June 23rd 2297
Baraka Keme MBenga, the chief medical officer of the Hyperion, sat at a readout, going over duotronic paperwork, in the back of his mind wondering why he had let himself be talked into being the chief medical officer. It seemed that the endless stream of forms, signatures, reports and the like were taking up more of his time than actual patient care. The half-Masai, half-Zulu physician sighed deeply. Frankly, he decided, if it werent for the fact that he very much wanted to stay near Uhura, retiring and throwing it all to the side would be very tempting.
He flipped to a new screen filled with data that demanded review. In one corner of the readout, he noted that it was display thirty-seven out of sixty-two. Over half done, at least. Doggedly, he began going through the display. At his elbow, the communicator chimed. Profoundly thankful for the interruption, he triggered the contact. "Sickbay, MBenga here."
"Hi, Keme! I need a favor."
MBenga smiled broadly, recognizing the voice. "Captain, Ill do what I can. Dare I hope that its a quiet dinner for two in your ready room?"
"Mmm...I like your idea; maybe tonight. But I had something else in mind, Keme. I need to borrow Doctor Eletto."
"Giac? I dont know about this. It all depends on what you have in mind for him. If hes going to be a chaperone, forget it, lady!"
Uhura chuckled. "Not at all. I want to put him on an away team. Weve stumbled across what looks like a lost Human colonypossibly the Tschebycheff-lHermitte expedition."
"Oh, the lost Snoot Ship colony? I remember reading about them. Just after interstellar travel became practical, they pooled their quite considerable resources, built a starship that was totally automated and able to pander to their every need, and set off to find somewhere they could be away from the riffraff. Their flight plan was a total crock, presumably intentionally, so that the rest of humanity wouldnt be able to find them and bother them. Bunch of rich snots, or so the books said, from not all that long after Eletto went in to the deep freeze. How am I doing?"
"Youre doing fine, even if youre a bit on the judgmental side. The bottom line is that were going to be sending down a team to do a preliminary cultural survey, particularly to find out if these people are the descendents of the Tschebycheff-lHermitte expedition and to gather enough data to decide if they fall under the Prime Directive. Since they were from not long after Giacs time, I thought hed be an ideal choice for the away team."
"Request denied, Captain. Theres no way I can let him do that." MBengas words were stern, but his tone of voice carried distinct amusement.
"Okay, I get the feeling youre not giving me the whole picture, Doctor. Why cant he do the away team? You know he loves a chance to do that."
"Centaurian mucositis, Captain. Hes got a rip-roaring case of it, and hes confined to quarters."
"Dont tease me, you big lummox. I know its a standard immunization for all Starfleet personnel."
MBenga couldnt resist a chuckle. "It is now. When Giac was immunized, we hadnt even reached Centaurus. Were going to have to give that boy a bunch of immunizations, to get him caught up to modern routine immunizations. If you send him down to a Human colony right now, you could start an epidemic to beat the band."
"Cmon, Keme; I know its nothing fatal. Isnt it just an exceptionally miserable version of the common cold?"
"I wouldnt recommend saying that to Doctor Eletto just now, Captain! Last I heard, the only thing thats keeping Giac alive is the sweet hope hell die swiftly and mercifully. Were doing what we can to keep him comfortable, you understand, but..."
"You win. Can you spare Hardav?"
"A good choice, and I think Marie and I can manage to spare him. Most of the rest of the crew is too busy chuckling over Eletto being sick to think theyre sick. Whats the colonys status?"
"Mostly clustered around the initial site; they appear to have lost touch with the technology their parents had. Its almost like an old-style commune, frankly, but not quite as well organized." Uhura sighed. "At least theyre utterly peaceful, as far as we can determine by observation from orbit. Thankfully, the language hasnt changed much."
"Thats good; no need for translators. Who all is going?"
"Just three: Hardav, Running Bear and me."
"You?" MBengas jaw dropped. "Woman, forget Hardav! Take me!"
"And get nothing but monkey business done? Forget it, man!" A chuckle came across the communicator. "And anyhow, thered be a witness."
"Thats me, Captain Spoilsport. Still willing to do dinner?"
"Downright eager. Half an hour after shift end?"
"In the ready room. We can watch the sunset over the arboretum. Bridge out."
MBenga turned back to the readout, which still read number thirty seven out of sixty two. Doggedly, hoping to get it done before sharing dinner with the captain, the physician returned to his task.
Uhura was the first to join Indri on the transporter room. Her outfit was, to say the least, decidedly shabby; her feet were shod with simple sandals; her trousers were faded, patched, worn and peppered with holes of various sizes; and her shirt was a moth-eaten tee that had been inexpertly tie-dyed. Hanging from the short piece of rope that she was using for a belt, there was a very businesslike sheath knife. MBenga had managed to stimulate growth of her hair to the point that she had a modest Afrohed wanted to get it far larger, but out of sheer practicality, she had kept it small in size. She smiled at her chief of engineering. "I must be a sight to make your eyes sore. This is hardly a class outfit."
"I just see my captain, clothed properly for a cultural survey." Indri shrugged. "It could be worse. They could be nudists."
Before Uhura could make a reply, the turbolift opened, a totally disheveled character shuffling out of it. She turned: the hair was long and scraggly, as was the beard; neither looked like theyd been washed recently. The moustache was no better. The clothes fit poorly, and were every bit as worn and disreputable as what Uhura was wearing. For an instant, she almost didnt recognize himthen, memories of a pizza delivery in San Francisco made the identification clear. "Hey, Weed. Good tsee ya back, man."
For an instant, Hardavs posture straightened, the glazed look in his eyes cleared, and an indefinable something changed about his persona. "Lieutenant Commander Harrison Davids, P.A., at your service, Captain Uhura!" As quickly as the precision Starfleet crewman appeared, he disappeared. "Hey, Freedom Woman, a real gas to see ya. Wanna do some travel together?"
The Bantu threw her head back, laughing. "Just dont get too personal, Weed, or MBenga will definitely see to you. I think Ill use Freedom as my name down there; as near as I can tell from what the data banks hold on this planet, its a name that will fit in just fineall the better for being my name, translated out of Swahili." The turbolift opened again. Running Bear stalked out, in Native American regalia, a few feathers sticking out of his headband, a beaded belt around his waist, and what looked like beaded buckskin for clothing. The only part of his costume that didnt appear authentic was the hard leather soles on the moccasins, and the business-like sheath knife that he, like the other two, sported at the waist. Uhura nodded. "Youre sure taking advantage of their diversity of dress, Running Bear. It looks good on you."
"Thank you, Captain. Its not actually authentic for Illiniwek Indians, but its good enough. Eletto will be terminally jealous, I hope. When he recovers, I mean." Running Bear turned to Indri, suppressing a snicker over the physicians indisposure. "Hey, Boss, you have the instruments we were getting ready?"
"Sure do. Heres your dumbek drum, Running Bear. Youll notice that if you put pressure here and here," Indri indicated two areas on the wild painting of the body of the drum, "youll be able to see the viewscreen of an engineering tricorder. Let go of either, and the view looks like it was painted on."
Running Bear accepted the drum, slinging the strap over one shoulder. He struck the center of the head, followed rapidly by striking near the rim; the drum went dum-bek. "Well, what do you know? This little thing knows its own name!" He proceeded to beat out a wild, but pleasing, rhythm.
"Thatll do, Running Bear." Indri pretended terror. "If you dont cut that out, youll probably start singing in that hideous falsetto you say is typical of your ancestors. Id rather hear bagpipes."
"Now boys, be good." As much as she enjoyed watching the interaction between the two friends, Uhura wanted to get on with business. "It sounded like there were several instruments. What else is there?"
Out of a small container behind him, Indri produced a harp. "For you, Captain, a harp, with an in-built communicator. Grab the strings for the chord called a tritone, and youll have it running, bi-directionally. Youll get the response via bone conduction, through your fingers. Running Bear and Hardav wont be able to hear a thing, but you will." He handed the harp to her. "For you, Hardav, a guitar. You know your way around the chords on one of these, or so I hear."
The physicians assistant took the instrument and began playing it. "Ill let you decide that. What secrets does this thing hold?"
"Put your fingers here, here and here on the neck." Indri pointed to three spots on the guitars neck. Davids obeyed. "Youll notice a mediscanner readout, I hope."
