Lieutenant Galan was expecting to spend several hours combing through the structure in order to locate the Tkon beacon that Captain Lancaster was so insistent on reaching. Even accounting for the human’s predilection for punching through delicate archaeological sites with his phaser, surely there wouldn’t be a direct path from the entrance to their target. Of course, he had assumed the building on Eta Torrensis IV was military in nature and not, in fact, a museum, with very clear and helpful signage that had survived the centuries pointing them directly towards the center of the structure, where a glass floor offered visitors a look down on what had been an active excavation site until the extinction of the planet’s residents.
“Given how complex and tedious archaeology is, why would anyone wish to observe it in progress?” Galan asked after they’d found the stairs down, entering a perfectly circular pit that oddly mirrored the one the Arcturus had cut to get down to that level of the planet’s surface in the first place.
It was about 50 meters in diameter, and the flooring was rough-hewn stone, clearly much older than the rest of the structure. Nothing about the architecture screamed Tkon to Galan from his quick study of existing ruins, but he wondered if whoever had built the ruins were the ancestors of the people who built the museum, not the Tkon themselves. There were a number of stone structures in three rough circles surrounding a domed building in the center, which was buttressed by metal beams that looked more like the museum’s architecture. A reconstructed shrine?
“Mmm. Yes. I suppose people are simply clamoring to watch you translate, sir,” Ensign Belvedere quipped. “There are museums like this on Earth. It’s more about realizing that just because something happened long ago in time doesn’t mean it happened long ago in space.”
The Romulan had not entirely figured out what Belvedere’s purpose was besides providing regular does of sarcasm, which the captain seemed to tolerate to a point, before reminding the two of them what their task was while their security escort looked on in silence. An archaeologist, perhaps, but Lancaster did not seem particularly interested in understanding anything about the place they were in, so his presence seemed supernumerary to their purpose.
Still, he hadn’t thought of it from Belvedere’s point of view, and that wasn’t an entirely unreasonable thought he’d just had.
“I’m not picking up any sort of defenses, other than several passive sensing devices which appear to be offline. This must be a low-crime area,” Lieutenant Commander Osokin noted, though the Russian still seemed poised to knock Captain Lancaster to the ground at any moment should something appear.
“Tkon technology is so far beyond our own that it’s likely that any defenses still present are beyond your ability to detect, Mister Osokin,” Lancaster reminded him, though he was focused on his own tricorder. “I want extra security stationed at every entrance to this room. Other than the glass ceiling, it seems defensible.”
“Aye, Captain,” Osokin confirmed.
“This is what we’re looking for,” Lancaster confirmed when the landing party got to the center of the room, indicating a smooth, unadorned pillar made of a shimmering, iridescent material that was clearly alien to its environment.
The walls of the small domed structure surrounding the beacon were covered in Tkon letters, appearing to have been cut by hand into the stone. Galan circled the room, some words coming off the walls easily to him and others illegible. He quickly figured out that there were panels of Tkon text between thinner strips of the language of the planet’s natives, but the connection between the two wasn’t immediately apparent.
“It will take a significant amount of time to translate these walls, even with imaging scanners,” Galan noted.
“Order in whatever equipment you need. Those might be the instructions we’ll need to get this thing working,” the captain replied.
“I think this script records how this beacon was found, and this script is… some sort of a technical jumble,” Belvedere chimed in, pointing between the native script and the Tkon script after scanning the wall with his tricorder.
“You two better be able to do better than ‘technical jumble,’” Lancaster replied.
After bringing in heavier-duty equipment and setting up a live link with the linguistics specialists in Cetacean Ops, it still took Galan almost six hours to translate the text with the assistance of Ensign Belevedere, who was admittedly reasonably competent. Though not a linguist himself, he was able to help with some contextual knowledge about the Tkon that made the process go a little more quickly, but given how much of what they’d translated was technical in nature, both of them were struggling to understand it.
From what they were able to determine, the text in the native language described how the beacon was found in a cave deep under the city they were standing in. It was installed in this place for veneration. Based on other badly damaged materials they’d found in surrounding labs and workspaces, there were other Tkon ruins on the planet, but they weren’t understood until a century or so before the end of their own civilization.
