(11) First Contact

The Mora Campaign (268-1119)

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268-1119 : Gorram / Lunion / Spinward Marches (cont.)

    local midday at the village = 6.2 pm ship's time
    midday ship = 10.9 am local (local noon = 17.1 am local)

    It will take Mich Saginaw the rest of this day to produce the hardened sensors, and there's no real way to test them aside from actually deploying them near the village.
    He has looked to see if there's anything he can tell about the fate of the Rattlesnake from the information in the cutter's computer, but as he would expect, there's no information of use there.  All he has to go on is Brandon Asu's non-technical description, which certainly is consistent with his story.

    Marquis Marcus Crestworthy asks for a volunteer to pilot the ships boat down to investigate.  Vonish Kehnaan, the leading candidate, feels a sudden urge to wear his favorite red shirt.  None of the team will be wearing psi helmets, because that seems to invite attack.  Marc points out that the helmet that was in the battledress was as good a helmet as can be mass-produced.  It was fried.  This does not comfort Vonish's fears.
    The only devices which seem to be attacked are those which shielded, detected, or transmitted psionic energy.  When Vonish points out that the Marquis was attacked yesterday, the noble replies that he was actively sensing at the time.
    "What if some of us don't know that we're psionic?" asks Helia Sarina.
    "If you don't know you're psionic, you won't accidently use an ability you don't know about," the Marquis assures them.  "My research shows that the chances of coming across an ability accidently are very low indeed."
    Helia could, of course, pilot the cutter remotely, but communications interference and propagation delay makes it difficult.  They'll reserve that for a situation where no-one on the boat can pilot it themselves.
    Marc, as an aside, mentions that he's a little worried about Misha's jehrig.

    Vonish, wearing his faded red shirt, will pilot the cutter.  Misha Ravanos will be the other member of the team, and try to introduce himself to the aliens.  They are under instructions to descend nice and easy, no rush.
    Helia pulls out a silver medallion (a circle with a cross in the middle) on a black silken cord and gives it to Vonish for luck.  "Bring it back to me, it's always brought me luck," she says.  It really hasn't, but she's just trying to make him feel better.
    Marquis Marc briefs the away team.  "The mounds are buildings, the critters are underground.  Here's where they were."  He points at his map; some, but not all, of them were in the mounds.

    Vonish and Misha transfer to the Rattlesnake's cutter, and they break away.  Vonish fires up the thrusters and drops from orbit.  Meanwhile Helia, with Robert Morris' help, sets up a standby remote pilot link.  It's 10 am ship's time.

    The descent takes about an hour.  The cutter arrives in the vicinity of the village at about 11 am ship's time (9.9 am local).  Vonish brings them toward a landing about 150m from the edge of the village.  It's daylight there, and getting slowly brighter.
    The cluster of mounds is around 100m diameter.  The snow is pretty smooth, and it's well below freezing outside.  The weather is fairly clear.  They passed through scattered snow showers on the way down.  There is not much of a wind, which makes the landing easier.  Even so, the left front landing leg is in a depression, and the cutter is far from level -- until Vonish levels it out.

    The temperature outside is around -10.  The atmosphere of course is thin but perfectly breatheable.  It doesn't require a respirator unless someone's engaging in heavy exercise -- but to be safe, Misha fastens one over his lower face.  Other than that, he's wearing normal cold weather gear, with his large sword strapped to his back.  His jherig is perched on his shoulder.  He opens the door.
    From the look of the ramp, the snow is around 30cm deep.  He walks down the ramp onto the surface of the planet and starts walking towards the mounds.
    Vonish closes the door behind him and watches his First Officer approach the alien structures.

