Title: Mark of Hellguard
Contact: saavaant @ yahoo . com
Series: Well, it's set after Vulcan's Heart, and takes place in Spock and Saavik's house... heck, I'll call it TOS because of the characters.
Rating: [Moderate Content]
Summary: Dralath's son challenges Saavik to a duel... on the internet.
Disclaimer: Star Trek belongs to Paramount/Viacom. The events of Vulcan's Heart belong to Sherman and Schwartz. Pandora Principle is by Carolyn Clowes. I have used ideas from all of these (although I do not consider this story to be set in exactly the same universe as Pandora Principle) but I get no money for this story.
Saavik of Vulcan, still mildly sleepy, switched on the computer and waited impatiently for it to start up. Looking around the central room of her small Vulcan dwelling, she was reminded of the early hour--only darkness and silence came from all four children's rooms, and even Spock was still slumbering peacefully in the bed she had just left.
Saavik always rose early. As a street child on the planet of her birth, she had learned the truth of the Terran saying that early birds caught worms, although she didn't learn the saying itself until long after Spock rescued her. On Hellguard, even worms hadn't existed in enough abundance to feed everyone who needed to eat. You couldn't expect to get anything without a fight, but if you got there early enough, you might only have to fight the other early birds, many of whom lacked physical strength and relied on their timing to get what they needed.
Such painful flashbacks came to Saavik often... even now that she was happy, with her starship for adventure, her pleasant little house for peace and quiet, and Spock and the children for love. But these days she used her early mornings to do small things that would please the children when they woke up. Even now, as she waited for the boot-up sequence to complete, she punched the recipe for baby Penda's favorite cookies into the replicator. Her other acts of kindness for this morning required the computer.
James, for example, was five years old and fascinated with geology. Saavik had heard of a book about rocks, one that she thought James would like, and she hoped to order it online. Ten-year-old T'Khidai, on the other hand, had asked for help with her computer science assignment. She had to make a map of a website, and Saavik had promised to look at some websites and offer suggestions as to which would make good maps. And then there was their eldest daughter, T'Mandi, who had called from her office at the Vulcan Science Academy. She was giving a lecture on certain forms of non-humanoid life, and needed copies of some pictures Spock had from his years on the Enterprise.
The computer informed Saavik in a cool voice that it was ready to access the interplanetary network, and that she should give the command if she wished to proceed.
"Proceed," said Saavik.
"Network accessed. You have two messages."
The first was a text message from the address "CyberCipher01." It read:
After looking at it for a while, Saavik typed a response to it:
It says "See if you can figure this out." I did. A=1, B=2, C=3 etc. Very clever. But when you want to show me one of your codes, you can just walk over to me; you do not have to send me an electronic message.
"Send reply," she commanded.
"Reply sent. Next message is high-volume. Media: audio and visual. Playing time: ten minutes. Are you sure you want to open this message?"
But when it began to play, Saavik of Vulcan came suddenly very wide awake.
The memories returned in a flood. The face in the recording was far too familiar. Younger, framed in thicker hair, probably another version of his face, re-cast in the mold of a nephew or son--but the same face, the one that had called her Evaste and told her, between caresses, of the plan to attack Narendra. Even the name had been one that any writer might have chosen for a villain. Dralath, a hybrid of painful-sounding words... dread, death, drill, lathe. And it was the first thing the recorded figure said, leering at her triumphantly from the screen.
"Yes, I am his son," were the next words. "His name still makes you shiver, doesn't it? You feared him, even though you defeated him, drove him out of power. He can't hurt you any more, you know. But he left a son. One who protected him to the best of all ability while it was possible, and one who still feels the need to carry on his life's work." The voice had begun to choke on itself, and paused for an angry breath. "Greetings, Evaste, or Saavik, as you call yourself in the Federation. I am Falrik cha'Thierrul, and I declare a challenge against you."
Saavik's gasp barely fit in the instant that came before Falrik's scornful laugh. "Yes, cha'Thierrul! Son of Hellguard. In that respect, we're siblings. The only way I know my bloodline is by the brand on my shoulder. Its rim names Dralath as my father, but its heart is the same as yours."
Without realizing it, Saavik ran her hand over the family mark burned into her own shoulder blade. For the hybrids born of the Hellguard breeding project, little acknowledgement was made of their Romulan heritage. The mark of the Rihannsu parent's family was printed in a tiny, simplified form all around the edge of the circular brand, while the center bore the same symbol for each unfortunate child: the thierrulayat, the Hellguard mark.
Angular and mocking, it depicted three stylized figures. One symbolized the Romulan captor and was shaped to resemble a spreya, or Romulan bird-of-prey, the winged predator after which the planet's fighting ships were named. The second, representing the Vulcan prisoner, looked like the face of a rharik, the meek mouse-like creature on which the spreya fed. The upper two-thirds of this symbol, viewed alone, resembled a flame--the pon farr into which the captors drove their prisoners, by means of drugs, so they could be forced to bear or father half-Romulan children.
And the third shape symbolized those children. Connected by crossed lines to the other pictures, the hybrid offspring was the most mocking portrayal of all: an outrageous monster with rharik head and spreya wings, miscegenation of violence and weakness, put together out of incongruous parts and at home in neither of its worlds.
Meanwhile, the recording spoke on. "The difference between us, Saavik, is that I chose the raptor to side with, and you chose the rodent. Wasn't mine the more logical choice? One of my parents was too weak and foolish to escape capture, and once in the hands of her foe, it took only a hypo and a set of restraints to put her at the mercy of her backward biology. The other was the one with the strength and craft to trap her and force her into submission. Don't you see that it would be an idiot's decision to identify with her? That was the whole point of the project. If the Romulan people saw how truly pitiful our Vulcan cousins are, do you think they'd even consider reunification?" Falrik laughed in contempt, pacing from side to side of the screen.
"Vulcans," he continued, "are, shall we say, an earlier model. Every seven years your primal drives make you as mad as rhariks bitten by the flame-beetle. You'll do anything to satisfy your urges, because it means your life." Piercing eyes directed themselves at Saavik, causing her to shudder. "The Rihannsu have evolved beyond that. We have our mating season, of course, but it's no more dangerous or uncomfortable than a stomach-ache. Not only because we are genetically more developed, but because we sensibly let out our emotions when we need to, instead of bottling them up for the seven years in between!"
Saavik narrowed her eyes in anger and skepticism, but Falrik ranted on. "That's what my father meant when he told you some women of our race suffer pon farr. Yes, I know what he said! I have access to more things than you think. By playing my cards right with the government, I have seen nearly all the tapes of his surveillance cameras, and wherever he has neglected to have film running, I have planted a camera of my own. I honor my father, Saavik, even though he didn't know I was his son. I couldn't risk letting him fall into danger. It was only because I became deathly ill for a time, that you managed to overthrow him at all.
"So of course I know what he said to you, and what it meant. The women who fall prey to your atavistic condition--both women and men, in fact--are those like you, whose blood is mixed with the inferior genes of Vulcans! I attribute it entirely to my Romulan upbringing, and my choice to side with Romulans, that I have never suffered that condition myself."
Saavik was by now a stark contrast to the smoothly scornful figure on the computer monitor. Sweating and gasping, she was torn between her urge to delete the message and her morbid fascination with seeing it all the way through. It played on, if only because she was too frozen to lift a hand.
"Yes, I was ill when you came to my world, but the camera caught you for me. It saw you and your half-human lover force that meld on him while he was unconscious. It saw you take off the dress he gave you, and it saw the Hellguard mark on your shoulder, your thierrulayat. I know a great deal about you, Saavik. But most importantly, I know that you dishonored my father.
"Of course he left me behind after seeing me born--what else was he to do? He had too many duties already to trouble himself with raising a son. And he saw to it that his hybrid was placed with a good Romulan family and not thrown into the street with the rest of them. So, you see, I am grateful to him--and I swear vengeance on you."
The recording changed suddenly. Images flashed by, one after another--images of Vulcans naked, bound, struggling, sweating, screaming, begging, desperately insane. Saavik had averted her eyes by the time she heard Falrik's voice again, and, returning her gaze to the screen, she saw his gloating face.
"Those are from the Hellguard breeding project," he explained. "My father not only participated in the program, he was one of its founders and leaders. Every moment of the Vulcan prisoners' dishonor was filmed--their capture, their burning in pon farr, their matings with Rihannsu, the births of their children, and the suicides many of them chose afterward. I have those films: a chronicle of Vulcan weakness that cannot be refuted.
"You in the Federation think the project failed and was abandoned. You are wrong. It was completed. Its purpose was to produce those films, so that the Romulan people could see Vulcan dishonor and vulnerability for themselves. My father meant to show the footage over public channels after he had solidified his popular support with the war on Narendra. He meant to use it to eradicate pro-Reunification sentiment in the Empire before it could become a serious movement. He could not, because of you. So I intend to do it myself."
Horrified, Saavik let out a small cry.
"That is," Falrik continued, "I intend to show the videos, because I intend to win the duel to which I am challenging you. Yes, as I said, I am swearing a challenge of vengeance upon you. But not a conventional one! Most likely we will never meet in person, or have a chance to lift weapons against each other. This is a duel of the minds.
"I mean to prove that there is nothing at which a Vulcan can defeat a Romulan, even when the Vulcan is half Romulan and the Romulan is half Vulcan. I mean to show that I can best a Vulcan on her own turf. This challenge is one of cunning, of thought, of logic and deciphering. You will see for yourself whether we Rihannsu are truly as unskilled in those areas as you believe!"
Falrik smiled at her and laid his hand on a computer terminal next to which he was standing. "I have created dozens of websites on the interplanetary network," he explained. "Each one of them is in turn composed of dozens of pages, organized in domains, sub-domains, sub-sub-domains and more-- such complexity that you will have trouble believing a Romulan put them together. Each page contains links to over a hundred of the others. On one of them, I have stored the only copy of the Hellguard videos."
Saavik furrowed her brows in bewilderment, and Falrik laughed softly as if he had seen her. "I have carefully programmed the page on which it is stored. You will be allowed to delete it only if the program senses that you have taken the correct path in getting to that page. For there is a certain path you must take.
"I will give you the address of the first page, on which you will find a number of links to other pages. You shall examine all of it, and attempt to deduce which link you should take in order to get to the next page. When you get there, you will find more links from which to choose, and you must decipher the puzzle of which link to take from there.
"This is the manner in which you'll proceed until the end. An entertaining little game, Saavik--a cybernetic maze to test your Vulcan reasoning skills! In all, you will need to open fifty-seven links in the course of your journey to the final page. If you take a wrong link, you will be informed, and you will have to go back to the first page and start over."
Falrik strode slowly closer, hands clasped behind his back. "You have a day to fight this duel with me. You see I'm giving you a very fair chance. But I still expect to win. You Vulcans are sadly fixed in your thinking patterns--you overlook answers that would be obvious to a child, simply because they are not the ones you expect.
