Chapter 1

“Woooooooo!!!” Caden whooped in joy, diving out of the sky toward the vine jungle below. Siobhan glided by his side though she slowly fell behind. Neither of them could keep up with their four Celaran friends, who had already reached the lowest point in their trajectory below. The flat, serpentine creatures undulated like sine waves as they slid through the air. Their three fingers folded underneath each end of their bodies while in flight. The glowing chevrons placed along their backs flashed yellow and green in rapidly changing patterns.

The Celarans pulled out of the dive and split off from each other, heading in four different directions. Caden followed one at random. He pulled up earlier than the aliens had, yet he still felt he might crash into the vines below. The canopy neared alarmingly. Two attendants pressed against him to add their thrust to his course correction. Caden’s arc flattened out only a few meters over the tallest vines. Siobhan’s flight dropped even closer to disaster, yet she howled in joy as her extended fingers whipped across the highest leaves.

He laughed out loud.

This is so much fun!

The Celaran that Caden followed turned sharply again. Caden saw one of the Celaran towers ahead, poking up through the vines. He looked over the landscape and saw that they had come to the tower line surrounding the modest Celaran settlement. The towers were the same as those that had surrounded the original empty base on Idrick Piper, but there was no flat field anywhere nearby.

“None of them fly past the towers,” Siobhan said.

“The towers knock things out of the air,” Caden reminded her.

“They wouldn’t target Celarans though, surely?”

Caden shrugged in midair. “I don’t know. But we should follow the rule. They obviously have their reasons.”

“Yes, of course. I’m just curious. I wish we could ask them.”

“Well, let’s fly back and see if Marcant has made any progress,” Caden said. He suggested it half-jokingly; it had been several days and Marcant had not completed a translator. The newest member of the PIT team became grumpier every time someone asked him how it was going. Marcant had deployed the attendants throughout the colony to record the Celaran’s visual chatter and try to connect it to meaning. Some of the Celarans even played with the attendants, which incidentally helped Marcant to pick up more data.

“We should check in,” Siobhan said.

Caden frowned. She usually wanted to fly around all day until Telisa called them to action.

Okay what’s up with that?

Caden gained altitude, propelled by his Celaran lift rod and his three attendants. Once he decided that his gliding suit could carry him back to their temporary home in the forest, he leveled off and flew in that direction. Siobhan joined him for the straight shot home.

Caden and Siobhan shared a single Celaran treehouse with the rest of the PIT team. Quarters were tight, with people sleeping in every room, but the Celarans did not have much spare living space to offer. If they had been able to communicate, Telisa probably would have politely refused the Celarans’ hospitality and ordered everyone to sleep aboard the Iridar, which rested at the edge of the settlement.

Caden caught glimpses of the Celaran houses below: many-faceted green dwellings with hexagonal trap doors and circular windows. Each structure rested around the upper section of one of the massive spikes that emerged from the ground to support the vegetation. He saw Celarans flitting about in the vine jungle as he passed overhead. Many carried lift rods like the one he had borrowed, though it seemed they hardly needed them. The Celarans could zip about all day without using up their rods’ charge, but Caden found that his rod would be drained after two hours.

Caden’s link map showed him the correct shelter. Without the off-retina map, he would be hard pressed to find it. It looked like all the other spike-supported houses in the jungle. Siobhan angled down beside him, then they landed softly on a deck adjoining the house. Caden traded wild grins with Siobhan before they walked inside.

My life is awesome. I get to fly around with aliens and share it all with her.

“If you have a working system, then we need to start using it,” Telisa said. Her voice filtered in from somewhere nearby. Caden sauntered into the central room. Two sleeping bags lay against adjacent walls of the six-sided chamber. A dog-sized machine stood in the middle of the room. It looked like a giant ant: six legs and three body sections. The head held a laser/stunner mount, and the abdomen stored and dropped glue grenades.

Siobhan followed him inside. Magnus emerged from a side room.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Magnus said to Siobhan. “Did you have time to design the modified grenades?”

“I’m hitting it now,” Siobhan said.

Ah, that’s why she agreed to come back so early, Caden thought.

“What’s the objective?” Caden asked.

“I’m adding spikes to the grenades to keep them on the vines,” Siobhan told him.

Caden knew Terran grenades did not move well among the vines. They tended to slide off the stalks and fall into the detritus of the jungle floor, which slowed them down. Once on the jungle floor, they often could not rise again to hit higher targets. It made sense to modify them to stick onto the vines, so they could quickly reach targets higher in the canopy.

Caden decided to let Siobhan get to her work without interruption. He walked on through the room to the balcony on the other side of the dwelling where he saw Telisa standing with Marcant. He stepped up and joined their conversation.

“There will be miscommunication,” Marcant said. “I don’t have enough data for a full vocabulary.”

“The Celarans are smart. They’ll know the translator isn’t working perfectly. Five Entities, we’ll tell them that,” Telisa said.

Marcant nodded.

Caden saw several channels were up locally. There was his private connection with Siobhan, the PIT team channel, a new translation experiment channel, and a channel marked as a conversation with the Celarans.

Caden joined the experiment’s channel and the Celaran channel, which already included Telisa, Jason, Cilreth, and Marcant. He double checked that Cilreth was still back on the ship.

She likes to keep tabs on what’s going on from relative safety.

“Should we tell the others?” Caden asked.

Telisa shook her head subtly towards Caden. He wondered about her decision.

She must not want to add pressure for Marcant. Or maybe she just figures they’re busy enough with their own work?

Marcant looked up, reticent to reply in the affirmative. Caden decided to follow Telisa’s lead.