    Misha wades through the snow, which varies in depth from about 30cm to a meter or so.  He calls out, "Hello!" in every language he knows.  There is no response.
    He then walks over to a mound and looks at it.  Loose snow covers something harder underneath.  He brushes the snow away, and finds that it's an igloo-like structure made from carefully stacked rocks.  Some of the rocks carry marks as if they'd been chipped and shaped to fit better.  There is no mortar between the rocks.  The mound is about 2m high and 5m across, slightly flatter than a hemisphere.  He circles around the mound, poking his hand into the snow looking for anything different.  He also keeps a careful eye out in case anything approaches.  The mound seems to be the same all the way around.
    All the mounds are about the same size.  Misha can't see any real pattern in the way they are laid out.  He calls Vonish to relay his communication to the Third Eye.  He asks the Captain to try to detect life forms, but the ship is in orbit, much to far away.
    After wandering around the village for a while,  Misha climbs the mound he'd originally examined.  He's looking for an entrance or something at the top, but the stones show no difference all the way up -- they're well fitted, though, and the structure is clearly holding itself together from its own weight and design.  He looks around, but his new vantage point doesn't give him any more insight.  There's no sign of anything.
    He steps down off the mound, and wanders around the village for a few more minutes.  Nothing more happens, and he walks back to the cutter.

    Back inside in the warmth, Misha and Vonish sort through the stores for some trinkets and so on to leave for the natives.  A plastic container is picked to contain a flashlight.
    Misha goes back out again.  The weather is clearing, and if anything it's getting colder.  He walks towards the center of the village, places the container on the snow, but then starts to get an odd uneasy feeling.  The jherig stirs on his shoulder.
    He picks the box back up and starts to carry it out of town.  He's still feeling rather uneasy, and the jherig seems quite uncomfortable.
    When he reaches the edge of town, he faces the mounds, puts the box down, and waits.  He plans to let fifteen minutes pass while watching to see if anything moves.  The first thing to move is the jherig -- it gets increasingly nervous, and suddenly tries to take off and fly towards the boat.  It doesn't do so very well -- in the thin cold air, it's sluggish, and just sort of flaps to the snow.  Misha slowly turns and heads back towards the cutter after it, leaving the box behind.  He starts to feel more comfortable, but the jherig doesn't -- it's having problems with the air and temperature.  Misha carries the jherig back to the cutter, and they sit down and warm up for a while.  The jherig is much more comfortable in this environment.
    From the safety of the cutter, they just watch and wait...

    Misha thinks he sees a little bit of movement in the snow over by the base of the mounds.  He pulls out binoculars and studies it closely.  It looks like something has stuck up above the snow slightly at the edge of the dome, just outside it.  It's white and fairly flat, sort of like a flattened dome shape.  After a while it drops, and there's a bit of disturbance in the snow like something's crawling underneath the snow in the direction of the boat.
    It comes out beyond the edge of the village.  It's still headed towards them, moving slowly.  It's hard to see -- if it had been snowing, Misha would probably never have seen it.
    About a hundred meters from the boat, the movement stops.
    "Open the door, Vonish," says Misha.  He walks out, carrying the binoculars but leaving his jherig behind.  The movement has left a slightly perceptible trail in the snow.  He heads towards it.

    About fifty meters from the spot where it stopped, Misha comes to a halt.  There's still no response at all.  Misha waits.  Nothing happens for a while, but then it moves slightly about five meters and stops.  Misha does the same.  Again there's a pause, and it moves very slowly towards him -- it's moving in an oblique direction, but definitely towards him.  It has put nothing up above the snow.
    Misha waits to see what it does.
    It stops about twenty meters away.
    Misha begins walking forwards slowly but directly towards it.  He stops a couple of meters away from it.  He sees a small depression in the snow where it stopped.  Where he's standing, the snow is about half a meter deep.  He waits a couple of minutes and steps a meter closer.  There's still no effect, so he walks very slowly right up to it.
    Looking around he notices that there's maybe another one out there, about 40m away.
    Misha kneels down, reaches down to where he thinks it is, and slowly clears the snow.  He finds nothing, and quicker and quicker clears out the snow.  He finds a hole, about 20cm in diameter, that goes downwards and then heads off to its left.  The dirt edges of the hole are hard-packed.  Some dirt that came from the hole is under the snow he's cleared.  The hole is obviously fresh.
    The hole heads off in the direction he saw the other one.  He pulls out the binoculars and tries to see if he can follow that one's trail back -- he can't really see it too well.
    Misha waits several minutes.  He spots another one, and can follow it's trail back into the village.  Neither are moving, but another -- between him and the cutter -- is heading towards the boat.  Misha warns Vonish, who wants to know how it got between them.
    Misha says, "Well, I'm not a very big wall, and I have a feeling these things can dig, reasonably rapidly, so I'm an even smaller wall than you might imagine."
    "Here's a suggestion," says Vonish, "You run like hell over here, and we leave."
    "That's an idea, but what's the fun in that?"
    "We live to have fun another day?"
    "If we're always going to be running, we'll never have any fun.  We'll get old.  No fun."
    "Yes, we'll live to grow old, what a thought!"
    "I don't believe in having fun in your old age."
    "Anyway," says Misha, "Keep an eye on him, see what he does.  And keep looking around.  I have this theory that they're trying to surround me."
    "I think they've succeeded very well," observes Vonish.

