The First Salik War

The Terrans Excerpt

Jean Johnson's - The First Salik War: The Terrans

CHAPTER ONE

January 3, 2287 C.E. (Common Era, A.D., Gregorian Calendar) The Tower, Kaho'olawe, Earth

Her uniform still fit. Mostly.

Jackie could see a blurred version of herself in the semi-polished steel doors of the elevator car. Gray military uniform, black and blue stripes on the sleeves and pant legs. Black for the Space Force, blue for the Navy, gray for the Special Forces, the actual branch she had belonged to, once upon a time. A slight hint of red to her tanned face, proof of a few hours too many soaking up the sun on the local beaches over the holidays. Long brown curls coiled and pinned at the back of her head, below her officer's cap. Shiny twin silver bars on her lapels, shoulderboards, and shirt collar proclaiming her old rank of Lieutenant Commander. Medals decorating her chest…and the buttons of her jacket straining to keep the coat properly closed.

Of course, it had been a decade since Jacaranda MacKenzie had been a Lieutenant Commander in the United Planets Space Force. For half of that decade her job had been to sit in a chair and translate speeches for politicians…and for the other half, it had been to sit in a chair as a politician, except for when she was standing and making speeches.

Exercise was therefore an imperative in her off-hours: mixed martial arts lessons three times a week, jogging every few days whenever she had free time and flat roads or good beaches, and of course swimming and surfing whenever possible, though that felt more like playing around than a proper workout. But it had been ten years since she had to stay in top shape, and the inevitable encroaching of middle-age plus a decade of deskwork had added a bit of padding to her frame.

So, if she didn't breathe too deeply, her jacket still fit.

It didn't help that she'd been given just four days' notice of her reactivation, from New Year's Eve to now. That had barely been enough time to shut down her newly opened apartment on O'ahu, repacking the few boxes she had unpacked. Just days before, she had moved out of her Councilor quarters on Kaho'olawe, only to have to repack everything. All but her most immediate needs were now tucked into a storage unit in Honolulu.

Four days was barely enough time to repack and store things. It was not enough time to order and receive a new uniform. If she really was being reactivated for duty, she would have those new uniforms soon, but not right now. Right now, she had to remember to breathe lightly, and find an excuse to unbutton her jacket if she had to sit down.

The elevator stopped.

Taking a shallow breath to brace herself, Jackie stepped out of the lift and into a lobby-like space on the eighteenth floor. The sun didn't fall directly into the room through the greenish tinted windows, but it did illuminate enough that the overhead lights weren't really needed. The waiting area held several potted plants, a dozen chairs and padded benches, a water cooler, flatpics of tropical flowers hung on the walls, a single, wood-paneled door aside from the metal ones for the lift...and three people, besides herself.

Two of those were occupying a couple of the chairs, seated with a pair of empty seats between them in the way that said they were either polite strangers or mild acquaintances. The nearest one was a tallish, pale-skinned fellow with long, light blond hair pulled back in a ponytail and hazel eyes sat with his elbows on his knees, clad in a neat, cream-colored suit with a pale yellow shirt decorated in white flowers with little green leaves.

The other seated figure was a woman with a complexion more olive than pale. She, too, sat there in a civilian suit, though hers was a dark, rich brown with a knee-length skirt and a plain pink shirt under the jacket. Her hair brushed her shoulders in big, dark, wavy curls, her features more Hispanic than Caucasian. Both of them looked around Jackie's age, mid-thirties.

A somewhat younger looking woman, the kind with classic African features, stood by the green-tinted windows. She was dressed in the blues of a well-fitted Space Force Navy uniform. Like Jackie's, her hair had been pinned up off her collar, but hers were neat columnar dreadlocks pulled back into a thick bun at the back of her head. Unlike Jackie, her overall figure was tall and slender.

The waiting room was high enough in the Tower that the view looked out over the edge of the cauldera toward the northwestern side of the island. That was the side where everything had been left natural, an island desert made of reddish soil, scrubby sage-green bushes, and very few palm trees. Kaho'olawe was in the rain shadow of the other islands, and under normal circumstances could not support a lot of life. Not on its untouched side.

As a native Hawai'ian, Jackie thought it was beautiful. The eastern sides of the isles were lush and green, the most commonly seen version in all the tourism brochures, but not the rainshadowed sides. Personally, she loved both views, and moved to stand by the windows so she could look out at the stark, colorful landscape, too.

