The Mission
Chapter 1: Leaving on a Jet Plane

Copyright© 2011 by Gina Marie Wylie

Thomas Christopher swam through the fog of sleep and eventually surfaced. The first two hours of sleep for him required the ground to shake to wake him up. The light knock on the door came again. Why weren't they using the bell?

Would a burglar be so persistent? A "no-knock" raid was just that -- they'd have come through like gangbusters. He threw on a robe and checked outside. Two men in suits stood outside, patiently knocking again. Still, while Bel Air was considered a "safe" suburb of LA, he left the chain on when he opened the door.

"Dr. Thomas Christopher?" the man in the lead asked.

That put Thomas back in a familiar neighborhood. "Yes, I'm Dr. Christopher."

"If you'd invite us in, we have a proposition to discuss with you." The man displayed what was clearly a badge labeled "Federal Bureau of Investigation."

"I'm not dressed."

"There is a certain degree of time pressure here. Invite us in if you're interested."

A robe was decent enough, so he unhooked the chain and let them in and if they were scandalized by his bare feet, what of it?

Thomas was a bit short of average height, although his arms were longer than average, reaching half way to his knees. He was trim and kept in shape by playing handball or tennis with his peers or students -- whoever was available. Sandy brown hair, cut like a businessman would have it, pale blue eyes that only seemed weak if you didn't look too hard.

"I will make this short, Dr. Christopher. If you're interested in a project that is of the utmost important to national security, involving one of the greatest discoveries of all time, please say you're interested. Otherwise, we won't take up any more of your sleep."

The two Federal agents might have been stamped out by a cookie cutter, dressed in single-breasted blue pinstripe suits, with white shirts, black ties and no visible jewelry. If you looked close, you could see they were armed. Big stocky men, half a foot taller didn't intimidate Tom, not even a tiny bit. Even armed, they didn't.

"What kind of discovery? What kind of project?"

"The classified sort of project. Where you promise the sun, moon and your first born as a security deposit. Where violations are treated with serious jail time -- not slaps on the wrist. Yes, or no, Dr. Christopher?"

"How long is this likely to take? I have finals to give next week."

"Yes or no, Dr. Christopher?"

Thomas deliberately turned away from the men and went into the kitchen. He pulled a Coke from the fridge and downed it in four gulps. "I'm never much good without coffee in the morning. This is a field expedient," he explained. He was watching carefully when he used the term; there were no change of expression on either man's face.

"The last time, Dr. Christopher. You aren't going to get more information unless or until you sign that national security agreement -- or we depart. This offer will never be made again."

"I'll sign. If this is crap, I'll crap on you."

The man held out his hand and the other placed a leather folio in it. Thomas was a careful man and though the words of the agreement were almost unchanged after ten years he still read them carefully. Only the penalties had changed, really. The crossed American flags, the red and blue ink and remarkable brevity and clear language for a government document was unchanged.

He signed it and waited curiously. "Dress," he was told. "Pack for two weeks, do not pack any electronics, not even a shaver. Arrangements will be made to proctor your exams for you."

Did they know he was going to do research instead of teach this summer? He expected they did.

They drove through the night to LAX, to a military hanger. He was escorted up the ramp of a C-130, and directed to a seat. The two agents vanished and an Air Force captain appeared. "You see nothing, you say nothing, and even if your wife appears, you don't know anyone here. Do crosswords." He handed Thomas a crossword puzzle magazine.

"I have my work," Thomas told him.

"Anything you write on this flight will be collected and will go into a burn bag. Attempt to evade the security and you'll spend a lot time with a fellow named 'Spike' -- you'll not find him very collegial ... but the odds are he'll take a shine to you."

Four men and a woman joined him over the next hour. Three of the men he didn't recognize -- but he knew the woman. The woman looked at him and he looked at her. They'd known each other for a couple years and loathed each other. He wondered what sort of a project needed a linguist and a tendentious anthropologist?

The last fellow he also recognized and he was recognized in turn. The two men traded bland stares and then ignored each other. Jack Grimes was an MD, and a good one. He was also about a half dozen other things.

They flew steadily east, until somewhere over the middle of the country. Then they started circling, and the sounds came signaling that they were undergoing midair refueling. That brought a frown to Thomas' face; they had used less than half of their fuel, not all of it. They hadn't needed to refuel. If they were going out of the country, it would have made more sense to refuel just before they left US airspace.

