Month 6, Day 10
Capt Burke had emerged from her office just as Bugalu’s hand had started for the intercom controls to let her know they were approaching the fourth planet, and she now sat silently in her chair as he concentrated on inserting the vessel into orbit. He had no difficulties; the planet had 3 moons, all at least a mile in diameter and all with stable orbits, with no tiny satellites for him to avoid. He slipped the Fireball into a low orbit, where they would circumnavigate the planet every 8 hours. “Orbit achieved, captain.”
“Well done, lieutenant,” the captain acknowledged. Bugalu dared to look up at the view screen, as she must have been doing, for she added, “It’s a pretty planet. Seems like the ones capable of supporting some type of life are. Even if that life is nothing like our own.”
“Preliminary scan indicates it is class M, Captain,” Takor offered. “Like Earth.”
“Which would make it only slightly uncomfortable for you, Takor,” she returned.
“Would you like a higher magnification, Captain?” Capac asked.
“Not yet,” she answered. “Let me enjoy this view for a few minutes.”
I agree. Right now, I just want to enjoy the view. The ship’s equipment can gather information while we enjoy the sight that looks so much like home.
“It has oceans,” the captain observed. “Although, I’m thinking there’s not quite as much water as on Earth.”
“Considerably less than Sciss,” Takor added.
“Yes. Somewhat more browns and tans, and quite a bit of the green has a hint of gray to it,” Burke went on. “But the clouds are fluffy and white, definitely water vapor clouds. Space, it looks so much like Earth and Sciss, I’ll be sorely disappointed if there isn’t some kind of life here.”
“I know that feeling,” Takor commented.
When it was originally assigned to the Fireball, Takor had been formal and stand-offish. Bugalu had tried to imagine what it would be like, to be the only member of one’s race aboard a ship full of aliens. Slowly - very slowly - it had begun to fit in better, due to the efforts of the captain and several senior officers. It’s changed since it first got here. Especially since it’s been hanging around Mac. Wonder how she ever got that started? If she wants to, Mac can make friends with anybody. And I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even know she can.
Bugalu pushed those thoughts away to check his equipment when the captain asked, “Found anything interesting, anybody?”
No one answered until Takor stated, “The readings are... unusual.”
“In what way?”
“The planet contains more copper and less iron than Earth. I see indications of both flora and fauna using these elements extensively. However -“ It paused, as if searching for the correct words to make itself understood. “The readings give me the impression that a number of the larger fauna species have blood based upon carbon.”
“I think you should take another look, Mr Takor,” Moor stated. “Carbon doesn’t make an effective base for blood.”
“Nature does not always select the most efficient method to get something done,” Takor stated. “On Earth, there are creatures with copper-based blood, is there not?”
“Copper is a more effective base for blood than carbon would be,” Moor shot back defensively.
“Gentlemen!” Burke broke in. “I realize we are all tired, we’ve all been working long hours, and we’re worried... about our own health, as well as that of our crew. However, we are here to observe what is, without disbelieving what we see simply because we haven’t seen it before. If nothing else, those silicon creatures on Penoc should have taught us all that! You did hear about them, right? Blood based on lithium, of all things!”
“Indeed I have,” Takor stated quietly.
Bugalu glanced at Moor, who was frowning. “I’m afraid I’ve fallen behind in reading my journals,” he finally offered, and turned back to the station he manned.
“Plants and animals, you said, Takor,” Burke reminded the Sciss. “Any sign of intelligence? Cities? Power plants? Modes of transportation?”
The tip of Takor’s tail flicked back and forth. Bugalu caught the movement in his peripheral vision, but wasn’t sure if it indicated anger, irritation, confusion or something completely different. “There are structures grouped together into... what one might call cities. Each accompanied by a large amount of electrical power, although the source of that power is not immediately apparent. I do not readily see any recognizable method of transportation. No roads.”
“That sounds note-worthy,” Burke stated. “Humans had roads long before they had electricity.
“We preferred waterways, but roads followed quickly after we discovered electricity, since water and electricity are not completely compatible,” Takor commented. “I do see water vessels, but they are too small for effective transportation. No air vessels, either.”
“Perhaps they are not high on the technology scale, despite using electricity,” the captain suggested.
“Wait.” Takor’s tail-tip snapped audibly as it studied the displays at its station. It made a soft, chittering sound - which Mac had said indicated intense concentration - as it made several adjustments to its controls. Finally, it looked up. “Captain, I find many of the same life form readings on the largest moon as in the cities.”
“On the moon?” Moor had turned from his own display again. “There isn’t enough atmosphere!”
“The life readings are concentrated in one area,” Takor went on. “And may be under the surface. It would appear to be a colony, yet the scanners have not located any space probes, satellites, nor anything associated with space travel.”
“That seems odd,” Burke stated. “Still, every species climbs the technology ladder in their own way, so we should keep an open mind. Also, we might not be the only ‘aliens’ to have found this system.”
I can almost hear her thoughts. Colonists, invaders, or observers? That’s what she’s wondering.
“Mr Lopez, I want constant surveillance on that moon,” Burke told the freshman ensign currently sitting at the weapons console.
“Should I modify our orbit?” Bugalu asked, ready to punch buttons on his console.
“What’s wrong with our orbit?” she asked sharply.
“Technically, nothing,” he responded. “But it will take us directly between the planet and moon. They can’t fail to see us.”
“Well, if we aren’t trying to hide, they can’t claim we’re spying. Leave it as is.”
“Abdulla, they have electricity. Have you found anything in the radio channels?”
“I’ve found something,” the younger woman reported. “But not in the usual radio frequencies. It has a pattern, but the language computer hasn’t deciphered any of it yet. It’s coming from the planet, aimed at the moon. Possibly a tight beam, because it’s getting clearer as we approach a point between them.”
“Lopez, any response from that moon base?”
“Not yet,” the youngster responded nervously.
“Music?” Abdulla muttered to herself.
“That sounds intriguing,” Burke decided. “Put it on audio, lieutenant.”
A cacophony of hums, crackles, squeals and wheezes filled the bridge. Bugalu listened intently. Yeah, there is something there, barely audible.
“Let me filter some of the noise,” Abdulla suggested. Squeals and static began to fade until a definite pattern could be distinguished; a double-beat-and-a-pause rhythm.
Bugalu’s back straightened. “It sounds like a... heartbeat.”
“It is similar to the audio manifestations of human cardiac rhythm,” Takor agreed.
Capt Burke opened her intercom. “Dr MacGregor?”
It took a moment for him to answer. “Yeah?”
He sounds exhausted. Haven’t seen him in days, and he looked bad, then. That short, clipped, unprofessional response to the captain’s call says it all.
“If you can pull yourself away from your patients, please come to the bridge for a moment.”
Usually, she’d order him, but right now, that’s make him angry as well as exhausted, testy and ready to argue. He’ll come just as quickly, this way, and might see it as a break, rather than an intrusion. Captain understands people well. And manipulates them even better.
For several moments, everyone listened to the profusion of sounds still emerging from the bridge speakers. With a frown, Capac leaned toward Bugalu and muttered, “I think it’s breathing!”
Startled, Bugalu concentrated on the background noises, and now that it had been suggested, the faint wheezing sounds did sound like slow, deliberate breathing.
Something exploded. Whirling, Bugalu saw Abdulla thrown to the floor, unconscious, at the feet of MacGregor as he emerged from the lift. In the sudden silence, it was Della Harris who pulled an extinguisher from beneath the engineering console and attacked the flames flickering from communications.