First Contact

The floraship passed through the outer reaches of the system unchallenged, its outermost leaves rustling nearly imperceptibly in the solar winds stretching from the local star. Jada pressed her hand against the wall and closed her eyes, smiling as she felt, through the rough wooden bark alloy, the ship’s delight in experiencing this first kiss from a new sun.

The bridge was a bustle of activity as they approached the most distant planet orbiting this star. A dark, frozen ball called Al Thalim J-2, they’d probably encountered a hundred just like it. But Jada always enjoyed these first steps in every new system. So many possibilities, and the ship loved drinking from each star they encountered.

Iro, First of Navigation, stood at the center of the bridge, deeply in his element. His gaze swept in every console even as his head was turned toward the wide window set high in the wall. Al Thalim J-2 drifted in frame, wobbling slightly as the ship made minor course corrections. Text and numbers projected on the window described various properties of the planet’s orbit and ship’s relation thereto, approach vector, and so on. To Jada these things were largely meaningless, as her skills lay in other things. But she always enjoyed watching the crew work.

As the science crew labored at their stations, reports began to coalesce in the air before Iro. His eyes dropped from the window to read them as they appeared, the lines on his wrinkled face deepening as he absorbed their collective knowledge. He nodded, as if seeing something he’d expected, and called to her.

“First of Study,” he said, and Jada cocked her head to indicate that she was listening. “Ready your team. It appears this planet is not so dead as it appears.”

Jada grinned in anticipation, felt the leaves woven through her hair shiver. “I’ll get them together,” she said with a salute. “Have the shuttle prepped.”

The Study team was a small, close-knit group of operatives. Jada was their organizer, and had worked with their biologist, Trint, for over five years. Trint was the oldest member of the crew and had threatened to retire every single one of those years. Possed, geophysicist and meteorologist, was hardly more than a sapling, but had excelled—indeed, broken records—at every test the Exploratory Service sent her way. In fact, it was her multiple specialties that kept their team small, as she could perform the work of several other specialists. Renid, a botanist, and her brother Wixt, a physicist, rounded out the team. Renid and Wixt rarely spoke to anyone other than each other, and even then it was often through unspoken twists of their eyes or subtle movements of their twigs. They were an odd, awkward branch of the crew, but they worked, and Jada wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Study team had its own specialized shuttle, equipped with sensor bundles the standard shuttles weren’t. They’d named her the Sunpod, and the twins had silently decorated the exterior with bright hues and swirling patterns that distinguished her visually from the other shuttles scattered throughout the ship’s crown, docked at various branches closest to where their crews might need them. At her signal, the team met outside the bridge and boarded the nearby pith-lift. As the lift carried them through the hollows of the ship to their destination, Possed studied their target on her handheld.

“Standard ice ball,” she muttered, scrolling through the stats.

“Hope everyone brought a coat,” Trint said. Renid cocked her head at Possed, who shrugged and looked to Jada.

“There’s an energy source,” Jada said. “It’s not large, but there’s something down there.”

Possed’s handheld pinged as it updated from the ship’s main feed, and she nodded. “There it is. It’s well beneath the surface, though.”

“It’ll be up to you guys to figure out a way to get us down there,” Jada said. As the diplomat of the group, most missions she just coordinated (or herded, as she liked to crack) the scientists as they worked. It was rare that her talents had an opportunity to shine, and she was excited. Possed, who’d joined the team only 6 months ago, had never been on a contact mission at all, and even the twins had seen her work her magic only twice.

Possed looked around at the team, her nerves showing in the way her bright white blooms opened and closed repeatedly. “What if they don’t want visitors?”

Jada checked her flechette pistol, snug in its holster in the small of her back, and patted the youngster on one shoulder. “I’m the diplomat,” she said. “It’s up to me to make sure they don’t mind.”