“Follow me,” Eliana Veston said, taking measured breaths as she walked through the forest. “It’s just through here.” She wiped dew away from the soothreader device on her wrist, watching the satellite image display their location in the space above her gloved hand. The air hissed inside the helmet of her atmospheric suit as she breathed in the purified oxygen.
Eliana was twenty-six years old, with dark skin and deep-hazel eyes that she kept behind a pair of rectangular glasses with burgundy rims. She’d always thought glasses were “cool,” because her father wore them, and she’d decided to stick with them even though contacts and corrective eye surgery were readily available. Her short ebony hair was pulled over the right side of her face in twisted locks that rested comfortably under her helmet.
“We must be getting close,” her father, John, said over the communication channel that linked their helmets. “I remember some of these trees.” He patted the white trunk of a tree that had curving branches terminating in crimson leaves. Blue veins of light pulsed up through the bark, waves of gently flowing energy pulled straight from the interior of the planet itself.
John didn’t wear his black-rimmed glasses because he thought they were stylish; he wore them because corrective eye surgery scared the Hells out of him. He had a hard-edged face and short black hair, the wrinkles on his brow gained from years as the lead engineer on the Telemachus Project.
“Let’s hope they have what we need,” George Tanaka said, then huffed. “I’m getting too old for this stuff. If we’ve hiked this far for nothing, I think I’ll just lie down and let nature take me.”
George laughed and leaned against a tree for a moment. He was of Japanese descent, although he, like the others, had never actually been to Earth. His hair was completely gray now, but it had been less so before the long journey to this planet.
“Do you need me to carry you?” Captain Roelin Raike asked, masked by the reflective visor of his combat suit. He was taller than the others, and the suit made him even more so. It was covered in thrusters, referred to as a “jump-jet,” that allowed him to move around a battlefield at a faster speed. He had a particle rifle strapped to his back, and a collider pistol hung at his hip. Roelin had been a war hero back in the Sol System, but today he was escorting a group of scouts.
“Would you actually do it if I said yes?” George asked.
“There!” Eliana scurried over some boulders ahead.
“Elly, wait!” John said over the comm channel, but it fell on deaf ears as his daughter vanished from view behind the rocks.
Eliana stood at the edge of a clearing bursting with glowing blue flowers. The petals glistened in the fading sunlight, becoming more incandescent as the sun sank further behind the horizon line of crimson trees. As she stepped into the field, small alien creatures wriggled their way into the cover of the forest.
“Let’s see what you’re made of,” Eliana whispered to the flowers as she brought her bioscope into her hand and thumbed the button on the side. No light emitted from the cylindrical object, but she could feel soft vibrations on her palm through her glove. After a moment, the vibrating stopped, and a green light flickered on at the back end of the scope. “Give me some good news!” Eliana urged the device.
She didn’t turn to see John, George, and Roelin scrambling into the clearing, focused entirely on the readout the bioscope had transmitted to her wrist-mounted soothreader. Her excitement faded when the soothreader stated, Failed Synthesis, then rattled off the other potential uses for the flowers, such as in allergy medicine.
“Does us no good if we can’t breathe the air without dying.” Eliana sighed. “Thanks anyway, Homer,” she told the artificial intelligence that lived inside all their technology.
Homer was brought to life by the Telemachus Project, an endeavor led by John Veston. It was almost like a step-brother to Eliana. Homer was designed to help humanity find a new home in the stars, compiling all the known information and star data people had gathered throughout history and taking its best guess. Homer worked—this moment was proof of that.
“It was a long shot anyway,” Eliana said into the comm channel as she put the bioscope away. “I just thought we’d get lucky—these flowers haven’t bloomed for us until now. Sorry to drag you out here for nothing.” She looked toward the others.
They were frozen still, save for Roelin, who was slowly lifting his particle rifle toward Eliana. For a moment, she thought he was aiming at her, but then she followed the invisible path his rifle was tracing over her shoulder.
At the other end of the clearing, behind Eliana, stood a figure. The creature had the features of a large bird but stood like a man. It had red and white feathers and a sharp black beak with ice-blue eyes. Long ears protruded from the sides of its head and twitched as they listened for any sudden movements. The bird-man was adorned in colorful sashes lined with glistening gemstones that rattled and twinkled in the setting sun. Two wings spread outward from its shoulder blades, making the bird-man look even more imposing. In one claw, it clenched the limp body of a small, monkey-like creature. In its other hand, it held a long staff topped with a sharp metal hook.
Eliana found herself paralyzed. Her muscles insisted she run, and she could almost feel her body dashing toward her father, but they remained stones under her skin. Sweat began to bead on her forehead, enough so that her helmet detected it and quickly wiped the moisture away with a small sponge.
“Don’t. Move,” Roelin said in a measured tone into the comm channel.
The bird-man dropped the limp creature it was holding, the dead weight shaking the bright flowers as it thudded to the dirt below. It was clear the bird-man wasn’t some wild animal. It was clothed and carrying a tool or weapon, and it showed signs of intelligence.
“No …” the bird-man said with a grunt, and there was a reflexive gasp from the colonist observers, “shoot …”
Dumbfounded, Eliana mustered up her courage and asked, “You … speak our language?” She shook her head, trying to understand. “How is that possible?”