“I do not see a ‘press here to fix beacon’ button,” Belvedere noted, yawning.
They had moved out of the structure itself and set up their workspace along the ruins of a stone wall that was just high enough to put their equipment at a practical level. Lancaster had been asking for regular reports, but he had been busy having engineers drag in gear for the last hour or so.
“I believe I have found the correct frequency to reactivate the beacon,” Lancaster reported through their comm badges.
By the time Galan and Belvedere walked back into the chamber containing the beacon, Lancaster had already activated an array of three power transmitters surrounding the pillar. Moments later, the surface of the beacon began to project a holographic display showing symbols very close to the ones cut into the rock. Very similar, but not exactly the same, Galan realized after having stared at the text for hours now.
“Were you able to decipher the instructions?” Lancaster asked.
“I no longer believe they were instructions, Captain. I think these carvings are a representation of the display as it appeared the last time it was active, or when it was first discovered, anyway,” Galan replied, pointing to an area in blue. “Look here, this says ‘eleven-point nine,’ but on the corresponding part of the carving, it says ‘twenty-six.’”
“We need to make the beacon look like its… factory settings?” Belvedere supplied.
“And you’re sure there’s no reset command somewhere?” Lancaster asked, not seeming entirely sarcastic.
“I don’t believe so, Captain. I can only wonder if this was meant to be part of a larger system that would have regulated it more effectively. We did learn from the inscription that it was found in a ‘cave,’ with no mention of the corresponding infrastructure, so it’s possible it was never meant to be on this planet in the first place,” Galan offered.
“Either way, we’re going to need more eyes on this,” the captain replied before tapping his badge. “Lancaster to Sunvair. Report to my position as soon as possible.”
“Acknowledged and understood, Captain,” came the voice of the ship’s Head of Space Sciences, a Vulcan.
“This beacon is connected across subspace to hundreds or thousands of other beacons which provide telemetry to an unknown extragalactic point. We’re going to need a stellar cartographer,” Lancaster explained when Galan arched an eyebrow.
In orbit, the Arcturus had launched every runabout, and the Hokule’a, which were all maintaining a defensive formation in geosynchronous orbit above the archaeological site. For all the distractions and misdirections that they’d been able to accomplish through runabout trips around the sector, eventually, the Kazon would find them if they stayed in one place for too long, and they were out for blood.
The whole operation had been a boon for the ship’s pilots, with nearly every shuttle, regardless of the class put into service moving components between the Arcturus and the surface, to finish the gargantuan engineering project Captain Lancaster had set them on. It had also been a boon for Lieutenant Nate Windsor, who found himself as the First Officer of the Hokule’a under Lieutenant Commander Selon, for however long they needed to maintain the defensive perimeter.
Command had always been Windsor’s aspiration, and he’d enjoyed getting to sit second seat to the XO on Alpha Shift, first for Captain Lancaster and now for Captain Rakan. Still, even if it was temporary, an actual command assignment put a spring in his steps as he made the rounds on the tiny ship.
Engineering was on Deck 3, at the center of the Hokule’a. The steady thrum of the warp core was the ship’s beating heart, and it cast a blue glow over the whole room, where Lieutenant Hidalgo was on duty with a pair of crewmen. Hidalgo was just engrossed in his task enough not to notice Windsor until he’d gotten a few steps into the room.
“Something I can help you with, Nate?” Hidalgo asked from one of the seated workstations in the vestibule.
“That’s First Officer Windsor to you,” Windsor replied. “Report, Chief Engineer.”
Hidalgo rolled his eyes slightly. “All systems nominal, First Officer, sir,” the lieutenant confirmed. “I’m running our hourly diagnostic on all tactical systems, as per the orders from the bridge.”
“Very well, Mister Hidalgo. Carry on,” Windsor said, putting his hand on the other man’s shoulder as he observed what he was doing at the console.
Past them, the warp core seemed far too close for comfort to stand next to all day. Windsor always had these vague feelings that standing too close to a warp reactor would somehow leave him sunburned at the least, or his growth stunted at the worst. That thought made him smirk a little as he thought about how short his boyfriend was, and he was a warp systems engineer, after all.
“Is command everything you hoped and dreamed, sir?”
“I mean, it lets me come to see you whenever I want, so, yes,” Windsor replied.
