A galactic explorer gets cold feet
The intrepid explorer gazed impassively at the snowy meadow, contemplating her lack of options. Of course, ‘gazed’ wasn’t quite the correct word. The lumps of coal that served as eyes were actually charcoal briquets, nearly whole remnants scavenged from the family barbecue pit. Still, she was aware of the surrounding area with a seventh sense that humans might call ESP. There were several of the bipedal creatures in the nearby farmhouse, but only the smallest one responded to her attempts to communicate. And the large ones didn’t want to believe.
“Mommy, Mommy, Frosty is alive! I know he is! He talked to me again last night and he’s in trouble and we have to save him and . . .”
“Sara, we’ve been over this before. You’re just having a bad dream. It comes from watching too many cartoon shows, young lady. I think we’ll have less television for a while. And stay away from that snowman! I’m tired of all this silly nonsense.”
Skrood would have groaned with frustration, but her pebble smile was frozen in place with no opening for sound to escape. She needed desperately to reach the ship and manually trigger the transpressor, but there were no legs under the large, round bottom that gave her form stability. And even if she did reach the ship, the twiggy sticks that were her arms didn’t have flexible digits to operate the controls.
‘She’ wasn’t quite the proper pronoun, either. Gender assignment wasn’t really relevant for a lone explorer. As with most Tamborans, Skrood had hatched with the potential to become female, but hadn't been destined for motherhood. Only an elite few were allowed full sexual development and a place in the ruling caste of the Great Hive.
* * * * * * * * * *
“See how this youngling stands apart from the brood? She examines the creche walls and shows no sign of fear. Yesterday, she pushed at the creche door. I believe it’s a sign of intelligence as well as independence. She already shows a high potential for exploration.”
Chief Care-Keeper Yilx was excited, and looked to Binz for approval. Explorers were rare and the discovery would reflect well on her. The rest of the new brood huddled together near the heating unit seeking only warmth and the protection of the swarm. None of them would ever open a door to the unknown.
“I agree,” Binz said with obvious satisfaction. “You have done well to alert me. Send this one to the central hive for further development. What is her designation?”
“She is called Skrood.”
The central hive was a large and bustling community that included scholars, scientists, and engineers. Many of them were involved with training the promising young explorer. She was raised on a special course of nutrients and given training to develop her problem-solving skills.
“Hold, youngling! You must follow the prescribed protocols.”
“The protocols waste much time and effort to little purpose. I have completed all simulation levels and reached the required goal.”
Skrood was one of the most talented candidates that the simulation master had ever worked with. She showed an intuitive understanding and often succeeded with short cuts that others wouldn’t even have tried. She was also headstrong and the master found it necessary to keep a close eye on her progress.
“The protocols have been established through many generations of exploration and experience. The simulations are not merely games. They are intended to teach the protocols so that you will follow them faithfully when making first contact. This is necessary for your safety and for the good of the Great Hive. You will repeat the simulation and learn the protocols.”
Skrood gave no outward sign of impatience as she started over. She was determined to succeed and achieve the status of explorer. It would be unbearable to rejoin her androgynous brood-mates now. They might be content with a simple existence in the communal labor ranks, but Skrood yearned for the solitary career of an explorer. She wanted to visit far-off stars, observe alien civilizations, and chart new planets for colonization.
* * * * * * * * * *
Skrood popped in and out of hyperspace without any sense of the passage of time. She didn’t completely understand the physics involved, but she had heard an engineer say that time and distance didn’t really exist in hyperspace. It made traveling seem like a paradox. The voyage out of the Tamboran home system had taken weeks, but an interstellar jump of sixty light-years took no subjective time at all. It was odd to think that fourteen years of real-time had passed on Tambor during that brief flicker of non-existence. Her brood-mates would be middle aged by the time she returned.
The yellowish star in the viewport had been selected by the astronomers and Skrood began her investigation as the ship accelerated toward it. The gas giants she passed by were of no interest, the inner planets were scorched and barren, and the fourth was far too cold. The third planet, however, showed an abundance of liquid water and sufficient oxygen for the tamboran metabolism. Its current temperature was at the cool end of the habitable range, but the atmospheric analysis showed a high concentration of greenhouse gases. The warming trend would likely persist for the next several centuries. By the time a colony ship arrived, the planet would be near perfect.
