Visit Fascinating New Worlds
This is an advance reader copy, and has not been fully edited by the author or the press. Please take that into consideration as you write your review, and if you make quotes from the text, also indicate that this was an advance reader copy.
Tomed bolted upright out of a deep sleep. He swung his feet from the bed and pulled the bottom of his shipsuit over his legs. Something had woke him, but what? He rubbed his eyes and cast his gaze around the room. The room looked normal enough. Gray walls and beige carpet, a generic painting on the wall to the right, all normal for a stateroom on a Hiem-class starship. The air circulator hummed along with a steady rhythm. Even the door that led from the bedroom to the rest of the suite was still cracked open just as he had left it.
Tomed sensed nothing in his room. He frowned, extended his consciousness outward, and felt the alarm of the bridge crew a moment before the red alert klaxon sounded. He pushed his arms into his shipsuit and dashed out of his cabin before he had finished zipping it up.
The bridge was controlled chaos. A dim light pulsed red when the alert siren sounded. The voices of the bridge crew mulled together as all of them hollered out damage reports and status updates.
"We're venting atmosphere!" an officer called out.
“Engines are still offline!”
Tomed pressed himself against the doorpost at the rear of the bridge until he was needed. The damage assessment station and the engineering monitor were to his left and right. The weapons control station and sensor station, the captain and first officer's stations and the navigation and helm controls were in rows ahead of him. The Main Holographic Display, or MHD dominated the very front of the bridge. It currently displayed a three-dimensional hologram of this ship, the Goddard, with several areas highlighted in red.
Captain Trenton stood behind a frazzled-looking lieutenant and stared over her shoulder at the damage assessment station. He finished double-checking her readout then glanced up at Tomed.
"Good morning, Psygen. I'm afraid we'll have a slight delay in getting you to the conference at SeQish."
"Well, it can't be helped. My presence there is more of a formality than anything else." Tomed shrugged. "Looks like I slept through all the fun. What's the situation?"
"Well, we had a surprise visit from a pirate ship." The captain raised an eyebrow and cocked his head slightly to the side.
Tomed frowned. It looked like the captain expected some kind of reaction from the statement. There was something about pirate activity in this sector that should ring a bell...
Tomed really wished he had a cup of coffee, he’d never been able to think clearly in the morning, and it was somewhere around six—at least, it was in the last time zone he'd been in. He shook his head and willed himself to wake up.
"I think," he replied, "the latest report said that there wasn't any pirate activity in this sector since the new resort opened over at Antar. Shouldn’t all the pirates be over there?”
Captain Trenton chuckled. "Funny you say that. Apparently the pirates that attacked us didn't get the memo about the resort opening. They thought we were a luxury cruise liner."
Tomed laughed loudly enough to distract several of the other bridge crew.
"Wait... they somehow mistook a Heim class cruiser for a luxury liner?"
"Yeah," the captain said, "you'd think the giant UGAL logo on the side of the ship would've been their first clue. That and we're a little small for a cruise ship."
"So, how much damage did they cause?" Tomed asked.
"We're still assessing the situation. Lieutenant Roshen.”
Lieutenant Roshen cleared his throat and ran a hand through his thick curls. “We're venting atmosphere from the stern storage bay, and we're leaking drive plasma from the starboard engine manifold."
Tomed looked over at the readout. The atmosphere leak was already sealed off, but it looked like the drive plasma leak was getting worse.
"What’s the chief engineer’s assessment?" he asked.
The captain looked grim. "He's working on it now, but he's not sure if he can repair it."
"Mind if I take a look at the damage report?" Tomed asked.
"Be my guest," the captain said as he gestured at the console.
