Tendi genuinely enjoyed her job. She did. Even when it wasn't that interesting. Almost especially then, because those were the times it was least stressful, and where she could actually take the mental moment to realize how much she enjoyed it.
That was not the case at that particular moment. She wouldn't have minded even some stressful excitement if only it didn't mean filling out any more summary reports.
"You know no one reads them," Mariner said.
Her reports were writing themselves from a report generator she'd programmed several weeks ago while she herself stared out a porthole window.
"But they must be of some use or they wouldn't ask to write them," Tendi argued. She stared at the last sentence she'd written and removed a comma. That flowed better.
Several minutes later she stood. "Want anything from the replicator?"
"Maybe some tea? Thank you," Tendi said. She looked back at her PADD but her will to work was slowly and surely waning. She hit save again and looked out Mariner's window. There was something out there, something moving.
It was sort of fluffy, yellowish, it rotated around once more and she caught a glimpse of something triangular. She recognized it, Tendi realized, she'd seen drawings of them from Earth media. It was a chick. A baby chicken, floating somehow in the vacuum of space outside the ship's hull. It couldn't survive out there for long.
Tendi raced to the door, smacked head first into Mariner, and continued into the corridor, running towards the nearest transporter room. Rutherford was working there that afternoon; he'd help them save the chick.
"Where are you going?" Mariner shouted after her.
Mariner was jogging alongside her—what had she done with the teacups? —the left side of her uniform wet.
"There's a chicken outside the ship!"
Tendi ran faster around a corner.
The door to the transporter room was open, but Rutherford was nowhere she could see. She went to the controls herself and scanned for anything in the right area, zeroing in on the first one the scan picked up. The transporter was already humming as Mariner arrived.
"Sorry, what did you say was where?"
The chick appeared on the transporter platform and bounced down the steps to stop at Mariner's feet. Tendi rushed over.
"Is it alive?"
Mariner bent to pick it up at the same time Tendi did.
"This," Mariner said in her most authoritative tone, "is not a chicken."
“What’s this about a miniature star?” Jim said even before he was all the way inside the laboratory. Spock looked up from the computer display. “Chekov was quite excited about it.”
“It’s not a miniature star,” Spock told him. That was an important piece of data to clarify. “We are still examining it.”
“What can you tell me so far?”
Spock looked back at his readings and did his best not to frown in Jim’s line of sight. “Not much, unfortunately, Captain. It gives off very strange energy readings. They fluctuate. I have not been able to determine a pattern.”
Jim leaned close over his shoulder to look at the data. “Is it alive?”
Spock had no idea. “Life sciences are attempting to determine that now sir.”
“Can I see it?”
The thing, being, whatever it was, had not proved to be dangerous so far. Spock stood and directed Jim’s attention to the containment field. When the field was switched to transparent, the object was floating, almost, right against the other side.
Jim reached out as if to touch it, Spock put his own hand out to stop him, and the ship disappeared around them both.
If a koosh ball glowed, flickered, and caused fluctuations to the warp core, it would have seemed very much like a koosh ball. Hoshi wasn’t getting any useful readings from it with any of her devices. Behind her, Commander Tucker was still arguing vehemently for it to be thrown back out into space to stop it from wreaking any further havoc with the engines. Next to her, Phlox hummed.
“I do believe it’s alive.”
“How can you tell?” she asked him.
He tilted his head to the side. “I can’t really, but I can’t find anything to suggest it isn’t alive. Seems the safest bet.”
They ran into enough strange things way out here Hoshi was willing to bet on that too. She crouched down closer to the thing’s level. It moved a little bit, and its appearance shifted. Something in the fibrous pattern shifted to reveal something a little more solid, which moved.
A single loud shrill sound emanated from the creature.
Hoshi blinked. It remained quiet.
“Hello,” she said cautiously. It made the shrill sound again. Her tricorder had recorded the sound, but couldn’t tell her anything about how the creature might have produced it. She pushed a button on her translator and hoped the computer database had anything useful they could compare it to.
“I’m trying to find a way to communicate with you,” she said.
It seemed to ruffle. The movement was in a distinctive sort of pattern, as if it had a physical structure, which the scans indicated was unlikely. It made the same sound. Hoshi looked back at her translator, which showed the same nothing as before, and sighed.
“I say get rid of it.”
Jadzia whipped her head around from the initial data read out, “Benjamin no! This is a scientific marvel, I have never seen anything like it, after seven lifetimes!
