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Old January 29 2010, 12:14 PM   #1
Piper
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JANUARY CHALLENGE - The Song Of the Phoenix

Hi, I've not posted in this section before but I thought I'd have a go at this month's challenge. I hope you enjoy it!

The Song of the Phoenix

“Guinan, I think I’ve found something!”

As the familiar cry rang out, for about the twentieth time that week, she allowed herself a slight smile. Putting her book aside, she stood up to come and see, not for a moment expecting that he really had finally unearthed what he was looking for. Although he’d been slowly getting closer through his painstaking methods – and, despite being extremely tempted on a couple of occasions to offer a couple of hints, she was determined that he must find it himself – he was still on only the very edge of the probable site, and the El-Aurian figured that it would be at least another week before he unearthed it. Scrambling up the edge of the earthworks, she wondered what the red herring would be this time – an old, twenty-first century iPad like last time, or maybe one of the discarded weapons from the last war, still armed, or maybe even one of those strange plasticky cases with a big yellow M still faintly discernable on it, whatever that had been for.

Much to her surprise, though, when she did reach the peak and look down into the wide expanse of the dig site, she found that he had moved quite away from where he had spent much of the time so far diligently scraping away at each square meter and where, even now, an abandoned spade and survey padd lay marking the spot of his morning’s efforts. Over on that side, his fellow workers were now leaving their own tools as, hearing his cry, they began to approach the figure who was, once again, scrabbling away with his hands in what seemed to be a quite uncharacteristic frenzy of excitement. Up to now Guinan had thought him reserved and almost Vulcan-like, but there was nothing Vulcan about the way he was pawing the ground, his hands shaking in his eagerness to dig further. As she approached, he looked up again, sweat glinting off his hairless brow, his eyes shining and alive in a way she had seen in few Terrans since she had returned to this planet.

“It’s here,” he said. “I have it.”

And, as she looked over his shoulder at the small area he had cleared of earth, she realised that he did, indeed, have it. The chrome of the metal was duller than she remembered, the paintwork faded almost to imperceptibility, but there was no doubt about it. As he continued to clear away the dirt the crowd around him, of whom he seemed almost completely unaware, began to murmur in excitement. One, a slightly nervy fellow, stepped a little forward and, squinting against the bright reflection, tried to read the legend.

“N... X... 1?” he tried.

“No, no.” Again he looked up, his face now wearing a wide smile of almost child-like pleasure. “N –I - X. Phoenix. Look.” And as he dug away some more, the E began to appear beneath his fingertips, and the murmur became a collective cry of delight, which quickly gathered momentum and became a spontaneous round of applause. Guinan, struck by how much the emotion of the moment was affecting even her, joined in, before laying her hand on his shoulder, for a reason she didn’t quite understand.

He’d done it. Despite what everyone had said, he’d really done it. He’d found the Phoenix.

Later on, as Barclay, Hawk and others began working over the area with their spectrometry equipment, which pointed now at the right direction could discern quite easily over how wide an area the ruins were spread, he sat on the edge, watching them, taking a well earned break, his head caked in a mixture of sweat and dirt, his expression one of complete contentment. Next to him Guinan sat, watching him as he watched his workers, wondering quite what had happened.

“Now we’ve found it, of course, things can move forward,” he was explaining. “I have a man in San Francisco, a real engineering genius, who I’ll get to look over the wreckage, find out what went wrong.” He turned to Guinan, a look of determination on his face. “Find out what went wrong. This time... this time it will be different.”

Guinan smiled at him. “Maybe it will,” she said. Then she leant forward. “But tell me...” nodding with her head to the long-forgotten spade and padd which still lay where they had been dropped, “what made you suddenly dig over there?”

For the first time that afternoon his look of pure happiness dropped as a slight frown of puzzlement crossed his face. He thought for a long moment, staring ahead at Barclay and the others, but not, Guinan knew, really seeing them. “Do you know,” he said. “I... don’t know.” He leaned forward earnestly. “Guinan, I’m not by nature a spiritual man and yet...” his voice sunk almost to a whisper. “It’s as though... it was singing to me. Telling me to come to it. Calling to me.” He leant back in his chair, voice matter-of-fact again. “That must sound absurd to you.”

