Notes: Sorry for the delay, but real life has been complicated lately. This is #6 in the AU Switcheroo series. The crew get into trouble with a culture that may be hiding secrets under its placid exterior.
Future pairings: TnT, R/S (Hayes/Sato mentioned)
Please R&R. Thanks.
“Senahra Sato? Is something the matter?”
She blinked and looked at the source of the voice. Two wide purple-lidded eyes stared back at her, the third one situated neatly above and centered the main pair. Hoshi could see her reflection doubled and tripled in the multifaceted lenses. The small, beak-like mouth pursed in concern.
“Forgive me, Madarrah. I was distracted by all these wonderful books and folios. I've never seen so much information gathered in one place. It's amazing.”
Madarrah, the Altarran Archivist, hummed in approval of her words. Madarrah's tall, thin body towered over Hoshi by several centimeters, and her platinum-colored hair matched the color of her wrap-around tunic and skirt. She waved a skeletal-looking limb around the huge chamber, its walls lined with shelves and crannies as far upward as the eye could see. Books and boxes of data cards occupied every storage space. It was more than just a library; it was a shrine.
“This is a sacred place, Senahra. Do you not have anything like this on your homeworld?”
Hoshi smiled and shook her head. “We have similar buildings, libraries, but they're much smaller than this Archive. In our distant past, we had a large library at a place called Alexandria. It fell victim to a fire and much was lost.”
Madarrah inclined her head at a forty-five degree angle, the Altarran equivalent of a shake of the head. “A pity. Information is the bridge between people, between the past and the present. We value it more than precious jewels.”
“Yes, it was quite a tragedy. Our people value knowledge highly as well.” She glanced around again and tried to find the source of her unease. Of course, this was a holy place, and Altarrans strictly enforced an attitude of respect. Murmured voices echoed off the walls as discussion groups held their meetings.
She looked over his shoulder and smiled as he saw Lieutenant Commander Trip Tucker sitting in the middle of a group of Altarran children. Trip caught Hoshi's gaze and returned it with a hint of exasperation. She bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. How does Trip end up with the question-and-answer sessions with the kids? I don't understand it.
“Your friend, the Armsman, hardly looks like one who makes his living with weapons. I suppose that is one advantage to outwitting an enemy.”
Hoshi raised an eyebrow at her astute observation. After all, Madarrah had barely known them twenty-four hours. “Very true. He can be friendly, but if there is a threat, he'll take care of it, make no mistake.”
“Indeed. He gets along well with that particular group.” She made a chirping sound of laughter. “They are the best of our militia trainees. I am sure your friend will teach them a thing or two.”
Hoshi frowned, then took a closer look at the Altarran youth in the group. They sat with backs straight, hands in their laps, with expressions of intense alertness. Yet Hoshi could feel their watchful looks out of the corner of their eyes. Trip had situated himself so he could keep an eye on Hoshi, and the Altarrans had picked that up.
“I'm sure. He has a few tricks that no one's figured out yet.”
Madarrah buzzed again at the unfamiliar words, but she understood the meaning. “I am sure he does. Let us leave the defense of the universe to those more suited for it, shall we?”
She raised her eyebrows at her change of topic. “Of course.”
“Let me show you our cataloging system. It is the pride and joy of our profession, Senahra.”
Madarrah led Hoshi to a bank of consoles lined against the south wall of the chamber. She nodded at her to sit in the padded chair in front of her. Hoshi did, and was surprised at how comfortable it was, despite it being designed for Altarrans and not Humans.
Madarrah reached over her and activated the touchpad. “From here, any Altarran can access any of our planetary databases. Historical, engineering, financial, entertainment, news reports, climate control...it is all here.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Hoshi followed Madarrah's instructions on how to negotiate the labyrinth of information. She gazed at her screen and tried to make sense of the Altarran symbols. They reminded her of Incan pictographs, aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but complicated to understand. Hoshi knew enough of the Altarran language to converse and be understood and Jon Archer found it a intricate puzzle to unravel. Together, they had made a basic matrix for the Universal Translator, but she could spend years on the main dialect by itself.
Once she was familiar with the system, she marveled at how extensive it was. The main network, according to Madarrah, was supplemented by multiple fail-safes and backups. If power was cut off, a secondary database activated within seconds, and if that failed, there was still a tertiary back-up that was fully updated.
“Such a system is nearly foolproof,” Hoshi murmured to herself. “I'm sure Phlox would love to see how it works.”