Benjamin spread his hands. “It’s dangerous, it’s already put out an EPS grid and Chief O’Brien hasn’t figured out a way to keep its effects contained. I understand the potential scientific value, but I can’t justify causing further damage to the station on an entirely academic matter.”
“How do you suggest getting rid of it?” Julian was leaning against the opposite wall with a PADD in his hands. “My understanding is that we don’t know how to interact with it at all. We don’t even know how it got here, much less how to stop it from coming back.”
“Chief O’Brien thinks he can transport it away from the station.”
“Into space? If it’s alive, that would kill it,” Julian protested.
“Is it alive?” Benjamin asked, pointedly.
“I don’t know yet.”
Jadzia had turned back to her scanner already, but she could picture the exhausted expression on Benjamin’s face just by his sigh.
“Fine,” he said. “You have an hour to figure out something else to do with it while I ask the Chief if he can take a guess as to how it got in here in the first place.”
“Thank you,” Jadzia said.
“Don’t thank me yet.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Julian promised. The doors slid open and closed, signaling Benjamin’s exit. Julian came to hover at her shoulder.
“Any new data?”
Jadzia gestured at the mess on the screen. They had plenty of data, but very little of it made any sense.
“We still don’t know if it’s even solid?”
“Unfortunately not. It’s as if it’s changing every time we look at it,” Jadzia said. In the hastily arranged containment field the thing beeped and wiggled.
Julian was quiet for a long moment. “What if we touched it?”
Tendi gasped and stumbled as the gravity and deck plating shifted under her feet, leaving her off balance as the strange sensation stabilized. Everything felt different, and it looked different too. They weren’t on the ship anymore. This looked like a planet.
“What the fuck .”
The chick was on the ground between her and Mariner. It peeped once and then started to wander off.
“Wait no,” Tendi said, but she was too afraid to grab for it again, in case it transported her somewhere else.
“What the fuck!” Mariner said again.
“The chicken’s getting away!” Tendi pointed out, hurrying after it, although she wasn’t sure what her plan was as it kept moving. If she wasn’t willing to pick it up then it was really just leading her through the strange field they’d found themselves in. She tapped her combadge but the Cerritos didn’t answer. That wasn’t the biggest surprise, this planet looked M-class and they hadn’t been anywhere near one.
“That thing is not a chicken,” Mariner said, again. “I don’t know what it is, but chickens don’t glow, or—”
The chick gave off several sparks and shot forward several meters. Tendi broke into a jog to keep up.
“Well, what do you think it is then?”
“I have no idea! Where we are and how we got here are the more important questions.”
Tendi was wondering the same thing. “Well maybe the chicken can tell us, maybe it brought us here.”
“How can I be sure this isn’t some kind of prank?” Mariner caught up with her, both of them trotting behind the chick, which was moving quite fast, faster than Tendi had assumed a chick usually walked. “Maybe we’re on the holodeck.”
“But how could we have gotten to the holodeck from the transporter room? We weren’t even standing on the transporter pad and there was no one at the controls.”
“Rutherford could have been hiding.”
Tendi didn’t reply. The chick did seem to have a specific goal in mind. It was peeping occasionally, and making a beeline for what looked like a fence.
As its trajectory became clearer, there was a bright light by the fence itself, and then two figures appeared. Tendi thought they looked slightly familiar. Something that looked like another chick was floating near them as well. Mariner hadn’t seen them yet, she was lagging a few feet behind, taking in the area around them.
The chick was faster than Tendi was. It accelerated with a few more sparks and peeped in the same shrill excited way as it bumped into the other chick. They fluttered around each other, bouncing, like long lost friends who had just been reunited.
Tendi slowed as she approached the figures. They really did look familiar. They were wearing uniforms but the uniforms she’d seen in history classes at the academy. She thought their faces might look familiar as well, but she couldn’t quite place them.
“Oh,” Mariner said, caught up, “we’re definitely on the holodeck.”
“That doesn’t make any sense though,” Tendi protested.
Mariner waved a hand at the men standing in front of them. “And real-life Kirk and Spock do?”
So they did look familiar. Tendi would have expected Kirk to be taller.
“I assure you,” said Kirk, “we’re quite real. How do you know who we are?”