But when he looked at Guinan, he found that her expression, too, had changed, and that now her eyes too were deep in reflection. “Actually,” she said after a moment, “you know, Jean-Luc... it doesn’t sound absurd at all...”

*

They are the El-Aurians, known throughout the cosmos as a race of listeners. They listen. Most who meet them think that simply means they are the go-to guys when one is feeling a bit down in the dumps; few if any realise that it is far more elemental, more profound, than that. For it is not just fellow sentients to whom they listen, but the very galaxy itself. In a way that even they don’t fully understand, they are attuned to the cosmos’s very being, its soul – they can sense its moods, its feelings, when it is happy and content – and when it is not. Those who develop their skills fully can hear a star when it laughs, tell when a moon has fallen in love, feel a planet crying out in terror. And more: when they hear such things they cannot leave them be, no more than a mother can leave her newborn when it yells out in the night. The El-Aurians cross space, usually alone, sometimes in groups, tending to the universe’s pain, putting right what once was wrong. Often, they do not even know why they do what they do, they just know what must be done. They are a race of listeners, but few know what that really means.

And so it was that, some three centuries before, by the locals’s reckoning, Guinan’s father had listened, and heard something he feared greatly, and had journeyed to a dark, lonely corner of the galaxy few had visited before. One who had, strangely enough, had been Guinan herself – she’d been, by her own admission, a wild child, and had liked to go where few others dared, including the planet Terra. It was known as a particularly barbarous world, populated by a savage, unsophisticated people who spent their time coming up with ever more powerful ways of annihilating each other. It was this reputation that had drawn the rebellious Guinan, eager to break free of the stultifying strictures her studies had placed on her, in the first place. To the surprise of both her and her father, who had fully expected his daughter to be killed the moment she set foot on the hellish surface, she had not only lived but positively thrived. In amidst the bloodshed and horror she had found those who tried to elevate themselves above their own violent natures, had realised that there was more to existence than simple battles for supremacy, had, in their own strange way, listened too to the sounds of an existence that was trying to tell them there was far more that they could do. Her father didn’t believe her, of course, when she returned – he said she was indulging in that dissembling subversion she seemed to revel in so much, purely to try and provoke him. He didn’t believe the Terrans could ever rise above their primitive ids, and it was with an almost malicious triumph he had told his daughter, many eras later, about the sudden scream he could hear coming from what she thought was such an enlightened planet. He had dared her to come back and show him the goodness in a people now shattered after the most apocalyptic war in their long history, to see where the scream had come from. And, to his surprise, she had accepted.

And so it was that they had found themselves in an area of the planet known as Montana, standing in a tall, thin structure the builders called a “missile silo” next to a tall, gangly and faintly smelly representative of the Terrans. Zephram Cochrane. A letch, a drunkard, a mercenary (virtually the first thing he had asked Guinan’s father was how much he could give him for his project.) He might also, Guinan had whispered to her father gently, be a genius. Her father thought this unlikely. Most of the time Cochrane couldn’t even stand up, let alone think great thoughts, which made what the three of them were now standing by even more of a miracle. Ten years previously “the Phoenix” would have been a symbol of terror, a weapon with such an awesome capacity for destruction that only a handful of them had ever been made (even a race as barbarous as this isn’t completely stupid), and which had all but decimated the planet’s population. But now it stood here, thanks to this silly, brain-addled specimen of humanity, as possibly the greatest invention in the Terran’s sad, stupid history.

It was the Phoenix that had sung to them.