Skrood felt pleased that her first star system contained a viable colony planet. The next step was to study the bipedal natives and determine whether they were suitable for communion with the Great Hive. There could be no greater joy for tamborans or their subjects than to be brought into communion, although some inexplicably resisted. Skrood knew that warm-bloods in particular were often found unsuitable. Eradication was always cause for sorrow, but sometimes necessary for the greater good. It was her responsibility to go among them to be absolutely certain what fate they would merit.
* * * * * * * * * *
It had seemed so simple at first. A moonless night provided the perfect opportunity to nestle the small ship into a thick clump of brushy willows near a small stream. The ongoing snowfall soon covered all traces of the landing. She’d been pleasantly surprised when the viz-scanner revealed a native creature standing guard in the meadow. The guise of a trusted sentinel would allow her wide access to study the planet’s primitive civilization. She merely had to target the unsuspecting human, activate the transpressor to place her consciousness into the host body, and then proceed with the mission.
Skrood knew instantly that something was wrong. The icy cold was shocking, these creatures were supposed to be warm-blooded! The frosty creature was dressed as a human with its broad-brimmed hat, colorful scarf, and corncob pipe, but it was made of snow rather than flesh. Was this a decoy? Had she been expected and caught in a trap? Were the bipeds more advanced than she’d thought? No, she realized with a flush of humility, it was just an unforgivably stupid error on her part. She’d been too impatient and misjudged the situation. The protocols didn't cover this situation. All she could do now was wait and hope.
Skrood didn’t have the human words necessary to convey complex concepts, but she could communicate images and feelings to the youngling. There was no difficulty with reaching out, Sara wanted to believe that Frosty could talk. The problem was the young girl’s limited understanding. It would be impossible to teach her how to access the ship. The best Skrood could do was to communicate the danger of direct sunlight and that time was critical.
“Come on, Billy! We have to save Frosty. Help me make a sun-shade, we can’t let him melt or he’ll die!”
“You’re gonna get in trouble, Sara. Mom’s gonna freak when she sees what you’re doing with those bedsheets. Anyway, it’s a waste of time. A snowman isn’t really alive, so it can’t really die. They always melt, ya know. We’ll just make another one next year, I promise.”
"But Frosty's in trouble now! He just needs a few more weeks and then everything will be okay. And, we'll all get a special reward if everything works out."
Sara’s pleading eyes melted her big brother’s resolve and he reluctantly dragged some 2 x 4’s from the lumber pile behind the tool shed. Billy knew that Dad would yell at him later, but for now it was kind of fun to pound some nails and build a framework. And Sara gave him a big hug when the snowman was safely shielded from the late February sun.
The transpressor fail-safe would automatically return Skrood to her waiting body in thirty earth days. If the snowman could be preserved for that long, then she could still complete the mission. But, if the retrieval process failed, then the ship’s autopilot would activate and return it to Tambor. Skrood’s data recordings would be analyzed and her comatose body would be designated for re-use or consigned to the organic recycling facility.
The worst part of failing to return was that the central hive would assume she’d been detected and defeated by the bipeds. Tamborans rarely made a second visit if an explorer disappeared. Space was too vast to waste time on conflict with a possibly superior foe.
The pressing question now was whether her present form could survive the warming that would accompany next month’s equinox. Skrood felt frighteningly certain that she wouldn't survive being melted. It was a miracle that she’d survived insertion into a non-living host. No explorer had ever made a mistake like this before. At least, if they had, they hadn’t returned to tell the tale.
“Sara, Billy! Why are those bedsheets in the garden?!” Billy was right about Mom freaking out.
The sun-shade had become a sail in the stiff March wind and the bedsheets were snagged in the raspberry bushes. The 2 x 4’s were scattered across the meadow with a few shreds of cloth still clinging to the nails. Billy was right about Dad yelling, too. Nobody was going to get any allowance until the new sheets were paid for. Worst of all, they were both grounded from the meadow until after the spring thaw. Sara cried herself to sleep that night, but Dad’s decision had been ominously final. There was no more talk about Frosty.
Skrood would have panicked if her frozen form allowed it. Soon there would be rain instead of snow. How long would she have? It was torture to be trapped with this uncertainty. She wanted desperately to make it back to Tambor. The Great Hive needed colony worlds, and the bipeds deserved a chance at communion. They’d never know true joy if her embarrassing mistake ruined everything.
The early morning dimness would soon give way to bright afternoon sun. Skrood stood silent and frozen in the meadow as a drop of moisture formed at the tip of her carrot nose. Her thoughts churned and roiled, but always returned to the same dreadful realization.
“Spring is coming.”
Author's note: ▼