Mariner ignored him. “No, this is all wrong, and definitely some kind of prank. The question is, how the hell did you get Rutherford to take off work—no even he couldn’t have pulled this off alone, how did you get Boimler to give up his precious report writing time? Unless he’s already finished, damn him.”
“Why do you assume I planned this?” Tendi asked.
Mariner raised her eyebrows. “Good point, whose plan was it?”
“No one’s! Because we’re not on the holodeck.”
“Excuse me,” Spock began. He was cut off by the chicks beginning to peep again and a bright light appearing a little way away.
There was a shriek from behind them. Spock turned and saw a young woman in a very old-fashioned flight suit standing several feet away with her hands pressed to her mouth. A small glowing thing was moving towards them rapidly.
“Oh my god there’s more of them.” This was one of the first two women, the one who had known their names and identified both of them as proof that her current predicament was a prank.
“Maybe they’re siblings!” the Orion woman said with great excitement.
“If we’re not on the holodeck these whatever-they-are’s are kidnapping people from throughout space and time and dropping them in some random empty field for an unknown purpose, that doesn’t alarm you?!”
“A very succinct analysis,” Spock told her.
“It does alarm me,” Jim said at the same time.
“You’re always asking where Boimler’s sense of adventure is, where’s yours?” the Orion woman asked her companion. “This is so exciting!”
“I left it back on the ship with my tricorder and everything else I own !”
“What is happening?” asked the newcomer.
Jim had turned to her as well. He said, “I wish I knew. We only just arrived.”
“My name’s Hoshi Sato,” the newcomer said. “I serve—”
“See?!” the human woman yelled at her Orion friend. Spock shot a glance at Jim.
Jim held out a hand to interrupt her. “If we have been taken from various points in space and time and dropped off here, maybe we should keep details to a minimum. I’m Jim Kirk, and this is Spock.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Jadzia flinched as the dizzying sensation passed as quickly as it came. When she opened her eyes, a group of people in a confusing array of uniforms stared back at her. Their object of study had joined them in unexpected transport and was now mingling with several identical versions of itself. From her left, Julian said, “Oh no.”
“Welcome,” someone who looked just like James Kirk, the famous historical figure, said. He was accompanied by someone who looked just like young Ambassador Spock. On their left was a woman in a uniform that dated back before the federation existed, and on their right, two women who were wearing more modern looking uniforms that Jadzia couldn’t place.
She realized it had been a long moment of silence, so she said, “Thank you,” rather cautiously, to be polite.
One of the women in modern uniform, a human, gestured to the group. “I’m Becket Mariner, this is D’Vana Tendi, Jim Kirk, Spock, and Hoshi Sato. We don’t know what’s happening either.”
Jadzia nodded at them in turn. “Jadzia Dax, and this is Julian Bashir.”
“Hello,” Julian said.
“How did you find the chick?” Tendi, the Orion woman, asked.
She waved towards the glowing spherical object, bumbling around each other. Jadzia tried to imagine them as baby birds and it wasn’t far off, as a metaphor.
“It got stuck in one of the vents,” Julian told her. “When you call it a chick, do you mean it’s alive?”
“Isn’t it?” Sato asked.
“We don’t know,” Spock said at the same time as Tendi said, “Of course!”
They turned to look at each other with skeptical expressions. Jadzia watched the little huddle the things made.
“They’re certainly acting like living things, but that’s no reason to jump to conclusions.”
“Was anyone able to get good data about the chicks, for lack of a better word?” Kirk asked.
“They’re really fast,” Mariner said.
“They’re incompatible with EPS grids,” Julian offered.
“They caused problems with the warp core,” Sato said. “And for what it’s worth, my data so far indicates they have some kind of rudimentary form of communication, it might not be at the level of a language, but I think that indicates they’re alive.”
“Or some kind of complex machine,” Jadzia said.
Sato frowned. “I suppose so.”
Conversation petered to a halt. The chicks, if that was the name they were going with, had dispersed from their tight huddle and were now wiggling around the plants on the ground, making shrill noises occasionally. The noises themselves didn’t vary enough for her program to detect patterns like words, but overall, taking into account their body language—such as it was—and the regular way they seemed to make the noise in response to her and to the others, indicated some level of intention to communicate something. If only Hoshi knew what.
The other people, including the Vulcan man, Spock, and two of the women who didn’t look human but weren’t of species Hoshi felt confident enough to identify by appearance alone, were all eyeing each other with different degrees of suspicion and nervousness. She got the distinct sense that they all knew more about each other than she did about them. The whole situation was incredibly overwhelming. If she thought about it too much she’d freak out, so she focused on what she knew.
