First things first; that was Ralf Hounds´ motto, and had served him well on a daily basis for twenty-five decades. And first among first was coffee, pitch-black.
The Northern Star´s Mess Deck was packed: engies mostly, scattered in small groups; a few of Taak´s toy soldiers in their favorite corner booth, listening to one of Yaco´s endless supply of anecdotes; a loud bunch of grease monkeys crammed in a table near the door to the toilettes, sharing dark matter jokes.
Ralf scanned the room for his fellow eggheads, finding none. Good: he got to choose the table, the only thing that would make today feel different than yesterday. Even better: for some strange grace of chaos and randomness, the coffee dispenser was unsolicited. Issuing a mental thank you to his good luck, Ralf dashed towards the machine before someone else forced him to wait in line.
He hesitated for a bit between Espresso and Americano, went for the latter, put a large cup under the nozzle and waited for it to be filled.
If only we had real milk…
If they had, would his memories match the taste of foamed milk in his current mouth? Leticia would say “most surely yes, if the milk is the same”; Thomas would say “our mind would convince us that it does, by retrofitting our memories”; and Ralf himself would say “no way to know without tasting, I mean testing.”
And we are probably gonna spend the best part of today discussing, in theory, some variation of the topic…
The coffee reached the cup´s brim. Ralf, lost in his thoughts, turned around; his hand smashed right into Zedkay´s shoulder, scalding her spotless uniform with the steaming brew.
She didn´t move. She didn’t even flinch. But her cold stare forebode an Ice Age onboard the Star.
“I… I…” Ralf said, feeling his ears and face heating up. Some of the grease monkeys were laughing behind him, probably betting on how long it would take Zedkay to turn Ralf into egghead chop suey.
She advanced one step. Things became blurry, as his heart pounded in his throat; He loomed at least a full head above her, yet somehow felt much, much smaller.
“Move,” she said.
“Step. Aside.” Pushing him as she spoke.
She punched her choice on the coffee machine, served herself a very short Espresso, returned to the Secs´ table without glancing back. Ralf saw Yaco Souza making room for her, and mentioning something to which she replied with the minutest shrug; then Yaco turned to Ralf, with a wide smile beaming across his dark face, and raised his thumb.
Ralf allowed himself to breath again; it seemed like he would be able to enjoy his new clone for a bit more. And his cup was still half full.
Leticia didn´t like to sit too close to the grease monkeys –“too damn loud”– and Thomas didn´t like to be too close to the main doors –“cold drafts give me colds”. They were old now, while Ralf was again young; a tacit agreement that gave preeminence to frail bodies made Ralf choose a table located more or less in the middle of the Deck. He sat with his back to Taak´s boys; if Zedkay changed her mind and decided to avenge her suit by sending him to visit Danio´s Necros, he´d rather not see her coming.
The main hatch slid open. Thomas limped inside, casting part of his weight on his blackthorn shillelagh while with his other arm he kept the doors from closing on Leticia. She inched her way towards the table, leaning on her stainless steel quad cane the way an old bishop would on his staff.
Ralf smiled into his cup. Both Leticia and Thomas had been among the oldest crewmembers the day the Northern Star had launched; the wooden shillelagh and the steel cane had been part of their luggage, and the centuries of space travel and cyclical cloning would later prove the wisdom of their choice: it had never occurred to the youngest that such crude instruments would become your best friends onboard when, once every half a century or so, your knee, sciatic or hip decided it didn´t really feel like walking anymore.
Ralf stood up as they got close.
“Green and black?”
“That would be wonderful, Puppy, dear,” she said, sitting down.
Ralf went again to the dispenser, not looking up as he darted past Taak´s crew. He took two cups, poured boiling water, put black tea in one and green in the other.
As he carefully turned around, keeping both cups level, he found himself facing the tall, wiry frame of Yaco Souza.
“I surrender!” Yaco smiled, raising hands. “I´m unarmed!”
Ralf peered behind him.
“Don´t worry,” Yaco said. “I´m also alone.” He lowered his arms, always shining that wide, contagious smile of his. “And if she wanted you dead or maimed, meu cara, you´d be dead or maimed already.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“My friend… it´s supposed to make you feel glad to be alive!” Yaco set the dispenser to give him the most concentrated coffee shot available. “And… can you keep a secret?”
“That was actually very funny. I mean, not weird funny, but made me smile funny.”
“Of course it made you smile, Yaco. And it made all of Nogueira´s grease monkeys laugh. I mean… no offense.”
“None taken,” he said, and finished filling his own cup. “It also made her smile.” Before Ralf could say anything, he added: “Secret. Promised. Keep it.”
