“All right. If you leave the area of the field, you're disqualified,” announced the girl. “You know your assigned pairs; I'll be Nah'lai's partner, since she just joined us. This is her first game, you know.”
All eyes hit Hoshi and she felt an embarrassed flush on her skin. She glanced down and watched in fascination as her shining white skin became rosy pink. Apparently when I blush, it's hard to hide it. I feel like a red traffic light.
“It's all right,” soothed one of the other girls, but Hoshi heard the slightly condescending tone. “You'll do just fine, as long as you don't do something stupid.”
“Maj'ra!” hissed the leader. “That' wasn't a nice thing to say!”
“It's true, Khi'nhiri. She's too young to do this. This should be for the older children. She isn't even Verified yet!”
Khi'niri's face didn't change, but her skin became a dark bluish-purple. “You cannot be Verified if you don't prove yourself. But if no one gives you a chance to prove yourself, then you have no hope. I say we give Nah'lai that chance.”
“I agree,” rumbled a tall, lanky boy. “Besides, it would be a learning experience for us all.”
There was a wave of agreement, and Maj'ra only nodded brusquely. “Very well,” she said, “but only because I'm outvoted.”
“Thank you for giving in with such grace,” Khi'niri said in an ironic tone. She glanced at Hoshi and said, “Listen carefully to the guidelines, little one. All right?”
Hoshi only nodded. As Khi'niri continued, she studied the other children. All of them radiated confidence, though their bodies betrayed their impatient eagerness. This was more than just a game; it was an exercise in tracking and evasion. The goal was simple: to outlast the other teams. Attempt to find and 'mark' the other pairs without being 'marked' as well. They had until the second sunset to achieve that goal.
“Let the game commence,” announced Khi'niri. “Now!”
The children scattered and were quickly lost in the mass of grain stalks. Hoshi followed Khi'niri, though she had to scramble to keep up with the older girl's long-legged strides. Just as Nah'lai had “shared” her physical body on Enterprise, Hoshi was now doing the same on this faraway planet. It felt jarring, as if someone had stuffed her into an alien body with all of its own rules. This is just like one of Malcolm's training exercises, she realized. Survival training. It seems that these children begin their training early.
Khi'niri crouched low on the ground and motioned for Hoshi to do the same. The soft, loamy soil made crawling difficult, as if she was battling her way through deep water. Her hands registered how warm the earth was on her skin, how cool the wind blew through the field, and how dry the air was around her. She glanced down at her six-fingered hands and stared in awe as her skin seemed to change in a blur of color.
Tactilely sensitive, Hoshi thought. It's Nah'lai's strongest physical sense, like hearing is for me. That's why I'm processing information through touch and temperature. And that was why Nah'lai was interpreting things through auditory means when she was with me on Enterprise.
Then she felt a definite shift, as if the world had shrunk into a bubble all around her. Khi'niri's voice seemed to resonate through her, as if the older girl was directly connected to her brain. The unfamiliar sensation threw off Hoshi's equilibrium; she had never experienced anything like it. It must be an ability common to Nah'lai's people, whoever they were.
“Now, focus your thoughts, little one. Use your greatest strength. Extend your senses to locate our quarry,” Khi'niri instructed. “Wrap your feelers around and through, and you will find them easily.”
Hoshi wasn't sure what to do, but suddenly, she felt an odd pinching sensation, as if ants were crawling all over her. Then she was going through the field at what seemed like warp speed,. The stalks tickled her skin, the breeze blew past her hair and the vibrations of silent feet pulsed through her blood. The other children were close by; one pair was so close that if she and Khi'niri hadn't stopped, they would have literally bumped into the other team. Yet no one seemed to detect her presence at all.
A second later, Hoshi “dropped” back into Nah'lai's physical body. She closed her eyes and visualized the field, and like a sensor grid, she saw the locations of the other teams upon it. Wow. This is weird. It's as if I can feel their footsteps, even if I can't see or hear them.
“Well done,” Khi'niri whispered. “Now we know where they are and we can catch them. I'll need you to keep track of their movements while I keep us on the right course.”
“Yes, Khi'niri,” Hoshi replied. She tried to regain that mental map, but it didn't come easily at first. Every time she nearly had it, it would fade away, and then it became harder to acquire her targets. Hoshi's skin literally burned with frustration as she tried and failed to feel her way around again.
