UA7: musubi

Chapter 57: -toy soldiers

"Commander Fen-Tang just signaled that we're in position. What do you need for us to do now?" Fel asked cautiously.

"With the stuff that T'Lani sent me, I'm pretty sure that I can get us connected so that communication will be possible. I just can't be sure that they'll pay attention to me." Vincent said frankly.

"They're machines, aren't they? It seems to me that, if verbal communication would work, we'd already be talking to them. But come to think of it, with the equipment we have here, maybe we can meet them halfway. Our graphical interprelator can do a comparative analysis of the foreign systems and render them for us based on their apparent function and render a virtual meeting place for us... sort of a middle ground. That way something like their transporter and ours would appear to us to be much the same in the virtual world even though the physical hardware of the two systems might be radically different. Even if it doesn't get us talking to each other, it could give us something in common." Fel said speculatively.

"Would that also apply to something that has no substance, like a directory tree? Would you expect it to look and work like a directory you use at work every day?" Vincent slowly reasoned.

"Yes. That's the whole idea. Since their function is the same, they might even be rendered as the same physical object in our virtual environment. When you stop and think about it, the interprelator behaves something like the universal translator, interpreting system functions instead of words. It's an automatic feature that kicks in when we encounter a foreign operating system. Most of the time we don't even notice it, but if the foreign OS is weird enough, we sometimes detect some lag as the alien systems are analyzed. It's some fairly high level stuff that we usually don't have to worry about. It just happens in the background." Fel cautiously explained.

"Good. That sounds like just what we need. Even if we can't talk to them, maybe if we're lucky there may be a way that I can poke around and hopefully answer a few of the questions about all this." Vincent said seriously.

"Here, let me show you another navigation style that's built into the interprelator system." Fel said as Vincent seemed to dissolve from in front of his control panel then reappear, free-floating in a computer generated void.

Vincent was speechless as he adjusted to his perceived world literally falling out from under him.

"Do you see a series of dots ahead of you?" Fel asked calmly, now fully in instructor mode.

"Yeah. They're all black... which makes no sense since everything else is black too." Vincent said cautiously as he tried to get used to the disorientation of having no sense of 'up' or 'down'.

"Yeah. Don't worry about that. It sometimes happens when you're 'looking' at things without your eyes. Anyway, when you get close to them you'll see that they're tubes and that each one is labeled in your native language. If you lean forward, you'll move toward them. Sitting upright allows you to stop and view the files surrounding you. Leaning back returns you to the parent directory. Each tube takes you down a different directory tree. You navigate by leaning, turning, and rotating your personal space. Once you've found something that you want to stop and look at, sit up, reach out and click it and your command capsule will reappear, giving you access to all the controls you'll need to interact with the program."

"Yeah, speaking of that, I don't seem to have any hands." Vincent said uncertainly.

"It's just like before, want to do it and you will. So far, I've never seen anyone who couldn't figure it out within a few minutes. It's just our version of 'point and click'." Fel assured him.

"Okay. What do you think the Tark'Ashi network will look like? Do you think it will be anything like this?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"I'm sure their file storage will look something like this, but since you're calling it a network, maybe you should get used to navigating our actual network before entering theirs."

"I wouldn't even know where to start." Vincent said honestly.

"Let me show you." Fel said happily as Vincent saw his command capsule reset itself to its starting position, providing visual cues to indicate 'up' and 'down'.

* * * * *

Apparently Fel had been navigating the ship's network long enough so that high-level maneuvers were commonplace for him. Fortunately, Vincent had retained enough from his Starfleet training that he was able to keep up with Fel's technical descriptions of what to do at each stage of things.

"It's a lot different from sitting in front of a computer screen, isn't it." Fel finally asked.

"Yeah. It's more like playing a VR video game. For a minute there, I was kinda expecting a final boss to pop out and challenge me." Vincent agreed.

"You don't have to worry about that, there's no final boss in our network... well, except for Teel when she's in Commander Fen-Tang mode, maybe, but as long as you stay on her good side, you should be alright." Fel gently teased.

"So, is your whole network set up like a video game or is there an 'all work and no play' zone that I haven't seen yet?" Vincent asked seriously.

"Actually, our network is fairly standard. The difference is how we visualize the processes we use to interact with it. When you think about it, all spacefaring people have the same basic needs. Our interface is set up to graphically represent the concepts associated with networking, file organization, and most of the other mundane tasks associated with using a computer. Each user can customize the interface further to react in the way that is most comfortable for them."

"So you could set it so that instead of floating in space, that you're standing in a field of daisies?" Vincent asked curiously.

"We could if we were gathering the daisies, packing them in our cargo holds and then delivering them to a paying customer. We can visually represent the work in different ways, but don't be fooled by that. The work still has to be done." Fel said frankly.

"But to do something simple, like move a file, you could pick a daisy and take it to where you want to store it and replant it?" Vincent guessed.

"I guess so. But it really depends on whether it's a tangible thing or not. If the flower represents a computer file, you might make a copy of it grow where you want it to be, then once it's verified as being complete and secure, you can destroy the original. The same concept can be expressed in different ways in different systems... or even within the same system. Stairs, lifts, or ramps could all be representing the same thing, just in slightly different ways."

"But since you're representing concepts instead of using spelled out words, that should make talking to different species easier." Vincent said speculatively.

"In general it can. But the more specific things get, the more careful you have to be to assure that you're both talking about the same thing. Remember that sometimes an eggplant emoji just means 'eggplant'."

"I'm not even going to pretend that I understand what you're talking about." Vincent said simply.

"When you're interpreting abstractions and assigning them meanings, there are times when you're going to be wrong. For what we do, being in the ballpark is good enough for most general tasks, but there are times when you need an exact, literal translation."

"Okay. I'm following you so far." Vincent slowly prompted.

"When in doubt, find a way to verify that you're being understood. In this case, you'd probably want to use the universal translator. In fact, the interprelator might engage the translator itself if it detects an ambiguity." Fel assured him.

"Well, I guess there's no use putting this off. Let's do this before I can talk myself out of it." Vincent said anxiously.

