2017 by Roxanne Barbour
Artist: Steven Novak
No part of
this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording,
or by any information retrieval system, without permission in writing
from the author
treasures and adventures
The mound moved, and I fell.
Not down the rabbit hole, but close enough. Our exploration group had
stopped to lunch on the flat top of a smidgen of a bump in the ground
cover. Standing too close to the mound’s edge when the earth
shuddered, I lost my footing and tumbled down the small hill—landing
on my rear. A few of our group of humans and Keeki scrambled down to
come to my rescue. Trying to get my embarrassed body upright, I
braced my left arm on the side of the mound. However, I soon found my
arm buried in the dirt.
“What are you doing, Cadet Carter?” asked Major
Sylone Craig, the human leader of the Earth Sciences Force’s
expedition on the planet Needles. Why didn’t she just use my
full name, Cadet Mileena Charlotte Carter, to embarrass me further?
“Just trying to stand,” I replied. What did she think I
“Actually, I want to know why your arm has disappeared.”
A hint of a smile played across her slim face. Taller than I, at
about six feet, she exuded authority—a necessary attribute with
this bright group of exploration personnel.
And my superior loved teasing me. Just because I was the youngest
member of the human contingent didn’t mean I shouldn’t be
taken seriously. After all, a doctorate in exobiology at sixteen made
me proud. However, Sylone was always available for conversation and
advice, so I decided not to obsess about her teasing.
Tyne Tone, one of the Keeki cadet counterparts on our team, grabbed
my right arm and pulled me up. I shook him off. Sometimes annoying,
the Keeki were strong compared to most humans and, on average, taller
and thicker in body. I suspected their evolution from birds,
including their vestigial wings, contributed to their physique.
“Why is there an opening in the side of the hill?” asked
Not a hill, in my opinion. Actually, not much more than an eruption
of soil, really. However, I did understand her gist about an
opening—otherwise my arm wouldn’t have passed through the
thin surface. “I did notice my wandering hand touching a smooth
object. Maybe a rock is buried inside?” I asked.
treasures and adventures,” said Tyne.
The Keeki habit of uttering what sounded like haiku made me name
their version of English, kaiku.
“Not a bad suggestion, Cadet Tone,” said Major Craig, and
then she raised her voice. “Okay. Let’s finish lunch
everyone, and then we can pull out our excavating tools.”
Sylone had grasped the Keeki kaiku soon after they’d
joined our crew. The rest of us took a bit longer.
Someone grabbed my pack from the top of the mound while I found a
flat spot at the base. No way was I clambering up any mounds again—at
least not today.
I ate my lunch while I ruminated on this strange planet, and my
bruised and shaky body.
My nemesis, the mound, stared at me. Although shorter than my initial
impression, I was actually glad of its diminished height—any
taller and I’d possibly have broken a bone on my descent.
Bland light green-brown vegetation covered all six mounds. Nothing
remarkable, but at least some greenery. So far, we’d discovered
little plant life on Needles.
My glance wandered to Major Craig. She certainly did cut a striking
figure. Her short brown hair added to her regal stance, and her
piercing gray eyes added to her elegance.
I found Tyne sitting a few feet away from me. Although the Keeki were
stocky and muscled, Tyne’s own six foot height gave his body a
veneer of grace. The faint blue scales on his skin also upped my
interest. I decided to spend time getting to know him better. Our
expedition had only recently begun, so contact had been minimal so
Nourishment helped my body regain its equilibrium, so my thoughts
turned again to Needles.
With little greenery and low rolling hills, in some ways this planet
challenged my comfort level. My home town of Vancouver was one of the
sweet spots of Canada. Surrounded by mountains—ski hills
mostly—lush valley vegetation, the Pacific Ocean, and a West
Coast rain forest climate, Greater Vancouver had everything. Of
course, a parochial viewpoint, but this planet radiated dullness in a
majority of its aspects.
Needles had one thing going for it, though—every once in a
while color splashed our eyes.
The glorious sunsets decked out in red and orange intrigued me and,
although the planet had little thriving low level ground vegetation,
wondrous trees existed. The shapes and colors astounded me. Each
small grove contained numerous tree types. From thin trunks to stout
ones, from tiny trees to tall ones, each grouping contained many
varieties, much to my surprise.
Each tree leaf encountered had a variegated green-orange pattern, but
numerous leaf designs were evident. The shapes of their leaves tended
As for why we’d called this planet Needles, we blamed the
Keeki. They’d wanted us to join them in an expedition to study
this planet new to both of us. In support of our new diplomatic
relations, Earth agreed. However, we’d had no idea what to
expect. Hence Needle in a Haystack became our motto.
“Time to start digging,” announced the major, after most
of us had finished our lunches. “Let’s do a proper dig;
you all know how.”
Before leaving Earth, the members of the expedition had been trained,
or retrained, in archaeological digs. Human and Keeki alike.
So we staked and took pictures and videos before we began to remove
the hillside’s surface. Not long later, the major made us cease
our digging. She reached into the hole my arm discovered and pulled
out a chest with a green lid and gold trim. The rest of the artifact
was a dark brown.
Although smudged with dirt, the artifact exuded warmness—perhaps
because of its rough and glistening surface. What would make a chest
twinkle? Gems? Unusual chemistry? Or maybe, alien DNA coated the
surface? Perhaps an exobiologist needed to pursue my question, and
that would be me. I smiled to myself, and my curiosity kicked in.
After receiving a doctorate in exobiology, my interest in other
worlds propelled me to the Earth Sciences Force’s Academy. And,
after two years of academic courses, I was now on a training
mission—a practicum, by any other name.
“Okay, everyone, let’s sit down and we’ll discuss
how to proceed. And then I’ll assign today’s duties,”
said Major Craig, pointing to a flat spot a short distance away. She
needed to temper our enthusiasms with reality. Not that enthusiasm
was a bad reaction in an exploration group.
Most of the group turned and followed her, but I lingered. The chest
drew me in; it resonated with my left hand, for some strange reason.
Perhaps my initial contact had created a harmony, an understanding of
Without thinking, I reached out and touched the artifact. After a
momentary hesitation, the lid rose, and my curiosity made me peer
After I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was Briny’s face.
