a a a
In the standby briefing room of the starship U.S.S. Breitling, ninety three years removed from the disastrous end of the Harrington expedition, Commander Daniel McKinney sat with a dozen other officers watching the end of one man’s dream and a hundred eighty peoples’ lives.
Now the final audio log of the man who organized the expedition, Professor Ernst Harrington, resonated from the walls of a room that seemed smaller than when they started. His voice echoed across ninety-three years like the eulogy on an ancient tombstone.
I blame myself for this tragedy. Perhaps Mister Bedford was correct that we should have traveled straight to our destination. I had hoped to add to mankind’s knowledge and make this a true venture of exploration. Was it my ego that has killed everyone? I must pray on it.
We do not know if a radio signal can escape the nebula, or even the bubble we are in. We placed all our records and a distress call in the ship’s recorder buoy, but it will not eject from the ship. An EVA crew went to try to dislodge it, but it’s drive is destroyed and it was welded into place by an electrical fire. I fear no one will ever know where we are. I have brought ruin to so many young lives.
Worse, our initial estimate that half the colonists were dead must now include all of them. Those that were not … vaporized … by whatever hit us, died later when their cryonic pods’ emergency batteries failed. We could not get people into the damaged section fast enough. There just wasn’t time to go through the wakeup cycle and get them out of there. There is a cloud of our own debris expanding beneath us, and every time I look at it I cannot escape the knowledge that it’s composed partly of a hundred people who trusted me.
Miss Bidura and Mister Tice’s bodies were recovered from outside. They were … fried … from the radiation of the alien weapon. At least we managed to recover Mister Wanderer. One of the crew was fast-thinking enough – got into a spacesuit and got to one of the shuttleboats in time to rescue our errant engineer. He will be all right. As all right as any of us will be, in any case.
The remaining twenty three of us will salvage what supplies we can from the ship and take the boats down to the planet’s surface. It is far from the paradise of the world we’d intended to live on, but we should be able to survive. Although, twenty-five people is not nearly enough to start a viable colony. But with all that jungle down there, there must be food we can eat. Perhaps those buildings we saw will be our new home.
As for the alien device. After it shot us it retreated out of the star system. We have no idea where exactly. Why it only took one shot, I do not know. It could have finished us. Perhaps it only HAD one shot. Thank God it did not, but we will live knowing it's out here and could come back at any moment.
Captain Chen and I are discussing coming back up to the ship after we are settled, and bringing down all the remaining bodies. It will be bad enough looking up at night, knowing the wreck of my ship is here. None of us want to have the corpses of our friends hovering over our heads. I think I would certainly go mad knowing that. And digging so many graves will at least give us something to do for a few days. That sounded harsh, didn’t it. Damn. Excuse me, I am not myself. But I must find ways to keep everyone’s minds busy.
In any case, this will be the last recording on the ship’s system. We have dumped all the ship’s data to the portable computer system we will take down with us. Then we will shut down the Harrington’s Home forever. Perhaps someone will find it someday. I hope our fate helps you avoid the same fate.
"Amen to that," McKinney said after a prolonged silence. "I think this confirms one of my suspicions. I noticed that the weapon first hit us when we were coming into the system under impulse power. The second time it hit us was when we used the impulse engines to brake into orbit. When we cut the engines it was confused for a moment, but then it adjusted to follow an estimated track where we might have gone. That shot hit us peripherally, not dead on, which I think confirms that it tracks on nuclear plasma exhaust. What we saw on the tapes here was that it fired on the Harrington’s Home, not just when they activated it, but when the ship fired up its impulse engines."
"But what the hell is it?" someone asked.
McKinney nodded to Greengrass and said, "Susan, you have a theory."
"Yes, Sir." She leaned forward to explain. "I think it’s pretty clearly a sentry robot of some kind, designed to guard the planet. Based on the hydrogen tank they found inside, I’m guessing it has a limited number of shots, and it retreats into the nebula to scoop up more hydrogen, which it uses both as fuel and to power its energy beam."