Madarrah chirped like a cricket, her equivalent of laughter. “Phlox? Your engineer? I'm sure he would, but he would have to get clearances from our Ministry of Technology. We guard our secrets rather jealously, I'm afraid.”
“With something like this, I don't blame you, Madarrah. The security alone is mind-boggling. I don't think even our resident Armory Officer could even begin to figure out how to work this.”
“Lieutenant Commander Tucker strikes me as a resourceful kind of Human, Senahra. I'm sure he would welcome this sort of challenge.” Madarrah glanced over at Trip again.
“Probably.” Hoshi pushed a sequence of buttons, but the computer beeped in annoyance. Madarrah reached over her again and tapped the correct code. “Thanks.”
“That is the reason why even veteran users of the information database need a specialist to keep an eye on their actions. One wrong code is fixable enough; several thousand wrong codes can paralyze the entire system. We would prefer that not to happen.”
Hoshi chuckled and replied, “Again, quite understandable.” She looked over at the other terminals, noting that every user had a guide close by for assistance. None of the specialists hesitated to correct the mistakes; she figured the users were used to this kind of intervention. I think that would drive Trip crazy. Jon, too, now that I think about it.
“I'm impressed at how patient your people are. They could give the Vulcans a run for their money.”
Madarrah inclined her head at the unfamiliar colloquialism. “Why would we flee with the Vulcans' profits?”
She laughed at her cultural faux pas. “Sorry, it's a Human expression. It means that your patience is extraordinary, much like a Vulcan's.”
“Ah. Well, I suppose that must be a compliment?”
“It's meant as one. I'm sorry if it offends you--?”
“It does not. I admire the Vulcans and their strong history and traditions. Then again, that is what I do for my life's work.” Madarrah buzzed again and rubbed her hands. “Any information that your people provide us will go into a separate archive and marked accordingly. It will be accessible to those who need it.”
“Thank you,” Hoshi replied. “You have my personal thanks, Madarrah.”
“Beh'ne se varras. Rhin'dar se varras.” At Hoshi's questioning look, she translated, “The words are truth. Our history is truth.”
“That's an interesting concept--”
The lights dimmed for a moment before recovering their full brightness. The Archive staff quickly and smoothly tapped PADDs and controls. Aside from a slight blip in Hoshi's screen, there was no change. The secondary back-up must have kicked in, just as it was designed. The patrons at the computers didn't seem alarmed at the interruption.
On the other hand, Trip's discussion group slowly craned their necks around as they gazed around the chamber. Their instructor murmured something to Trip, who nodded. After a brief exchange of words, the Altarrans began to take up positions around the chamber.
“You all right, Cap'n?” Trip asked as he approached the computer consoles.
“Is there a problem?”
“Looks like they've got a series of power shorts. Rendir-the Armsmaster-told me that sorta thing doesn't happen here. They've got all sorts of back-ups and failsafes in place.”
“Madarrah told me. They depend on their information net.” The lights flickered again and this time, the Altarrans' voices rose in alarm. Hoshi reached over and put a hand on Madarrah's arm. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
Madarrah wrung her hands in worry. “This has not happened before, Senahra. It simply does not happen here.”
Trip frowned as the computer screens blacked out, one by one, except for a handful of main screens, which included Hoshi's. “Should we start evacuating the people?”
“That may be prudent, Armsman. I will get the militia trainees to assist us--”
“Yeah, that's a good idea. C'mon, Hoshi, let's get everyone out of here before we have people panic.”
She nodded and followed his lead. To their credit, the Altarrans obeyed without hesitation. Trip and young militia gestured for the people on the upper levels to head for the exits, while Madarrah and Hoshi steered the others to the main entrance. Alarms sounded as the power levels dropped, then rebounded just as quickly.
“This yo-yo-ing won't be good for any of the equipment,” Trip said as he came back to Hoshi's side. “We could have a major energy surge that could blow the place sky high.”
“Let's get out of here,” Hoshi agreed grimly. “Madarrah?”
She nodded as she stuffed datachips into the pockets of her skirts. “Yes, we must go, Senahra. Follow me--”
A split second later, the chamber shook to its foundations. Books and scrolls rained down from the upper levels while the computer stations sparked and smoked. Madarrah ducked under an overturned set of shelves while Trip pulled Hoshi under a nearby table. Shouts, screams and curses filled the air as the fleeing Altarrans tripped over each other in their haste to get out of the building.