Hidalgo chuckled. “That’s a very good answer, Mister First Officer.”
The engineer tapped a few commands into his console as the diagnostics wrapped up. From his vantage point, Windsor could see that everything was in tip-top shape. Engineering had been working overtime for more than a week to ensure the Arcturus and all of her support ships were in perfect working order in case they ran into the Kazon again.
“Anything to note?”
“Nope. Everything’s still as perfect as it was an hour ago,” Hidalgo replied, looking up at him. “God, when I’m sitting down, you’re a kilometer tall, cielo. Sit down.”
Windsor laughed and took a seat at the adjacent console. “Yes, sir. You’re the boss,” he added, with a wink that caused Hidalgo to roll his eyes. “What about you? How’s running the engine room?”
“Oh, it’s fine. This ship could be flown pretty reliably with just bridge crew for several weeks, so there’s not a lot to do down here,” the engineer replied, his brown eyes going wide as he finished that statement. “Not that I am complaining or in any way would want to tempt fate! Mierda.”
“I doubt we’ll have any trouble. We’re dug in here, and that’s enough to give the Kazon pause,” Windsor said, hoping he was correct.
What Lancaster had done back at Thalruatania was an impressive feat of brinksmanship, but it was something that couldn’t be repeated. If the Kazon found them again, it would come down to a contest of brute strength. It was likely one they would win, but there were no guarantees they’d get out of it with no scrapes.
“Well, assuming we’re still deployed like this tonight, you should stop by my cabin. I have a surprise for you,” Hidalgo said, clearly trying and failing to sound casual.
“Oh, really, Arturo?”
“Yes. Now stop pushing my buttons, First Officer Windsor,” Hidalgo said, fighting through a smile to look serious.
Windsor imagined the possibilities of what such a surprise could consist of, given the cramped bunks they had on the Hokule’a. At least he and a handful of officers like Hidalgo had single rooms; he didn’t want to think about the two twelve-person bunk rooms some of the junior personnel got.
“I”ll check back in later, Chief Engineer Hidalgo,” Windsor replied.
The command lieutenant stood up and started to leave, but Hidalgo caught his hand.
Windsor leaned down to kiss him, knowing his mistake.
“Mea culpa,” he said, grinning down at him, before leaving him to his duties with even more of a spring in his step than before he’d taken report from the Chief Engineer.
Meanwhile, Commander Sunvair had beamed down to the diplomatic launch, which was serving as the command center and beachhead for the whole surface operation. It was highly unusual for her to have duty with a landing party, as her specialty, nay her identity, was as a space scientist. The combination of archaeology and astronomy was potentially fascinating, but it meant leaving behind a dozen in-progress experiments that all needed careful tending to. As she stepped off of the transporter pad, which had been set up in the center of the launch’s main meeting room, a Human lieutenant in red approached her. His uniform was different, as well.
“Welcome to Eta Torrensis IV, ma’am,” the lieutenant said, offering her a Type-II phaser pistol in a holster.
“What is this, Lieutenant?” the Vulcan asked.
“It’s… it’s a phaser pistol?”
Sunvair blinked; her meaning had not been conveyed. “I am aware of that. Why do I need it? Is this not a dead planet?”
“Captain’s orders, ma’am. You’ll also need cold-weather gear and a breathing mask,” he replied, gesturing to the garment and breathing mask which had been readied for her on a work table.
“Very well,” she replied, suiting up. “Why is it that you do not have an excursion coat, Lieutenant…?”
“Lieutenant Harper Bowens, ma’am. My hazard suit provides the same protection in a space-saving format,” he replied, which explained the rubbery-looking uniform he was wearing.
“Fascinating,” Sunvair replied, arching an eyebrow at the human, who looked… constricted and entirely too exposed in such a garment. “I assume you will now direct me to my workspace?” she asked, looking around the small ship.
“Yes, ma’am. We’ll be heading out onto the surface. My orders are to ensure your safety,” Bowens replied.
“I am again perplexed by your instructions, as we are the only sapient beings on this planet, but I can only assume the captain is aware of my lack of recent away experience,” the Vulcan stated matter-of-factly, before following Bowens over to the egress/ingress lift.