The chicks’ movements weren’t direct, but they were moving slowly and steadily away from the circle the seven of them were standing in. It was impossible to tell them apart from each other, not only did their appearances change, but they glowed more brightly when they bumped into one another which made it hard to distinguish which one separated in which direction. Despite that, Hoshi identified one emerging as a leader. It was peeping every so often, and the others were following it, sort of.
“Has anyone tried contacting their ship?” Kirk asked finally.
“My combadge isn’t working,” Tendi said.
Mariner, the one in the same style uniform, immediately tapped at her chest also. Hoshi tore her attention away from the chicks to watch the other two also touch the little metal insignias on their chests. Hoshi would have assumed they were broaches.
“Those are your communicators?” Spock asked. “The compact and unobtrusive nature of them would appear beneficial, but I presume they are not easy to fix without specialized tools.”
“Not really,” Bashir said. “They’re a hardy piece of equipment though. I think it’s more likely we’re simply out of range.”
“Who has any equipment with them?” Kirk asked.
“I do.” Hoshi waved her scanner. Bashir and Dax reported tricorders, whatever those were, some kind of scanner, Tendi and Mariner only nonfunctional combadges, and Kirk and Spock themselves had nothing.
“How did you manage to have nothing?” Bashir asked, and the conversation strayed to what exactly everyone had been doing when they disappeared.
The chicks were getting further and further away. Kirk was distracted looking at the tricorders, but the chicks were picking up speed.
Hoshi ventured to interrupt. “You guys?”
Mariner looked up at her.
“The chicks. I’m going to follow them.”
Tendi rushed off after them, Hoshi close behind her. They were the only clue they had. The chicks kept close to the line of the fence, and it occurred to Hoshi for the first time that wherever they were must be, or have been, inhabited. A fence wouldn’t be a natural occurrence. Maybe the chicks weren’t the only clue after all. The view of wherever the fence was going to end was obscured by a small hill. The hill didn’t slow the chicks down at all, unfortunately.
Hoshi was panting hard by the time they arrived at the top. The chicks, and Tendi, were already halfway down the other side. The others joined her second by second, also stopping to take a breath. Being at the top of the hill offered a wide view of the area around them, which mostly seemed to level off. There were more lines of fencing running at perpendicular angles, making a network of different sized rectangles with no rhyme or reason Hoshi could see. There didn’t seem to be any paths, and more strangely, neither did there seem to be any gates.
“Where are we going?” Bashir asked. He didn’t seem much out of breath.
“Ask the chicks,” Dax told him, and she started down the hill.
The chicks were roughly three fourths of the way to the first fence. Tendi was about halfway, and doing a good job holding her pace. Hoshi was tempted to wait there and see if the chicks found the fence an obstacle, but if they didn’t, she didn’t want to be quite so far behind, so she started down the hill with everyone else.
Luckily, it seemed the fence did pose an obstacle. By the time the whole group arrived the chicks were bunched up in the corner, peeping occasionally, and Tendi was next to them, out of breath. Their little sprint had given Hoshi some useful data. The more noise they made the better they stayed together while they moved, and now that they were huddled again, they were quieting down. It was a shame she couldn’t reproduce the noise herself, but it was definitely out of her vocal range.
She wasn’t the only one who’d gotten more information.
Julian’s tricorder was still a mess of conflicting and scrambled data, but some of it was starting to clarify itself. Normally, he wouldn’t be ready to say they were definitively alive, but given how completely alien they were in any regard, the question seemed academic. The most fascinating thing was in relation to how they moved. His tricorder had been collecting data the whole time they’d been talking, and while the focused scans of the chicks were too garbled to be any use, the scans of the general area were much clearer.
“Jadzia,” he said, “look at this.”
She came to look over his shoulder.
“These gravitational readings . . .” he pointed.
“From the chicks?”
“It could be an effect of their propulsion.”
“Would you allow me to look at your readings?”
Julian kept himself from startling. “Of course.”
He handed his PADD over and watched Spock and Kirk crowd together to read it. He and Jadzia weren’t the only ones watching, Mariner and Tendi had also been trying to hide wide eyed looks. How many times could a person reasonably expect to meet two of the arguably most famous figures in Starfleet history. Not to mention—Sato wasn’t paying the rest of them as much attention—a member of Captain Archer’s crew.