"In any case, I give you a day, one Romulan day--one hundred Federation hours. That should be plenty of time for your clever Vulcan brain! The day is programmed to begin ten minutes after you open this message, whether or not you choose to hear it all the way through. If, during that day, you travel through all the proper pages in the proper sequence, and arrive at the page where I have placed the Hellguard footage, you will have the chance to erase it.
"After that, it will not trouble you any more--I tell the truth when I say it is the only copy that remains. I may be everything you consider immoral, but I have honor. That is why I have given you the chance to fight me for the videos. There is more honor in winning a thing in a lawfully challenged duel, than in simply taking advantage of having access to it."
As Saavik held her breath, her enemy delivered the final words of his message. "If, however, you fail to decipher the system correctly and take the correct path, those videos will air at the end of that one day, not only on Romulus, but on computer newscasts throughout the galaxy. The shame of Vulcans will be known to all, and re-unification will be the fantasy it is meant to be. Live long and prosper, Saavikam."
And the screen went black, except for one line in glowing blue--the link to the first webpage.
As Saavik sat dumbfounded before the computer, she heard her husband's voice through the door, gentle and with a hint of play behind it. "You have been in there for quite some time," it said. "Have you received a great deal of mail?"
As if coming out of a trance, she only spoke his name, quietly, half-dazed. "Spock."
The door opened and Spock entered, draped in the dark blue robe he used for relaxation. "What is it?" he asked. The playful tone had left his voice; clearly something was not right.
"Computer," Saavik said flatly, "replay message."
They listened. Saavik watched Spock's expression go through all the changes that hers had. When the screen faded again, leaving only the link, their eyes made full contact again.
"A most unusual challenge," Spock finally ventured.
"I doubt I shall ever become accustomed to your predilection for understatement," said Saavik. "The man is insane. Challenging us to some kind of bizarre internet scavenger hunt to decide whether he's going to--" She couldn't finish.
Spock steepled his fingers. "I agree that the plan involving the Hellguard videos is outrageous. All thoughts of basic decency aside..."
Saavik shuddered. Thoughts of basic decency were what she couldn't put aside at the moment. Imagining the families of the Vulcan prisoners forced to see their loved ones degraded in that obscene manner, she began to feel physically ill. "What could be more outrageous about it than its indecency?"
"The fact that, in all probability, it will not serve its intended purpose. My experience with Romulans does not in any way suggest that seeing those images would cause them to ridicule the Vulcan species. Despotic and xenophobic Romulans have indeed been in power at many times, but judging from my observations of the Romulan people in general, they would be more likely to feel outrage at the crimes committed against the Vulcan prisoners. Vulcans, of course, would find it unprecedentedly offensive, but it would not reduce our desire for alliance. It would not be logical to denounce an entire planet of beings because a group of them, long ago, carried out a depraved project, of which one of them is spreading videos."
"Only Falrik's own bigotry makes him believe it would work," murmured Saavik. "In reality, it will be unbearable torture for the Vulcan species, but will gain him no political objectives. Insanity."
"Nevertheless, there appears to be method in his madness," speculated Spock. "There is a certain logic to a 'duel' of the type he proposes. His life is not endangered, and yet if we fail, he can claim to have defeated Vulcans at their own game, so to speak."
"That's what he says. Could he have some other motive he's not sharing with us?"
"That is a possibility. If his challenge is a trap, then his objective is to make us go to a webpage which will harm us, or benefit him, or both. This could consist either of damage to our computer, or of some program that would give him useful information about us."
"There are important Federation documents in our computer database," put in Saavik, "but they are all backed up on disks. Even erasing our entire harddrive would have little permanent effect on us. However, if he could gain access to those documents by causing us to open a program or virus of some sort..."
Spock nodded. "That would indeed be a danger. However, I am inclined to take what Falrik says at face value. If he meant to deceive us into visiting a dangerous webpage, he would be far more likely to do it under the guise of sending us an interesting or useful link, using the address of someone we know. Experienced hackers do have ways of causing a message to appear to come from another address."
Saavik frowned, and Spock continued. "He gives me the impression of a fanatic, wildly misguided but deeply convinced that he is acting honorably. And even if he did mean to access secret documents on our drive with some program, the entire problem could be avoided if we deleted the documents before undertaking his challenge, gave the drive a thorough virus scan afterwards, and then restored them by means of the backup disks."
Saavik looked up, startled. "Are you seriously considering doing what he asks?"
"It would seem that we have nothing to lose by it. We are on shore leave, we have the resources and computer skills to accept the challenge safely, and if he is telling the truth, it could be our chance to prevent him from doing a very offensive thing."
"You're not thinking we might report him to some authorities?"
"Tracking him would take more than the hundred hours he has given us, and if he noticed that he was being tracked, he might very well call off the challenge and release the films early."
"What about using a program to outsmart his system?"
Spock sighed. "Programs exist that can create a map of a website when given one of its pages, but Falrik's system involves a certain path that must be taken from page to page, and I know of no program that could identify such a path. I could write one, if I knew what methods he had used to set up his system, but I do not. I have never heard of such a thing being done before. He may also have alarms to notify him in case we try to answer the challenge by means other than the rules he has given us."
"But according to his message, he has hundreds of webpages, each with links to more than a hundred of the others, and it takes fifty-seven steps to get from the first to the last. By the laws of combination and permutation, there would be millions of possible paths. We could sit here trying random paths for the entire hundred hours, as fast as we could, and still have less than a one-in-a-thousand chance of hitting on the right one."
"True. But we may not be trying random paths. Although Falrik does not say it outright, he gives the impression that there will be some clue on each page, something to 'deduce' in order to know which link to take to the next page. He uses the word 'decipher' three times."
Saavik thought back, and nodded slowly. "That is correct, he does. There may be some hope in playing by his rules, after all..." For a moment, she wavered in thought, and then met Spock's eyes with a look of fiery ambition. "I accept his challenge. Let us begin."
"You are using the computer," observed T'Khidai, standing in the doorway with a drawing screen and stylus in her hand, and a look of disappointment on her face. Saavik and Spock had just finished removing all the documents that might be a danger if they fell into enemy hands, and were about to open the link to the first webpage.
"Yes," said Spock. "I am sorry, but your mother and I are busy with something important."
"So am I," his daughter countered. "My computer science assignment is due at the beginning of the coming school week, which is tomorrow. I shall receive a poor grade if it is late."
"Use the other computer," suggested Saavik.
"Sidic has crashed the other computer."
Spock sighed heavily. "What is the assignment?"
Saavik answered. "She has to draw a diagram of a website."
"An actual website, or a hypothetical one?"
"An actual one, but one of her choice. In fact--" Saavik got an idea. "Come, T'Khidai, sit with us. Just be still and quiet, and look closely at the pages we visit, and the addresses displayed above them while we are there. We are going to explore a number of websites, and you can map them for your project."
"That is acceptable," agreed T'Khidai, taking a seat between her parents and poising her stylus over the drawing pad.
Saavik moved the cursor to the link on the screen, and all three watched as the first page shimmered into being.
T'Khidai commented first. "Judging by the address," she said, making a mark on her pad, "it is a sub-sub-sub-domain of the website it belongs to."
"Just links and more links," Saavik complained. "Addresses, one after another. Numbered from one to..." She scrolled down, seeming to take forever. "...from one to 284."
"Indeed," said Spock, eyes fixed gravely on the dark green background and white Standard characters.
"Where can the clues be? All the addresses are merely composed of numbers; they seem random."
"May I?" Spock assumed control of the computer, scrolling up to the beginning again. He scrutinized the first few links, then scrolled back down to the last few. Then to the middle. Then he skimmed over all 284 of them very quickly, lips moving in silent calculation. Finally, he began hovering the cursor over various links and reading what appeared at the bottom of the screen as he moved from one to another.
"Saavik," he breathed suddenly. "Look at the first one."
Saavik looked. "Oh," she cried softly. "I see what you mean."
"Nothing appears below when the cursor is over it. It is not a link, merely an underlined series of characters."
Saavik scrutinized the characters: numbers, like the rest of the links. They read,
"Could it have some significance?" she said, puzzled.
"Perhaps it is a code," Spock suggested. "Each number may represent a letter. Since he is using the Federation number system, the message is most likely in Standard."
"And if he is giving us a clue, telling us which of the links to take, the message will probably spell the name of a number, since the links are numbered in ascending order."
"Decoding," said Spock thoughtfully, "is uncertain with such a small sample of text. However, the method has to do with the frequency of letters. One finds the most common number in the code, and assumes for the moment that it represents E, the most commonly used letter in the Standard alphabet. In this case, that number would be 5."
Five? Something suddenly occurred to Saavik, but no, it couldn't be...
"If 5 stands for E in this code, we must ask ourselves, what is it that reads 'blank E blank E blank blank blank blank E blank E blank'? One could fill the blanks so that the first word was TEN and the second word was EIGHT, but that would leave 'E blank E blank' at the end, and according to the numbers, that would have to be ENEI, which has no meaning."
Examining the code again, Saavik realized in astonishment that she had been right. "Spock?"
"A moment, Saavik. Within the complete series of Es and blanks, we do have two instances of 'blank E blank E blank," and when we check the numbers, we see that the sequence representing this combination is the same in both instances: 184.108.40.206.14. Obviously they are the same word, and if it must be a number, it is seven, because no other number can be spelled to fit that particular set of Es and blanks."
"Allow me to finish. We are now dealing with 'SEVEN blank blank SEVEN'--there is no two-letter spelling of a number in Standard, so we must assume that the two blanks form a suffix, undoubtedly 'TY.' By this simple method, we have decoded the message very quickly as being 'SEVENTY SEVEN.'"
"Not as quickly," sighed Saavik, "as if you had been the one who got that coded message from Sidic this morning. The alphabet one, you know. A is one, B is two, C is three and so on. This is the same code."
Staring at the message, Spock's eyes widened. "You are correct," he exclaimed. "I must admit I had expected a more complicated puzzle than that."
"Its difficulty lies in its simplicity," murmured Saavik. "Because you expected it to be complex, you used three minutes to decode it, when you could have used less than one if you had assumed the simplest explanation."
"And we have used nearly a minute discussing this," said Spock in dismay.
"We should move on, then," said Saavik, deftly selecting the seventy-seventh link. A new page appeared, similar to the first one.
"Excellent," said T'Khidai appreciatively, finally able to make another set of marks on her drawing pad: the number two, the number 77, and a downward line from the first page she had marked. "We have moved into a sub-domain of the one we started in. A most complex website."
"Shh," whispered Saavik.
"Hey," said a voice from the doorway. "Visiting complex websites, are you?"
"Sidic, we are very busy," Spock rasped.
"Doing what, Dad?"
"Decoding? Cool! Let me see!" Sidic pushed forward, trying to get in between Spock and the monitor.
Saavik stepped in to avert a father-son conflict, finding a line of text above the numbered links and reading it aloud. It was a simple series of nine letters:
"The most frequently occurring character," said Spock, "is T..."
"That's twenty-six spelled backwards."
"What?" Spock and Saavik turned to their son in amazement. "What is it, Sidic?"