    Misha looks for more trying to surround him.  There's two -- the one he spotted before, still moving towards the cutter, and another one about halfway between himself and the boat.  He continues to watch and wait, getting a distinctly uneasy feeling.  So's Vonish -- he pulls a hunting knife out of the stores, which makes him at least feel a little more secure.

    Misha starts a purposeful walk towards the boat.
    Vonish says, "Your dragon friend is becoming agitated, and I'm not feeling too swift about the situation either.  Were you planning on coming aboard soon?"
    "That's my intention."
    "Might I suggest the airlock this time, as opposed to the hatch?"  Vonish prepares to cycle the lock so it's ready as soon as Misha gets near.

    Suddenly Misha stumbles, as if something slammed him hard in the head.  He draws his blade and runs for the boat, ready to swing at anything that gets in his way.  He feels another odd feeling in his head, as if he was almost hit again, but keeps going.
    On the cutter, Vonish takes a hit too.  "Sir, if you're not aboard in a few more seconds, I'm taking off without you."
    Misha reaches the open airlock hatch, and tumbles into it, feeling suddenly dizzy again.
    Vonish starts the lock cycling and goes for the pilot's chair.  He sags into it heavily, feeling very sluggish.  "Uh, there's, uh, something wrong.  Guys, we need help!" he says with an effort.
    Misha staggers in from the lock and says, "Helia, get us out of here!"
    Helia is ready, but the cutter is taking some time responding to the link.
    "We're not moving!" moans Vonish.
    Helia explains, "There's interference or something, it's not working.  Let me try something else.  There, that's better!"
    The cutter starts climbing fast.
    Vonish's head hurts even more.  He's sitting in the pilot's chair, holding his head and resting it on his arms on the console.  "I know I know how to fly this, but I can't really concentrate right now."
    "It's OK, they probably got you," says Helia.  "I've got you, don't worry about it.  The bad guys probably got to you, don't worry, we got you.  We'll take care of you and get you to the doctor.  Sit back and enjoy the ride."
    Misha flops into a chair and urges Helia, "Faster!"
    Helia gets the cutter climbing as fast as possible, at a full 4g thrust.
    Vonish slumps into unconsciousness.
    The cutter climbs rapidly if not exactly smoothly.
    "Sorry guys," says Helia, " I'm pulling it as fast as I can get it without killing you."

    It takes about 20 minutes to reach orbit, and another 15 minutes to bring it alongside the Third Eye.  By then Vonish has recovered consciousness, but still feels very bad.

    They are met at the airlock by the ship's doctor, Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead, who rushes them off to the sick bay.  The doctor runs a lot of scans on them both, all the time muttering about how primitive this equipment is, and how if he just had the right equipment he could really run some scans to tell if their minds had been tampered with.  He gives them something for the pain, and a sedative for Vonish to help him rest.  He will be keeping Vonish in overnight for observation.  Misha is released from sick bay at about 1:30.

    Misha immediately reports to his captain.  He tells Marquis Marc about his attempts to make some sort of contact, which backfired.  They managed to make contact, and Misha tells him about the attack and their escape and survival.  He then returns to his stateroom to rest.

    Helia drops by sick bay to visit Vonish.  "Hey, Vonish, it looks like the wheel helped a little.  You did some good stuff until they attacked you.  Nice work!  You can keep it.  It was given me by another pilot.  He said it would bring me luck.  Wear it always when you're piloting.  Besides, it gives you something to hang on to when you're scared."

