Randall Landers with Rob Morris
Captain Hikaru Sulu turned off the comm-screen in his quarters, and prepared to leave to begin his shift on the bridge. His lately more-patient than usual lover, Doctor Janice Cord, took note of this from their bed.
"Was Chekov civil this time?"
Sulu turned and looked at her. "Ariel..." He was about to take her to task. Since he had burned his bridges with Chekov to the ground, shed been increasingly critical of the fleet captain. Never in public, of course; she knew better than that. But in private, she had grown truculent toward his former friend. But he also knew that he needed her; he had so few friends left, and he didnt want to risk alienating his lover.
"Hey, Karu? Starfleet to Sulu: Was Fleet Captain Chekov civil this time?" She seemed unaware that her snide comments were beginning to cause Sulu pain.
"It wasnt him," he answered. "Seems that Peter Kirk is in temporary command of the Enterprise. Pavel and his other officers are down on Starbase 211, being questioned by his ex on some intelligence matter."
"For once, my dear Hikaru, our fleet captain has my slight sympathies. I never cared for Gretchen Jaeger. Ive known too many people like her. They come in with a plan, and God help you if you arent onboard with that plan. So is young Mister Kirk going to get through his first time in the big chair?"
Sulu shrugged. "That kid has survived so much, I think he might be part of your family. Hell do fine. Gotta go."
He didnt stop for tea or pastries on his way to the bridge. In the past, hed always relished a morning cup of tea, a pastry or a bowl of rice or cereal, but lately hed been skipping breakfast, opting for a nice brunch instead.
It hadnt been that long ago that hed practically committed career suicide and had lost his best friend of nearly forty years. Fortunately, the trip to Greece had done much to lift his spirits. Since then, hed been sleeping well, and at least physically, things with Ariel Cord had never been better. He was a man who all but blew himself up, and yet Hikaru Sulu felt rested. Content. Centered. At peace.
"Captain on the bridge," called Executive Officer Michael Floyd as he stood from the center seat.
Ill never understand how he does that without looking to see whos stepping out of the turbolift. "Thank you, Commander. Status report?"
"Approaching a very old K-class subgiant star system, sir. Zed Pictoris. Sensors are on maximum." Floyd took his usual position, standing behind Sulus right shoulder. It made Sulu nervous to have him standing there. During his initial interview, Floyd had made it perfectly clear that he was gunning for the captains job. Not that he would do anything to usurp Sulus authority; rather, Floyd expected the captain to be relieved of command for incompetence sooner or later, and he wanted to be able to step in and take the center seat for himself. Perhaps thats why he chose to stand behind Sulu, always a not-so-subtle reminder that he was ready to sit in Sulus chair.
"Science Officer, report?" asked the captain, glancing at Science One.
How he missed Tuvok. The Vulcan had departed with most of his other senior officers, and while the Andorian whod replaced him was more than competent, he had an unfortunate tendency never to volunteer information without being asked. Suddenly, it dawned on Sulu that that was what hed expressed his displeasure to Tuvok about. The Vulcan often offered information unbidden, and Sulu had taken him to task repeatedly over the practice. Now he was annoyed that Ensign Tork never offered information without being asked. The irony left a bitter taste in Sulus mouth as he listed to the report.
"Information coming in now, sir," the Andorian science officer began. "Habitable system, consisting of sixteen planets. Number four is class M, oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. Number sixteen is a double ring system minor planet, slightly larger than Pluto, and far more obloid than one would expect."
"Mister Klystin," Sulu addressed his chief navigator. "Set course for the fourth planet in this system."
The Kzintis bat-wing ears flattened and his tail flicked on the floor in disapproval. "Yes, sir," the insolence in his voice was only slightly noticeable.
Floyd stepped to the navigators station. Leaning over as if to examine the readouts from the navigational sensors, the executive officer whispered softly, "Lieutenant Klystin, if youre going to make it in Starfleet, youre going to have to understand that our mission is one of exploration."
Sulu pretended to ignore the exchange, and addressed the Excelsiors helmsman. "Lieutenant Fulton, bring us in just below Warp Two. We want to give Mister Tork time to look at his double-ringed minor planet."