Julian didn’t consider himself much of a history buff, but it was hard to be totally unphased when people right out of a history textbook were asking to see his tricorder readings.
Kirk pointed at something. “Remind you of anything, Mister Spock?”
“Indeed it does,” Spock said. “Fascinating.”
Jadzia nudged him. She was containing her excitement very badly, but Julian couldn’t blame her.
“Transport through space and time, but why would these things bring us here, and why us?”
“I’m not sure that bringing us here was intentional,” Jadzia said. “It might have been a side effect of interacting with it physically.”
Julian looked back over at the chicks and frowned. Sato was still close to them, observing intently. “If we assume they are alive, can we assume they’re intelligent? Did they mean to bring us here? Were they just using the interaction with our bodies as a jumping off point? Or did they intend to come here at all?”
“They must have,” Mariner piped up for the first time in a while. “The four of them all here together in such a short time period can’t be a coincidence.”
Sato looked up from her scanner. “They’re looking for something. Another one of their species would be my best guess.”
That was a very interesting inference.
“How do you know that?” Julian asked.
She launched into an explanation. “I’ve been collecting data about the noise they’re making and I’ve seen some patterns.” She showed him the display of her device but it didn’t make much sense to Julian. “While it was aboard our ship it made noises at a predictable interval. There were long gaps between the noises, now that I’ve had the chance to see them interact together, I can guess it was waiting for others to respond, letting its location be known. When they found each other they made the noises at closer intervals, and then stopped, starting the same pattern the one had been making while it was alone. When they were moving they picked up a different pattern, the one in the lead was doing almost a call and response, and now they’ve settled into the first pattern again.”
“How do you know they don’t just make that noise in that pattern all the time?” Tendi asked.
“It’s possible, but unlikely, based on my data.”
“So, if they find the other one, or however many they’re looking for, what happens then?”
Sato shrugged. “I can’t tell you that.”
“I don’t like this,” Mariner said. “Whatever these things are, can they send us back to our ships? To our time periods? We still don’t know where we are or when we are, and no one knows we might be in danger.”
“Surely someone will know we’re missing,” Jadzia put in.
“Maybe you’re important enough for a full-scale search, we—” she gestured at herself and Tendi “—are barely a blip in the system!”
“That’s a lie,” Tendi said, “you have bridge duty tomorrow; the Captain will notice you’re missing.”
“You overestimate how much the command idiots—” Mariner cut herself off looking over at Kirk guiltily. “I mean, Boimler and I have been like, hours late and she hasn’t said anything.”
“Well I’m supposed to meet Rutherford tonight to talk about the assignments we’re getting next, he’ll know something’s wrong when I don’t show up.”
Mariner groaned. “I have to put my faith in someone looking for us in Rutherford knowing how much of a nerd you are.”
“Pretty good odds then,” Tendi said.
Jim cleared his throat. The four of them in uniforms he didn’t recognize looked to him. They were uncomfortably attentive to him. He didn’t want to speculate too much as to why, but someone needed to keep things on track.
“I’m sure everyone has people who are worried about them, even if they’re fellow junior officers. Our main problem still needs our attention.”
Spock stepped up perfectly. “Am I correct in assuming that each of us were transported to this place when we attempted to touch the creature?”
There were murmurs of assent.
“Has anyone attempted to touch a creature again?”
“No, because no one wants to be transported somewhere else,” Mariner said.
“You make a good point,” Jim admitted. “I’m still willing to give it a go. Mister Spock, are you with me?”
Spock considered his suggestion for a moment. “We have too little data to make a truly informed decision, nevertheless, I am willing to try.”
“Hang on,” Bashir interrupted. “What if you both disappear; we won’t know what happened to you. What if it transports you back into empty space? You’ll die.”
“That is a possibility,” Spock said, “but I do not think it will occur. This location seems to serve as a meeting place. It stands to reason these creatures have some level of control over their ability to manipulate space and time.”
“What if you get transported to a planet that isn’t Minshara class?” Sato asked. “The chicks don’t seem to have the same environmental needs that we do.”
“Minshara—is that what M stands for?” Bashir asked.
“I don’t think it’s an accident these creatures all found our ships, pockets of M class conditions in space, and then transported us here, to an M class planet,” Jim said.