"Sure do, Indri. Looks like youre in good shape."
"Thanks for the accolade. You and Uhura seem to have picked out names to use on the surface. How about you, Running Bear?"
"Seems to me that my actual name would work down there." The younger engineer looked down at his attire. "It matches my outfit, after all."
"Just as long as they get bear spelled right, rather than shifting that e to the end..." Davids pretended to look serious.
"From what I can tell, Hardav," Uhura interjected, "most of the inhabitants arent exactly that hot with spelling, or literacy for that matter. Running Bear, the Weed and Freedom it is. Lets get going, okay?"
"Not so fast, Captain!" Indri produced three backpacks, giving each of them one. "You may be down there a while. There is food, a couple of blankets, and a few other necessities in each of these. Given what Ive heard, you might want to do your own cooking."
One of Uhuras eyebrows lifted slightly. "Suddenly, this is beginning to look like a dangerous assignment, at least gastronomically." She donned her backpack. "Times a-wasting. Lets go. Last one down cooks supper!"
Dutifully, the other two took their positions with the captain on the transporter, disappearing down to the planetary surface.
The trio materialized in a small copse of trees, near the top of a knoll. Uhura looked around herself, to get her bearings, then moved forward with a confident stride. Only three or four steps were needed to bring them out of their temporary concealment. Before them, in what looked like a lush and fertile valley, lay what was clearly the main population center of the colony. Around a small central cluster of what looked like sections out of a durasteel starship hull, there was a loosely scattered grouping of other sections out of the starship, laid out as if each was to be the main mansion on a large plantation, many of them with what looked like well maintained crops nearby. Interspersed with the durasteel structures, there were numerous buildings of wood and brick. The captain turned to the other two. "Looks strongly like it is the Tschebycheff-lHermitte expedition, all rightor whats left of it. Lets move down there and mingle." She took the lead again.
Making their way to the heart of the colony was an easy walk, physically, but somewhat depressing. As the vista from the hilltop had suggested, there were numerous durasteel structures, clearly intended to be mansions. What had once been well-groomed, lavish gardens and lawns had, for the most part, gone wild; in only a handful were the automated attendants still functioning. The same story seemed true of the agricultural areas, the machinery often standing motionless among rampant weeds.
Running Bear brought his drum up, looking at the readout. "Captain, most of these machines just need recharged. We could get most of them running quickly and easily."
"Prime Directive, Running Bear. You know we cant, at least not for now." Uhura looked around herself. "Freedom says, we no can do. Maybe another day, hey?"
"Yeah; I guess theyd just run dry again." Running Bears face registered frustration.
"Heads up, folks. We got visitors ahead." Davids pointed. "Lets get it together, people." He began strumming his guitar and humming to himself, improvising as he did. The other two caught the point, trying to blend in with the guitar music. The small knot of people coming toward them smiled, waved, and walked on. The physicians assistant stopped playing briefly, holding the neck of the guitar where Indri had indicated, so that he could scan the people as they walked off. He winced.
Uhura saw the facial expression. "Let it be, Weed, let it be. Maybe we talk tonight, when its just the three of us."
"Yeah, Freedom lady; just dont eat the food, and dont drink the water, with me?"
"With ya, Weed. Already up to date on that one." Uhura kept up her pace.
Reaching the center of the community took just less than an hour. Even in the heart of the community, things were in poor repair. The odor of open latrines was rampant, barely overshadowing the reek of bodies long unwashed. Running Bear maintained a gentle, continual beat on his drum, keeping time with his pace. Around them, people of an assortment of ages milled around, most of them totally disinterested in the new faces. The few that showed any awareness of them smiled and went on with whatever business they had. In what had once been spacious lawns and parks, there were groups gathered around small camp fires, near small sheds or lean-tos that appeared to be dwellings, huddled around the large ultrasteel buildings, and the multi-story brick buildings. Where once there had been glass was open space, the small remaining shards of glass making the windows of the abandoned buildings look like mouths of some hostile carnivore.
Suddenly, the litany of drum-beats stopped, and Running Bears voice started. "Freedom Mama, the Running Bear thinks its time to see which of us can run the fastest, that way. Race you both!" The Illiniwek began moving at a quick clip away from the brick structure they were passing. Without thought, the other two followed. At a respectful distance, Running Bear turned back to face the building, his fingers triggering the tricorder in his drum. "Watch. I dont think that building is going to stand all that much long..." There was a noise, somewhere between an agonized groan and a sharp crack. One wall of the building began collapsing.
Before any of the three of them could say anything, a Human in tie-dyed leotards and a hood that covered all but his eyes, nose and mouth came flying from over a building behind them, a large medallion hanging from a gaudy chain around his neck. He placed his hands firmly against the bulging area on the wall. To the amazement of the troupe from the Hyperion, he slowly pushed the wall back into place. That done, he began rapidly moving his hands across the wall; where the hands passed, the cracked mortar melted, fusing with the melted brick. More swiftly than they could react, the Human in the outrageous outfit had returned the wall to better than new. He floated back from the wall, watched for a moment, then turned and flew away.
"Hey, Weed, do me a favor."
"What ya want, Running Bear?"
"Just make sure Im okay. Im not sure if I saw what I just saw." He shook his head, his braids flapping freely. "Like, maybe I ate something that disagreed with me or something."
"If you just saw someone in the loudest set of leotards in the universe fix that building, either we both need help, or neither of us do, man." Uhura was still staring at the building. "Like, that wall looks like it has been has been totally fused solid."
Ever the easy going individual, Davids used his concealed mediscanner. "Nothing wrong with either of you, other than having seen what was blatantly impossible." He shrugged, looking at the sun. "Hey, suns only a couple hours from setting. Maybe we need to find us a quiet campsite where we can crash, think? And maybe talk about the mess here, huh?"
Clearly half-stunned by what he had seen, Running Bear nodded. "Seems to me I spotted what might harbor a good spot not far from here. Lets make us a nice cozy nest for the night." He looked at the other two for agreement; finding it, he led the way to a small cluster of trees just outside the main group of buildings. After a moment of effort to be sure they were alone, he slipped his backpack and drum off, hanging them on a branch. Uhura and Davids did likewise. Out of his backpack, Running Bear pulled a small hatchet. After inspecting the trees, he picked one and began cutting a good sized limb loose.
"Whats with the lumberjack act, man?" Davids was collecting up an armful of fallen limbs to use as firewood. "Theres plenty here on the ground."
"Humor me, Weed." The branch came down. Returning the hatchet to its sheath and to his backpack, Running Bear produced a large knife, which he used to skin the bark off a section of the branch. With a few quick folds, and a long, thin branch off the limb, he quickly fashioned a square-bottomed container, the thin branch forming a handle. "I hear a stream nearby. While I get a tripod built to hang the pot from, would one of you fill this thing?"
"Weed, is the water safe?"
"Tell ya what, Freedom, Im not drinking it." He deployed his mediscanner. "Not without it being thoroughly boiled."
"Itll be boiled, Weed." The Native American busied himself with the green timber hed just cut. "Its an old trick, and itll work, trust me."
"Boiling water in a bark bucket?" The captain rolled her eyes. "This I have to see. Give me that thing." She reached for the container. "Ill be back. Weed, try your hand at getting a fire going, will you?"
By the time Uhura had returned with the bark bucket filled with water, Davids had a fire going, and Running Bear had erected a simple tripod, lashed at the top with thin strands of bark from the limb hed cut down. Taking the bucket, the Native American took a loop of bark and suspended it over the fire. To both Uhura and Davids surprise, the flames barely scorched the bark.
Running Bear smiled. "The bark has to get over two hundred thirty degrees Celsius before itll ignite. With the water in it, it cant get over one hundred; the water has to boil off before it can burn." He reached into his backpack, again, extracting a light metal cooking pot with a significantly larger capacity.
The other two turned, finding that their packs had similar pots, realizing that Running Bear had been playing mind games with them. Uhura looked at Running Bear with a mixture of agony and antagonism.
"Hey, I just wanted to prove that it worked, okay? Id need to get bark off of the trunk to make something large enough to do a meal."
"You are totally incorrigible, Running Bear." Uhura brought out her metal pot. "Im going to get another pan of water to boil. I just hope one of these packs has some tea leaves in it."
"Careful, Freedom, the locals might want you to read em." The physicians assistant winked. "Not sure any of us know how."
