After detaching from Arcturus, Hokule’a made a graceful loop to arc towards the surface of Omicron Uhurae III, her inactive nacelles tucked up against her wedge-shaped hull in preparation for landing. Scans of the iridescent and hazy blue world had discovered large quantities of blood dilithium, which seemed to be deeply integrated into a highly biodiverse ecosphere. While the mothership remained twenty-thousand kilometers away to protect her telepathic crew members, a detachment of forty would use Hokule’a as a planet-side lab to try to understand why and how life could seemingly thrive and perhaps even depend on dilithium. Commander Odea would have been the typical candidate to command such a mission, but her telepathy ruled her out, and so First Officer Alesser had been sent instead.
“Separation complete, Arcturus. We’re on course for our landing site,” Alesser reported from the center seat of the escort’s small bridge. Captain Lancaster and Rear Admiral Hayden were on the viewer in split screen mode, from the bridge and the admiral’s office, respectively. “We appreciate the overwatch.”
“Don’t take any risks. I want my escort back in one piece,” Lancaster replied.
“There won’t even be a scratch, Captain,” Alesser said; a year ago, he would have bristled at the concern over the ship rather than the crew she carried, but he finally understood Lancaster’s thinking and mannerisms well enough to know that there was genuine compassion there. Somewhere. Deep down. “Any supplemental orders, Admiral?”
“Let me know as soon as the site is secure. Starfleet hasn’t let me be a botanist for a few decades now, but I’m not passing up the chance to see plant life that has somehow found a way to incorporate dilithium into its biology, and we can’t bring it up here without endangering the crew,” Hayden said.
Alesser could see an objection pass through the gears in Lancaster’s mind, but the captain did not vocalize it. They had both served with Hayden long enough to know that an objection would be futile anyway. A royal visit would undoubtedly add to the stakes of the mission, though.
“Understood, sir,” Alesser said.
Lancaster glanced at the Admiral, and she nodded.
Once the two senior officers’ faces left the screen, Alesser was treated to a close-up view of a swirling blue and green atmosphere. While M-class, the planet’s soil contained trace amounts of copper sulfate that became suspended in the clouds even at high altitudes. Still early in its development, Omicron Uhurae III had one enormous continent surrounded by oceans and dotted with snake-like inland seas. Their destination was a shelf of basalt near the base of a dormant volcano, which would give them excellent access to several different biomes.
“How’s our landing site looking, Lieutenant Stanton?” Alesser asked.
“Short-range scans confirm that it’s stable, sir. Finding an easy path to the valley floor might be difficult, though,” Stanton said from the helm. “Shall I proceed?” the young man asked, eagerness evident through his broad grin when he turned to look at the first officer.
“Proceed. Blue alert. All stations, prepare for landing.”
As Alesser spoke, the lights around the bridge dimmed and switched from white to blue while a soft chime pulsed throughout the ship. Superheated gas began to feather around the edges of the shields visible on the viewscreen, and Hokule’a rocked slightly as she entered the atmosphere. Though he might never admit it, Alesser always found this particular maneuver to be a little unsettling; starships belonged in space. Hokule’a had performed it several dozen times in her short lifetime, though.
“Impulse engines offline. Switching to atmospheric thrusters,” Stanton said, with the small ship now on a glide trajectory toward its intended destination. Moments later, they cut through the clouds at tremendous but slowing speeds. From that height, the planet’s vast jungles were evident on the viewscreen, and Alesser thought he could even see the red glint of blood dilithium. “Deploying landing struts.”
The ship began to slow even more, and Alesser saw an enormous volcano rising from the terrain. After one more pass to confirm the stability of their landing site, the Hokule’a sat down on a mesa-like shelf, which would be convenient to both an area of jungle and a plain on the other side of the escarpment.
“Syncing inertial dampeners to the planet’s gravity,” the helmsman noted. “Landing complete.”
Alesser exhaled slowly. “Good job, Lieutenant. Let’s see what makes this planet so special.”