Tomed sat down and scrolled through the damage assessment. The plume of plasma that jetted out of the fracture on the starboard engine manifold obscured the ship's sensors. That made it difficult to get an exact reading on the full extent of the damage. A plasma beam had struck the starboard engine pod about twenty-four centimeters behind the field output emitter—an area that wasn't accessible from inside the ship. Tomed grunted at the report and then stood. "I think this plasma leak will have to be repaired or we won't make it back to any UGAL outpost. Worse, it doesn't look like the damage can be repaired without shutting down the reactor core. Our best option would be to find a planet to land on. That would make the repairs easier, and we wouldn't have to worry about life support running out if we've vented too much drive plasma to restart the reactor."
"That's exactly how our chief engineer assessed the situation" the captain replied. "You seem to have a rather thorough grasp of starship mechanics. I thought Psygens were mostly diplomats?"
Tomed grinned. "There's a lot more to being a Psygen than most people associate with the job."
"There's more to most jobs than people think," Captain Trenton said over his shoulder as he walked over to the navigation console.
"Ensign Materton, have you found any planets in the vicinity that would be suitable to land on to make repairs?"
A short brunette looked up from the console.
"Possibly sir," she said. "I've found a planet which a remote survey probe indicated might be habitable. However, we haven't sent live survey teams anywhere near it. It's also pretty much the only one within the range that engineering says we can make."
"Pretty much?" the captain asked.
"Well sir, there are two more planets within our range, however…"
The ensign turned to the con and pressed in a sequence that brought up a readout in a separate holo-window. Tomed and the captain both leaned in to read the display.
"Each of these other choices—" She pointed to the relevant portion of the readout, "—has problems that would make them a bad choice for a repair stop. This one—" She touched the first planet, which caused the computer to bring up a larger hologram of the world in question. "—is habitable, but barely. Probe reports indicate very unstable weather systems, and the star is dying. It’s so cold that we’d need environmental suits to survive outside. Hardly ideal conditions for exterior repair."
The captain grunted in agreement with her assessment. "What's the report on the last one?"
"This planet has an atmosphere, and weather and temperature are good, but the air's not breathable, and pressure is slightly off. It might work, but we'd need masks outside the ship. The biggest problem is that it's also the farthest away of our three choices. We might not make it there. I'd pick planet number one, sir."
The captain nodded in agreement. "Planet number one it is then. Does it have a name?"
"No, sir. It was just recently surveyed by a long-range probe. It hasn't even been assigned a designation number yet."
"Very well, Ensign. Keep looking at that probe data and see if you can find a few options for a landing spot."
"Yes, sir," she replied.
The captain turned to face the console to his right. "Helm, lay in the course provided from navigation and engage at whatever speed we can manage."
"Course entered and engaged sir," the crewman stationed at the helm reported.
The ship lurched as it turned and accelerated.
"Current speed is Hyper point zero-three-five. Our ETA is forty-seven hours, six minutes."
Captain Trenton returned to his command chair and sat down. He leaned back and crossed his legs.
"Captain, permission to go bother the engineering staff?" Tomed offered a small smile.
The captain chuckled. "Permission granted, Psygen."
"Sir, we're approaching the planet," the helm officer reported.
"Enter into orbit," the captain ordered.
Tomed stood at an empty place by the door and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He’d hardly slept over the past forty-six hours while they made their way to the fourth planet in the system, and he’d spent most of that time hard at work in engineering.
"Now entering into orbit," the helm officer said.
"Ensign Materton, have you found any viable options for a landing site?" the captain asked from behind her.
"Probe data indicated two possible locations large enough to land the ship, sir," she replied "The first one... scanners show an active lava flow, safe as far as volcanic activity goes, but looks like it's ruled out for landing, sir."
She pressed a few more keys and her eyes searched the monitor. "This one looks better sir, a nice grassy plain about a kilometer wide and about forty kilometers long. There's a forest on one side and foothills for a mountain range on the other. The west end is on a large inland lake, and the east end opens up to a savanna."
"Looks like a winner to me," Captain Trenton said.
The captain walked back to his command chair, sat down, and pressed the intercom button. "Bridge to engineering. Commander Pattersen, are we ready to land?"