"Whoever thought thiswas a tropical paradise?" the other woman murmured, gesturing at it briefly before refolding her arms. "Look at it. Dry as dust, most of it."

"The island's fine," Jackie murmured back. "It just needs a little more water and some tender care to make it thrive. Like everything else in life."

"In other words, giving it a little aloha?" the other lieutenant commander observed dryly.

"That's why it's called Aloha City," Jackie agreed.

Back in the year 2113, when the various governments of the world had argued, even nearly fought, for the honor of hosting the capital of the then newly-formed United Planets government, the natives of the Hawai'ian Islands had worked together to put an end to the arguing. The concept was aloha, which meant more than just hello, or goodbye, or even I love you. It also meant bringing people together in compassion and cooperation. To share, rather than divide. To welcome, rather than to spurn.

Her mother's ancestors had pointed out that the nearly barren, mostly unused island of Kaho'olawe was about as far away from any large landmass—and thus any big political influence—as any location could possibly get, while still being reasonably close to major metropolitan conveniences on the other islands, such as nearby Maui, O'ahu, and the Big Isle. The land, they said, would be leased at generously low rates, and the architecture would be built to blend into the southern side's augmented landscape from the ridgeline down to the shoreline, providing a relaxful setting for weary civil servants to enjoy at the end of each stressful day.

According to Jackie's late grandfather, a Councilor who had served for many years, the real selling point had been reminding everyone that it was a tropical paradise, and thus an ideal location for dignitaries to visit. That, he swore, had finally convinced the major political powers to agree to place the capital there. The idea of getting to spend time there during the Fellowship Lottery had convinced the general populations of the world as well. All-expenses-paid visits to a tropical paradise certainly did not hurt...but those buildings were on the other side of the cauldera from the waiting room's current northward view of desert-dry hills and tufts of bushes.

While irrigation ruled the southern half, the locals had encouraged the new government take over only half of the island, leaving the other half untouched for their continuing cultural use. They had even footed the bill for the desalination plants that had turned the lower half of the island into the irrigated tropical paradise which her paternal grandfather had so admired during his years as Councilor for Scotland back in his own day. All that, in return for a very modest set of rental fees, and very strict regulations on what could be built, where it could be built, and from what materials. Southern Kaho'olawe looked like a lush, green, tropical paradise, a flower-filled, greenery-cloaked delight to the senses of its many visitors. The barren northern side of the isle...was its true face.

"I'd almost rather be looking at star charts," the other woman sighed. She had a faint accent, one that Jackie couldn't yet place.

The angle was wrong to read the other woman's nameplate. Jackie gave up trying to peek discreetly at it, and just used the title that went with that blue uniform and the twin silver bars on those collar points. "I'd rather look at all of this, Lieutenant Commander. I spent nearly five years touring the outer edges of the system. This is a lot more colorful than staring at black space broken only by the tiny pinpricks of distant stars."

"I just like the view of the capital side better," the lieutenant commander demurred. "Even if it's tiny, compared to my home town of Yaounde—Yaounde Prefecture, inside Cameroon Province," she clarified.

"I'm local-born, so, I guess I'm biased towards the dry as well as the green sides of the isles around here," Jackie said, shrugging. Yaounde, Cameroon. That means her accent is Bantu mixed with French, which was what was throwing me off, she decided.

She couldn't blame the woman for calling Aloha City small. Compared to a land-locked metropolis like Yaounde, Aloha City had nowhere to sprawl once it had covered the southern shoreline, and there were prohibitions about building too high. All they could do was build down, hiding a lot of the city's infrastructure that way.

There were a few exceptions on not building too high; the Tower was one, the tallest structure on the isle, though it was quite short compared to other buildings elsewhere on Earth. The heart of the Space Force had been designed to look like olivine, the green crystal that made certain nearby beaches famous for their green sand. The Lotus was another, formally known as the Council Hall, sculpted from white metal and golden glass as a giant sphere with a petal motif. Most of the rest of the main buildings and support infrastructures were designed to either blend into the palm tress on the south side, or were built into and beneath the cauldera here at the eastern end of the island, but built to remain low in profile.

Subtly tugging at her Dress Grays to try to make the jacket front look straight and neat like the other woman's deep blue version, Jackie wondered just what sort of place she'd be sleeping in by the end of tonight. Her orders had been to prepare for a long absence from her current home, and to show up ready to travel at the Tower's eighteenth floor lobby. So here she was, luggage in her rental car in the garage down below ground, ready to...wait for more orders, apparently.