"Thank you, Captain," came the Andorians voice from across the bridge. A quick glance would have confirmed that his antennae were all aflutter.
"You know, Captain, it sorta just dawns on me that maybe, just maybe, this class M world might be inhabited, and that it might be a good idea, well, in my opinion anyway, to go to Yellow Alert," came an all too familiar voice from the tactical station. "If Im not too presumptuous, that is."
Of all the officers who hadnt transferred off the Excelsior, Lieutenant Ryan Peterson was one Sulu wouldnt have missed. Unfortunately, the chief tactical officer already had quite a reputation in Starfleet, to the point that no one was willing to take him as their tactical officer, and so Peterson was stuck with Captain Sulu. It was a situation that was to neithers liking, but Sulu was now determined to make the best of it, although Peterson seemed to want to make the worst of it.
"Thank you for the suggestion, Lieutenant, but I dont think so," Sulu answered politely. "Standard approach procedures are adequate for most situations," he explained. In the past, he wouldnt have bothered with any sort of reason for his decision.
Sulu turned to his communications officer. "Lieutenant Grexi, open hailing frequencies. Monitor for any transmissions of artificial origin."
"Yes, Captain," responded the Edoan, his three arms flexing quickly across the board. "Im not detecting any transmissions of artificial origin."
"Captain!" came Kenyatta Fultons voice. There were several gasps, and Sulu stepped before the helm and navigation console.
"Unbelievable," the captain said, his breath taken away.
The surface of the planet was covered with lush tropical zones, a few inland seas, one smallish ocean, several grasslands and one megalithic carving visible from orbit: a large triangular ziggurat that literally was a stairway to heaven.
"Agreed." Executive Officer Floyd was amazed as well. "Unlike the ancients on Earth, they must have avoided hubris. Their Tower of Babel seems to have met with divine approval."
Sulu turned to his science officer. "How long would it take to build such a structure, Science Officer?"
The Andorian blinked twice and then turned to his station. "It would take approximately nine hundred twelve million man-hours, assuming a ten-hour workday, ten thousand workers and three hundred sixty-five days in a year. Of course, if youve ever seen the Statue of Gelvi on Tellar, youd realize that this structure was quite a bit easier to make, even if it is taller."
"Do you think that Tellarites built this?"
Tork, an Andorian, seemed more confused than anything by Sulus joke. "I beg your pardon, sir. I was making a comparison of engineering marvels"
"Forgive the non-sequitur on my part, Mister Tork. Estimated age of structure?"
"At least thirty-five thousand years old. The rate of outgassing of the planet accounts for that being the minimum. After that, theyd never be able to finish it. The structure is above the present zone of habitation, and has been for several millennia. Its higher than Mons Olympia on Mars."
"How can it still be standing?"
"The tectonic plates on this planet have long since stopped grinding into one another. No earthquakes. No mountain ranges or volcanoes either. Which is odd in and of itself. Sir, if I were told that a place such as this exists, Id argue it was impossible. Yet scanners do not lie."
"No, they dont. Could the readings be in error?"
"The system self-diagnostics confirm theyre operating at peak efficiency."
"There doesnt appear to be any weathering..."
"No seasons. The planets orbital tilt is less than half a degree."
"So weve got this ancient structure on a class M planet, and the people here never developed beyond this stone-age level of technology."
"It does seem unlikely, sir, but its clear that these people have been locked into this state of stagnation for more than thirty-five thousand years. And without seasons or geological features that would promote extreme weather, Id suggest the inhabitants could have been at this same level of development for more than a million years."
"Were detecting humanoid readings. Several small developments along the coast. A few rural encampments in the grasslands. One encampment at the base of the ziggurat, in fact."
"Class D on the Richter Scale of Cultures. Iron age in a few areas, judging from the emissions from the fires Im detecting. Bronze age in the rest."
Commander Floyd, his first officer, spoke with his usual tone of slight challenge couched in a faint Southern accent. "Prime Directive clearly in effect, sir. No contact. Observation buoy in orbit."