“You're trying too hard. That conscious thinking is blocking your talent. Relax and allow yourself to feel, not think. Do what comes naturally to achieve your objective.”
Hoshi nodded and took a deep breath. She allowed herself to drift in that half-aware state that she in whenever she concentrated on an unfamiliar syntax. Her mind made connections and associations between what she knew and what was before her now. It analyzed patterns and simplified them to make it easier for others to understand. At first, she picked her way carefully through the strange territory, but once she got a feel for it, she plunged on ahead. And just like that, her sensory awareness seemed to loom large over her, then extend itself in all directions. She could “see” the others as clearly as day.
I can see how this could be a useful talent in a tactical situation, Hoshi thought to herself. Malcolm would be thrilled to be able to do something like this...The thought of the Enterprise's armory officer nearly jolted her out of zen-like state. Was he all right? Was he still on the ship? What about her own physical body? Was she dead, and now her mind in some in-between place?
“Nai'lai, you must focus! Show me where the closest pair is!”
The stern rebuke brought her back to what she needed to do. The image of the two eldest boys reformed in her mind, wavered slightly, then held. Khi'niri crept forward, her tiny dart gun at the ready. Two ink cubes flew through the air and impacted against the boys' skin. They whirled around in shock, then their expressions became crestfallen as they realized they'd been “marked”.
Hoshi couldn't help a wide grin. “Gotcha,” she muttered.
Khi'niri crawled back to where she had hidden herself. “Good, my little one! Do you think you can do it again?”
“Yes!” she replied. “I can do this!”
“Then let's find the others, shall we?” Khi'niri's smile turned predatory and Hoshi found herself matching it. The pride in the elder girl's eyes reminded Hoshi of Jonathan Archer, when the captain had encouraged her to have faith in herself.
The two crept deeper into the field, buoyed by their success. Hoshi understood the game now, and thought, All right, let's do this again...
Several hours later, they'd taken three other groups out of the game. While they were tracking the last one, somehow their enemy had zeroed in on their location. Just as Hoshi realized where they were, she heard the soft hiss of the dart gun, and a dark hunter green ink cube splashed against her skin.
Oh no! They got us! Damn, and we were so close! She blew out a frustrated breath and her shoulders slumped in defeat. Khi'niri coaxed her to her feet as the winning team cheered in triumph.
“You did well,” Khi'niri said. “You're still young, but you have the potential. I have every confidence in your ability to save your friends and your family.”
Hoshi blinked. “What? I don't understand.”
Khi'niri's eyes expanded to engulf her vision. “You have the potential within yourself. Don't force it; allow it to surface naturally. When it does, it will be at the right time. Use your talent, little one. It will bring you salvation and it will bring you love.”
The sky above them suddenly flared a bloody reddish-orange as the sun exploded in all directions. The air became an inferno all around them and the grain stalks withered and burned in its wake. A tempest slammed into her body and she collapsed onto the ground.
What's happening? Hoshi screamed, as her skin grew hotter and hotter, then burst into flame. All she could see was a fiery gale and her mind tumbled within it. Then, as abruptly as the maelstrom had claimed her, it spit her out into a calm blackness.
A blackness with bright points of light. Stars. She was suspended in space. Her lungs ached for air and her head throbbed in pain, but she was conscious. She was alive, in a manner of speaking.
To her horror, she saw an expanding cloud of gas and debris heading toward her. No, not toward her; towards the planet below her. In a blink of an eye, it overwhelmed the planet, and its surface boiled away, leaving bare rock that broke apart by gravitational forces. Hoshi watched, stunned, as the debris itself was consumed by flames.
She had just seen her world die. Nah'lai's world die. It happened so fast that she didn't have time to breathe between one second and the next, and her chest burned with the effort. For a child whose talent required touching people and objects, this state of not physically existing was the worst form of Hell. There was nothing to hold on to, no anchor in the black sea; she was going to go mad...
She tried to locate the voice, but it echoed all around her, and even her acute hearing could pinpoint a single source. If she could clap her hands over her ears, she would have, because the reverberations were worse than the utter silence.
Hoshi, come back!
“What?” Her voice cracked with disuse. “Who are you?”
Then a memory connected the voice to its owner. “ It's as easy as one, two, three...”