The answer left some of the other passengers airsick. After the refueling, they dropped like a rock. Then the plane leaned back at about a thirty degree angle of climb, and went up as not nearly as fast as it had descended, but fast enough. Then they starting making circles in the sky. The circles tightened until they were very small indeed. Thomas put his brain in neutral, trying not to be airsick as well. He's never been airsick before, but they certainly stretched the limits this time.

Then they straightened out and flew level for the better part of an hour and a half.

Before they turned onto the final portion of their course, the Air Force captain came to collect any remaining cell phones and GPS devices. The captain was blunt.

"Possession of an unauthorized cell phone, GPS or other electric-powered device will henceforth be the cause of immediate incarceration. Prison sentences will be indefinite -- the President and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will have to certify that you can no longer harm the defense of the United States. That might be a while in coming. It's not worth the risk."

Except Tom had known which way he was traveling since before high school, without needing to have a GPS or even a compass.

He settled down to patiently wait some more.

Along about noon they landed and went directly to a hanger before they were allowed deplane. Then they were put in a bus without windows, traveled a half hour, and then unloaded in a large building where they were led to elevators and dropped a couple of hundred feet.

"Get some rest," they were told. "It's about 4 PM locally and there are a couple hours of downtime. We'll get you up in a few hours, feed you and do the initial briefing. You'll know more about your schedule in due course."

He didn't smile or let on. He'd been awoken at two in the morning; they had been on the way to the airport at a quarter of three. Take off about five, four hours in the air, an hour refueling and going in circles, then two hours to their destination. He was morally certain they were in the Central Time zone, so add two more hours. It was about two PM, not four.

On the other hand, the military don't like being told that they are wrong -- until it was announced what the real time was, it was four PM.

They fetched them for dinner as a loose civilian group. There was no interest in enforcing military discipline which Thomas considered a good sign. He was curious about what people would wear. They were all good Californians -- slacks and nice shirts and blouses, sensible shoes.

An oriental man stood in the front of the dining room and when everyone was seated he was quick. "I imagine you're all hungry and curious. Right now, get something to eat, we'll talk when everyone has had some sustenance."

It stood to reason that the government knew Thomas' checkered history. At one time he'd been fascinated by everything in the world and had wanted to try it all. It had been a freak; a one in a million accident. He'd ridden in a Humvee to a meeting with a tribal chief in Tikrit, Iraq. At one point he leaned down to accept a present from the chief's ten-year-old daughter, her shy six-year-old sister at her side.

One of those ugly yellow and black flowers opened six feet behind them, turned everyone around into gruel -- except Thomas who was shielded by the older daughter's body. How do you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning after a young woman dies in your place?

Thomas hadn't walked away from the blast. He had some burns; he'd needed new eardrums ... and a lot of counseling. He didn't shave and do anything else that required him to look into a mirror for more than a year.

Adventurism for adventure's sake died that morning. He still did things, exciting things -- but intellectually exciting. This was the first time he'd left LA in eight years.

He found he'd eaten a steak dinner flying entirely on autopilot. For dining room food, it had been surprisingly good.

Now, the oriental fellow, an ethnic Chinese if he was any judge -- and he was -- rapped a water glass with a knife and got everyone's attention.

"I'm Dr. Fred Tang and I'm a sort of half-baked expert at getting research teams on long assignments to work together -- and avoid killing each other. I'm half a project manager and half your ombudsman. Come to me if you're on my team and have an issue.

"What I'm going to cover is the basic discovery. I'm not going to bore you with any more but one additional warning. We're serious about security. This is currently the highest research priority in your nation and mine. Don't screw up. One last time -- if you're not prepared to give this your very best from the git-go, you're in the wrong place."

The phrase "in your country or mine" was downright fascinating. The US cooperated with Taiwan on a regular basis. Dr. Tang's accent was that of a native of Beijing. The US and Beijing cooperated on practically nothing, and certainly nothing of national security importance.

Dr. Tang launched right into his briefing.

"About six weeks ago an American exploration crew found something remarkable. Subsequent investigation has learned we had no idea what 'remarkable' was until just recently.

"The site is currently within the territorial waters of the United States. What the US was looking for and why they were looking where they were looking isn't germane. As of now we aren't planning on bringing any of you to the physical site. The environment is stable, but there are ongoing risks. However, people are working there even now."