“Why are you here? I thought you stayed back at the ship for
“You’re a little confused, Mile,” said our resident
medic and scientist. Her blue eyes sparkled, and she gave a little
toss of her tied back long blond hair. “You lost consciousness
at the dig, so Tyne picked you up and ran back to base. Your crew
hadn’t travelled very far today so it didn’t take him
long to get here.”
I tried to sit up, but Briny gently pushed me back down. “Just
rest. Whatever gas you exposed inside the artifact knocked you
“I’m poisoned?” I asked. I did a mental check, but
my body didn’t feel too bad.
“Probably not, but I’ve taken blood samples, just in
case. I’ll know soon enough.”
I caught the look on her face. “Actually, you may not. Who
knows what alien bug or chemical is running around Needles, ready to
attack us? Remember, I’m an exobiologist.” All the
possibilities flooded my mind.
“A little paranoid, sweety.” Briny smiled and rubbed my
shoulder. “Rest a while. Major Craig and the crew should be
back any moment,” she said, taking my blood pressure. “It
shouldn’t take them long to pack up and bring the rover back.”
A good friend of mine now, Briny and I had clicked on the trip out,
and spent hours discussing alien physiology—of which we both
knew little—but our ignorance hadn’t stopped us from
Then I remembered my situation. Aack! Major Craig! I tried not to
think about her response. I dozed as weird objects swirled in my
mind—images of misshapen mounds and strange shaped treasures.
“Sleeping on the job are you?” asked Sylone, interrupting
Apparently, the crew had returned. “Ah, ah, sorry. Tired for
some reason,” I said. My gassing had affected me far more than
I’d realized. I sat up and looked around the small infirmary on
our landed spaceship. Because there was only enough space for Briny,
Sylone, and me in the room, a bunch of heads peered through the
“Briny, would you mind leaving for a few moments?” asked
Major Craig. “And slide the door shut behind you, please.”
She smiled and shooed everyone away so Sylone and I had privacy.
Not sure if I welcomed this time alone with our leader, I said
“Not too bright, Cadet Mileena Charlotte Carter,” Major
Craig announced. With her arms crossed, she glared at me.
“I know, I know. I have no idea what happened. I’m
normally more responsible. Somehow the artifact put me in a trance,
and I didn’t comprehend my actions. I’m sorry; it won’t
happen again, Mom.” Embarrassed, I decided to stop talking.
“I’ll have to put some sort of notation about this
incident on your service record, you know. Just don’t do
anything like that again.” Sylone stepped closer and gave me a
non-regulation hug. I hugged her tightly in return. “Now, have
a cleanup, since you probably feel grungy after your ordeal, and then
join the crew in the break room. We’re going to have a
As a youngster being dragged along with my mother on her various
Earth Sciences Force’s exploits, I’d developed a taste
for travel, and the time had allowed my home study education to
proceed at a fast rate. When she’d recently spent two years at
Earth Headquarters, my chance to speed through my university
education and start at the Earth Sciences Force’s Academy had
happened. With two years of study at ESF—and now time for my
practicum—the ESF authorities had reluctantly allowed me to
accompany Mom on her current expedition. Family members weren’t
usually allowed together but, because of my youth, they’d made
an exception. To my current knowledge, on our expedition our
relationship was only known to Briny, our medic.
On the way to my room, I ran into Tyne. “Thanks for carrying me
back. I hope I wasn’t too heavy.” His build certainly
indicated strength. Again the faint blue scales on his skin stood
base medical welcome,” Tyne replied.
What did Tyne try to tell me? The Keeki followed an emergency plan
unknown to me?
“lightness of body,
aroma, touch, unusual,” he continued.
Again, what was Tyne trying to say? He didn’t like my smell? He
didn’t like how I felt when he carried me? Looking on the
bright side, apparently I was no heavyweight.
Although I’d read through the mission documents, and listened
to all the briefings, I now realized my negligence in researching our
journey companions. I needed to study the Keeki. Time to remedy the
“Well, I’m going to freshen up; I’ll see you at our
meeting.” Walking past him, I gave a quick glance backwards.
He’d also turned toward me, so I pretended to straighten my
clothing. My glance revealed tufts of what I could only call peacock
hair. Thinking back, I realized all Keeki, male and female, sported
spiky, shiny, blue and green hair.
And, much to my surprise, I detected a whiff of a pleasing but
unusual scent. A cross between rosemary and sage, I decided.
What would I have noticed if I’d been conscious when Tyne
carried me back to the ship?
I was the last to arrive to our combination galley/meeting room. A
couple of crew members snickered, but I ignored them and sat beside
“Okay, let’s start,” said Major Craig, getting
everyone’s attention. “It’s time to plan our next
moves regarding the artifact.”
“Keep Mile away,” a low voice mumbled.
Major Craig sent a glare to her left, but I had no idea who’d
“We’re going to study the artifact Mile discovered. Cam,
Briny, the artifact’s in your science lab. Take an hour to do
some surface testing. We’ve taken pictures and video recordings
already, so scan the surface and take samples. I don’t think
you’re going to find much, but you never know. Then we’re
going to open it up,” said Sylone.
I slunk further down in my chair.
“Everyone else, update your daily reports—either here or
in your room. We’ll regroup in the lab in an hour.”
I scurried to my room for privacy. Because of my eventful day, the
time allotted made updating my report a challenge.
After the whole human/Keeki exploration group trickled into the lab,
Major Craig took charge. “Cam, Briny, all tests complete?”
“Yes,” replied Camothy Beal, our lead scientist. With two
decades of ESF experience, he exuded confidence. And his short,
slightly graying brown hair, slight build, and calm demeanor, helped
his image. “Briny and I found nothing unusual. A little Needles
dirt and such; nothing we wouldn’t have expected from a box
buried in a hillside.”
Major Craig, said, “Okay, stand back everyone. Cam, put on your
face mask, who knows what’s still left inside. Open it up,
please, and be careful.”
Things he would’ve done anyway, but he tactfully tolerated
Major Craig’s orders.
Cam turned on the lab’s exhaust fans and found his mask. The
rest of us backed up a few steps. The artifact resided in a windowed
enclosed chamber, with the attached exhaust fans on full suction.