Ralf watched Yaco´s long body stride back to his table. Fifth in the Security chain of command, Yaco had “Killing Machine” inscribed in every muscle: taut and tough like a steel cable, yet confident and relaxed as a Latin dancer. Which he was, too, and quite accomplished; son of a bitch basically made every other male in the room feel really, really beta.
Once upon a time, when he had been twenty years old for the first time, this kind of stuff would have made Ralf extremely insecure. Now, twenty years old for the fifth time, it made him feel insecure, and stupid, and frustrated.
He took the green and black cups to the other two eggheads.
“Doesn´t it bother you?” he said.
“Bother me? Yaco being deliciously Adonis-like?” said Leticia. “It doesn´t bother me, not at all. I mean, look at his hands: ready to snap necks in battle, or grab hips in bed. Is that what bothers you, Puppy? Him being pure, undiluted alpha male, and you just barely human?”
“Not exactly, no,” said Ralf. “Bothered by the fact that such fact still bothers me.”
Thomas smiled. “That would be meta-bothering… and would prove me right. Right?”
“No lab quarrels during breakfast, boys,” said Leticia, sipping her green tea. “But yeah, Puppy: if we are being serious about it, it does bother me a bit, or meta-bother if you will, so Tommy here doesn´t make a fuss. It does irk me a bit that little details still irk me a bit. We are twice or thrice older than any human should be; when are we supposed to become unbotherable by the tiny stuff?”
“Yes, that,” said Ralf. “At which point does one reach the wisdom of old age?”
“Well,” insisted Thomas, “that´s because…”
“Shush, Tommy, dear,” said Leticia. “Your tea is getting cold, and then you get cold. Be a good meta-boy and meta-finish it, will you?” She turned to Ralf. “So, Puppy dear, do tell: any gossips, rumors, something new?”
“Not much,” he said. “Some clown dropped half a cup of coffee over Danielle´s shoulder.”
“No, no Danio; Danielle.”
“You mean Zedkay Decroux!?” said Thomas.
“Oh dear!” said Leticia. “Poor clown´s a clone now, isn´t he?”
“I don´t know…” Ralf took a sip of his cooling coffee. “She must have a soft spot for ruggedly handsome eggheads…” he said.
Leticia and Thomas exchanged amused glances.
“Clown was you, Puppy?”
“Shouldn´t you be with Jenkins´ boys right now?”
“I mean, you look new, but not that new!”
Ralf smiled. “Must be my legendary charm…”
“Which is so legendary that science has yet to find even a trace of evidence!”
“I exhibit myself as evidence,” Ralf said. “I´m still alive, and in one piece.”
“Well…” said Thomas, “a bit more blood and gore would have made for an even better anecdote.” He peered over Ralf´s shoulder. “Although I do concede the points that that´s indeed Zedkay over there, that her usually spotless uniform´s shoulder is indeed sorely marred and, stranger still… that unless my old eyes are cheated by some spell, could that possibly be one tiny smile on her lips?”
Ralf turned around. Yes, she was smiling. To some joke Yaco just had made.
Ralf got himself a second cup of coffee while the old farts soaked their lips in their tea; no Sec officer sneaked behind him this time, although he did have to stand in line waiting for some kiwi minions to get their share of caffeine. He overheard them saying that the Star´s engines were chewing through dark matter as if it was popcorn, which seemed to be a good thing because, apparently, dark matter engines love popcorn. Whatever the hell that meant.
“So… how close are we?” Ralf asked.
“Any day now,” they said. “Maybe next week, maybe tomorrow; maybe even today!”
Which was what every single engie in Engineering always said every time you asked them “how long?”, as if they were Anne Tolley´s collective voice spreading her mantra: a week, or tomorrow, or today…
… or maybe a month, maybe a year, maybe…
… maybe it was better not think about it.
When he returned to the table with his second Americano, Zhelya had joined them.
“Actually it does bother me a bit,” she was saying. “By now I can predict with a hundred percent accuracy when and where my next damn freckle will show up. Once I was always wondering when the freckling would stop; then, as I got older, I also started worrying about wrinkles. Now that history repeats itself over and over, I find that every new-old wrinkle and freckle still bothers me to no end. And, on top of that, I know that next clone around I´ll have to live through the same sad farce all over again.”
Ralf would have to agree with the sad farce part; Zhelya´s face was buried beneath jungles of ginger locks and constellations of freckles, and what little untouched skin was gleamed below could have been used as the baseline for pale.
