The crystal signal from Pahvo was strong and gaining strength even as it sped through space. However, the Klingons were not particularly near and there was time, Lorca told the crew, just time to investigate another planet where they had found an intriguing pattern. There might just be some kind of backup for the Pahvo message, a boost to the signal or a way of spreading it wider, fanning it out, so to speak.
“If we send a team that can go in and out quickly,” he said, “we will at least know whether we have found an assistant for the Pahvons or just a curiosity. Either way, I think it’s worth the attempt.”
Speed then, was of the essence and that meant using people who already had experience of similar missions. He chose Michael Burnham almost without hesitating and then Ash Tyler to accompany her. Michael and Ash grinned at each other. Another mission together.
“No, Mr Saru,” he said, “you will not be going with them. I need you here and I worry about your tendency to fall victim to alien blandishments.”
The Kelpian glared but acknowledged Lorca’s decision. However, he pointed out that three was the minimum number for a mission, for safety reasons.
“Take Cadet Tilley, then,” the captain told Michael. “We aren’t going anywhere so she isn’t needed for the spore drive. And it will be good training for her.”
Michael nodded and tried to ignore Silvia Tilley’s puppy-like excitement as the three of them headed for the transporter room. Tilley was a competent scientist, she knew, and had some grounding in xenobiology. She was a good choice. And if Michael was completely honest with herself it would be nice to have her friend along. Her friend on one side and her boyfriend (if that was what he was now) on the other. It was a promising team.
She felt a pleasant shiver of anticipation. There might be time to follow up on that kiss. She didn't often let her guard down but somehow Ash had crept inside her defences. Pahvo had been the beginning of something. Maybe this mission would see their relationship grow. She glanced at Ash and was pleased to see him smiling at her.
The surface of the planet was surprising. There was, as far as they could see, no vegetation. Maybe they’d transported down to a desert region but they’d aimed for where the readings that suggested life were most concentrated. There was no water visible, either, and Michael was glad of their canteens. They would not, she hoped, be here long enough to need more than those contained. A rapid scouting mission with an overnight stop was all they had time for, and the temperature, despite the desert surroundings, seemed pleasant. They had, she reflected, transported without the normal amount of prior readings but time was short.
Everywhere they looked there were stones, ranging from the gravel sized pieces of a rough beach through pebbles and chunky rocks to looming boulders. Some were piled haphazardly in groups; others were laid out like mosaics. There was nothing else.
“I wonder what the planet’s name is,” said Michael. She disliked referring to worlds by the numerical denominations inevitably bestowed on them.
“Stone,” said Tilley.
“Well yes,” said Ash, “but I think Michael was wondering what the natives call it. It’s unlikely to be Stone, however suitable that seems to us.”
Michael gave him a glance of gratitude. That was exactly what she’d meant.
There was, oddly enough, a lack of silence. She could not classify what her ears were telling her as sound exactly, but it was perhaps the kind of noise a light breeze makes, just below the threshold of hearing but enough to make them aware of something going on.
Then the sound intensified and turned into a howling gale that attacked on all sides. But it was, apparently, a welcoming gale.
“Pleased to meet. Thank for visit. Understand want help. Will try.” The words were audible but with no definite source other than the entire surround. The voice, if that was what it was, spoke English, but in a clipped and foreign way, one lacking pronouns.
All three Humans turned where they stood in full circles, trying to pinpoint the speaker, without success.
Oh well, at least they spoke English.
“Who are you and where are you?” Trust Tilley to voice everyone’s question.
“We come in peace.” That was Ash, worrying about security but following Federation Protocol.
“We would like to negotiate with you.” As leader of the mission Michael knew it would be up to her to do any negotiations but it couldn’t hurt to suggest they all had some kind of authority.
“Here. Everywhere,” came the response.
Then there was a rushing sound like a river a long way in the distance, flowing fast. Something must have been decided in that exchange because now a biggish boulder directly in front of them seemed to speak, though without any mouth showing it was hard to tell. However, the next words definitely emanated from the boulder.
“Know come in peace. Can read intentions. Can read need too, and issues that formed need. Try to communicate in way understood by Humans; patient, please.”