"View or no view, I do not like to be kept waiting," the seated woman in the brown outfit sighed, echoing Jackie's thoughts at least somewhat. Her accent held a Spanish lilt to it. "There are far more useful things I could be doing right now."

The blond, long-haired male seated near her spoke up as well. "When I have to wai—"

The elevator dinged, cutting him off. All four of them turned to look at the metal doors. The man that emerged wore the same Navy blue uniform that the woman did, if with only one bar for his insignia. A lieutenant.

He was fair, if somewhat tanned, his blond hair cropped in a buzzcut under his Dress cap. The newcomer's strong stride spoke of constantly exercised strength, too; this was no desk jockey of a junior officer. Jackie would have bet from his tightly contained energy that he didn't just go on long runs to stay in shape; he probably went on them to have fun, like she went surfing to have fun. Only much more frequent.

Her gaze moved to his upper chest. The name patch said Colvers. A glance at the woman showed her wearing two silver bars, a Lieutenant Commander, just like Jackie. The other woman, whose nametag was now visible, read Mbani. The woman lifted her chin at the newcomer, greeting him with some familiarity.

"Happy New Year, Brad. I was wondering if it'd be you," the lieutenant commander added.

"Ayinda," he greeted her, then glanced at Jackie, his gaze first going to her naturally tanned, round face, to her reddish brown curls pulled ruthlessly into a coiled braid, then down to her insignia and scattering of medals from her years of service. "Lieutenant Comman..."

Colvers stopped mid-word, staring at the Psi Division flashpatch affixed to her jacket's right shoulder. The Radiant Eye was a symbol of the Psi League, but the military's psychic corps had commandeered a version of it. There was the horizontal ellipsis outlining an eye-shape, and a circle-within-a-circle for the iris and the pupil, plus the eight rays emanating from the center of the pupil, but the curves that outlined the outer edge of the iris were actually made from the curves of a laurel wreath. Eyeing the black-on-silver design of her flashpatch, the lieutenant's lip curled up and he backed up a step.

Jackie wasn't unfamiliar with that kind of reaction to that particular patch on her sleeve. Mbani, however, arched her brow at that. "You have a problem with courtesy, Lieutenant?"

The youngish man looked like he wanted to say, Yes, very much so, at least where it pertained to Jackie in her not quite perfect uniform. But after a moment, he swallowed it down, though he remained several meters back. "Sir, no, sir. Greetings, Lieutenant Commander…MacKenzie," he stated, his eyes flicking to her nameplate before shifting away again. "I just don't know what a psi is doing here, mingling with Navy personnel."

Jackie frowned in puzzlement. It was one thing to be startled by the presence of a psi in the military; there weren't many who were willing to serve, despite the military desperately needing them to help thwart Gray visits. It was another to actively display dislike for someone with psychic abilities.

The other lieutenant commander lowered her brows as well, but it was the tall, pale blond man seated behind the lieutenant who spoke up at his words. His accent hinted at some Scandinavian country, and the polyglot portion of Jackie's mind tried to identify it by that alone, a mental game she liked to play whenever she thought she'd be working with a certain group.

"I thought the Navy carried the psis around the system to scare off the Greys," the seated man stated, his hazel eyes flicking from person to person before returning to the newcomer. "Why would the two groups not mingle? I think it would be difficult to carry them around without all the mingling."

Finnish, Jackie pinpointed. Focusing on discerning the correct language kept her from dwelling on just how offensive the lieutenant's attitude was. At least, I'm pretty sure his native tongue is Finnish, given how he pronounced around each time with the full dipthong they use for words like sauna.

"Because they don't put psis on my ship," Lieutenant Colvers stated bluntly. His accent was North American, possibly Canadian.

"Lock and Web it, Lieutenant," Mbani ordered. Her accent was still very faint, but given her home city was on the African continent, it was probably Bantu or Yoruban; Jackie wasn't as familiar with those languages as she'd have liked. The taller woman squared her shoulders, staring down the newcomer. "We don't know what the mission is, or why any of us are here."

"Yes, ma'am," Colvers muttered under his breath. Turning away from the two on their feet, he eyed the pair in the lobby seats. "So who are you two?"

Before either could speak, the door that was a flat panel of wood, not two polished panes of metal, swung open. The man who stepped through was short, Asiatic, and stocky. He swung his body with the stride of a horseman, and greeted them with a grin.