"Twenty-six spelled backwards. Pitifully simple cipher." As if losing interest, Sidic turned to leave.
"Spelled backwards!" The boy's parents made a startled eye contact, then turned back to the screen. "He is right," declared Saavik.
"'Vulcans overlook answers that would be obvious to a child, simply because they are not the ones you expect,'" quoted Spock. "Link number twenty-six, then. Children, you might as well go to the replicator and get some food. We may need you here for some time."
"So what exactly are you surfing for?" Sidic asked cheerfully, once he had settled himself in with a plate of kreyla.
"A man who knows me," Saavik began, "has set up a... a game for us to play. He has a lot of webpages, and in order to... win the game... we must move from page to page until we get to a final one. It seems that on each page he gives us many links, and a note telling us which link will take us to the page we must visit next. Unfortunately, the notes are in code, and we must... decipher them. We are on the third page now."
"Sounds like fun!" chirped Sidic. "You know some interesting people, Mom. Think you can get him to make a game for me?"
Saavik let out an unhappy sigh. "I do not know, Sidic. But this game can be partly yours, if you help us with the codes. You have a skill for them, and you see things that more sophisticated minds would miss."
"Hmm," grunted Sidic through a mouthful of kreyla. "I'll take that as a compliment, I suppose. Let's look at this third page, then."
"Third page," put in T'Khidai. "From link 26. Sub-domain of second page. Because the second was a sub-domain of the first, and the first was already a sub-sub-sub-domain, the third is apparently a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-domain. Fascinating."
"Here is the message," Spock pointed out. Everyone leaned in to look.
"Your analysis, Sidic?" Spock asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Nothing yet," the boy murmured, "but if you give me a moment, I know I can figure it out."
"We do have over ninety-nine hours left," Saavik said to Spock. "If we continue at our current speed, we shall get through the fifty-seven pages with time to spare. I suggest we allow Sidic a moment to consider the code."
"Then perhaps you and I should take a small rest," Spock suggested. "We have not had breakfast, and we have been under considerable stress. Sidic, you may find us in the other room when you have solved the puzzle. Do not open any of the links until we see your solution."
"Sure thing, Dad," said Sidic happily as his parents left the room.
Sitting across from him at the small table in their bedroom, Saavik handed Spock a piece of fruit from the bowl she had gone to the kitchen for. They ate silently for some moments, not knowing what to say.
Finally, Spock spoke. "A most intriguing puzzle, this challenge. If it were not enforced on us by a lunatic, complete with insults and outrageous threats, I believe I might find myself enjoying it."
Saavik opened her mouth to reply, not quite knowing what would come out, but it turned out to be a laugh. Trust Spock, she thought with a warm rush of affection, to make this situation seem humorous to me.
"It is fortunate," she admitted, "that we have Sidic's help. Falrik seemed to be relying on the complexity of our reasoning skills when he created the codes. He deliberately used ones that would be easy for a child with an interest in the subject, but were too simple to occur automatically to an adult mind. It surprises me that he never considered we might seek the assistance of children."
"Perhaps he felt that idea was also too simple to occur to us," Spock suggested. "And remember, we have not yet seen more than three of his codes. They may not all be so easy."
"True," Saavik sighed. "The third already appears more difficult than the first two. I hope Sidic is able to understand it."
"I did," said a cheerful voice from the doorway.
"So soon?" Saavik broke into a pleased smile. "Excellent, Sidic. What is the answer?"
"One hundred thirty-one. It's a sort of zig-zag pattern: the first letter in the first line is followed by the first letter in the second line, and then comes the second letter in the first line, and then the second letter in the second line, and so on. Not hard at all." He led them to the computer, where the cursor was already poised over the one hundred thirty-first link.
"Thank you," said Spock sincerely, opening the link and watching the next page come into view.
T'Khidai made a note of the number 131, then raised both eyebrows at the sight of the address. "A sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-domain," she murmured. "We are moving continuously downward in this website's levels of organization."
"And there is the cipher," pointed out Saavik, indicating four short lines of text:
"Oh, I got it!" cried Sidic immediately.
All heads turned to look at him.
"It's the same as the last one, but with more lines, and shorter ones. Look-- reading down, the first four letters are TWOH. Those are the first letters of two hundred!" The boy was almost jumping up and down in elation. "The next are IGHU... hmmm, I guess I was wrong." He grinned and shrugged his shoulders, embarrassed.
Spock and Saavik exchanged sighs and raised brows.
"Hey, I'm sorry," laughed Sidic. "Huh, maybe it goes the other way. DERD... EYTN... no, I guess not."
"But DERD," Spock mused, "are the last four letters of 'hundred,' only spelled backwards. Perhaps we are to read up instead of down?"
"HOWT, UHGI, NTYE, DRED," put in T'Khidai. "No."
"It seems," Saavik observed, "that we are to read from top to bottom at the beginning, and from bottom to top at the end. And perhaps from left to right at the bottom--note how the fourth line spells the first letters of 'hundred.'"
"In fact," said Spock suddenly, "the message seems to go in..."
"A spiral!" exclaimed Sidic and Saavik at the same time. Saavik continued, excited to be figuring out a cipher herself. "TWO going down... then HUN from left to right...then DRE going upwards... then DE from right to left, and IG downward, and HT from left to right, and Y upward. Two hundred eighty!"
"The two hundred eightieth link," Spock pronounced, scrolling nearly to the bottom of the page and clicking.
"Now we're really all getting the hang of this," said Sidic appreciatively.
"This page actually moves up a level from the fourth," T'Khidai reported. "We are still within the same website, but we are back on the same level as page three--a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-domain."
"Holy mackerel, look at that code," yelped Sidic.
They all looked.
"Zeros and ones," Saavik commented. "Binary?"
"If it is," answered Spock, "it cannot be telling us the number of the next site. There are only one hundred fifteen links on this page, and if that figure is in binary, the last seven digits alone would represent one hundred eighty."
"Perhaps it is simpler than binary," pondered Saavik. "Perhaps we must only add the digits together. There are forty-six ones, and the rest are zeros. That may mean we are to go to the forty-sixth link."
"But look," Sidic argued, pointing to one of the digits. "They aren't all in the same font. Some of them are different."
"That is correct," remarked Saavik, taking a closer look. "Every sixth digit is a bit different from the others--either they are a different font, or they are the letters L and O instead of the numbers one and zero, I cannot tell."
"Could it mean something?" asked Sidic eagerly.
"It is a known means of encoding," said Spock, "to print certain significant characters in a slightly different font. The characters emphasized, in this case, would be 110110110110110... five repetitions of the sequence 110."
"Perhaps 110 means something."
"It is five in binary."
"So the answer could be five," said Saavik, "or it could be five times five--twenty-five--since the sequence is repeated five times...or it could be one hundred ten...or it could consist simply of adding all the unusual digits together, which would give us ten."
"Or the unusual digits could be designed to throw us off, and the important ones could be the others."
"Then perhaps the answer is thirty-six, because that is the sum of the digits in the original font."
"But does it mean something that the unusual digits are put six spaces apart?" piped up the almost-forgotten T'Khidai.
"She has a point," Sidic agreed. "They divide the ordinary digits into segments of five in a row. The first is 00000... then 00000 again... then 01110... then 11011... 01111... 00110... 11011... 00000... 01010... 11011... 01111... 01100... 11011... 00000... 01110." He stopped reciting numbers and took a breath. "Maybe you could translate those segments to binary and add them up."
"Maybe," admitted Saavik. "If I remember binary correctly, that would make the numbers 0, 0, 14, 27, 15, 6, 27, 0, 10, 27, 15, 12, 27, 0, and 14."
"Which, added together, make 194," said Spock. "More than the number of links."
"But some of them are repeated," noticed Saavik. "Zero and twenty-seven each occur four times... fourteen and fifteen each occur twice... and twelve and ten each occur once. Possibly the numbers of times they occur are the important numbers... they may form the correct answer when some process is performed on them, such as adding them together."
"Four, four, two, two, one and one?" Spock steepled his fingers and considered. "That would make fourteen. Yes, we might add that to our list of possible answers."
"We have too many!" Saavik exclaimed, suddenly overwhelmed. "Five, ten, one hundred ten, forty-six, twenty-five, thirty-six, fourteen. Any one of those is a plausible reading of the code. How can we know which is correct?"
"Attempt each one," Spock replied. "The recording did say that if we took a wrong link, we would be allowed to start over again. To start over would not be a disaster at this point; we are only on the fifth page."
"And I have been recording the numbers of the links we have taken," added T'Khidai.
"Very well," said Saavik, "let us start with five. It seems as plausible as any." She clicked heavily on the fifth link.
All four of them knew it was wrong within seconds. The screen turned glaring red, a hideous buzzer went off, and the voice of Falrik began to laugh at them.
"Congratulations, you have made your first mistake," he said. "See? Even a Vulcan is not perfect." The voice fell back into laughter for a moment, and Saavik and Spock scowled.
"Don't worry," Falrik finally continued, "you get to be wrong six more times. Use them wisely." And with a mixture of triumphant music and more laughing, the red of the screen dulled and a link back to the first page appeared.
"This is the coolest game I've ever played!" Sidic shouted.
"This is the most grotesque, obnoxious game I have ever played," muttered Saavik.
"We were not informed that there was a limit on how many times we could choose a wrong link," said Spock with a hint of annoyance.
"Back to page one," said Saavik, clicking on the address in the middle of the screen.
"On page one, the answer was seventy-seven," said T'Khidai as the first page appeared.
"Thank you," said Saavik, choosing the seventy-seventh link.
"And then it was twenty-six," she continued, guiding her mother from page to page, "and then one hundred thirty-one, and then two hundred eighty."
"Yes. Here we are," Saavik said at last. "Page five."
"And there's that freaky binary code again," said Sidic. "Geez. What do people actually use binary for?"
"Writing computer programs," Spock responded.
Saavik answered this time. "Do you remember when T'Khidai's computer science class was having her design a webpage?" she said. "Binary is somewhat similar to the language she used, but it is on a more basic level."
"Binary is nothing like what I used," T'Khidai objected. "I used VSA netcode. The oldest computer language that even remotely resembles VSA netcode is HTML."
"That is the closest analogy I can make that Sidic would understand," countered Saavik. "Sidic's strong suits are words and communication, not programming."
"But I understood that stuff T'Khidai was using," cried Sidic. "I actually understood it. It was cool. Little tags to tell what the font was, and where the line breaks were..."
And all of a sudden, T'Khidai began making marks on her pad very rapidly, glancing back and forth between it and the computer screen.
"And when you opened it with that one program, it just magically turned from plain letters and stuff into a real page, with colors and fonts and paragraphs and everything! Now that was cool."
"Indeed." Spock raised an eyebrow.
"Now," Saavik said, "we have to get back to figuring out that code. T'Khidai, what are you writing?"
"Look," the little girl announced proudly, holding up her drawing screen.
Saavik looked, and Spock looked over her shoulder. T'Khidai had used her pad's onscreen keyboard to copy, digit for digit, the binary code from the top of the webpage.