"I'm going to take a moment here to digress into politics. What I'm going to say won't set well with most of you. I am Dr. Fred Tang, a professor of physics, but also Dr. Fred Tang, a colonel in the People's Republic of China's Liberation Army.

"I am not going to try to soft soap or minimize what's happened. My government has an active and effective intelligence service. Even so, it took a few weeks for the agents in place to convince the politicians of the importance of what the US had found.

"My government was facing what was certainly an existential threat. The best result that could be expected was to become a technological and economic backwater. After all the progress we've made in the last twenty years, that wasn't acceptable to the government.

"I and my associates are here for the simple reason that my government threatened to detonate a very large H-bomb on the site. And, it was decided, we'd drop more bombs on American cities, because it was unlikely the US wouldn't retaliate.

"Obviously this was an exceedingly unpleasant threat.

"China is not like the United States and the PLA is quite different from your military. Its structure is quite different from your military's. It is accurate to say that the PLA has tentacles all through Chinese society. The party, the government -- and business. In China it is redundant to refer to the 'military-industrial complex' and the PLA in the same sentence. The PLA controls a significant fraction of my nation's industrial output -- although it is true that since economic liberalism that has declined.

"Again I make no apologies for the actions of my superiors. The leadership of the PLA decided that the threat was too severe and argued that no such threat should be permitted; the party leadership panicked and refused to withdraw the threat out of fear of embarrassment.

"It was done very quietly, but the party no longer runs China. The PLA assumed control briefly, appointed a trio of non-party mayors of some of the major commercial and industrial cities to run things in the interim. We did withdraw the nuclear threats against your cities -- but kept the threat against the site. We simply asked to become equal partners in the research.

"There were a number of sidebars to the agreement, but I must say that all parties have been surprised at how well the agreement is working out. At the working level there have been no significant disagreements -- no more than two scientists with differing approaches who are running a project." He grinned, and there was nervous laughter from the audience.

"This is one of many reasons this project is secret. The leadership of the PLA is orchestrating a slow transition in the government, preparing the people slowly and carefully for the changes. There have been several retirements of senior party leaders announced; there will be more. Later, if any of you are curious, I will arrange a briefing detailing our new government structure.

"Your government didn't feel the need to inform its general populace of the threat to incinerate a number of your cities -- no matter how quickly the threat was withdrawn. Please ... even the dimmest bulb in this audience must understand the reasons our two governments will be dealing harshly with any security breaches -- real or imagined. For your own sakes, don't transgress. I assure you, you will have enough on your plate to make up for it."

"Now I will return to the topic of real interest.

"I'll make a series of brief declarative statements. US National technical means detected an anomaly. Subsequent research has confirmed that there is an object that appears to be a vehicle, not a base, about five hundred feet beneath the ocean. Which ocean you don't need to know. The top of the site is about three hundred feet beneath the surface of the ocean, but extends vertically about a hundred and twenty feet deeper. The vehicle is buried under about a hundred feet of sediment, thus the base of the vehicle is about two hundred and fifty feet below the ocean bed and some five hundred and fifty feet below mean sea level.

"The vehicle is air tight, even after all this time. It is a serious understatement when I say that the vehicle has a very robust self-repair ability."

Tang looked around for a moment. "The vehicle is about the size of a football stadium. It has nine levels, and is arrow-shaped -- a blunt, rounded head that widens to about twice the width as the blunt end at what we are sure the rear of the vehicle. It ends in a section much narrower than the rest of the head -- like the section on an arrowhead that the arrow is tied to the head.

"We were lucky there, as the excavation of the vehicle is still in the early days. An educated guess was made based on early scans of the area, and we uncovered the approximate shape of the rear of the vehicle.

"A week ago the decision was made to open the vehicle, over the vociferous objections of many of us. However the rewards appeared to justify some risk. We prepared what amounts to a series of airlocks. People entering the vehicle would pass through a number of chambers where they would be thoroughly decontaminated, coming and going, several times. The air pressure is pumped to zero three times and the air at each stage is recycled. The last two stages we used the vehicle's own atmosphere. It is estimated that quantity of air exchanged between the two environments is less than a tenth of an ounce -- two or three grams. The air was zapped with hard radiation, ultra-violet, radio and microwaves -- across the spectrum radiation that was believed to have been sufficient to sterilize what little air was exchanged several times over.

"It is impossible to tell how long the vehicle has been there, but the upper limit is about five million years and the lower limit about three million -- depending on how fast the vehicle was buried.