On that both Guinan and her father agreed. Sadly, it was the only thing they agreed on. The Phoenix scared her father, scared her deeply. Somehow this man, this insignificant, stupid man had happened upon one of the great fundamentals of galactic society, the faster-than-light drive. It was recognised across the cosmos as a mark of civilisation, the moment a world’s beings finally crawled out of the primordial ooze and proved themselves enlightened enough to join the likes of the Vulcans, the Andorians and the Organians in the great game. But the thought of the Terrans bringing their unique combination of violence and ignorance onto the galactic stage terrified Guinan’s father. He believed the Phoenix was singing out in fear, the universe’s way of saying “Stop them, before it’s too late!” That this Cochrane had chosen to fashion this momentous device out of an old weapon was just the icing on the cake, the final confirmation that the progress of the Terrans must be stopped before it was too late. It was to stop itself becoming an instrument of destruction once again that her father believed was the reason why the Phoenix had sung to them. And now, as he stood beside the unsuspecting Cochrane, who was, as usual, thoroughly inebriated and struggling to focus, he was determined to salve its fear.

“See, fing is,” slurred Cochrane, gesturing with a hand clutching a half-empty bottle of the local ferment, “I fink it’s fine. In fact,” he tried to draw himself up to his full height over her father, to impose some kind of physical authority, only to sway alarmingly and have to grab hold of his target for support, “I’m SURE is fine. Tis.”

Her father gently eased him against a wall, then bent down to look at the open system hatch once more. Inside, the tip of a crude matter/antimatter mix chamber, dormant at present but shortly to be filled with the intermix needed to achieve warp speed, poked out. “I really do think you should look at it again,” he said patiently, soothingly, almost seductively. “It is, after all, the very heart of the ship. You won’t get to that Hawaiian island if it begins leaking, now, will you?”

He knew he’d touched a nerve. All this oik had been able to talk about the past week, ever since they had insinuated themselves into his inner circle, was about how this ship was going to make him a fortune, and what he was going to do with it, a plan which seemed to revolve mainly around tropical islands, booze and large numbers of scantily clad females. If anything was going to convince him to look again, it would be the prospect of losing sight of so pleasant a goal. Cochrane, frowning, took the bait, almost slumping down onto the walk next to him to peer again into the murky chamber.

A little way away Guinan watched the two men, feeling ashamed. She knew that her father was a good man, and believed that he was doing the right thing, but she did not, could not agree with him about this. To her, the Phoenix seemed as though it were crying out in joy, as though it had been rescued from a life of destruction and was born anew as an avatar of peace rather than war. But, as she watched her father exert his influence over poor, defenceless Cochrane – for the El-Aurians are not just good listeners, but also at making others listen to them – she knew that she would do little to stop him. He was her father, and must be respected. She watched then, as, slowly, over the course of half the day and another two bottles of liquor, her father slowly and patiently convinced Cochrane that his configuration was not correct, that to attempt a launch with the mix chamber in that state would be tantamount to suicide, and that only if the Terran followed his instructions would his dreams of bikini clad lovelies and endless Pina Coladas come to fruition. Desperately she wanted Cochrane to resist, to say no, he knew what he was doing, but her heart sank as, finally, and even more unsteadily than he had been before, the scientist started to unscrew the missile’s plating, and follow her father’s advice. At one point, just as the last panel came off exposing the ship’s engine core, Cochrane looked up, and he and Guinan briefly fixed eyes. He stared at her, and she heard him, his soul, asking, “Is this right? Am I doing what I should?”

And Guinan did not say anything.

Soon after they watched, safe behind their vessel’s heavily ionised protective shielding, as the Phoenix rose from beneath the earth on her first, and only voyage. Through the viewscreen Guinan watched as the other Terrans, far too close for their own safety, whooped and cheered as the vessel left the earth, their weary faces, dirtied with the legacy of twenty years’ of misery, smiled for the first time in their lives as this symbol gave them finally a reason to be hopeful. To this day Guinan could see their expressions, frozen in time, suddenly illuminated by a harsh, unforgiving white flare, as the antimatter manifold, the one her father had convinced Cochrane was fitted improperly, slipped, disconnected, and in one millisecond released its hellfire unto the world. The initial shockwave consumed the entire forest, crushing all life within it, and even the El-Aurian ship complained as the fallout threatened its shielding. As the hull clattered with the sound of thousands of pieces of twisted metal and burnt flesh raining down upon it, her father turned to look at her face, wet with tears, and said softly, “It’s for the best. The needs of the many.”