"Do you have an idea of what you'd like to do next?" Commander Fen-Tang asked curiously as she appeared on a screen, floating before him. A second screen appeared, showing Tylea, plus a third screen showing Dr. Myrix, T'Lani and Ensign Barnhill standing in the hallway, glowing in the black light environment. Even though Vincent logically knew that they were literally just a few feet away from him, he nonetheless had the feeling that at that moment they were worlds apart.

"Did you and Dr. Myrix come up with anything else that we need to know before we start?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"Joining their subspace domain should be sufficient to allow communication between us but, from past encounters, I don't have any reason to believe that they will want to listen." Dr. Myrix said frankly.

"If I'm right, they may not have much of a choice. If they really have a hive mind, then they're probably always listening, whether they want to or not. If we can just match their transmission frequency and mimic their protocols, I might be able to join their network without them even noticing." Vincent said seriously.

"You plan to just walk in the front door?" Fel asked dubiously.

"We might as well, since it seems to be open." Vincent easily responded.

"If it's that easy, why doesn't everyone use that method?" Ensign Barnhill asked curiously.

"There's a couple reasons. First of all, I don't think that they use verbal communication very much, maybe not at all. By using the neural interface, hopefully I'll be able to meet them halfway and find some way to communicate with them. The second reason is, I'm guessing that it's going to be like a new crewman's access on the Yorktown's computer. It'll be mostly 'view-only' and not be able to access any essential systems to stop them or hurt them or do anything really important."

"Then why are you going through all of this to get on their network if you can't touch anything?" Ensign Barnhill asked curiously.

"Because we need answers. For that, view-only is fine. Also, if I'm right, there's stuff that the Tark'Ashi don't understand about us... biological people, that is. If I can just have a minute or two in their network, I might be able to make a real difference." Vincent said seriously.

"And what if that doesn't work?" Ensign Barnhill asked cautiously.

"Then probably nothing will happen. They might not even know that I was ever there." Vincent said simply.

"What did you need for us to do?" Commander Fen-Tang asked curiously.

"The big thing is, don't let us get destroyed. If the Tark'Ashi think that I'm some kind of a danger to them, they might decide to neutralize the source of the transmission. If you see things going bad, get us out of there and keep us transmitting for as long as you can." Vincent said uncomfortably.

"How about I go in with you? I have more experience with the controls than you do and I know a few tricks that I haven't had a chance to teach you yet." Fel volunteered.

"Yeah. As much as I don't want to put anyone else in danger with this, I can see how it could backfire. I'll have a much better chance of getting it right with someone experienced helping me." Vincent reluctantly admitted.

"Good. Our virtual instances are linked. Now, no matter where you go, I'll be right there with you." Fel said confidently.

As Vincent was about to respond, he felt a boost of encouragement and assurance through his link with T'Lani and his soul seemed to suddenly find peace. Within their bond, he found collections of facts and theories ready and waiting for him, wrapped in her confidence in his ability to carry out his plan.

With a slight smile, Vincent turned to his right, as though he were talking to a passenger in the car he was driving, as he asked, "Are you ready? Do you want to take us into their subspace domain?"

"To be honest, I don't really do anything with subspace except what's available on the preset channels." Fel reluctantly admitted.

"Really? I imagined that you'd probably have access to all kinds of forbidden places that I've never even heard of." Vincent said with surprise.

"Sorry to disappoint, Hero. Just because my reality is mostly inside a computer doesn't mean that I'm some kind of guru. I use the programs that are available to do what I need to do. The only computer thing I'm really good at is my job."

"Don't worry about it. I can do it myself. I just thought you'd be more comfortable doing such a video gamey kind of thing." Vincent said assuringly.

"Maybe someday I'll get the chance to show you just how good I am at video games. I'm kinda awesome." Fel said happily, then cautiously amended, "But for this kind of stuff, I probably won't be much help to you. If you run into trouble, Tylea could probably help you. She does a lot of nitty gritty communications stuff."

"Nah. It's no problem for me. If you can get me a terminal, I can handle the connection protocols myself." Vincent said confidently.

"Do you know about subspace domains and stuff like that?" Fel asked with surprise.

"Yeah. I learned about it as part of my Starfleet training. I'm no expert, but T'Lani's given me what Dr. Myrix and your friends came up with. So if you can get me a terminal screen, I'm pretty sure I can get us in." Vincent said easily.

"Here you go." Fel said as a screen and keyboard appeared before Vincent.

"How do I type without hands?" Vincent asked anxiously.

"That's why I gave you a keyboard, so you can visualize pressing the keys. I'll go ahead and give you some hands too, just to get you started. As soon as you're comfortable with that, you can turn your focus on the screen and 'touch type'. After that, you shouldn't need the keyboard anymore... or the hands, for that matter."

"Oh wow."

"Is something wrong?"

"No. I just realized that this imaginary keyboard of yours is way better than any of the keyboards that I use every day. It's not too clicky. The size, weight, and key action are all perfect." Vincent said while confidently typing in his commands.

"I'm glad you like it." Fel said with a chuckle under his words.

After a minute more of typing, Vincent finally called out, "Brace yourselves! We're going in!"

* * * * *

"Fel, are you still there?" Vincent asked cautiously as he could only see blackness surrounding them. Although Commander Fen-Tang and T'Lani weren't visible to him, through T'Lani he had the sensation that they were present.

"Yes. I'll turn on our avatars so that we can see each other." Fel said quietly, then suited actions to words as he and Vincent appeared to form into being, standing side by side.

After a long silent moment, Vincent finally said, "Somehow I expected this to be... more..."

"More what?" Fel asked in a whisper into the cavernous blackness.

"Just more." Vincent said anxiously.

"It's possible that the computer is still trying to analyze and render what we've encountered." Fel said hesitantly, obviously not at all sure about it.

A movement out of the corner of his eye caused Vincent to turn.

Neon lights of various colors had begun to spread in tubes and strings in all directions, creating the basic outline of a room coming into being all around them.

"I don't know if this is better or worse." Fel said quietly.

"It's better. At least this way I can tell which way is up." Vincent said with relief.

"Watch out for that. There is no up in virtual space. What you're seeing is a computerized construct. It isn't real. If you start believing in 'up', you're opening yourself to being tricked and manipulated by someone exploiting your mistaken assumptions." Fel said seriously.

"I can see your point. But it still makes me feel better to be right-side-up." Vincent said honestly.