The largest space within Hokule’a was the combination shuttle bay, cargo bay, and debarkation area. Two ramps on the aft end of the room had lowered, each just wide enough for one of the escort’s two Type-18 shuttles to pass through. As the atmosphere had only tentatively been assessed as breathable, forcefields shimmered as they kept the outside air and inside air separate. Lieutenant Nate Windsor checked the seals on his breath mask.
“Remember: we keep these on until Corvol tells us otherwise,” Windsor said to the rest of Hazard Team α. “Sensors show that the perimeter around the ship is free of life signs, but we need to confirm that. Then we find a way down into the jungle. Let’s go.”
Windsor was always a “leap first” leader, so he charged down the starboard ramp, the other five members of his team in tow. Blue-green dust swirled around his ankles as he left the first footprint on the surface. By his count, this was now the third planet that he’d been the first Human being to touch. The accolades for the first Trill and first Bajoran went respectively to Ensign Corvol Taom, their science specialist and medic, and Ensign Shadi Oxel, their engineering specialist, who were next after him. They were almost thirty meters above the floor of the valley stretching out in front of them, and from that elevation, Windsor could see the foreboding glint of blood dilithium intermingled among the trees and vines below.
The ship’s landing struts kept it three meters above the surface, and as soon as Windsor turned, he could see that there was absolutely nothing in visual range around them. While the local plant life seemed to be interested in the blood dilithium, it didn’t seem to extend to basalt.
“Why’s everything so blue?” Lieutenant Robinson asked, the deputy leader bringing up the rear dutifully.
“It’s the copper sulfate. Harmless at these concentrations,” Taom replied. “I’m not detecting any pathogens or contaminants, but I think it would be wise to keep our masks on for a little longer to confirm that.”
“Probably a good idea,” Robinson agreed, drawing a track through the blue dust covering the basalt with the tip of his boot. “Are either of you picking up any threats?” he asked their two security specialists.
“I’ve got nothing,” Chief Zhou said.
“Same,” Crewman Seagraves agreed. “No energy signatures and no animals.”
“It’s almost eerie. All of that biodiversity down there but nothing up here?” Robinson said.
Windsor chuckled. “You almost sound sad that there’s nothing dangerous up here, Coop.”
“Yeah, because I signed up for a hazard team to not see action,” Robinson countered, rolling his green eyes as he did so. He laughed. “I’m sure now that I’ve said that, we’re going to find out that this planet has dragons or something.”
“Better dragons than the Devore,” Windsor noted; a dark thought about Robinson having jinxed their expedition flashed through his mind. He tapped his badge. “Windsor to Alesser. Things look clear out here, sir, so the science teams can begin setting up their equipment.”
“Very well, Lieutenant. Report in when you find a way down.”
“Understood. Away team out,” Windsor said. “You heard the captain. Zhou and Taom, stick with me, and we’ll head east. Robinson, take Seagraves and Shadi west. If you find a viable way down, hold position and wait for us to join you.”
“Aye,” Robinson confirmed as the team split in half.
Windsor took his trio along the edge of the lava shelf; when he chanced a closer approach to the edge, he saw how difficult it would be to climb directly down the side, as it was like polished glass. By the time they got all the way around to the point where the mountain had begun to rise steeply in front of their ship, he was starting to lose hope.
Taom chewed on his lip behind his mask. “I’ve found an opening, sir. Looks like a lava tube. It’s too cylindrical to be a cave,” he reported. “It may take us where we need to go.”
“Or drop us into a pool of magma,” Zhou added.
“Positive thoughts, Chief,” Windsor said. “Robinson, do you have anything?”
“Negative, Lieutenant. We’ve almost circled around to your position, though.”
“Corvol has found an opening to a lava tube. It looks like it may be our best bet without trying to repel,” Windsor said. “He’s sending the coordinates. Meet us there.”