That day, only one ship left the confines of the planet Terra, and it wasn’t the Phoenix. Shortly thereafter, as they were leaving the planet’s solar system, they ran into a Vulcan scoutship, who asked for their observations of the people on the third planet. Her father had sniffed dismissively and described them as “an illogical race who can barely use stone tools.” The Vulcans had thanked them, and plotted a course around the system.

*
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Old January 29 2010, 12:15 PM   #2
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Re: JANUARY CHALLENGE - The Song Of the Phoenix

And then the Borg came.

Unstoppable, unreasonable, indestructible, they ploughed a furrow of terror through the quadrant. Resistance was futile. If the various powers had, perhaps, been united, found a common purpose, maybe they could have put up more of a battle against them, but the quadrant had never managed to find something, an element, to bind them all together. The war-like Klingons could never get on with the stoic Vulcans, who could never tolerate the irate Bolians, and etc, so instead of standing together they stood apart, and fell, one after another. The El-Aurian Homeworld was one of the first to fall, and Guinan’s father one of the first to fall on it. She was there: their eyes met seconds before the monster pierced him; she saw his soul die in front of her, replaced in his irises by a series of cold, logical 1s and 0s. And in those last few moments, she saw no fear at his fate; just a mixture of simple love for his daughter, and – an emotion that affected her almost as much as what was physically happening to him – intense regret, although for what she didn’t know. Shortly thereafter she escaped, on board a ship called the SS Lakul, which was pursued with relentless determination out of their system by a Borg Cube. Finally, as the cube’s weaponry stripped the ship of its feeble protection and their own phasers provided unsurprisingly useless against their pursuer, the captain, in a fit of desperation, attempted a dangerous, nay suicidal, manoeuvre, dancing around an energy ribbon that had cut through the sector shortly before the arrival of the Borg, hoping to dodge its whiplash spasms while luring the sphere to its doom. The plan backfired: the energy ribbon sliced through the Lakul, and as she felt the atmosphere being sucked from the barracks she was stationed in, Guinan’s last thoughts were of her father, and the Borg, and wondering why in the distance she could hear something singing, something faintly familiar...

*
And then she was in Montana again.

No, not Montana. She knew it wasn’t, not really. Although it looked like the missile silo, and had the same sounds, and the same earthy smells, she could sense, instantly, that it wasn’t – there was a haziness, a cushioned, safe feeling, the same you feel as a small child curled up on your parent’s lap, the sense that nothing can ever get you. This wasn’t heaven, Guinan knew, but it was what heaven felt like.

And for a time she was happy here. Her father was here, and other El-Aurians, and time was eternal, so day followed night followed day, endless hours of talk and laughter and joy. And yet, even amongst the happiest moments, Guinan would catch glimpses of the humans who walked among them, watching them in turn, and wonder: why bring it me here? Why not to the Homeworld, before the Borg came? Or, if it had to be here, why not a couple of centuries earlier, when she had been far happier, not least because she had been briefly married (mainly to spite her father) to a local author. Finally, it became too much, she needed to know, and to find answers she knew she’d have to go to the one place she’d avoided since coming here, the one place on Earth which held less than pleasant memories.

The missile silo itself.

It was just as she remembered. As she entered, she could hear a couple of levels above her father and Cochrane talking as they worked. As she climbed the ladder to reach them she was relieved to spot that she, or at least her past self, was not there – she still wasn’t quite clear how this dimension actually worked, but she wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find her own avatar standing watching the two men, just as it had been that fateful night. As she reached the stage, the two were turned away from her, muttering to themselves, and even at this close distance she couldn’t quite make out what was being said. For some reason she found her heart was pounding in her chest, and her brow was covered in sweat as she waited to be noticed, but the two continued working. Finally, she cleared her throat, and the two men turned.