"Well, five warm bodies, plus six if you count mine. It's nice to see y'all are all here. Extra nice to see you two again," he added, nodding to Mbani and Colvers. The commander's accent was discernibly Texan, as was the slight swagger and the friendly demeanor. "But we'll get to the 'old crew week' stuff later. Gentlemen, ladies, if y'all will follow me?"

Lars hesitated, pointing at his chest with raised brows. The newcomer nodded, so the Finn unfolded himself from his seat, showing within seconds that he was easily the tallest in the group. Doctor Santoya rose as well, just a few centimeters taller than Jackie, a few shorter than the other lieutenant commander. Gesturing for the others to go first, since she didn't want to bump into anyone accidentally, Jackie followed at the rear while the blue uniformed commander led them into the maze of hallways beyond the eighteenth floor lobby.

Three, four turnings brought them through that maze to a conference room that overlooked the southwestern side of the island. The iridcescent cubes of the Department of Departments were visible directly ahead, if only at the bottom edge of the windows. Lush green trees, wind-swayed palm fronds, and faux-thatched rooftops dotted the landscape beyond. Part of the great, glass-and-metal faceted curve of the Lotus could be seen off to their left, too. But the view, while spectacular, was nothing compared to what was seen inside the room.

Most of the conference room was ordinary enough. The table was long and had the standard embedded display, though it was dark at the moment. A dozen or more padded chairs lined each side. A lieutenant in a black uniform with three stripes decorating sides of his dark uniform—gray, brown, and blue—was working the cabinets and cupboards at the far end, where the coffee dispenser sat. He was busy setting out mugs and glasses, should anyone want anything. All of that was to be expected.

What was not expected was the sight of the former Premiere of the United Planets Council, Rosa McCrary—former as of just three days ago when the new year had turned over and she had officially stepped down a year early, citing personal reasons—plus the new Premiere, Augustus Callan, who until three days ago had been the Secondaire. The Admiral-General sat with him, clad in a very formal dress uniform with no stripes of color whatsoever, just the five stars of his rank and the dozen or so medals that were his minimum required display.

The four-starred officer seated next to them, sleeves striped in blue and gray, was almost an afterthought to Jackie's bemused mind. Gathered in this one, modest-sized room, were the top leaders of the United Planets...and she, Jacaranda MacKenzie, had been summoned here in a military capacity, not a civil service one. That was the odd thing. Last month, it would have been normal. This month? Not normal.

Rosa rose first, smiling in welcome and offering her hand to most of the newcomers as the group entered. "Come in, come in; please be seated, Commander Graves, Lieutenant Colvers. Lieutenant Yarley will get you whatever you'd like to drink, Doctor de la Santoyez, Mister Thorsson...coffee, tea, juice. Good to meet you, Lieutenant Commander Mbani...ah! There you are, MacKenzie. We won't be able to do this without you."

The graying blonde didn't offer her hand to Jackie at the end of the line as she had the others, but instead clasped her own together and bowed. Not deeply, but out of warm respect nonetheless. Jackie returned it because she had respected Rosa's leadership...but this was the woman who had taken her aside two months ago, requesting that she step down for a term, citing the very minor number of anti-psi dissenters in her constituency as the reason why. It was easy to guess that Rosa didn't want to clasp hands because she didn't want to inflict any personal opinions on Jackie; the woman was thoughtful lke that. Thoughtful, and more.

Now that her commission had been reactivated, Jackie wondered what Rosa and her former Secondaire were really up to, reactivating her commission like this. Turning her attention to the others, she eyed the dark-haired man who now represented the highest level of government. His four-year term as Secondaire had impressed her and everyone else, though it remained to be seen if he would be as good a leader as McCrary had been.

"Honorable McCrary. Premiere Callan," she added, nodding her head politely to him. They had worked together during her stint as a Councilor. She had also served on committees with the foremost of the three officers in the room. The other two, she had to read their nameplates as she greeted them. "Admiral-General Kurtz, it's good to see you again. Admiral Nayak. Lieutenant Yarley. Happy New Year to all of you."

She received a smattering of "Happy New Year"s in return. Her gaze strayed to the two high-ranked officers in their midst. Kurtz had iron-gray hair that stood straight up in a very short, very flat-topped cut, and skin that was almost as pale as the tall Finnish fellow's. Nayak had jet black hair, twisted and pinned up in a bun at the back of his head, with skin that was only a little darker than Jackie's natural tan. Both senior officers rose briefly in return, politely murmuring their own seasonal greetings, then reseated themselves.