“Never mind, I’ll wait until we get the kinks worked out,” Caden said sunnily. “I’m sure it won’t work perfectly right off, things this complex never do.”

Marcant seemed satisfied, maybe even relieved, with that answer. He went back off-retina. Telisa picked up a strip of black material Caden had not seen before. As she affixed it to the front of her body, Caden saw it had chevrons across its surface, just like the flat side of a Celaran.

“Okay, please find Lee,” Telisa said to Caden.

Lee was a Celaran who had been hanging around the house since the PIT team arrived. The PIT team did not know exactly what Lee’s job was, though the competing theories were similar. Some had guessed the Celaran was there to learn about the Terrans, other team members thought Lee was there simply to help make the Terrans as comfortable as possible. Siobhan had suggested the name Lee, short for liaison. The team thought of Lee as a ‘she’ even though they had no idea if the Celarans had differentiated sexes. Siobhan had also pointed out that Lee was neutral enough that it would not become awkward if they discovered more about Celaran genders later.

“You’re ready?” Caden said, his voice lilting upward in excitement.

“Ready for a test,” Marcant said, much more grim than his teammate.

Caden walked to the edge of the balcony and looked around for Lee. He did not see her in the surrounding jungle, so he grabbed the edge of the roof and pulled himself up from the balcony to get a better view of the area. Lee flitted about with another Celaran at the next house over. Caden waved an arm, facing Lee. She did not approach, so he jumped up and down. Lee caught sight of the antics and glided over toward the PIT house.

Lee alighted on a balcony perimeter rack next to Telisa as Caden slipped back down to join them. Lee wore a black harness along half of her two-meter-long body. Two rods were attached to the harness, as was the Celaran habit. The PIT team did not know why they chose to carry exactly two, one of which was usually a lifting rod, though Telisa had expressed the theory that the decision to carry no more than two was due to a flying weight limitation. The second rod seemed to have three or four different functions depending on the individual, but it might have been that the second rod could do almost anything and the team had just not witnessed enough of the functions yet.

Marcant sat down on the deck. Telisa faced Lee, showing her the new chevron garment. When the alien saw the chevrons, she let go of her roost and did a flip in midair. The fingers on each end of her body intertwined with each other, turning Lee into a floating circle. Caden assumed she relied upon her lift rod to remain aloft in such a position.

“Okay, speak to the channel and your chevrons will say it in Celaran,” Marcant said. “Or some approximation thereof,” he muttered.

Caden saw that Marcant had two attendants, but they did not orbit as Caden’s and Telisa’s did. He put away a note to himself to ask about the stationary attendants later.

“We’re glad to have met you,” Telisa said on the Celaran channel. Her chevrons glowed so rapidly the colors blended together in Caden’s Terran eyes.

The Celaran’s chevrons made a response. The translation came through on the channel almost instantaneously.

“We feel the starlight on our skin as a green proximity blooms with our alien feeding companions,” said a flat, synthetic voice.

“Wow!” Caden said. “Is that really what she said?”

Marcant shrugged. “More or less.”

Even when he says he doesn’t know something, he still sounds self-assured, Caden thought.

“Almost poetic,” Jason said. “But the voice is so harsh sounding. Not a good fit.”

“I’m translating alien speech and you criticize the voice settings?” Marcant said exasperatedly.

“Thank you for offering us this place to live,” Telisa said. Her chevrons glowed again.

“As the wind flies over the leaves, we need to keep green friends close to suck sap from their brains.”

“Uhm,” Caden mumbled. “Translation error, I hope.”

Marcant nodded. “Just keep talking. It’ll get better.”

“Not a surprising translation, really,” Telisa said. “Sucking sap from our brains... that sounds like learning from us, or getting to know us.”

“Oh! Let’s hope that’s what it meant,” Caden said. “I also suspect it should be ‘as the wind blows’ but I’ll leave that to you.”

Marcant nodded.

“We’re happy we arrived when we did, to help you fight the Destroyers,” Telisa said.

“As the planet spins, you fly in proximity to scream at our enemies,” the Celaran said. “When the vines burn, those that blow and scream are a danger to us all.”

“Okay,” Caden said slowly.

Telisa smiled. She seemed pleased and impressed with the translation that Caden found questionable.

“To us, the Destroyers are bright,” she said aloud. “To a Celaran, they scream, because the Celarans speak with light.”

“You may be inventing explanations that seem to make sense but are utterly false,” Marcant said.

“We’re still learning to speak your language,” Telisa said to Lee without answering Marcant. “I’m sorry for any errors we may make. Please don’t be offended.”

“On a bright day near a vine fat with sap, there is no sorrow at a mistake made while learning,” Lee said. “I’m glad to speak with my strange friends who have no feelings.”

Hrm. Something lost in translation?

“That’s great! This is wonderful,” Telisa said to the PIT channel. “Keep working on it. We need to get it fine tuned so we can have some serious conversations. See if you can double check her statement about us having no feelings. Is it a mis-translation, or are we missing some out-of-band part of speech? Maybe they express feelings with air chemicals or something, and we’re not emitting any.”

Wow. She appreciates how hard this is, Caden thought. I should be more positive to Marcant. He’s done pretty well!

“I will, but please realize that it’s the learning system that needs to run longer and absorb more data. I don’t tweak every little meaning myself, or this would take years,” Marcant said.

Telisa began to walk back into the hut, but turned around at the last moment.

“And... make the voice playful, like the Celarans themselves,” she said.

Marcant nodded.

That at least, will be easy, Caden thought.

“Great work!” Telisa said as she left the balcony.

Marcant took the praise calmly. “It’ll be much better tomorrow,” he promised.