Her heart jumped and she let out a cry of fear. The red laser light from her father’s eyepiece shone directly into her eye, while Cochrane’s work was being greatly speeded up by his artificial arm, manipulating the mechanism at far greater speeds than his own hand could have. He looked at her, with that same stupid leer he had always had but which now assumed far more grotesque and terrifying proportions in amongst the metallic infusions on his face, and said, “You became like us.”

She turned and ran, unable to stand the sight of her father in that state but, more than that, unable to be confronted with something much deeper, which cut to her very soul. How she made it down the ladder without falling she didn’t know, but she did, lungs bursting - It was only when she was out in the cool night air of the Montana landscape that she was able to breathe again. Leaning against the silo’s wall, she closed her eyes and, despite the comforting realm in which she was, began to cry. Slumping down, emotion overwhelmed her, her whole body shaking and convulsing, a river of tears flooding down her cheeks, the pain inside unbearable. No one came to her. No one could. She cried and sobbed and wailed, ranting and raving at the galaxy, until her energy was gone and she couldn’t expel any more. Eyes still closed, she breathed hard, gulping for air, wondering what the hell she could do now to make the anguish ever go away.

And then, in amidst the light breeze ruffling the forest, she heard something. Distant at first, but clear nonetheless, with pinsharp clarity. It drifted towards her, like the comforting waters of a warm bath lap over your body, slowly but surely surrounding her and lifting her up. A song. The song. But not, for some reason, coming from inside the silo, from where she had always heard it before. Wiping her still-blurry eyes she stood up, turning her head in the direction it was coming from. She realised with a start that it seemed to be emanating from precisely the point, on the hill’s brow, where she had seen the Phoenix – the real Phoenix – crash and scatter after its short, disastrous flight. Now, as the first light of the new day could be seen rising from the far side, she could just make out the silhouette of a man, standing alone, looking towards her. At first she thought it was Cochrane, but as she got a little closer she saw that it wasn’t, but someone else, someone whom she didn’t know but who, somehow, deep inside her, she felt that she recognised, as though from another life. An echo. Once more her El-Aurian soul felt the cosmos singing out to her, and for the first time in a long time it was not a song of death, or despair, but of something more... hopeful. She didn’t know who this bald-headed man was, looking down at her, but as he turned away and disappeared over the other side of the hill, she knew that she had to follow him. And so, without once looking back at the not-real life she was leaving behind, she too walked over the hill, and left the Nexus just as the sun rose to herald a new day.

*
His name was Jean-Luc Picard and she found him on his knees. An aristocratic Frenchman, she’d never met a more unlikely archaeologist, spending as he did as much time looking up at the stars as scrabbling around in the ground. It seemed he was a bit of a maverick in the Terran community; he had obsessed his entire working life with digging up the Phoenix, but until now the radioactive fallout from the explosion had rendered the site a no-go area, even this long after the blast. However, after considerable pestering by Picard, the Montana hillside had finally been cleared by the authorities as safe for human inhabitation and this curious man, who seemed aloof much of the time but whose actions and, Guinan could see, eyes spoke of intense passions running deep, moved in. Those involved in the dig spoke of him as difficult to know, but for some reason she doubted either of them could explain he and Guinan struck up an immediate rapport. Eagerly he showed her his papers on Cochrane’s ship, which included classified files he had found secreted away in some underground historical vault, hidden by those in power from those who might dare to try such a foolish experiment again. He told her of his dreams, his belief that Cochrane’s basic design was sound and that if only they could uncover the actual ship he would be able to discover what had gone wrong. One night he even asked her, in a moment of whimsy she would never have imagined possible coming from one as austere as him, if she believed in extraterrestrial life, speculating that possibly one day the Phoenix would take them to meet alien beings quite unlike them. As their eyes met, he not for a moment imagining she could possibly be one of those aliens, her thoughts went back to her own home planet and what the Borg had done, and she wondered whether maybe her father had been right all along, that the Terrans were better off not leaving their planet. The Borg had ignored Terra, away as it was in an unimportant part of the quadrant, in their first deadly sweep through the sector, and might continue to do so for centuries to come – after all, they hardly had knowledge of benefit to add to the Collective.

