“Are we seriously going down to the planet?”
David made it obvious that he was less than thrilled when Anthony collected him and Kendi for an away mission to investigate the source of the signal. David was never comfortable when he was off the ship. Kendi was the exact opposite.
“Hell yeah!” she exclaimed, checking the settings on her phaser for the third time since they entered the shuttle bay. “Sure beats breaking up fights and dragging the drunks back to their cabins.”
“This is just a survey,” Anthony reminded them. “We’re not ‘doing science’ or blowing things up.” David sighed and Kendi frowned, but no matter what the reality would turn out to be, what they were doing was way outside of their sphere of expertise. While the signal was not an overt request for help — and they all knew they were merchants, not explorers — Drake identified a repeating pattern which indicated some level of sophistication beyond galactic background noise. Anthony made the call that they would swoop down to the planet, run some scans at ground level, and return to the ship. If it was discovered that the broadcast was a request for help, he would summon the Harvest‘s delegation from the way’ and let the captain make the call on how to proceed. Anthony wanted command some day, certainly, but he also didn’t want to get in over his head the first day on the job. He had already second guessed himself once on this as it was his first official command decision, but with the star’s unusual interference playing havoc with the sensors, sending an away team to the surface was the only way to thoroughly investigate.
A Benzite security officer named Ebewo was loading a crate into the shuttle when they arrived. Kendi was in her element, apparently. She told Anthony that she would be bringing ‘the essentials’: extra phasers, environmental suits, a week’s worth of rations, pattern enhancers, portable comm array, three medkits, two tricorders, a laser drill, camping stove, and holo-emitter with a few movies. When pressed about the holo-emitter, Kendi replied, “better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.” The four of them piled into the shuttle, got their departure clearance, and left the Harvest for the surface of Renfid II.
* * *
Renfid II was an M-class planet, or rather, what was left of an M-class planet. Although the atmosphere was still breathable, surveys indicated that an unprepared landing party would be breathing as if they were 10,000 feet above sea level back on Earth. The planet should have been habitable at one point, although no ruins were identified on the surface so Renfid II, as well as the other planets and moons in the Renfid system, had been written off as ejecta from other, better formed systems. It is believed that the binary stars around which the planets in the system rotated had started emitting strong pulses of gravimetric waves several thousand years ago, which nixed any consideration for even the smallest of Federation outposts. The Harvest‘s shields and the shields of the shuttle negated any uncomfortable sensations associated with the waves, but the planets and moons, under constant and unrelenting bombardment, had not fared well. Renfid II itself experienced violent tectonic activity as a result of the gravimetric pummeling. As the plates shifted, the crystalline core became exposed and with it, the B-neurogrenic radiation that the crystals gave off. Anthony verified with their medical team that B-neurogenic radiation had no lasting effect on non-psychic species, but those who had psychic abilities would experience a pretty nasty headache with prolonged exposure. The worst they would have to worry about were the tremors, but Anthony had no plans for them to set up a vacation home here.
* * *
The shuttle landed on a relatively stable patch of rock about 2 miles away from the general area where the signal was emanating from. They all took respirators, but sensors determined that the atmosphere was survivable, if a little cold. Ebewo shouldered the pack containing the medkits, and Kendi and Anthony took tricorders.
With no cloud cover, Anthony could look up and see the twinkling lights of the trade flotilla overhead, various nacelles glowing against the dark universal background. One of Renfid II’s moons was cresting over the western horizon and looked like a smooth, rounded mountain in the distance.
They had to watch their step while navigating via tricorder as the constant low-level turbulence that the planet experienced caused pebbles to dance and small, unsecured rocks on slopes to roll down to flatter terrain. Thankfully there were no taller hills or mountains; Anthony surmised it wouldn’t take much vibration to dislodge a sizable boulder from the cliffs above.
“Anyone want to place bets on what we’re chasing?” Kendi asked.
“Put me down for ‘flesh-eating exomorph’,” Ebewo said. He held his phaser by his side, but there was absolutely no movement aside from what the tremors caused.
