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KAIKU


By


Roxanne Barbour



Copyright © 2017 by Roxanne Barbour




Cover 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





Chapter One

everyone involved

uncovering

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 was doing?

“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 Major Craig.

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.

everyone involved,

uncovering,

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 far.

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 towards round.

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 some sort.

Without thinking, I reached out and touched the artifact. After a momentary hesitation, the lid rose, and my curiosity made me peer inside.

****

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 testing?”

“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 unconscious.”

“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 speculating.

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 my dreams.

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 doorway.

“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 nothing.

“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 meeting.”

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 out.

emergency plan,

escaping,

base medical welcome,” Tyne replied.

What did Tyne try to tell me? The Keeki followed an emergency plan unknown to me?

lightness of body,

burdenless,

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 situation.

“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 Briny.

“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 spoken.

“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 contained nothing.

“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 her?

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 authority.

“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.






Chapter Two

wisdom words

available

unknown race deposited



The Keeki withheld information. Even for aliens their faces implied guilt.

Apparently, Major Craig agreed with my assessment. “Aran, what do you know about these artifacts?”

unknown artifacts,

revealed,

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 Major Craig.

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 responded.

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 also forbidden.”

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.

artifact images,

viewing,

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 uttered.

missing items,

translating,

studied by scientists.”

Aran scratched his head while his words twisted our brains. I didn’t think his clarification added anything to our understanding.

wisdom words,

available,

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 decoded?”

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.

beacon indicating,

translations,

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.

Keeki authorities,

hidden,

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 alien conspiracy?

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 soon enough.

“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 American version.

“I understand the destination cards. You need to complete the routes across the board—

the ones 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,

winning game,

exploration,

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.”

puzzle game,

teaching,

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 their words.

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?”

popular game,

Gyrk,

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 asked.

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 copies.

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 his neck.

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 restless.







Chapter Three

wider circles

three

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 annoy me.

“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 laughed.

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 today.”

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?”

wider circles,

three,

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 mounds.

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 vocal cadence.

“Similar. Further,” he said, pointing away from the mounds.

With little found on our first pass, we needed to expand our search pattern.

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?” asked Squid.

life lacking,

unhappy,

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 problem?

“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 previously here.”

limited expedition,

searching,

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 devoured again.

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, I decided.

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 my discovery.

“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 any suggestions.

“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.

life circle,

emerging,

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 meeting.

“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 questions?”

Cam piped up. “Did you take lots of samples?”

Squid said, “I deposited all our samples, suitably labeled, in your lab.”

“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 tomorrow.”

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 exhausting.”

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 sort?”

“Simple.”

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 else.

“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.

heart flower,

simmering,

design of fame,” he responded.

His kaiku gave me no usable ideas, so I decided to focus on the word flower.

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.

painted designs,

covering,

Keeki skin parts.”






Chapter Four

closeness, friendship

relishing

solving puzzles together



My interpretation of Tyne’s words astounded me. “You paint like this,” I said, waving my hand at my canvas, “on Keeki skin?”

Tyne moved his head, and then focused on my face.

I assumed his movement indicated yes. “Why?” I asked. A form of communication?

colorful images,

expressing,

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.

“Permission?”

Talking myself into a corner, I asked, “You want to paint on my hand?”

intention positive,

affirmation,

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.

design application,

relaxing,

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 washable?”

“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 insulted Tyne?

not liking,

designs,

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 he painted.

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 brushes.

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 my heart.

“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 indecision.

Eventually he said,

friendship and comrades,

evoking,

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 mounds.

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 application.

colors, shapes,

exploring,

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 pack.

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 grabbed.

“What’re you doing?” I asked. Was Tyne attacking me?

no gloves,

possible,

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 embarrassment.

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 me.


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