The engineer's voice came over the intercom. "We'll be ready to land in approximately five minutes Captain. We're shutting down the main reactor core, venting the drive plasma out of the engine pods, and starting the power-up sequence on the backup anti-grav generators."
"Acknowledged. Let the helm know when you're ready."
The captain pushed the button to terminate the intercom and leaned back into his chair.
The image of the planet shimmered into existence on the holo-display at the front of the bridge. It hung in space, a bluish green orb that spun serenely. Tomed leaned forward and tried to keep a professional look on his face. This world hadn't even had a preliminary survey team look at it yet. It’d been a long time since he'd been the first to explore a new planet. A long time ago, it had been one of the duties of the Psygens. For a while now, they’d been considered too busy with their duties of keeping order and overseeing the bureaucrats of the worlds of the United Galactic Allied League. For the past few decades, scout ships with specialized survey teams had been sent to explore any newly discovered habitable worlds.
There were still several thousand planets scanned by probes that follow-up teams hadn't gotten to. The planet they orbited was a ways off from the standard hyperspace lanes. The odds were very low that it had sentient natives, but Tomed hoped that this world housed a new species to be discovered.
"Sir, engineering reports we’re ready for planet-fall," the helm officer said.
"Very well. Ensign, commence landing," the captain said.
"Aye, sir, commencing landing procedures."
Bast rushed through the forest while trying to maintain some measure of stealth. She flicked her ears in every direction and listened for anything unusual. So far, only natural sounds filled the forest.
The air was crisp and sunlight filtered through the leaves. The perfect day for her first assignment. She clenched her jaw, measured her breathing, and straightened her tail. She needed this assignment to go well. Only then could she be recognized as an adult.
Scouts from every one of the clans had seen the giant metal ship—something that large and with such an unnatural shape could only be a ship—come slowly down to the ground. If it kept going without a change in its speed or direction, it would land in the part of the Large Grassland which fell inside in her clan's territory. Besides, where could it have come from? What sort of creature would travel through the stars on such a craft?
She approached the edge of the forest and looked around for a nice bit of cover. She found a line of bushes between a stand of trees. It would work perfectly and provide an escape back into the forest if it became necessary. She sat on her haunches behind the brush, curled her tail around her feet, and licked a speck of dust off one of the white patches of fur on her paw. The ship should land soon.
"It could be crashing too..." she mused aloud.
But the scouts and scientists had reported it was on a stable course and wasn't on fire or anything. She liked surprises–for the most part–and this would certainly be an interesting sight. A faint, high-pitched noise came from the west. She poked her nose from the bush and raised her whiskers in that direction. Nothing yet. She waited a little longer. The sound grew louder, and a slight wind blew across the plain.
Bast crouched as low as possible and crept slowly forward to where she could see through the bushes and yet remain unseen. Her calico fur blended into some environments better than others, and the bushes at the edge of the forest made an ideal spot to hide.
Just as the sound grew to a loud whine—high enough pitched that it hurt her ears—the ship came into view. Was the ship painted, or was the metal naturally that shade of periwinkle? Two long hollowed-out cylinders that were as tall as the rest of the ship jutted out of the sides closer to the rear. Several supports connected these cylinders to the rectangular main body of the ship.
A large intricate design was painted on the ship near the front. She wasn't sure what it meant. It didn’t appear to be artistic, with its swirls and straight lines of red and black criscrossing over a triangular patch of dark yellow.
Bast’s ears stood up, and she had to fight to keep her tail from doing the same. The ship stopped and hovered about forty lengths above tree level. Leg-like appendages descended from several spots on the bottom of the ship, and it lowered itself onto the grass.
Bast had never seen anything like it. The ship was too aerodynamic to be a spacecraft, but too boxy to be an aircraft. She hunched farther into the brush and watched while the sun climbed higher in the sky. Nothing moved on the ship. Was anyone or anything on board, or was it automated in some way?