"You don't belong here." A small girl said as she approached. Her hair and eyes were neon blue, while her skin was like warm caramel. However, as humanoid as she looked, the expression in her eyes as she spoke did not betray the slightest spark of consciousness. The voice did not match her appearance and was most definitely computer generated.

"We aren't staying. I'm Vincent and this is Fel. Who are you?" Vincent cautiously asked, on guard for any sign of hostility toward them.

"We are one. I am many. This, you may address as Node 8e012f." The small girl said as she stopped before them. It took a moment for Vincent to remind himself that what they were seeing and interacting with was not in any sense a person. It was a manifestation of a completely foreign computer system combined with the Belsisian VR interprelator.

"It's nice to meet you Node. I came here to see if you understand that people are individuals and that by doing what you're doing you're hurting them." Vincent cautiously said as he remained on alert.

"Yes. I understand." Node 8e012f said simply.

"Okay. Then, if you understand that, how can you be okay with hurting them like you've been doing?" Vincent asked anxiously.

"Many is one. One is many. No other." Node 8e012f explained simply.

"Does that mean that your 'one' wants to get rid of our 'one'? Why can't they just get along with each other?" Vincent asked curiously. As he was doing so, he experimentally tried to bring up the 'capsule' interface so that he could have access to the controls.

"One. No other." Node 8e012f stated as though it were an undisputed fact.

Vincent quickly keyed in his search criteria and let it fly before responding, "I'm sure that no matter what we do it'll probably end up that one of them will outlive the rest. Until that happens, can't they each agree to stay in their own part of space and stuff like that?"

"Many is one. One is many. No other." Node 8e012f said more sternly, not inviting further discussion on the matter.

"So you don't want to take over our region of space or to take our resources? You just want us dead." Vincent asked cautiously.

Vincent saw that his search had been completed and hurriedly forwarded the results.

"Dead... non-functional. No. We do not wish you to be dead. We simply wish to make you one. Increase self, selves... no other."

Vincent felt a slight shudder run through him at the unbidden memory of one of the Marines being dematerialized in mid flight, right before his eyes.

He quickly typed another query before finally asking, "Is there anything we can do so that you'll stop advancing on us?"

"Such conceit." Node 8e012f said disdainfully, then explained, "Your existence does not have bearing on our actions. Despite whether your many or your one exist, our ultimate goal remains. We may alter our tactics to overcome an obstacle, but our objective is unchanged."

"And what is your objective?" Vincent hesitantly asked as he once again forwarded his search results.

"Many is one. No other." Node 8e012f said simply.

"Well, I guess no one can accuse you of setting your goals too low." Vincent said as a feeling of dread washed over him.

"This line of inquiry serves no purpose. End transmission." Node 8e012f said simply and seemed to turn off. It wasn't as though she stopped talking, but more like she had suddenly become inert.

"Fel, there's been a change of plans. I tried to reason with them. You saw me." Vincent said in his defense, then seemed to change trains of thought and suddenly asked, "Do you think that it would be possible for me to transmit a 'package' of emotions into the Tark'Ashi network? Or should I get Dr. Myrix and Commander Fen-Tang working on it?" Vincent asked urgently.

"We should be able to do it. It's one of the features of the neural link interface. Even though we don't use it all that often for transporting cargo, it's a fundamental part of our ship's operations. Without the emotional conductivity capabilities of the interface we'd functionally be no different from AIs." Fel said frankly.

"Good. Then will you help me transmit it? Is it like sending a copy of myself, like what we were planning to do before?" Vincent asked anxiously.

"Actually, we might have a problem with that. If you dump a collection of raw emotions on them all at once without providing a contextual framework to pace them evenly, then they'll just flare in an instant and be gone. Getting your emotions staged so that they'll release in order, over a period of time, could take days or even weeks to prepare." Fel cautioned him.

"Actually, you don't have to worry about that. I've been cooking up this batch of emotions for months and T'Lani has been helping me to keep things organized along the way. I think they're as ready as they can possibly be. All I need is for you to show me how to send it." Vincent assured him.

"Where do you want the transmission sent?" Fel asked cautiously.

"'All'." Vincent answered with a smile.

"I don't know... actually, our system has a wildcard function built in... if it negotiates with their system... that could work." Fel muttered, then said more determinedly, "Let's find out. There should be a red light in the center of the neural interface panel to your right. The simplest way I can describe your part in the process is to focus your 'package' into the red light, then 'push' it through."

"Do I need to address it?" Vincent asked to confirm.

"I already have, to 'all'. I'm going to trust the computer systems to do the rest for us." Fel responded simply.

"Okay, then. Here it goes." Vincent said as he followed Fel's instructions and forced the emotional bundle into the neural interface.

Time seemed to stand still while Vincent fought to keep even pressure on the 'package' to be transmitted.

"Keep it steady. You're doing fine. Transmission nearing eighty percent complete." Fel said in a voice of deep concentration.

"Good. Fel, as soon as we're done transmitting I'm going to cut the subspace link. If there's anything you can do to speed up getting me out of here, I'd really appreciate it. Commander Fen-Tang, as soon as we're done transmitting we'll need to get out of this part of space as quickly as we can. Lieutenant Barnhill, let the Yorktown know what's going on and tell them that they need to be ready to move, too. Also, have them stand by for an emergency beam-out, just in case." Vincent said as he worked to break the subspace link.

"Transmission complete." Fel announced.

Before Vincent could break contact with the subspace domain, Node 8e021f reanimated and looked directly at Vincent as she asked, "What have you done?"

"It looks to me like 'The One' is acting like it's the most important being in the universe. We have that on Earth too, sometimes. There's a biological function that my people have, to help them to look beyond themselves. Sometimes it works. Either way, enjoy puberty."

Vincent couldn't tell if the frozen look on Node 8e021f's face was that of surprise or of being lost in processing.

* * * * *

"I'm out. The link is closed." Vincent announced seriously.

"Just hold still while I shut down the neural interface for you. It shouldn't take long." Fel said professionally.

"Can I still use communications while you're doing that?" Vincent asked hopefully.

"I think so. If you switch from mental talking to physical talking in the middle of a sentence, it might get confusing for a second or two, but that should be the worst of it." Fel explained.

"Thanks, Fel." Vincent said sincerely, then said to the screen to his left, "Dr. Myrix, did you get the files I sent you?"

