This is it.
It´s been ninety days since Captain´s Kjell announcement.
Many hold vigil in their private quarters, either alone or huddled with their lifemates.
Others prefer to be surrounded by a tight crowd: the Mess Deck is packed. No one is eating.
Gavin and Leticia and Thomas and Ralf are seated at their usual table. They hold hands.
Noora is with them. She never comes here; she shares her meals with AJ and Amanda Byrnes and Melani Kabura in the Sci Wardroom, where the Heads of the eggheads can nitpick and nag and gossip out of their underlings´ earshot. But today she sits left from Ralf, and she holds Ralf´s and Gavin´s hands, thus closing the circle.
Pretty much everybody else is doing likewise: knots of arms and hands and fingers tangled and weaved together. Entwined. Kurt and Karl and Faye are on the nearest table, threaded with Zhelya and Laura. A couple of benches away a bunch of Secs are jammed shoulder to shoulder: sat between Kyle and Yaco, Zedkay is as grim a sphinx as ever; Yaco is mute for once.
All eyes are glued to the screens on the walls. They would normally show some soothing landscape: rolling hills, sunny fields, lakes and forests to which nobody would pay much attention. Today, a flock of pupils is fixed on the row of large, bright numbers shining against a black background.
Just a handful of seconds away from zero.
Leticia whispers: “When darkness fall, may our hearts will be true…”
There´s a widespread, anxious rumble as the countdown is thinned to a single digit.
Thomas says: “When the dark is overcome, may we rise to find the sun…”
Tiny grains of sand, running out.
Among the sea of napes, Ralf thinks he sees a head turning to face him. He glances: Naomi Yamada, her sad eyes at the brink of tears, gifts him a tiny smile.
Ralf wishes the hands he´s holding were hers, but they are Thomas´ and Noora´s, and they both squeeze hard with tension and anxiety and Noora whimpers: “Three…” and Ralf again watches the screen…
… the Mess Deck rumbles: “Two…”
This is it.
… and then the weirdest spinning sensation, zooming in and out of focus. Skins crawl as caressed by the gentlest jolt of static current.
… everything turning inside out.
And it´s over.
Solid steel walls all around them. Solid floor, solid ceiling; the solid ship they´ve been travelling in for two and a half centuries.
On every screen flashes a bright row of zeroes.
“We are,” says one of the engineers. “We are out. Out of darkspace.”
The screens´ background is now a star-studded mantle; the row of zeros give way to a round, gleaming blue pearl.
A perfect marble of oceans, clouds, continents.
The Mess Deck becomes still as a tomb; quiet as a forlorn, lonely sanctuary.
As devoid of sound as a shrine to the deities of Silence.
“Oh my God,” Leticia whispers. “It looks exactly like Earth…”
It looks exactly like Earth.
Noora Hasanat stands up; there´s a rustle as heads and necks and torsos are pulled away from the screen and towards her.
She extends her arms in a wide, welcoming embrace. Her eyes gleam like pools under the desert sun.
She says: “My friends… my dear, loved friends… welcome to Rhyldan.”
Ralf “Puppy” Hounds woke up to the hellish banging of hammers inside his skull. Not unexpected, of course, but the lack of surprise did nothing to prevent his head from feeling a couple of sizes too tight to contain his painfully beating brain.
A blurry memory from last night made Ralf grope around in the darkness; finding the bed empty, he sighed with some unlikely mixture of disappointment and relief.
He turned the lights on. Mistake: the visual spectrum gnawed at his pupils with blinding brightness. He covered his face with the pillow; his grey matter hurled itself again and again against his forehead and temples, like a frenzied madman inside a padded cell.
He had some pills somewhere, courtesy of Amanda Byrnes; she had distributed about a dozen to everybody on board, correctly predicting that between half and two thirds of the Star´s crew would suffer that morning from acute, massive hangover.
Even while torturing him with its beating and hammering, his aching brain whispered: Nightstand.
He groped around again, his eyes shielded by the pillow… There! