Incident at Tei Tenga (Part 2)
“Another beautiful day at the butt end of space,” Buddy Dacote said to himself as he entered the mess hall and shuffled over to the coffee pot. Buddy was a large black man, powerfully built and an imposing force, especially in the mornings. He always wore a baseball cap that had the letters “BEOS” embroidered across the front. BEOS stood for “Butt End of Space,” Buddy’s name for Tei Tenga. It was not exactly regulation, but nobody really cared. Buddy slipped off the baseball cap and scratched the close-cropped stubble on his head.
“What’s on the menu today, Sparky?” Sparky was the cook, or chef, as he liked to call himself, for the base on Tei Tenga. Nobody knew how Sparky got the name Sparky, and no one was brave enough to ask.
“Western omelets,” Sparky growled, “and you’ll like ‘em or else.”
Buddy plopped the cap back on his head and filled a large coffee mug with black, military strength coffee. Placing the mug on a tray, he entered the food line and shoveled two western omelets on a plate, dropped a half-pint of milk on his tray along with a large glass of orange of juice, and threw two slices of soy toast on top his eggs. Loaded down, he headed for the table where Thi Barret was already eating.
“Hey, Thi,” Buddy said as he seated himself across the table from the red-haired, green-eyed woman. Thi was one of those women who looked good no matter what she wore, whether it was the usual Marine fatigues or decked out in full dress.
“Buddy,” Thi nodded. Where Buddy was loud and boisterous, Thi was quiet and reserved. Buddy had ended up at Tei Tenga because he took a poke at a senior officer and this was his punishment. Thi had volunteered for the assignment as a way to get out from under her father’s watchful eye. Buddy was counting the days until he could get back to Earth, back to “real civilization.” Thi was quite happy with the posting and found the work on the alien machine fascinating.
Buddy scooped a large chunk of cheese-covered omelet into his mouth and savored the taste. “If it wasn’t for the food in this place, I’d shoot myself,” Buddy said.
“Hell, Buddy’s here, Lor,” said a male voice behind them. “Is there any food left Sparky?”
Buddy turned and saw John Petrovich pouring some coffee into a mug held by Lorelei Chen. John spoke with a Russian accent, even though he had spent most of his life in London, before immigrating to America and joining the Marines. He maintained the accent as a way to remind himself of his Russian heritage. Lorelei was Japanese-American, and fiercely proud of her heritage, but something of an oddity. Instead of being petit, she was tall and muscular. She had won the Marine boxing championship two years running, before being posted to Tei Tenga.
Buddy winked at Thi and then said loudly, “You know it wouldn’t be so bad here at bee-oh-es if there were some real woman in the place. You seen any real woman around Chen?”
“Try looking in the mirror, Dacote,” Lorelei said. John laughed and Buddy growled in mock anger.
“Aren’t you going to defend the honor of your woman,” Dimitri Paramo said as he joined them at the serving line. Dimitri had swarthy skin and classic Mediterranean features. His mother was Greek and his father was Spanish, which gave Dimitri not only his good looks, but also his expansive and, at times, volatile personality. While in America going to school, he enlisted in the Marines, looking for adventure. What he got was Tei Tenga.
“Hell,” said John, laughing, “she defends my honor.”
The three of them joined Buddy and Thi after loading up with omelet and drinks. The friendly banter continued as the mess hall began to fill with the base staff. In addition to the squad of Marines, the base also had a couple dozen civilians for support and six scientists who tried to puzzle out the function of the alien machinery. Everyone ate at the mess hall, so mornings were usually loud, gregarious affairs.
Buddy elbowed John who was sitting beside him. “Our fearless leader makes his grand entrance,” he said. Lieutenant Robinson, thin, with hatchet-like features, was the base Commanding Officer. He kept himself aloof from his troops, sitting at an empty table across the room from the Marines.
“What a stuck-up asshole,” Buddy said. The other Marines murmured agreement.
“Mind if I join you?” A voice asked. The Marines turned to see a thin, blond-haired man standing next to the table holding a tray full of breakfast.
“Not at all. Sit down, Doc,” Buddy said, pointing to a spot beside Dimitri.
“Thanks.” Jonas Clark sat down next to the Greek-Spaniard. Jonas had a habit of sniffing his food before he ate it, which always amused the Marines. He was the lead scientist of the team that was trying to figure out the purpose of the alien machine.
“How goes the alien puzzle?” Dimitri asked around a mouthful of egg and cheese.
“We’re pretty much stumped at this point,” Jonas said.
“Hey, maybe they’ll shut down this lousy base and send us home,” Buddy said hopefully.
“Well, I’ve called in reinforcements,” Jonas said. “I have asked my sister to come and help me with the alien script.”