"There were no signs of a crew -- although we've only explored a few percent of the vehicle yet. Of course, given the time span that has passed they could have dried up and vanished.

"Obviously this is a momentous discovery.

"Now if there are any minds out there that I haven't blown, I am going to do so now.

"The US Government isn't stupid. Trying to keep something like this to itself would cause rifts within even the most solid alliances -- and your traditional alliances would never survive being excluded with China included. Some nations however, aren't likely to be able to deal with the nature of the discovery. The US has fallen back on some of its more trusted, longer-term allies. Canada and Britain. Germany and Japan, and Australia for the most part. A great many former partners aren't being included, such as the Low Countries, France, and the southern tier of NATO members.

"Now, I'm going to speak a few dozen words of heresy."

"There are a number of obvious research priorities. But the top priority, far above all the rest is language translation. The technology ... I don't know how to explain this. Evidently we are further along than we thought. Still, there are many areas of sophistication that these aliens held over us.

"Consider for a moment, a modern integrated circuit. If we were to go back in time a mere century -- our simplest integrated circuits would be total mysteries to a researcher of the time. They didn't have the technology to detect devices on a nanoscale. They didn't have microscopes capable of 'seeing' a VLSI device and they didn't have the analytical tools and techniques to tell them the composition of the devices, much less how they were made.

"Modern plastics would have baffled them -- as would modern metallurgy. Our understanding of molecular biology, genomics ... a thousand areas would have left them in the dust.

"The aliens haven't left us in the dust. Our equipment can detect their microcircuits -- even ones that have unexpected biochemical components. There are frequent new approaches; there are frequently areas that they've greatly refined over ours. There are areas of knowledge that they are exploiting things we don't understand -- but we feel that if we apply ourselves, we will understand then.

"Our people originally said they were a million years ahead of us. That has slowly shrunk; the best guess these days is a few thousand years of refinements -- applications of technology -- not that many major fundamental breakthroughs. There undoubtedly are such, but they don't predominate. Refinements of technology for the most part.

"An example can be found in a simple thing as lighting. When I was an undergraduate at the university heat given off by an incandescent bulb in my dorm room was a desired feature. My PC was a veritable furnace. Spaceships that don't want to be glowing in the infrared need to be a little more proactive. Lights on the ship give off virtually no heat. The lighting controls in a compartment are simple enough for a person of normal intelligence to figure them out in a few minutes. How to exercise local control, how to override that from the room or from a remote location. It's simple -- a caveman who'd seen a 'clap-on/clap-off' TV commercial would understand how it works.

"Do we know how to make heat-less light? Well, we didn't -- we were close -- but we do now. At a guess every single light bulb on the planet is going to be changed in the next year or so, no matter how much of a feature it is for penurious college students." He smiled at his audience.

"Tomorrow there are a number of subgroups that will be formed to work on the various facets of the discovery. Language work will head the list. There are electronics of various types -- we'll work on identifying subsystems and breaking down further from there to guide future research. We understand some of what we see, and can puzzle out many other things.

"We are going to have a linguistics team working on translations, because that will be the key to understanding everything. The alien electronic systems are mostly recognizable for what they are and what functions they perform ... but they are not always understandable. They were further along towards a 'paperless' society than we are, but they still had something recognizable as books -- all isn't hopeless.

"I might add that the aliens do not appear to have suffered from hubris -- there are no photographs or other graphic representations of the aliens that we've discovered. I am told that many of their tools fit our hands -- and that some do not.

"There are a myriad tasks to do -- now we need to start knocking out those that we can!

"We ask that you not discuss this amongst yourselves just yet. We will assign you to working groups and that will be the place to begin discussions. A smooth and orderly flow of information!"

Thomas was amused. Colonel Dr. Tang had started off in his estimation as unrated, but tending towards the "Project Director" mentality. Tom had steadily upgraded him as he covered so much ground.

It probably wasn't a surprise that the linguists were named first; the surprise was seeing Sheldon Cosgrove appear and named as the team leader. The room had been too large for him to see everyone well, but the four other members of the team, three men and a woman, were all known to him. And all blanched seeing the man that had been put in charge.

Cosgrove was one of the least intelligent people on the planet -- and he'd never led anything in his life for longer than a day or two. He hastily wrote a note to Tang and when they were excused, dropped the note on the head table. It was amusing that two others of the team preceded him, with another bringing up the rear.

Sheldon led them to conference room and started to speak. Tom spoke out first. "Sheldon, sit down and be quiet. We are working to get your status adjusted."

"Status? I'm the assistant project lead for linguistics!"

"Sheldon," Keith Murdoch said, "I'll spend two years in the Colorado super-max prison before I let you manage any research of mine."

Juipei Suchang was more succinct. "If you get near me, I'll break both your legs. You are a trial imposed on us by the so-called dean of our field -- from the last generation that lived in the 19th Century. Let Dr. Christopher speak."

Cameron Healy spoke up. "I make it a point to never agree with Tom Christopher. I'll make an exception this time and agree with him. I told Tang that if you have anything to do with project, I am to misbehave."

Andy Phelps laughed. "What they said. I'm junior here, anyway."

"You'll be leading the way," Tom told him.


"Him?" the others echoed.

"Without a Rosetta Stone, we'd likely be stymied," Tom agreed. "But we have one, a very fine, a very large one."

"You haven't even seen their language!" Sheldon scolded.

"Probably that alone indicates the state of your thinking," Tom told Sheldon. "If you had the lead we'd spend the next couple of years searching for a picture book for children.

"There's an easier way ... a better way."

"Even if you've yet to see the language?" Cameron asked. "I'm going to go back to being the contrarian."

"I've never had a problem with that, Cameron," he told her. "I've fought you tooth and nail, but I'm the better for it, I'm sure. I take more time to consider my positions these days -- it's embarrassing to be handed your clock after two minutes of ill-considered thinking.

"It probably won't be easy, but two intelligent species have at least one thing in common. There may not be any picture books, but if there are atomic or molecular diagrams, they aren't going to need a rocket scientist to figure out. Fundamental relationships are even simpler -- there is only one value for pi. Only one formula for the relationship between angles and length of sides of a triangle. There are literally thousands of data points we'll be able to make sense of -- and that will lead like a laser to our goal."

Cameron whistled. "There are a million things wrong with your assumptions -- but we're only going to need one or two to start unraveling things."

"And contemplate just how much we've learned about data mining, contextual clues to meaning -- and a hundred other areas in information science. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants -- I think we'll be able to understand whatever language awaits us," Tom explained.

Fred Tang came in and stood watching them for a minute. "What is your problem with Dr. Cosgrove?"

"Tom, you tell him the bad news," Cameron told Tom.

"Well, first off, Sheldon Cosgrove has an MA in modern languages, not a PhD. Do you know Emil Blucher?"

"I can't say that I do."

"He's the former dean of languages at Columbia, where all of us have matriculated at one time or another. Now he's the Dean Emeritus. This is a joke he plays on new people -- he convinces someone to appoint Sheldon as a project leader. Sheldon has had all these other appointments as a team leader -- for a day or so. One memorable dig they were stuck with him for three days, because of heavy rain. Those people tied Sheldon up and left him in a storeroom.

"He's easily the dimmest bulb in the box. If you look at his resume, there are no dates for the leadership positions that cross over a year. 'Appointed to head Giza expedition' leads the list. In 1941. Seriously ... what are the odds of an archeological expedition being in the field in 1941 in Giza -- when Rommel was running around Egypt? For sixty years Blucher's played on Sheldon's vanity -- it works every time. There's not anyone in the field who would work with Cosgrove. Ask him."

The question wasn't needed -- you could read the answer on Sheldon's face.

Tom went on, "This is a burden we've had to work with for sixty years, Dr. Tang. Emil Blucher thinks this is a rite of passage -- a form of 'paying your dues.' That and Blucher's been around forever ... he's nearly a century old."

"Pick a leader, get organized. Start thinking up some approaches, we'll get texts to you starting the first thing in the morning," Dr. Tang commanded.

Cameron laughed, "We picked Tom Christopher, we have approaches already, with a better than reasonable chance of success."

Tang repeated the criticism -- they hadn't even seen the language yet.

Keith Murdoch explained. "Simple, elegant, straightforward. As Cameron said some of the formulas aren't going to be as easy to decipher as others -- but it will only take a couple to break the logjam."

Tom spoke up. "We could really use someone like Martin Shaver -- he studies context based learning at Caltech."

"We can try. I'll make a note."

"In the meantime, can we borrow a physicist or mathematician?"

"Lily Chu," Fred Tang suggested quickly. "She likes to work alone. We hadn't decided what we wanted her to focus on yet."

"She would be fine," Tom said. His team was all Americans -- it wasn't a surprise to be assigned a Chinese member and he wasn't going to object.

Fred Tang led Sheldon Cosgrove away, assuring them that the physicist would be around in the morning.

"A raft of unanswered questions," Tom opined. "It's hard to know what's deliberate and what's an oversight because of limited time."

"Like for instance?" Cameron asked.

"If we left a ship sit outside for a few million years, we'd come back to find some rust stains and not much else -- if that. Yet we're told people are exploring it. Robust self-repair capabilities indeed!

"They tell us we're going to have books to examine starting tomorrow. A book doesn't last much more than a few hundred years, even with the best of care. Millions of years? There is more here than meets the eye."

Cameron did a formal bow, going low. "You are so right. You used to be such an easy mark because of your hasty conclusions. Now I'm doing it, and I find myself in the same spot as you used to be: regretting opening my mouth too soon too often."

"I'm keeping a stiff upper lip," Keith said. "It's stiff because of the hammer, nails, glue and industrial strength duct tape keeping it glued shut."

They all laughed. "Get some sleep. Toss ideas around in your head -- not your heads on your pillows. Tomorrow is going to be an interesting day. And Cameron and my own predilections aside, tomorrow it's going to be the hare-brain ideas that are going to get us there in the end. This isn't going to be the time for inside-the-box thinking."

Sleep was easier said than done. A strange bed, a strange room, strange shapes -- and the world was shaped different than before as well. It wasn't very restful sleep.

Breakfast was hasty meetings at tables in the dining room with everyone in a rush to get started. Tom deliberately didn't try to eavesdrop on any of the multitude of conversations around him; it would have added too much noise to the problem and not more information. There would be a time to meet later on, at their leisure with their peers.

Lily Chu was a hyperactive, tense, young woman of about twenty-four or twenty-five, thin as a rail, long black hair that reached the small of her back. She was brittle as a raw piece of spaghetti, verging on the neurotic. She also didn't speak very good English. Tom, Cameron and Juipei did speak decent Chinese and they explained what they were looking for.

"And you want me to what?" she said, her voice hostile.

"Look through the books. A recognizable vector diagram, a triangle with values for the sides, something recognizable as math tables or trig tables. A simple circle with a sentence that could be translated C = πD or A = πR2 or any other formula. It's my thesis that the language of science is pretty universal, and that the fastest way to finding a Rosetta Stone is math or some science. Anything."

Fred Tang came in, with a technician pushing a cartload of books. "This is the first tranche. Please be careful of them, they're priceless."

"Couldn't you have run copies?" Tom asked.

Dr. Tang laughed. "They're priceless. In our dreams we could make books like this."

"How is it we aren't investigating a heap of dust?" Cameron asked.

Dr. Tang looked pensive. "There are so many areas of the alien technology that we would love to have. One thing we're long aspired to do is create self-repairing systems. That has proved a very elusive goal. While it is possible to generate a system that repairs itself, it has to be simple, and not too much can go wrong at once or the basic raw materials go out of supply. Worse, if a critical system breaks. Few self-repairing systems have the redundancy required to correct any but the simplest, most problem.

"It is one thing to supply basic polymers and generate simple parts from them -- but eventually you run out of the raw materials and things stop.

"To be truly self-repairing a system has to be able to go out and hustle its own raw materials, assemble them or otherwise prepare them for deployment -- all without the benefit of an external supply chain. Over a very wide range of raw materials. We've created simple systems that can build a limited repair chain -- but eventually it runs out of the raw materials. The ship we discovered can absorb something like a circuit board, atom-by-atom, and spit out a new board. Or spit out another model -- and it doesn't take days to do so.

"It appears to be fully automatic, down to the most fundamental level of construction. We haven't done more than scratch the surface yet. The ship is the size of a large aircraft carrier -- we've explored less than five percent of the volume -- and understood about a millionth of what we've seen. Being able to read the language would be an enormous help -- I can't imagine how we're going to be able to do it..."

Lily Chu interrupted him. It took Tom a second to sort through the Chinese dialects he knew to find one that matched some of what she was saying.

Dr. Tang morphed into a Chinese colonel in about two seconds, the scowl on his face a dark warning she was treading in forbidden areas. Mostly Lily was flinging a torrent of obscenities at him that would peel the paint off the walls. Anyone who had someone speaking those sorts of things to him would be enraged -- but Lily was furious as well. From some of things said, it was clear that the two of them had some previous history -- and it had not been a happy history.

Tom spoke up. "Miss Chu, clearly you feel put upon. I thought I was fluent in Chinese -- but you've pushed the envelope. I'm a goal-directed individual myself, and it's obvious you think Colonel Tang is interfering with your goals. Please, slow down, speak more simply and explain your issue. This isn't the way to resolve disputes or misunderstandings, Miss Chu."

She'd stopped talking when Tom had started and stood now, her nose still flared with anger, her mouth twisted in a grimace of hate, breathing like a steam engine.

She pushed the book she'd been looking at hard, sending if flying off the table. Colonel Tang made a futile effort to catch it, then, for the nonce, he was more concerned about it that Chu. It was an eye-opener if you thought about it.

"We are told those are priceless," Tom said mildly.

"He lies. Everything out of his mouth is a lie! It always has been!"

"How do you figure?"

"The flexible pages -- that is an innovation class advance, not a breakthrough. There are many similar substances available now. There are links to additional material displayed on the pages. Trivial! This is something that the..." she descended into gutter Chinese again, "would do. Really, seriously. I'm not a linguist, I can't speak a foreign language -- not even Cantonese.

"What are the odds that I can learn to count to ten -- and what are the odds that the 'aliens' use decimal numbers in a minute? What are the odds that two minutes later I can count to one hundred and sixty-eight, and read the names of the elements? Not that I can pronounce them."

Tom took two steps, stripped the book out of Colonel Tang's hands, blocking him with his own body, and putting the book down in front of Lily.

"Show me," he said simply.

"The first page has this sign at the bottom. The second this one..." she went symbol by symbol for the next several pages. On the tenth page, the first symbol was repeated, with a new one added. She flipped rapidly forward, to the 20th page, where there was the symbol from the second page matched with the one that hadn't been in the first nine.

She flipped through more pages, showing the progression, until she reached the first page that had three digits. The first symbol, then what had to be the zero symbol twice.

"That is bad enough, lie enough! This is ... obscene! Another lie like all the rest of their lies! They excel at nothing better than telling lies!"

She flipped back to what Tom saw was page thirteen. There was what was obviously a chart split between the two pages. He was a polymath genius -- he recognized what he was looking at in a millisecond.

"The Periodic Chart of the Elements," he stated, tracing the table's title on the page. He touched the symbol at the cell on the top left. "I can translate that meaning, but not the words. Atomic number and atomic weight is one. Element Hydrogen." He ran through the first few elements, giving their group, their atomic number and pointing to the name for each.

"You are reading the alien language!" Colonel Tang exclaimed.

"Not reading, merely translating. Reading is going to be a bitch and a half!" He tapped the book. "Still, these two symbols are obviously the equivalent of our 'H' for hydrogen, these series of symbols are the word spelled out ... notice that the first two symbols of what appears to be the word are the abbreviation."

"This isn't a lie?" Lily asked.

Keith laughed. "No, it's not a lie. Dr. Christopher hypothesized that science could be used as a Rosetta Stone. If you're looking for a father for your babies, I volunteer!"

The comments were in badly accented Chinese.

Tom laughed. "Before you get too enthusiastic, consider where we would get the referents to translate this: 'Mom, please stop off at the AM-PM on the way home from work and pick me up some super-maxis.'"

Cameron laughed out loud, Keith blushed, and when Tom translated the remark into Chinese, Colonel Tang smiled thinly. Lily Chu went straight to the brass ring, repeating her earlier question, "This isn't a lie?"

"No, I'd say you have the translation pegged Miss Chu."

He turned to Colonel Tang. "I do believe I can work with Miss Chu. I will teach her patience and to be polite to her superiors."

"I am fascinated by the fact that you've had such early success; that so much progress has been made so much sooner than ever envisioned. Personal issues are secondary. They are of no account, when compared to the overall goal. I believe Dr. Healy described you as a 'diamond in the rough.' I'm not sure that I agree with that assessment ... but you are a valuable asset."

Cameron laughed. "Dr. Christopher has called me a 'rich spoiled brat' on occasion as well. All true, all heart-felt epithets that, on reflection, reflected our pique with each other more accurately than they reflected reality."

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