After the sun had moved about ten degrees westward across the sky, a hatch on the bottom of the ship swung down and a ramp lowered to the ground. Bast tensed and couldn’t stop the tip of her tail from twitching. After another short wait, two bipedal creatures descended the ramp and scanned the plain. Bast sniffed carefully, but she couldn’t smell them.
The aliens wore dark red clothing—uniforms of some sort? They were dressed identically. Bast could tell them apart by the different color of the scant patch of short fur on their heads and slight differences in size. They stood on two legs instead of four. Bast studied them, and they didn't seem to drop back down to all four legs, even when they walked around. The aliens appeared to be about twice as tall as the average Meskka, but it was mostly an illusion due to the odd way they walked. Bast thought she could probably look them in the face if she stood up on her rear legs—but there was no way she could walk around like that! They were also awfully scrawny. She suppressed a giggle.
Each of the aliens carried a metal tube, about the length of their forearm, in one hand, and a small box in the other. Bast guessed the tubes might be weapons from the way they pointed them at anything before they approached. After they waved both the tubes and boxes around for a moment, one of them turned back toward the ship and waved an arm. Another alien walked down the ramp. This one wore blue clothes and had brown fur. He took his time looking around as he strolled down the ramp. Their confidence gave her the impression they were male.
One more alien exited the ship. This one wore clothes in a mixture of several different drab colors. He carried a metal box slightly larger than the aliens in red carried.
She yawned as she watched the strange creatures. So far, they hadn't done anything interesting. The two with the weapons went out ahead of the others. Perhaps they were scouts? The one in blue with brown fur—if you could really call it fur—seemed to be a leader. He moved back and forth from the scouts to the other alien. This brown-furred one and the one with the colorful clothes stared at the box for a while and then waved at the scouts to follow him. They all headed in Bast’s general direction. She waited, absolutely still, her muscles tensed, for a moment. Had she been spotted? After a few moments of agony, the aliens headed off to her left.
Bast let out her breath and glanced back at the ship. Another group of the creatures emerged from a point at the top of the ship. Each of them carried a wide variety of interesting looking equipment. This group looked around for a moment before they walked to the rear of the ship.
They worked their way onto one of the protruding tubes and stopped at a long jagged scar surrounded by scorch marks. They soon began to remove various pieces around the scar.
The ground group was almost to the tree line. They still stared at their little boxes, and occasionally looked up, down, and all around. They looked for all the world like a kindle of kittens that had opened their eyes for the first time. She covered her muzzle with her paws to keep from laughing.
She turned her head and looked back at the ship. The repair crew had half of the area around the damage torn off, and were still taking things apart. They weren't going anywhere for a while.
The aliens with the weapons looked around idly. The other two held various leaves and sticks and things up in front of their boxes and then stared at them for a while, only to get another leaf and repeat the whole ordeal.
Bast almost yelped when another member of her clan contacted her using thought-speak.
"Bast, the Council wishes to hear your initial report."
"I have not yet finished observing them," she said.
The speaker was Rrrark, another Scout of her clan, and from the feel of his mental voice, he was on his way to her.
"Yes, I tried to advise them to wait to allow you to gather enough information to make a full report—" Rrrark sounded irritated to Bast. "—but the Council is nervous about this ship and wants to gather all the information they can, as quickly and accurately as possible, to determine if it is a threat to the clan. I am coming to temporarily relieve you long enough to make your report."
"Very well." Her tail drooped. She wasn’t done watching them yet!
Bast kneaded the dirt with her claws while she waited for Rrrark to arrive. The Council was probably worried these creatures were here to take over the clan’s territory or something. They didn’t feel that dangerous to her. Perhaps if she delivered her report quickly, she could get back to watching them.
A black shape moved in the corner of her eye. Bast turned and squinted, then recognized the shadow as Rrrark. His black fur blended into the shadows. She stood and bowed to him. She took a few steps and stretched before she ran off in the direction of her clan’s khaal. Hmm. The aliens were fairly close. She lessened her pace. If she was out of breath when she gave this silly report… well, the Council wouldn’t like that at all.
