Chapter 9

Forces of Nature

A window into space framed the dim lunar landscape against a backdrop of motionless stars.  The mood of the room turned decidedly somber.  Jack shook his head and tapped his pencil nervously on the pad of paper in front of him.  Stawford leaned against the wall.  Thomas walked across the room to Julie and put his hand on her shoulder.  As she looked away, he could see her struggling with the weight of the situation.  Though Julie was skilled beyond her years and the crew needed her more now than ever, Julie was still just a little girl, the daughter Thomas never had.

“You okay?” he asked as he handed her the tissue from his pocket. “Should we continue?”  Thomas bit his lip, trying to forget the exchange with Daxman. “If you’re up to it, I need you to see what you can make of the cipher for the Regulan language.  The people of Earth were able to decode some but not all of it.  I don’t know if it matters but it may come in handy.”

Julie nodded, her eyes darting around the room. She picked up her data pad and went to work in the corner.

“Doctor Yeatman, can you keep on this data set of yours and let me know if you find out anything else?”

“Of course, Commander.”  Isaac bowed.

“And see what you can make of Daxman’s other recording.”

Isaac nodded in agreement.

“Jack,” continued Thomas turning his attention to his engineer, “I know that you have been working on the EMR redirection technology.  Have you discovered anything new?”

“Yeah, I reckon I’ll be ready for a demo in the cargo hold in about a day or so.”

“Okay, good,” said Thomas.  Having delivered his report, Jack turned and left the room.

Julie spoke up from the corner of the room. “Commander?”

“Yes, Julie.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.  What is it?”

“Do you remember the sunsets on Proteus?”  She glanced around the room nervously and then at Stawford who waited by the door.  She didn’t know if she was the only person who felt this way.

“What is it, Julie?”

She turned back to Thomas.  “The sunsets, on Proteus.  Do you remember them?”

“I do, yes.  They were nice. Why?”  Thomas remembered the deep red and crimson sky of the Protean sunsets as the orange sun dipped below the horizon.

“Do you remember the beaches?  The way Tau Ceti reflected off the waves and the wet sand?”

“I do. Why?”

“Remember the caves that we found, the way the diamonds sparkled in the reflected light from outside?”

“Yes, Julie.  Get to the point.”

“We could go back.”

“Where?  Back to Proteus?”

“Wouldn’t it be nice?”

“We can’t.”

“Why?”

“It’s way too far, Julie.”

“It would be a fresh start, a new life away from all this.”

“Julie, we can’t go back.”

“We’ve gone before.  We could go back into cryostasis.”

“Julie, we don’t have enough fuel.  Where are you going with this line of questioning?”

“Why are you yelling at me now?”  Julie glanced at Thomas and then around the room.

Thomas rolled his eyes.  He hated how fragile she could be at times.  “I’m not shouting at you, Julie.” He breathed deeply trying to balance both the psychological dynamics of the crew and his patience.

“Well, I think it would be lovely,” she said.

“What’s going on, Julie?”

“Just that I think it would be wonderful to settle down somewhere and start up new lives.  Proteus was wonderful.”

“What’s this about?”

“I’m scared,” said Julie meekly.  “I’m scared what will happen if we go through the Ring.  I’m scared of everything Daxman said and more.  I want to get married, have children of my own and grow old.”

Julie stared at the door.  She had delivered her message, and now she just wanted to leave.

“I know Julie.  We are all scared,” said Thomas.  “But there are some things that we do know.  Apparently, the Ring is a portal of some kind.  It could be a portal to Earth.”

“Okay,” she said looking toward the door.

“I promise, I’ll do everything in my power to get us home safe.”

“Okay,” said Julie still staring at the door.

Thomas knew that it was an empty promise.  He didn’t even know if Earth still existed.

Stawford stared at Julie.  “Are you okay?” he signed.

“I’m fine.  Thanks.”

Thomas rubbed her shoulder.  “Everything will be okay.”  He turned to the ceiling before speaking.  “CLARA, how long will it take to get to Lagrange Point?” asked Thomas.

