Limited records on Drapice scrounged from Romulan assets meant Starfleet had learned a little about the natives before sending the Kingfisher, including what they looked like. Developing a temporary genetic modification programme to allow infiltration had thus been required ahead of any mission, so it was simple for Doctor Winters to bring Valance, Gov’taj, and Thawn to the small medical section aboard the Watson and give them the hypospray injections to begin the process.
‘I hope that didn’t sting too badly, Captain,’ Winters said apologetically as Valance swung her legs over the biobed to sit up.
‘Nothing I’ve not been through before,’ she said, gingerly lifting a hand to her forehead. She could not feel the patterned mottling of her skin she knew was there, but the smoothness of her brow, the absence of her forehead ridges, made her throat tighten. ‘How long will this last?’ she pressed, gaze snapping to Winters so she could focus on the job and not the swirling tug on her sense of self.
‘Your body will be trying to fight this off, but you shouldn’t feel anything for at least a week,’ said Winters. ‘Even then the symptoms would be mild, but increasing over the rest of the month, by which time your genetic pattern will have likely reasserted itself against the modification -’
‘Good,’ she said, hopping to her feet. The deck was only marginally unsteady under her. ‘We won’t need a week.’
Commander Dashell stood at the top of the rear hatch, arms folded across his chest. ‘We’ll go through the records from the Kingfisher’s investigations and get to work. Don’t worry, Captain – we’ll find a way to get them out.’
‘I know. I’ll try to establish contact daily. Inform us if you learn anything useful about the provenance of this technology, though.’ Valance grabbed the leather backpack they’d replicated and felt around inside for the discreet compartments where she could hide equipment like the tricorder. It would survive a cursory look, but not a close investigation if the bag fell into the wrong hands.
‘And if we don’t hear from you?’ His eyebrows raised.
‘Then focus on rescuing the crew of the Kingfisher as your priority.’
‘If you go missing, then that’s an additional threat to the Prime Directive,’ Dashell pointed out. ‘Regulations say that should be my priority, above even the lives of the missing officers.’
Her lips thinned with faint amusement as she slung the bag over her shoulder. ‘Then it sounds like you don’t need me to tell you what to do if this goes wrong.’
He sighed. ‘Stay safe, Captain.’
‘We will. Help these people, Commander.’
Gov’taj and Thawn waited at the foot of the ramp, both of them in the clothing their records suggested would help them pass unobtrusively in Drapician society. Garments like rugged brown linen tunics and jerkins over light woollen breeches, all replicated to appear a little worn-in, had minor quirks of invisible, modern design to make them sturdier. The boots had better grip, the fabric was more breathable; all changes invisible to the naked eye.
But while Thawn didn’t otherwise look too different – her eyes a little less dark, her face now changed by a rippled pattern weaving across the skin of her jawline and temples – Gov’taj was striking without his forehead ridges. As Valance’s eyes fell on him, he scowled and said, ‘I have lost my good looks.’ Neither Valance nor Thawn laughed, and that only made him grumpier as he hefted his large backpack. ‘We have some hours’ walk to the nearest settlement. I have studied our orbital scans and records and ascertained a path. We will have to move quickly to reach there before nightfall.’
‘Then let’s not wait,’ Valance said briskly and followed as her security chief led on.
There seemed some merit to Dashell’s concerns about the basin’s provenance as they left. The route they took into the lower reaches of the mountains was through a passageway that remained equally wide and even, and reasonably direct as it took them from this secluded stretch of elevation and down towards the reaches of inhabited Drapice. Within an hour, rugged brown rocks and dust turned to scrublands of scattered pale trees and thin brush on an open path leading down.
After two hours there was more greenery, scattered tufts of bush and grass, and thin, intermittent trees bowing over them. Gov’taj reached up to one as they passed under the increasing shade, and pulled off a dark brown fruit. He sniffed it. ‘Smells like a joruba,’ he mused.
‘Don’t eat it,’ said Thawn in a clipped voice.
Gov’taj harrumphed. ‘Thank you, Lieutenant. I was eager to consume mysterious fruits on a new world.’
Valance’s eye had been on the horizon tumbling before them. It was not all flat, with rises and falls that made the view beyond a score or so of kilometres unclear. A winding river split the dusty landscape, green following it like a thread of blues and emeralds amid rugged brown. ‘Thawn,’ she said, as much to interrupt any possible argument as anything else. ‘Can you sense anything?’