She gave him a withering look and headed for the stream. Running Bear foraged in his backpack. "Looks like its mostly dried meats and fruits in mine, Weed. Look in yours, see if youve got any spuds or veggies. I think I can cook the jerked beef to the point of being palatable, but some other stuff with it wouldnt hurt. It looks to be too early in the spring to figure that we can harvest anything."
Davids opened his pack. "Spuds and some carrots, and what looks like a couple varieties of beans. What say I snoop around and see if I can turn up anything that we can use for potherbs, just to perk the flavor up? The mediscanner should be able to warn us of anything poisonous."
"While youre at it, see if you can find any edible mushrooms. I think I saw some nice shelf fungi on a couple of trees. Some of those can be good eating."
Davids nodded, disappearing into the brush. Running Bear was cutting up the last of the carrots hed peeled, preparatory to putting them in their supper. Uhura put the pot over the fire, letting the water heat, as Running Bear looked at Davids haul. "Not bad, Weed, not bad." Running Bear sniffed one of the herbs. "Whoa, this stuff is pungent; Ill be sparing with that one."
Carefully, they sorted their harvest, Uhura joining them. Once the pot was boiling vigorously, their evenings chef inspected it. "Hey, one of you grab that other pot, will you? Theres enough sediment in this that Id rather pour it off." He used a forked stick to lift the pot from the fire.
Davids produced his identical pot, letting the Illiniwek carefully pour the hot water into it. Adding the vegetables and a handful of strips of dried meat, he hung it back over the fire. "Its going to have to cook for a while before its ready for the fungi and spice." He leaned back. "So what did you guys think of the fellow in the fancy flying suit?"
"Im still not sure I believe it, and I saw it myself." The Bantu woman rubbed the side of her head with one hand. "For just a moment, I felt like I was in a childrens comic book or something."
Davids nodded. "Me too. I figure that the guy in the colorized underwear had to be window-dressing, so to speak. Correct me if Im wrong, Running Bear, but the only way you can float like that is to be lifted by a tractor, or to fiddle with gravity."
"More like a tractor beam, Weed; Im not sure you could fiddle gravity enough to do that. And any set of hands moving fast enough to hit that wall and force it back in place would go straight through the brick, which he manifestly did not do. While were at it, getting the brick and mortar hot enough to fuse by rubbing his hands over it just flat out doesnt work, either; hed have cooked his hands before hed melted anything, and long before he cooked his hands, hed have rubbed all the skin off of them. What we saw just couldnt have happened, at least not the way it looked like it happened. Theres a Klingon in the kitchen somewhere, thats for sure; I just dont quite know where, yet."
"All of which, you realize, is technically a side issue," Uhura reminded her companions, tapping on one knee with a finger. "Were here to observe the culture, not figure out all the problems it has or poses. From my standpoint, though, this whole effort has been rewritten by what we saw; we need to put some effort on figuring out whats with this beingwhether human or not. Heres my plan: two of us move forward with the cultural survey, and then the other "
Davids stopped the captain, putting a finger to his lips. He triggered his mediscanner, then pointed surreptitiously to a shadow near them in the trees. Uhura nodded, understanding that they had company. Running Bear stood, ostensibly stirring their supper, carefully looking to see if he could spot the intruder. A thin smile formed. "Hey, Freedom, shall I do a little more searching for things? I mean just in case the Weed didnt get all we needed?"
"I think theres enough, and to spare. Is it ready for the herbs and all?"
Running Bear sniffed the boiling pot, gently prodding the contents with his wooden fork. "I think sowell, the herbs anyhow. As I recall it, the shelf fungus should only be in long enough to get it good and hot, or it will turn to mush. Not what we want, Id say."
Turning to the shadow moving in the denser shadows the night was creating in the trees, Uhura looked squarely where the furtive individual seemed to be standing. "You need not be afraid, whoever you are. Come and join us."
Into the small clearing, a young girl came, carrying an infant in the crook of one arm, and a crude bag over the other shoulder. Even by the apparently low local standards, her clothing and the childs were ragged, and although the child seemed reasonably adequately fed, the girl looked like a moving skeleton. She looked at Davids, then Uhura, and finally at Running Bear, who was adjusting the amount of herbs in the pot. "The aroma of what youre cooking was so wonderful, I just thought Id stop and enjoy smelling it. I suppose I ought to be moving on; Ive nothing to add to the pot."
"Oh, sit down and join us. You dont need to add anything to the pot. Ive cooked up plenty; I always make more than is needed, and anyway, its close enough to being done that I couldnt add anything more, anyhow." Running Bear started skinning a shelf-fungus, preparing to add it. "Other than this stuff, anyhow. I bet Freedom over there wouldnt mind a little female company anyhow, right?"
The captain smiled, nodding. "Youre dead right. Whats your name, honey?"
"You can call me Nikki, I suppose." She looked at her feet, shuffling them slightly. "I get called lots of other things, but theyre not so nice."
"Nikki it is. Sit here next to me." She patted the ground to her left. As Nikki sat down, putting the bag on the ground near her, Uhura peeked at the little bundle in her arms. "Youve got a cute baby there. Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Hes a boy." As Nikki spoke, Davids rummaged in his pack, producing a couple of pieces of what looked like thick matzo and offered them to Nikki. She looked up, gratitude in her eyes. "Thank you." She bit off a piece and ate it hungrily. "Its very good."
"How long has it been since youve last eaten, Nikki?"
"Its been a couple of days. There was only enough for baby, lately, you understand, and baby comes first." Nikkis eyes were very serious as she spoke.
Running Bear foraged a wooden cup from his backpack, spooning some of the broth from the pot into it. "Hey, Nikki, give ol Running Bear an opinion. Taste the broth, here, and see if Ive got enough herbs." The girl looked perplexed: with the food in one hand and the baby in the other, she was clearly unsure how to take what the Illiniwek was offering. Uhura reached for the baby; Nikki surrendered the child and took the cup. "Now, you be carefulits hot. Might want to blow on it a little, to cool it."
Nikki sipped the broth gratefully, taking pieces of the thick, cracker-like bread with it. "Its very good, Running Bear. Thank you."
Uhura looked down at the child; large blue eyes looked back at her from a pale, almost sheet white face. Inside her, there was a gentle wrench as she remembered the child she had conceived years ago, but lost before she could hold. Crooning softly, she hugged the little boy to herself, rocking gently.
"How olds the little fellow?" It was Hardavs voice.
"Just a little over six months. Hes taking solids, now, and with a little help, he can manage a cup. Hes bright, I think." Nikki sighed. "I just wish I were a better mother."
Looking up from the little bundle she was cuddling, Uhura turned to face Nikki. "How old are you, honey?"
"Sixteen." Nikki continued to concentrate on eating. "Ive pretty much been on my own since daddy and mommy died." She took another mouthful of broth. "The man who used to take care of me disappeared just after baby was born; its just baby and me, now."
"Doesnt he have a name?" Running Bear ladled some of the thick soup into a bowl, offering it to Nikki, then giving her a spoon.
"I never got around to that." Ignoring the spoon, she lifted the bowl to her lips and drank from it. "Thank you, the soup is very good, too."
Running Bear served the others, as well as taking a little for himself. He watched as Uhura offered the little urchin broth from the spoon. He took it greedily. She mashed up some of the meat with the spoon; the child clearly relished it. Delighted with her success, she continued to feed him, forgetting to feed herself. Running Bear ladled more into her bowl. "Hey, Freedom Mama, the mama has to eat, too. Dont forget to take a bite or two, yourself." She smiled, and took a couple of bites before she went back to feeding the child.
Davids put his empty bowl down, picking up his guitar by the neck. He stared at it a moment or two, then foraged in his backpack, producing what looked like a couple of brownies wrapped in something clear. The P.A. put them by Nikki. "Now, you be sure to save room for your dessert, little lady." His face looked full of mock sternness. "It wouldnt be right to eat Running Bears cooking without something sweet afterward, now would it, Running Bear?"
The Native American looked at his companion; something in Davids eyes killed the humorous response hed planned. "No, wouldnt be right at all, Weed. And maybe we could make a little tea in that bark bucket."