"So it’s still out there," Tchalabi said, "waiting for us to start up the engines, at which point it dashes in and kills us?"
No way to sugar coat it. "Yeah," McKinney said. "Except I don’t think ‘waiting’ is the way to put it. It doesn’t care if we’re here or not, it’s just designed to destroy any ship using an impulse system."
"Commander," the engineer went on, "Impulse power is all we’ve got right now. We keep running into new problems – that thing really screwed us up good. Plus that second hit we took? It may have been peripheral, but it gave the starboard nacelle a hell of a jolt. I don’t think we’ll have warp power for a couple of days. With a space dock and a trained repair crew working on it, maybe it could be fixed in one work shift, but out here, with limited replacement parts…"
"Would it help if I ordered you to get it done in twelve hours?"
"Hell no! Sir."
"Didn’t think so," he smiled.
McKinney had invited the princess’ armsman to sit in on the meeting, since it concerned his job as well. Now Dockray rubbed his eyes. This was the first time McKinney recalled seeing him look worried.
"I know, Leftenant," McKinney offered. "It’s frustrating not to be able to do something."
"Oh, yes!" the man agreed emphatically. "That it is! I know I don’t have to remind you, Commander…"
"That my first priority is to get the princess home? No you don’t. The minute the warp engines are on line I plan to blast out of here and leave that monstrosity behind."
There was a general murmur of agreement around the room. But Greengrass said, "Sir? Shouldn’t we try to destroy it while we’re here? It still poses a danger to anyone else who might encounter it."
"If we were a hundred percent, and if we didn’t have the princess to consider, I might agree."
Dockray spoke up. "Yes, you can send a message to your fleet the moment we break out of the nebula. They can send enough ships to kill it. Correct?"
"Correct," McKinney agreed. "Meanwhile, since we have a couple of days to kill …" he shot a meaningful glance at Tchalabi, who responded with a weary shrug. "… I say we try to solve the mystery of this thing."
a a a
Three parties of six materialized, one after another, in an open court amidst a complex of buildings on the planet’s surface. The complex had seemed smaller from the orbital photos. Down within it, in an open central yard that probably measured about a hectare in area, it sprawled around them like a large industrial complex.
From orbit, the buildings appeared as collapsed ruins. Down here, McKinney could clearly see the signs of ravagement. These buildings didn’t collapse – at least, not all of them – they were blown up.
He found himself a bit light-headed and short of breath. The air was thinner than the ship’s. He took in a deep breath.
McKinney called up the orbital photo on his clipboard, and overlaid a graphic showing the landing party’s location. There were ten buildings in a roughly circular layout with a central court. Each building was built in an arc to conform to the circle, but they were not placed with any symmetry. Probably the people who built the place used a central point as a guide and just built the structures where they needed them without regard to aesthetics.
"Okay, spread out," McKinney ordered. "Nobody get out of sight of another person, we don’t need to go hunting after lost crew too."
A low, asynchronous whine registered as people drew tricorders of varying purpose and began scanning. McKinney moved up beside T’Lar, as much for the comfort of being near a friend as to check her findings. "Earth-tropical," T’Lar muttered. "But thinner. Oxygen content only fourteen percent. Trace elements a bit too heavy for Human or Vulcan physiology."
"Not good to live in?"
"I would expect a fifty percent higher rate of occurrence of cancers and heavy metal poisoning."
"I imagine fatigue would have been a common problem."
"For a time, until their bodies adapted. A second generation would not have such a problem."
"Well," McKinney mused, "If they came down here there must be sign."
And there was.