“At 1G, approximately five days, Commander,” echoed CLARA’s voice over the CommSys.

“Julie, can you tell Stawford that we need to get to the Ring.  1G is fine.  We need some time to prepare anyway.”

Julie relayed the message to Stawford.  He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Good.  Okay, I’ll be in my quarters if anyone needs me.”

But Thomas doubted that anyone would.  Daxman was right.  This was a different mission.  This was an impossible mission into the unknown with a crew on the verge of collapse.

* * *

In the darkness of his living quarters, Thomas sat alone on the end of his bed staring at the floor.

“Travel to Proteus, collect plants, maybe some animals and come home.  That was the mission!  I trained to manage a group of scientists and engineers.  Not this!”

In his hands, Thomas turned over the silver locket, its chain wrapped tightly around his finger.

“I can’t do this,” he whispered to himself. “I can’t.”

“Commander,” announced CLARA. “Dr. Belanov would like to see you.”

Thomas stuffed the locket under the sheet of his bed and wiped both cheeks, trying to remove the evidence of his emotions.

“Come in,” he said.

The door of his quarters opened and Sophia slinked into the room.  Thomas rose from the bed.

“Sophie, how are you feeling?”

Sophia’s eyes drooped as she grinned seductively at Thomas. A smear of the purple goo covered the side of her neck.

She floated from side to side.  “I feel much better now, thank you.”

“You sure you’re okay?” asked Thomas. “You seem a little out of it.”

“Mmmm, you know, I had the most incredible dream.”  She stumbled toward Thomas and tripped on one of his shoes.  Sophia giggled and continued.  “I was flying over a field of yellow flowers.”

“Sophie, you aren’t yourself.  We need to get you back to-”

“But they smelled so good,” she interrupted.  “They tasted so good.”  Sophia caressed her upper lip with the tip of her tongue as she edged closer to Thomas.

“You aren’t making sense,” said Thomas as he grabbed Sophia’s shoulders to stop her advance.  Sophia closed her eyes and leaned in searching for Thomas’s lips.  Thomas clenched his jaw and took in a long slow breath.  When his lungs could hold no more, he spoke.  “Listen, Sophie,” Thomas said firmly. “I don’t know what’s going on, but we can’t do this.  You aren’t yourself.”

“Of course I am, silly,” said Sophia reassuringly.  “I am who I want to be.  Right now, I am who I need to be.”

Thomas followed the smoothness of her skin, her flowing brown hair.

So beautiful.

“We need to get you back to your quarters and have CLARA run some tests.”

Sophia reached out to Thomas’s face and touched him.  Left in her fingers wake, Sophia smeared a small streak of purple goo on Thomas’s lower lip.

“This stuff is amazing,” said Sophia as she ran her fingers through Thomas’s hair.

Thomas touched his lip to see the purple goo left by Sophia.  As he stared, his finger sparkled and split into three.  Thomas blinked his eyes.  The room shifted.

“See what I mean?” said Sophia as she pulled on Thomas’s hair.  She leaned into him, rested her head on his chest and scratched him through his shirt. “It helps you understand what you want.”

“What do we want?” he asked wearily.

“Love,” replied Sophia tenderly. “To feel wanted.  One time, to feel loved.”

He gazed down at her as she tilted her head backward.  “No,” he said. “This isn’t right.”  Thomas closed his eyes and leaned in.  He breathed in her scent.

“I love your smell.”  Thomas ran his nose along Sophia’s neck and up to her chin.  He breathed in her essence.

“We have so little time,” she whispered.  Her dreamy expression withered into sorrow.

Thomas pushed his fingers into Sophia’s hair and held her head gently.  He pulled her lips close to his and felt the warmth of her breath.  Sophia moaned.

Thomas closed his eyes and swayed.  He fought against it, against her passionate pull.  But there was something so muted in her beauty.