They both secured breathing masks before the floor lowered to take them down to the plaza the large shuttle had landed on. The commander followed the lieutenant as they walked towards the large structure that seemed to be the focus of their mission.
“You wear a hazard suit, so you are involved in hazardous waste disposal, Lieutenant?” Sunvair asked.
Sunvair wasn’t particularly interested, but she also knew that Humans seemed to be made uncomfortable by extended bouts of silence. The young man looked over his shoulder at her with an unmistakable look of confusion at the question, which made Sunvair briefly reflect on how little attention she’d paid the onboarding documents when she’d followed Admiral Hayden to the Arcturus.
“No, ma’am. I lead one of the four hazard teams. Multi-disciplinary away teams meant to handle dangerous situations,” he explained patiently.
“Ah, of course. I do not tend to go far beyond the bulkheads of my own department,” she replied. “You have advanced hand-to-hand and tactical training, then?”
Bowens chuckled. “I’m a pilot, actually, but we do train in those things between missions.”
Sunvair arched an eyebrow again, initially at the idea of a pilot leading a ground team, but then her thoughts shifted entirely to the obvious blast hole which led into the building’s interior. Two security officers were flanking this ‘entrance.’
“Did you and your hazard team create this opening?”
“No, ma’am. That was the captain himself,” Bowens replied with a grin.
Even with her vaunted Vulcan intellect, it took Sunvair a few hours to get thoroughly familiar with the work that Galan, Belvedere, and the rest of Lancaster’s team had been doing to translate the Tkon artifact. But once she understood, it came to her at once.
“You are correct that these inscriptions are not the instructions for the proper settings on this device. They are a record of what it was displaying when they were carved. We need to adjust the device to compensate for stellar drift, subspace migration, and other interstellar weather shifts between that time and the present,” she announced.
“How long will that take?” Captain Lancaster asked, crossing his arms.
Lancaster was pleased Sunvair had managed to solve at least that part of the mystery relatively quickly, but they had been on the surface for most of a day at that point, and he just wanted the whole experience to be over.
“Unknown, Captain. I will need to build a model calibrated to the precise times involved and then interface with an alien system in an alien language through two well-meaning but entirely under-qualified assistants,” the Vulcan replied.
Belvedere and Galan looked at each other and then to the Commander with sour expressions.
“I am sure she means in terms of astrophysics, not your linguistic skills,” Lancaster interjected.
Before he could say anything else, the captain’s badge chirped.
“Command post to the Captain. We need you out here, sir,” van Dorland reported.
“Understood,” Lancaster replied. “Do what you can. We need this beacon calibrated,” he ordered.
Osokin accompanied Lancaster as he left the museum building and crossed the plaza back to the diplomatic launch. The wind was whipping through the ancient buildings, and the temperature was noticeably lower, with the sun almost entirely below the horizon. Lancaster found the engineer staring at meteorological data on one of the consoles they’d crammed into the reception hall.
“The weather’s not looking good. Data from the Arcturus shows at least two snow squalls likely within the next hour and then a full-blown blizzard overnight. Winds are already gusting over 40 knots. Best projections are that the humidity we introduced into the atmosphere has exacerbated local weather systems,” van Dorland reported. “I think you should, and the bulk of the engineering team should beam back up to the ship, sir, before we activate the shield.
The weather was not why Lancaster had had a few hundred engineers digging into the trench they’d cut into the planet’s surface to install shield generators. He wanted a way to ensure that the Kazon would not take the beacon from him, whatever happened. Still, they could deflect the wind and snow just as easily as they could stop weapons fire.
“I’m hardly afraid of a little snow, Jack,” Lancaster reminded him.
“Of course not, but once we turn the shield on, it’ll be difficult to get you back up to the ship, especially when it starts to ice over,” van Dorland pointed out.
The captain nodded. “Beam any engineers you don’t need back to the ship, and then activate the shield, but I’m not leaving this planet until that beacon is back online,” he said before turning on his heel and returning to his work.
Whatever his crew might need to face in orbit before then was up to them. Every instinct he had to return to the bridge at this critical juncture was being held back by the knowledge that fixing this beacon would have lasting ramifications all over known space. Failure would lead to the destruction of civilization. Weather be damned, he wasn’t going anywhere.