‘There’s a settlement less than fifteen kilometres away,’ came Thawn’s cautious voice, ‘but I know that because I can see it.’ Indeed, when Valance squinted she could see tufts of smoke drifting to breach the blue skies, and the darkened knot of what could have been the settlement nestled around the river snaking in the distance.
Gov’taj’s eyes dragged from horizon to sky. ‘We will have to keep a good pace to beat nightfall.’ They pressed on, picking up their gait as well as they could on a decline along what could barely be called a path, scattered with loose scree. He waited until they had navigated a particularly treacherous stretch before speaking again. ‘What do we know of the people of Drapice?’
Valance tried to not sigh. She was comfortable with her decision to leave Commander Dashell at the dig site, but this meant she had not brought the team most qualified at anthropological infiltration. ‘Beyond these stretches of land along the equator, much of the planet is too cold to comfortably sustain life. There are smaller pockets of cultures elsewhere, including in those harsher and remote climates, but most of the population is on this continent. From what limited records we secured from the Romulans and scans from before the Kingfisher’s mission, we have reason to believe the different societies and settlements are in communication, are roughly equivalent in technological development, and from initial observations of architecture, fashion, and so forth, have close cultural ties.’
Thawn frowned as she picked over difficult ground. ‘This is quite the large continent for a relatively homogeneous culture, isn’t it?’
‘It happens sometimes,’ was all Valance could offer. ‘Regardless, we might hope to beat nightfall, but we would do well to camp outside any settlement. We have no information on economics or coinage, and I’d rather we don’t talk to anyone. Just pass through and see what we can hear. And, perhaps once we’re closer, scan.’
‘I am aware,’ mused Gov’taj, ‘of Starfleet protocols in these circumstances.’
‘There’s no reason for the Kingfisher’s officers to go anywhere near a settlement,’ Thawn pointed out. ‘Should we?’
‘There’s no reason for them to flee the basin, so far as we can tell,’ countered Valance. ‘Something is wrong.’
‘Flee is…’ Gov’taj’s voice trailed off. Then he grunted. ‘The tracks did not look like they left at speed. The tracks did not look like they left together – one set had a considerably different gait to the other.’
‘One officer left, another followed?’ wondered Valance.
‘Possibly. But it does not look like something happened and they ran away.’
‘In short, then,’ she said, ‘we shouldn’t assume that rational minds are at work. Especially not with whatever you’re sensing, Thawn.’
‘I don’t know what I’m sensing,’ came her stiff response.
That shut them up, as did the path taking them through a sharper, rockier decline that took them the next half-hour to navigate. But they were moving out of the hills and into the plains now, and while the sun was getting heavy and fat in the sky, the going was much more manageable. It did not take long before the greenery and wildlife increased, and they were kept company by more than mountain birds. Horned, shaggy-coated, four-legged beasts shambled in small packs nearby. Coming no higher than Gov’taj’s waist, they eyed the travellers with recognisably goat-like suspicion and seemed wary rather than wild. Their rough track eventually brought them to a dirt road heading deeper into the plains, past distant clusters of buildings made of the same sandstone of the nearby hills and alongside blossoming fields of what looked not dissimilar to wheat.
Gov’taj reached for them, pulling away grains from the heads of the grasses, and popped in his mouth. ‘Not unlike barley,’ he mused and grinned wickedly at Thawn’s gaze. ‘These are farmed, cultivated. And we shall have to take some risks, Lieutenant, wandering into a society we do not know.’
It was not long before their journey reached a wider road, and the three clustered at the increasing signs of life. There was little more than farmland around, but they were only a few kilometres from the settlement, and as they walked they saw Drapicians toiling in the field, going about their business. When the first wagon, dragged by a long-limbed beast of burden, trundled down the road the other way, Valance ushered them to the edge and felt her back lock up in apprehension, but they received a cheery nod from the driver in the wide-brimmed hat.
‘Perhaps they are welcoming. That would make a pleasant change,’ Gov’taj observed.
He had a point, which was why she did not break off from the path or watch from a distance when they spotted a cluster of activity further down the road a half hour later. By now the road was lined with what reminded her of olive trees, their thin trunks rising for the boughs of thick leaves to offer some modicum of shade, but it looked like little reprieve to the gathering ahead. Three Drapicians in drab farmers’ clothes huddled around a wagon that had lost a wheel, its back sagging and threatening to spill barrels of cargo. Awkwardly, they attempted to fit a replacement but struggled to raise the loaded pallet.
Thawn reached for Valance’s arm as they approached. ‘We should give them a wide berth.’