"Interesting," Spock said. "But why..."
"See, these are the characters in the different font," said his daughter, pointing with her stylus. "And if I make a new line break at each of them, or rather, at each of the zeros..." Meticulously, she cut the text into five lines, using the unusually typed zeros as dividing points:
"Don't you see?"she cried, staring her bewildered parents in the face.
"See the word TEN."
They looked closer. Saavik murmured a Romulan curse under her breath. Indeed, if one examined the zeros in the rectangle of text, one saw that, together, they formed the shapes of three capital letters. The 1s in the unusual font, for their part, had lined up into columns, marking the borders between the letters... which spelled TEN.
"How did that ever occur to you?" breathed Saavik, amazed.
"When Sidic mentioned the computer language I had used to make a webpage. The tags, in particular. I wondered if the digits in the other font might be tags, so to speak--perhaps for line breaks. I tested my hypothesis--first I tried making a new line after each of them, and then only after the ones, and then finally after the zeros."
"Brilliant," said Saavik, smiling at her daughter. "The tenth link, then." She clicked it, then turned away before the next page materialized. "After that, I am sure that all of us are in need of a brief leave of absence from the computer room... perhaps long enough to have lunch."
It was somewhat early for lunch, but everyone did need a break. It was a miracle that James and Penda had slept so late, Saavik thought, going to her one-year-old daughter's room and watching the little face come to life at the sound of the opening door. "Hello," she murmured as she reached into the crib and lifted Penda onto her hip. The baby responded by grabbing a strand of her hair to chew on. Saavik carried her into the kitchen, where she met Spock putting sweet sauce on rolls for James, who watched eagerly from a seat at the table.
"Was he awake when you went in?" Saavik asked as she took a cookie from the bowl by the replicator and handed it to Penda.
"He was, but he had not gotten out of bed," Spock answered. "I believe he had just awakened."
"Penda was asleep, but she was ready to wake up," Saavik reported. "She smiled and reached for me as soon as I came into her room."
Spock turned up the corner of his mouth affectionately at Saavik, and pressed two sauce-coated halves of a roll together to hand to James. The five-year-old enthusiastically grabbed the first installment of his meal, biting a piece out of the very top of its upper half before setting it down in his plate.
"I want more kreyla," announced Sidic, head and arms buried in the bread cupboard.
"You have eaten all the kreyla. There is fruit in the stasis unit." Saavik offered him a tangerine.
Sidic eyed it skeptically. "Does it have seeds?"
"It does not. It is the kind you like. They are in season on Earth, and I specifically sent for a shipment of them because I knew you liked them."
The baby on Saavik's hip had mouthed her cookie until it glistened, and a piece of it fell off and struck the floor with a small splat.
"What kind of cookie is Penda eating?"
"Her favorite kind. The kind that is meant for babies."
"Oh." Sidic grimaced.
"May I have a pear?" asked T'Khidai, eyeing the fruit in the stasis unit.
"Yes." Saavik set down the tangerine on the counter and reached into the unit again, trying to keep Penda balanced with her other hand. "Would you like bread also?"
"A roll, please."
Spock had spread three rolls with sweet sauce for James, but he handed one of them to T'Khidai, who thanked him and began taking delicate bites.
James, meanwhile, had used his finger to deepen the hole that his teeth had made in the top of the roll on his plate. He brought a fingertip out coated with sweet sauce, examined it, licked it clean, and then wrapped both hands around the roll's circumference, squeezing until sauce welled up out of the hole and poured down the sides.
Spock gave him a severe look, and James looked up innocently. "A volcano," he explained.
"Do you want the tangerine, Sidic?" asked Saavik.
"I want kreyla. Can't you synthesize some?"
"Not until we have a new shipment of complex carbohydrates. Synthesizers do not create food out of nothing."
"Some people are just too greedy, using up all the synthesizer rations," grumbled Sidic.
"Some people," agreed T'Khidai.
"If you are in need of grain products, you may have a roll with sweet sauce," Spock offered. "There are sufficient rolls for everyone."
Sidic gave the rolls a dubious look for a moment, then nodded reluctantly. "Okay, I'd like one. With sweet sauce. Lots of it."
Saavik passed a roll from her husband to her son, then took one for herself, trying not to look at any of her children while she ate. Penda had reduced her cookie to a semi-solid mass coating her hands, and was beginning to lick it off. James had created something similar by mashing his roll together with its sauce, but he was sculpting it into various shapes resembling the rock formations in the scenic area behind their house. Occasionally he glanced out the window for inspiration.
Lunch dragged on, seeming to last far, far longer than it did.
When every stomach was satisfied and plentiful remains of the meal had been wiped off hands, faces, counters and floors, Spock and Saavik sat down on kitchen chairs and looked at one another in relief. Sidic and T'Khidai had gone back to the computer room, dutifully promising not to meddle with the webpages. James was jumping up and down in the entryway by the front door, creating a small tectonic quake, while Penda played on the floor with a set of blocks that some Terran relative had given her.
"T'Mandi's lecture," Saavik said abruptly, after they had sat in silence for a while. "She needs those pictures by tomorrow. And we cannot send them to her electronically, because we are in the middle of this challenge and have removed all our Starfleet documents from the computer."
"One of us will have to bring her the disk, then," Spock replied.
"I can," James interrupted, jumping closer to the door. "Please?"
Saavik and Spock exchanged a glance. The offices of the Vulcan Science Academy were no more than a few hundred meters from their house, and James had often walked there to visit his sister T'Mandi at work.
"Very well," Spock agreed. "Go into the computer room, James, and get the disk with the yellow label from the shelf by the monitor."
James bounded happily into the room and returned with the correct disk.
"Excellent. You remember the way to T'Mandi's office?"
"Yes!" And before anything more could be said to him, the boy was out the door and running happily toward the VSA office complex.
At last, Spock and Saavik were alone with each other and their joyfully oblivious one-year-old, who had arranged her blocks in a circle and was picking up and tasting them one at a time.
"Perhaps Falrik did anticipate that we would enlist children in our completion of his challenge," sighed Saavik, "and he expected that it would slow our progress considerably."
Spock gave her a half-smile. "It is true that attempting to satisfy four children at lunchtime can be frustrating," he acknowledged, "but Sidic and T'Khidai have been of immense help."
"True." Saavik nodded. "Now that the others are awake, though, I do not know how we will get a moment to ourselves. Sidic and T'Khidai are somewhat self-sufficient, but James cannot sit still for ten consecutive seconds, and Penda requires constant attention."
They both were silent for a few minutes. Then something occurred to Saavik. "I have been meaning to speak of this with you," she began. "Do you recall what Falrik said about...the differences between Vulcans and Romulans?"
"I have thought about it a great deal," Spock admitted. "Indeed, in my ambassadorial work, I have encountered rumors concerning the... mating drive of Romulans. Specifically that, as Falrik says, it is somewhat uncomfortable but not seriously dangerous at all."
"Do you believe it?"
"It is possible. And it may even be a result of evolution." As Saavik narrowed her eyes, Spock continued hastily, "This by no means indicates that Romulans are superior to Vulcans, or genetically more advanced. It also cannot be caused by Romulans' lack of emotional control, because fatal pon farr existed even in pre-reform times. If it is indeed true, it means only that they have chosen to live on a planet that was not well suited to them at first." Spock picked up the pitcher of water that had been left on the counter, and poured a glass for himself and one for Saavik. "Genetic drift can occur rather quickly when faced with great environmental changes... and these would certainly include moving to a different planet."
Saavik took a sip of her water, and Spock did the same. "The dominant theory on why the Vulcan mating drive is fatal," he continued, "says that in prehistoric times, Vulcans were too numerous for the food and shelter the planet offered, and our ancestors began to suffer from overpopulation. In other words, we were too well suited to our planet. Fatal pon farr was a mutation of the genes, and communities in which it happened to be common were more successful than other ones. It weeded out those who were incapable, for some reason, of finding a mate every time their cycles came around--thus reducing numbers to healthy levels.
"There are still cases reported in which Vulcans live through the blood fever without mating. When the offshoot broke off from the Vulcans and colonized Romulus, communities with those fortunate individuals in them would have had the most success. After all, the Romulans began as a relatively small group, trying to populate a planet to which they were neither culturally nor physically accustomed. It was no longer overpopulation, but insufficient population, that was the danger. Any Romulans who could reproduce, even those who did not need to, were evolutionarily important and successful.
"Also, where there is no danger of overpopulation, a non-fatal mating cycle has its advantages. If it is fatal, someone who fails to mate in his first Time will never have any chances of passing on his genes. If it is non-fatal, the overall number of chances to reproduce is increased. I expect that Romulus has always been somewhat underpopulated, because of its sub-optimal suitability for Vulcanoid life. Non-fatal pon farr is important there, just as fatal pon farr was important here. It is not a question of genetic superiority, but a simple issue of adapting to the life one lives."
"Logical," commented Saavik. "Is that your own hypothesis, or an official one?"
"Both." Humor glinted in Spock's dark eyes. "I am, after all, considered an expert on Romulans."
They were interrupted by a small stampede of excited feet, which turned out to belong only to Sidic and T'Khidai. One could hardly have imagined, however, that four feet could make so much noise, thundering out of the computer room.
"We've figured it out," gasped Sidic.
"The code on the sixth page," T'Khidai clarified. "It was a complicated one, but we succeeded."
"Come look," Sidic gasped in excitement. Saavik barely managed to pick up baby Penda before she and Spock were dragged to the computer.
Once there, she set the baby down on the floor nearby, and they examined the coded clue. It was long, made of sixteen words:
Spock and Saavik stared, faces gradually flushing in anger. It had been bad enough when the display of obscene and degrading things had been staked on what seemed like a playful contest, making light of the violation and insult Falrik threatened on the Vulcan people. Now they saw that it was even more offensive to make Hellguard part of the game.
"Dad? Mom? What's wrong? Don't you wanna see what we figured out?" Sidic was confused.
"I believe they find the words unpleasant," said T'Khidai softly.
"Indeed," said Spock tightly.
"They bring back painful memories," Saavik explained, throat aching. "You know the story of my birth..."
"Born. Dead." T'Khidai murmured the words slowly, beginning to understand.
"Weak. Fear. Prey." The offense in Saavik's voice could almost be felt.
"Gene. Half. Bred."
"Burn. Mate. Rape." Sidic had joined in.
"'Rats' and 'Bird' refer to the rharik and the spreya, I believe," Spock grated.
"And 'Show'..." Saavik lost control. "Damn it! Damn him! He shall not! There is no way I shall permit it! One of my parents is in those videos... No! NO!" She had begun to beat her fists on the desk. Only when Spock laid a hand on her shoulder was she able to wrestle down her rage.
The children were looking up at her, fear and anger mixed in their faces.
"I thought this guy was your friend," Sidic blurted.