“Damn! You okay, Hoshi?”
She nodded and waved smoke from her face. “Madarrah?”
Madarrah wormed her way from under the bookshelf and knelt at the side of a fallen Altarran. She tore off a strip of material from her skirt and pressed it to the man's wound.
Hoshi flipped open her communicator. “Sato to Enterprise.”
“Enterprise,” answered Commander Phlox.
“Phlox, we've got a situation at the Altarran Main Archive. People are hurt. Get Healer Kov down here!”
“Acknowledged, Captain. I'm informing Doctor Reed, Lieutenant Commander Archer and Commander Mayweather. Stay on the channel; we'll use your signal to beam down the medical personnel.”
“Thanks, Phlox.” Hoshi moved to another Altarran, but she saw the man's head lying at a definite angle. She winced and closed the triple eyes, then moved to the next victim. Some of the library's patrons had escaped before the explosion, but many were still trapped within the rubble.
Who would do this? Hoshi thought as she used her hair tie as a makeshift tourniquet around a woman's leg. And why? It doesn't make any sense.
She had the sickening sensation that they would all find out the reason soon enough.
Commander Travis Mayweather narrowed his eyes at the crowd at the marketplace. Although it was the lunch hour, there was no haggling of prices, no lively conversation, and no sellers announcing their wares. The relative silence made him uneasy. Even the children sat obediently in groups and played quietly.
This is the oddest trading center I've seen, he thought. The quietest, too. It's too...orderly. He remembered marketplaces on Denobula, Rigel, Sarumin...and this seemed tame in comparison. It just struck him as...well, wrong. He was used to the hustle and bustle of people, exotic smells, brightly colored signs and the banter of sellers and customers.
The Altarran constable nodded in approval at Travis's caution. He gazed down at Travis with his triad of eyes, unblinking and emotionless in their depths. It was both fascinating and unnerving at the same time, like being constantly measured against an invisible standard.
“Very good, Su'raru. We need you to stay vigilant.”
Travis realized the Constable had misinterpreted his worry, but decided not to mention it. “Is it usually this quiet? I don't think I've ever seen traders so low-key in a busy marketplace.”
“Our trade partners follow a strict code of rules that govern all transactions. It makes my job easier.” Constable Virar only angled his head; one of his three eyes kept watch on a nearby stall, while the other two regarded Travis. “Your captain mentioned that you come from the Bm'rrz, the Wandering Ship Clans.”
Travis summoned up his usual cheerful smile. “Some of my people have been this far, but your system is pretty far away from our normal trade routes, Constable. My parents have heard stories from other Boomers, but this is the first time I've visited Altharra myself.”
“Then how did you learn of our world?” Virar's tone was equal parts of curiosity and suspicion.
He frowned and answered, “An Altarran trader needed help with his warp drive. We helped him, and he let us know that your people were interested in new economic partners. So we decided to see for ourselves.”
“Yes...we have been quiet for far too long. I believe it is time for us to make our presence known to potential markets. My people value information highly, Commander, and for generations, we required a pact of utmost discretion about our transactions.”
“Protecting your profits?” Travis asked.
The Constable nearly smiled at the question. “You do understand our point of view. It is difficult to find one who sympathize with my people's mindset. As a Wanderer, your livelihood depends on trade. Ours deal with the tangible and the intangible.”
An Alterran female saw them and gave them a pleasant nod. Travis stopped by her display to admire her set of jewelry boxes. The sunlight danced on the wooden surfaces and on the crystal inlay of their lids. Each inlay was arranged in a unique pattern and seemed to flow like molten glass. A palm-sized box with a red, black and silver inlay caught Travis's eye.
“These are memory boxes,” she answered his unspoken question. “I am Arkava. My family are woodcarvers and they specialize in this type of artistry.”
“Memory boxes? You store memories in them?” He smiled as he ran a finger on the smooth grain of wood and it made a pleasant chiming sound.
“Allow me to demonstrate.” Arkava took the box from him and opened it. To his surprise, there were a series of smaller boxes fitted inside the main one, all of different colors. Each individual box could hold a trinket, like a ring or tumbled stones. Travis noticed slots chiseled into the edges, about the size of a data chip.
She nodded at his astute observation. “Each box can accommodate a minimum of six kharta-sized memory chips. A button, here--” she pointed to it, “--controls the locking mechanism. It can be encoded with a specific sequence, for extra security.”