Sophia gave into her veiled anguish, the pain of a lost home, and the overwhelming fear of an uncertain fate.  She began to sob blindly into her hands.  Thomas’s heart melted.

“No, no,” said Thomas. “Don’t cry.”   He reached around Sophia with his left hand and pulled her toward him firmly.  With his right hand, he caressed her face and reassured her. “Everything will be okay, I promise.”

Sophia opened her eyes, gazed upon Thomas’s lips, and rocked forward on her toes.  She grasped Thomas’s wrist and softly, gently, moved his hand down the exquisite curve of her body.  In a blind caress, he slid his hand to the small of her back.

Sophia gazed up into Thomas’ eyes.  Each felt their own powerless submission to fate.  Sophia pulled away and led Thomas by the hand to the bed.  She slid onto the cotton sheets calling to Thomas like a siren to the shores.  Thomas followed helplessly and lay next to her.  After some probing, his clumsy hand managed to undo her clothes and reveal the softness of her body.  He felt her warmth, the welcome comfort of her folds.  His tongue slid between her imploring breasts and down her stomach to her navel.  Sophia moaned with aching frustration and rolled on top of Thomas pinning him to the bed.

Sophia pushed her tongue deeply between Thomas’ lips searching for his softness.  He pulled away overcome with pleasure but he couldn’t escape.  She reached down, guided him to her and there he was captured in her embrace.  Sophia pressed against him in desperate and infinite anguish.

Through the night, the entangled senses of the two lovers flared and dimmed as each sought their own exquisite relief from torture.  As the madness subsided, each collapsed on their side of the bed, heaving with exhaustion, resting in the dampness of their passionate dance.

From the confines of the room, Thomas passed into dreams.  Sophia stirred as her senses returned.

* * *

In his dreams, Thomas returned to the blackness of the rocky beach.  A seagull sailed gracefully over his head and into the starry night.  Thomas felt himself lift off the beach.  As feathers sprouted from his arms, he looked down and the beach faded from view.  He flapped his wings and sailed upward toward the moon. Raindrops of light fell from the heavens and showered him with brilliance.  Thomas covered his eyes with his wing and his feathers melted.  Wind rushed around him as he plummeted through the air to the rocky beach below.

* * *

Thomas awoke.  The sheets were scattered in chaos from the night’s brief encounter but he was alone.

“CLARA,” mumbled Thomas.

“Yes, Commander.”

“I need some aspirin.”

* * *

Stawford stood at the center of his bedroom.  His hands and feet were taped.  Gray wool sweats hung loosely from his waist.  Stawford’s chest bulged and his arms tightened as he stood in front of a Wing Chun wooden dummy.

Armed with an unwavering devotion to tactics and strategy and with the knowledge of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, his body was his weapon. Stawford was as dangerous with his arms and legs as he was in the air.  He knew the human body and had developed seventeen methods for inflicting temporary and permanent paralysis on his enemy in under five seconds.  He knew how to break bones, sever arteries, and even puncture lungs by striking between the ribs.  But none of that mattered.

He struck and the dummy rocked backward.  The wood felt cold.  His muscles and his mind were ready.

This training, reminded his 173rd Airborne Brigade instructor, will keep you aliveFeel the movement, flow with it.

Stawford struck again upward with his left forearm on one of the wooden posts that protruded from the center pole.

Do not lose focus.  Strike when your opponent least expects it.

Stawford hit a second post with his right hand and a third with his left.  He struck the center post with a sudden elbow.

Be formless.

Stawford flowed through a combination of strikes, high, low, left, right, impact.  His body coursed with adrenaline.

The expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible. Thus he is master of his enemy’s fate.

His pace quickened.  Stawford circled to the right.  He attacked, punishing and striking his opponent.  The skin on Stawford’s arms reddened.

Feign disorder and crush him.  Opportunities multiply as they are seized.

Stawford circled to the left, ducked and struck.  Stawford ducked again and punched his opponent. The wood felt warm.