"He is not. I told you things that suggested that he was, because I did not want to worry you... but he is not. I will tell you more about him when I can. He is a depraved madman who happens to know me. I did not know him until this morning, but I... I dislike him greatly already. And now he has gone much, much too far."
A look of utter determination came over Sidic. "You'll win, Mom!" he declared. "You'll beat him. At his own game."
For a moment, Saavik smiled at her son and daughter.
"You say you have decoded it," she reminded them. "Show me."
"It's a different kind of zig-zag pattern," Sidic explained, "a vertical one. See how the second letter of the first word is A? Well, the first letter of the second word is H, and then the second letter of the third word is U, and the third letter of the fourth word is N, and the fourth letter of the fifth word is D. Then it starts going back the other direction again, with the third letter of the sixth word being R, and the second letter of the seventh word being E, and the first letter of the eighth word being D. And then it goes back the other direction, spelling A, N, D, and then T, H, R, and then E, E. So the whole thing spells A HUNDRED AND THREE."
"Excellent! Thank you," Saavik told her children. "Link number 103." They opened it, and the seventh page appeared.
The next few codes were surprisingly easy. Spock and Saavik moved on their own for a while, T'Khidai keeping track of the pages as they went. Page six had been a level down from page five, but page seven moved up to the level of five again. Eight got them back down to the realm of sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-domain, and then nine, ten and eleven were an unexpected swing upward--suddenly they were level with the first page they had visited.
They stopped for a break, because Penda was about to chew the backup disks to pieces. In addition, T'Khidai's map was beginning to look disorganized, and she had to re-draw it so that the dots representing the pages were equidistant from each other and the overall pattern was neat.
"You're obsessive-compulsive," Sidic told her.
"I am orderly," T'Khidai replied.
"Is there a difference?"
"I do not care."
Confiscating the disks from Penda and arranging them back in their places on the shelf, Spock and Saavik happened to move a small decorative clock in the process, and noticed the time. "James should be back by now," cried Saavik. "It's almost time for evening meal."
Spock went to the audio-comm in the corner. "Contact T'Mandi at VSA offices," he told it.
Soon their eldest daughter's voice answered. "Father?"
"T'Mandi. You asked us to lend you some photos, and we sent James over with them today. He was eager to visit you. Did he come, and if so, did he leave?"
"James brought them to me nearly half an hour ago. He left as soon as he had given me the disk. I thought he had gone back home."
"He is not here."
T'Mandi's voice faltered. "I... I am sorry. I should have walked back with him. I..."
"No; you had no reason not to expect that he would get home safely. He has walked to your office and back many times without incident." Spock was trembling slightly as he began to sign off. "Thank you, T'Mandi, we shall attempt to find him."
"Wait. Father, wait. There is something I should tell you."
His daughter was audibly distressed, in contrast to her usual Vulcan calm. "When James left, he pointed out the window, in the direction of your house, and said he was going to the starship. I could see no spacecraft of any kind where he was pointing, nothing but the house, so I assumed that he was pretending it was a starship--that is the kind of game he sometimes plays. Perhaps I was wrong, though. Perhaps he saw something out the window that I did not see--I glanced only briefly--or perhaps he had seen a spacecraft on the way to my office."
"I see. Thank you. Spock out." Saavik's husband signed off abruptly, and turned to her. "We must go."
As Spock got into the flitter behind Saavik, carrying baby Penda on his hip, he muttered to himself anxiously. "If James had seen a spacecraft on the way... a landed shuttle, perhaps? With someone in it? Someone who had offered him a ride? Oh, why now... why now..."
Saavik fidgeted in the driver's seat, waiting until Spock had strapped Penda and himself securely into their own seats before she started up the motor.
Meeting her eyes and reading her mind, Spock shook his head hard. "No. There is absolutely no way this could be connected to the challenge from Falrik. Even if Falrik had somehow perceived that our children were helping us--and I see no way he could have perceived that--he would need weeks to get here."
"Why? How do we know he sent me that message from behind the Neutral Zone? And how do we know he does not have agents living within sight of our house?" Saavik swung the car out of the driveway and brought it screaming down the road, barely obeying a signal at the first intersection it crossed. Placid Vulcan drivers, cut off in traffic, turned blank faces and raised eyebrows at her from all directions.
"Saavikam," Spock reasoned with her, "this is an upsetting situation, but driving recklessly will not solve our problem. Especially when your husband and your youngest daughter are in the car with you."
Acknowledging his logic, Saavik forced control on herself and slowed down slightly. "First," she informed her husband, "we are going to the security station and reporting a missing child. Then we are going to ask all the people we meet, on our way home, whether they have seen James. And then, if we get home without receiving any information on his whereabouts, I am going to go to our room and spend the rest of the day screaming."
"That sounds like...a plan," was all that Spock could say for it.
The visit to the security station, not surprisingly, brought little help. The security officers recorded the report of a missing child, but they could give Spock and Saavik no input on where their son might be. Surveillance cameras existed in some areas in and around the office complex, but they only confirmed that James had left the building in the general direction of his parents' house. Whatever he had encountered on his journey home was unknown.
That made Saavik all the more determined to ask everyone she met, in hopes of getting an eyewitness account of James' disappearance. She inquired with other drivers, people walking down the pathways, people sitting on benches, and vendors in every store they passed.
Most of those people had not been there at the time James left the office. Others had been there, but their attention had been otherwise occupied. A few claimed to have seen a boy go some way or another, and led Spock and Saavik on wild chases that brought them to youngsters who turned out to be complete strangers.
Exhausted, frustrated, and near tears, they returned home late in the evening... only to find Sidic and T'Khidai also exhausted, frustrated and near tears.
"We figured out the code on page eleven," Sidic moaned, "and T'Khidai wanted to open the link, and I said you told us not to, but she was afraid of your time running out, and..."
"And we opened the link, and it was wrong!" T'Khidai wailed. "And we had to start over again. And twice while we were on our way back to that page, Sidic bumped against me--"
"No, I didn't! You were crying and shaking so hard, you clicked on the wrong links yourself!"
"The links are so close to each other," whimpered T'Khidai, "and I was sure most of the cursor was on the right link, but I guess there must have been enough of it on the wrong link to open that when I clicked instead. And so we had to start over three times, in all, and we finally got back to the page we were at when you left, but we've used up three of the mistakes you get to make, and it's all my fault!" She flung herself into her father's arms, and her father put down the baby that was in his arms and enfolded T'Khidai in a soothing embrace.
"It is all right," Spock murmured. "You were trying to help, and we still have three more chances to be wrong. There are more important things troubling your mother and me at the moment."
"You mean you haven't found James yet?" Sidic asked, worried.
"We are afraid someone may have taken him away in a shuttle," Saavik whispered.
"But we have done all we can for now," Spock reminded her, "and the best thing would be to get some nourishment and some rest, to prepare ourselves for whatever we must do later." His words were logical, but his voice shook as he said them.
By dinnertime, Saavik had gained some control, and over the table she explained everything to Sidic and T'Khidai.
"This man calls himself Falrik," she began, "and he is another of the Hellguard children--but instead of running loose on the planet as I did, he was raised from an early age by an adoptive Romulan family. We have seen no mention of him in any record of the Hellguard project; maybe he is recorded as being one of those who died, or maybe he is not recorded at all. He is certainly an exceptional case, for his Romulan parent was Dralath, the praetor we overthrew just before we were married.
"If we are to believe Falrik, Dralath had a large part in planning the Hellguard breeding project. He made films of it and meant to display them all over Romulus in order to demonstrate 'Vulcan weakness.' Falrik tells us that this was the whole purpose of the Hellguard project, but again, we do not know how much to believe Falrik.
"In any case, Falrik identifies with the Romulan half of his heritage, considering his Romulan parent stronger and more intelligent than his Vulcan one, simply because the former succeeded in raping the latter. In order to carry on Dralath's wishes, he plans to release the films of the Hellguard project. Since he bears a grudge against us for helping overthrow his father, he has challenged us to a duel of vengeance. However, the duel is merely this internet game we have been playing, and instead of our lives, the things staked upon it are these films of Hellguard. If we succeed in traveling to the final page, we will be able to delete the videos, but if we fail, he will broadcast them on Romulus and many other planets. He considers it a contest of logic, and thus, a means of 'beating Vulcans at their own game.'
"He has given us one hundred Federation hours to finish. That is one Romulan day, but more than two Vulcan days. After the time we have spent on it today, we still have all of tomorrow and until approximately noon the next day to complete our journey.
"You children have been of great help in getting as far as we have. I do not know if Falrik has found out this fact somehow, but if he has, then perhaps he has captured James to prevent him from helping us. In the next two days I want both of you, Sidic and T'Khidai, to remain indoors and within my sight. I will not lose another child."
The meal continued solemnly, and nobody ate very much.
Afterwards, when Saavik and Spock went to bed, each lay very still, pretending to be asleep. Neither was fooled, but they let each other lie, out of their own grief and respect for each other's grief. They stayed that way all night.
Spock let Saavik get up early in the morning, as was her custom. However, he came running when he heard her call frantically from the kitchen.
He found her standing by the window, pointing crazily out at the rocky area behind their house. Looking out, he saw what she saw: a bit of dark red among the rock formations, the same color as James' robe.
They dashed outside, spraying up sand behind them, tripping on stones and cacti, clambering over boulders and through arches of worn-away sandstone until they reached the spot they had seen from the window.
And there was James, lying on a boulder situated in the center of a ring of taller boulders... and totally motionless.
"No..." moaned Saavik. But she wasted no more time. As one, she and Spock rushed to the little body, lifting him and beginning to carry him back to the house.
They had gotten a few steps in that direction when he woke up.
"Mother? Father?" Groggily coming back to awareness a meter above the ground, shifting back and forth in the arms of two walking people, James was understandably disoriented.
"James!" They almost dropped him, but managed to set him down in a sitting position on a convenient rock. "How did you get here? What happened to you?"
"I walked here from T'Mandi's office," he said, as if surprised that his intelligent parents would ask such a question. "I played here until night, and you did not come out and tell me to go inside, so I kept playing, until I fell asleep."
"We did not know where you were," said Saavik, bewildered.
"I told T'Mandi where I would go," James answered. "She did not tell you?"
"She told us," Spock responded sternly, "that you said you were going to a starship."
"Yes," James said matter-of-factly. "The starship here. I pointed at it when I told her; did she not see it?"
"She did not see any starship where you pointed. Was there a starship here?"
"There was. There is."
James got up, bounding over to the place where his parents had found him. "This is the captain's seat," he said, indicating the boulder on which he had been sleeping. "Those stones around it are the walls; it is the bridge. This small boulder is the communication officer's chair, and that pebble is my communicator. The big flat rocks, over there, are where I stand to be beamed down. That space between the rocks is the door to the turbo-lift..."
And he went on and on, while Saavik and Spock stared at each other in astonishment, then in realization, then in delight, and then finally broke out openly laughing.