Or did they? That day, when Picard finally found what he had been looking for, and Guinan had seen him look so alive, so joyous, she wondered maybe they did have something unique after all. Something which the galaxy had never seen before, a trait she couldn’t quite pin down so resorted to using the Terran’s own word – their humanity. It might not do much for the Borg but the El-Aurian suspected it could be of huge benefit to the rest of the galaxy. But there was still one more thing she had to do...

It was two weeks after that first discovery, and thanks to Picard’s energy and enthusiasm the majority of the ship’s bodywork was now uncovered and laid out in roughly the shape it would have had when it was all in one piece. Once he had had the personal satisfaction of finding the first piece himself, Picard had left the rest of the unearthing to his team, preferring to spend his time instead examining what was found, searching for that elusive clue to what had gone wrong. And now, finally, he was in the area of the fuselage which contained the mix chamber, the small, fatefully compromised component that had haunted Guinan’s dreams for so long and which she had thought she never wished to see again, but now knew that was the key to her salvation. He was shaking his head.

“There’s so much,” he said, “it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

This was her moment. This was the moment she had been waiting three hundred years for. Now it had come, she almost could not believe it. An El-Aurian had very deliberately pushed the Terrans off their course and sent them down a side street, so it was only right that an El-Aurian should be the one to bring them back.

“Perhaps,” she said, “you should look at this.”

He looked at her oddly – she’d never seemed particularly interested in engineering – but then bent down to examine the mix chamber. He stared at it for a moment, turning it over and over in his hand before, suddenly, his eyes widened in sudden comprehension. Now his hands were shaking too, as he reached into his pocket and pulled out his copy of Cochrane’s original notes. He found the page which was described the chamber, and compared it to the piece he now held. After a few moments, he looked up.

“But this isn’t the same arrangement at all,” he said, mystified. “Why would Cochrane change it at such a late hour?”

For a moment, Guinan’s face betrayed a moment of pain, before it reasserted its general equanimity. “I don’t know,” she whispered, “but perhaps that’s what went wrong.”

“Yes, yes!” said Picard, his face now alight. He turned back to the wreckage and looked at the chamber. “Flying with this configuration would have caused a massive internal pressure with no release valve. Having it like this would almost certainly – “ he looked up at her again , his voice barely discernable –“caused a detonation.”

She stayed a few days longer, following Picard as he worked on his theory, explained it to the others on the dig, watching as they, too began to believe. The Phoenix design was sound. It could fly. It, or rather a new version, would fly. That night, when Picard came to her quarters to have their usual evening chat he found them empty. Walking out, he looked up and saw a strange light, flying further and further away from the Montana hillside. He frowned, puzzled. And there, high above his head, Guinan heard him, and, looking ahead, heard the song of the universe singing again, a chorus this time not of pain but of hope, of joy, of relief. And she knew that things were as they were meant to be once more.
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Old January 29 2010, 06:09 PM   #3
Nerys Ghemor
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Re: JANUARY CHALLENGE - The Song Of the Phoenix

Wow...very compelling AU. Makes you wonder, though, what will happen if this version of humanity launches only to find a much more powerful Borg right at their doorstep...
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Old February 1 2010, 03:07 AM   #4
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Re: JANUARY CHALLENGE - The Song Of the Phoenix

Interesting....

...but irrelevant...you will be assimilated...resistance is futile
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Old February 1 2010, 07:06 AM   #5
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Re: JANUARY CHALLENGE - The Song Of the Phoenix

Nice! One little quibble. The silo should be deep, not tall. Different connotations.
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Old February 1 2010, 09:42 PM   #6
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Re: JANUARY CHALLENGE - The Song Of the Phoenix

A fine story with a unique basis. I would like to see more of your work.
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Old February 2 2010, 03:02 PM   #7
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Re: JANUARY CHALLENGE - The Song Of the Phoenix

Thanks all for your kind work, will definitely try and write more, was fun
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