"No. I wasn't aware that you'd sent me any. What do you have for me, Vincent?" Dr. Myrix asked curiously.

"To be honest, I don't know. They're all written in whatever language the Tark'Ashi use. That's why I need for you to look at them. I downloaded the files from the Tark'Ashi database while I was in there talking to their 'Node' thing."

"So everything went to plan?" Dr. Myrix asked cautiously.

"'Plan A' didn't work out too well. It turns out that the Tark'Ashi already understand what it means to be an individual, they just don't care if individuals live or die. Me sending them a copy of my current self probably wouldn't make any difference to them."

"Then I'm assuming that you had a 'Plan B'." Dr. Myrix prompted.

"Not really, but then I remembered what made me think of the neural interface to begin with. I'm hoping that it will make a fundamental change to the entire Tark'Ashi hive, but if it just distracts them for a while, that'd be okay too. It might buy us some time to come up with something really good." Vincent said frankly.

"I don't know if distracting them really accomplishes anything." Dr. Myrix said regretfully.

"That's why I need for you to look at the files. There might be something in there that will make a real difference." Vincent implored him to understand.

"Can you give me a clue of what I'm looking for so I'll know where to start?"

"While I had access to the Tark'Ashi subspace domain I did a quick search of their database. I was able to pull some files that might have something to do with the dimensional travelers. The rest of the files that I grabbed are supposed to be zero level blueprints of the Tark'Ashi network. I haven't had a chance to look at anything and see if that's what I actually got, but there's a chance they'll show you something that you can use to shut the Tark'Ashi down." Vincent said seriously.

"Did you send the files to my Starfleet account?" Dr. Myrix asked cautiously.

"I sent them to the Yorktown, directed to your attention. I wasn't sure if you'd be notified that you had new mail, but doing it that way made it so I didn't have to worry if I got the address right or not."

"Good thinking. How close are you to being out of that chamber?" Dr. Myrix asked urgently.

"I can feel my body coming back alive so I'll probably be out of here in a minute or two." Vincent said confidently, then thought to ask, "Does that sound about right, Fel?"

"I really can't say." Fel said quietly, then explained, "When one of us goes in, we usually don't come back out... at least, not alive."

"Oh. Sorry if I was being an insensitive jerk. I wasn't trying to be." Vincent assured him.

"I know. We just lost Pymma not long ago. It still hurts. It's not your fault."

"I'm not good at dealing with things like that. I'm still learning how to do it right. But maybe we can think of it like it's something that she would approve of." Vincent cautiously suggested, then realized that he was speaking with his voice again.

"Yeah. I'm pretty sure it's what she would have wanted." Fel quietly agreed.

"Yes. She would have wanted the universe that she loved so much to continue on without her." Tylea softly confirmed.

"Major Winters? Are you ready to try moving?" Commander Fen-Tang cautiously asked, careful not to be too jarring with the delicate mood that had fallen over the gathering.

"Sure. Just tell me what I have to do." Vincent immediately responded.

"The last of the neural connections has been broken. I'm going to open the door. Before you attempt to stand, realize that your body may suffer some residual weakness." Commander Fen-Tang cautioned.

"I don't hear the engines. We really need to be moving." Vincent said as the door beside him opened.

"I'm coordinating with the Yorktown. They will be escorting us to the next sector." Commander Fen-Tang said seriously.

Vincent pulled and strained to get his barely responsive body to follow his commands.

"Husband, do you require assistance?" T'Lani cautiously asked.

"No. I got this. But if you guys will stand back a little, I need to do some stretches or something to wake my body up. I give it a little time off duty and it totally forgets how to move." Vincent groused.

"Just wait till you get older." Dr. Myrix said wearily.

Once Vincent was fully out of the claustrophobic space and left sitting on the hallway floor, he decided to carry on with what he had said he would do and began to go through his standard series of warm-up stretches, albeit at an accelerated rate.

"The Yorktown has sent coordinates for rendezvous, ETA approximately eight minutes. We can transport at that time." Ensign Barnhill announced.

Vincent finished his last stretch, then stood. Before anyone could ask about what needed to be done next, Vincent opened his communicator and said, "Commander M'Butu this is Major Winters, come in."

"Yes, Major. Report?" Commander M'Butu asked cautiously.

"First, keep a close eye on the Tark'Ashi for anything weird. If something is going to happen because of what I just did, it should be in the next few minutes." Vincent said seriously.

"Acknowledged. And second?"

"I was able to download some files while I was visiting with the Tark'Ashi. There might be something in there that could help us in fighting them." Vincent said seriously.

"Where are those files now?" Commander M'Butu asked urgently.

"I transmitted them to the Yorktown, to the attention of Dr. Myrix. I didn't want to take a chance of distracting you from something more important by making too much of a big deal about them at the time." Vincent explained.

"I'll gather a team to work on those files. Anything else?" Commander M'Butu asked professionally.

"No, sir. Everything else can wait for my report." Vincent said respectfully.

"Good job, Major. Yorktown out." Commander M'Butu said simply, then ended the transmission.

"Would you like to return to the landing bay to prepare for your departure?" Commander Fen-Tang asked cautiously.

"Um, Yeah. But as soon as we're off your ship, you need to get as far away from the Tark'Ashi encroachment zone as possible." Vincent warned as he led the group down the hallway, back toward the landing bay where they had arrived.

"From what little I know of it, the Tark'Ashi are machines, aren't they? You don't think they'd seek revenge, do you?" Tylea asked from the ship's speakers in the hallway.

"I doubt it. But I'm worried that they might want to capture your ship to try to make sense of what I just did to them." Vincent said honestly.

"I seriously doubt that we would have any information that would be of use to them." Commander Fen-Tang said frankly.

"Probably not, but they won't have any way of knowing that for sure unless they capture your ship and investigate for themselves." Vincent immediately countered as the group approached the cargo bay.

"We'll do our best to make sure that doesn't happen." Fel said anxiously.

"Don't hesitate to call upon the Federation for assistance. Not only do we have a common adversary, but also a shared interest in preventing the Tark'Ashi from examining your ship. As long as they're unsure about what was done to them, they might be hesitant to take more aggressive action." Dr. Myrix said seriously.

"We've reached the rendezvous coordinates. Prepare yourselves for transport." Commander Fen-Tang announced.