It was easy to see that the crew of the Harrington had used these buildings. The first they examined seemed to have been converted into some kind of communal dining hall. McKinney rapped his knuckles on the mud brown surface of the structure. It seemed to be similar to industrial thermofoam sprayed over a plastic framework. He’d seen the like on a dozen Federation and alien worlds where people put up temporary buildings. It was unusual to see one that had stood for a century. He wasn’t even aware the foam would last that long. In fact, pieces crumbled off at his touch. Then again, neither the buildings nor the foam were of human origin, and may have been much older and sturdier than they knew. There was nothing so dramatic inside as plates of half-eaten food left in a sudden emergency – the dinnerware, some apparently crafted of local clay – was neatly stacked in dilapidated cabinetry, and the brick oven and microwave cookers looked like they’d been cleaned before a century of dust had settled on them. Rows of tables and chairs filled the warehouse-sized building. A good number of them were well made out of local wood, by the hands of a craftsman. There were many more than the twenty-five survivors would have needed.
Simmons, the archeologist, said, "Looks like they lived long enough to have a bunch of kids, huh?"
McKinney nodded. "I wonder if it’s possible that any of their descendants are alive on the planet. Maybe they traveled away from here."
T’Lar answered, "We would have registered them on the planetary scan. We saw only lower animals."
"But the main planetary sensor suite is gone. We used the backups, with much lower res."
"Possible, sir," the historian, B’Akula, speculated. "But this all reminds me of the Bounty."
"As in ‘Mutiny on?’" McKinney asked.
"Yessir. Not the mutiny part, mind you. After they took over the ship, the crew sailed the Bounty to a tiny island. There they set up what they figured would be a paradisical lifestyle. But there weren’t enough of them, and the island didn’t have enough food. They fought among themselves, and their little colony pretty much died out in a generation."
"Some, yessir. But they only survived with outside supply lines."
If there were surviving patches of descendants somewhere out there in the jungle, they wouldn’t be found by the Breitling’s crew unless they jogged into the compound and said hello. There was something else for a follow-up ship to do – a thorough scan of the planet with a non-destroyed sensor suite.
Two of the other larger buildings had been converted to apartments. It looked like some of the crew lived there together, but many had then been reconverted to storage, or just left empty. There were the apparent remains of individual wooden houses scattered about the periphery of the compound, now overgrown with jungle plants and trees.
"Over here, Sir!" a crewman shouted. She was in line of sight of the Commander, and he trotted over. She had pulled open a sliding door that covered most of the side of a building.
Slanting sunlight from the weak, distant sun illuminated the nose of a single antique shuttlecraft. Having been in the shelter, the pale blue-gray paint still looked fairly new. McKinney felt a twinge of affection at seeing such a pristine treasure. He got his handlight out of a coat pocket and shined it around the interior. Some sort of flying creature the size of a robin, not quite a bird, flitted away at the disturbance. Behind the first shuttle was a second, though this one was more forlorn looking. It looked like it was being cannibalized to keep the first one running. Ultimately that had failed – the first shuttle had open service panels and missing interior parts too. There were a couple of other ground vehicles, such as tractors, parked inside with piles of crates and odds and ends. Combination hangar/garage and storage shed.
There was a road, of sorts, leading out of the compound and into the jungle. Maybe it had once been the colony’s route to a water source, or farm fields, or maybe even some of them had set up homesteads away from the center of their "town." McKinney, with T’Lar, walked as far as the edge of the radius of buildings and looked outward, wondering what it had been like here a hundred years ago. Wondering where else they found to go, that they needed to make a road. Or maybe the road had been here when they landed. He just didn’t know.
"Oh," he said as his eye cought a shape in the brush. He found that if he stood at a certain spot and looked a certain way, out away from the edge of the compound, he could see even rows of marker stones disappearing into the jungle growth. Of course, there would be a cemetery. He walked to the edge, a hundred meters of scrubgrass and relatively young trees from the last building in the compound, and read the first stone. It was a simple rectangle without religious icon of any kind. Olef Kristensen, Medic. Hello Olef. Next to it – McKinney yanked a root away that blocked the name – Helga Kristensen, Medic also. Wife? Sister? It didn’t say. Assume wife. The dates on the stones were a couple of years apart, Helga having passed before her husband. Olef’s date of death was fifteen years after the Harrington’s Home’s own demise. So they lived here for a while, in whatever condition. He was only fifty-one when he died.