Speed is the essence of war.

Stawford launched another volley. His hands surged, crushing each spot, blurring through a series of strikes.  The volley continued.

To surround an enemy, you must leave a way of escape. Create in your enemy’s mind an alternative to death, then kill him when he takes it.

Stawford pulled back.  He feigned a punch and crushed a waiting limb, snapping it from the base.

“Go-bah!” he screamed.

He turned, reloaded and launched into another limb, shattering it.  The pole flew into the corner.  Wooden shards fell on the floor.

Stawford stopped and breathed.  The air was cool.  He peeled back the tape and unwound the wrappings from his hands.  The tape pulled off blisters as it unwound.  The pain did not faze him.  His mind clear, sharp, and focused, Stawford was ready for whatever waited on the other side of the ring.

* * *

Julie knocked on Daxman’s door anxiously.  She held against her chest a data pad filled with the linguistics of an alien race.  It was a simple language based on numerical expression through characters and that was the perfect opening.

The door slid open.  “Really, Julie?  I’m not in the mood to chat.  Just… just go away,” said Daxman.

“I need your help, Dax.”

“Go ask someone else.  I’m busy.”

The door slid shut.

Julie knocked on the door.

The door slid open.

“Why are you still here?  Go away.” said Daxman.  He pulled back from the doorway.

Desperate to sell her visit, Julie insisted, “Commander Warfield told me that you needed to help me.”

“You’re kidding, right?”  Daxman shook his head.

“Nope, he told me that this was something that you have skill in and that you can help with it.”

Well, the last part’s true, thought Julie.  Commander Warfield did mention a couple of times that Daxman was good with numbers and pattern recognition.

“Fine,” said Daxman said with reluctance. “Come in.”

Julie stepped cautiously into Daxman’s quarters and glanced around his room.  Next to his bed, brown sheets lay on the floor exiled from a restless night.  In the corner of the room, a chaotic pile of clothes waited to be washed.  A stack of dirty dishes teetered in the sink.  Julie stepped over a pair of pants crumpled on the floor.

Daxman grabbed a dark blue canister from the cabinet. “I was making some coffee.  Want some?”

Julie was not prepared.  “What?”  She couldn’t stand coffee.

“Coffee?  You’ve heard of it, right?”

“Yes, thanks.”

Daxman nodded and poured some beans from the canister into a grinder.  Julie searched for something intelligent to say.  “Where was it grown?”

“These beans?  Oh, uh.  I… uh… grew them down in the Hydroponics Lab.  But the original beans were grown on the slopes of a volcano in Guatemala.”

Daxman pressed the button, and the coffee grinder spun up to a comfortable buzz.

Daxman shouted over the grinder.  “Before we left, I had to call several growers in the San Juan region directly.”

Julie raised her voice.  “Why don’t you just have…”

Daxman let go of the button on the bean grinder.

“CLARA do it!” screamed Julie.  She looked away, embarrassed.

Daxman smiled as he turned over the grinder, tapping the lid on the counter.

“There is only one way to make truly great coffee.  Twenty-three grams per twelve ounces of water.”

Daxman slid the lid from the grinder and poured the fine brown powder into the top of the coffee machine.  Water followed.

Julie searched the room for a place they could both sit.

“Oh, uh…”  Daxman scooped up some magazines and a shirt off a small sofa and tossed them into the corner.

Julie smiled and sat down.  She sank into the soft sofa and crossed her legs.

“Thanks,” she said.

Daxman walked back to the coffee maker, pulled out a white cup from a small compartment above the sink. He set it on the counter and looked at Julie. “So, what’s this project about?”

Daxman pulled the pot of coffee out of the maker and filled his cup. He glanced up and grabbed another cup from the cabinet.

“The Regulans, well, I mean, not the Regulans themselves.”

Tapping her fingers uneasily on her data pad, Julie glanced around the room.

She continued.  “You know, when they got to Earth, they gave the people of Earth a cipher for their language.”