At a gesture from the Premiere, the six newcomers eyed the chairs and picked out positions; Colvers and Mbani took the side of the table where the two Command Staff officers sat. The woman and the Finn picked the side McCrary and Callan occupied. Jackie eyed the table, with the Premire at one end…and picked a seat near the other end, on the civilian side, placing an empty chair between herself and the dark-haired doctor.

Not out of a lack of friendliness, just as an act of caution, since she hadn't been fully introduced yet, though the Radiant Eye patch on her sleeve was silent testament as to why. Sitting down also gave her the chance to discreetly unbutton her jacket, easing the strain on the button holes. When the lieutenant stooped near her to get her order, she quietly requested an unsweetened iced tea, if he had it. She was already tense enough that she didn't need coffee to stay alert.

"Let's get this meeting underway," Premiere Callan stated as soon as everyone had settled into place, some with mugs of coffee, the rest with iced tea or water. "First, the introductions. I'm sure you all know who I and my predecessor are. McCrary is included in this meeting as a civilian consultant. Of all of us, she is the one who was kept informed at each step of the way as events and information initially accumulated, and will continue to keep track of the psychic elements, though the burden of ultimate responsibility has now landed firmly in my lap. Admiral-General Arlos Kurtz will have final say over all military operations, save only what I myself or Secondaire Pong veto or approve. Admiral Daksha Nayak will be your immediate military liaison."

"Lieutenant Commander Jacaranda MacKenzie is receiving a promotion as well as having her commision re-activated," Admiral-General Kurtz told them next. "She is also being given a lateral transfer to the rank of Major instead of Commander. This is being done to differentiate between her and Commander Robert Graves. She will share joint leadership of this crew with Commander Graves, and full authority of it under special circumstances.

"Until those circumstances kick in, Commander Graves will be in nominal charge of each mission, and in charge of the ship itself," the Admiral-General explained, without explaining much of anything. "That ship will be the Aloha 9, which should be quite familiar to at least three of you—before you ask, officers, your former crewmates have been reassigned to other vessels."

Even as he spoke, Lieutenant Yarley came around to Jackie's side again. This time, he set a smallish box in front of her instead of another iced tea. The style of the box was familiar; all newly designated ranks came in one of these boxes, which were filled with rank pins. One set was displayed uppermost on a black velvet card, the rest were always tucked beneath it. Cracking open the lid, she eyed the silver oakleaf on display with a touch of wariness.

Not for the first time, Jackie wished she had been given a touch of precognition among her gifts, so that she could know what was going on. This 'specific circumstances' clause—indeed, all of this, being asked to step down from the Council when she had done a good enough job to earn a second term, having her commission reinstated—was confusing. Kurtz continued, forcing her to pay attention.

"When those circumstances kick in, she will be in charge of all missions, and Commander Graves will be second-in-comand. Lieutenant Commander Ayinda Mbani will be third, followed by Doctor Maria de la Santoya—you have something to say, Lieutenant Colvers?" the Admiral-General asked when the younger man shifted abruptly at his words, head raising in startlement.

"Admiral-General, yes, sir," Colvers stated, brow furrowing in a confused frown. "If this is a military operation, I should be next. The doctor—no disrespect, ma'am—is a civilian, sir. I outrank her in every way as an officer in the Navy."

Rosa McCrary gave him a smile that was half grimace. Her normally cultured Australian accent deepened for a moment. "Actually, we're not completely sure which category this mission falls into, military or civilian. Doctor de la Santoya's authority would only be activated if bad things were to happen to the others...and if bad things are happening, then it very well may not be a case of military jurisdiction."

"I...don't understand, sirs," Colvers said, looking at the leadership at the table. He wasn't the only one confused.

"As with Major MacKenzie," Premiere Callan told him. "de la Santoya has some governing experience. Hers is at the regional level, which may not be at the Council level, but it is more civilian leadership experience than you as a soldier have had. As for the particulars...we would like to get through the introductions first. You will be working together for an unspecified length of time, which could be quite long. Please let the Admiral-General continue."

Chastized—however politely—Colvers sat back.