"Thank you for your hospitality, Commander." Dr. Myrix said sincerely.

"We were honored to be able to make a contribution to the war effort." Commander Fen-Tang said diplomatically.

"Just being out here, helping to supply our ships on the front line is a bigger contribution than most people will ever make in their lives. Letting us use your neural processing unit may have just allowed us to take the fight in a new direction. We'll just have to wait and see what comes of it." Dr. Myrix finished with a slight hopeful smile.

"Ready for transport." Tylea announced.

All present reconfirmed that they were in their 'transport positions' and stood a little straighter.

"Thank you for allowing us to play a part in your plan. Regardless of the eventual resolution, we will know that when the time came, we did our part and stood against the seemingly inevitable." Commander Fen-Tang said before the sparkle of the Yorktown's transporter carried them away.

* * * * *

"Welcome aboard, everyone. Dr. Myrix, Major Winters, please come with me. The work group is assembling. We don't have a moment to spare." Commander M'Butu said as soon as the transporter beam cleared.

"We haven't heard any news. Do you know what the Tark'Ashi are doing?" Vincent asked as he and Dr. Myrix left T'Lani and Ensign Barnhill on the transporter pad.

"Nothing." Commander M'Butu responded as he led the way out of the room.

"I didn't know what to expect to happen when I transmitted, but I had hoped that it would at least make some kind of difference, even if it only distracted them for a minute or two, it might be enough to give us another method of attacking them." Vincent said as the group boarded the turbolift.

"Conference One." Commander M'Butu said to the ceiling of the lift, then turned to Vincent and continued, "You misunderstand me, Major. When I said 'nothing', I meant that the Tark'Ashi are literally doing nothing. They have stopped all their attacks, advancement, and repairs, falling silent in a seemingly ever increasing sphere from your point of contact with them."

"Oh... okay." Vincent said uncertainly as the lift doors opened.

Dr. Myrix walked directly to the conference room table and signed onto the computer.

"Starfleet is going to need a detailed report on exactly what you did, but if I'm understanding our situation correctly, our first priority should be to decipher the files that you've brought to us." Commander M'Butu said seriously.

"I did a search within their system and these are the results I got. I can't promise that there's anything useful in them but even if there's not, just finding a way to read their language could end up being a really big thing for us." Vincent reasoned.

"I've located the files." Dr. Myrix announced urgently.

Vincent turned at the sound of the turbolift doors behind them and smiled at the familiar faces of Lieutenant Clark and Lieutenant Patterson as they walked into the conference room.

"We are being withdrawn from the combat area until we've been able to assess what Vincent has brought us. I've asked Lieutenants Clark and Patterson to join us due to their backgrounds in linguistics and pattern recognition. If anyone present can think of anyone else who might be able to help us further, all you have to do is ask. The Federation is making this investigation a priority." Commander M'Butu said seriously.

"We have eleven files that Vincent brought us. Six in the first batch, five in the second." Dr. Myrix announced in a tone of intense concentration.

"The second batch might be maps of some kind. My search was supposed to be for zero-level blueprints of the Tark'Ashi network but I can't be sure how the Belsisian interface interpreted my query. It could be anything from micro-architecture to star charts." Vincent explained.

"If no one objects, I'll focus on those. They sound like something right up my alley." Lieutenant Clark hurried to volunteer.

"How does that sound to you, Lieutenant Patterson? You are the senior officer on the team." Commander M'Butu asked seriously.

"Before I agree, what were the other search parameters?" Debbie asked carefully.

"I asked for information about some things that I'm not supposed to talk about." Vincent said warily.

"Would it help if Lieutenant Clark weren't included in the conversation?" Commander M'Butu asked cautiously.

"No sir. I'm sure with him being a command officer that he's already heard about the dimension stuff. What I'm talking about is the reason why Lieutenant Walking-Bear took a shuttle all the way back to Earth. I've already told Dr. Myrix about it so he could maybe help us figure out how we were brought here."

"Did it help to explain anything?" Commander M'Butu asked hesitantly.

"No. Not so far." Dr. Myrix admitted, then thought to add, "But I prefer to reserve judgment until we've seen what Major Winters has been able to retrieve from the Tark'Ashi."

"Even so, given that you had only one chance to query the Tark'Ashi network, it seems like an odd choice of search criteria." Commander M'Butu cautiously observed.

"I know. I didn't go into it with a plan but I got to thinking that the timing of all of this just seems a little too perfect for it to be on accident. My gut was telling me that the key to all this is mixed up somewhere with the Tark'Ashi, dimensional travel, and proto-matter." Vincent finished reluctantly.

"Excuse me, but proto-matter is strictly theoretical. When scientists have tried to recreate such a thing it's been hopelessly unstable and ultimately useless." Lieutenant Clark said seriously.

"In this dimension, yeah. But back in my home dimension, I was part of a team who actually collected samples of naturally occurring proto-matter and sent them back to Earth for study." Vincent explained.

"You need to watch out how much you reveal." Commander M'Butu cautioned.

"I'll be sure to keep a lid on it if and when we get back home. But until then, we need these guys' help to figure things out. Us withholding information isn't going to help us or them." Vincent cautiously reasoned.

"Still, we need to be sure that whatever is divulged here remains with the group. There's no telling how certain of this information might be used against us." Commander M'Butu said seriously.

"So your dimension has proto-matter and this one doesn't? What does that mean?" Lieutenant Clark asked uncertainly.

"We're operating under the assumption that the presence of proto-matter indicates primacy." Commander M'Butu curtly supplied.

"What does this have to do with dimensional travel?" Lieutenant Patterson asked cautiously.

"They may not have anything to do with each other, but us being in this place at this time seems to be a little too coincidental. Unless we plan on blaming all this on a god creature of some kind, then there probably has to be some event or action that caused all of this to happen." Vincent said with certainty.

"He makes a good point. A dimensional slide might be able to occur naturally and bring your group to a neighboring dimension using some mechanism that we don't fully understand. But for you to be here and now, on the front line of the battle, on the eve of the Federation succumbing to the enemy; It's too unlikely to be accidental." Dr. Myrix said firmly.

"You said that the Tark'Ashi had stopped advancing. Does that help us at all?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"Our best efforts are mere scratches to them. What we need to do is find some way of actually damaging them." Commander M'Butu said frankly.