“Yeah, that´s what more or less ruins it for me,” Ralf said. “I mean, it´s great to be young again: everything works, nothing hurts. But it´s like I´m inside this movie, which I have already seen five times, and I know utterly well how it´s gonna end.”
“And it doesn´t end well,” said Thomas. “Is that your point?”
“Yes… I think it is.”
“Then perhaps that´s where you´re wrong?” Thomas pointed at the gray steel floor of the Mess Deck, its steel walls around them, the steel ceiling above. “We are still in the middle of it. The movie, the voyage, however you want to call it; it is still unfinished, so how can we know how the story will end?”
“You mean it´s about the destination, and not the journey?”
“I mean it´s about a mission, and not the missionaries.”
“I don´t know, Tommy,” said Leticia. “Not to sound too pessimistic, but I do believe our Puppy here has a point: it does get boring.”
“We crave variety,” Ralf said. “Our mind does…”
“You mean our brains.”
“I mean, whatever: be it software, hardware or wetware, we are wired to seek novelty and variety.”
“Well,” said Zhelya, “not that wired, not any of us…”
“That´s exactly my point!” Ralf said. “Every last one of us onboard was carefully cherry-picked and screened and selected to be as dull and antisocial as possible…”
“Aw, c´mon, you make it sound…”
“… making it sound like it is, Thomas: people able to stick for hundreds of years with the same routine. That´s why they picked us. But at which point,” he pointed around at the enclosing steel panels, “does dull become unbearable?”
Thomas shrugged. “We´ll get there, eventually.”
“To wherever this road takes us.”
Ralf, Leticia and Zhelya exchanged glances.
“That´s a bit too fatalistic, Tommy dear,” Leticia said. “Even for you.”
Thomas shrugged again, and sipped his tea.
Ralf and his three colleagues arrived to the Mnemosyne meeting room in perfect synchro with the two other members of the team, who came straight from their quarters: Kurt and Karl were firm believers that a few extra minutes for cuddling was a much better time investment than breakfast.
As they entered, the Mnemosyne team found the meeting room empty.
“That´s odd…” said Leticia.
The group exchanged worn-out jokes while taking their worn-out seats along the long oval table; Leticia, Thomas and Ralf on one side, Zhelya, Kurt and Karl on the other.
“Oookay,” said Leticia, and everybody quieted down; inhabiting the oldest body in the room gave her some archaic hierarchical privileges. “Where´s our Bedouin Princess?” she grumbled. “Not like her to keep us waiting…”
As in cue, the door hissed open.
“Sorry I´m late,” said Noora. “I´ve just had an unexpected meeting…” She walked to the head of the table, where she stood without sitting.
“Well…?” said Kurt.
“You were saying…” said Karl.
“Something about you having a meeting, I believe?” said Leticia.
“Of the unexpected variety,” said Thomas. “As in, the exact kind of event we don´t see much around here.”
Noora smiled. Her long raven-black hair, big round eyes and straight, sharp nose had earned her several Arabian-themed nicknames, from “Bedouin Princess” to “Scheherazade”. She was particularly fond of the latter.
She said: “We just have to wait for a couple of people…”
Like a rattled snake, the door hissed again and crept back.
“Unless my tired old eyes deceive me, that´s Dr. Rockwell at our doorstep!”
“Now this is interesting…”
“More than interesting: this is interdisciplinary!”
The Lead of the Judair team stepped into the room. “Hello everybody,” he said.
“Welcome to our humble premises!”
“Come on in, have a seat!”
Smiling and saying nothing, AJ stood at Noora´s right.
“Two Heads in the same room…”
“And both of them mischievously smiling…”
“I´m telling you, something big is about to happen!”
Leticia raised her hand, and her coworkers´ chatter abated.
“So, Noora, dear,” she said. “Let me predict something. You´ve just said that we are waiting for somebody else; therefore, in a few brief moments the door will open yet again, and we will welcome Dr. Danio Jenkins, Lead of the Cloning team. Am I correct?”
The whole team stared at Noora.
There was a hiss, and a smile in Leticia´s face. “Aah,” she said. “It does become a bit boring, but damn it is good to always be right.” She gestured towards the door. “C´mon in, Danio. Do sit down; our meeting room is small, but there´s always place for yet another bright mind.”
The Lead of the Cloning team was a grim, brooding man with a huge nose and tiny black beads for eyes; he took a chair and sat with his bony shoulders raised tight, bending his bald head forward and looking downwards like the caricature of a scientist of old, peering through an optical microscope. Or perhaps like a carrion bird that knows all too well that all he needs for dinner to happen is to do nothing, be patient and wait. Many onboard called him “the Necromancer”; nobody to his face.