The scraggly blond lifted the bark bucket, still full of water, and hung it back over the fire, putting in a few of the leaves that hed harvested. As it boiled, the clearing filled with a rich, sweet aroma. Davids took Nikkis now-empty cup and poured some of the brew into it, giving it back to her. She nodded thanks and sipped it happily. Davids returned to where hed been, pouring some for himself and Running Bear.
The meal progressed with little other than the three people from the Hyperion offering Nikki something more to eat, or taking turns holding her child. Fed, cleaned and freshly diapered, the little one dropped into the totally trusting sleep that only a child really ever knows. Nikki yawned. "Thank you all for the meal; it was wonderful. I just wish I could make some return for your kindness before I move along."
An almost maternal look on her face, Uhura pulled two blankets from her pack. "Just holding that sweet little baby of yours is more than enough return. Theres no need to be moving on, honey. Rest with us tonight; well see that you and baby are safe and warm."
"You are so nice." Nikki yawned again. "I cant believe Im so sleepy."
"Why? Its dark, its warm, and youve got a belly full of food." Running Bear slapped his forehead in mock agony. "Whats with being surprised that youre drowsy, Nikki? And I bet youve been hunting for something to eat all day; thats tiring work, especially when youve not had a lot of success." Uhura spread one of the blankets for the girl as Running Bear talked. "Lay on down; well make the Weed give you your baby back, and let you sleep."
Gratefully, Nikki lay down, clutching her baby to her. Uhura spread the other blanket over her. "Sleep tight, honey. Well feed you breakfast tomorrow."
Returning to her place by the fire, she looked at Nikki until she was sure the girl was asleep. She turned to Davids. "Weed, youve been uncharacteristically quiet, and you were pushing sweets on her like a candy store owner, which is really out of character. Whats eating you?"
The P.A. stared at the fire, adding a piece of wood. "Nothing any of us can do anything about." He shrugged. "I guess I wanted her to really enjoy her meal."
"Your eyes say that youre thinking a whole lot more than youre saying." Running Bear looked his friend square in the eyes. "Nikki remind you of someone thats associated with a painful memory?"
"Okay, out with it. A one-word answer from you is one great, big, red flag." The situation was beginning to bother Uhura; the last thing she needed was to be on a survey team with a moping team member. "Whats eating you?"
The man looked away from the fire a moment, then looked up at the Captain. "Its just the kid, Nikki. You noticed shes jaundiced?"
"A lot of the folks we saw today were. With the lousy sanitation that it looks like this place has, hepatitis must be rampant, so its not a shock. Shes about half-starved, too. So?"
"Shes dying. Shes got hepatocellular carcinoma, and shes riddled with it. Id guess shes only got a couple of weeks to live, tops, and thats with good nutrition and throwing everything weve got in Sickbay at her." He looked at the girl, blinking back tears. "Down here, with no help, and not much to eatwell, its not going to be long."
The two others were shocked by the revelation. Uhura looked up. "What about that baby?"
"All that kid can hope for is some kindly soul to adopt him, and as self absorbed as the folks here appeared to be, Im not going to put bets on that." The P.A. shook his head sadly. "The little squirt hasnt got a chance, otherwise. Healthier than Id expect, thoughjust a little anemia. Nothing wrong with the kid that a decent diet wouldnt fix."
"I dont suppose we could take her under our wings for a couple of days?" There was an almost maternal look on Uhuras face as she spoke. "I mean, at least until we have the survey finished."
Davids shrugged. "Or the rest of her life, whichever comes first. Ive got no problem with it, if you two dont."
The Bantu nodded. "Then its a done deal." She yawned. "Hey, Running Bear, did you slip a sleeping tablet in that soup? Im beat, too."
"Fresh air, good food, some exercise and darknesslook, that applies to us all." He rolled his eyes. "Tell you what, Freedom, you grab a blanket or two and get some shuteye. Weed, you and I can watch the fire; you take first sleep, and Ill watch for a couple hours before I wake you."
"I guess. Ill scrounge up an armload of wood first, to make sure weve got enough." Davids rose, moving to the edge of the fires light. "There seems to be plenty to collect."
Uhura lay down on a soft-looking area of grass, where she could see Nikki and the baby. She pulled her blanket over her. "Night, guys."
It seemed that she had hardly closed her eyes when the early morning sun woke Uhura up. In front of her, the blankets that had held Nikki and the baby were empty. The captain sat up, looking around. Running Bear was sitting by the fire, holding the baby. Davids was nowhere in sight.
"Good morning, Running Bear. Wherere the Weed and Nikki?"
Unconsciously, the man held the child a little closer. "She died in the night. Hes burying her. Weve got some simple shovels in the kitsI suppose mainly for sanitary purposes, but theyll work well enough for this." The baby whimpered. "Its okay, Lonesome Hawk. Its okay. Well have some breakfast for you here in a minute, and itll all be better." Almost as if the child understood, he nestled in Running Bears arms and quieted down.
It was a minute or two before she could fully digest the shock. Emotions surged in her, but Uhura pushed them aside; there would be time enough for tears when she was back on the Hyperion. "At least she died with a full belly."
"And happy. There was a peaceful smile on her face when I found her. At least we gave her that." It didnt take much insight to realize that Running Bear was struggling to control himself, too. "I scrounged some oatmeal out of your pack; its busy cooking. I think I saw what looked like some walnuts and syrup in your pack, too; theyll make the stuff more palatable for us all. Especially Lonesome Hawk, here."
"Didnt take you long to name the little squirt, Running Bear." Davids emerged from the trees on one side of the clearing. "Lonesome Hawk isnt the only hungry member of the team." His words were flippant, but his voice was far from it.
"Ill serve it." Uhura moved to the fire, stirring the thick oatmeal. "I think its done." She dug the nuts and syrup out of her pack, along with bowls, dishing up the simple fare and garnishing it. "Here you go, Weed. If you like, Ill take the little fellow while you eat, Running Bear."
"Lonesome Hawk seems happy enough with me, for now; we can eat together." He settled on the ground, balancing the bowl on his thigh. He gathered a little of the oatmeal on the spoon and offered it to the infant. "But he does remain an issue. Its certain that he cant come back with us on the Hyperion."
"I guess thats a given, which is a pity." She looked at the infant, who was concentrating on eating what he was fed. "Hes cute."
"Babies all seem cute to me, Freedom." The physicians assistant looked at the child. "Even the Klingon babies Ive seen, which is saying a lot. That doesnt change the fact that weve got a mission, all it does is give us a little bit more local color. Well just have to look for a likely adoptive family."
Lonesome Hawks face suddenly contorted and turned red, accompanied by his making grunting noises. Running Bear looked down, suddenly worried. "Hey, little fella, what you doing? You choking?"
"Running Bear, you are so thoroughly male!" She grinned wryly. "The issue is at the other end."
The Native American sniffed, then pulled a wry face. "Whoa, you are so right there." Uhura reached for the child, who was willingly surrendered. "I guess theres a lot I dont know about people this age, isnt there?"
"Do tell." Uhura found what had been Nikkis bag, extracting a more-or-less clean, cloth diaper. With greater speed and expertise than either of her companions expected, she changed the diaper. "Ill just rinse this in the stream nearby and be back in a couple of minutes. Why dont you two break camp? We can go back to town and see what we can learn." The captain disappeared into the trees.
"Boy, she went from leadership to maternity in record time, Weed."
"Nah, not really, Running Bear." The scraggly blond looked at the captains trail. "Shes just added another surrogate child. Shes been a mother figure to all of us on the Hyperion; thats why any of us would take a phaser bolt for her, and its why shes such a good captain." He turned back. "But dont you dare tell her we know that."
"Yeah, man, we could get one whale of a spanking." Running Bear started policing up their possessions, putting them into the backpacks. "Wouldnt want the rest of the crew seeing that happen, now would we?"
Davids decided no answer was the best answer and started clearing up the campsite, using his shovel to bury the remains of the campfire. By the time Uhura was back, the other two were ready to move along.
"Any chance we could hang the packs and all here, and return here tonight? This seems like as good a place to camp as any." As she spoke, she hung the damp diaper on a branch. "I have this feeling that Im going to be doing some impromptu laundry most nights, and Im thinking that we could hang these out to dry. Im hoping Nikki had enough diapers to get us through the day."
"That all depends on Lonesome Hawk, there, and how much youre willing to put up with before you change him." The engineer shrugged. "You and Lonesome Hawk stay tolerant enough, you could go all day on one diaper."