"Horrible," McKinney muttered to himself. To come all this way hoping for a new life, finding only death.
T’Lar scanned the grave. "The bones show signs of deformation. Possibly cancerous."
McKinney reached over to her and touched her tricorder, and her hand. She recoiled subtly from the physical contact. "It doesn’t matter, Lara. Let them alone."
Clearly confused, she relented and closed the instrument, clipped it onto her belt. She assumed a respectful pose similar to McKinney’s own as he tried to see the remaining graves through the overgrowth. The graveyard was situated on a little hill, and the trees and scrub that had grown over it looked to be roughly the seventy years old that they should be.
"Daniel," T’Lar said, "Does it matter, to humans, where one dies?"
He hadn’t expected such a philosophical question from his logic-bound friend. But then he remembered what he’d said to her in a drowse a few days ago. He’d forgotten it like a dream, but she’d reminded him.
"Maybe not to some," he answered. "We have many philosophies."
She "mm-hmmed" and nodded in pointed agreement.
"As for myself," he said in a lighter tone, "I hope to be buried in my family plot in Ireland after a damn good party, and I hope to be a very old human when I pass on."
"So in your view, these people would be tragic figures?"
"Oh dear God yes!" he exclaimed. "Aren’t they to you?" He was almost aghast that she’d asked that question.
She considered. "Yes, I certainly see the tragedy – the wastefulness – in the overall event. I apologize if I’ve upset you, Daniel, but I don’t always see events in the same light as you. It is … unfortunate that this happened to these people."
He shook his head. "That’s putting it mildly. We come out here to explore and experience new wonders of nature, and make friends with people we’ve never met before. Nobody comes out here to get blasted into oblivion or … die of bone cancer."
"You sound angry."
"Goddamn right. Whatever that thing is up there, it just isn’t right that it did this."
"You’re speaking in that cosmic sense of right and wrong that you love to dwell on so much. It has no bearing on reality."
"Oh come on, Lara, I know for a fact you have a sense of justice, I’ve seen it in action."
She nodded. "Yes, I do, as much as any sentient. But this situation seems to have no sentience behind it. It appears to be entirely accidental – an abandoned security device happened upon by hapless travelers. Who is to blame? Surely not even those who left the device behind."
"Why not them?"
"They did not target the Harrington’s Home. In fact, it appears they switched the vehicle off before leaving it. I assume they’d intended to return, but did not. Daniel, you can feel the need for justice against a mind who committed a great wrong, but to rage against happenstance is simply not logical."
He looked over the graves that he could see. Many repeated family names. A colony crew would have had couples, and more couples would have formed up after landing. And children would have come along.
"Maybe not, but it’s human," he said. "Lara, I’m beginning to think we should try to destroy that thing before we leave here."
She gave him a warning look. "That would be unwise, I think."
He nodded. "I think so too. But sometimes the unwise thing is the right thing."
"There you go again," she sighed.
His communicator beeped.
"Commander, this is Freeling." Came a heavy voice. "I think we’ve found a control center in building six. And bodies, Sir."
Of course. There would be nobody left to bury the last ones to die.
The buildings were arbitrarily numbered when Breitling’s cartographers drew up the map of the compound. Building six was on the other side of the compound. Though T’Lar’s Vulcan physique showed no signs of stress in the thin air, McKinney knew he’d be blowing hard if he moved faster than a walk. Besides, what was there to hurry about in a decades-dead archeological site?
When they arrived, McKinney saw that building six had been blasted. A single huge hole deprived the building of most of its roof. It didn’t appear to be a structural collapse as much as the result of an attack. The building had been two stories tall, and fragments of both levels were piled like avalanches on the ground floor. The center of the building was nothing more than a crater, but outlying rooms were in various stages of lessening chaos. The room that crewman Freeling had called him to was missing its inner wall and showed scorch marks. Control panels on the leeward side were intact. Three skeletons lay about on the floor near overturned chairs.