Opening the chest proved anti-climactic. Because of the fans, nothing
could be heard or smelled, so we used our eyes.
The outside consisted of rough stone with hints of gold, green, and
brown. The inside contained four chambers. “Do we need further
tests, Major Craig, or can we just dig in?” I asked. A couple
of laughs wandered my way. My reputation had been damaged with my
recklessness today, and my comment wasn’t particularly astute.
“Cam, take pictures, and then let’s set the contents out
on four separate tables. We’ll also need samples from the
insides of the chambers.”
So we idly chatted while Cam took additional pictures, and then we
emptied the four chambers. Actually only three—the fourth
“Cam, Briny, see if you can determine anything unusual from the
empty chamber; any chemical characteristics, unusual textures,
fibers, and such,” said Major Craig. “Tyne, you work with
Squid on that table; Aran and Mile here; and Mist, you’re with
me,” said Major Craig, pointing at the various piles. Mom split
up most of the workload with human/Keeki pairs. The female, Mist, was
the other Keeki cadet, and Squid was the second human cadet.
We put on gloves and started our analysis.
I glanced around. Most pairs appeared comfortable with each other,
except for Mist. The female Keeki exhibited what I regarded as a
sullen facial expression. Did being paired with Major Craig upset
Pretty, in a Keeki way, Mist’s skin tended toward red, and her
elegant posture impressed me. Even her tufts of hair revealed glints
of red. Was this a female Keeki trait? For some reason her bearing
implied arrogance. Of course, my minimal experience with the Keeki
hadn’t given me a lot of information to work with.
Time passed while we documented the large artifact and its contents.
Eventually our work was done and we relocated to an empty table in
the break room.
“Aran, Mile?” asked Sylone.
Aran Silo, the leader of the Keeki, waved a hand; I assumed he wanted
me to do the reporting on our investigation. “The objects we
recorded appear to be household items. We found articles like plates
and bowls and cutlery. Although we can’t be a hundred per cent
sure until Cam analyzes a sample, we think the plates and bowls are a
kind of heat-processed crockery. Certainly designed to be long
lasting. Now, saying these items are plates and bowls is a bit of a
leap because we didn’t find any remnants of food on them.
They’re also more square-shaped than I’m used to, but I
do think they’re dishes. Aran?”
He made a motion with his head; his tufts fluttered. I assumed his
head movement meant agreement.
Although Aran was the Keeki leader on this expedition, we’d
rarely had a chance to speak. While we’d worked on our section
of the artifact, I’d noticed a faint acrid lemon aroma coming
from his familiar Keeki slightly blue, gleaming scaled skin. Shorter
than Tyne by a couple of inches, he’d appeared timid as we
worked together. Not a trait I’d expected from a person in
“Our conclusions came about since the other items in our
chamber looked like knives and spoons, and maybe a two-tined fork,”
I added. “Oh, and they were made from a metal of some sort. At
least the cutlery looked like metal.”
“Lots of items for further analysis, I see. Tyne and Squid,
what did you find?” asked Major Craig.
Squid glanced at Tyne. Getting no response, he said, “We found
numerous sealed containers. Since the sides were clear, we got a good
look at the insides. The objects appear to contain dead plant life.
We didn’t open any of them, but we did take loads of pictures.
The majority of the contents were orange-brown. I’d expected
green-brown, for some reason,” said a bemused Squid.
“Just a little human-centric, I imagine,” said Sylone.
“I’ll contact Earth to see if they want us to sample the
contents. Although, with Mile’s recent reaction, I’m not
inclined to open any sealed container.”
After the major laughed, everyone glanced my way. I focused on the
floor of the break room. Too much attention had come my way today, so
I wanted to hide from my immediate world.
Diverting the group’s attention, Major Craig said, “Mist
and I studied the third partition, and we found what appear to be
crystals and rocks. Hard to tell if the crystals were made naturally
or in a lab, but I’m guessing nature. And, of course, I’m
not even sure if any of the items in the chest are from Needles.”
Now that notion surprised me. Why would someone, or something, plant
artifacts on Needles?
“Everyone, please complete your reports and send them to me. I
will redistribute. When you have time, go back to the lab and take a
good at what we’ve uncovered today—particularly the items
you didn’t study. Keep your eyes open during our future travels
on this planet. Perhaps something will match what we’ve
discovered today.” Sylone sighed. “Okay, let’s have
a meal. I don’t know about anyone else but I’m starving.”
I interrupted. “Major Craig, what about the empty section? Why
would there be one? Seems strange.”
“Yes, it does. Even stranger that the artifact was so easy to
find and uncover,” she replied, glancing at the Keeki.
Mist turned away from Major Craig, and Tyne and Aran locked glances.
“Tyne, what do you know?” I blurted out. Their glances
convinced me they hid important information.
unknown race deposited
The Keeki withheld information. Even for aliens their faces implied
Apparently, Major Craig agreed with my assessment. “Aran, what
do you know about these artifacts?”
new area uncovered,” he responded.
Analyzing his stark words revealed my lack of understanding of Keeki
thought processes. To my mind, he’d contradicted himself with
his kaiku, and I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed.
“What’re you saying? Artifacts were revealed to you
before? Or you’ve never seen these items before, or they were
in a different area?”
Major Craig’s exasperation was obvious to me. Of course, being
my mother, I’d experienced her moods previously.
“Yes,” replied Aran.
A single word response, from a being who usually spoke in a
bastardized haiku, surprised me.
“Which one of my questions are you answering?” asked
Aran didn’t respond.
“Tyne, Mist, would either of you like to help us out here?”
Numerous glances bounced amongst the Keeki, but neither Tyne nor Mist
Color rose on Sylone’s face. “Okay, since I can’t
get a straight answer, the Keeki are now confined to their staterooms
when not requiring sustenance. Further exploration, by any Keeki, is
Major Craig got their attention. Keeki didn’t like, really
did not like, to be confined. Many challenges had surfaced on our
trip to Needles.
Mist and Tyne stared at Aran.
on home planet,” said Aran.
Aran shook his head, and with that motion I believed he’d try
to clarify his statement. All humans struggled with the kaiku they
studied by scientists.”
Aran scratched his head while his words twisted our brains. I didn’t
think his clarification added anything to our understanding.
unknown race deposited,” he continued, after a moment.