Eight seconds. She'd been trapped in the transporter for eight seconds, and during that time, she had experienced a twisted form of reality where no one seemed to notice her and no one seemed to care. One of the most painful moments was when she had joined Trip, Travis, and Malcolm in the Mess Hall, and the men ignored her for the most part, except for the story of Cyrus Ramsey. Ramsey hadn't really existed, but Hoshi had heard the scorn in the comment, “Everyone's heard of Cyrus Ramsey.”
But he had also called her back to the real world, and given her the strength to return.
“Bloody hell, Hoshi, don't die on me!”
“Malcolm, for God's sake---!”
“Lieutenant, I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do. She's already gone.”
“She's not gone, dammit! I'd know if she was gone! Phlox, try one more time. Please!”
“Do as he asks, Phlox. One more time.”
“Very well. Charging...clear!”
The electric shock jerked her back to consciousness. Her eyes snapped open and air rushed back into her lungs. The panel above her head beeped a steady tone. The first thing that registered was the panic in Malcolm's eyes, and she tried to give him a reassuring smile, but the effort was too much for her. His face swam in her vision, then faded away.
SixA week later...
Hoshi bent over the screen that was embedded in the hardwood table. The unfamiliar characters flashed once, then dissolved into English. A mug of tea appeared at her right elbow, startling her enough to lose her train of thought. She looked up with an expression of annoyance, right into a pair of cool appraising eyes.
“Do not be angry at me, young one,” said Theros. The Esaarian rolled his shoulders in the equivalent of a Human shrug. “The Guardian of your vessel ordered me to bring you refreshment. He would do it himself, if he was not required elsewhere.”
Malcolm. Hoshi's irritation faded and she smiled instead. “Thank you, Theros. I'm sorry...it's been a long day. I do appreciate your allowing me to use your archives.”
Theros bobbed his head, making the tips of his long blue-black mustache quiver at the ends. “Knowledge is best shared instead of hoarded. We are honored to meet one who treasures it as much as we do.”
“Your High Chieftain told us that your archive covers the history of every planet and every race in this sector.” Of course, that was an understatement of sorts. The Esaarians' archive rivaled the one that had been in Old Alexandria on Earth. Hoshi knew that if Na'lai's people had existed, there would be some record of them here.
She knew they had existed. What she had experienced was too real, too detailed to be just a hallucination. The details of Na'lai's brief life were burned into her mind as if she had actually seen the field and taken part of the training exercise. She'd regained her language skills and her memory, but she'd also remembered Na'lai's as well.
She even found herself thinking---and dreaming---in Nah'lai's language. The occasional odd word crept back into her speech, much to her crewmates' confusion. Why didn't it fade away like she'd expected? There had to be another piece to the puzzle.
“Your science officer told us that you were searching for a race that became extinct long ago,” Theros said, with some sympathy. “The Vulcans are not unknown to us; their curiosity is sometimes stronger than their rigid adherence to logic. What is the saying...'curiosity murdered the feline'?”
Hoshi chuckled as she imagined T'Pol saying the quote. While it was technically correct, it still sounded hilarious in “Vulcan-speak”, as Trip dubbed it. T'Pol was as curious about Na'lai's people as Hoshi, although T'Pol was more reluctant to admit it. Sometimes actions do speak louder than words. After all, she was the one who suggested going to Esaaria, and she's the one looking through their astronomical star charts to locate where Na'lai's planet would have been, if it had really existed.
“Yes, that's right. T'Pol's more curious than most, I think. It's in her nature.”
Theros nodded at this new piece of information. “I believe it is in yours as well. Your captain seems to be quite proud to lead you in this quest for new experiences and new knowledge. Even your Guardian, although he is somewhat less...ahem, ebullient about it.”
She laughed outright at his remarkable accuracy in analyzing both Jon's and Malcolm's personalities. Jon was like Porthos, happy and eager to meet the unknown, while Malcolm preferred a more controlled descent. “Lieutenant Reed and Captain Archer seem polar opposites in that way, but you'd be surprised how well they work together.”
“In actual fact, I am not surprised.” Theros smiled again at her and pressed his palms together in a gesture of leave-taking. “I will be on the second level, helping other patrons. Please call me if you need anything else. And...”
“Your Guardian implored me to ask you to 'take a break', I believe was how he termed it.”
Two weeks ago, Hoshi might have rolled her eyes in exasperation. Now she only grinned and replied, “I will, as soon as I finish this chapter. Your records include such fascinating details.”