They brought him inside, after a time, and had pears and tangerines and rolls with sweet sauce for breakfast. Spock went back to the computer to work on the code that had caused Sidic and T'Khidai to make a mistake. But then Penda began to cry in her crib, and Sidic and T'Khidai walked in bleary-eyed and tousle-haired from a bad night's sleep, and suffice it to say, it was a long time until Spock came to a satisfactory answer of his own.
"Finally," he sighed, standing up from his seat at the computer.
"You got it, Dad? His two little code-breakers clustered around him.
"It is another one with tags," he said.
"Tags? I didn't see any. Everything's in the same font, isn't it?" Sidic leaned in to examine the cipher, which read:
"The capital X is the tag," Spock explained. "Allow me to demonstrate on T'Khidai's pad. When one creates a line break after every capital X..."
"...the first letters of the lines spell "forty four."
Sidic looked. "Wow," he said. "Wow. Boy, do I feel stupid now."
"You are not stupid," came a small voice from the corner of the kitchen.
James had gone unnoticed, somehow, since the awakening of the other three children, and upon noticing him, they made as much celebration as if he were the prodigal son of the Terran parable. Bad moods from sleepiness were washed away, and the family gathered happily around the computer.
"I am very grateful for the help you have given us," Saavik told her children, "but I regret that I never considered asking whether you truly wished to help. I took it for granted, and I apologize. If you are becoming tired of assisting us, if it is making you uncomfortable, please feel free to say so now. I admit that it would be difficult for us to continue without you, but your open minds and your ability to see the obvious have taught us a great deal about what to expect from these codes. We could probably finish on our own, if you decided that you could not handle being part of this project any more."
Sidic and T'Khidai showed not a moment of hesitation.
"I have no interest in abandoning your project, Mother. All the assistance I can offer is yours."
"We'll be with you all the way, Mom."
The audio-comm chimed softly, indicating that it was contacting the children's school.
Spock turned away from the comm and toward Saavik, asking her advice. "James too?"
"Yes," Saavik replied. "We do not know; he may also be of help in some way."
Soon the chiming stopped, and a teacher's voice answered.
"VSA elementary education department."
"This is Ambassador Spock. My children James, T'Khidai, and Sidic will be unable to attend school today, and perhaps tomorrow."
"Greetings, Ambassador! Reason for absence?"
Saavik and Spock's eyes met, and they shared a small smile at the probable effects of what Spock was about to say. "My wife and I require their assistance in a computer project."
There was a small silence. Then: "This is Ambassador Spock?"
"Former first officer and science officer of the Enterprise?"
"Unless I am mistaken, your computer rating is among the highest in Starfleet..."
"Sir," Spock explained, eyes sparkling, "there are some logical puzzles, even in the field of computers, which require a child's openness and simplicity of mind. I trust that in your years of working with children, you must have learned that."
Again there was a pause. Then, dubiously: "Agreed. Absence noted. Thank you for contacting us, Ambassador."
Spock and Saavik looked at each other once more, this time openly smiling.
"They could not turn down Ambassador Spock," teased Saavik, "no matter how ludicrous they thought he was being."
Spock raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Indeed."
Together, Spock, Saavik, Sidic and T'Khidai traversed the next six pages with only moderate difficulty, while James watched with interest, and Penda played on the floor nearby. The ciphers ranged from blatantly obvious to simple but deceptive. A few were repetitions of previous pages' codes, with minimal alterations. Once they came across the nonsense words "Ei, Ghte, En," which were identified immediately as being the word "Eighteen" with commas and capitalizations after every few letters. Another time, it took them several minutes to realize that "MZO" spelled "ONE" when looked at sideways.
Their map of the site began to look very interesting. Page twelve was a level down from page six, and page thirteen was a level down from that--in fact, page thirteen turned out to have the same address as page five.
"It is the same page," T'Khidai announced, "but it has changed since we last visited it. Apparently it is programmed to read differently depending on whether it is viewed as the fifth or the thirteenth page in the sequence."
This turned out not to be a one-time event. The fourteenth page's address was the same as that of the seventh, the fifteenth was the same as the twelfth, and the sixteenth was the same as the first. Deciphering the clue on page sixteen, they found themselves going to a seventeenth page that had the same address as the eleventh.
Only then did T'Khidai and Sidic realize that they hadn't eaten breakfast yet. Hunger had gone unnoticed in the excitement of progressing farther in the internet game, but it could not be ignored forever. A short recess was called, and everyone went to the kitchen once more.
"I want three rolls, with lots and lots of sweet sauce."
"Sidic, we had plenty of rolls in the stasis unit yesterday, but now we have only four. That is enough for each of us to have one, not counting James and Penda."
"Then I can eat three, and T'Khidai can eat one."
"May I have a piece of lasagna?"
"James, you have already eaten."
"That was over half an hour ago."
"Lasagna is not a breakfast food."
"Is there a logical reason why I must have breakfast food for breakfast?"
"Do we even have lasagna?"
"Yes, left over from the dinner with Aunt Marilyn. In the stasis unit, third shelf."
"Very well, James, here is a piece of lasagna. Would you like any fruit?"
"No, but I would like carrot sticks. And a glass of k'hasti juice."
"Mom, T'Khidai is eating kreyla. Where did she get them?"
"I am not eating kreyla. I am eating one of Penda's cookies."
"T'Khidai, those are Penda's favorite cookies. Please do not eat any more of them."
"There are several of them left, and Penda eats only one every morning. Less than one, because she smears most of it on her clothes."
"We are out of complex carbohydrates, and we cannot synthesize any more of those cookies until we receive our new shipment. Put back the cookies, and give me one for Penda."
"Mom, T'Khidai gets away with everything."
"In case you did not notice, Sidic, I was just scolded and compelled to return the cookies."
"If I can't have rolls, can I have the rest of the jar of sweet sauce?"
"Sidic, here is a tangerine."
"James, your lasagna may have a stratified structure, but it is not the floor of a cave, and your carrot sticks are not stalagmites. Playing with one's food is illogical."
"Penda is playing with her food."
"Penda is one year old."
"Privileges decrease with age? You have always told me the opposite."
"Mom, I don't like tangerines."
"You liked them last month."
"I don't any more. And I can't peel it anyway."
"Penda, please keep your chewed cookie out of my hair!"
"Father, do caves ever flood?"
"Occasionally. But not with k'hasti juice. James, drink your juice, and eat your lasagna and carrot sticks. Please."
"I will not eat a carrot stick that has touched lasagna."
"Then eat your lasagna."
"I will not eat lasagna that has touched carrot sticks."
"If I peel your tangerine, Sidic, will you eat it?"
"Mother, Penda has spilled her fruit-water all over the floor."
"Oh, Penda... Spock, will you hand me a cloth?"
"A moment... Here is one, Saavik."
"You would not be starving if you ate your tangerine."
"I told you, I can't peel it!"
"Wait a moment... Here. Here it is, I have peeled it for you."
"Saavik, may I warn you that Penda is about to..."
"Oh! Penda, remove your hand from the jar of sweet sauce! Thank you, Spock."
"You are welcome. Oh, James!"
"Fascinating. I did not know there was so much juice in the glass."
"I told you not to flood your lasagna, James."
"But you turned away. I thought you would not see."
"Saavik, will you hand me a cloth?"
After breakfast, Saavik and Spock took a desperately needed rest in their room. Penda had fallen asleep at the table in a mess of cookie crumbs, and her parents had cleaned her up as best they could and put her in her crib for a nap. James, T'Khidai and Sidic were having some childish conversation in the computer room. And two exhausted adults were sprawled across their bed, barely having the energy to speak.
"Those children," Saavik breathed, exasperated but smiling.
"Indeed. They test the limits of one's control."
"But we could not have gotten so far in Falrik's challenge without them."
"No," Spock agreed. "They are amazingly helpful and loyal when the mood strikes them."
"We are having great success."
"With the challenge?"
"Yes. I feel we shall defeat it easily." Saavik reached up a hand and parted Spock's bangs, touching his left ear in the process.
"One should never be too sure of one's success," Spock reprimanded, extending his hand to her. He smiled as she met his fingertips with hers. "However, we do seem to have excellent chances."
Caressing his palm with paired fingers, Saavik gave a soft laugh. "Indeed."
Several pleasant minutes passed before Sidic knocked on the door. "Mom? Dad? The one on the seventeenth page..."
"You have deduced its meaning?"
"Not yet, but it's a bad one."
"Difficult?" Spock sat halfway up, leaning on his elbow. Reluctantly, he and Saavik broke the contact of their fingers.
"I mean a bad one like page six. Hellguard type bad."
"Oh." Saavik's eyebrows lowered in irritation. "I suppose we may as well look at it."
With tight motions, the two parents approached the screen, steeling themselves for some new insult. T'Khidai moved aside to let them look.
"The hungry went in ships." Saavik rolled her eyes. "I suppose Falrik thinks he is being very clever, but I am sure there are much more biting ways of referring to the rescue of starving hybrids from Hellguard, if one truly wishes to offend a survivor."
"You have any ideas for what the cipher is?" queried Sidic. "The first letters of the words don't spell anything, and it doesn't help to look at it backward or upside-down or sideways, and I suppose you could count the letters, but I don't think there's much chance that'd work, because all the clues so far have spelled numbers out."
"True," mused Spock, "we have not yet seen a code in which the number was reached by adding, or any other numerical process. However, that does not eliminate the possibility that there is one."
James returned from the other side of the room, where he had been building a mountain out of Penda's blocks. "What are you trying to find out this time?"
"The words are 'The hungry went in ships.' There is a number hidden in them somewhere."
"The hungry went in ships," murmured Saavik, perplexed.
"The hungry went in ships." Sidic echoed her.
"The hungry went in ships. The hungry went in ships." James began to chant it, as if the rhythm pleased him. "Thehungry wentinships. Thehungry wentinships. I went in a ship yesterday, but I wasn't hungry. And it was not a real ship, it only seemed like a ship. Thehungry wentinships."
"Only seemed like a ship..." Spock raised both eyebrows suddenly. "Saavik, perhaps the only connection between this and a number... is that it seems like one. Do you notice the same familiarity of sound that I do?"
"Thehungry wentinships," Saavik imitated her son. "Yes, it does seem like a number. A hundred twenty-six?"
Delighted, James began to dance around, chanting both phrases. "Thehungry wentinships. Ahundred twentysix. Thehungry wentinships. Ahundred twentysix."
"The similarity is striking," Spock agreed. "I believe it is worth a try."
Choosing the one hundred twenty-sixth link, they were rewarded with the eighteenth page, still on the same website, but a level above page seventeen.
"Only the even-numbered letters," Saavik said immediately. "Only those count. They spell ELEVEN."
"And the odd-numbered ones," said Spock, baring his teeth almost visibly, "spell RHARIK."
Sidic growled in sympathy. "This guy is getting annoying."
"Next," snapped Saavik, opening the eleventh link and the nineteenth page.
"A level above the eighteenth," pronounced T'Khidai. "In fact, only one level below the home page of this website. A sub-domain." She made another mark on her diagram of their path, then took time to redraw some of the pre-existing lines to fit her standards of neatness. The others, meanwhile, read the cipher.