"Im not betting on it." She picked the child up, putting him on one hip and hanging the improvised diaper bag on the other shoulder. "If you two think you can make the packs reasonably secure, though, leaving them here and returning tonight sounds pretty appealing."
"Freedom lady, you are on." Davids collected the three backpacks, extracting a short length of rope from one. "Ill just lash them together, here. You need anything out of your pack, man?"
"Ive got my drum and my knife; that ought to be more than enough." Running Bear shouldered his drum, gently tapping out a rhythm. "Hope that Lonesome Hawk there likes drum music. Hes likely to be hearing some for a while."
"And harp and guitar. Look, Ill carry the harp, okay? You seem to have your hands full, Freedom."
"And I dont want to let this urchin get his hands full of harp strings." Her face got serious, suddenly. "We need to check in before we begin our days excursion. Let me have that thing a minute."
"Trade you for the kid." The PA extended the harp, reaching for Lonesome Eagle.
She pulled on three strings. There was a soft chirp, only audible to her. "Away team to Hyperion. This is Captain Uhura."
"Reichard here. All is well?"
"As much as can be expected. Hows the data coming in?"
"Indris interested in an anomaly from yesterdaysomething about what looked like a Human in outrageous underwear. Hes insistent that its a malfunction."
"We saw it, and well be researching it today, among other things. Mister Fancy Pants is no anomalyhes just inexplicable, for now. One of us will be working the Fancy Pants angle while the other two continue the survey. Were thinking about trying to buy some food, too."
"There are some trade items in your backpacks; it looks like theyre on a barter system." Reichard paused before going on. "Doctor MBenga advises against buying any food there; from what hes seen on some of the scans, hes very worried about sanitation. To be honest, he said it looks to him like they use Human sewage to fertilize their few crops. Take it from there and make your own call."
"Point made. We may need fresh supplies tonight, then. Walking is great for the appetite, and we expect to be doing a good deal of it today."
"Well be ready. Hyperion out."
Uhura looked at her two companions. "It seems to me that well make better use of our time if we split up when we make it to town. Running Bear, you see what you can learn about why the buildings are in disuse; Weed, see what you can learn about the dude in psychedelic shorts, and what makes these folks tick. We meet back here at around noon; I figure Lonesome Hawk will need fed by then, so its a logical time."
"What will you be doing?" The PA foraged in his backpack, storing some dried fruits and dried beef in his inner shirt pockets.
"Studying the people, trying to see if theyre as self-absorbed as it looks like they are, Weed. Whats with stocking up on the grub?"
"Foods about the best way I know to get people talking, which is what Im going to need them to do. How do you plan to do figure out how self-absorbed these folk are?"
"Simple." Uhura took one of the bowls. "When I get this washed out, Lonesome Hawk and I are going to situate ourselves somewhere likely in town and beg. What ends up in the bowl will tell us more about these folks than anything else I know will. If they cant spare anything for an old woman and a baby, theyre a megaparsec too self-absorbed."
Both men stared at her, mouths hanging half open. Running Bear shrugged, turning to the Weed. "Full of surprises, isnt she?" He turned to face the Captain. "If you think you can pull it off, Chief, more power to you. My only concern is your safety."
"Running Bear, its my theory that there isnt a person on this planet that can take something from her, without her permission. Shes a seasoned warrior, right, Freedom?"
"Compared to this lot, I am, anyhow. Lets move."
Walking to town took surprisingly little time; with the two men accompanying each other, playing a lively beat, it seemed that walking moved faster than normal. Intent on finding a busy corner to set up shop, Uhura bade her two companions goodbye and moved toward the center of town, her harp on her back and Lonesome Hawk on one hip. Davids looked over at Running Bear. "What say we try to keep a surreptitious eye on her anyhow, man? Youre pretty good at sneaking around, from what I hear from Eletto, and Im not a total loser there, either. We can both check in on her every hour or two."
"At least. Ill probably need to look at some of the buildings around her, anyhow. Lets get going."
Davids wandered off, strumming his guitar idly. Running Bear walked up to what was clearly the doorway of the first building he came to, gently tapping on the drum. After being sure no one was looking over his shoulder, he triggered the visibility of the scanner readout. Study as he would, he could see no evidence of malfunction in any of the door control mechanism. Walking a path that he hoped would appear random, he made his way to another building, then another, then a fourth and a fifth. In all of them, the doors refused to open, but showed no sign of mechanical malfunction. The only reason the doors failed to open, as far as the engineer could make out, was the lack of power. He sighed inwardly. Solving this would be all too easy: just find the power station and get it back on line.
As surreptitiously as possible, he began scanning the area, looking for the buried power grid that he expected to find. Only moments passed before he found it and was able to begin tracing it to the central power station. Almost exactly in the center of the community, he saw a structure that looked like a stylistic mushroom: a large sphere, perhaps twenty meters in diameter, poised on top of a tall, slightly tapered base. He nodded, carefully deploying the scanner to be sure that his initial impression was correct. It was; the structure was a fusion driven electrical power generator. The forcefield that acted as the containment flask and that provided the periodic compression to trigger the fusion had clearly long since dissipated.
Discovering the problem was the work of only a few moments; the water feed that supplied hydrogen for the fusion reaction had become plugged by detritus. He turned away, toward what seemed to be the main hub of activity, hoping to find evidence that one or more buildings might have independent power supplies. Of that, he found none; what he did find was a large, open area with people trading whatever they had for what they wanted. As he sized the situation up, he concluded that the area had originally been intended as a park or public commons; scattered here and there around the area were cryptic appearing objects that Running Bear took for someones idea of art. Everywhere else seemed to be a bazaar.
Having achieved his goal, the Illiniwek engineer decided that the best thing to do would be to check in on Uhura; in his concentration on resolving the problem he had been set, it had been over an hour since they had parted company with her, and long past time for him to find her. Finding her wasnt hard; she and Lonesome Hawk had taken over an area in front of a larger piece of abstract art, the child playing with whatever his hands could grasp and the captain playing her harp. To his disappointment, Running Bear saw that her begging bowl was, as far as he could tell from at the distance he was standing from her, utterly empty.
Unbidden, the thought of creeping up on the woman and trying to count coup on her came into the mans mind. Carefully, slowly, he moved through the throng, looking at occasional individuals waresmost of it being what looked like grains, nuts or fruits harvested from somewhereand moving onward to his goal, trying to use the ebb and flow of people as a shield for his approach.
Without warning, he heard Uhuras voice raising. As far as Running Bear was concerned, his game was over. He turned, moving steadfastly and swiftly toward her. Before her, there were four burly adult males, looking like they were threatening her. Silently, his hand grasping the handle of his knife just in case, he made his way forward to defend his captain.
Only a moments thought convinced Davids that his chances of finding anything out about the man in the loud leotards would be greatest if he moved to a busy area of town. Given the way things seemed to function in this colony, he guessed that there would probably be some sort of park near the center, and that the rather Bohemian population would likely converge there to do whatever business they might have.
Wandering slowly, he moved toward a tall, mushroom-like structure that seemed to mark almost the exact center of the community, playing whatever ditty came to mind on the guitar to amuse himself and those around him. Off to one side of the structure, he found a greensward, filled with abstract statuary and people.
By one of the larger, and to the PAs tastes more obnoxiously gaudy, pieces of art, Uhura and Lonesome Hawk were setting up. They looked like things were progressing pretty well for her; shed harvested a large handful of the grass nearby and was using it to scrub the bowl she was going to put out for whatever others might give.
A smile crossed his face, as the temptation to toss something into the bowl crossed his mind. He decided to shelve that for an hour or two; if shed gotten nothing by mid-morning, he decided, hed put something in the bowl to see if he could prime the pump. Without her seeing him, Davids headed off in another direction.
Several other individuals were sitting around a small fire, over which a bark pot, surprisingly similar to the one Running Bear had made the night before, was hanging. In the pot, there was a modest amount of water, with a handful of leaves steeping as the water boiled. Each had a musical instrument, and was playing happily. The scraggly, blond P.A. interrupted his playing to trigger a scan of the pots contents; the water contained a significant amount of alcohol, the leaves were rich in psilocybin, and simmering in the water-alcohol solution was effectively extracting it. Resuming the guitar music, he sat down, joining them.