The Andorian science officer shook his head, and his antennae tilted downward in disapproval. "Prior to that, though, Id like to send down a landing party, Captain. Sociological and biological survey mission. We send them down and conduct discreet observation while collecting information about the few biomes of this world and its population."
"And afterwards seal her off good and tight," Sulu confirmed. He stood and stepped around the helm-navigation console to stand before the mainviewer. "Put together a landing party, Mister Floyd. Include a biologist, a botanist, a geologist and a couple of security guards. Remind them the Prime Directive is in effect."
"Yes, sir. Permission to ride herd on any eager beavers?"
"Always a given aboard my ship, Mister Floyd. I trust you are aware of the first rule of including science officers on a landing party assignment?"
"Aye, sir. Neither underestimate their enthusiasm over a first contact."
"Were on the same page, then. Lets do it."
"Remarkable," whispered Takemura as she stared at the village through her ocular unit. "A peaceful bronze-age fishing village. Ample food supply. Good trade. Even a few constables to maintain order."
Creech looked over his plant samples. "Nothing poisonous in this lot. Its all good for something. A few medicinal-quality herbs. A healthy barley-like grass with its own inflorescences that produce ears of grain like maize. Hundreds of conifers and deciduous tree species. A few palm-like varieties near the coast. Several fruit trees and berry bushes, none poisonous. Remarkable."
The two Excelsior scientists had paired up from the second the landing party had beamed down. They had chosen to head toward the nearby fishing village, promising Michaels and Floyd that they would remain concealed. The inhabitants of the planet were humanoid, but nearly two meters in height, four armed and two legged, orchid-colored skin with black hair, and usually adorned in homespun sackcloth robes or loincloths. Trying to disguise themselves as natives wouldve been far too impractical.
Which is why what happened next an event that made those back on Excelsior scratch their heads.
Sulu held a hand to his head. He was on the bridge of his starship listening to the report from his executive officer. "Mister Floyd, explain it to me again."
"Creech and Takemura did what we all talked to death about not doing. They entered the village on the shore of the eastern sea, and were promptly arrested by the local constabulary."
"Where was the rest of the landing party?"
"Dalton was examining a ridiculous notion: none of the fauna of this planet are predators."
"Impossible," said the Andorian science officer from his station.
"Elendil was trying to figure out the water tables. According to him, theyre too high to support such a massive structure as the ziggurat."
"And the security guards?"
"Nylarc pleaded with Creech and Nakemura to come back, but they ignored him completely. It was if they were just overwhelmed by this place, and drifted away from the line of shrubs they were concealed behind. Mathik saw what was happening, and tried to subdue them with his phaser on stun. The weapon wouldnt fire."
"Both guards phasers and mine have discharged. Guess we shouldve brought a physicist with us. Our instruments are still operational, including our communicators, obviously."
"Have yourselves beamed back aboard. I dont want anyone else wandering off. Sulu out."
The captain of the Excelsior quickly stepped to Science One. "Mister Tork, can you locate our missing people?"
"Scanning now," the science officer answered. "Fortunately, the fact that both of them are Human makes tracking them relatively easy."
"Landing party aboard, sir," reported Lieutenant Grexi, his three hands dancing over the communications console.
"Have them report to Doctor Cord for their physicals, and once cleared by the doctor, theyre to report to my ready room for debriefing."
"Yes, Captain," the soprano voice of the Edoan clicked. "Executive Officer Floyd requests permission to report immediately to the bridge."
"Denied. Tell him physicals first after every landing party. He knows better than that."
"Found them, Captain. Theyre on some sort of animal-drawn vehicle, ten kilometers from the village."
"Where are they taking them?"
"Believe it or not, Captain, the road theyre on would take them to the steps of the ziggurat."
"Navigator, set the mainviewer to magnify the area of the planet including the structure and the sea-side village." Sulu went to stand before the viewscreen. He quickly made a decision. "Communications, get me the transporter room."
"Transporter room, Chief Hamilton here, sir."
"Chief, can you lock onto our people. Tie into Science One for their coordinates."
There was a brief pause. "No, sir. Unable to lock onto them."
"What about beaming up all lifeforms in that general area?"