“Isn’t language your thing?” asked Daxman. “I’m not sure I can help.”

The room was small, not unlike a standard hotel back on Earth.

“The people of Earth were able to decode most of it,” continued Julie.

The walls were featureless, without evidence that anyone actually inhabited the room.  Resting on the nightstand next to Daxman’s bed was the same stuffed lion from Kyle’s video.  Behind the lion, somewhat hidden, was a picture of a mom hugging her son.  The boy held a college diploma and the woman gazed at the boy, her eyes beaming with pride.

“A lot of it is based on mathematics and symbols,” said Julie.

Daxman noticed Julie looking at the picture, strode across the room, and laid the picture of him and his mom down on the nightstand.

“Cream or sugar?” he asked.

“Oh, just black, thanks.”

Daxman walked back to the kitchen.  He poured the rehydrated cream and sugar into his mug and stirred the cup with a small metal spoon.  He grabbed both coffee mugs and shuffled toward the sofa.  Daxman handed Julie her mug and sat down next to her.

“Oh, I heard a coffee joke before we left Earth.  Want to hear it?” asked Julie.

Do I have a choice, thought Daxman. “Uh, okay.  Go ahead.”

Julie smiled.  “So, a husband and wife were in bed arguing about who should get up and make the coffee.  The wife says to the husband, ‘You should make the coffee because you wake up earlier and if you make the coffee, we will have it sooner’.  The husband turns to the wife and says ‘But you do the cooking around here.  Making coffee is like cooking, so you should make the coffee in the morning’.

“Nice guy,” said Daxman sarcastically.

Julie ignored the comment. “But the wife says ‘No, you should make the coffee because that’s what it says in the Bible.’ The husband is shocked.  He says ‘I can’t believe that, show me.’  The wife goes and grabs
a Bible, opens the New Testament and then she shows him, written on the top of several pages that it indeed says HEBREWS.”

Coffee sprayed out of Daxman’s mouth.  As he reached for a napkin on the coffee table, he chuckled.

“Did you like it?” asked Julie.

Daxman smiled and wiped his mouth and nose with a white napkin.  “Clever.” Julie started to giggle for a moment and then looked away, embarrassed.  He glanced up at her.  Even in those awkward moments, she was different, endearing.  And despite his flaws, he saw a kindness in her eyes.  Daxman felt calm with her.  The sound of her voice put him at ease.  Her smile soothed him.

“Glad you liked it,” said Julie.  She grinned and looked down at her data pad. “So do you want to take a look at the cipher?”

Daxman nodded as he wiped more coffee from his chin.  “Sure.  Let’s take a look at what you have.”

Daxman took the data pad from Julie and studied it.  The symbols were laid out on the screen like random slashes and dots.

“See here?” Julie traced the symbols on the data pad. “The symbol defines the context, the elements within each symbol define the meaning within the context and the magnitude of the word.”

Julie’s voice trailed off as Daxman thought to himself.  The elegance and logic of this languageEach symbol, a construct of different elements.  He took a sip of the coffee and set his mug back on the small table in front of him.

The combination of those elements created the meaning of the symbol.  The symbol for ‘walk’ was a combination of the self, move, and land symbols with a fourth symbol for magnitude.  Walk in this case was a magnitude three represented by three dots.  Run was five dots and sprint was seven dots.  There were other elements to each symbol that neither Daxman nor Julie understood.  Over the next few minutes, Daxman scrolled over thousands of random alien symbols and translations.  It didn’t immediately make sense.  More symbols, more meaningless connections.  But patterns began to take shape in his head.

“Interesting,” he said.

“So what do you think?”

“Well, clearly, these Regulans are logical and mathematically based.”

“Did you see the part of the symbol down in the right corner?”

Daxman noticed it.

“I don’t know why but, it’s only used with verbs,” said Julie.  “Looking through the samples of Regulan language, words like ‘kill’ had it sometimes but other times, it was missing.”

“Is it transitive versus intransitive?”