“History usually does. I am glad to find another one who appreciates the fact.” Theros inclined his head and went on his way. Hoshi turned back to the screen and paged forward to see how much farther she had to go before the end of the chapter. Eleven pages.
She sighed. Although this was the first time she'd encountered the Esaarian's language, it was similar to the ancient one of Na'lai's people. It was like comparing Old Vulcan to Modern Standard Vulcan, or Old English to twenty-second century Earth Standard. Both Theros and T'Pol were surprised at her relative ease in picking up Esaarian; it made it easy to conduct her research.
Reminds me of when I was working for my Ph.D in linguistics, she thought wryly, as she surveyed the two screens within the table and the seven or eight open scrolls and folios that surrounded her. She was slowly assembling the clues to find the location of where Na'lai's world was...or would have been.
“ Je'nai sre thiui re,” she muttered under her breath as she compiled the information she had gathered. She'd narrowed her options to four different locations, all within a two-day reach from Esaaria at warp three. She hoped T'Pol's astrometric charts could narrow the field down even further. In the meantime, she still had so much to read and catalog for Enterprise's database, and transcribe the Esaarian language to the universal translator's matrix.
Her communicator chirped and she flipped it open. “Sato.”
“Ensign, I believe I have new information for you to examine,” replied T'Pol. The Vulcan's tone was quiet, but Hoshi heard a thread of excitement within it. “Are you in the vicinity of a terminal?”
She tapped the table screen in front of her. “Go ahead, Sub-commander. I'm ready to receive.”
“Transmitting.” The view switched from a grammatical comparison between Esaarian and Andorian to a star map of the sector. Hoshi's knowledge of gravitational forces and planetary motion could fit in a breadbox with room to spare, but even she saw the most obvious anomaly on the map.
She touched the region of space with her finger. “Right here. It seems that physics are being a bit...screwy over here.”
“Indeed,” T'Pol agreed. The area flashed yellow as the Vulcan highlighted it from her console in the astronomy department, located five floors above Hoshi's head. “There is a debris field about a light-year wide, just like the adjoining sectors, but the size and the trajectories of the remnants indicate that they may have originally been part of a greater planetary body.”
“Some kind of major catastrophe? Like a sun gone supernova?”
“Perhaps, although in the latter case, there would be few traces of physical evidence of the planet. It could have been a collision with an asteroid, or a number of possible causes.”
“Maybe it was the Death Star,” she muttered under her breath. Trip's latest pick for Movie Night had included the planet-busting space station. Although Hoshi couldn't see T'Pol, she could feel the Vulcan's raised eyebrow over the comm channel.
“Highly unlikely,” T'Pol said stiffly. “The massive amount of resources alone, not to mention the length of time to construct such a technological feat is an illogical use of---”
Hoshi chuckled. “I was only kidding, Sub-commander. Do you think it's the location of our mystery planet?”
“Possibly, but I want to check the other alternative sites before settling on a final decision.”
:”That's logical. Let me know when you do, Sub-commander. And T'Pol---”
“Thank you, for believing that I'm not crazy.”
There was a pause, then T'Pol said, “Your sanity was never in question, Ensign. I will keep you appraised of my progress. T'Pol, out.”
“Sato, out.” Hoshi out away her communicator, turned back to her screen, and continued her search. Esaarian customs were complicated; one involved a coming-of-age challenge similar to the Vulcan kahs-wan, except this was held in a maze of underwater caves, as opposed to Vulcan's Forge. Another one was the Ritual of Confirmation, a week-long period of fasting and meditation before assuming a position of high office. And still another combined what seemed like a bonding ceremony with a full-out rugby match, where the bride's attendants fought against the groom's.
I can imagine that would be a sight to see. Then another stray thought passed through her brain: Malcolm's English; I wonder if he's ever played rugby. Probably.
The soft moan of a foghorn caught her attention. She got up from her chair and went to the open window. Like Old Alexandria in Egypt, this city of Yuenjal sat on the shores of the planet's major ocean. As Hoshi watched, boats entered and left the harbor, and the deep voices of the sailors floated up from the docks. Fog began to roll from the sea and already blanketed the horizon. It reminded her of a combination of San Francisco Bay and the port in Athens.
She felt a slight tremble through the floor. Hoshi frowned and looked around, but there seemed to be nothing amiss. It must have been the vibrations of the loading cranes on the dock. We're seven stories up. I shouldn't be feeling them. It came again, a subtle shift under her feet. The next thought popped into her head: Someone's trying to move quietly through the archives. There...in the next aisle...