McKinney recognized his two linguistics people pouring over the remains of smashed control panels.
Did I just think of them as "my" people? Hm.
One of them, Lieutenant Bedwineck, saw him come in.
"Commander?" she said, sounding surprised, "It’s Gorn!"
McKinney wasn’t sure he’d heard that correctly. "What’s gone?"
She pointed at the panels. "Not gone, Sir, Gorn. The labels. The colonists had put English stickers over the original markings when they figured out what did what, but the original labeling is in Gorn."
"Oh," he said, embarrassed. Would they have known that?"
"Nossir, first contact with the Gorn wasn’t until the mid to late 2260s."
"Okay, what have we got, then? An abandoned Gorn military outpost?"
T’Lar said, "That would indeed be a logical conclusion."
McKinney sighed. The Gorn would do something like set an automated booby trap that gets innocent people killed. At least they’d stopped intentionally killing innocent people once Starfleet had pointed out how bad it would be for their collective health if they continued military incursions into Federation space. But that was only a few decades ago. This installation has been here forever.
"Gorn is pretty far from here," McKinney mused. "What were they doing out here? Have we found any Gorn literature or computer files that might tell us?"
Bedwineck answered, "Haven’t looked, Sir, but we will."
McKinney found himself looking at the desiccated remains lying nearest him. T’Lar had finished scanning it, but she withheld comment from him. The person’s work jumpsuit was in tatters, with sharp, stark, white bones jutting from some of the tears. He automatically looked for a name tag, but this was a small community of people who knew each other. No one needed a name tag. For a discontinuous moment, he pictured his own name on the body’s breast. He shuddered. He looked around to see which of his security people (his security people) were here.
"Connors, Shemanski, and…uh, Lechicki," He said, authority in his voice. The three security men, the strongest looking of the bunch handy to his eyes, snapped to informal attention. "There’s a cemetery out that way, along an overgrown road leading out of the compound. I want you to bury these people out there. With their friends."
The three crewmen didn’t look pleased, but they yessired and went about it. One of them immediately called the Breitling, explained the situation, and requested three body bags and some modern digging equipment. McKinney figured the departed were in good hands.
"Lara," McKinney said to his friend, "Take a walk with me. I want to see what’s down that road."
a a a
"You should have beamed down a car, Daniel," T’Lar advised him for the second time. "Or had a shuttle scout the road."
They’d walked at least five kilometers along a strip of scrubgrass that could only be called a road by the most generous cartographer. The terrain was slightly hilly, but the ups and downs of what would be a gently rolling country road on Earth were amplified by the thin air. McKinney, never in perfect athletic condition by any means, found himself in need of another rest. He sat on a dead tree lying next to the path.
"Might miss something," he breathed, waving a hand to indicate their surroundings. "It’s so overgrown."
She stood at ease with her hands behind her back, eyeing his condition. "Please do not take this as insubordination, Commander, but I refuse to carry you."
He laughed – or tried to. It ended in a wheeze. Her face was perfectly neutral, but he knew she was actually joking. She would only have said such a thing to him, and not with another soul in earshot.
Despite the road’s near invisibility, it was obvious that it had been cleared once. The planet’s dry, waist-high, yellow grass was as high on the road as anywhere else, but any bushes or trees were far smaller than in the surrounding jungle. McKinney carried his phaser pistol in his hand; several times the high grass had quivered, and once something at least the size of a dog had bolted for the trees at their approach. He looked around warily. The sounds of small animals twittered in the dense growth behind him, but nothing that sounded hungry for anything as big as himself. At a random thought, he inspected the ends of the log he sat on.
"Heh," he chuckled, a suspicion confirmed. "Saw cut. Probably cleared from the road by the colonists."
