“Malacandra?” The big man asked. “Not Borealis?”
“No, although I’m certain you wouldn’t have heard the name before,” Pak said, trying to tap down on his smile. “Still, you’re welcome on Malacandra, in the name of Malacandra.”
“Of course,” Lieutenant said, although he still sounded a bit uncertain. “Am I right in guessing you’re a guard for this… Malacandra?”
Pak fought the urge to laugh. It was important to remember who he was talking to. “In the abstract sense, perhaps. But the Oyarsa didn’t appoint me, the Elders did.”
At this point the big man went silent and he and the four others with him didn’t say anything for about a minute and a half, maybe more. They adjusted position slightly, juggled equipment from hand to hand and occasionally exchanged a glance, leading Pak to guess that they had some kind of radio built into their helmets and were speaking very quietly. If that was true it pushed hard against the idea that these were the ones they’d been waiting for. The five were silent indeed.
Finally Lieutenant reached up and pulled off his helmet, revealing a big nose on a big face topped with brown hair. His eyes, small and set deep in his head, squinted at Pak for a long moment before he said, “I have a lot of questions I want to ask but the most important one is…” He spun completely around in a single slow movement, arms outstretched, eventually coming back to look directly at Pak again. “Where is everyone?”
“I can’t answer that until you tell me something.”
Lieutenant continued to watch Pak with a strange expression Pak couldn’t quantify. “Okay,” Lieutenant said eventually. “What do you want to hear?”
Pak took a deep breath and let it out slowly. A lot depended on this question. “How is Elwin?”
Lieutenant hesitated for a split second. In that moment a light started blinking in his helmet drawing his attention downward.
“Excuse me for a moment,” he said, pulling his helmet back on.
“Fyodorovich here,” Volk said once his helmet clicked into place.
“What’s the situation, Lieutenant?”
Volk jerked involuntarily, as many junior officers tend to do when they suddenly find themselves under the scrutiny of their commanding officer. It was instantly apparent to him that he’d be best off speaking carefully. As if Teng Pak Won and his strange ways weren’t indication enough. “Well, Captain, I’d say we have a TOS Type Two here – clearly human society with incomprehensible culture. With our luck we’ll break some taboo or suffer a catastrophic equipment failure in the next five minutes.”
Like many surveyors, Volk tended to ignore the simplest path.
“We share your assessment,” Captain Gyle replied. Volk wondered who “we” was. “The communications department is running the word Malacandra through the language databases but they’ve been through all the major active and archaic languages and found nothing. Unless it’s something truly obscure they think it’s a made up word.”
“What about the other word? Oarsa? Do we have anything on that?”
“Oyarsa. The linguists think it might be related to Orisa, a kind of tribal deity from an old African religion, or possibly derived from an ancient Greek word that means ‘lords of being.’ Either way, they believe it’s a religious term.” A tinge of amusement crept into the Captain’s voice. “So be very, very careful of those cultural taboos.”
“Captain, I may not be the right person for this meeting. Perhaps-”
“You’re the person who’s on the spot, Lieutenant. Commander Oda has every confidence in you and you’re not doing half bad now. Just keep talking to him.”
Volk started to let his shoulders slump, caught himself and straightened back up. No point letting Teng know he wasn’t 100% on top of this. “Understood, sir. Any ideas who Elwin is?”
That question got him a few seconds of silence. “There’s no one by that name on the Stewart or the Spiner. We’ve requested a full crew list for the entire fleet from Tranquility BASIC but beyond that your guess is as good as mine. Do you have a direction for your next move?”
He did but he didn’t like it. “They say the Great Man valued honesty.”
“That he did, Lieutenant. That he did.”
Lieutenant’s friends didn’t seem like the talkative sort, which Pak could appreciate. They were certainly the curious type, though, their blank helmets swiveling back and forth as they took in the square. Pak considered trying to talk to them but decided against it. It was clear that, even if he wasn’t the one in charge, Lieutenant was at least the one they expected to do the talking. None of the other four had made any sign of trying to say something. Perhaps Lieutenant was an Elder among his people.
Before Pak could go any further down that train of thought Lieutenant pulled his helmet back off.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We don’t seem to know any Elwins. Can you tell me more about him?”
That wasn’t surprising but it did make his life a lot more difficult. “No. If you don’t know Elwin you’ll have to be assessed by the Elders.”
“Can I ask who the Elders are? Will I get to meet any of them?”
“Do you not have Elders on Thulcandra?”
Lieutenant rubbed the back of his head with one gloved hand, laughing ruefully. “Okay, kid, I think we need to coast for a minute.”
“Coast?” Pak paused. He’d heard that word but took a second to think of the meaning. “Like on the ocean?”
“No.” Lieutenant actually laughed out loud. “It means running on inertia, like sliding on your feet after running.”
He took two long strides and demonstrated. Pak tilted his head. “Oh, I see. Why are we coasting?”