Several lengths later, she came to a deep ravine. She leapt up onto the first branch of the tree bridge. Two trees made up the tree bridge, one on either side of the divide. Her clan had used it for ages; it was much faster than climbing all the way down and back up. The trees had been coaxed to grow together, their limbs pruned and twisted to make an elegant passageway.
Halfway out, on the third branch up, where it was grafted into a branch from the tree on the opposite side, the limb snapped under her. Bast reached out to grab the broken edge with her claws. She clung precariously for a moment. The limb creaked. Small pops and snaps told her she’d better climb back up before the rest of the branch broke. She lifted her right paw and sunk her claws into the wood—the rotten wood, she realized as her claws sliced through it as easily as if it were a leaf. She pawed desperately but slid off and into the ravine.
Bast screamed as she twisted in an attempt to right herself and land on her feet. Halfway through twisting her torso back to center, the rest of the limb broke and tumbled toward her. She landed hard on her feet and tried to absorb the impact. It was too much, and her belly slammed into the ground. Bast tried to roll out of the way, but her legs wouldn’t move. The log smashed into her ribs and rebounded onto her head, just above her ear. The world went dark.
Tomed walked along the path in the forest. It was a packed dirt track and clear of vegetation. Even the tree limbs had been cleared to a height of about a meter from the ground. They had followed the trail for about ten minutes when a loud snap of breaking wood came from ahead, followed by a scream.
Tomed broke into a run. "Come on!"
They ran toward the source of the sound and came upon a ravine. Tomed peered over the edge and whistled softly.
"Come take a look at this."
He motioned for Commander Vinson to come closer. Vinson peeked over the edge.
"Wow," he whispered.
A large cat, about three meters long, lay in the ravine. A tree limb covered most of the cat’s body and made it hard to tell its exact size.
Remarkable. Except for its large size, it looked very similar to a common house cat from Earth, especially in the calico coloration of its fur.
Tomed and the commander climbed down rapidly, stumbling once or twice over the roots and rocks in the steep incline.
"This is incredible!" The commander lifted a front paw that was a tad bigger than his hand. "Looks to be a female. Mammalian or the local equivalent. Bone structure is proportional. From that, I’d guess it’s either an adult or close to it, but without seeing more of the species, there’s no way to be certain."
Tomed lifted the log off her and tossed it aside.
Vinson looked up at Tomed with a surprised look on his face. Tomed thought he might want to ask a question, but the commander’s attention was back on the cat. He turned over her front paw and whistled.
"Look at this!" He pointed to the paw. "She's got an extra opposable digit here roughly where a domestic cat would have a dew claw. Strange. From the rest of the foot structure, I'd say it's quadrupedal."
He ran his scanner over her body.
"How is she?" Tomed asked.
"Still alive. Her heartbeat is steady, but her breathing's ragged."
"Let me look at her."
Tomed moved closer, and held his hand about four centimeters above her body. He moved it slowly from head to tail. Commander Vinson looked at him with a puzzled expression.
"What are you doing, sir?" he asked.
"Checking for damage..."
"Are the rumors about Psygen's abilities true?" Vinson asked.
"Not all rumors are true, Commander. But some have a kernel of truth in them." Tomed smiled, and put his right hand gently on the cat’s head, and his left over her ribs where the log had caught her. He felt a static-like sensation tingle his hands as he passed them over the injured area. He could feel a faint echo of pain. He concentrated and could almost see the cat’s wounds.
"She's got a mild concussion, four broken ribs, and possibly a punctured lung. I’m not a doctor though–it might just be bruised."
Tomed closed his eyes and pushed energy out through his palms. A faint, soft yellow-white glow formed between Tomed's hands and the cat's inert body. A soft hum emanated from the light. Tomed moved his hand over the area echoing the most pain. He pushed more energy into that spot and imagined the bones growing back together.