“This system has nothing to offer anyone,” Anthony mentioned, assuming the role as the team killjoy. “Traders don’t travel through here, and we verified that no polity has claim on it, which is why it was chosen for the meet up this year. If there’s anything here, it’s going to be naturally occurring but considering how barren this place is, I doubt anyone or anything is living here now.”
David chimed in at the last. “Or they’re long since dead and gone.”
“I nominate David for morale officer,” Kendi said, and everyone but David chuckled.
They shuffled along in silence for a few more minutes as they paced through the canyons of dislodged planetary crust before Kendi spoke again. “So, Anthony. How’s your first day in ‘The Chair’?” She often referred to the captain, or the position of command, as “The Chair”. She had admitted once that she believed in the superstition of the Seat of Command, and that was her way of deflecting Anthony’s sarcastic comments.
“He hasn’t crashed the Harvest into anything,” Ebewo interrupted, and even Anthony laughed. “But the day is still young.”
“Hold up,” Kendi said, raising her fist. She entered a sequence on her tricorder and swept the area. Anthony did the same, covering the opposing arc. “The signal just spiked.”
“Confirmed,” Anthony added. They found themselves in a relatively open yet still enclosed area in the lee of an outcropping of rocks thrust into the air by what scans indicated were somewhat recent quakes. The tricorder indicated that the bent tower of rock covered at least 300 feet and rose to approximately 75 feet. It leaned eastward as if it was in the slow-motion process of falling down. A few dozen feet away, a series of shuttlecraft-sized boulders sat quietly, possibly having rolled into place when the outcropping was thrust up from the planet’s core; slight tracks could be seen from the base of the tower leading in the direction of the stones.
The signals appeared to be centered around this area. Since there were no signs of civilization, ruins, or wreckage, the obvious conclusion was that there was some kind of natural source. Anthony approached the base of the tower while Kendi investigated the boulders. David stood by, glancing around, and Ebewo maintained high alert.
Scans fluctuated the closer Anthony got to the base of the outcropping, but not enough to pinpoint a source; just an ever increasing general direction.
“Guys,” Anthony said, and saw it one second after he looked up from the sudden jump in readings from the tricorder.
On the far side of the stone tower were three bulbs of semi-transparent plasma, shot through with arcs of electricity, hovering four feet above the ground and bobbing gently in place. Colors rolled through them each time they emitted their short spikes of charged particles. These phenomenon did not react to Anthony’s presence, nor did they change position or behavior as the rest of the away team crept up behind their commander. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual in the composition of these energetic objects according to the tricorder readings, but the fact they were just floating there, out in the open, across the expanse of the canyon, made Anthony feel like the spheres were observing them.
One of the clouds detached itself from the group and lazily floated a few feet towards the away team. Anthony held fast; the movement was not aggressive, and the cloud stopped after a few seconds of traversal. Anthony took the opportunity as an invitation of sort, gestured for the team to remain in place, and then took a few steps forward of his own. He kept the tricorder out ahead of him, thinking that if this thing were sentient, it might assume that its first sight of him, with the tricorder held out, was his natural morphology. Lowering it or waving it around might change such opinions.
The forward cloud rolled quickly in place, its electrical arcs chasing one another around its circumference. It stopped, and then the action repeated once, twice, and a third time before it returned to a relatively inert state.
“Clouds don’t normally do that,” David whispered, and the cloud emitted a crackling hum that sounded to Anthony an awful lot like David’s comment in both volume and tone.
“They sure as hell don’t do that either,” Kendi whispered. The cloud repeated her as best it could.
Anthony decided he’d take a shot. “We received your signal,” he said. “We weren’t able to understand it, though. Are you in need of assistance?”
A pause, and then the cloud rattled off a series of sounds, pulses, and arcs. This display went on for longer and at a different cadence than Anthony’s question; this was most certainly not just a cloud of plasma.
“There’s no way the UT can translate this,” Ebewo said.
“Wait,” David added suddenly. “I got an idea. Eb, come with me. We need to go back to the shuttle.”