Hoshi turned expectantly to see Malcolm standing behind her. He seemed surprised that she knew he was there, but the startled look softened as he saw the view out the window. She blushed and stammered. “Sorry, Malcolm. I ---”
His gray-blue eyes sparkled in the bright lights of the library. “That's quite all right. The Esaarians have a whole section devoted to their naval history. I got lost in it and just found my way out.” He laughed and added, “It's rather addictive.”
“Yes, it is,” she agreed with a nervous laugh. She glanced back out to the ocean as Malcolm moved next to her. After several beats of silence, she asked, “Malcolm---?”
“How did you know I wasn't completely gone? In Sickbay, I mean? I heard your voice and it brought me back.”
He hesitated, then gave her a sideways gaze. His expression was shadowed with something Hoshi couldn't identify. “I just knew it. If I could explain it better, I would. I told you how I blacked out in the Cargo Bay when you flatlined the third time---”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. He'd come back to his senses just as Jon and Trip had dragged him to Sickbay, and pleaded with Phlox to try once more to bring her back. She had a fuzzy memory of of seeing his panicked expression, but that was all.
“I'm glad you came back.”
The simple statement stirred dormant feelings within her heart. Hoshi managed a smile to match the upturned corners of his lips. Suddenly, she had the urge to put her hand on his arm to comfort him. The whole incident bothered him more than he was willing to admit. She had a brief vision of a lava field, cooled by wind, but just barely restrained from exploding. The comparison suited him, Hoshi thought.
Malcolm didn't flinch at her gentle touch. Instead, he turned, wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close to him. Together, they gazed at the sea port far below them and the nightlife within it. Hoshi was very aware of the warmth of his skin through the sleeve of his uniform. It was as if she could hear his heartbeat, a steady rhythm that calmed her fears. Strange, how every little detail jumped out at her...
Then Na'lai's teasing voice spoke to her. “Jai'ihim re, Saalina.” Kiss him, Stupid.
Hoshi felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “Belanui tr'huparu de,” she thought back. Oh, hush, you. The banter felt so natural that she paused for a second. Wait a minute...what are you still doing in my head? I thought...There was no answer, so she thought she must have imagined it. It had been a whole week, and she was just getting used to being herself, Hoshi Sato. There was no way...
Another tremor shook the walls and she tensed as she tried to find the source. She couldn't hear anything out of the ordinary, but her other senses were hypersensitive to her environment. The words formed within her brain. Sh'ruin je, va. Warn them.
Warn them of what?
“What?” she asked aloud. Her eyes snapped open to see Malcolm staring at her with curiosity and concern. “What is it?”
“You said, 'Warn them'. What are you talking about?”
“I did?” She was totally confused. “I said that out loud?”
Malcolm frowned and gently took her by the shoulders. “Are you all right, Hoshi?”
“I...don't know.” She tore her gaze away from him and stared out into the night sky. “I keep hearing her---”
Malcolm's brow furrowed as he asked, “Her? You mean the alien girl you saw in your mind? Na'lai?”
Hoshi nodded; she'd told him everything about her experience in Na'lai's body and the fate of Na'lai's world. “I thought she was gone...but I still feel her presence. I've been trying to find any trace of her people in the Esaarian archives and T'Pol's using the local star maps to locate where her planet might have been.”
“You still think Na'lai's still communicating with you?”
She was about to answer, but hen shrugged. “If she is, I don't know what she's trying to tell me. I get the feeling something's about to happen---”
The shrill chirp interrupted her. Malcolm glanced at Hoshi in apology and answered the call. “Reed.”
“Lieutenant, is Ensign Sato with you?” Phlox's voice sounded unwontedly urgent.
“I”m here, Doctor,” Hoshi replied. “Is something wrong?”
“I need to see you right away, Hoshi. It concerns the brain wave scans I took of you last week during your...experience. I may be able to shed some light on why you were affected the way you were.”
Hoshi's throat suddenly tightened in---panic? Fear? Worry? Nevertheless, she kept her voice steady as she said, “I'm on my way, Phlox.”
“Lieutenant Reed, I think it would be helpful if you accompanied her.”
Malcolm nodded in agreement. “We're coming, Doctor. Reed, out.” The corners of his mouth turned up into a grim smile as she tried to hide her unease. “It seems that the doctor may finally have some answers for us.”