    Meanwhile, Mich and Robert have been working on the undersea probes.  The first is a great success, incorporating innovations in engineering and communications to improve capabilities beyond that anticipated.  The lessons from that probe are used in the second.  The first is good down to about 20m safely, while the second is good down to around 50m, possibly further.
    Work on the hardened psi sensor is more difficult, and Mich doesn't have much time for it today.  He does nevertheless come up with some good ideas that he will try tomorrow when he actually builds the sensor.

    Dinner for once is not a success.  Without Vonish available to cook for them, the crew are reduced to standard rations.  It's pretty awful.
    Helia drops by sick bay and brings Vonish some herbal tea she's prepared for him.  After the doctor passes it as harmless, Vonish can enjoy it.

    Sagan had been watching the away team on the video feed in hir stateroom.  Sie visits Vonish in sick bay, and asks him what sort of illness came over him.
    The doctor explains that Vonish was quite stunned with some minor brain swelling.  He says it was the effect of the thin air, the cold, and the sudden take-off.  He also apparently hurt his neck when he slumped over.  He's being kept in for observation.
    The hiver expresses surprise that this happens to the humans.
    The Baron says that if you don't keep your diet right, and don't exercise properly, this happens.
    Helia says, "Vonish has a good diet, he's the cook."
    "Well there you go," says Baron Bridgehead.
    Vonish rouses to that: "Excuse me?"
    "Yeah," says the Baron, and backpedals quickly.  "Well, look, it's all too complicated, this medical stuff, you wouldn't understand it."
    "I used to work in the hospital as an attendant," says Helia, "They trained us in first aid and all kinds of stuff like that."
    "Oh no," Bridgehead assures her, "This is way beyond that.  You wouldn't understand this.  This equipment here is just so primitive... and..."
    "Can I borrow a book?" asks Helia innocently.
    "No, there aren't any."
    "Ever? Anywhere?"
    "Well, there were some on my ship, but..."
    "They're lost," interrupts Vonish, "Forever."
    "Yes," confirms the Baron.
    "Can you write down exactly I might need to read, and I'll go andread it sometime?" asks Helia.
    "I don't think you'd have access to the papers," replies Bridgehead.  "And I haven't written some of them yet."
    "Oh."  Enlightenment spreads across Helia's face.  "Oh.  Oh, I see."
    The hiver is intrigued.  Sie wishes Vonish well, and goes off to visit Misha.
    Helia merely thinks the Baron is a flake.  Maybe he knows his stuff, but he's Out There.

    "Misha," Sagan says, "Is it permitted to speak with you at this time?"
    "I'm not really feeling very well, could you come back tomorrow?"
    "Ah.  I see.  You're suffering from the cold and dietary problems as well."
    Misha confirms hir suggestion.  The hiver leaves politely.

    Sagan is still interested in what happened down there on planet.  Sie hooks up to the Extraordinary Circumstances and checks hir own information on the possible causes.  Sie does find a lot of information that matches.  Fainting from hypoxia, stumbling and lack of coordination, these are all consistent.  Swelling of the brain doesn't quite fit, but Sagan is fairly satisfied with what sie finds.
    Perhaps looking for a conspiracy theorist's take on the situation, sie visits Akeem Gavrolovitch for a conversation.

    Meanwhile Robert is alerted by the alarm he'd set, and rushes to piggyback on the hookup.  Once again penetrating the hiver ship's systems, he manages to expand his knowledge of the hiver computer.  It's still very much strange to him, though, and almost incomprehensible.
    When Sagan severs the link, Robert drops the connection.  He turns instead to checking up on the newcomer, Brandon Asu.  There is not much to go on -- his name, the information that he was a merchant, then a scholar at a small college (unknown to Robert, but apparently the Marquis had heard of it) for a while, teaching Drama and various merchantile classes.  The databases at Robert's disposal aren't sufficiently extensive to provide anything much of value.
    Going through the computers of the cutter just confirms the consistency and plausibility of Brandon's story.  The boat was from the Rattlesnake, a Donosev class survey scout on detached duty.  Brandon says he was hired on to pilot the ships boat when their regular pilot fell ill, and that the ship had been chartered for a run from Capon to Quiru.  Mich seemed convinced that the ship jumped while he was outside, as Brandon described.  It's unusual for a Donosev-class to be on detached duty, but it's certainly not unheard of.
    Basically there's not much information, but everything Robert can find is consistent with Brandon's story.