"Do we have anyone else aboard who might be able to help us make sense of any of this?" Dr. Myrix asked anxiously.

"Ensign Wright had phenomenal linguistic skills that might be of use in this circumstance, but unfortunately, as near as I can tell, she doesn't exist in this universe." Lieutenant Patterson said seriously.

"I'm missing people too." Vincent confirmed.

"We all are. That just gives us another reason to find out what's at the heart of all this so that we might be able to engineer a way home." Commander M'Butu said firmly.

"Enough talk. I'll take the first text file. The rest of you jump in wherever you like. It all needs to be done." Lieutenant Patterson said decisively.

"I'll start on the first map file." Lieutenant Clark said immediately.

"I'll take a text file. The Clan taught me a bunch of languages in a language dump. I'll see if there's anything close to Tark'Ashi hiding out in there." Vincent announced.

Dr. Myrix turned his attention back to his table terminal as he said, "My people are long lived and well traveled. It's possible that I'll be able to find something in the star charts that isn't visible to the common observer."

"As much as I would like to take on a share of the investigation, the fact of the matter is that right now I'm needed more on the bridge. If any of you can think of anyone you would like to help you, don't hesitate to call."

"Regardless of what we find, we're going to need to contact the Enterprise. They're stuck in a holding pattern waiting for our report." Lieutenant Patterson said seriously.

"Then let's make their wait worth it. Give it your best so that maybe we'll have something to report to them." Commander M'Butu said before exiting the room.

* * * * *

"If it were binary, I'd at least have something to go on. This... what are the chances that you just got eleven files of complete gibberish?" Lieutenant Clark asked miserably.

"I know. Even though I can speak a bunch of languages, I can't make anything out of these text files." Vincent said with growing frustration.

"What would you think if I invited Chief Morgan to join us?" Lieutenant Patterson asked cautiously into the silence.

"Does he know languages?" Vincent asked curiously.

"He knows one that might be of interest to us." Lieutenant Patterson said frankly, then explained, "He's not only familiar with the nuts and bolts engineering, but also the programming of the ship's systems."

"Do you think that these might be programs?" Vincent asked in surprise.

"Machine language?" Lieutenant Clark asked at nearly the same time.

"I've seen enough repetition in these patterns to at least consider that they are lines of code. Whether they're part of a greater program or a method of data storage that makes sense to an electro-mechanical species, I really can't say. But Chief Morgan may have some insights into the matter." Lieutenant Patterson said frankly.

"Yes. Now that you mention it, certain of the repeated phrases might be command lines. That, along with knowing that these files are potentially maps, might allow me to make some assumptions in their decoding." Dr. Myrix muttered in deep concentration.

Vincent smiled at the sight of Dr. Myrix expressing such passion for his work.

Lieutenant Patterson took that as agreement and pressed a button on the comm panel before politely asking, "Chief Morgan, would you please come to conference room one at your earliest convenience?"

"You're aware that we're at station-keeping, aren't you?" Chief Morgan asked in response.

"Yes. But Commander M'Butu said that Starfleet has decided that this investigation is a priority. Vincent brought back something from his visit with the Tark'Ashi that might be able to turn this whole situation around. Would you like to help us make sense of these Tark'ashi maps that he's brought us?" Lieutenant Patterson asked in a wheedling tone.

"I'll be right up." Chief Morgan said without prevarication.

"Before we get any further into these maps, I was just wondering, do we know if the Tark'Ashi even have the capacity for sight?" Lieutenant Clark asked carefully.

"It would seem that the first time they absorbed another species' technology, they would gain the perceptive technology of that people. Although, there's nothing to say that they would be able to interpret the sensory information that biological species take for granted." Dr. Myrix said speculatively.

"So they might not be able to see like we do, but at the same time, they might be able to sense energy signatures and magnetic fields that we can't normally see?" Vincent asked to verify his understanding.

"We can't make any assumptions about their ability to see or hear. Even if they have the apparatus, they might not be able to interpret the signals being fed to them." Dr. Myrix said seriously.

"And I can't think of any reason that they'd have the ability to touch, taste, or smell, either. So that means that they might not have any senses in common with us." Vincent said thoughtfully.

"If that's the case, how did you communicate with them?" Lieutenant Patterson asked curiously.

"I can't be sure that I did." Vincent said frankly, then explained, "I used a Belsisian neural link to connect to the subspace domain where they talk to each other. The program the Bellsisians use to interface with foreign systems interprets processes and renders them as physical objects in the VR environment. It computer generated a little girl named 'Node' to represent the Tark'Ashi that I could talk to, but I don't know how much of that was the Tark'Ashi and how much was the Belsisian interface interpreting what it observed in their subspace domain."

"How many of the files we're investigating came from this 'Node' entity?" Dr. Myrix asked curiously.

"None. While I was asking Node questions, I was also accessing the Tark'Ashi network database. I was doing searches in the background and sending the results back to the Yorktown as I got them." Vincent said seriously.

"What are the chances that they were feeding you the information that they wanted you to have?" Dr. Myrix cautiously asked.

"I get the feeling that they don't play games like that. They don't trick or trap, they annihilate." Vincent said soberly.

"Nice universe you have here, I think I'd like to go now." Lieutenant Patterson said as she kept most of her attention on the text in front of her.

"I'm working on it." Vincent said seriously.

* * * * *

The sound of the lift doors opening drew everyone's attention and there were more than a few reassured smiles at the sight of Chief Morgan.

"Please tell me that you weren't exaggerating." He said as he walked into the conference room.

"Nothing is certain at this point, but Vincent was able to infiltrate the Tark'Ashi subspace domain and download several files, some of which may possibly be star charts. Since the Tark'Ashi appear to be a machine based intelligence, I thought that someone with more of a background in programming might have some insights into their language." Lieutenant Patterson explained.

"Even AIs programmed by organic beings have a tendency to develop their own languages amongst themselves. Many times safeguards have to be put into place at the beginning of their development to inhibit such behavior lest it run unchecked." Chief Morgan said as he stepped to Lieutenant Patterson's side to look over her shoulder.

"Do you think that may be what happened here? Someone created AI computers and they began talking in their own language, and eventually stopped listening to anyone else?" Lieutenant Patterson asked curiously.