Sylone glared. “Are you telling me your own exploring party dug
up artifacts, some containing symbols, replaced the cache, tidied up,
and then took a portion of the artifacts home to Keeki to be
I had no idea how Mom had dug out her question, but Aran gave the
Keeki equivalent of a nod of agreement.
“Then contacted Earth with a made up story about exploring a
new planet?” continued Major Craig.
Aran again indicated assent with his head movement, I thought. I
really needed to go back and study the expedition materials we’d
received. What information had I missed?
“Why didn’t you explore this planet yourselves?”
Mom asked. Indications of her rising temper caught my attention.
return of owners.”
Aran made a strange movement with his body. A cringe, perhaps?
“Are these different artifacts from the ones you found
previously, and decided not to tell us about?”
This time, Aran’s head motion was extremely tentative.
Major Craig paced around the lab. “So, you wanted humans to be
here when the aliens returned. Well, that’s a fine state of
affairs. I want those translations, and I want them now, Aran.
Everyone else, eat. I need to send a message to Earth.” The
major stomped out.
I thought about my mother’s anger and, since no ideas about how
to deal with the Keeki came to mind, I dug up some nourishment.
Then a thought popped into my mind, so I sat with Tyne, and the human
cadet, Squid. “Tyne, why did the Keeki hide this information?
Not a very nice thing to do, obviously, and Keeki-human relations are
going to be strained because of your actions,” I said.
cadets not consulted,” said Tyne.
“That’s a cop-out,” said Squid. “When you
found out, you could’ve told us—especially Mile and me.”
I objected. “Squid, that’s unreasonable. Tyne’s a
cadet, just like we are. Would you have given a secret away?”
“We wouldn’t know any secrets.” After he uttered
his words, Squid jumped up and walked toward the kitchen area. I’d
annoyed him, and not for the first time.
Squid and I had actually gone to the ESF academy at the same time.
Earth Sciences Force had a three year program, and I’d been
accepted after receiving my doctorate in exobiology. Receiving a
similar doctorate, but from a different school, Squid had obtained
his at eighteen. A stocky, tall human with red hair and green eyes,
no one ever ignored him.
Since entering the academy the same year, we’d taken numerous
classes together and got to know each other a bit.
After second year, all cadets were sent on a training mission.
Because of our exobiology schooling, and the brand new expedition
involving the Keeki, both Squid and I landed on the same mission—with
my mother. A bit of a challenge for me and Mom. I had no idea how
Squid felt about his current assignment.
Tyne, Squid, and I ate in silence until Major Craig, Aran, and our
pilot, Major White, entered the break room.
“Listen up, everyone. I’ve sent a message to Earth with
our extraordinary information. Check your coms; you should’ve
received a copy of the Keeki translation of the records left by this
new alien race. After everyone’s had a chance to eat, we’ll
discuss the translations,” said Major Craig.
The three of them gathered their dinners. I studied the translation
for a while, and then I decided I needed dessert—my mind buzzed
after reading the Keeki attempt at English. And the details of my
strange and emotionally exhausting day continued to flood my mind.
How did I get into these situations—falling down hills,
uncovering artifacts, getting gassed—and now, involved in an
And the weirdest recent thought of all, was I perhaps becoming
attracted to an alien?
“I imagine you’ve all had a look at the report I sent,”
said Sylone, interrupting my thoughts. “Any ideas? Any
explanations?” Because the Keeki language structure generally
baffled humans, their record translations obviously invited more
confusion, and not just by me. Sylone could’ve asked a Keeki to
explain further but I suspected she knew their additional discourse
wouldn’t necessarily clear up any ambiguities.
Cam jumped in. “I think the translations are saying we’re
on our way.”
His comment unsettled me. Another alien race we needed to deal with?
Why hadn’t I interpreted the information that way?
“That’s also my opinion,” replied Major Craig, “but
when they’ll arrive is the big question. Who knows how far away
the owners of this planet are, and when they’d even get the
bounce from the beacon the Keeki unearthed?”
“What beacon? How’s the message propagating?” I
asked. Too many surprises in one day; my heart pounded.
“We believe this chest is actually a transmitting device, and I
found an orbiting satellite on further investigation. So if a message
was actually sent from this planet, the satellite could’ve
redirected it to the planet’s owners. However, we have no way
of telling if any messages were broadcast, or where they went,”
replied Major White, our pilot.
“So what’re we going to do?” I asked. “Go
back to Earth?” Not an option I really wanted to consider.
“The first thing we’re going to do is wait.” Major
Craig studied our group to determine the mood. Satisfied with
whatever she read, she continued, “We’re going to wait
until Earth responds. I’m sure they’ll have an opinion or
two about our next actions. In the meantime, we’re going to
explore Needles. After all, that’s why we came here.”
Her comments made sense to me, and I did want to see more of this
planet. We’d only just begun our explorations. Convinced
further delights awaited me, I decided tomorrow couldn’t come
“We have an early start in the morning, and a really busy day.
Plan your evenings accordingly,” said our leader.
Anticipating a great day, my excitement grew, so my body wasn’t
ready for sleep. I watched some people leave, and then I asked,
“Anyone want to join me in a game?”
Squid, Tyne, Mist, Cam, and Briny, remained with me in the galley. No
one gave any negative indication, so I asked, “I have my game
of Ticket to Ride in my room. Should I get it?”
“Why not?” said Cam. “We’re all travelers.”
Cam and I laughed, but the others had no idea what amused us.
Obviously, they’d never played Ticket to Ride.
“The game’s not hard to understand. You start explaining
the rules, Cam; I’ll be back in a moment.” I ran to my
room and found my portable copy. Created from thin, strong plastic,
the box and contents took little room. Returning to the break room, I
found two tables pushed together.
Cam grabbed the game from my hands. “Set it up, Mile. I’ll
continue my explanation.” He rummaged in the box and took a
sample of the contents. I put the board out and organized the rest of
the playing pieces for everyone. We had the recently reprinted North
“I understand the destination cards. You need to complete the
routes across the board—
mentioned on the destination cards—to get points,” said
Squid. “And to do this you need to collect train cards so you
can claim parts of your desired path with your little plastic trains.