"Yes," she agreed, "Everything I see concerning the road convinces me it was they who cleared it. It’s certainly not any older than one hundred Earth years."
He nodded to indicate the equipment bag she carried slung over her shoulder. "Wouldn’t have any tri-ox in there would you?"
"No, I’m a biologist, not a doctor."
He stood and began to walk again, his breathing steady again.
She added, "Perhaps we should have breath masks beamed down. The oxygen would supplement…"
"Nono," he said quickly, "I’m fine."
T’Lar shook her head in dismay.
"What?" He asked, "And I’ll bet your going to start with the phrase ‘you humans…’"
"…place stubbornness and pride before common sense," she finished without missing a beat.
"Well, at least you didn’t say ‘logic’."
"I felt I should, as you say, give you a break."
Abruptly, T’Lar stiffened and drew her phaser. McKinney’s reactions were slowed by his weariness, but he saw where she aimed when she snapped her phaser up and pointed into the forest. He did likewise. Neither fired, and McKinney waited to see what she did. Her pointed, elfish Vulcan ears were designed for air this thin, so where he hadn’t heard a thing, she obviously had. She tracked a little to the right. He mimicked her move, keeping his eyes on the trees. Moments passed, and McKinney’s sleep-deprived, jangled nerves jittered in his chest and stomach.
T’Lar holstered her weapon as suddenly as she’d drawn it and said "Only an animal."
McKinney didn’t drop his aim. "You scared the crap out of me."
He heard the brush flutter and saw a brownish mass, about bear sized, amble peacefully away from them into the deeper foliage.
He breathed again, and holstered his own phaser, shaking his head.
"I don’t see how you can find fault with me for reacting to a potential danger."
"I’m an irrational Human, remember?"
They walked on.
a a a
With the food processors up to full snuff once again, Princess Elayna and her staff were enjoying their dinner in one of deck six’s peripheral crew lounges. They had the room to themselves, the crew still being on alert. What few crew had been grabbing a bite in mid-crisis deferred to the Royal Party and took their food on the run with them.
They’d moved two of the four-place tables together – so they wouldn’t crowd each other – in front of one of the long windows. It was facing away from the planet, sadly, but they contented themselves with the baleful rose-petal glow of the surrounding nebula instead of the greens and blues and cloud patterns they’d hoped for.
Anthony Van der Roll sat with his hands in his lap, his fingers interlaced. Though he seemed placid enough, Dockray could see the man’s hands were shaking. Dockray tried to conceive of any possible harm Van der Roll could cause, but he’d never known him to be anything but a steadfast friend to Elayna, albeit one with an anxiety toward star travel. The images he’d seen on the replay of the Harrington Home’s logs haunted the security man. Anyone at all can cause a situation to go straight to hell, as Marcus Bedford had proven a century ago. But Van der Roll had no special knowledge of the Breitling or how it worked, nor access to the controls. Nor, as far as Dockray knew, any inclination towards violence and panic. He was probably a greater threat to his own nerves than to anyone aboard a starship.
The princess herself had suggested their meal in the lounge, since she knew there would be windows. Alas the view was not what they’d hoped, and the doctor had firmly declined to have the dinner moved to the opposite side of the ship on his account. He hadn’t eaten but a few perfunctory bites, and seemed lost in his own head.
Elayna placed her hand on his, startling him. Their eyes met, and Van der Roll looked away. But he squeezed her hand in return. Dockray didn’t know what private moment had passed between them, and it was none of his business. But she was obviously trying to console the man.
"Everyone," she began, "I know you’re all worried about the baby and me. This is only the second day of our delay," she said to them with emphasis. "I just want to stress to you all…" and she squoze her doctor’s hand again "…that there is a very long time to go – a week at least – before anyone needs to worry. So eat. Please. Everyone." She fired that last word at the doctor.
He smiled at her, with pain behind his eyes. "Forgive me, but I’m just not hungry. Maybe later."