“But are you willing to bet your life?” Dax asked.
Jim looked at the creatures. “I am. Mister Spock, I won’t order you to take the same chance.”
“Captain, I would rather accompany you than find myself in a position of remaining behind if you should be transported somewhere when you touch the creature, which is not a certainty, I should remind you.”
Jim smiled at him. “A fair assessment. Well then. Ready?”
The creatures weren’t huddled so tightly as they had been. They milled about in the grass, not unlike chicks looking for seeds and grubs. Jim imagined these creatures subsided on something else.
“On my count,” Jim said. Spock crouched next to him, hand outstretched. The chick ruffled against the grass. “Three, two, one.”
He reached into the shimmery field surrounding, felt his fingers touch something soft, saw Spock’s fingers right next to his own. Nothing happened.
“Maybe you need to touch the specific one that brought you here,” Tendi suggested.
“Perhaps,” Spock said. Jim was willing to follow his lead. They reached out to the next closest. Spock counted. Jim held his breath. Nothing happened. There was silence from the group as they tried the third. The fourth made a peeping sound, but didn’t whisk them back to Enterprise.
“Well. That was anticlimactic,” Bashir said.
“Wait—” Dax was moving now. She picked up the one closest to her feet. “They were traveling in this direction, maybe they want to keep going.”
She walked carefully through the other three, and clambered over the fence before depositing the chick on the ground. It raced away and the others behind the fence began to call out. Several meters away the first one stopped and called back.
“See,” Sato was smiling, “they’re communicating.”
“They could lead us to something that could help us figure out how to get home,” Mariner said. She too, had scooped one up. Dax reached over the top of the fence to take it from her. Jim picked up one and Tendi took the last one, and then they all simultaneously realized their mistake as the chicks found one another and took off, leaving the rest of the group to scramble over the fence after them. They were moving at an angle this time, across the field itself. Jim couldn’t remember the layout of the fences.
Dax had an advantage of already having climbed over the fence. Bashir easily paced her and led the group. Jim let people pull ahead of him, and slowed to a more comfortable speed as it became clear they weren’t going to lose the chicks entirely in the grass.
He caught up with the rest of the group easily, but panting, and he could hear Bones’s voice in his mind trying to convince him to come run with him before their shifts. Spock might have been having the same thoughts because he looked rather amused, but Jim knew he hadn’t been to any more pre-shift runs than Jim had.
Mainer appreciated that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet Captain Kirk and Mister Spock face to face. She did, and she wanted to ask them a million questions, but more than she wanted to know the juicy details about the batshit insane adventures they supposedly had, she wanted to know how to get home . The chicks were taking them somewhere and Mariner didn’t have the patience for dawdling. Once everyone caught up, she picked up a chick and climbed over the fence.
The chicks took off at speed once they were all safely back on the ground, and she took off after them. Bashir pulled ahead of her again. Tendi ran at pace with her, seeming to have skipped the anxiety stage of being kidnapped by insane space shit to the excitement stage. Mariner envied her a little bit, although Tendi’s nonchalance did make her a bit anxious. There was a big difference between adventures you chose and adventures that chose you, and Mariner had a bone to pick with the second kind.
The next fence was at the bottom of a larger hill. “What are the odds they switch directions and go left this time so we don’t have to go up that,” Mainer asked.
“Very low,” Spock said suddenly from right behind her, making her jump.
Bashir had already picked one up and was waiting for them on the other side.
When they set all four of them down, they raced off straight upwards. Mariner sighed.
This time only Bashir and Tendi really ran for it. The rest of them trailed after at a more measured jog. The chicks disappeared after a minute, but Mainer figured they were in for another repeat of the first two fences and didn't hurry. Not until Tendi reached the top and began flailing in an attempt to get their attention. Bashir said something but it was lost in the noise of Mainers own heartbeat in her ears.
The group picked up the pace.
At the top of the hill Mariner's eyes almost popped out of her head. Many meters down the hill was another fence, as she'd expected. Beyond that was a growing, and loud, mass of identical glowing spherical creatures as their little flock of chicks. Only some of them might not have been exactly identical. The chicks they had been following were almost at the fence, and calling out to the others on the other side.
"Oh my god," Sato said.
They were coming from the opening to a building. It was a simple sort of building, probably made of this planet’s equivalent of wood, painted with a single bluish gray. The only opening on this side of the building were the two large sliding doors. The glow from the creatures—it didn’t feel right to call them chicks anymore—illuminated some of the inside.
