Where’s the picture that tells a thousand words? Thanks to my daughter, Len Fabian, you get it today! If you like her stuff, she does commissions. Check out her website.
The briefing room of the Impulsive held a barbell-shaped table, each end equipped with a 3D holographic display in the center of the “bell.” The shape was really an attempt to make the Modern Arts class at the Academy relevant, but it did serve its purposes. Sometimes, two teams could work on a problem, one at each end of the table, then meet in the long middle to discuss their ideas.
This, however, was not one of those times.
The senior staff sat on one side of the table. Of course, it should be noted that “senior” is used loosely, since several other officers on the ship outranked Ensign Doall and Lieutenant LaFuentes, including three of the Engineering staff, and none of the people in attendance were over the age of 45. Smythe, the eldest, was older than Jeb by five years…unless they were picking up women, in which case, Jeb claimed to be somewhere between 27 and 34, depending on what he thought sounded hotter. Since he’d found Keptar, he’d come to realize that age was not as important as keeping one’s gluteus maximus strong and supple…but then again, that had always been a priority for him, anyway.
Right now, however, he hoped to Keptar that he could dig his xenologist out of the fix she was in, literally as well as figuratively.
Loreli looked at them all through the camera a very irate GON had placed for her so she could communicate. To everyone’s relief, she was alive, though not well. Her normally green skin was tinged yellow, and her fronds drooped. Her arms hung limply, though her fingers were splayed to take in the light of the single sun.
Her legs were embedded in the ground, where her feet had transformed into roots that stretched through the planet’s rich soil.
The GONs had surrounded her in a force field bubble that allowed only the passage of air. The field seemed to pass through the ground as well.
“I’m so embarrassed about this, Captain,” Loreli said. Around her, scientists of the world were taking measurements and soil samples and scowling. In the background, they could hear angry chants. The words were too faint to be intelligible, but Jeb didn’t like the tone. LaFuentes clenched his fists, he didn’t either.
“What happened?” Doall asked. Despite her years of friendship with the Botanical, she had never seen Loreli revert to her plantlike state.
One of the scientists within earshot of Loreli’s screen dropped the soil sample he was taking, an obviously deliberate act, since two of his four legs were empty at the time. He marched to the camera, somehow causing his delicate legs make angry, distinct stomps in the moist soil, and stuck his face in front of the lens. His words sounded like chitters and hisses.
The universal translator said, “What happened? You know damn well what happened, you fleshy (species-specific expletive here, having to do with the state of your egg before it hatched). We trusted you and you sent a vegetable to invade our planet.”
“Your people attacked me,” Loreli responded. “They ambushed me, killed one of your own and left me for dead. When I woke up, I found myself this way. I didn’t intend it. It was an autonomic response of my body to keep me alive. It is because your people did not trust us that we are in this predicament.”
Two other GONs pulled the angry scientist away. The translator said they were simultaneously scolding and commiserating with their comrade, though it declined to give a direct translation of what was said.
Every ship in the Union had a filter on the Universal Translator that removed the most potentially volatile conversations when they – in the translator’s humble decision matrix – did not pertain to the immediate problem. In some cases, it could replace the more hateful words with less inflammatory equivalents; in other cases, it simply omitted the parts that might set blood boiling and phasers firing. It also condensed longwinded communications, particularly when dealing with impatient species. It was one of the best-kept secrets in Engineering and Diplomacy circles; however one of Chief Engineer Deary’s protégés in the AI section had nonetheless heard about it while drinking one of the programmers under the table. He’d come back to the ship, staggering and hung over, but refused the doctor’s offer of imposazine until he’d reprogrammed the translator. He couldn’t tell it to directly translate everything, but he could introduce a new subroutine to give a loose summary.
“Really,” the translator said to the staff, “they’re just upset.”
Jab gave his Ops Officer a stern look, but she was already typing away at her pad, shock set aside and anticipating his commands as usual. Once she stopped anticipating what he needed and started thinking for herself, HuFleet would have one hell of a Captain. Until then, he had a few years to reap the benefits of her skill.
“Hell of a way to get your foot in the door, Lieutenant. How extensively have you rooted?” Jeb asked Loreli.
“I’m not sure. I’m trying to stop myself, Captain. I have been ever since I regained consciousness. The force field has actually helped; whenever I touch it, I get zapped.” She turned her face slightly to where LaFuentes sat, fists clenched. “Don’t worry; it’s just a tickle, really. I don’t think anyone wants to hurt me. That would just make things worse.”
“The GONs,” Jeb trusted the translator to substitute the real name of the inhabitants, “are refusing to let us go to the planet to help you. DipCorp is trying to negotiate something, but in the meantime, I need you to do more than stop yourself. You need to pull those capillaries back in.”
“I’ll try, Captain. I’m just…so tired.”
His voice gentled. “You’ve been tired before. Refuse this world the benefit of your growth like you did Anora.”
She nodded. Out of view of the camera, Doall did the same.
“You’ve got this sprout. We’ll contact you when we have updates. In the meantime, soak in the sun. Impulsive out.”
The screen went dark.
“She did not look good.” LaFuentes had an edge to his voice.
Jeb ignored him. “Doall, did you get the readings?”
Her grimace said she had not done as well as she’d hoped, but she put the holographic image of Loreli up for everyone to see. The above-ground section looked clear, though the edges were not as sharp as they should have been. Below ground, there were some large tubular roots with smaller but thick roots growing from them. They were fuzzy, however, and a few light lines indicated more roots too thin to record properly.
“This was the best the sensors can do through the soil. Definitely not good enough for the transporters.”
Jeb nodded. Even if they could transport just Loreli and not the surrounding soil, she was already in shock. He wasn’t sure how well her body could handle the stress of transplanting. He looked at his First Officer. Smythe had been part of the team that made First Contact with Keepout, and he knew he’d kept up on the planet’s relations with the Union since.
“They’ve sealed her from the elements to limit the contagion. The fact that they’ve let her live seems to imply they aren’t sure if killing her won’t cause more harm to the environment. In a sense, her natural response to injury has preserved her life.”
“And when they decide?” LaFuentes asked. “All those scientists didn’t seem to care much about whether she lives or dies so long as they don’t contaminate their precious planet. And what about water?”
“They won’t water her, even if we sent some ourselves. They’d fear that would encourage her growth.”
Jeb held up a hand. “She’s safe for the moment. Smythe and I will work with Wylson on a diplomatic decision. In the meantime, I want the rest of you working on a Plan B, C and D. Dearly, I want a way to override this All Stop. Cruz, LaFuentes, we need a way to get past their defenses. Doall, work with Chief Dour to find a way to get her back on this ship. If we can do it while respecting the sanctity of their environment, all the better. Get to it, people.”
I’m a “pantster,” which means I write “by the seat of my pants,” with no outline and only a general idea of where the story goes. At this point writing the story, I do not know what Plan B, C or D are. I do know it will take thrilling heroics. Let’s find out together, shall we? Join us here next week, same Impulsive Time, same Impulsive Channel.