Bast woke with a splitting headache. She hurt all over. She started purring softly to help healing. Her people had always known that purring helped the healing process, but it was only within the past hundred years they had discovered that it was the specific frequency range of an average purr that stimulated and sped healing. She tried to remember where she was. A tree branch slowly came to mind. She remembered something about falling and then where she was going at the time.
Bast jerked into full consciousness. Two of the strange creatures stood over her. The other two were at the top of the ravine. One of the two closer to her was the brown-furred leader. A musky smell wafted from his skin. Yup, it was a male. He made a combination of noises at the other one. She didn't move. Neither did they. She blinked slowly. The brown-furred one blinked slowly back.
He pointed at his chest and said: "Tomed."
Was that his name? Should she just run off or stay and see what they did next? She slowly reached up and touched herself in the chest, just as he had done. "Bast" she said, pronouncing her name slowly. She could sense a presence. She concentrated on it. It wasn’t a Meskka presence, and it seemed to come from the alien who had identified himself as Tomed. She blinked again. How could she sense a presence, even though he wasn’t thought-speaking to her?
"Hello?" she queried.
He looked surprised for a moment, and then answered her, also in thought-speak.
"Hello. My name is Tomed, I am a human from a world called Earth.”
It was her turn to look surprised–she really hadn't expected him to answer her, and she especially didn't expect to understand him.
"I am called Bast, of the Mer-ahsh clan. I am surprised that we are able to understand each other."
"It's probably because we're communicating ideas telepathically, and our minds translate the concepts into words," he replied. "I, too, am surprised that we are able to communicate like this. Very few on my world are able, and no other species we have encountered can do it. May I try something that might let us communicate even more efficiently?"
Bast wondered what on Alkask that could be. "What do you mean?"
"Our minds are able to understand each other," he answered, "I would like to try to send your mind our language, so that we can communicate verbally. My companions are wondering what’s going on. It won't hurt at all. Worst case, it'll sound like I'm talking a whole bunch of gibberish."
"You can really do that?" Bast asked.
She stared at him. She hadn't even heard stories in which such a thing was possible. And if it was possible, was it safe?
"I don't know," he answered, "I've never had the chance to try, but in theory it should work. Telepathy is a side effect of controlled quantum reactions. Basically, my brain stores information in a quantum state and then induces the same quantum state in your brain. Thus we can understand each other even though we don't know each other’s language."
Bast tried to follow what he was saying, thinking, quantuming, whatever. It made her head hurt. Pity, it had just started to feel better.
"I don't really understand all of that. My people have always been able to talk with thought-speak. But if this method to learn your language won't do any damage, and will possibly help communicate with the others, it's worth trying."
Tomed reached his hand out very slowly and laid his palm on Bast's forehead. His hand was smooth and cool, but not cold. He closed his eyes and took a deep, slow breath. Bast felt a series of thoughts flow into her head, too fast to grasp, so she tried to relax and let it come. It felt like a river of ideas flowing into her brain. More and more came every second. Just when she thought she couldn't take in any more, it stopped. She opened her eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled quickly.
"Well, I don't think anything went wrong," Tomed said, "But can you understand me?"
Bast surprised herself more than the humans when she answered in their language, "Yes, I can understand you now. You are from the ship that landed in the valley?"
"Yes we are. Our ship was damaged, and we needed to land to repair it. I’m Psygen Tomed Nor, and this is Lieutenant Commander Greg Vinson. Marine Major Hood, and Marine Lance Corporal Harris are up at the top of the hill."
Bast dipped her head to each of the others as he introduced them.
She suddenly realized that her ribs hardly hurt. She was sure she had cracked one or two of them when that log hit her. She had almost forgotten in all the excitement.
"Did you help me heal?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, "I helped a little."
"Thank you. May I ask what your intentions are after you have repaired your ship?"
"We had hoped to stay and survey your planet as long as we were here. We are a curious race and know nothing of your world."
Bast's people also had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. It would be odd if they had come all the way from another world merely to repair their ship. However, the repairs could be a ruse to cover a more nefarious purpose.
.... end of excerpt...