the surface, and now youre here. You must not sleep at all."
The science officer looked up. "Of course I do, Durok. I just dont need as much as you do."
"You dont say. What makes you say that?"
"Youre Tellarite, in case youve forgotten. The average Tellarite needs around seventy to seventy-five hours of sleep a week; the average Human, fifty to fifty five; the average Vulcan, around forty to forty-five; Illyrians about forty-five to fifty. Im insectoid; we Andorians need five, at the most ten hours a week."
The Tellarite was clearly surprised. "You only need to rest one to one and a half hours a day?"
"Hey, I thought we were talking sleep, here. We need to rest about the same as everyone elsebut we get by on less sleep. I can rest, sitting here and working on the data were collecting via a comlink with my padd." Drevan winked. "That gives me lots more time to study and such. How do you think I earned three PhDs at my tender age?"
"Point made." Durok planted himself next to Drevan. "Look, its the data youre gathering that I want to talk about. Im almost dying to find out what you can tell me about the plant life down there on Swaarte. Given the environment, there must be something interesting."
"Im not sure I can tell you anything about that." The Andorian looked at the display on his padd.
Durok was clearly scandalized. "What do you think you mean by that, blueface?"
"Precisely what I said." He shrugged. "Plants run off absorbing some wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, and converting it into chemical energy to power itself, right?"
"Im a botanist, you know. I already knew that. No need to be insulting."
"Not trying to be. Take a look at this, and you tell me what you think." Drevan tapped rapidly on the padd, calling up a particular file.
The Tellarite snorted. "Okay, point made. If I read this right, the dominant lifeform uses the rain falling on it to stretch a biological piezoelectric to generate the electrons that photosynthesis would have. You know what that means?"
"That its not really a plant, right?"
"That our current classification system is utterly inadequate, thats what it means." Durok stroked his furry face fringe. "Not that thats a surprise; the universe is wilder than we can imagine. Theres a good scientific paper in this for us, if we can get a little bit more data."
"Oh, dont worry about that, theres plenty of data and more coming in by the minute."
Oorweeg turned toward Dun. "That Sam thing has been in the murk for a long time. Its probably time we gave up on it, Id say. Probably some large scale predator has gulped it down."
"I dont know about that; when the walvis attacked it, Sam seems to have been able to defend itself, and it drove the leeu off, too. From what little I could learn from observation, I dont think that theres a creature out there that could digest that thing." Dun paused briefly, then went on. "Come to think of it, I dont think theres one that would survive the effort; Im guessing that being has tricks we havent seen yet. It never actually told us where it was from, you know."
"Its like Ive been saying from the start, you two. This being is from off world. Theres a solution to this gravity issue, and to holding atmospheric pressure in against a vacuum, and this Sams people has solved it." Skraal looked at the water in front of him. "I wish there had been time to talk to the creature, or maybe a way that we could establish communication with wherever Sam came from, you know? Theres probably a lot we could have learned from Sam or Sams kind."
"Our only chance of that is under water," Dun answered, sadly. "From the looks of it, thats where its going to stay, too. I--"
Duns further remarks were totally drowned out by a geyser of hot gas that erupted from the surface of the ocean, a hundred or so meters from the shore. All three entities stared at it, entranced; they had never seen or heard of the like. Moments later a modest-sized dome, draining the oily ooze that made the planets oceans, began to rise through the surface, shortly followed by what looked like a plate holding a slightly misshapen ball.
Skraal was the first to react. "Thats amazing. Thats clearly Sam, holding on to the gadget he was here to retrieve, floating. If I hadnt seen it, I would never have believed it. Hows he doing that?"
"Bouyancy, Skraal, buoyancy. Look just above Sam; judging by how the light refracts, there is a spherical, near vacuum lifting them." Duns voice started to show excitement. "Theyve solved the problem of holding the atmosphere at bay against a vacuum. Hey, Sam! Sam! Over here!"
"Im at the mercy of the wind, Im afraid, Dun. I dont have any way of getting to you until I get this thing delivered and come back down."
"Please! Please dont leave us!" It was Oorweeg. "Whatever it takes, well do it, just tell us how to contain our atmosphere against the vacuum of space and how to get into orbit, so we can travel the stars. Please!"
"Tell you what, Ill come right back. It wont take long; then we can go wherever is convenient to you, and talk. Im sure theres a lot you can share with us, too." Before the three Platmaak could reply, the two probes disappeared into the twinkle of a transporter.
"If that doesnt beat all," Skraal said, almost mournfully. "First he uses a vacuum to float, then he and the gadget disappear into thin air. We could have learned a whole lot from Sam if he had just stayed."
"We could have, but hes gone." Oorweeg looked out to the horizon, then turned back to his companions. "Chances are, Sam and his kind are gone forever, though. It seems to me that theyve got what they wanted; what point is there in coming back?"
"Friendship." All three beings turned, seeing the probe they had been calling Sam sitting off to one side of them. "We are a collaboration of many kinds of creatures, all working together for the common good, learning from each other, and teaching each other; all are enriched by the interaction. There always seems to be room for one more sentient race."
"And you travel from star to star?" There was almost awe in Duns voice as he asked.
"We do. When you finally get off planet, you will, too."
"Please, come with us to our leaders, so we can join with you," Oorweeg begged, "so we can learn."
Drevan swiveled to look at the Captain. "I dont know that the Platmaak are going to find being part of the UFP particularly interesting. Ive scanned the databases, and I cant find a planet even close to theirs for them to colonize. And with the atmospheric pressure they need to live in, there will be significant engineering issues with their building their first starship."
"Granted, Drevan," Uhura turned to face the Andorian, "but that shouldnt make a lot of difference to their joining the Federation; theyll still be able to be involved via subspace, and who knows, maybe they can manage on a higher gravity planet with a less ridiculous rate of spin. There may be more places for them than you think."
"Be that as it may be, but how are they going to manage sending representatives to meetings? Theyre only about a centimeter thick, you know."
Ingram turned to face the pair. "Crushed to the ground by an absurdly high gravitation and only a centimeter thick? I bet theyll be turned downflat."
At the pun, the bridge was filled with agonized groans.
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