"You would be next in the chain of command after the doctor, Lieutenant," Kurtz continued, tipping his head at Colvers. "Followed by Doctor Thorsson, there. Starting with him and working our way back up, these are your mission positions: Thorsson has a triple doctorate in xenobiology, xenogeology, and astrophysics. His rank will be considered Specialist, for all he is still very much a civilian consultant. Lieutenant Colvers will be acting as your group's backup pilot, gunner, chief engineer, and so forth.

"Doctor de la Santoya is licensed to practice general medicine in both gravity and zero-Gravity conditions. She has also studied what little we know so far of xenobiology, so she is your medical expert for this mission, as well as your backup civilian leader—I am not finished, Lieutenant," the Admiral-General added as Colvers drew in a breath. "Lock-and-Web it."

"Sir, yes sir," Colvers muttered.

Lock-and-Web was a phrase Jackie hadn't heard in years, but it instantly brought back memories. Floating around on gravity-free spaceships that could take off and move at a bare moment's notice, one had to constantly be clipping, webbing, or storing in drawers and cupboards anything that could possibly turn into a projectile weapon due to a vector change. Drawers and doors had to be latched, spare straps retracted or bundled up and knotted out of the way, and trash managed as much as possible. Even on the great rotating space stations—where the ever on-going argument of centripetal versus centrifugal forces provided a facsimile of gravity—everything had to be locked and webbed for safety's sake.

It could also be used as a somewhat more polite alternative to shut up, in both the military and civilian space-faring sectors.

"Lieutenant Commander Mbani is your chief astronagivator, backup engineer, and backup gunner. Commander Robert Graves is your chief pilot, backup gunner, backup engineer, and nominal head of all missions until the special circumstances take place. Your head of all missions after that point will be Major Jacaranda MacKenzie, who will also be your communications specialist as well as your government liaison."

"Admiral-General, sir," Mbani stated carefully when he paused to let that sink in. "I'm afraid I must side with Lieutenant Colvers in expressing my confusion. Why are civilians being inserted into our chain of command?"

"That would be my cue to speak," Rosa stated bluntly. She tapped the table, and the screens came to life. "Eight months ago, the Psi League started collating reports from registered precognitives. Dreams of certain people meeting with non-Human races."

"The Greys?" Thorsson asked. He looked at Jackie. "You are in the Psi Division. You are strong enough to thwart them, yes?"

"I can," Jackie admitted, glancing warily at the head of the Space Force to see if Kurtz objected to her admitting that much. When he didn't even blink, she added, "Three times, already. I can do it again if needed."

"Good," Graves said. "I don't like 'em, and I don't want to deal with 'em. So long as you're along..."

"These aliens are not the Greys," Premiere Callan corrected them.

That snagged everyone's attention. The Grey Ones—for lack of a better name—had proven to be disturbingly real a few hundred years back. They were advanced beyond anything humanity had ever seen, and the only thing that could keep them at bay were strong psychic energies being projected in their faces. Preferably into their minds, but even just levitating things around them was enough to harm the aliens.

The Space Force tried to recruit them for protecting all the research domes and mining stations in the system. Psis were carried on board to be able to project kinetic inergy at Grey ships at a moment's notice, preferrably from a safe distance but not always. They were behind far too many of the "kidnapped and experimented upon" stories that had plagued Earth for centuries.

Jackie herself had been requested as both a very strong telepath and a modestly strong xenopath—a particularly effective form of psi weaponry against them—to go into the military, specifically to serve on the Space Force's patrols. Three of her medals, and the shoulder tattoo hidden by her uniform, were for three different instances where she had single-handedly chased off a Gray ship before it could capture any Humans for experimentation. Earth had too many psis for them to like approaching it, but they loved—if the alien race had any such emotional equivalent—to swoop in and pluck people out of research domes and orbital stations.

But the Greys, however dangerous, powerful, and meddlesome, were a known quantity. Semi-known, technically; they weren't the sort of visitors who were willing to sit down and chat for a while. Yet, this mission was not about the Greys? That was...news.

"New aliens, Premiere?" Jackie asked, voicing her confusion. "Are there any descriptions of this new race?"

"New races, plural," he corrected, and nodded at his predecessor.

Rosa tapped her controls, sending text descriptions and sketches to each seat across the table console. "You'll each be given a full set of all the data collated to review in your free time, but to summarize…the images reported by the precogs have been of many different types. Lizard-like people, cat-like people...even giant spider-like people have all been noted in these precognitive visions."

Jackie shuddered. She had always feared and hated spiders. The possibility of an alien race that looked like...? She pulled her thoughts back to the information being shared as the ex-Premiere continued.