“Because I can’t understand some of what you’re saying.” Lieutenant sat down on the ledge running around the Burnt and picked up some pebbles, quickly laying them out along the edge of his seat. Pak recognized that he was looking at the solar system in miniature. Lieutenant pointed to the fourth in line. “This is Malacandra, correct? Fourth planet from the Sun, what we’d call Mars.”
Pak quickly grasped what Lieutenant was getting at. “Yes. And that,” he pointed at the third rock, “is Thulcandra. You call it Earth.”
Lieutenant broke into a wide, infectious grin. “You’re right, we do. But you’re wrong, too. We’re not from Thulcandra. We’re from a planet called Rodenberry.”
Pak ran through the Thulcandran names for the planets quickly, once and then again, but couldn’t recall any named Rodenberry. And the Silent Planet wasn’t supposed to be able to go past – “Oh, I get it. Is Rodenberry the Thulcandran moon?”
“No, Rodenberry doesn’t orbit the Sun at all. It’s as far from Mars as this rock,” he pointed at the fourth rock again, “is from Earth. Probably further, now that I think about it.”
Pak looked at the rock, then at Lieutenant, then at the rock again. The Ransom protocols did not cover that possibility. “I think… I think I need to discuss this with the Elders. The Oyarsa must be consulted.”
Lieutenant nodded affably and suddenly put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Do what you need to, no pressure. We’re not here to bother you. We just wondered what was happening here.”
Pak’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“We-” Lieutenant suddenly broke eye contact and straightened up with a sigh. “The planet of Rodenberry hasn’t heard from Earth in hundreds of years, Teng Pak Won. We wanted to know what happened to you all.”
“Oh.” It came out sounding much smaller than he intended. Clearing his throat Pak continued. “Well, there are a lot of things the Elders will probably want to know, too. Don’t worry, Lieutenant, I’m sure something will work out. Will you wait here?”
He spread his hands with a grimace. “It depends on how long it will take. We brought supplies for two days but living on them isn’t the best. If it will take more than half a day it might be better if we returned to our ship and met you here around this time tomorrow?”
Pak looked at the readout on his suit’s arm and considered the numbers. “A few hours earlier, if you don’t mind. It’s getting quite late here.”
The other man looked up at the sky and nodded. “That’s true. Not used to the conversion to local time yet.”
“I will see you then, Lieutenant Volk Fyodorovich.”
Lieutenant replied by making a weird gesture where he touched his fingertips to his forehead with his hand and arm held out straight to one side. “Take care Teng Pak Won.”
It looked silly enough to get him to smile. “Please, call me Pak.”
Lieutenant grinned back. “And Volk will be fine for me.”
Helmet sealed back onto his head Volk led his team back through the corn fields, listening to a bunch of officers way above his paygrade discuss his contact with Pak the Malacandran.
“Thulcandra isn’t a word we can track down either,” one of the linguists – Goldenstein? – was saying. “But it certainly seems to share a root with Malacandra. There’s something there. I’d like Lieutenant Fyodorovich to try and get Mr. Won to share more of their proper nouns if he gets a chance. We might be able to figure something out from that.”
“Teng Pak Won sounds like a name from the Mandarin family of languages. His family name might be Teng, not Won.” That was a voice Volk didn’t recognize, and he suspected was being relayed from the Spiner somewhere in Earth orbit.
“I think we could get a better idea of how long these people have been on their own here by examining their crops.” That was Lieutenant Commander Belinda Harris, the Quartermaster. “We could measure the genetic drift against-”
“I know we’re all curious about these things,” the captain said, breaking into the discussion for the first time since Volk had put his helmet back on. “But they aren’t the most important part of what brought us here. We need to understand the situation these people are in as well as anything else that will help us understand what happened over Earth. Lieutenant Fyodorovich, we ran your team’s live footage through the AI and saw no signs of anyone living in any of the buildings you entered or around the square. Did you or any of your team see anything that contradicted that? Aside from Mr. Won himself?”
“No, Captain, I did not.” He glanced around at his team. They were mostly concentrated on watching the surrounding environment as they hiked back towards the airlock. All except one. “Shen?”
“I didn’t notice any signs of other people, sir,” she said.
“But there was red dust on him, sir.”
Oda’s voice joined the discussion. “Based on our analysis of the other scanning teams and what we saw coming in from orbit there’s a large section of the dome near the power plant that isn’t appreciably terraformed. He could have easily picked some up there.”
“And it wasn’t just the fact that there was dust on him,” she added. “It was on his shoulders. Like he’d walked out of an underground entrance.”
“That’s very interesting, SFC Shen,” the captain said. “Thank you for bringing it to our attention. We’ll run a new series of orbital analysis and see what that turns up.”
“Raises an interesting question, though,” Volk mused.
“What’s that, Lieutenant?”
Volk laughed. “Simple captain. We know the original colony was built above ground. All those buildings look like they’re still here. So why did they dig themselves underground?”