“So, Noora,” Thomas said. “To what do we owe the honor of having three Heads in our small room?”
“Maybe somebody wants to breed a Hydra?”
“We would need a Hercules for that…”
“Whadda ya say, Ralf? Think you have the physique du rol?”
“C´mon Noora! Tell us already!”
“It´s a go, right?”
“It has to be the green light. It has to be. Please?”
“They are not actually taking the plug out, right?”
“Beheading the Hydra, you mean?”
“I mean giving us a red.”
“No way; not a red.”
“Noora… please tell us they are not redding us, please?”
“Yarrr!! Me starting a mutiny if dey mess with me research, them scurvy dogs!”
Noora laughed. “Gentlemen,” she said to Danio and AJ, “shall we…?”
AJ consulted his wrist watch, a mechanism as ancient as Thomas´ shillelagh or Leticia´s quad cane. “Sure thing,” AJ said. “It´s even a tiny bit late.”
Danio gazed up and nodded.
“Very well,” she said. “Dr. Rockwell… Dr. Jenkins… thank you both for finding a gap in your busy schedules, and making room to roll with the Mnemosyne crew today.”
Her team remained quiet and expectant.
“Not half an hour ago,” said Noora, “the Captain sent for us, the Heads and Leads…”
“… and, brief and to the point as our good Captain Kjell is usually fond of being, he told me… I mean, you know him: he will never invest in a whole paragraph when a line will just do, nor a word when he can communicate with only a nod or a small gesture…”
“You are killing us!”
“… so, in that terse and succinct way of his, he most graciously told me that he was allowing us to take the Mnemosyne project into phase III.”
“Oh dark gods…”
“Did you just…?”
Noora´s smile became even wider. “The Captain even allowed himself to perform one of his iceberg-cold Nordic grins when he told me, and I quote: `Dr. Hasanat, the Mnemosyne Project is green to go live´.”
Through twisting metallic corridors, their Yeah!! and hoorays reached the Mess Deck.
“Nerdgasm,” said one mechanic to the other, while they stood in line for their coffee. “Some egghead just found some new bug under his microscope.”
“Yeah,” said the other. “Play with bugs long enough, it´ll do that to ya´.”
On the clock
“When will you put them into the oven?”
“Tomorrow,” said Danio. “At about this time-ish…”
AJ raised his left arm to read his ancient clock.
“Watch out, Danio!”
“You´re on AJ´s watch now!”
“… assuming, of course, my team receives from your team all the neural layers…”
“Tonight as the very latest!”
“… and, of course, assuming there´s nothing unexpected,” Danio said. He looked at Noora: “Which there shouldn´t be.”
Noora shook her head.
“Can we choose their gender?” asked Kurt.
“No,” said Danio. “Yours is the mind, but ours is the body, so that´s our call to make.”
“And what is your call, Danio dear?” said Leticia. “If you don´t mind me asking?”
Danio stared at her for a while; Leticia held his gaze.
“I don´t know,” said Danio.
“But you´ve just said…”
“I´ve just said ours, not mine,” Danio said. “My call was: let´s add some chaos into our side of the mix. I´ve split my crew into three; one body per team. They will not talk to each other, or me, about what design choices each team takes. We think that´s the closest we´ll get to blind tests.”
The Mnemosyne team traded glances among themselves.
“That´s actually an interesting take,” Noora said. “Wonder if we should do the same…”
“Would keep things semi-random…”
“… and unexpected…”
“… just like true personalities should be…”
“Ok,” said Noora, “I think we´ll take a leaf from the Cloner´s book, and split into three ourselves.” She looked at Danio: “Maybe even deciding at random which of your teams passes the torch to which of mine?”
Danio nodded. “We took straws,” he said.
Noora looked at AJ: “Any input from your Judair boys?”
“Not much,” he said. “As far as I´m concerned, these three clones will be a no-mess-with-you-guys job for us. I mean, no personal memories to transfer, so not much for us to do. We´ll run all the checklists on their chips, but these new… persons, shall we call them?”
“`Human lab mice´ would be a bit offensive, yeah…”
“So would `lumps of biomass´…”
“These new persons, then,” AJ said, “are tabula rasa as far as my team and me are concerned. We´ll eagerly await for all the data you can collect, of course.”
Kurt, Karl and Zhelya whispered among themselves; Noora asked something to AJ, too low for the rest to hear.
Leticia´s raised hand created silence in the room. “Saving tech discussions for later… why now, Noora? We´ve been asking Kjell to let us take this step for at least all my current life. So why now? What has changed to make the Nordic iceberg give us the green light?”
