This poem is spillover from the June 3, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from rosieknight. It also fills the "lost and found" square in my 6-1-14 card for the genprompt_bingo fest. This poem belongs to The Blueshift Troupers project.
It began when the Omphalos
found a distress signal -- centuries old --
in the guts of a navigation buoy
at the edge of the Fimbria.
Taylor pieced together the tale
of the lost colony ship Sequoia
and a map of its probable trajectory.
Then she recommended a search pattern.
Lane approved the search, because
finding the scattered seeds of humanity
was an ongoing part of their mission;
he always directed some resources to that
when they weren't busy with a crisis.
They found the planet,
and the wreck of the starship,
but no signs of advanced civilization.
"What do you think?" Lane asked Avory,
who studied other cultures.
"Anything below industrial age
is difficult to detect from orbit," Avory said.
"They could have a thriving civilization
that just isn't sending any signals."
"Jess, what are the chances of survival?"
Lane asked their biotechnologist.
"Judging from the state of the wreck,
a significant portion of crew probably survived,"
she said. "This is a cold world, though,
so it wouldn't be easy for them to make it."
The planet had huge ice caps
along with broad belts of tundra and taiga
spanning the middle latitudes, then
a narrower belt of temperate forest
banding the equator.
"Can we go down there?"
Chameleon asked, dancing
from one foot to the other.
"I want to go down!"
He had grown up feral
and loved exploring
the less-developed planets.
"What would we be looking for?"
Lane asked his team.
"We might find large, simple structures --
aqueducts or irrigation channels,
earthworks or stone buildings,
that sort of thing," said Taylor.
"People like to live near water,"
Chameleon said. "Here it comes
out of the wall, but without fancy tools,
people would need a lake or a river."
"Let's do some preliminary research
to select promising sites to land,"
said Lane. "Jess and Taylor,
you two focus on scientific grounds.
Avory and Chameleon, you two
cover the social aspects.
Then overlay your maps and
look for sites appearing on both."
Avory and Chameleon had laid out
a respectable selection of sites
when Taylor whooped in triumph.
"We found a structure!" she said.
"It looks like a pair of pyramids
on the coast, possibly for navigation."
"That's on our map too," Avory said.
"A river enters the ocean there."
They landed the pinnace a discreet distance
away from the pyramids, so they could
approach quietly and not scare anyone
who might be living nearby.
As soon as they saw the natives,
the crew realized there was no hope
of blending in before shapeshifting.
Most of the people were short and fat,
and nearly a third of them had fur,
soft and dense like a seal's.
"That's a high rate of adaptation,"
Lane observed. "Either they have
strong affinity, fierce pressure, or both."
"It's a harsh environment," Jess said
as they hiked toward the settlement.
"If they had even a few people
with useful adaptations, then
the founder effect could entrench those
in the population very effectively."
Soon someone spotted them,
and the crew stopped to see
how the locals would respond.
Instead of the frequent suspicion
when meeting those with visible differences,
the natives welcomed them with smiles and waves,
although they seemed more surprised that
nobody on the crew spoke their language.
"Okay, give me a while to work on this,"
Avory said, focusing on the linguistics.
So the others explored the settlement
while he tried to identify basic terms.
The main focus seemed to involve
hunting and fishing, along with
a diligent effort to gather edible seaweed.
The environment proved to be
more of a barrier than the inhabitants.
Before long, the crew was shivering
even in their cold-weather gear
and had to retreat indoors.
"I want to shift," Chameleon said,
rubbing his thin arms over his chest.
"Some of these people have fur."
Reilly fell back on music
as a universal language,
which made her very popular.
An old man laid what looked like
a rabbit skin in front of her.
An old woman scolded him sharply
and replaced it with something foxlike.
Other people came forward
and set things on the hide --
jewelry, small carvings, and
a variety of food. Apparently
the custom of putting out a hat
for tips was universal.
Reilly shared the food
with her crewmates at once,
and Jess pocketed some for testing.
You never knew what would turn out
to be useful, or occasionally, allergenic.
It took a while for Avory to work out
the language well enough to
explain why they had come,
but once he did, the natives
were even more enthusiastic.
The headman Blue Eyes,
named for an unusual feature
in this population of dark-eyed people,
applauded the idea of trade
with distant strangers.
"I don't think he realizes
quite how far we've traveled,"
Avory said. "At first they thought
we belonged to the Tree People --
evidently there's another population
centered around the equator.
I did managed to convey
that we aren't them."
"We'll manage," Lane said.
"The important thing is they're friendly."
Chameleon was the first of the team
to shapeshift into local form,
and he emerged from the cocoon
with his coveted coat of fur.
He also had the two middle fingers
of each hand fused together,
much to his frustration.
"It's a simple problem," Zasha said.
as he examined Chameleon's hands.
"I can fix this in less than an hour.
All I have to do is separate the skin."
"Blue Eyes says that a lot of people
are born that way," Avory reported.
"They don't have a way to fix it, though."
"So we can add medical personnel
along with traders and musicians
to the recommended contact team,"
Lane said as he made notes.
If you went exploring space,
things were bound to go wrong,
but sometimes you could catch up
later and make them better.
* * *
The lost colony is a popular SF trope.
Syndactyly is a birth defect (or in this case, metamorphic defect) in which the fingers remain attached. As long as the bones are not fused, it's pretty straightforward to fix. Because most planets were settled by a smallish group of people, and each planet has its own challenges, the most common type of disability varies from one to another.