Another pause. "No, sir. I dont understand it. I had no trouble beaming up the landing party. Could the pyramid-thing be giving off some sort of forcefield?"
Sulu glanced at the Andorian. "Well?"
"No, sir. No generated-energy signatures registering on the planets surface."
"Thanks for trying, Chief. Let me know if that situation changes. Sulu out."
The doors to the port turbolift opened, and the landing party sheepishly made their way to Sulus ready room at the rear of the bridge. Floyd paused a second.
Sulu noticed. "Ill be right there, Number One." The captain strode across the bridge to the tactical station. "Mister Peterson, you have the conn."
"Me, sir?" The tactical officer was surprised.
"You, sir. Now."
"Y-yes, sir." Peterson made his way to the center seat.
As Sulu entered his ready room, he realized that it was the first time the tactical officer had been left literally speechless.
"Captain, I take full responsibility for the actions of Takemura and Creech," began Floyd.
"As Captain, I have full responsibility for the actions of my crew, Commander, not you. However I also believe in holding my officers accountable for their actions. Was there anything you could have done to have prevented this situation?"
"Other than assigning less senior specialists to the landing party, no, sir."
"Then I consider you absolved. Now, Geologist...Elendil, is it?"
The Centaurian scientist nodded. "Yes, sir."
"You reported that the ground water levels are too high to support the mass of the ziggurat."
"Yes, sir. Its far too massive. It should sink into the ground, sir."
"Could it be a natural structure, like a mountain, with a layer of stonework around it?"
"Like the megaliths of Omega Saggita Two or even Earths own China?" The scientist pondered the suggestion only briefly. He went over to the tables work station, and examined the sensor readings Tork had already collected. "No, sir. Its construction is akin to the pyramids of Giza on Earth or of the Toki district of Regulus Seven."
"But its impossible for it to stand there on the plain without sinking into the ground from its own weight."
"Lieutenant Dalton," Sulu began, "you said there are no predators on the planets surface."
"No, sir," the statuesque blonde answered. "None of the fauna of this world are predators. The sentient inhabitants are, without a doubt, the only predators on the planet. Ive never seen a world like this where none of the animal life are predatory."
"Mister Tork said it was impossible, I believe," the captain added.
"Hes quite right. Predation is one of the basic facts of nature. Its what makes the food chain and the carbon cycle on Earth work."
"What takes the place of predators here on this planet?"
"When animals perish, theres an excellent mycoplasmic organism that handles the restoration of the materials into the environment."
"Have there ever been predators here?"
"Im no paleontologist, but I couldnt detect any signs of predation in the near surface fossil record."
"All right. Misters Nylarc and Mathic."
Nylarc, a brutish Orion male, snapped to attention. Mathic, a Saurian female, stood somewhat straighter. "Did either of you examine your weapons before you beamed down?"
"We checked each others weapons, Captain," Nylarc answered. "Standard procedure since coming aboard Excelsior."
"Yesh," the Saurian hissed. "Ish very important to be responshible for ones shelf, but equally important to be responshible for each oth-er."
Sulu nodded. "Well said. Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Everyone here is dismissed except for Mister Floyd."
The captain waited until the room cleared out.
"Captain, Im sorry about"
Sulu raised a hand. "No excuses, Mister Floyd. None needed. I think theres more to this planet than meets the eye."
"What about Takemura and Creech?"
"Our two missing scientists are on their way to the ziggurat, in the custody of the local constabulary, as far as we know."
"I hope theyre not heading for some primitive, brutal execution."
Sulus gaze met Floyds eyes. The concern was evident on the faces of both men.
"Bridge to Ready Room. Captain, could you report to the bridge, please?" came Petersons unsteady voice.
"You gave him the conn?" Floyd was practically incredulous. "You cant stand the guy."
"Hes the most senior officer on the bridge other than you or me. Like him or not, hes going to have the conn when were not available."
The two men strode quickly out onto the bridge, Sulu taking his center seat, and Floyd standing behind him. "Report," the captain ordered when no explanation was forthcoming.
"Theyre climbing the ziggurat, sir, walking up the stairs around it, ascending," Tork answered.