What I don’t understand is why these actions are necessary?”
I laughed. “It’s a game—something to give pleasure.
Simply put, the player with the most points wins. Points are awarded
when you complete a city-to-city route, and additional points are
collected at the end of the game when you show your completed
destination cards. The game comes to an end when one of the players
is down to their last two or fewer little trains. Then all points are
added up. Of course, you lose points if you don’t complete your
routes on your destination cards.”
Tyne piped up,
success or failure.”
With no idea what he meant, I guessed. “You’re right.
This game is like our exploration of this new world—no matter
what we find, we’re winners. So let’s give it a try.”
A little naïve on my part, perhaps, but Tyne didn’t argue
with my explanation.
As our game of Ticket to Ride progressed, I discovered more
about my traveling companions.
Tyne appeared to be trying for the longest routes he could find. Of
course, extra points were given at game’s end for the longest
rail line but I didn’t think that was Tyne’s reason—I
thought he just wanted to explore. I also suspected he had some kind
of pattern in mind for his routes, and not because of the destination
cards. I felt he enjoyed our game—if only I could read minds.
Cam and Briny, our scientists, approached the game in a logical
manner—almost like a computer program—and the game lent
itself to their idiosyncrasies.
Mist, I just couldn’t figure out. I had no inkling about her
approach to the game, and I received no indications as to whether she
enjoyed our pursuit.
Squid, on the other hand, made derogatory comments throughout the
game. His words touched upon his opinions regarding the simplicity of
the rules, the ugly game board, and the silly little trains.
Of course, coming in last didn’t improve Squid’s mood.
Not a gamer, was our Squid.
While we packed up Ticket to Ride, I said, “Anyone have
a game they’d like to introduce us to? I’m not ready to
turn in just yet.”
planning and competing,” said Tyne. Then he jumped up
and left the break room. The four humans glanced at Mist for an
explanation of his kaiku. However, she merely said, “Wait.”
Occasionally, the Keeki substituted one word for their normal haiku,
which totally freaked me out—I kept waiting for the rest of
In a short time, Tyne returned with paper and writing utensils. He
started by drawing a five-by-five grid on a piece of paper, then
coloring in some of the squares.
Then he uttered another single word, “Clues.”
We watched while he added numbers to each row and column.
Because the Keeki also used base ten, they’d taken them little
time to convert to the symbols we used.
Tyne’s puzzle triggered some familiarity, so I entered grid
puzzle into my com’s search engine. Immediately, my screen
turned up griddlers and nonograms.
“I got it,” yelled Squid. “Those numbers indicate
the patterns of filled in squares for each row and column. This is a
great puzzle, Tyne.”
Irritated Squid figured out the process before I did, I thought about
what my research on nonograms had revealed—there must be at
least one blank square between each run of filled-in squares. And
look at the bigger numbers first because they have the fewest
possibilities on the row or column, so they can be figured out first.
“Okay, my research says, although the patterns of filled in
squares can be random, quite often they’ll turn out to be a
picture. Apparently, you can also do them in various colors.” I
turned to Tyne. “What do the Keeki call this type of puzzle?”
competitions and fame,” said Tyne.
Cam grinned. “This resonates with my mathematical background. I
can only imagine the grids getting bigger and bigger. Of course, the
bigger they are, the longer they’ll take to solve.”
A puzzle to solve was one of Cam’s happy places.
“Most of the time, a few of the squares are filled in when you
start, according to my research. Well, at least for human puzzles.
Tyne, this is great! Can you give us an easy one to work on?” I
He held up his hand indicating, apparently, the universal symbol for
wait. He tapped into his com. In a moment, the printer located
in the break room ejected a piece of paper. Tyne stood and went over
to the machine and studied his output, and then he printed more
He gave one to each of us, and I studied mine.
“Wonderful. I think I’m going to turn in now, but I
suspect I’ll be working on this before I sleep. Thanks again,
Tyne. I love puzzles.”
Our evening ended. Everyone stood and wandered off, one by one. We
needed rest before our big day. Since I took the time to gather a
bedtime snack, I was the last to leave the break room. I ran into
Squid loitering in the hallway.
“You’re still here,” I commented. His presence
surprised me. Usually, he disappeared before everyone else.
“I wanted to see you safely to your room. You’ve had an
exhausting day, passing out and all.” Squid rubbed the back of
Safely? What did he mean? We resided on a spaceship. Did he think
space monsters would ooze out of the walls?
Uncertain as to how to respond to his solicitousness, I didn’t
speak as we walked.
I stopped at my room, which happened to be adjacent to Squid’s.
“Well, good night. Tomorrow should be interesting.”
He reached out a hand and touched my cheek. “Yes. Many sights
to see.” He turned away and took a couple of steps to his own
doorway, and entered his room without a backward glance.
Uncomfortable after his advance, my night turned about to be
side by side
Early rising didn’t agree with me, at the best of times.
Looking around the breakroom, a number of animated faces were
visible, but also a few tired ones. My personal fatigue came from
spending too much time last evening working on nonograms, and
thinking about Squid. Nonograms delighted me. Regarding Squid, I had
no idea how to describe my feelings.
“Listen up, everyone. Working with Major White and Aran, we
studied our map of Needles and, of course, the Keeki translations. We
came up with four sites to investigate while we wait for Earth’s
response,” said Major Craig.
What about the Keeki response, I wondered?
My com pinged, and a map appeared.
“The first two locations are within a reasonable range for our
rover. For the third and fourth sites, we’ll move the ship. Our
first destination is Mile’s favorite; we’re going back to
the mounds,” commented my mother.
A little laughter erupted. “I’m hoping the owners of this
planet left other clues in those little hills,” said Major
Craig. “Or, at least, fairly nearby.”
“I have a good feeling Mile will be able to find her vibes
again,” said Cam, grinning at me.
Much as I liked Cam, he didn’t need to add to my embarrassment;
I did well enough on my own.
Sylone ignored Cam and said, “Finish your breakfasts, then pack
food and beverages for the day. I’d like to put in a full day
of exploring.” She glanced around the break room. “And,
we’re leaving in thirty minutes.”
Our trip was short since the mounds were only a short distance away.
