The ship slides out of warp smoothly—wow, those Eldarian engines are good stuff—and the main viewscreen flickers back on. They're on a serious mission, yeah, but Edge's heart leaps in his chest at the sight of the planet in front of him, swirls of white cloud masking blue ocean and a broad band of deep green.
"Well, what have we got?" Edge asks.
"Third planet in the Hoc system," Faize says, hands moving over his keypad as he pulls up readings. "Surface approximately sixty-five percent water, thirty-five percent dry land. Negligible polar ice. Surface temperatures range from about twenty-five to thirty degrees on land, which lies mostly near the planet's equator."
"Gravitation and atmospheric pressure slightly less than Earth's," Reimi takes over. "Atmospheric composition is about twenty-three percent oxygen, and I'm not reading any appreciable levels of toxic gas. We have a variety of organic readings, mostly plant life."
"Wow," Edge says. "Sounds like we have another Aeos on our hands. Though I wouldn't mind if we could skip the bugs this time." He watches the readings flicker on the viewscreen, the Calnus's instruments collecting endless streams of data about the new planet. "You want to go down and take a look?"
Reimi spins her chair so she can look up at him. "You're the captain," she says, but she looks excited about the chance to explore. Faize glances up at the captain's chair, too—he's harder to read, more subdued, but Edge thinks he looks hopeful.
"Right," Edge says. He feels giddy, sure that it shows on his face and he's not being dignified enough to captain a ship, but right now he doesn't care. "Okay, people! Let's bring this baby down and do some recon!"
"Yes, sir!" both Reimi and Faize answer, and then their enthusiasm is obvious.
Coming in for a landing is way easier when they're not in the middle of an emergency. They bring the Calnus down with only a few little bumps and rattles from atmosphere entry, landing on a broad plain about half a mile from the nearest shore. Aeos taught them to be careful, so they check their weapons and make sure they're bringing a decent stock of restorative items before they disembark. And then the door is opening, and they step out into the light of a new world.
It must have been millions of years since Eldar was so young, so vibrant. How many of Faize's brethren have never had the chance to see a world like this? How fortunate was he to be chosen for this mission, so he could be one of the first to see the new lands they could settle? And—and not only that, but to have such admirable companions for the mission. He had heard a variety of things about Earthlings while he was still in training, but Edge and Reimi prove only the best of them true.
The three of them spread out in a loose formation as they leave the Calnus, studying the landscape around them. This planet's sun must burn hotter than that of Aeos; the difference in temperature on the planet's surface is little, but the light shining down on them is brighter, less tinged with red. The air feels damp against Faize's skin, heavy in his lungs, and there's a distant sound that he thinks must be waves on the ocean shore.
"The vegetation here is more complex than on Aeos," Reimi says, studying the readings from her scanner. "Much closer to what you would have seen on modern-day Earth. More specialized structures, much more likely to reproduce by pollination instead of sporing."
"So there's been life on this planet longer than on Aeos, you figure?" Edge asks. He picks up a fallen leaf from beneath one of the trees, turning it over in his hands and looking at it in fascination.
"It seems likely," Faize says. "Though perhaps it's simply that life developed under different stresses on the two planets. Without better surveying equipment, it would be impossible to say for sure."
Edge nods. "I guess that'll wait until we find a place to settle, anyway," he says. "And we've at least found a couple of places now where we know we could grow food." He looks at Faize. "How are our fauna readings? No killer attack bugs, I hope."
Faize smiles; he's learning to recognize Edge's joking tone. "None so far," he says. "We do have some life signs moving around at the water's edge to the southeast of here that we should probably investigate."
"Right," Edge says. "Keep your weapons ready, but don't go looking for trouble."
He leads the way through the dense undergrowth. Rich pink and gold flowers shiver on their stems as the three of them pass by; the air smells of fresh sap and the wet rot of dead leaves. Nothing in his training had prepared Faize for exploration to be such a sensual process, these planets so full of things to see and smell and feel—and all of it wild, unplanned, simply there. On Eldar, the pockets of life-sustaining territory are the result of careful tending by dedicated teams; to see life simply flourish without coaxing or direction is awe-inspiring.
They come out of the jungle on a low ridge overlooking a small natural harbor. The waves break further out, leaving the shallow water near the shore comparatively calm. A small herd of strange looking creatures wades in the shallows: uniformly dark gray, their bodies squat and almost perfectly flat-topped, their four legs slender and tapered like insects'.
"Bugs again?" Reimi says unhappily.
"It appears that way," Faize says. "They do at least seem more docile than the specimens on Aeos. Perhaps we won't see the same hostile behavior from them."
"Let's hope not," Edge says.
They observe the creatures at a distance for several minutes; the bugs appear to remain unaware of their presence. Faize theorizes that perhaps the bugs' sensory organs are clustered on the bottoms of their bodies, between their limbs, an adaptation that would suggest that finding food is more important for them than being wary of predation. Edge and Reimi test the theory by going down to the water's edge and drawing close to the creatures, Reimi keeping her bow drawn and trained on the nearest bug while Edge walks up almost close enough to touch it. Still there is no sign that the bugs are bothered by—or even conscious of—the Earthlings' proximity. They exchange a few words, gesturing to the specimen in front of them, and then turn to head back to where Faize has been observing.
"Looks like you were right," Edge says when they reach the top of the ridge. "Up close, it looks like they're sifting through the water to find food. And they totally ignored me the whole time."
"An excellent sign," Faize says. He's trying to keep his composure, but if this planet truly is so suitable—it would be such a boon, for both of their peoples. "They're not aggressive, and they have no instinctive fear."