The bird-man let out a low caw and turned its open palm toward Eliana, keeping it flat. She took this as a sign of peace, but she couldn’t be entirely sure. She thought to herself, If it would drop its weapon, I’d feel safer.
The bird-man dropped its hooked staff into the flowers.
Can he read my thoughts? Eliana found herself wondering. She noticed something in the creature’s eyes that told her it might be possible.
Eliana almost jumped out of her atmospheric suit as her father approached from the side and asked, “You have been watching us. Haven’t you?”
The bird-man cooed.
Is that a yes? Eliana wondered
“Do you know what we are, where we come from?” John asked.
The bird-man took a moment to respond, possibly trying to understand the words John was saying. Or perhaps, Eliana thought, trying to understand the thoughts he was thinking. She decided to try something.
“We are humans,” Eliana said, and brought a hand to her chest. The bird-man seemed to light up at this. It straightened itself and brought a hand to its chest in return.
“Auk’nai,” it said.
“Great work, Elly,” John whispered with a smile. Eliana felt like she was getting the hang of this.
“Mag’Ro,” it said, and spread its hand outward. Eliana thought the bird-man was saying something about peace or, It’s sure nice to meet you, and was about to respond when the auk’nai shook its beaked head and reiterated, “Auk’nai,” then brought its hand back toward its chest and said, “Mag’Ro.”
“I’m not sure I—” John began.
“It’s his name.” Eliana nodded, then put her hand on her chest again and said, “My name is Eliana.”
Mag’Ro cooed, and his feathers rustled on his neck.
“I think you got it there,” John said, and then put a hand on his chest and introduced himself. Mag’Ro pattered his feet and cooed again as each of the humans presented their names. He let out a loud birdcall, collected his hook and his kill, knelt down, then sprang into the air, pulling up glowing flower petals into the sky as he vanished into the sunset.
“That was amazing!” John said. “We need to get back to the colony and tell everyone about this.” He patted Eliana on the shoulder. “First contact with the natives.”
“They’re beautiful,” Eliana said, still looking toward the sky.
George let out a loud laugh. “We found it!”
Eliana and John turned toward George and Roelin to see the words Partial Synthesis Success floating above George’s soothreader.
“What? How?” John asked.
“The minerals on Mag’Ro’s sashes,” George said. “While you two were chatting, I scanned him up and down with my bioscope. It’s not a complete synthesis, but if we can figure out where they got those gems, we might be able to develop a cure for lung-lock.”
“Do you think they will tell us?” John asked.
“We’ll have to convince them,” Roelin said as he silently scanned the perimeter for any more surprises in the trees.
“Either way, this is fantastic news,” Eliana said. The three scientists celebrated and congratulated each other as Roelin looked at the setting sun.
“Alright, time to head back. We don’t want to be out here after dark,” Roelin said, slinging his particle rifle back over his shoulder. The others agreed, and they began to hike back toward the colony.
This was Eliana’s life now. Exploring the planet Kamaria for the betterment of Odysseus Colony. Kamaria orbited a star similar to Sol, in a Goldilocks Zone, with all the essential elements humans needed to survive. It was Earth-like, but different from Earth in a lot of ways. The mountains had arches that laced outward like the rib cage of a dead giant. The grass was wavy and amber colored, hiding creatures that were waiting to be named and categorized by the human invaders. The rivers flickered with a full spectrum of color as if God had spilled his whole collection of paints into them.
Kamaria was heaven—if it weren’t for the airborne bacteria that caused human lungs to immediately cease functioning.
They had named the affliction “lung-lock.” More colonists fell victim to the deadly bacteria the longer they remained on the planet. The previous week, a family of four had perished to lung-lock, slipping away in their sleep as the bacteria crept into their rooms through a faulty window seal. The journey to Kamaria took three hundred years of space travel; while the humans on board were preserved in stasis beds, time had worn down some of the equipment they’d brought with them.
Lung-lock would need to be solved, and that was what made the Scout Program so vital. The chemists back at the colony had gotten as far as current human science would allow, but the final pieces of the puzzle had to be somewhere out in the alien wilderness.
“Always a welcome sight,” George said with a sigh. They had hiked back through the crimson forest and could now see Odysseus Colony in the valley ahead.
Two hundred and fifty people lived there. The interstellar spacecraft that was also the colony’s namesake stood like a skyscraper at the edge of the territory. Glass domes pocked a once-grassy meadow, with tube walkways connecting each in a honeycomb pattern. These domed areas were used for research, meetings, construction, agriculture, and recreation. Some of the taller, more rectangular buildings housed the colonists, and there was extra empty space for more to fill as the colony grew and more buildings were constructed. A refinery sat atop a hill and spewed smoke into the otherwise clear night sky. A water-reclamation plant greedily sucked in water from the rainbow-hued river.
Eight starships rested in the shipyard, mostly unused except for exploration. In the past, these ships had fought wars in space and traveled to all the worlds of the Sol System, as they were not equipped to fly to distant stars like the unique engines of the interstellar vessels the Odysseus and the Telemachus.
“Five years left,” John stated. “Let’s hope it’s enough time.”
The Telemachus was already in transit; it had departed half a decade after the Odysseus had begun its journey. It was bringing with it ten thousand more colonists, people who needed to breathe air and live in purified homes. Lung-lock had to be cured before they arrived, or else the casualties were going to start rising.
“We can do it,” Eliana said. “We have to.”