"These visions have not gone away. They have kept growing in strength and number; at first, only the strongest precogs had flashes of visions, a couple of them with only a dozen images between the lot…but five months ago, even the weaker precogs started seeing these alien races interacting with Humans. Two of them have photographic memories—one from the Psi League and one from a pagan branch of the Witan Order. The League helped them both to coordinate with the military to look for familiar faces.

"As the world's second psychic to hold a civilian office above a regional level, nearly everyone in the League who had these visions recognized you, Jackie," McCrary told her. "That was the real reason why I decided to request that you step down from your Councilorship, so that you would be available for these missions. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you or anyone else earlier, but we didn't want scraps of information turning into wild speculation."

Jackie nodded her head, accepting the reason and the apology.

"Your telepathy includes a very strongly ranked xenopathy," Rosa stated, tapping the tabletop away from her screens. "You have both military and government experience, you have proven you can make good, swift decisions under various circumstances, and you have the ability to talk with the Greys, cetaceans, pachyderms, and the greater apes You are, in a word, ideal for dealing with these new races in a hopefully positive, peaceful way, should the visions prove to come true and we suddenly have a lot more versions of sentiency to deal with."

"What if they're not peaceful?" Colvers asked the former Premiere.

"We'll be dealing with that side of things," the Admiral-General answered. "You worry about your own mission parameters, soldier. Those are to explore new star systems, as the other Aloha ships are doing, and to establish hopefully peaceful contact with as many new lifeforms as you can manage under MacKenzie's leadership. If this isn't just the precogs booting their dreams into the wind."

"I have a question, sir," Jackie said. At his nod, she asked, "If a bunch of alien races are going to be encountering us, shouldn't I stay here in the Sol System?"

"Most of the images suggest you'll all be somewhere else," Admiral Nayak told her. "We have not yet found any truly inhabitable worlds in the systems of our nearest stellar neighbors, but in several of the images, the landscapes seen included patently alien plant-life. To be fair, we have only just begun exploring beyond our system with the new Other-Than-Light ships, but at the distances our OTL ships can travel, it is only a matter of time before we encounter those inhabitable worlds."

"More to the point," Rosa continued, "one of the strongest images was of MacKenzie, here, performing Mankiller-style at a big hula festival...and the precog in question had reason to believe it was after First Contact had been made."

Jackie closed her eyes for a brief moment, stifling the urge to groan. "It's called the Merrie Monarch Festival, not 'some big hula festival.' There's a lot more to it than just hula...and yes, I did agree to perform holokinetically this year," she added, opening her eyes. "It takes place the week following Easter...which falls on the first weekend in April, this year. It starts three months to the day from now, and I perform on the sixth of April."

"Then we'll need to get you into the stars as soon as possible," Kurtz stated. "You'll have two weeks to train on your ship's systems, all of you—and I expect the three of you who are familiar to step up and help the three who are not. Once you are reasonably trained, you will be expected to launch and start taking your place on the scouting rosters, seeking out new star systems and dropping off surveillance satellites and hyperrelay units."

"Up until the moment of First Contact, Commander Graves will be in charge, and you will all be expected to follow his commands until that point," the Premiere instructed them. "After that point, Major MacKenzie will be in charge. Your official government position at that point, Jackie, will be Ambassador of the United Planets, and you will have full rights on the Council, from proposing legislation all the way through to voting on related issues, with the caveat that your vote is to be confined to those items which affect your constituency on an interstellar basis only—you don't have a vote on what goes on strictly back home, but you do have one if it involves anything from outside this system."

"What would be my constituency, then?" Jackie asked, curious in the face of that unusual restriction. "All of the scouting ships outside the Sol System? Any place where we've left a hyperrelay satellite?"

Premiere Callan gave her a sober, level look. "The entire United Planets is your constituency, Jacaranda. Within and without the Sol System. Your vote will only register for anything involving territories and peoples outside the United Planets, specifically those things you will be facing in your role as Ambassador. You will also have authority to broker initial treaties to ensure neutrally peaceful interactions with any First Contact races."

Jackie sat back, trying to absorb that. The only Councilors who had jurisdiction that broad were the Premiere and his or her apprentice, the Secondaire. If she had that kind of authority...that would make her the third most powerful person in the United Planets. She wasn't sure if she was ready for the responsibility...

© 2015 G. Jean Johnson