"Im kinda worried, Captain, that these natives, well, that they might be considering some sort of, you know, gruesome Aztec-like ritual murder when they get to the top," explained Peterson from Tactical.
"I dont think so," Sulu said, perching his chin on his thumb as he leaned forward.
"Permission to take a landing party done there," Floyd requested.
"Denied," the captain said softly. "In fact, Im not sure youd be able to beam down." He turned to Science One. "How long will it take them to reach the summit?"
"At their present speed and rate of ascent, one hundred fifty-six days. Its a distance of approximately eighteen hundred sixty miles, sir." The Andorians antennae crossed and waggled, a sign of fatigue that Sulu recognized.
He quickly made up his mind. "This situation wont be resolved today. I want everyone to stand down and get eight hours of sleep. Get your reliefs up here."
"And you, sir?" asked Floyd.
"Ill be in my quarters, Number One. Following my own orders. I suggest you dont disregard them either."
"So what are you going to about Takemura and Creech, Hikaru?" asked Ariel Cord as she ran a finger down his spine.
Sulud returned to his quarters, shared a small bottle of saki and a plate of sushi with his lover before theyd moved to his bed. Basking in the afterglow of their love-making, he was simply trying to focus his thoughts on the problem at hand. Unfortunately, she made concentrating on a solution incredibly difficult.
"According to the Prime Directive, I should leave them to their fate," he said simply.
Cord turned on her back, her ample breasts jiggling against him as she rolled over. "I would think that the Prime Directive would demand that you remove them from the planets surface before they interfere any further."
"Thats certainly one well-reasoned interpretation, and one that Ive heard before. But my gut is telling me to wait on this one."
"Wait? Wait for what?"
"For...I dont know. But theres far more to this planet than meets the eye. My instinct is telling me thats true of this situation, too."
"Your instincts havent been too accurate lately, lover."
Without letting his anger explode at her, he swung his legs off the bed, and stood quickly. He didnt say a word to her, lest he vent at her. He pulled on his trousers and socks and boots, slipped his white command tunic over his head, and walked out the door into the corridor.
Sulu wandered into the Rec Deck at the end of the corridor, and sat down with a cup of hot tea. Several of his crew were engaged in various games on the deck, others chatting casually. A few were tossing a foam frisbee. He heard the clatter of the bowling pins in the alley next door. He leaned back into the lounger, and closed his eyes.
"Captain, a word with you, if I may, sir?"
Sulu opened his eyes. Executive Officer Michael Floyd stood there, and was there a hint of anguish on his face? "What can I do for you, Commander?"
"Sir, I cant help but feel responsible for this mess."
"I can appreciate that," the captain reply guardedly.
"I want to do something. We cant just sit up here for the next four months!"
"I dont think we will, Commander. But what are you suggesting?"
"A rescue mission, sir. I can take a few security officers down in an armored shuttlecraft. We can make a quick snatch-and-go of it, and be back in no time."
"Go in with guns a-blazing, and save the day?"
"Not going to happen, Mister Floyd. Theres"
"Look, sir, if youre too afraid youll get in trouble with Fleet Captain Chekov"
Sulu leapt to his feet. Floyd had a good eight inches on him, but the captain was not going to let that stop him. He bowed up with his face flushed, and said in no uncertain terms, "Dont ever address me like that again, Commander, or I will have you busted back down to Ensign and shipped to Ceres to serve on a garbage scow."
"Look, I admit that I screwed up and got you into this predicament. Let me get you out of it. A quick"
"I said no, Commander. If you ask again, Ill file insubordination charges against you. I know youre upset about this mess, but things will work out the way theyre meant to."
The bosuns whistle sounded. "Captain, this is Maliszewski. Could you report to the bridge?"
Sulu tapped his wristcom. "Be right there, Mali." To Floyd he said, "Come with me."
The captain and first officer stepped out onto the bridge of the Excelsior. In the center seat was Sulus second officer, Captain of Engineering Deneice Maliszewski, inventor of the transwarp drive. Unfortunately, the transwarp drive had not been so great a success as hoped. True, the warp factor scale was presently being revised, but Starfleet was deeply disappointed by her failure. Shed originally been assigned to the Excelsior to see if anything could be done to correct the mistakes made, but she had taken it as a forced exile. Still considered a pariah, she hadnt even bothered applying for a transfer. It would have been pointless.