After we assembled outside the rover, Major Craig issued
instructions. “Before we start digging, Cam and Briny are going
to scan the hillsides for any anomalies, and Mile and Tyne will
follow them with metal detectors. After the results are in, the rest
of us will map the mounds according to their findings. Hopefully,
likely digging spots will become apparent.”
Cam and Briny activated their scientific scanners, and Tyne and I
turned on the metal detectors brought along in the rover.
We walked closely behind the other two, and all four instruments
recorded directly to Majors White and Craig for their analysis.
“Cam, why do you think the mound I was on yesterday shuddered
and made me fall down its side?”
“Fate, perhaps?” suggested Cam.
“Seriously?” And he was seriously starting to
“No, I was trying to be funny,” said Cam, with a grin,
sensing my mood.
I didn’t respond. There was no need to encourage his behavior.
After a moment’s silence from me, Cam sighed. “Okay,
probably seismic activity of some sort. We’ve got recorders
running full time in the lab. So, if we get any tremors, I’ll
be sure to let you know, so you can plan your day.” Cam
My annoyance multiplied, but I didn’t say a word.
Travelling up and down six mounds consumed a great deal of energy.
Thankfully, when we’d finished traipsing, break time had
arrived. Grabbing my backpack, I rummaged around for sustenance, and
then plunked myself on the ground. Tyne sat beside me and we ate
while studying the countryside.
Glancing down, I commented, “The vegetation doesn’t seem
to have a lot of life, growing life I mean.”
“Seasonal?” asked Tyne, his eyes darting about.
“Maybe, but the color of the grass—ground cover I guess
would be a better word—doesn’t seem to match the color of
other plants I’ve seen on Needles. Appears almost dead,”
I said, running my hand through the stubby covering.
Other members of our expedition overheard my comments and began
looking around our immediate area. “Agreed,” said Cam.
“However, I think we should wait until we’ve seen more of
the planet. Maybe this area has an unusual soil mixture, or plant
life. Needles is big and should have an abundant variety of
vegetation and animal life.”
“We have much to learn,” commented Sylone. “Mile,
why don’t you and Squid and Tyne grab your packs and start
cruising the area, while the rest of us dig. Take recordings and
pictures and be back by dinner time. That’ll give you lots of
time for exploration. Mile, you’re in charge of the away team
I loved her idea. The three of us jumped up, grabbed our gear and
walked a short distance away from the rest of our expedition. “How
are we going to do this?” I asked. “What kind of search
pattern should we use?”
side by side,” said Tyne.
“Not a bad idea, Tyne,” said Squid, “since the
mounds we’ve already discovered are themselves somewhat
arranged in a circle.”
Circles, with an ever increasing circumference from the mounds’
center? I also approved of Tyne’s suggestion. So we started
walking. Of course, on the first circle round we spent a good portion
of our time looking back and watching our fellow explorers on the
We stopped at our starting point. “Let’s summarize what
we found, or didn’t find,” I suggested, enjoying my role
as team leader. “Squid?”
“Pretty much the same ground cover as at the mounds. Similar
color, same texture as well. Not much else.”
“Tyne?” I asked. I wondered what he’d say. Since
the Keeki spoke in so many different ways, I hoped to hear a new
“Similar. Further,” he said, pointing away from the
With little found on our first pass, we needed to expand our search
So we stepped a good distance away from the first path, and started
on our new circular route. First we encountered odd-shaped trees.
Their limbs resembled twisted oars pointing to the ground with the
yellowish leaves reaching for the sky. Uneasy, the three of us
glanced at each other and then back at the trees. According to our
instructions, Squid took leaf and bark samples.
“This bark is brittle. Do you think the tree is dead?”
sight of sadness,” said Tyne.
Startled, Squid and I studied Tyne. How could a tree be unhappy? Had
we uncovered a life form? Did Tyne know something we didn’t?
Had the Keeki hidden further information?
“Why?” I asked. “Why is the tree unhappy?”
Weird to be uttering such a question. Did Keeki trees have
intelligence? Is that why Tyne thought this Needles tree had a
“Sustenance lacking,” he replied.
Okay, that answered one of my questions—Tyne thought the tree
lacked nutrient. I still didn’t understand, though, how he came
to his conclusion.
“Make sure you include the information in your report. Okay,
guys, let’s move on.” There wasn’t anything else we
could do at this point.
Emerging from the grove of trees, we found markings disturbing the
ground cover. Actually it seemed more like something had eaten the
surface away in various places. After photographing and taking
samples of our find, we sat under a tree and took a break.
“These grooves on the ground are interesting,” I said.
“Does anyone see a pattern?” I certainly didn’t.
As mysterious as crop circles, their significance eluded us.
“Maybe it’s a message; something we need to decode,”
suggested Squid. “Or maybe it’s a puzzle. Tyne, have the
Keeki seen these markings before? I mean when the Keeki were
until first discovery.”
Tyne gulped liquid from his pack like he was in a desert. Come to
think of it, the area was awfully dry.
By his kaiku, I gathered he meant the original expedition had
proceeded only as far as discovering our group of mounds, and then
high-tailed it for home. As risk takers, humans would’ve
probably explored a larger portion of the planet before returning. By
now, we recognized reasons why the Keeki asked for our assistance.
“Third circle,” said Tyne, pointing even further away
from the original mounds.
Time to get moving. We could probably manage one more longer circuit,
before we needed to return to the rover.
A short distance past the ground markings, we came upon today’s
motherlode. Four new mounds—similar in height to the first
ones, fifty percent wider, and flatter on top—sat along the
edge of a pond.
“Let’s circle each mound and take pictures and videos. We
need to look for signs of another cache,” I said. The better
part of an hour elapsed while we performed our duties. Covered in
vegetation similar to the first hills we’d encountered, nothing
new caught our eyes. A couple of likely cache spots appeared but we
didn’t touch anything. I, for one, didn’t want to be
After we finished our documentation, we picked up our bags and
wandered over to the pond. The opposite side was visible, so we
unanimously decided to take a stroll along the shore line.
The pond water shone in the weak Needles sunlight. No action marred
the glistening blue-mauve surface. Did the pond contain any marine
life? Hard to tell. but we took water samples anyway.
Eventually, I sat on the shore to rest and think. The guys sat a
short distance away. Apparently they’d recognized I needed a
bit of private time.