Mariner ran down the side of the hill with the rest of the group, but this time rather than chasing the hope that the chicks were leading to something, they were running towards something real. Whether it meant anything good for getting them home, Mariner couldn’t say.
When they reached the fence the creatures on the other side had already reached it too. Mariner could see that they weren’t all exactly the same. Some of them were slightly larger, more multicolored, changing color more rapidly, and two of those were sticking close to the fence’s edge making noises back and forth with the four chicks. Maybe they hadn’t been so far off after all. She tried to make sense of their body shape or see if she could find any indication if they had limbs, but then Dax said, “Look!”
There was something else coming out of the building.
Hoshi’s heart thudded in her chest.
The creature was large, easily twice her height and width. The shape of its body was obscured by long soft fur, maybe hair, over its entire figure. It had eight, no make that nine, appendages, and at least two large brown eyes with no visible whites. It stepped easily among the glowing creatures, carrying two large buckets which it set down halfway to the fence as it made a beeline straight for them.
It reached two of its arms over the fence.
“Anyone else regretting following them?” Hoshi asked, tripping over her own feet as she scrambled backward to be out of reach of the giant creature.
“OH YEAH,” Mariner said, very loudly, also scrambling backwards. “This dude is awesome but I could do with another several meters of distance, please and thank you!”
“Keep it together,” Kirk said. He was too calm, or pretending to be calm, Hoshi didn’t know and didn’t care, she was going to keep backing up until she was sure it couldn’t grab her.
The creature’s—paws? Hands? Feet? —corralled the chicks together with gentle movements. It lifted them easily back over the fence, amid a chorus of shrill noises from all around. It was swarmed by the larger, more multicolored versions of the chicks. With slow, purposeful movements it shooed them away to clear a space for the chicks to land. All of the glowing creatures shrieked and the chicks were immediately obscured by the others. One of the furry creature’s long arms, paws, Hoshi decided, stroked one of the multicolored glowing balls.
“Chicks, and those are the hens, and this must be the farmer.”
“I was right,” Hoshi realized. “They were looking for something, their flock.”
The large furred creature made a low rumbling noise.
Kirk began to speak to it very loudly and very slowly. The creature seemed to stare at him, probably understanding nothing. Hoshi took out her scanner again. This being probably did have a complex language, one she might be able to learn a little of. At least she’d learn something before Kirk accomplished anything with his method.
Dax and Bashir were also scanning, albeit slightly closer. Mariner and Tendi gaped from roughly the same distance as Hoshi.
The furred creature rumbled again and data started to come in.
She could do this, Hoshi reminded herself. It stared at her with eyes the size of her palm. She took a breath and made her best imitation of the rumbling sounds it made. “Lost.”
Its fur wrinkled in places, which Hoshi assumed was a form of body language. When it rumbled back her scanner screen blurred as it began writing a paragraph of potential meanings. She needed much more data and more computing power, but she simply didn’t have it.
There was that word again, the one she hoped was lost, something about being young, or children, or maybe leisure activities. It stopped talking too soon. She didn’t have enough data to form sentences yet. Everyone was staring at her.
“Home,” she did her best to rumble.
To her delight it rumbled back to her. “Home.”
Hoshi gestured to the others. “Lost.”
It rumbled back but began to move away.
“What is it saying?” Mariner asked.
“I—I can’t be sure,” Hoshi said. “I think it was trying to talk about the chicks, or whatever they’re really called, something about being lost and coming home, maybe. I don’t have enough data to get a grasp of the grammatical structure. I said home and lost back to it, and it said something I can’t translate yet.”
“And now it’s leaving,” Bashir said. “Should we follow?”
“Perhaps we should wait until we’ve been invited,” Kirk said.
They watched in silence for a moment as the creature disappeared back into the building.
“No, if we get home and I never asked it’ll drive me crazy,” Mariner said suddenly. She turned to Spock. “Did you really lose your brain three times?”
Bashir and Dax looked over with wide eager eyes.
Spock frowned. “No.”
Behind him, Kirk made a face and nodded, making a “more or less” gesture with his hand.
Mariner looked thrilled. “Thanks.”
Hoshi thought she was better off not knowing.
The creature was coming back, and it was carrying something in its arms. It was a very large version of the chicks, but this one glowed a soft blue-green and made no noise. Two arms wrapped securely around the bottom of the sphere and one petted the top. They all stared at it.