"Same as last one, only backwards," said Sidic after a moment. "Counting from left to right, the even numbers spell TWENTY."
"While the odd numbers spell SPREYA," hissed Saavik.
They went slowly but steadily through the next few pages, fueled by anger. Each cipher was slightly more difficult than the last, and each had some connection to Hellguard. Even T'Khidai's voice became hard and tight as she reported the direction of each move: downward to twenty, downward to twenty-one, upward to twenty-two, upward to twenty-three, and horizontally to twenty-four (which had the same address as nineteen).
Before they knew it, it was time for lunch. Anger on every face, discomfort hanging in the air, they silently assembled in the kitchen.
"What would you like to eat?" Saavik asked at last.
"Fruit would be acceptable," whispered T'Khidai.
James rested his head in his arms on the counter. "I would like another piece of lasagna."
"I want kreyla," muttered Sidic.
"Sidic, we have told you: there are no kreyla. What do you want to eat, from among the things we have?"
"I don't want anything we have. I want kreyla."
Saavik and Spock looked at each other, concerned and frustrated. "Sidic. If you do not eat, you will have more difficulty helping us with the computer game."
"I won't help you with the computer game if I can't have kreyla."
"Then we will have to work without you," said Saavik. "It is a waste of time to drive all the way to the store just to buy a confection such as kreyla."
"Fine with me," sulked Sidic. "I don't care if some porno video gets broadcast on the news. I don't even watch the news." And he went to his room and slammed the door.
Every nerve burning in annoyance and exhaustion, Spock, Saavik and T'Khidai went back to the computer. Page twenty-four was waiting there for them, with its cipher:
"Is it possible the numbers serve as 'tags'?" suggested T'Khidai.
"If they did, they would occur only one at a time," Spock reminded her. "Instead, they come in groups: 555, 01, 123, 2265."
After a moment, Saavik put forth, "Some of the other ciphers were read as series of lines of equal length. Perhaps if we broke it into several lines, each with the same number of letters, something would become apparent."
"What number of letters?" said T'Khidai, and Saavik could not answer.
"Maybe," ventured Spock, "the numbers signify letters of the alphabet, as they did in the first code... No, that would not work, because some of the groups of digits make larger numbers than the number of letters in the alphabet...and one would not know how to break them up, if one wished to do that."
The three of them were quiet for a while.
"Sidic would have decoded this immediately," observed T'Khidai.
"Irrelevant," said Spock.
They lapsed into silence again, for a long time.
Suddenly, Saavik spoke up. "The first three letters, and the last three letters, taken together, spell ninety," she exclaimed.
"Indeed! The others may have been meant only to distract us. Excellent work, Saavik." He opened the ninetieth link and waited, looking at the screen expectantly.
What he did not expect was the red error screen and the buzzer. But there was Falrik, laughing at them just as obnoxiously as ever.
"You've made your fifth mistake," he crowed. "You only get two more, Saavikam. Are you re-evaluating your comparative opinions of Vulcan and Romulan intelligence yet?" In another burst of laughter, the screen faded to nothing more than the link back to the first page.
"How many hours has it been since we started?"
"We started at six hours of the morning, yesterday... a day is forty-five hours... it is now slightly past time for midday meal... we have used something in the range of sixty hours already." Saavik's face was strained.
"The sooner we are back at the twenty-fourth page," Spock reminded her, "the sooner we can return our attention to solving the puzzle there."
"Very well. T'Khidai, your record of the correct links, starting from page one?"
Slowly, link by link, their daughter led them back toward the page where they had made the mistake. It was several moments before they were even close.
"Link to page twenty-two: fourteen."
"Link to page twenty-three: thirty-seven."
Spock clicked again.
"Link to page twenty-four: five."
Spock moved the cursor toward the link, poising to click.
Spock's finger slipped on the button, moving the cursor as he pressed, and he and the others whirled around, only to catch a glimpse of a tennis shoe and hear feet pattering into Sidic's room. The next thing they heard was the buzzer, the laughter, and Falrik's next insulting message.
"That," said Spock, "is what my mother would have called 'the last straw.'" He got up, heading for Sidic's room.
Saavik, seeing emotion overtake logic in her husband, fought for control of her own. "Spock, I know what you want to do. You want to go in there and threaten him with some horrible punishment, try to force him to come out here and help us. You can't. He won't come out, no matter what we say will happen if he doesn't. Spock, if we dragged him out here bodily, chained him to the computer chair and tortured him into giving us answers, he would still disobey--he'd give the wrong ones. The only way to do this is to buy him the... the stupid kreyla and keep him happy long enough to finish this."
Spock stopped in mid-step, and turned around. "Do you truly think he is that stubborn?"
"Spock." Saavik offered a half-smile. "He is our son."
And so Ambassador Spock and his wife the illustrious Starfleet officer Saavik went out in their flitter, some minutes after lunchtime on the first day of the work week, to buy a bag of kreyla. In one of the cruel tricks the universe likes to play, the streets were more crowded than they had been in months, and the car crept toward the grocery store at a pace that could barely be described as moving.
When they finally reached their destination, the store was even more crowded. Vulcans were packed in so tightly that if they were any closer, they would all have been able to read each other's minds.
Traffic and crowds on Vulcan tended to be governed more by chaos theory than by social events. There were not many happenings that could draw Vulcans out of their homes as reliably as festivals or football games could draw humans, and what popular events existed were planned for optimum order and convenience. When a great number of Vulcans decided at the same time that they wanted to go driving or to the store, it was usually by pure chance.
And even the laws of chance seemed to hate Spock and Saavik today. By the time they reached the wide shelf up against the wall where the kreyla were kept, it was nearly two hours later than when they had started.
"There is only one bag left," gasped Saavik, catching a glimpse of the shelf through the crowd as they approached.
"This entire situation reminds me of a Terran comedy film," groaned Spock.
They completed the last few steps as quickly as possible while still being somewhat polite; they did push a few people, but not many, and none got away before they could apologize.
Finally they were within touching distance of the shelf. Panting and tense from all the invasion of his personal space, Spock reached out for the last bag of kreyla--just as another hand snatched it away.
The crowd did have one advantage: the hand's owner could not escape as quickly as she might have wished to. Spock and Saavik's eyes followed the arm to a pudgy body in sweatpants and a jean jacket--decidedly unVulcan attire. A human woman, with a plain but gentle face. Their eyes met hers.
"Did you want this bag of kreyla?" she asked in a very poor attempt at the language of the region.
"Yes, we did," Saavik admitted in Federation Standard English, and the woman relaxed somewhat; at least she could dispute the bag in her own tongue.
"I'm sorry, but how much do you need it? I want it very badly, you see."
"How badly can one want a bag of kreyla?" said Saavik, earning her a glance of reproach from her husband. She was losing control. Saavik took a breath, trying to calm herself.
"My nephew is in the Fleet," the human explained, "and he was on the Exploration, you know, that ship that broke down near Vulcan last week, and he was injured, and so were a lot of the other crewmen, and so the ship stopped here for repairs and he's in a Vulcan hospital. I traveled all the way here to visit him, and I know that kreyla are the only Vulcan food he likes, and I wanted to bring him a bag when I... when I..." She had broken down crying, and nearby Vulcans were making a noticeable effort not to stare at her.
"Can you not buy kreyla elsewhere?" Saavik burst out. "We need them for..." She realized how desperate she was sounding, and she took another deep breath.
"For a matter of vital importance, not only for the Vulcan people but for civilized species everywhere?" asked the woman sarcastically.
"Well, yes, actually," Saavik snapped.
"And how exactly can a bag of kreyla save the galaxy?"
"If we told you the entire story," said Spock gently, "I doubt you would believe us."
"Then why should I believe you if you don't tell me?" The woman shoved the bag into her pocket, making for the nearest break in the crowd. "Vulcans don't lie--hah! You're the biggest liars everywhere. You'll tell some over-the-top story just to get yourselves a bag of sweets, and tell me to go get mine elsewhere, when you know perfectly well this is the only store within kilometers that isn't out of them. Well I won't fall for it! Goodbye, you Vulcans."
And she was gone, leaving only Saavik and Spock and the empty shelf.
After a long pause, Spock was the first to speak. "That was one of the most strenuous experiences I have had in a considerable time."
"Indeed," said Saavik. "However, one can hardly blame her. We were not very convincing."
"What time is it?"
"Twenty-five hours." Well into the afternoon. They had just wasted hours of the time Falrik had given them.
"Excuse me," said a voice, in Vulcan this time.
"Yes?" Spock answered without looking up.
"I require access to that shelf."
"There are no more kreyla," said Saavik bitterly.
"I am aware of that," replied the voice. "I require access to that shelf in order to re-stock it."
"Re-stock it?" The two half-Vulcans lifted their heads in startlement and saw a young worker in the uniform of the grocery store, carrying an enormous basket full to the brim with...bags of kreyla.
Nearly an hour later, they pulled into their own driveway, mentally groaning in relief and embarrassment.
"Sidic, we have kreyla for you," Spock called as he and his wife entered the main room of the house. "Several bags."
"What?" said their son's cheerful voice from the computer room. "Oh, thank you! That was nice of you two, really. Say, I've figured out the code on page twenty-four. Wanna see?"
They gathered around the screen, which still said:
"The numbers are important," Sidic explained. "Or rather, the letters before them."
Saavik secretly took T'Khidai's hand, and her daughter opened to the telepathic touch. Yes, mother?
Did he just change his mind all of a sudden?
No, I convinced him.
"You just have to read every letter that comes before a number, or a series of numbers. Imagine that the other letters aren't there; they don't mean anything."
You convinced him? When we couldn't?
"Anyway, if you read those letters, ignoring the extra letters and numbers, which are just thrown in there to throw us off...you get fifty-two."
How did you manage it?
I told him that if he didn't help, you probably would not buy him kreyla for a year or more.
Once they knew the answer, they moved easily from page 24 to page 25.
"Here we are," T'Khidai announced, adding another set of marks to the growing web of lines and dots on her drawing screen. "Twenty-five is the index page of the website. No sub-domain or sub-sub-domain--the original domain itself. All the other pages we have visited are beneath it in the map."
"But apparently, there are still more to visit," said Saavik.
"I suppose," T'Khidai speculated, "that we will find ourselves either going to other websites from here, or returning to the pages we have already visited, in which case they will probably change in the way we have seen them change before."
"Or there will turn out to be more pages on this site," Spock suggested.
"But we cannot know until we solve the code on this webpage. Let us examine it."
They all took a look.
It was a very long time before Sidic presented his family with the answer.
"I've got it!" he yelled. "Finally! Man, that was the most..." Sidic paused, realizing that he was being a bit loud and emotional. "Sorry," he said with a grin of embarrassment.