My right hand rummaged in the sand while I gazed at the far
shoreline. What shall we call this lake? Maybe it could be named
after one of us—the great discoverers. An egotistical thought,
My thumb found a lump in the sand. The shore sand turned out to be
filled with pebbles—a few translucent with colored strands,
others solid colors. “Guys, can you help me find more of these
pebbles? I need a sample I can study.” I showed Tyne and Squid
“Sure, but first I’m going to take a big sample of the
sand so Cam can study the in-situ version,” said Squid.
I kicked myself; I should’ve thought of that. After Squid
collected a sample, we each dug up a handful or two of stones. The
colors and internal markings ranged widely, and spoke to me. My mind
filled with painting ideas.
“We need to continue our journey,” said Squid,
interrupting my reverie.
“Of course. We should be back at our starting point fairly
soon,” I said.
We started walking and a moment later my foot slipped. Glancing down,
an area not covered with the usual brownish vegetation appeared. I
knelt and brushed at the surface.
“I’ve found something. Any guesses?” I had a good
idea what my discovery implied, but I didn’t want to give them
“We need to uncover more of the surface before I can offer any
opinion,” said Squid.
“Yes,” Tyne agreed.
For once, the boys agreed, so we chopped away at the ground covering.
With the visible open spots and the area uncovered after our attack,
we all came to the same conclusion—we’d found a pathway
about eight feet wide.
“We need to get back,” I said. “This news needs to
be passed along.”
Tyne gazed off into the distance.
path to understanding.”
I didn’t have a clue about Tyne’s explanation, but now
was not the time for a quiz. “Squid?”
“Oh, no question. Onwards and upwards.”
“Very funny, Squid. There’s no way I’m climbing any
more mounds today,” I said.
“Not what I meant. I…”
I interrupted. “Let’s continue along our chosen circle at
double speed. We should be fairly close to our starting point.”
Squid gave me the evil eye, but I ignored him.
Back at the mounds, I ran up to Major Craig. “Lots to report,
Major. We found a bunch of interesting things.”
“Things is not an informative word, Mile, and neither is
bunch.” Sylone smiled and then turned around and
shouted. “Okay, everyone, finish what you’re doing and
pack up. It’s time to go back for dinner and a debriefing.”
Then Mom turned back to me. “I look forward to your team’s
report, Mile. Sounds like you had a great afternoon.”
The three of us helped pack up, and then we returned. We all took an
hour to clean up and write our reports, and then we gathered for
dinner. Afterwards, we cleared the tables, and settled down for our
“The most-eventful-day award goes to Mile and her team,”
said Major Craig. “Tell us about your adventures.”
I glanced at Tyne and Squid, but they indicated I should provide the
information. “Let me send everyone a copy of my report.”
I waited for a moment for the document to arrive, and then said, “To
summarize, we discovered another set of mounds. Their shapes are a
little wider at the base and flatter on top, but pretty consistent
with the first set. These mounds are near a pond. On a secondary
circular search, a little further out, we discovered what we believe
is a path. We found an area lined with the equivalent of paving
stones. The path needs to be explored. Who knows where it leads?”
Sylone let the conversation flow. Then she said, “Any
Cam piped up. “Did you take lots of samples?”
Squid said, “I deposited all our samples, suitably labeled, in
“Perfect. Your path grabbed my attention, though. Why do you
think it’s man-made? Well, alien-made, I guess.”
We all laughed at his words. “After discovering a portion of
the ground devoid of vegetation, we noticed how relatively smooth it
was. So we scrubbed away at the surface and found other flat
stone-like pieces. Looked like paving stones to all of us. And the
pattern didn’t seem to be random. Look at my report, I’ve
added photos.” I’d tried to be thorough.
“Excellent. Any other questions?” asked Sylone.
I asked, “Did you find anything at the mounds?” after no
one responded to Major Craig. What had we missed while exploring?
“One of the other mounds held the same items as the first cache
discovered by the Keeki,” said Major Craig. “We’ve
brought everything back for analysis but our initial brief study
didn’t reveal anything new. However, we now have our own copy
of the written plates left by the owners. I’ll be sending
photos back to Earth so our linguists can have some fun.”
Laughter bounced around the tables, and conversations began.
Interrupting, Major Craig said, “In honor of the discoveries of
Mile’s team, I’ve decided there’ll be no exploring
Questions erupted, so Sylone held up a hand, and we quieted. “We
all need a day of rest, so I’m declaring tomorrow a holiday.
Relax and get refreshed. The next few days will be long and
Tyne, Squid, and I started our goof-off time by indulging in games.
Squid and I presented our solutions to the previous nonogram, and
Tyne agreed with our conclusions.
“What is this supposed to be?” I asked Tyne. “Is it
just a random design, or is it meant to represent an item, of some
Which could mean anything. I decided to leave it alone, and asked,
“Do you have another nonogram?” I asked Tyne. “Something
a little harder, perhaps?”
He whipped out some paper and presented a copy to each of us. And
then he went around the break room and offered the puzzle to everyone
“Tyne, this is a much more difficult puzzle. And I thank you
for that; I need to stretch my brain. Can you give us a clue if any
picture is involved, or just some random design?” I really
wanted a clue, especially since this nonogram appeared much harder.
design of fame,” he responded.
His kaiku gave me no usable ideas, so I decided to focus on the word
Squid and I worked on the nonogram for a while—a fascinating
puzzle, actually, and then when our brains had fizzled, we ended our
day with a game of Ticket to Ride.
The next morning, after breakfast, I found a corner of the break room
and set up my easel and started painting. Having a day off, and
spending it in my room had no appeal.
“Question?” asked Tyne, pointing at my canvas. Surfacing,
I glanced at my watch; a couple of hours had passed.
“I’m creating an image of the pond we found yesterday.
I’m including the background and some of the pebbles we picked
up. It won’t be a totally realistic picture; I just want to
give the impression of what we encountered—a way of remembering
what we saw.”
Tyne studied my picture but didn’t utter a word.
“It’s not finished yet,” I said, embarrassed. I
should’ve painted in my room if I’d wanted privacy.
To change his focus, I asked, “What kind of artistic endeavors
do Keeki have?”