"Got room for another musician, folks?"
"Maybe. Got anything to put in the pot?" The one who answered was dark haired, bronze of skin and yellow of eye. The multiple missing front teeth did nothing to improve his appearance.
Making an exaggerated exam of the pot, Davids shook his head. "Nothing as wild as youve got in there, man. All I have is some dried meatnourishing, but not exciting."
The six musicians all laughed at him, in a good natured way. One, a dishwater blond woman, nodded. "That, you can save for laterunless its something you can chew without cooking."
"It isbut itll make singing hard while you chew, yknow."
She slapped her leg in amusement, her drug-befuddled mind enjoying the simple jest more than it deserved. "Then break up a piece, and pass it around. These fools here havent a decent voice among them, but lack the wit to stick to playing."
Davis slipped a couple of pieces of beef jerky out of a pocket inside his shirt, breaking himself off a piece and passing the rest around. He stuck his piece into his mouth, then returned to the guitar as he chewed. There was no question in his mind that Running Bears culinary expertise had definitely improved the palatability of the product. Around a half-chewed mouthful, he looked over at the dishwater blond. "Hey, Im from out of this area, yknow? Been wandering in the outland areas for a while. Saw a guy in a fancy outfit flying around town yesterdayknow anything about him? He looked like one useful fellow to know. Fixed up that building something really nice, really really nice."
"We call him MegaDude, man." It was the dark haired, jaundiced one talking. "He seems to show up whenever theres a crisisno small stuff, just big stuff, yknow?and sets things right. Hes fast; hes strong; nothing much seems to slow him down, much less hurt him. Definitely good fellow." The man slapped his drum a couple of times for emphasis. "Doesnt say much, which is weird. Weirder still, doesnt stay around to party after he pulls your toes out of the fire. Guess he just got too many other rescues to pull off, know what I mean?"
He didnt, but Davids decided it wasnt worth pursuing. He started playing a semi-random progression of chords, which obviously pleased the others around the small blaze. "So, anyone know where this MegaDude comes from?"
"Nah, no idea at all." The comment came from a redheaded male, who was trying to follow Davids lead on a much less well made guitar. "What Id like to know is where that guitar of yours came from, man. You make it? Its like really nice."
"Given to me by my pappy; he never told me where he got it." This was, the PA decided, not the time for the exact truth. "Plays good, though. Pretty old; pretty well preserved. Family heirloom thing, I guess." For a moment, he hunched over, concentrating on playing. For some reason, he felt like a little classical flamenco suited his mood. The redhead leaned forward, amazed at the playing.
"Hey, guys, this one is really good. You must have been spending all your time practicing, to get that good. Hottest licks I ever heard on a guitar."
"Done my fair share of practicing, and then some, yeah. Hey, lets get going and play together. Someone take the lead, Ill join in."
One of the others, wielding a creditable looking violin and bow, started sawing out a rough tune. The others joined in, Davids waiting until almost the last. None of those gathered, he realized, had spent much time practicing; he wondered if they did much but do the minimum effort to survive, spending most of their time hallucinating with the psilocybin they extracted from the leaves. Probably not, he decided.
He triggered the mediscanner, briefly scanning each individual. The one with the drum lifted the bark pot and sniffed it. "Getting about ready to pass around, people. Hey, you can join us if you want, you know. Maybe pass a little of that dried meat around again."
Joining in the psilocybin pot was certainly not something that the PA cared to do. "Ill leave you guys to it. You enjoy it for me, hey?" He stood up. "Maybe we can play tomorrow."
"Yeah, tomorrow. We got better stuff for the pot for tomorrow, dont we?" The others joined in enthusiastic chorus. Revolted, but trying to conceal his attitude, Davids slung the guitar over his back; the medical scanner had revealed evidence of recent cocaine use in all of them. He waved and moved on, hoping to find another knot of folks he could talk to; the results with each group, with minor variations, were essentially the same.
Looking over the goods offered for barter, he meandered slowly through the bazaar, hoping to find a handful of folks he could benefit with his stash of food. Behind him, he heard Uhuras voice, raised to a level loud enough he could recognize it over the noise of the bazaar. That, he decided, boded no good. He turned; four men, clearly not intent on charitable purposes, were confronting her.
Trying not to run, he moved swiftly. There was no doubt in his mind that his captain could handle herself in combat; equally, he knew that four assailants arriving as a group was not something she could overcome. Clandestine operations had taught him to move swiftly and inconspicuously. Surprise was, he decided, worth the extra seconds it would cost; the quick tricks hed learned in clandestine operations would be enough to take two out before they knew hed arrived. The determined, thin but grim smile on his face boded ill for Uhuras assailants.
As far as Uhura was concerned the best place to ply the trade of a beggar would be somewhere that there was buying and selling, or at least barter, going on. Her harp slung over her back and Lonesome Hawk in her arms, she moved steadfastly forward, letting her nose guide her to the savory aromas that most bazaars inevitably produced, as vendors hawked spiced cakes, stews and breads to all and sundry. True to her experience on other worlds, she quickly found herself where she wanted to be. The large open area was filled with people selling baked goods, such produce as they had grown and gathered, and whatever things their skills could manufactureor, she was sure, could steal. With her little friend, she knew she had to find somewhere where there was protection at her back, not only to prevent someone from assaulting her without warning, but to keep Lonesome Hawk from straying behind her, where she couldnt keep an eye on the little fellow. He clearly wasnt walking, judging from his age, but scooting was definitely possible, and if he could crawl, life would become a major challenge quickly.
With an eye seasoned by many years of being involved in military tactics, the Bantu looked the area over. One open area of sufficient size caught her eye; it was just in front of an abstract sculpture, one large enough that she could expect to get shade through the whole morning, if she planned her position carefully. Quickly, she positioned herself, putting Lonesome Hawk to her right, the bowl before her and her harp on her lap. Lightly, she began running her fingers across the strings. Celtic music seemed the best bet to attract attention, at least some of the livelier airs. Although the music attracted attention, often bringing quite a crowd of admirers, that was all that the music achieved. Her bowl, conspicuously deployed at her feet, was totally ignored. Charity, it appeared, was something totally unknown to these people.
How long she played to the shifting crowd, she was unsurethe sheer joy of playing made time fly by for herbut just before she decided to abandon her place and move elsewhere, four tough looking males appeared. The one that was clearly the leader of the troupe sized Uhura up.
"Nice harp, lady. Youre pretty nice, too."
"I like the harp, and Im not nearly as nice as I look." The captain decided to give the foursome the benefit of the admittedly tiny doubt.
"You aint exactly fast on the uptake, either." The leader of the group took a step forward. As surreptitiously as she could, Uhura made sure her knife was easily accessible, should she need it. She pointedly kept one hand on the harp.
"I like the harp, and I want it. Give it up," the man insisted.
"I like the harp, too, and I plan to keep it." The situation was developing in a direction that failed to surprise her, but was one that the Bantu certainly didnt care for. She decided to raise her voice, in hopes that Running Bear or Davids might be in range. She was confident that she could handle any one of the four of them, indeed that she could deal with all four of them if they had the decency to come one at a time. Looking at the lewd expression on the faces of the underlings, there was no question that decency wasnt something she could expect from this group. "Get lost, punks."
One of the others looked at the leader. "Oooh, a spunky one! I like spunky women. Can I have her first, Rog?"
Rather than respond, the leader of the troupe reached for the harp. Uhura swatted the hand away, none too gently, putting the harp behind herself and rising to her feet. "Out of a spirit of fairness, I feel I need to tell you that Ive swept floors with tougher looking trash than you." Her right hand moved to the handle of her knife; she hoped she wouldnt need it, but she intended to have it ready, just in case.
"Arrogant, eh?" Rog reached for Lonesome Hawk. "Well see about that."
Inside her, Uhura felt something snap. Faster than even she realized she could move, the long bladed knife was out of its sheath, across the leaders arm and up against his neck. "One more stupid move like that, talking garbage, and youll see more blood. Yours. Back off."
He looked down at his arm; the sleeve was slashed, but there was only a scratch on the skin. He backed off. "I dont have to take that from you."
"Correct. You can leave." Teeth showed between Uhuras lips, their white sharply contrasted against her dark skin. "Stay, and I dish out more."