Calming himself somewhat, he continued in a lower voice. "The most commonly recurring thing in this whole mess, "he explained, "is the sequence of six capital letters preceded by a single digit. If you use those digits as 'tags,' making a line break after each of them, you get... may I use your pad, T'Khidai? Thanks. You get this:
"And then, you just get rid of everything except those rows of six letters, 'cause it doesn't mean anything:
"And reading in a zig-zag pattern, first letter of first word, second letter of second word, third letter of third word, and so on, you get:
"Which, when you take out the even-numbered letters, spells
"which is TWENTY spelled backwards."
"So," Saavik noted, "it is a combination of several of the previous ciphers: the tags, the extra characters inserted to distract us, the vertical zig-zag, the importance of the odd or even-numbered letters, and even spelling a word backwards. Amazing."
"I have a feeling," said Sidic, "that they're just going to get harder."
Selecting the twentieth link, they entered Page 26.
"This is an entirely different website," said T'Khidai. "It is not part of the first site we have traveled through, it is only linked to it. We are coming in on the fifth level from the top: a sub-sub-sub-sub-domain."
"You just like saying that," said Sidic, smirking at her. "Sub sub sub sub sub."
They spent most of the rest of the afternoon on the next few steps of the challenge. The puzzles got more difficult with each step, combining more and more ciphers together. At first, they combined ones used earlier in the game, but they got less and less familiar as time went on.
By bedtime, only five steps had been completed: the upward jumps to 27 and 28, the downward dips to 29 and 30, and the horizontal move to 31.
Dinner was full of anxiety and excitement. The kreyla for Sidic removed one source of tension, but other sources had strengthened: they had less than one day left to complete the challenge, and the ciphers were getting harder to break.
The children wanted to stay up all night, but Saavik disagreed.
"If you try to work on it while staying up late, you will become less capable of figuring things out, and perhaps use up the one chance we have left to make a mistake. In addition, you will be unable to wake up tomorrow morning and work on it then. We all need to get some sleep."
But when they got into bed, none of them could fall asleep until very, very late indeed. Saavik heard the children chattering excitedly far past midnight, while beside her, Spock once again pretended to sleep.
The next morning, for once, Saavik slept late. Only once it was ten hours of the morning did she suddenly leap out of bed, rummaging about for her chronometer.
"Sidic! T'Khidai! Are you up? We only have five hours left!"
Running into the computer room, she found the two slumped in front of the monitor, barely awake. "Hi, Mom," yawned Sidic. "Yeah, we just woke up. A couple hours ago, I mean. We've gotten two steps forward. Page thirty-two is the same as page twenty-nine--same address, I mean. The code changed, like the others. Then page thirty-three is a level up from that." His head dropped back on the desk, and he began to snore softly.
T'Khidai looked up at her mother. It was a frightened look. "Really, only five hours let?"
"More or less. Would you and Sidic like something to help keep you awake? I have some aval'toyan in the cupboard--or, if you prefer, a Terran beverage called coffee that has a similar effect."
"Yes, please," said T'Khidai. Leaning over him with gentle words, she managed to wake Sidic up enough to come to the kitchen counter, where they both drank the stimulants gratefully.
Soon Penda began crying, and Spock came out of the bedroom and crossed the central area into her room. Minutes later, he entered the computer room carrying a freshly dressed, fed and changed baby in his arms. "How is the challenge progressing?"
"We're on page 33," Sidic answered. "And there are supposed to be fifty-seven and they keep getting harder and harder."
Saavik and Spock made eye contact and shared a thought: Something drastic had to be done, soon, or they would never finish.
An hour and a half later, they were no farther forward. Sidic and Spock were huddled together in front of the computer screen, trying to puzzle out the latest cipher. Saavik sat behind them on the floor, baby Penda in her lap. T'Khidai sat behind her, adjusting and readjusting the lines and dots of her website map. Occasionally she just sat and looked at it, holding it back from her eyes for a moment, as if she felt there was some secret in it that would speed their progress forward. James sat beside T'Khidai, but off to the side a bit, drawing crystals in the carpet with his finger.
Saavik glanced back at T'Khidai's map, and while her head was turned, Penda grabbed two great handfuls of her hair and pulled painfully. Saavik swore under her breath. There was some strategy that would make this whole situation a great deal easier. Saavik knew it; she just couldn't quite put her finger on it.
"Any luck?" she asked Sidic.
"No. It's a monster code. And it doesn't help to be in a panic. Which I am." Tears were almost right behind his voice. "What time is it?"
"Eleven point five hours of the morning. We have three and a half hours left."
"Oh, dammit, dammit..."
Penda began to cry in Saavik's arms. Her mother bounced her up and down, stroking her hair, but all it accomplished was to make the toy pretzel she was holding fall on the floor and bounce nearly a meter away.
"Wait there just a second," Saavik cooed, setting Penda down and getting on her hands and knees to retrieve the pretzel.
The baby responded with an enormous yowl. Crawling on top of her almost prone mother, she grabbed her by the hair and hung on. Saavik's cry nearly echoed Penda's. "Let go of me!" she moaned, disentangling the strong little fingers from her tresses.
"Quiet, Mom! I can't concentrate when you and the baby are screaming like that!"
Saavik growled and managed to pull the hands off her hair... only to feel them latch onto the nearest thing, the collar of her robe.
"Stop," she commanded, but it was too late--the baby had yanked the closure open and pulled the robe all the way over Saavik's shoulder and halfway across her back. Her bare arm and shoulder blade glowed in the low light, and she struggled to cover them, but Penda's grabby hands wouldn't let go.
"No, hold still, mother!" said T'Khidai. A sudden wonder had come over the young girl as her eyes darted between Saavik's shoulder blade and the map on her drawing screen. "Mother, Father, Sidic, look."
Drawn by the note of joy and discovery in her voice, they all got down on the floor and looked.
"Amazing!" exclaimed Spock.
"Whoa," added Sidic, one hand on his sister's web diagram, the other one on his mother's Hellguard brand.
"May I get up now?" said Saavik, still lying on her stomach and completely bewildered.
"Ma," said Penda, sitting on Saavik's lower back and chewing the toy pretzel.
"They look the same," observed James.
"Indeed," Spock replied. "The map is an unfinished copy of the brand. The picture representing the hybrid is almost complete, but the spreya is only partially drawn, and the rharik is not visible. Falrik seems to have modeled the path of his challenge on the shape of the thierrulayat mark."
"Meaning," cried T'Khidai, "that we know the rest of the path we have to take. All we must find out now is...which links can lead us in a path that will finish the picture?"
And her stylus flew over the screen, drawing in the missing parts of the thierrulayat, the path they would have to follow.
"Well, let's see!" said Sidic, jumping back into the computer chair. "According to the little picture you've just finished, we want an address that's one level down from page thirty-three." He skimmed quickly through the hundred and fifty links on the page. "Only a few of these even lead to pages within this website. Hot damn, I think there's only one that fits our needs!" With a wide grin, Sidic clicked on it, and sure enough, it brought them to the thirty-fourth page, a sub-domain of the thirty-third.
"Let me see your map again. Hmm, I think there's only one link in the right direction on this page, too! We're really cooking now!" Sidic clicked, and watched the next page appear. "Cool! I can't believe we didn't see this earlier!"
"Why would Falrik make it possible to do it this way?" inquired Saavik, who had managed to get Penda off her back and was now sitting up, watching the computer and adjusting her robe. "I mean, why give each page only one link that would lead in the direction we want to go? If he wanted us to lose, why not have several links on page 33 leading into sub-domains of that page, and make it harder for us to guess which is the right one?"
"Probably he considered the chances very low that we would draw a map while traversing his path," Spock said. "He expected us never to consider the idea, and because of that, to lose. Then he could show us how we could have done it much more easily with a map... and taunt us with not having noticed that possibility."
"You are correct," exclaimed Saavik, "that is exactly how his mind works."
"Page thirty-eight," Sidic sang. And then, after a moment, "Page thirty-nine."
As they continued, Spock's hypothesis proved more and more likely, each successive page offering only one plausible link. They completed the figure of the spreya, and crossed over to a new site where they began tracing the shape of the rharik. Sometimes, knowing the probable answer to the coded clue, they were able to figure out the code and reassure themselves that they were going in the right direction.
Finally, they left the rharik and crossed back into the website representing the hybrid. Filling in the last few lines of that figure, they concluded at the fifty-seventh page, which had the same address as the eleventh and seventeenth: a sub-sub-sub-domain, on the other side of the hybrid's face from the page where they had started.
This page had no links, only a graphic of an elaborately decorated picture frame, in which played the same video clips Falrik had shown Saavik in his first message. Suffering, crying, desperate Vulcans, tied up and abused and laughed at. For a second Saavik wanted to shield her children's eyes from it, but then she relaxed... her children were wiser than any elder, and they deserved to see what they had been fighting for.
They turned their heads, anyway, of their own will, on seeing the grotesque images. But when those images were replaced by a video of Falrik, they returned their eyes to the screen.
"Congratulations, Saavikam," the recording snarled. "If you are viewing this page, you have come a long way. Here, as I promised you, is your chance to erase the Hellguard footage. But you must do one more thing for me. You see the box below this frame on your screen? In it, you must enter the password that will allow you to delete what you have come to delete.
"Yes, the password! And what is the password? Why, your guess, Saavik! One chance, no hints, and you have as much time as is left of the hundred hours. Good luck, my worthy opponent."
As the entire family watched, the picture of Falrik was replaced by a single small square, clearly representing the Hellguard videos. The shape of a data disk, with a face on it... the face of a screaming Vulcan. Perhaps my father, thought Saavik. I may never know.
But she knew the password, had known it as soon as Falrik had mentioned it.
Instantly, she bent over the keyboard, making sure the cursor was placed so that her letters would show up in the box below the frame. Rapidly, her hands hit the keys, and it was as if all the letters appeared at once:
And as if it were being beamed away, the square that bore that painful image shimmered, disintegrated and disappeared.
Saavik looked over her shoulder. She was alone in her bedroom. The children had gone to finish the day at school, the baby was having a nap, and Spock was running a virus scan on the computer, prior to restoring the documents they had removed.
But still she kept her head turned to look over her bare shoulder, into the mirror that reflected her Hellguard mark back toward her smiling eyes.
"Saavik," said a beloved voice from the doorway.
"Come in, Spock," she answered.
Her husband stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. For a moment he admired her naked shoulder and arm, then turned bemused eyes on the faraway smile on her face as she gazed into the mirror.
"I have never seen you looking at your thierrulayat with such joy on your face," he remarked.
"There is something I have noticed about it, since I saw it in the form of a website map," she murmured. "Draw something in a different style, and you see different things in it."
"May I?" said Spock, coming closer. Saavik nodded, and he placed two fingers on her temple, joining her thoughts.
A smile played about his lips as he found realization. I see...
Saavik's mind glowed around his. It does not have to be interpreted as a thierrulayat, Spock. Have you ever seen a rharik with a face like that? No, the rharik symbol is not a rharik, but a heart--the shape humans draw to represent love. The bird does not have to be a spreya; it can be a dove, symbol of peace. And the hybrid looks, more than anything, like an old-fashioned drawing of a rocket.
Yes, Spock. A spaceship, for adventure.
Go to my fanfiction page