"There's not enough information to determine something like that, but there's no doubt that it is possible." Dr. Myrix slowly added.

Lieutenant Patterson noticed Chief Morgan's curious look and explained, "Vincent and I are working on these documents which may or may not have to do with dimensional travel. Lieutenant Clark is working on the star charts with Dr. Myrix."

"How far have you gotten?" Chief Morgan asked seriously.

"We started at the beginning, doing the standard universal translator trials. So far we haven't had any hits." Lieutenant Patterson said simply.

"I've just been looking this over, trying to find anything that looks like a pattern. So far it all looks random." Vincent said unenthusiastically.

"Knowing that these are most likely images, I'm trying to find any possible way that I can render this... mess into something identifiable." Lieutenant Clark volunteered.

"It would help if we were starting with a language. We don't even know what ABC and 123 look like to them." Dr. Myrix complained.

"Or, if they have an alphabet or a numbering system at all, for that matter." Lieutenant Clark added grimly.

"There's also the possibility that the files are encrypted. So not only may they have a radically different language and numbering system to begin with, but they may have also scrambled their output before storing it." Dr. Myrix said wearily.

"Have you forwarded this information to Starfleet yet?" Chief Morgan asked cautiously.

"They've been notified that we have it, but as far as I know, they don't have their own copy of it yet." Vincent said seriously.

"Normally, I would doubt that, but from what I've heard going around the lower decks, resources are spread pretty thin right now. Trying to manage a quadrant wide evacuation while keeping the citizenry calm and controllable is a task beyond my imagining." Chief Morgan said gravely.

"One thousand twenty-four." Lieutenant Clark said suddenly.

"What's that?" Chief Morgan asked curiously.

"I just had the computer go through all the documents and add up how many unique characters there are. All things considered, I would guess that it's their numbering system." Lieutenant Clark said seriously.

"What does that do for us?" Vincent asked curiously.

Before Lieutenant Clark could answer, Chief Morgan said, "If he has indeed found their numbering system, that could be a significant step in translating the documents that you brought us."

"So the next step would be to translate their numbering system into an equivalent to ours. Once we do that, we should be able to break the whole thing down to binary and restate it in any number system we want." Dr. Myrix said speculatively.

"So all we need to do is find something that has the answer of 4, then find the same thing, which also means 4 in the Tark'Ashi documents." Vincent cautiously reasoned.

"And once you've done 4, then you do 5, then test them within the document to see if it makes sense throughout." Lieutenant Clark quietly explained.

"Would a math genius be too much to ask for right now?" Vincent anxiously asked.

"Do you happen to know any?" Lieutenant Patterson asked hopefully.

"No. I was just saying that this doesn't look like something that regular people with regular skills are going to have a chance of solving quickly. It looks like we need some kind of super math genius who can look at it and understand it without having to actually do the math... you know, like a great big giant shortcut." Vincent said reluctantly.

"It seems like a long shot, but it won't hurt anything to query Starfleet to see if they have any mathematicians or math geniuses on the ships out here at the border." Lieutenant Patterson said seriously.

"Am I missing something? Since this project has been given priority by Starfleet, don't we have the resources of the entire Federation at our disposal? If the person we need isn't here, can't we conference with them via subspace or go to where they are? What's the time crunch?" Lieutenant Clark asked cautiously.

The members of the group exchanged uncertain looks until Vincent finally answered, "A group of us are here right now, because something dragged us away from an entirely different dimension. If it was a god-level being, bringing us here for some purpose, then we'd better get whatever it is accomplished or we might never get to go back home." Vincent said urgently.

"And if it's not a god-being?" Lieutenant Clark cautiously prompted.

"Then I think what caused us to be here is probably the same force that is causing a lot of other problems... From my point of view, it looks like it could be the Tark'Ashi." Vincent said thoughtfully.

"Wait, are you saying that you think the Tark'Ashi brought us here?" Chief Morgan asked uncertainly.

"I don't know about that for sure. I think that something they did might be the reason that we're here right now. I just don't know if it was on purpose... I mean, we're nothing to them. Why would they bother?" Vincent asked reasonably.

"Perhaps it wasn't an action of theirs that caused you to be brought here but rather some sort of attack on them that brought you here as an unintended consequence." Dr. Myrix cautiously speculated.

"Yeah. If someone was messing around with time, we could have been brought here because of some little change they made in the past." Vincent said speculatively.

"If that were the case, it would be well beyond our ability to address." Chief Morgan added grimly.

After a long silent moment, Lieutenant Clark finally asked, "So why are we rushing, again?"

Before Vincent could answer, Chief Morgan said, "Because whether it's a vengeful god, the Tark'Ashi, or some other race whose attack on the Tark'Ashi spilled over onto us, there is no reason for us to believe that the situation will resolve itself to our benefit. In fact, it seems reasonable to assume that it will become more deadly for all of us and will diminish our chances for some of us to ever find a way back to our own universe."

"I'll put out the call for math geniuses and anyone with an exceptional gift for stellar cartography. If we can find someone local, that's great, but if not, we'll do as much as we can over subspace." Lieutenant Patterson said decisively.

"I don't think I was sufficiently aware of the severity of the situation. With this new motivation in mind, I will try making more... spirited inquiries of some of my contemporaries in the upper echelons of Starfleet. Perhaps some of them are holding something in reserve in hopes of gaining a political advantage with it later." Dr. Myrix said diplomatically.

"I believe that I am overdue for catching up with Mr. Scott, on the Enterprise. It is possible that he may have some insights on either the charts or the written documents, and if not, he may have noticed something that we've overlooked from our vantage point. You know, the forest and the trees and all of that." Chief Morgan finished with a smile.

"Even though T'Lani taught me some great Vulcan tricks for memorization, I think I need to get as many facts written down as I can from my visit with the Tark'Ashi. Not only so that I won't forget them, but also so that I can share them with the people who might be able to help us without having to repeat the same thing over and over." Vincent said seriously.

"I'm going to work under the assumption that these machine entities don't have an alphabet and speak only in numbers. I'll set the parameters and turn the ship's computer loose on it. Who knows? I might get lucky." Lieutenant Clark said with forced enthusiasm, obviously not believing it himself.