She was clearly frustrated to be unable to get through to him. She sighed and dug into her salad. "Well, we’re hungry," she said, suddenly bright, patting her tummy with the hand she’d removed from the doctor’s.
Dockray knew the princess was smart enough to know that false cheer wasn’t going to turn Anthony’s funk around, but he couldn’t think of anything else either. He himself was starting to feel a bit anxious about the whole affair too. But he knew the only possible course of action for himself was to wait it out and let the crew do what they had to. Anything beyond that was interference, and aboard a starship that was dangerous. He just hoped Anthony would realize that. Or, maybe Anthony did realize that. Maybe that was the source of his depression – the inability to do anything. Dockray could understand that, being somewhat action-oriented himself.
As they walked back to their quarters, Van der Roll let the women get ahead as he walked alongside Dockray. Melody and Elayna talked animatedly about people back home, and some scandal that had been in progress when they’d left. To Dockray he suddenly said, "Anxiety is not a condition that one can just … shrug off."
Dockray was taken aback by the non-sequiter revelation, no one having even mentioned the topic previously.
"You can’t just take medicine and be cured," the doctor went on. "or spray dermaseal on it and declare it mended."
Dockray studied him. "You’re speaking of yourself?" It wasn’t exactly a Holmsian deduction.
Van der Roll nodded sharply. "The ancient ‘fight or flight’ instinct is imprinted on our genes. Civilization has unfortunately developed to where we can’t do either in many situations. Anxiety springs from that." Dockray nodded. He knew this, but the doctor seemed to need to talk it out. "So, since there is nothing for me to fight, and no way for me to flee, I sit awake with my adrenaline surging in a primitive drive to do both."
"You have medication for this, no?"
"Yes, and I’m taking some. Again, it’s not a cure, it just relieves the symptoms to a degree. It doesn’t help me sleep, but it… evens out my temperament."
"I thought you seemed even mellower than usual."
Van der Roll laughed without much emotion. "The only solution is to remove oneself from the causative situation. If we get out of this mess, I’ll be fine. Until then, you can expect me to be a bit of a mess."
"Just don’t give me cause for alarm, all right, Anthony?"
Van der Roll look at him, confused. "What do you mean?"
"Just don’t try to do something we’ll all regret, like try to take over the ship." He said it with a perfectly straight face.
The doctor flustered, and gobbled for a retort, but Dockray continued: "At the least it would cause an embarrassing incident that would embarrass the princess. At the worst you could get us all killed."
"How can you… I wouldn’t… That’s insane…"
Dockray held a hand up in placation. "Think of what my job is, Anthony. I have to think of the worst case scenario and prepare for it. I meant no offense."
Van der Roll let out a long, gruff grumble, not wishing to pursue the line of discussion. But Dockray thought his protestations were just a little too quick. While it was immensely improbable that a peaceful civilian like the doctor would be able to do something as melodramatic as taking over a starship, it was not beyond reason that a desperate peaceful civilian suffering from sleep deprivation would think of it.
a a a
"Aha," McKinney smiled. "I thought so."
"It was a sensible assumption, Daniel," T’Lar assured him.
After a walk of roughly an hour, the jungle surrounding the little road had thinned rather abruptly and presented the travelers with a clearing several hectares in area. This had probably been an open patch of waist-high grass when the Harrington Home’s settlers had found it. Given another century or two, it would certainly return to that, but now, the remains of four houses in various states of decay stood like tired sentinels.
Two on the left and two on the right, each on a plot of perhaps a hectare. Apparently four families had decided to strike out from the main encampment and try to live on their new world in a more prosaic lifestyle than their shipmates. The homes were all surrounded by shade trees, which had grown to hang over the structures and, coincidentally, hide them from orbital photography. The first, on the right of the road, set back about thirty meters, had the look of a rustic, hand built frontier house. Which is exactly what it was, McKinney supposed. The Harrington’s Home must have had a talented carpenter among its surviving crew, for the house was framed with hand-hewn square timbers and surfaced with clapboards in the classic style. There seemed to be some kind of preservative coating – certainly not paint, which they couldn’t have made themselves in such quantities. Maybe some kind of plant pitch made into shellac. It was all that kept the wood from decaying to dust. If there had been glass or plastic windows, there were only holes now, gaping like eye sockets from the bones of the dead home.
