3790:256:02:22. Year 3790, day 256, 02:22 hours, Prontaean time as per the last sync.
A rising vibration hummed through J.D. Hapker’s body as he phased from the space vessel onto the planet. The phasing sensation dissipated and a chill from this world’s atmosphere took over. Regret for not wearing a helmet sunk in as the tips of his ears and nose turned raw from the cold. The planet air filtered by his nosepiece filled his lungs and radiated throughout his body like a morning frost.
His form-fitting enviro-suit quickly adjusted to the temperature but it took a moment longer for him to regain his bearings. He put his hands on his hips and scanned the distant horizon. The lines between the slate-blue land, ocean, and sky merged seamlessly like a vast heavy blanket of twilight fog.
Only stunted plants grew yet it was more than what had been here a couple decades ago when the terraforming experiment started. Back then, the planet contained only microbial life hidden beneath an infinite bleakness of pale-blue ice. No wonder it was nicknamed the Blue Blight.
A heaviness settled over him that had nothing to do with the planet’s strong gravitational force. How had his life come to this? He’d made his parents so proud by following the same career path as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him.
But it wasn’t enough—not for him anyway. The time he’d spent vacationing with his family in the forests of his homeworld made him want to explore further. So in a decision his father felt was rash and irresponsible, Hapker left home for a career in space.
This was supposed to be a new adventure, but things weren’t going as expected. The decisions were harder, the ethics fuzzier, and his superiors less forgiving. One incident gone awry and now his life had taken a turn as cheerless as this land. If this second chance didn’t work out, he’d have to return home an utter failure and face the perpetual disappointment of his father.
Hapker pushed down a rising sense of gloom and walked heavily toward the team of nearby scientists. Gravity made his trek slow and arduous. No dust billowed from under his feet. No marks were made on the dense terrain. He was like an elephant tromping on stone.
Excited banter reached him as he arrived within earshot of the terra-team. One of the science officers tapped his finger on the viewscreen with apparent glee. Hapker looked on with envy. It had been a long time since he’d been this excited about his own job.
All conversation cut off at Hapker’s approach.
“Doctor Canthidius,” he said casually in greeting to the lead science officer. The man looked up but neither smiled nor returned the greeting.
Doctor Holgarth Canthidius’s features were more extreme than any Hapker had encountered in his travels thus far. The man’s eyes were like those of a tropical fish. His skin was grey with a hint of blue and he had a round sucker-like mouth.
Since Canthidius came from the nearly all ocean planet of Nomare, his resemblance to a fish seemed a cosmic joke. Hapker would have thought the man was a space alien if he didn’t already know such beings beyond a few lower-life forms hadn’t been discovered yet. As a human, Canthidius was much the same as every other person in the galaxy. But the passing generations of people spread over a wide variety of ecosystems had greatly diversified human characteristics.
“Did you find something interesting?” Hapker asked.
“Nothing that would interest you, Commander,” Canthidius said.
Hapker clenched his jaw. He was the Vice Executive Commander of the Odyssey, the largest and most advanced science and service vessel of the Prontaean Colonial Cooperative. It was his job to monitor the progress of his crew, even if he didn’t understand all of what they were doing.
But Canthidius was right to resent him. He had little in common with his new crew. Early in his adult life, he served as a Pholatian Protector. Later, he became a high-ranking military officer with the Prontaean Galactic Force. Though he never really fit in with the PG-Force’s hard-core attitudes, his combat and strategic skills meant he had more in common with them than he did with these scientists and engineers.
“Give me an abbreviated version anyway,” he said brusquely to the doctor.
Canthidius went into a long explanation full of technical terms, no doubt talking over his head on purpose.
Hapker suppressed a frown. His lack of understanding made his mind to wander as the man rattled on. When the comm beeped in Hapker’s ear, he eagerly raised his hand to stop Canthidius. He pressed the lower part of the comm-strip taped on his neck below his ear lobe. “Hapker here. Go ahead.”
“Commander, we have a situation here,” Captain Arden said. “I need everyone to return to the ship immediately.”
Hapker shifted into high alert. He saw no immediate threat, but his training didn’t allow him to take this as anything less than serious. “Yes, Sir.”
He released the comm and addressed the scientists. “The captain wants us all back on the ship, now.”
“What? Why?” Canthidius replied with a look of consternation.
“No time for questions, Doctor. If you want to know the reason, you can ask the captain yourself, after we get back on the ship.”
Canthidius pursed his fish-like lips in apparent reluctance. Captain Silas Arden had never served in the military, but his crew respected him in the same way everyone respected a general.