So the boulder had presumably agreed to act as spokesperson for the others.
“Yes. Spokesperson.” It answered Michael's as yet unasked question.
“So you’re what, in the stones?” It sounded stupid even as she spoke but the boulder replied politely as if the question was quite reasonable.
“All stone here. Everything stone. Stone negotiates and helps. Reads intentions, too.”
Ash was looking anxious. He could hardly guard against danger if it could come from anywhere in the stone strewn landscape. Tilley was looking eager and curious.
Michael gulped.“You said you know why we are in need. So you must know what we need. Can you really help?”
“Can boost Pahvo signal,” the boulder said confidently. If a stone could sound confident. Michael decided it could and did.
“You are willing?” she asked. Because ability did not necessarily imply intent.
“Yes. Klingons too ready to follow personal good, not greater universal good. Stone does not like. Federation not perfect but better. Will help but things to arrange first. Not long.”
“Thank you.” Michael felt a rush of hope. “What should we call you and what is this world of yours? We must tell the Federation about you and perhaps you could join us.”
There was a short pause, filled with that river sound again then the boulder replied slowly.
‘No name. Stones no names. World no name. Not like Humans. Or Klingons. Or others.”
“So we can call it Stone if we want,” murmured Tilley and Michael supposed they could.
“But,” the boulder conceded, “can use Human ways to refer to stones if easier. Can call world Stone if wish. Can point to stone when wishing to speak.”
“Are all of you, I mean all the stones, sentient?” Ash asked.
“Here, yes. All. Other worlds, no. Some but not all.”
“How did you learn our language?” Michael wanted to know all about their new benefactors but didn’t want to ask too many questions that invaded privacy straight away. ‘Telepathy? Reading our minds, I mean?”
“Not telepathy. Cannot speak mentally to Humans. Can just read and then just general intentions. Stone travels without travelling. Listens to others on other worlds. Learns languages that seem important. Teaches to children.”
“Children?” Michael hoped she didn’t show how startled she felt but then realised that with a race of mind readers not showing her feelings was hardly an option.
As if to show rather than tell, a slew of tiny stones skittered closer, crowding around their feet. Then some other slightly larger ones fell from a nearby slope in a small avalanche that could only have been self started.
“Children,” the boulder confirmed. There was another pause then a very small smooth stone, for all the world like a pebble someone on a Human world might skim into water, bounced against Michael’s foot. It was a peremptory bounce, not an accidental one, and it was repeated forcefully.
The boulder seemed to sigh. “Some children curious,” it said. “Child wants to travel. Real travel, not staying here. Take with when go. In one of the holes in covering.”
“I think it means a pocket,” said Ash, “but I’m not sure we should.” He trained one of his instruments on the little stone. It seemed to be exactly that, a little stone. He sighed along with the boulder and looked at Michael. “It’s up to you,” he said. “I don’t think it has any explosive properties and even if it detonated in some way it’s very small. You should take it out of your pocket as soon as we return but otherwise...”
“Caution is wise,” said the boulder, and Michael found herself absurdly glad of silicon approval. “But,” the boulder continued, “stone not hostile and small stone cannot detonate.” The last few words were said in a tone of satisfaction. Michael decided she believed it completely.
She bent down and held out her hand. The little stone rolled into her palm and she stood, pocketing it. She felt it move slightly, getting comfortable in its new surroundings, and she grinned at her companions. “Seems someone’s going home with us,” she said.
“Thank .” This was the boulder speaking again. “While waiting for arrangements can read Humans. Present, past, future. If wish.”
‘You can tell the future?” Michael and Tilley spoke together.
‘Not events. Just possibilities based on past and present,” said the boulder.
What harm could it do? At worst it would be like visiting a fortune teller to while the time away at a fair. And it might please the stones, their hosts.
“Certain characteristic properties of elements can be foretold from their atomic weights,” said the boulder.
“That sounds like a quotation,” said Michael.
“Yes,” said the boulder. “Dmitri Mendeleev. Human scientist. Sensible. Since stones know Human atomic weights and other things, can foretell. Beginning.”
It seemed they had already agreed, so they shrugged and readied themselves to listen.