“Many,” Tyne answered.
“Tell me about one,” I said. Tyne really needed to learn
how to reveal information.
solving puzzles together
My interpretation of Tyne’s words astounded me. “You
paint like this,” I said, waving my hand at my canvas, “on
Tyne moved his head, and then focused on my face.
I assumed his movement indicated yes. “Why?” I asked. A
form of communication?
emotions and feelings,” Tyne said.
He reached out and took hold of my hand with one of his. Three
fingers and an opposing thumb touched my skin.
Smoother than expected, this time I detected a hint of lemon in
addition to the scents previously experienced. I hadn’t touched
Keeki skin before, and the experience unnerved me.
Then I realized I probably had—when Tyne carried me back to
base after being rendered unconscious. Nothing I remembered, though.
Talking myself into a corner, I asked, “You want to paint on my
to create image.”
An expectant look appeared—at least, that’s how I
interpreted his expression. Not wanting to inflict any damage on
species relations, I nodded.
“Retrieve,” Tyne said, and left the room.
In a moment, he returned with his own box of supplies. The container,
covered in drawings, attracted my attention. “Tyne, did you
paint those designs?” I pointed to his box.
He smiled; pleased with my attention, I assumed.
quiet time hobby.”
“And a fine hobby, it is. Painting helps me relax too and, I
think, opens my mind to possibilities.” To satisfy my
curiosity, I peeked in his box. “Are these paints permanent or
“Question?” Tyne turned towards Mist, his fellow Keeki,
but she didn’t speak. Mist had few words, at the best of times.
“I mean, will I be able to remove your art later?” After
uttering those words, I gave myself a mental smack. Had I just
easy to remove.”
Tyne didn’t meet my eyes.
Had I upset him? Then I glanced at Mist. Her easily recognizable
laughter annoyed me. “Well, I do need to shower occasionally.
Anyway, let’s get on with it.”
Again my comments came across as annoyed, and I recognized my
failings. I definitely needed to work on my delivery.
Tyne organized his supplies and asked me to hold onto a soft ball so
the skin on the back of my hand stretched. I stared off into space as
In a short time, intricate designs similar to cursive writing covered
my hand. A plethora of orange and brown hues wandered in patterns,
and some of the colors were hard to describe, at least by my human
vision. I studied my hand and tried to decipher his painting
technique—I should have watched as he painted.
“Finished,” said Tyne. He went to the sink to clean his
After realizing the rest of the crew in the break room watched Tyne
and me, I got up to clean my own brushes. Enough painting for today.
After my brushes were done, I turned to Tyne, who’d remained in
the kitchen area.
I clenched my hand and studied his design. “Tyne, this is
beautiful! I had no idea you were such an accomplished artist.”
My hand painting was full of wondrous colors and intricate designs.
The orange and brown tones contained hints of red and green, and the
designs reminded me of fractals. Mathematical designs I held dear to
“So what images were you trying to depict?” I asked,
glancing again at my hand.
Tyne didn’t answer immediately. I decided to outwait his
Eventually he said,
“friendship and comrades,
learning, accepting, closeness.”
With an inkling of his emotions, I decided to ignore them for now.
“I think I’m going to pack a lunch and go for a walk; I’m
desperately in need of exercise. Anyone want to join me?” I
asked, not looking at Tyne.
“Not this time, Mile. Even though I could use exercise, I think
I’m going to nap the afternoon away. I feel like I’m
behind on my rest,” said Cam. “I’m sure Major Craig
will keep us busy the next few days.” Cam grinned at Sylone.
My mother did indeed keep us busy most of the time. Her finger on the
group’s pulse indicated when we needed a diversion. Does she
understand Keeki needs?
Similar sentiments echoed throughout the break room, except for
Squid, Mist, and Tyne. My fellow cadets decided to join me, so the
four of us packed day bags and reconvened outside our landed ship.
“Where shall we walk?” I asked. “Any ideas?”
Tyne pointed in the direction opposite to our first discovered
No one objected, so we took off and walked on ground cover similar to
yesterday’s. I took a closer look—the grass appeared just
as lifeless. Our journey took us to a wide grove of trees where we
debated entering the gloom.
“Does anyone think we should go around?” I asked. “Will
we get lost if we go through those trees?”
Tyne studied the grouping, and then said, “Pathfinder,”
pointing to his com.
True, our coms could keep track of our journey if we set up the
trees, plants, life.”
I thought Tyne’s words suggested we explore the grove, but
Squid disagreed. After much discussion, we reached a compromise. Tyne
and I started off towards the left side of the grove, and Mist and
Squid started exploring the right. As long as we kept track of our
wanderings, I didn’t really care if it was west, or east, or
north, or south.
Enough light descended through the grove’s canopy to enable us
to walk confidently. The light from the Needles sun gave the trees a
golden glow, and the ground covering almost appeared luminescent. We
walked slowly and studied the vegetation. Although the previous areas
encountered had few types of plant life, this location teemed.
“The flowers are quite small,” I commented. “What’s
the vegetation like on your planet?” I asked Tyne.
“Varied,” he said, stopping to retrieve a drink from his
I gave myself a virtual smack to the head. “Of course. Do your
plants have flowers? What do they look like? Are any of them similar
to these?” I bent down to pick a flower, but I found my hand
“What’re you doing?” I asked. Was Tyne attacking
poisonous to touch,” said Tyne, pulling me to my feet.
Probably an over-reaction, but our previous sampling had been with
gloved hands, in case the vegetation would affect us, and I should’ve
known better. My unconscious episode remained to haunt me.
I sighed. “Thank you, Tyne. You’ve saved me again.”
My emotions slid between extremes—his nearness and my
stupidity. I messaged Mist and Squid to remind them to use gloves
when sampling—even though we weren’t a real away team
today, and I wasn’t in charge. Just a little bossy to cover my
Tyne and I continued walking and studying the foliage. Lots of
strange shaped plants greeted us. As we progressed, the colors of the
vegetation began to increase in boldness, and the plants appeared
more invigorated. A brightness appeared in the distance, and I
realized we must be closing in on the edge of the grove. As we
continued our stroll the vegetation began to lose its luster.
Although the Keeki had fewer words than humans, his silence surprised