“I don’t think so,” said Julie.  “Given the structure of the sentences, I don’t see that pattern.”

“Hmm, perhaps it refers to verb tense or even modality?” said Daxman.

“That’s what I thought at first too.  But I was translating a story of a young Regulan who goes to war.  He killed dozens of the Regulan enemy called the Boklor.”  Julie pointed to a description of the young Regulan dressed in battle gear.  “At the end of the battle, it’s a Regulan custom that the greatest soldier would have the honor of eating the leader of the enemy.  Regulans believe that the strength and spirit of the enemy leader would flow into them during a beheading ceremony.”

Julie scrolled to the next page.

“The boy killed the Boklor leader.”  Julie pointed to the symbol in this section for ‘kill’.  “But see this word here?  No symbol, right?  Several weeks later, the story mentions the same boy.  Believing he had the strength of the Boklor leader, he wanted to become the new leader of his own squad.”  Julie flips the story forward a couple of pages. “The boy challenged the leader of the squad and killed him.  The symbol for ‘kill’ is exactly the same except for this part.”

Daxman studied the passages on the screen.

The symbols were nearly identical.  Daxman noticed the difference; a triangle surrounded this symbol for ‘kill’.  Daxman flipped back a couple of pages and studied the first ‘kill’ reference.  No such triangle existed.

Weird, thought Daxman.

“Weird, right?” continued Julie intuitively.  “I found a similar pattern with some of the other words in their language.  There was another story about a slave who worked in a Regulan mining colony.  He was hungry.  And he stole some food from a fellow slave, a Boklor slave.  No symbol.  But a year later, as he planned his escape, he stole a Regulan weapon and voila there’s the symbol.”

Daxman studied the data pad, deep in thought.  Julie shared more of her observations.

“I’ve read Regulan accounts of mothers abusing their children, and the symbol is there.  Then I found descriptions of guards beating prisoners to death.  The word for abuse is exactly the same in both cases but the second one doesn’t have a symbol.”

Julie pressed an area on the top of the screen.  A new panel opened.

“Any ideas?” asked Julie.

“Not sure exactly.  Give me some time to think about it.”

“Okay, of course.”

Daxman stared at the data pad and flipped through several pages.  He glanced at Julie, grinned awkwardly, and looked back down at the data pad.  Julie continued to watch him.

Daxman peeked up at her again seeing the anticipation in her eyes.  “I could probably do this better if you weren’t staring at me.”

“Oh, sorry.”  Julie turned away.  “Of course.  I should go.”  Julie bounced off the sofa and moved toward the door.  Daxman followed.  The door slid open.

Julie stepped outside and turned.  “Thanks for everything.”

“Sorry, I’m not very good at this,” said Daxman.

“It’s okay.”  Julie paused for a moment.  “Wait, not good at what?”

“If you haven’t noticed, I’m not much of a people person.”

“Nah, you were a wonderful host.  Thanks.  As my mom used to say, God does not subtract from one’s life the time spent laughing.”  Julie smiled.

Daxman hesitated then feigned a smile.

“The coffee was wonderful too,” said Julie.  She smiled warmly at him. “Let me know if you find anything out with the cipher.”  Daxman didn’t respond.  Julie turned and glided down the hallway.  It was the most delicious cup of coffee she had ever tasted.

As Julie returned to her room, she hoped and prayed that Daxman would be able to solve this riddle.  But, she feared, all the intelligence in the world might not be enough to save Earth.  Did the world even exist?  Were family and friends still alive?  Everyone on the ship was still reeling from the implications of what they would face in the coming days.  They had never felt so alone, out-of-place, disconnected.  What once seemed so infinitely breathtaking, a cosmos of opportunity, was now the setting of their own nightmare.

 

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2 Responses to “Chapter 9”

  1. robbdebbie February 7, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Riveting. Chapter 10?

    • dequils February 20, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

      I might post chapter 10 soon. Haven’t decided. Stay tuned though!

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