‘We should help,’ Gov’taj countered. ‘They look like they need it.’
‘And a good first impression with locals could be everything,’ Valance agreed. ‘Come on.’
Heads turned their way at the approach, eyes landing warily on the hulking figure of Gov’taj in particular, but Valance raised a hand in mollifying greeting. ‘Can we assist?’
A weathered Drapician woman regarded them a moment more, then gave a curt nod. ‘If you can lift.’
‘That,’ said Gov’taj as he swaggered forward, ‘we certainly can.’
It was, perhaps, the best way to make first contact. There was a simplicity to coordinating physical labour, where names and nature mattered less than putting in effort and listening to instruction. Valance had to give Gov’taj a warning look when he put his hands on the wagon, and he gave the slightest nod; it would not do to look remarkably stronger than the locals. Still, the two of Klingon heritage made short work of raising the wagon high enough to fit the new wheel, while Thawn lurked in the background in her usual awkward way.
As they eased the wagon back on the road, the Drapician woman dusted off her hands. Her eyes were might brighter now, and Valance thought the mottled skin on her brow had turned lighter as well, perhaps some reflection of her mood. She quietly hoped both had been accommodated in Winters’s modifications, yet would not betray them.
‘You’re more helpful than most vagrants,’ she mused but pressed on while Valance wondered how best to answer that. ‘I expect you’ve heard the call and are joining the pilgrimage.’
Valance hesitated. ‘We’ve heard rumours,’ she said, deciding that was safest. ‘We want to see for ourselves. Have you seen more?’
Now the woman smiled outright. ‘Rumour doesn’t begin to cover it, friend. I saw it with my own eyes. It was market day in town, and he walked in, bold as sunlight. At first, we thought he was mad, some hermit who’d studied the texts but gone soft in the head. But he knew it all.’
Thawn had made herself smaller, shoulders slumped, and when she said, ‘All?’ it was with a hesitant air that Valance thought was a little more affected. If she could look younger, she was likely more able to get away with looking stupider.
‘Scripture, child,’ said the Drapician. ‘But a learned man spouting words might be just that. No, we ignored him at first. But then he walked among the crowd, and them he laid his hands on he… well.’ She shook her head in wonderment. ‘He knew the secrets that burdened them and knew what words would lift them. Knew things no man could know, knew what clouded our hearts and knew how to clear them.’
Valance’s gaze flickered back to Thawn for just a heartbeat. Cautiously, she focused on the Drapician again. ‘So it is true?’ she said, aware of the careful line of asking questions without being curiously ignorant.
‘I’d say you can see for yourself, but you’re too late. The Prophet has headed to the capital. The Pontifex wants to see him for himself, so they say.’
‘It’s all true,’ another of the Drapicians, a younger man, grunted. ‘A time of revelation, they say.’
‘So maybe you can join the pilgrims who’ll follow in the coming days, and see him for yourself,’ said the older Drapician woman, but her eyes narrowed a hint. ‘Just be sure you behave yourselves if you come into town.’
Valance winced. ‘Travellers from all over must bring troublemakers too. We don’t want trouble.’
‘I’m sure you don’t. But folks are on edge about outsiders after the Prophet’s last night.’
‘What happened?’ Valance frowned.
‘We didn’t have much of pilgrims,’ said one of the other Drapicians. ‘Word was still getting out. Still, the young man came in, first of the flocking to see for themselves. Polite as anything, they say. Then at night tried breaking into the rooms where the Prophet was staying and… I don’t know.’ He shook his head. ‘Hurt him? What do heretics want anyway.’
One outsider coming into this town from seemingly nowhere, seeming to know people’s secrets, when Thawn was sure of a telepathic element to whatever was going on. Another following later and attempting to intercede. Little of this made sense to Valance, but she knew she had two missing officers and at least two mysterious local figures in what was lining up to be a Prime Directive disaster.
‘What happened to the heretic?’ she asked.
‘Rounded him up and killed him. Yesterday, weren’t it?’ the Drapician woman grunted, and Valance’s chest tensed.
‘Nah,’ said the younger man. ‘Trial was yesterday. They execute him at sundown.’
Valance turned to the other two, tense in the same way. ‘I think,’ she said, trying to not sound too urgent, ‘we want to be there for that. And understand this for ourselves.’
The Drapician woman sucked on her teeth for a moment. ‘Well, then,’ she said at length. ‘Guess you’ve earned a ride into town for helping us, then. And a reminder that there’s still good folk out there come to hear the truth of the Sun Lord, and the words of his prophet.’