"Youll have to see this for yourself, Captain." She stepped to the engineering station as Tork turned from Science One.
"Mister Tork, I thought Id ordered everyone off duty," remarked Sulu.
"I was off-duty until summoned five minutes ago by Captain Maliszewski. She wanted to verify the analysis given to her by Ensign March. Ive corroborated his sensor report."
After a brief pause, Sulu found he needed to press the science officer for more details. "Which was?"
"The atmosphere of his planet has extended another fifty thousand feet."
"That is remarkable." Sulu studied the mainviewer. The ziggurat was still in darkness. Suddenly, the summit was lit by the rising sun. "Can you explain how or why?"
"I cannot explain how, but the why is quite obvious. Our two missing crewmembers and one native are approaching the summit."
"Did they take some sort of transport"
"They walked, sir. Ive verified the sensor logs. At every sensor sweep, they were shown to be walking. But with each sweep, they had advanced dozens of kilometers. Yet they continued...and continue...to register as proceeding on foot."
"Captain Sulu?" came a voice from the front of the bridge.
Not sure who had spoken, the captain turned to face...the mainviewer. On the screen was the image of the tall purple-skinned alien. From her physical attributes, Sulu recognized her as a female of the species. And from the ornate costume and markings that adorned her form, he knew her to be a high priestess. "Captain Sulu, please retrieve your wayward scientists."
There was a stunned silence, then Sulu addressed the priestess. He reminded himself that there was no point in asking how this communication could happen. "Of course, maam. Well send down a shuttle"
"Im afraid thats not acceptable. Please beam them up immediately."
Sulu nodded to his executive officer, and finally gave in to natural curiousity. "How can you communicate with us? How do you even know about us?"
"When science reaches a point of such sophistication, its often misconstrued as magic," she explained. "Suffice it to say the difference between our civilizations is quite beyond your reckoning."
"Our mission is one of peace; we come here as simple explorers."
"Which is why, unlike others who have come before youthe Romulans, the Tholians, the Lyriansyou may leave this world in peace, perhaps a bit more confused than when you arrived, but at least aware that there are mysteries which will remain unsolved even in your lifetime."
The two scientists dematerialized from behind her. "Now that you have your crew back, I must be getting back to my village. Its time for the harvest of the sea fungi. Fare thee well, Hikaru Sulu." She turned back to face whatever was broadcasting her message. "And please dont be too harsh on Takemura and Creech. Children such as yourselves can be so curious and easily swayed by Tranquility."
"Children?" Sulu shrugged. "Is it that were so very immature in your eyes?"
"We ourselves are not certain of our own maturity, except that it is far better than it once was, and can tolerate no backward examples to muddy it up."
Sulu nodded. "Youll have all the quarantine we can offer your world. And let me offer congratulations on completing your own stairway to heaven."
The priestess still had some surprises. "Oh, Hikaru Sulu, dont we only wish that were so. This tiny thing of ours?" Her smile now seemed a great deal more humble as she shook her head. "This is merely one expression of what we hope to achieve. But if our reach did not exceed our grasp, then whats a heaven for?"
She favored them with a beatific smile. "Grow up strong, peaceful explorers." She turned away and began making her way back down the stairway.
Sulu watched in wonder, and to his surprise, felt no trace of the man who would have once angrily told the priestess who and what she was dealing with. Having no use for that man, Sulu did not bother to mourn him. "I think were being told to go play elsewhere." He watched as the figure turned again, and waved at them. "And I think thats advice were going to take. Science officer, prepare half a dozen quarantine buoys to be placed at the Oort cloud of the system. Helmsman, take us out to the cloud so we can drop those buoys. Navigator, plot a course to the next nearest star system."
As a chorus of yes, sirs and aye sirs reached his ears, Captain Sulu wondered aloud, "I wonder what well find next." He chuckled, and then he realized he felt as James Kirk must have felt watching the Genesis planet form. I feel young, he realized.
It was a good feeling.
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