Anthony nodded, and David and Ebewo backed away to a respectful distance before turning and hurrying out of the canyon. Kendi moved up abreast of Anthony, and the two of them just watched the plasma clouds. The two in the back were rolling and emitting sparks well beyond what could be considered to be a noticeable pattern, one at a time; it very much looked to Anthony like a conversation.
Kendi leaned into Anthony. “Holy shit, you just found a new species!”
That would be one hell of a happy accident, Anthony thought. Is this how Starfleet officers felt when they made first contact? His mind started swimming with questions and thoughts. Was this first contact? Has no one else in the Federation ever encountered these things? What if this was some primitive civilization they just found? The Harvest and crew were decidedly not Starfleet, but they were Federation citizens; did Starfleet’s “Holy” Prime Directive apply to them? Did he just get the entire crew of the Harvest arrested?
David and Ebewo returned with a bulky pack that Anthony recognized as Kendi’s holoemitter. David placed the bag on the ground and unzipped it. He connected the power block and turned the machine on. The opening logo coalesced into view above the emitter, a grainy, washed out image that rotated in space, not unlike the plasma clouds themselves.
“We’re going to have a movie night.” Anthony said with an overly sarcastic tone.
“No, dumbass,” David said as he tapped out commands on the small control panel at the base of the machine. He took his communicator from his belt and popped off the rear access panel. Then he pried a small chip from the communicator and jammed into the holoemitter. A few more taps, and then David stood up and back.
“David,” Anthony started. “What he…”
The emitter’s floating logo changed suddenly to a ball of plasma that looked vaguely like the three entities. It then morphed into the shape of a humanoid, then back to the ball of plasma. As it repeated this pattern, David gestured to the actual cloud entity, sweeping his arm back and down towards the holoemitter. Kendi looked at Anthony, and Anthony shrugged.
It was Ebewo who explained. “David figured that if these…beings…are energy based, they might be able to use the holoemitter to communicate.”
It clicked with Anthony suddenly. “That chip was your UT.”
Nodding, David replied, “I’m hoping that if they can inhabit the holo, then they might be able to, you know, read all of the ones and zeros in the translator chip.”
“Reverse-direction translation!” Kendi added.
The lead plasma entity began to move, slowly, towards the holoemitter. Anthony and Kendi stepped aside as it paused briefly before descending towards the machine. Its electrical arcs wrapped themselves around the base, and the cloud of plasma itself engulfed the emitter. The creature faded, but a few arcs of electricity circled through the air.
In an instant, the projector returned to life with an image of a humanoid creature, unfinished in features but obviously an attempt to mimic the forms of the crew of the Harvest. The projector emitted a burst of static shot through with an ear piercing electric screech which caused the crew to cover their ears suddenly. It was only a moment, though, and the noise was replaced with a greeting from the tinny speaker in the base of the machine.
“Thank you…our signal…listening.”
I am surprised that this bit of story came out. It started with the Incident and Theme rolls on the Captain’s Log adventure generation tables, and at first I was not sure exactly how to fit those results into a story about merchants. But since Anthony is offered the opportunity to take Second Seat on the Harvest, and as such feels the need to exercise his authority to prove that he has what it takes, sending him to the planet to investigate a strange signal led to marrying the roll results with the story. This situation opened the gates to the rest of the story, which I already have roughed out, but have nothing specific written. Fingers crossed!
The inclusion of the holoemitter was an off-the-cuff decision. It didn’t make a lot of sense to pack that heavily for a quick investigation, but I really wanted to use the holoemitter as a vehicle for the energy being to communicate with the team. I am still slowly plowing through episodes of Enterprise, and I love how everything Star Trek is thrown out the window to depict the early days of humanity’s foray to the stars, specifically how the conceit of the “universal translator” doesn’t really exist. Every new species encountered speaks their native language on-screen, and it’s up to the NX-01crew (specifically, Ensign Hoshi Sato) to build the language database that future generations will rely on without giving it a second thought (they should name something about the UT after Hoshi, considering how much heavy lifting she did for humanity’s future). I also loved the Discovery episode “Species Ten-C”, which saw the Discovery crew trying to figure out how to communicate with a species that only used chemicals, emotion, and light to converse.