The second and third were in much the same conditions, with variations in building techniques. One had visible lathe and plaster where the first had only planks. The third had a kind of adobe surfacing over a woven frame of fibrous plant material. That house had crumbled away, leaving wild explosions of grass-like material spraying out of many holes.
The fourth still stood. McKinney was reminded of illustrations he’d seen of ancient Roman houses, built of stone and brick and surfaced with plaster. Made of materials stronger than its three neighbors, it still stood after decades of neglect. It even still had its whole roof, unlike the others. The roof looked to be tiles chipped out of blue slate, possibly sealed with pitch. Very clever.
"Hm," he grunted. "’I’ll huff and I’ll puff.’"
T’Lar looked marginally worried when she looked at him. "Pardon? You are not, as you say, ‘loosing it,’ are you?"
He smiled. "No ma’am. It’s a line from a children’s story about…" he thought about trying to explain pigs building houses to a Vulcan and stopped himself short. "It just concerns a lesson about building strong houses that last."
She nodded, probably making a mental note to look it up at a future date.
McKinney looked at the scene around him, and abruptly felt terribly sad. Once again, the tragedy of these people’s story struck him. Even those that had tried to make a more normal life out here, put the tragedy behind them and carry on as best as they could, were doomed to end in death and decay. What, indeed, was the point? He sighed a weighty breath into the thin air and wished there was another log to sit down on. He felt bone tired and more than a little light in the head.
"Well," he sighed, "I guess we aught to search the houses for any information we can find."
T’Lar called out to the stone house, "We mean you no harm."
McKinney shot her a puzzled look. "You don’t think…"
"There is someone in the house, Daniel, I can hear them."
Once again McKinney was reminded that he just wasn’t hearing normally in the rarified air. He looked to all the windows. No one behind them, but they were intact.
"It might be another animal," he said.
"Then it speaks English," T’Lar countered.
"Ah." He still couldn’t see or hear anyone, but he’d be foolish to doubt her. "Hello?" he called, approaching the front of the house, which was set back from the road about fifty meters. What might have once been a front lawn was a meter deep with wild grass and overgrown with trees and vines. "We’re from Earth. Well, I am," he added, waving a hand to indicate T’Lar. "My friend here is from Vulcan." They would have known about Vulcans back then of course, even if everyone hadn’t seen one personally. Still no response, at least that he could hear. He asked T’Lar, "Do you hear anything?"
"Yes. There are two people. They’re speaking too low for me to understand."
McKinney wasn’t sure what to do next. He could stand there and keep shouting, but he felt silly. He could walk up to the door and knock, but in this otherworldy scenario, that seemed a ridiculously mundane thing to do. He spread his arms in a friendly gesture and shouted again. He thought of all his First Contact training, but these were probably humans. "My name is McKinney, I’m first officer of the starship USS Breitling. We stumbled on this planet when we heard your distress call – well, the distress call the Harrington’s Home sent out a hundred years ago, anyway." Still nothing, and he was feeling rather lame. "We, uh… we can take you back with us if you like."
Yeah, he thought, we can rescue you as soon as we rescue ourselves.
T’Lar tried, "Please come out. You have no reason to fear us."
A low double-beep sounded. In his state of near exhaustion, it didn’t register right away. When he saw T’Lar looking expectantly at him he realized it was his communicator. He drew it from his jacket pocket with a shake of his head to clear the cobwebs.
"McKinney," he answered.
"Commander, it’s Eng here." He’d left the helmsman in command.
"Go, Eng," he said curtly, his mind still working on the people in the house.
"Sir, another ship has entered the system."