A few minutes later, the hazard team was re-assembled and faced a hole in the side of the volcano about ten meters across. It sloped gently down into the darkness. Windsor unclipped a beacon from his belt and placed it on the ground. With a tap of his foot, it embedded itself into the rock to give them a point to return to.
“I’ll take point,” the lieutenant said.
The team proceeded down the tunnel, the lights on their hazard suits’ shoulders turning on automatically as visibility reduced. Windsor checked the interface on his gauntlet occasionally to make sure that they were headed in approximately the right direction as the tunnel took a few gentle twists. So far, there was no sign that they were about to make an abrupt entrance into a subterranean pool of molten rock. About ten minutes into their descent, though, there was a slight rumble, and Windsor held up his hand to have them stop.
“What was that?”
“Tremors are pretty normal this close to a volcano,” Ensign Shadi replied.
“And a sign of a possible eruption, right?” Robinson asked.
Windsor turned around just in time to see the engineer shrug.
“Sure, but our sensors haven’t picked up any of the other signs,” she replied.
“We’ll proceed under the assumption that this volcano is a hundred years from erupting,” Windsor declared. “Let’s keep going.”
Along the way, there were a few junctions in the rock, but they were all sealed off by debris. After about twenty minutes, Windsor saw a literal light at the end of the tunnel, and they emerged into the multi-colored beauty of the jungle. It didn’t quite match anything he had seen before, though his home world of Penthara IV was covered in vast fields, and so he had little experience with towering jungles like this one.
They only walked a few meters before they saw an enormous crystal of blood dilithium sticking out of the soil like a spike. While dilithium wasn’t typically hazardous, it also wasn’t generally found in such lush conditions. To make matters even more confusing, tendrils of nearby vines were wrapped tightly around it, seeming to scar the crystal with their presence as they took on their own sickly red glow. Something was not right with this world.
“Windsor to Alesser. We found a way down, and… Well, the science teams are going to have a field day with these plants,” he reported.
Meanwhile, Commander Dealhi Odea was creating an alternative set of duty rosters in her office with the ship’s Deltan security chief, Lieutenant Commander Evandrion. The two of them knew that they needed to have a plan in place in case they and their telepathic colleagues became incapacitated, so they were moving around duty schedules to ensure that non-telepaths were in every vital role on the bridge and across the security department who could be substituted in at a moment’s notice.
“You’d think this would be easier with such a large crew,” Odea muttered as she struggled to find recommendations for beta shift in the science department. “How are things on your end?”
“Easier, apparently,” the Deltan said with a smirk. “I’m done,” he added, placing his completed PADD on Odea’s desk.
Before Odea could react, she felt a sharp pain in her temple, which dulled as soon as she reflexively reached up to rub her head. Along with the ache, she felt a sense of restlessness which reminded her of a camping trip she’d taken as a child on Betazed; the life forces of millions of different creatures all around her had made her feel claustrophobic and overwhelmed at first. That’s how this felt as well, but with a sinister edge that put her hackles up.
Evandrion cocked his head; most of his abilities were related to touch, but he could obviously pick something up from Odea’s emotions.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m not sure… I just had this feeling of déjà vu to a childhood memory,” she replied slowly. The commander tried to shake off the feeling, but it wouldn’t leave her mind. “I remember a distinct feeling on a camping trip that the animals all around us didn’t want us to be there.”
“I didn’t realize that Betazoid telepathy extended to pre-sapient species.”
“It doesn’t… I was just scared. But this feels… different. Not imagined,” Odea said, a revelation hitting her. “I don’t know what the away team is up to, but I don’t think 20,000 kilometers is enough distance for us.”
Evandrion reached over to touch her hand, which gave Odea a sense of instant relief thanks to the Deltan’s calming abilities, but it only lasted for a few moments before she, in turn, could feel Evandrion’s own anxiety bubbling up.
“Definitely not,” Evandrion said, gasping as he let go of her. “We need to tell the bridge.”