The crowd began to grow; it was clear that they might be treated to watching a fight, and a fight that might be worth the time to watch. None of them showed any inclination to be of assistance.
"You think you can take on all four of us at once, and win? How stupid can you be?"
"Stupid enough to know that the first one that grabs for me loses a handif hes lucky. Ive been known to go for the kill. Try it, and at least one of you dies." One of Rogs underlings reached for her arm; the knife moved rapidly, this time laying the arm open deeply. Howling with pain, and grabbing his arm to try to staunch the bleeding, the underling backed off. The crowd was almost panting with bloodlust, none even making a move to help staunch the flow from the wounded mans arm.
The remaining trio split, realizing that Uhura wouldnt be the easy pickings they were used to having. They began to advance from different directions, but together. In the crowd, she saw Davids, easily recognized because of his height and blond hair, and Running Bear. Grimly, she turned her focus to Rog, hoping her two companions would get the hint. Willing herself to relax, and to focus on her chosen assailant, she cradled her knife in her hand, ready to give fiercer than she was offered.
Before any of the individuals involved in the potential combat situation could make a move, an individual in tie-died leotards landed between Uhura and her assailants. In the crowd, the whispered name, "MegaDude" made nearly silent rounds. The man spoke, facing the leader of the thugs. "Do you have any idea of how stupid it is to threaten a woman when she feels shes guarding a child?"
The thug swung, connecting with MegaDude, succeeding in hurting his hand and nothing else. "Its about as bright as slugging me. You other twocome stand by your friend." MegaDude looked Davids and Running Bear in the eye. They moved silently, both drawing their knives. "As you can see, she was neither as alone nor as helpless as you had thought. Had you laid your hands on this lady, I suspect her friends would have made short work of your lackeys, and she would have made equally short work of you."
"Yeah, thats what you think, Mister Fancypants." It was obvious Rog was longer on muscle than on wit. "Wanna let her prove it?"
MegaDude sighed. "You are a remarkably slow learner." He turned to face Uhura. "Madame, are you willing to face this person in unarmed combat?"
"It wouldnt be fair, but I suppose so. My two friends will keep the child and my harp safe." She sheathed her knife, giving it to Running Bear. "Ill be merciful. Just so long as his cronies keep their distance."
The colorfully dressed man turned back to face Rog. "Do you have the courage to face this woman single-handed, in unarmed combat? Or are you nothing more than what you seem to be: a coward and a bully?"
Rogs face worked, and his fists clenched; MegaDudes taunt had definitely motivated him. "Ill take her on. Get out of my way, rainbow."
Obligingly, MegaDude stepped aside. The crowd moved back, clearing an adequate area for the combat. Uhura stood, slightly crouched, waiting. Rog moved forward, making a sudden grab for Uhuras shirt. His move was a mistake; she grabbed his arm and threw him easily. Rog stood, shook his head and charged again. This time, the Bantu was less merciful. She leapt into the air, one foot driving forcefully into Rogs gut, doubling him over. As she came down, her hand placed a rabbit-punch to the back of Rogs neck, sending him sprawling, unconscious.
MegaDude turned to the crowd. "I am confident that you all have business to which you need to attend. I would recommend that you do so." The crowd began dispersing; the brightly attired man turned to face Uhura. "I expect that you also have other business. It might be in your best interests to pursue it elsewhere as well."
"Thank you, MegaDude." Uhura extended her hand, in what she hoped he would recognize as an offer to shake hands. He did. "Im much happier with the resolution you brought about than what I thought I was going to see happen."
Firmly, he shook Uhuras hand, and released it. "You are quite welcome." He rose rapidly, disappearing from sight.
Catching the eyes of her two companions, Uhura headed out of town, Running Bear and Davids at her heels. The threesome remained silent until they reached the previous nights campsite. On their arrival, Running Bear immediately started untying the knapsacks.
"Are you hungry, already? Breakfast was barely two hours ago." Uhuras face wore a combination of surprise and amusement.
"Rescuing damsels in distress is hungry work, you know." The Native American winked. "But Im thinking along other lines. The way I read the situation, the guys that we shamed in front of a crowd are probably going to want a little revenge. Nothing personal, you understand, but Im not excessively fond of the idea of some midnight marauder pounding the daylights out of me, or putting a knife in my ribs before I have a chance to wake up and defend myself." He delivered the untied backpacks to the ground. "Doesnt seem to me that either of you two would be enthused about it, either."
"Nights hours away. Before we break camp, how about telling me what you foundother than finding me being the damsel in distress."
Davids started coiling up the rope. "You looked more like woman ready to kill, to me, Freedom Lady."
"I was. Running Bear?"
"Basically, I think it all boils down to a modest-sized bird carcass that got where it had no business being. It got sucked into the water intake for the fusion reactor, blocked it, and shut the reactor down. Now, as near as my scanner and I can make out, all the doors are power operated, and essentially none of them have any mechanical backup. Rotten engineering, if you ask me, but Im biased. No power, no entrance or exit from the building. The population is trapped, having to make do the best they canthe results of which are, I trust, amply visible."
"It looked like some of the farming spreads had an autonomous power supply." Davids looked puzzled. "Why didnt the folks living in them set themselves up as rulers, since they had the only accommodations and all?"
"Thats one I dont know, Weed. Maybe they were all trapped inside the civic buildings, and couldnt get out." He shrugged. "Either way, I propose that we make our way to one of the estates thats still operating, and see if we can get into the house."
"Dont you think they might be locked?"
One of Running Bears eyebrows arched. "Do you think that TSoral and Indri cant whip up something to pick locks this primitive? Whats your take, Weed?"
"Hmmm..." The physicians assistant pretended to think. "It might take them all of three, maybe even four, minutes to get the job done. That counts the time itll take them to walk to the nearest transporter room, mind you."
"Okay, guys, youve made your point." She sniffed. "Just let me improve Lonesome Hawks odor, and we can head out."
Neither man argued.
Running Bear, Uhura and Davids stood outside the door of what looked to be the living quarters on an estate where the automated farming equipment was still methodically tilling the ground. The engineer stood close to the door, his concealed tricorder deployed. He straightened. "If you could contact the ship, Freedom? I think Ive got the data that Indri will need to get us in. Looks like the system works on face recognition; the sensors here manage a crude ID, then send the information to the colonys central computer for confirmation. Looks like its an RF linkageprimitive, but effective."
"That would explain why the owners couldnt get back in, I suppose. With the central computer down, thered never be an RF confirmation, right?" Uhura shifted Lonesome Hawk to her other hip, bringing the harp where she could reach it. She pulled on the three critical strings. "Uhura to Hyperion. I need Indri. Yes, you can, Indri; do you have the most recent scans from Running Bears tricorder? Good. You guessed it; wed love to get in there. Three minutes or less? Excellent. Put it a meter in front of me, will you?"
Moments later, a small device materialized at the indicated spot. Picking it up, Running Bear triggered a small contact. The door to the building before them swung open, the lights in the vestibule switching on. Running Bear bowed, sweeping one hand toward the door. "Welcome to my humble abode."
The threesome moved through the door, seeing it close behind them. As the lights came on before them, they saw an immaculately clean room, filled with antique furnishings of the most opulent kind.
"Amazing." The captain looked around herself. "I almost feel like Im in a museum or something. Look at this place, will you?"
"Nice, really nice," Davids remarked. "What would thrill me even more is to find a functioning shower, right about now. And after that, Id love to investigate the kitchen, and see if theres anything to eat." He moved forward with a determined pace. "I bet there may even be a functioning laundry around here somewhere, if we can find it and figure out how to get it running."
Delighted at the thought, Uhura joined Davids in the search. Running Bear stood in place, his fingers on his dumbek drum, slowly turning. Uhura looked back. "Whats up? Do you like smelling wretched?"
"Im standing in the middle of an absolutely magnificent, still functioning, antique engineering marvel, with an engineering tricorder. Should I be so totally unwise as to return to the Hyperion without having done a good, high resolution scan of this place, Indri will kill meif he doesnt torture me, that isand Ill deserve it."
He looked at the mechanisms scuttling around on the floor, trying to stay out of sight while still keeping the floor clean. "Look at those thingsearly versions of our semi-autonomous cleaning machinery on the Hyperion. Still working after over a hundred fifty to a hundred eighty years or more. Absolutely magnificent." The engineer returned to scanning the area around him. "You and Hardav go find places to clean up and wash clothes and all that; Ill finish here, and use the facilities when you guys are done."