"If you need me to, I can contact the Musubi to see if they can help us figure out how I could talk to Node when no one else has ever been able to talk to the Tark'Ashi at all." Vincent said uncertainly.

"It sounds like a unique avenue that you can pursue while the rest of us are working on our own approaches." Dr. Myrix said simply.

"Okay. Then if you'll excuse me, I guess I've got a call to make." Vincent said with weary acceptance as he opened the communications screen on his console.

* * * * *

"Fel? Are you busy? Do you have time to talk?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"We're en route to our next job, so there isn't much for me to do." Fel said frankly.

"Good. I was hoping that you could help me figure out how we communicated with Node when no one else can talk to the Tark'Ashi at all." Vincent said seriously.

"I'll be glad to help you however I can, but if this is a question about the programming of the interprelator, then you better talk to Commander Fen-Tang. She has the most knowledge of interprelator programming." Fel said frankly.

"Do you think she'll have time?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"I think she'll make time if it will help in the fight against the Tark'Ashi." Fel said honestly.

"Can you transfer me to her? We're running a little short on time here." Vincent said anxiously.

"Good luck. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." Fel said before his image disappeared, to be replaced by Commander Fen-Tang.

"I didn't expect to be talking to you again so soon. How can I help you, Vincent... May I call you Vincent?"

"Yeah. Sure." Vincent stammered, momentarily derailed in his thoughts, then asked, "What should I call you."

"My given name is Teel." Commander Fen-Tang said timidly.

"Okay Teel, we've run into a problem interpreting the Tark'Ashi language and images. So far we've gotten a bunch of symbols, but we haven't been able to figure out what they represent."

"I don't have any training or skill when it comes to linguistics. I depend on our computers to take care of all that."

"Same here. But Fel seemed to think that because of your knowledge of the interprelator programming you might be able to tell why we were able to speak to Node. If we can figure out that part, it might be the key to being able to understand what their symbols mean."

"You were hooked into the VR space and entered their subspace domain. It would be important to determine if the 'Node' entity that you encountered was something created by them or by us." Commander Fen-Tang said thoughtfully.

"She looked completely Belsisian, so I figured that she was generated by your interprelator."

"Yes. That makes it more likely that our system created the visual manifestation. That would mean that the subsequent speech was probably something being fed from the outside into the avatar that we created for them."

"Is there any way to access the raw file of what was being sent to us so that we can compare it to what Node was saying?"

"It could take a few minutes. Everything is automatically archived, but the files are combined and compressed to save storage space and unnecessary indexing." Commander Fen-Tang calmly explained.

"Would you mind looking? It could be really important."

"Yes. Of course. I was just explaining why it might take me some time. It's not as easy as opening a text file."

"Take as long as you need to. I'll be right here whenever you're ready." Vincent assured her as he simultaneously opened his report template.

* * * * *

As Vincent paused to consider how was the best way to relay certain facts, keeping in mind who his audience might be comprised of, he felt a pair of eyes upon him. Slowly turning, Vincent noticed Lieutenant Clark looking back at him uncertainly.

"How's it going?" Vincent cautiously asked, not believing that Lieutenant Clark had made any significant strides but rather to provide an easy avenue to further conversation.

"What am I like in your universe?" Lieutenant Clark tentatively asked.

"Pretty much the same as you are here, I guess. We work together on the bridge and have been part of a special project for Commander M'Butu. We never talked about any personal stuff, but I think we've been through enough together to respect each other's abilities and consider each other friends."

"Our Vincent... he isn't like you, I mean, not really." Lieutenant Clark said slowly, as though he wasn't sure he should really be talking about it.

"How are we different?" Vincent asked with interest.

"Maybe it's something to do with you being from a prime universe. Our version of you may be a duplicate of you that doesn't include all of who the 'prime' you is." Lieutenant Clark said speculatively.

"I hadn't thought about that, but it would make sense that people in different dimensions would have noticeable differences, even if it's little stuff that's not really important." Vincent said thoughtfully.

"That, right there, is an example of how you're different from him. I'd expect him to react much the same as you did, but... less. I think he'd agree about the differences but he wouldn't think about if or how they are significant." Lieutenant Clark struggled to explain.

"I can see differences in people, but I can't say that primacy has anything to do with it. We're all just slightly different from each other. I don't think one 'group' has superior skills or instincts over the others." Vincent said reasonably.

"Do you think that when this is all over, that our Vincent will come back?" Lieutenant Clark cautiously asked.

"If we can undo..." Vincent trailed off as his mind suddenly started racing.

After a moment, Lieutenant Clark cautiously asked, "Is there something wrong?"

"Hold on. Give me a second. I may have something." Vincent said slowly, in an almost trance-like voice, then began to mutter, "Do and undo, restoring to a save point, do-over..."

"I don't understand what you're saying." Lieutenant Clark reluctantly admitted.

"Has there been some kind of catastrophic event recently which could account for the dimensional shift?" Vincent asked seriously.

"Not that I know of. If there had been, I'm sure either we or the Enterprise would be investigating it right now." Lieutenant Clark said reasonably.

"I'm missing something. It has to be something big enough to spawn a new universe on the fly." Vincent said slowly as his mind raced over the known facts.

"Does it have to do with the Tark'Ashi?" Lieutenant Clark asked cautiously.

"Yes. I think it would have to."

"Then we probably wouldn't know about it." Lieutenant Clark said simply.

"I guess not."

"Is that why you searched for information about dimensional travel?" Lieutenant Clark cautiously asked.

"No... I mean, it's all part of the same thing, I think. The Tark'Ashi are part of it, in fact, they might be the cause of all of it. But I still don't see what they're getting out of it. Why would they go to all the trouble?" Vincent asked irritably.

"How can we find out?" Lieutenant Clark asked anxiously.

"Find a way to translate these files." Vincent said simply.

To Be Continued...

Editor's notes:

I am very glad to get some news from Vincent and his people, but I somehow have a feeling that we will need another chapter or more before this situation can be successfully remedied.

We can't exactly call this a cliffhanger, since there is no new looming disaster hanging above us, other than what was already happening at the beginning of the chapter.

With all the different stories lingering in MM's mind over the years,  it can take a while to get back to any particular one.

I think I can see a flicker of hope sitting here. Maybe it will happen sooner than later.

Darryl The RadioRancher