“So you can store important documents, like birth certificates and financial records,” Travis said, impressed at the capacity of such a compact box. “Pretty ingenious. I don't think I've seen anything like this before. It could be useful.”
“Indeed, Su'raru, especially to one who handles all sorts of business.” The Altarran inclined her head to Constable Virar. “Would you be interested in one of our boxes?”
Virar buzzed in genuine humor and replied, “Perhaps later, Akavra. I might bring some of my colleagues with me, for they will see the advantages to owning such an item.”
Akavra hesitated before blinking her eyes once. “Of course, Constable. I shall have a suitable array prepared for your inspection.”
“You are gracious. I look forward to it.”
Travis frowned at the formal exchange. Virar's words were polite enough, but Travis heard a strange undertone in them. Altarrans were precise in their vocabulary—a trait that was pointed out to him over and over—so the word 'inspection' set off all sorts of alarm bells in his head.
“How much for this box, Arkava?” Travis asked.
She pointed at a set of prices posted directly on the display table. “Thirty je'narii for the smaller boxes, fifty-five for the medium, and eighty for the largest ones. Trade tax is included in the prices, and a confirmation is sent to the Ministry of Finance, the Main Archive and a comm address of your choosing. Each item carries a lifetime warranty, for as long as you own it.”
“The Main Archive?” Travis asked before he could stop himself. Captain Sato had mentioned the Archive was more like the Smithsonian Museum and the Library of Congress rolled into one. Why would a bill of receipt be sent there?
Arkava squeaked in surprise. “Why, yes. All our information is updated and stored in the Archive, so anyone who has a grievance can ask for a recall. It ensures complete honesty in any business transaction.”
“Ah, I see. Protecting the customer and the vendor.”
Virar buzzed in approval and put a hand on Travis's shoulder. “Yes. We pride ourselves in being open with the truth at all times. All Altarrans are born and bred to it.”
Arkava bobbed her head and flattened her lips in a smile. “So, there are the terms, Su'raru. No more and no less, just as it is outlined on the contract posted on the display.”
The generous terms surprised Travis; he could see why this particular vendor had good business. He did the monetary conversion in his head: fifty-five je'narii came to about twenty-two and a half Earth credits. He nodded and said, “All right, you've got a sale.”
She flattened her lips in the Altarran equivalent of a grin. “Nab'he te avirru. The heart is generous. I will take care of all the particulars, if you would assist me.”
As they arranged for the payment for the memory box, Travis noticed the tension to her movements. Virar watched them with a careful eye...no, not them. He was watching Akavra, as if making sure her transaction was completely honest. It should have reassured Travis, but it only worried him even more.
He had the knack for reading people, and Akavra was more than nervous in the Constable's presence. She was terrified, but bravely trying to hide it. Travis didn't like what was implied. Something to tell Hoshi when she and Lieutenant Commander Tucker are finished with their tour of the Archives. And I'd better let Jon Archer and Malcolm Reed know too. Maybe they'll find out more from the High Consul.
Arkava handed the box to Travis with both hands. He felt an odd bump along on one edge, then realized that the slot had a memory chip already in it. Their hands hid that fact from the constable. Travis smiled and nodded to indicate that he understood the covert message.
“Thank you, Arkava. I'll treasure this always as a sign of friendship.”
“You are quite welcome. If you are eager to record memories, the constable knows where you can purchase memory chips suitable for the box. They are quite specific, and you can only get them from the approved vendors.” She inclined her head at Virar. “He can show you.”
Travis nodded. “Thank you again. I'll be sure to trust the constable's expertise.”
As they left the row of stalls, Travis glanced around at the next group of stalls. With his new knowledge, he saw the furtive glances at Virar and the nervous laughter that followed in their wake.
More Altarran security forces strolled through the marketplace, and Travis saw their “casual” inspection of the various wares.
Don't like this at all. I need to tell Hoshi and Trip. I just have a really bad feeling about this.
“You seem quiet, Su'raru. Is something wrong?”
Travis shook his head. “No, nothing's wrong. I thought I saw something--”
The ground shook under their feet. Cries of alarm rose up as a plume of smoke drifted upward into the blinding green sky. Travis shielded his eyes as he mentally calculated its direction. “That's coming from the west, Constable.”
“The Main Archive and the Council Chambers,” Virar said grimly. “Something has happened, Su'raru. Please, follow me.”
“Lead the way.” Travis slid the box into his jacket and took off after Virar as they ran towards the Main Archive.