The advice, Uhura decided, was good. She moved off, looking for a tub, looking at Lonesome Hawk. "Young man, you are about to get what just may be your first bath." Lonesome Hawk just looked up and burbled happily.
Several hours later, with everyone washed, their clothing laundered, and a good meal prepared from food transported down from the Hyperion cooked with the resources of the mansions kitchen, the three members of the Hyperions crew settled down in the living room, wrapped in robes from the closets in the estates mansion, each with a flagon of ice water.
"Running Bear, you sure know how to book nice accommodations." Davids took a deep draught from his ice water. "I checked out the sleeping quarters; we are going to sleep in luxury tonight. Ive already picked out the room I plan to use."
"Why doesnt that surprise me, Hardav? Look, Running Bear has already given me the rundown on what hes found. How about you filling us in on what you dug up? Especially on this MegaDude individual."
Davids nodded. "It appears that there is pretty significant recreational use of psychoactives, including cocaine and hallucinogens; Im not sure why, though I suspect a couple of educated guesses spring to all of our minds. I learned a bit about MegaDude, not all of which appears to be accurate. The going-around-and-rescuing people bit fits our experiences so farbut the folks described him as being rather sparing of words, which certainly does not fit with what weve seen. He bordered on the loquacious."
"And fluent; he was really clear, but professional. I..." Running Bear was interrupted by an unfamiliar sound. "What in space?"
"Offhand, Id say that might just be the doorbell." Davids cocked his head to one side, listening for it to happen again. It did. "Doorbell for sure, all right. Shall I answer it?"
"I noticed an electronic peephole, Hardav. Check that first. If its the ruffians from this morning, Im not home." There was no mistaking Uhuras aversion to meeting them again.
Davids rose, checking the peephole. "Its not them. Im letting him in; I dont think we could keep him out, anyhow."
As the PA opened the door, Megadude floated into the vestibule. "Thank you. Please, make yourselves comfortable." MegaDude planted himself in a chair where he could see Running Bear and Uhura. Davids sat where he was in equally clear sight. "I suppose you are curious about my arrival."
"Im curious about you. I noticed you dont walk; you floated. And rumor had it you were a regular clambut suddenly, you talk fluently." Davids leaned slightly forward. "Thats all very interesting to me, especially since you talk, but your lips dont move. What are you?"
"I am..." There was a pause. "Accept my apologies, but your language seems to lack the concepts." The Human form slumped in its chair; the medallion floated before them. "The best I can offer is that I am the inhabitant of this medallion." There was a pause; clearly the Humans were waiting for more explanation. "Long years ago, my kind became obsessed with extending our lives and ability to function; we developed increasingly sophisticated replacements for lost limbs and organs, to the point that the only thing we had no way of replacing was the center of our consciousness, our brains.
"One of our engineers developed a means of copying our awareness onto circuitry; since the process would allow us instant access to all the stored knowledge our race had amassed, it seemed a great advance. When we were all shifted over, our sciences advanced rapidly, for a while. Then we got bored. Perhaps depressed expresses it better; I am not sure.
"Some of us withdrew from all contact with everyone and everything; others began quarreling, ultimately ending in fights that ended in one or both individuals being destroyed." The medallion emitted a sound that seemed like a very Human sigh. "Others of us simply committed suicide. None of those paths appealed to me, so I set out to see what, if any, good I could do elsewhere. I arrived here."
Davids looked over at the brightly costumed Human, slumped in the chair. "What did you do to him? He looks like hes barely better than a Human vegetable."
"You are quite correct. When I arrived here, and realized that this colony had descended into a plight not unlike what my own people had reached, I wanted to help. I found him, out in the woods, dying from some sort of poisoning. Looking back, I suspect hed taken some mushroom or weed that contained a potent neurotoxin, hoping to have a drug-induced euphoria. I did what I could to rescue him; what you see is the result. I had thought I might work through him to get this society back on its feet. MegaDude was the best I could manage. Of course, you have unquestionably deduced that the ridiculously gaudy outfit was to distract the populace from the fact that he was nothing more than a living marionette, which is all I had with which to work. Until now."
"I see, or I think I do." Uhura leaned a little forward, gesturing as she spoke. "Youre hoping to use us as your mouthpieces. Unfortunately, Im not sure that we can do that."
"Oh, I understand, fully." The medallion remained motionless as it spoke. "I have downloaded the entire database in your ships computer systems; that is how I have managed to improve my language skills. Im not sure that your Prime Directive is applicable here, but I realize that you may have to have a ruling from your superior officers. But this child is a different story. My living marionette can raise him, and I can teach him what he needs to know to lead these people." The medallion moved toward Lonesome Hawk.
"You can get started by removing the plug out of the intake of the fusion reactor, too." It was Running Bear this time. "Frankly, Im surprised that you havent done that already. Let the civic buildings be available again. Im sure you can regenerate the fields for the containment flask."
"I can, now. With the information from your ships data base, I finally understand the primitive energy generation system that powered the colony. Until I downloaded the information, I hadnt a clue." The being in the medallion almost sounded apologetic for not having done the obvious. "Either way, restoring power to the civic buildings should be simple."
"Thats good. If I read my scans correctly, one of the buildings has a public swimming poolwith showers." Running Bear winked at Davids.
Uhuras nostrils twitched. "Showers; thats one innovation that would be worth the effort. And Ill bet there is an electronic library, which might be all the better. But MegaDude will still be needed, you know."
"Indeed, if for no other reason than to get them into the showers." Davids stood, using his guitar as a mediscanner, scanning the Human. "Captain, would you call the Hyperion and have MBenga ship me a medikit and a full medical scanner?"
"No problem." She tugged on the strings. "Sickbay....Keme, we need a medical scanner and a medikit. No, were fine. Its a long story; maybe over dinner tomorrow. Exactlyany excuse I can find. Uhura out."
The scanner and medikit appeared, and the physicians assistant snatched them up. For several moments, he studied the scanner. He used the hypospray on the Human that was MegaDude. He studied the scanner again, readjusted the hypospray, and delivered another dose. Twice more, he repeated the process, then nodded to himself, clearly satisfied. He turned to the medallion. "Hell wake up in about an hour."
Davids studied his mediscanner one last time, then hung it on his makeshift belt. "He wasnt as badly off as you had feared; he wont be the sharpest wit on the planet, but hell be able to walk and talk and all on his own. You might try using bone conduction to talk to him; I think hell probably accept your input, especially after you manage to make him look like a genius a few times."
"Sounds like our job here is done, then." Uhura stood, the long, red terry robe she wore falling almost to the floor. "It would probably be best if we are gone before he wakens, and you might want to have him out of here before he does, MegaDude. Just take good care of Lonesome Hawk for me, will you?" There was no mistaking the difficulty she was having over leaving the child behind. "Ive grown fond of the little fellow." Gathering up her harp and the freshly laundered clothing shed temporarily discarded for the robe she wore, Uhura turned to Running Bear and Davids. "Time to beam up, gentlemen."
As Running Bear and Davids gathered their clothes, instruments and backpacks up, handing the Captain hers, the medallion moved away, draping its chain around MegaDudes neck and coming to rest on his chest. The Human stood, moved by the inhabitant of the medallion. "Goodbye. And thank you."
"Youre welcome." It was Uhura speaking.
The threesome disappeared into the sparkle of the transporter, materializing before Indri. His eyebrows raised. "Talk about new clothes! Those robes you three are wearing look like theyre right out of a luxury magazine. What happened? And whats with the shortie robe, Hardav? If youve being trying to make time with the Captain, your boss is going to make you wish you were dead."
"Oh, we just got tired of hanging out with hippies, Indri," Davids offered, "and had you let us into a mansion. They didnt have a robe for tall folks like me, at least not after the Captain got the real luxury model." He chuckled as he spoke.
"Trust me, MBenga wouldnt be anything compared to what Patty Denali would do if he got caught angling for the Captain. While we were at it, the Captain let a super-hero adopt a baby wed sort of inherited." Running Bear looked over to Uhura. "I guess that sort of sums it up, doesnt it?"
"Pretty close." Uhura rolled her eyes, turning to face Indri. "Near as I can tell, that pair has been reading too many comic books "
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