“Home,” the creature rumbled one more. It stopped and waited.
Hoshi stared, waiting for it to say something more, but it didn’t.
With the large glowing creature in two of its arms, it reached one over the fence. Hoshi jerked back in alarm but it was reaching out to Tendi. Very gently, it stroked her hair. It rumbled.
Mariner was frozen half a second from launching herself at the thing to get it away from her friend, but Tendi seemed delighted. “It’s petting me! I think we could be friends!”
It was saying something about travel and physical bodies, but Hoshi’s scanner still couldn’t grasp the grammar. It lifted its paw off of Tendi’s head and slowly leaned all the way over the fence, holding the giant blue chick out to them.
It rumbled, “Go home.” One very large brown eye blinked at her.
“It says, ‘go home,’” Hoshi told the rest of the group.
“How?” Bashir asked. “Are we sure it’s safe to touch it?”
“No,” Kirk said, stepping forward right up to the side of the creature’s arms. He nodded at it. It blinked at him too. “But since you’re so kindly offering, I think it’s worth a try.”
Dax said, “Before you go, I just want to say—” she cut off and shook her head. “Well. Good luck.”
“For my own sanity, I’m going to assume you mean to refer to our trip back.” He turned suddenly and met Hoshi’s eyes. She stared back. “Hoshi Sato. It was an honor.”
Time travel was too complicated; Kirk’s statement put her at ill-ease.
“I wish I knew how to take that,” she said honestly.
Spock stepped up to Kirk’s side. “As a compliment.”
“I really hope touching this thing takes you back otherwise this is going to be a bit awkward,” Tendi said.
Kirk chuckled. “Ready Mister Spock? On three.”
They put their hands out, counted down, Hoshi prepared herself for a sound or a light or some movement, but they simply disappeared with no aftereffect.
“I’ll go last,” Hoshi said. If it stopped working, she wanted to be around with her scanner.
“We can go next,” Dax stepped forward. Bashir followed her one step behind. She looked at Mariner and Tendi. “I honestly can’t remember if your uniforms are an older style or if they’re a new version we haven’t seen yet. Good luck out there, either way.”
“Thanks, you too,” Mariner said.
They looked over at Hoshi.
“I get the feeling I’m the oldest, huh.”
“You are,” Bashir said. “We’re all a little star struck.”
“Technically—” Dax said.
“Oh, tell me how much you actually remember from before 2161 and we’ll talk.”
“A lot!” Dax said indignantly. “I just don’t want to make you feel inferior with your miniscule amount of life experience in comparison.”
Bashir rolled his eyes. “Let’s go home.”
Dax smiled at the furred creature. “Thank you, I really hope this works.”
They reached out, the creature blinked at them, and they disappeared.
Mariner and Tendi stepped up.
“It was nice to meet you,” Tendi said. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t know much about Earth’s history at all, so I don’t know who you are. Sorry.”
“That’s reassuring,” Hoshi told her.
Mariner looked over. “Honestly, I’m still a little skeptical any of this is real. But meet you, a very cool part of it either way. Good luck getting home.”
“Good luck to you as well.”
“Whenever you’re ready, big guy.” Mariner reached out. Tendi put her hand next to Mariners. The creature lowered the glowing chick down slightly for them to reach more comfortable. It rumbled something, but before Hoshi could even begin to look for a translation, they were gone.
Hoshi was alone with the creatures. The little chicks at the furred creature’s feet had stopped swarming it. She was calm enough to take in more of the scenery and noticed the buckets it had been carrying were some kind of food. The chicks had managed to knock the lid off of one and were hopping in and out covered in little wriggling lines of inky matte black.
“Thank you,” she said to the furred creature. It wouldn’t be able to understand her words, but she hoped it got the message anyway, since she didn’t have the words in its language.
It reached one of its arms out and this time she didn’t jump back. Very carefully, it touched the back of her head like it was petting her. It withdrew its paw.
“I bet we’re as fascinating to you as you are to us.”
It just blinked at her once more.
“Okay, I’m ready to go,” she said.
“Home,” it rumbled.
“Yes,” she tried to imitate it’s rumbling again. “Home.”
Hoshi reached a hand out, felt the blue glow like sinking her fingers into warm plush cloth, and when she blinked, the ship was all around her once more.