Reimi nods. "Looks like we might have found one that's safe and beautiful," she says. She smiles at Edge. "I think this calls for a picnic."
"I'm sorry," Faize says, his hand to his ear in case his translator is malfunctioning. "What was that last bit?"
"A picnic," Edge says, and yes, it's the same word again. "It's an old Earth tradition for celebrating when the seasons are changing or it's an extra nice day."
"I see," Faize says. "I would be happy to partake in your celebration, if I would not be intruding."
"Not at all," Reimi says. "We wouldn't be very good teammates if we left you out."
"That's right," Edge says. "Let's head back to the Calnus and see what we can dig up."
It's cute how seriously Faize takes their picnic preparations. Reimi blames Edge, calling it a tradition like that, making it sound like something important when really it's just a chance to relax. Still, she can't help finding it sort of charming, the wide-eyed earnestness as he helps them pack up an all-weather protective tarp to use as a blanket and assemble some food they can eat with their hands. She catches Edge's eye once during preparations and he gives her a shrug and a helpless little smile, like he thinks it's adorable, too.
They carry their picnic supplies back to the ridge where they'd first caught sight of the water, and spread their makeshift blanket in the shadow of a tree. The air is warm, with a light breeze reaching them from the ocean, and the ground might be a little lumpy but it's not bad at all. It's beautiful here. They still need to find Crowe before things will really be all right, but Reimi has faith in him. He's out there somewhere, and he's okay, and they'll meet up again eventually.
Enough brooding for now. Reimi claps her hands together, surveying the food they've managed to put together: bread and cheese and tart berries, onigiri with pickled plums, a jug of improvised tea, even some of their boring but extremely nutritious shipboard rations, to make sure they get enough protein. "So! Where do we start?"
Faize looks alarmed. "Is there—what's the proper protocol?" he asks. He's probably about to start apologizing for not having researched picnics, the poor thing.
"Relax," Edge says. "It's not really a protocol sort of thing."
"I think Edge might have given you the wrong idea," Reimi says. She scoops up one of the onigiri as Edge reaches for the bread. "A picnic isn't a ritual, or anything like that. It's just a way for people to spend some time together and enjoy themselves when it's pretty outside."
"Ah," Faize says. "Forgive me for misunderstanding."
"Hey, don't worry about it," Edge says. "Reimi's right, it was my fault. I'm the one who made it sound like a big deal." He tears off a chunk of bread and hands it to Faize. "Here."
"Thank you," Faize says gravely. "I shall endeavor to be more relaxed."
Reimi can't help giggling a little. "I'm sorry," she says when Faize looks at her curiously. "You're just cute."
He actually blushes. "I-I see," he says.
Edge grins. "Hey, that's a good thing," he says. "Can't complain when a pretty girl thinks you're cute, right?"
"I-I suppose not," Faize says. He makes a production out of slicing some cheese to go with his bread, his eyes still wide like he doesn't know what to do with himself, so Reimi doesn't tease him about it. She'd thought that the SRF didn't give them much time to goof off and relax, but it looks like Eldarians really don't believe in down time. When she glances up to meet Edge's eyes, he grimaces at her sympathetically. Between the two of them, hopefully they can show Faize that not everything has to be serious all the time.
They eat their picnic food, even the ration bars—exploring new planets is hungry work!—and sit for a while watching the waves. The odd flat-topped bugs or crabs or whatever they are wander slowly up the shoreline, scavenging food out of the shallows. Edge stretches out on his back, his hands behind his head, and watches puffy white clouds drifting in from the water. "That one kind of looks like a flower, doesn't it?"
Reimi squints in the direction he's pointing. "Hmm," she says. She doesn't really see the resemblance at first, but when she lies down to see if the angle makes a difference it's a little clearer. "A little bit. Maybe more like a star."
Faize looks from one of them to another. "Is this also a tradition?" he asks. "Divining shapes in the clouds?"
"Yup," Reimi says. "And it's every bit as serious as having picnics."
"Then I shall do my best to master it," Faize says, with just the tiniest hint of a smile.
He stretches out on the blanket between them, squirming a bit to try to get comfortable—Reimi will admit that the little bumps and uneven spots on the ground are much more obvious when lying down on them than when sitting up—and somehow, in the course of the fidgeting and squirming, both she and Edge wind up closer to Faize than they were before. He doesn't protest, though. Maybe he's decided that cuddling is the traditional conclusion to an Earth-style picnic. And really, maybe it should be.
"All right," Faize says. "Now that I am in position, where do I begin?"
"There really aren't any rules," Edge says. "Just...see what catches your eye."
Faize hums thoughtfully. They lie together in silence for a few minutes, basking in the warm afternoon. Reimi finds herself closing her eyes, just drifting; Faize is wiry but solid next to her, and she can feel Edge's presence on his other side. She's comfortable here, with them. They make a good team.
"I'm afraid I have no talent for this," Faize says eventually. "They simply look like clouds to me."
Edge laughs softly, and then throws an arm over Faize in a hug. "Don't worry about it," he says, and Reimi can feel Faize start in surprise. "The important part is just that we're here together, enjoying each other's company."
"That's right," Reimi says. She takes Edge's hand, so they wind up loosely hugging Faize between them. He relaxes into their closeness, slowly, and there's a contented little smile playing across his lips.
"Are there many Earth traditions like this?" Faize asks after a moment.
"Mmm." Reimi snuggles up a little closer. "I bet we could think of some more."
"I see," Faize says. He places one hand carefully over Reimi's and Edge's, clasping them gently. "I think I should like to try them as well."