Noora glanced at AJ, who stared at his watch.
“And what´s up with that clock of yours, AJ?”
“We know it´s cool, and we know it´s ancient.”
“And it´s three minutes since you´ve last checked.”
“Which means I´m ten late,” said AJ. “I should really be going; something I have to do with my team.”
AJ stood up, and so did Danio.
“Thanks for stopping by.”
“Clones ready tomorrow, then?”
Danio glanced backwards as he was leaving. “Yeah. If your teams give my teams the neural layers. Today. And if nothing unexpected happens,” he said.
“Well… Captain did give us the green light, yes?”
“Yes he did.”
“He did, indeed!”
“Have to pinch myself, just in case I´m dreaming…”
“Better than that: let´s get another round of coffee!”
“Puppy, dear… I´m not sure I can get all the way to the Mess Deck and back here; would you be so kind to…”
“Sure!” Ralf said as he stood up; so did Kurt and Karl. “Green again?”
“That would be lovely, dear.”
“Green tea and green lights; coming up! We´ll be back in…”
“Boys…” Noora said.
Ralf looked at Kurt and Karl, then at Noora.
“You´ve heard me,” Noora said. “Do sit down.”
A bit surprised, a bit taken aback, the three men went back to their chairs.
“We were just going for…”
“Coffee, yes, I know,” she said. “And green tea. Matching color for the occasion, I do agree with Letty. But I need you guys to stay here.”
They sat down.
Noora leaned over the table, and said in a conspiratorial whisper: “Don´t you want to know what was going on with AJ and that clock of his?”
“He did seem weirdly in a hurry, yeah…”
“He was,” Noora said. “Captain´s orders.”
That piqued everyone´s interest.
“That was the other thing Kjell mentioned in today´s earlier meeting,” she said. “In fact, that´s why he called for all the Leads and Heads; the green light for us was just a small bonus.”
“What do you mean, only a bonus?”
“We´ve been waiting for him to allow us to proceed for, like…”
“For centuries, yes,” said Noora. “That´s the whole point.”
Leticia narrowed her eyes. “You mean ours is just one green light in a big Christmas tree?”
“Not one hundred percent sure,” Noora said, “but I´d say that´s a pretty good guess.”
“But why on Terra,” asked Ralf, “can´t we go fetch a coffee first?”
“Because,” Noora said, “our Captain wants every Head and every Lead to be, right now, with his or her team. And that´s because, according to our Captain, at exactly 11:00am today…”
“… right now?”
The huge screen on the wall flickered with the Northern Star logo as a soft three-note chime flooded the room.
“Damn,” said Leticia, “that man is punctuality incarnated.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Captain Kjell, his voice reverberating through every room and corridor of the Star, “this is your Captain speaking.”
“Oh, really?” chuckled Kurt.
“Would never have guessed…” said Ralf.
“The logo on the screen, that´s kind of a dead giveaway…”
“And his voice coming from everywhere, like an old school god…”
“Shush!” said Leticia.
“My fellow travelers…” Kjell´s voice said. “My friends…”
“Did he just call us…?”
“Damn it, SHUSH!!”
“… I have good news for us all.”
Ralf looked around the room. His colleagues watched the flickering logo with religious reverence; a knowing smile lightened Noora´s face; Kurt and Karl were holding hands; so were Leticia and Thomas while clutching quad cane and shillelagh.
“We are close,” muttered Thomas. “We must be.”
“Anne Tolley, our Chief Engineering,” said Captain Kjell, “gave me her updated forecast yesterday. Today Navigation has confirmed Mrs. Tolley´s calculations, and I have personally triple-checked them myself.”
Ralf felt a knot in his throat. He grabbed Leticia´s arm, tight.
“This is it, Puppy,” she whispered.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Captain Kjell, “according to our equations, in exactly three months from today, the Northern Star will reach the Rhyldan System.”
There was a long pause during which nobody could say anything.
“My friends…” said Kjell, “my fellow travelers… in exactly ninety days this first, long leg of our journey will come to an end.”
This time, the Mnemosyne team was not alone in their euphoric yells and screams. As if angels and demons had decided to throw an apocalyptic party together, the Northern Star was flooded by a chorus of boisterous cheering.
Story by: Fran Macjus (Herko Kerghans) and Paul Bloom (Volkoff)
General Idea and Mnemosyne Concept: Gina Towner (Trixie)
Proof-reading: Amanda Romig (Odwerki), Justin Leon Kelly (Darsch), Nick Kahan (Luckshot545), and Steven Kerr (Feydred)