Thi thought for a moment and then asked, “Is your sister Allison Clark?”
The other Marines looked questioningly at Thi. “She cracked the Luandi language. It was on all the tridees.”
The third planet of the Luandi system once had sentient life, although it had never progressed past a bronze-age society. It had mysteriously disappeared a thousand years ago in some sort of cataclysmic event. The aliens left a large number of artifacts, including a library containing thousands of metal tables covered in their strange, flowing script.
“I’m hoping that she can do the same for us here,” Jonas said. “The script on the machine here is similar to Luandi script, although I am not sure there is a connection.”
“I thought the Luandi were a primitive people,” Thi said. “They couldn’t have built the machine, could they?”
“No, I don’t think so. It could be that whoever built the machine, had contact with the Luandi. I’m just guessing, though. We really have no idea.”
“With my luck, your sister will figure out what the damn thing is for, and I’ll be stuck on this base for the rest of my career,” Buddy grumbled.
“It could be worse,” Lorelei said. “You could be stuck on a base where you’d have to do real work.” Buddy gave her the finger.
Buddy glanced at the wall clock. “Well, I’m on deck today. See you guys later. You going in Doc?”
Jonas nodded, gulped down the last of his omelet and hurried after Buddy. The two filed into the tram with the rest of the support people and scientists, and took a seat together as the tram pulled away from the base station.
Tei Tenga, like Earth’s moon, always kept one face turned toward its primary. The personnel base was on the dark side of the moon, near a massive underground chunk of ice that supplied water and air for the base. The alien machine complex was on the light side of the moon. A high-speed, magnetic levitation track connected the two bases.
The tram, riding on a cushion of magnetism, rapidly picked up speed as it moved away from the station. It raced down a short, inclined tunnel and burst onto the surface of the airless moon. This portion of the track was still in darkness, but looking ahead, Buddy could see the glow of the gas giant on the horizon.
The tram reached its top speed of 650 kilometers per hour, but it felt as if it was barely moving. The stars sprinkled across the sky only feebly lighted the landscape outside the tram windows. Tei Tenga was larger then Earth’s moon, about the size of Mars, but the landscape was similar to the Earth’s nearest neighbor. Buddy could just make out wide craters filled with sand seas and rough, weathered mountains as the tram flew down the track.
Suddenly, the darkness exploded into warm yellow light as the tram crossed the terminator. The gas giant that Tei Tenga orbited began to rise into the sky.
“No matter how many times I see it,” Jonas said, “it still amazes me.”
Buddy nodded agreement. The gas giant was an Easter egg hanging in the diamond speckled, black velvet of space. Its surface, banded in red, gold and yellow, looked as if you could reach out and touch it. Large orange patches swirled in the constantly moving atmosphere, blazing with eruptions of purple-white lightening. It was humbling to think that the areas of lightening were large enough to swallow the earth.
The tram sped on toward a range of mountains in the distance, as the gas giant climbed higher in the sky. The tram gently swerved toward a high peak that looked like a clawed hand reaching into the sky, then dipped down into a tunnel and began to decelerate.
After a few minutes, the tram slowed to a stop at the station built in the alien complex. The passengers stood and slowly filed out of the tram and dispersed to their various posts. Buddy waved to Jonas and headed for the security office.
Roland Trague was glad to see Buddy. He hated the night shift, but it was his rotation. It was also a bit creepy, being alone with the alien machinery and wondering if it would awaken on your shift.
“See any aliens pop out of the machine?” Buddy asked.
Roland snorted. “Hell, I’d take a pirate or two just to kill the boredom.”
“Pirates are too smart to bother with some alien junk heap,” Buddy said. “Well, go grab you some breakfast while Sparky has it hot. Western omelets this morning. It’s pretty good.”
“Right. See you this evening,” Roland said heading for the tram.
Buddy sat at the desk that was positioned in front of a bank of vidscreens and perused the monitors. The images were from different locations inside the complex, as well as key points outside. Buddy watched the tram leave the station in one monitor and appear in another that looked out on the surface of the moon along the maglev track. The tram accelerated rapidly and dwindled from sight.
“Another exciting day in THE vacation spot of the galaxy,” Buddy said to himself, settling in for another long day.
Jonas, following his daily ritual, stopped off at the recording station before heading to his office. They had set up a host of sensors on the alien machine, measuring everything from vibrations to gamma radiation. Never had there been any change in the recordings, until today. There had been a slight increase in the magnetic flux of the machine. Not much, but it was above normal baseline. Jonas’ heart quickened and he sucked in breath between his teeth as the full impact of the readings hit him. The machine was beginning to stir.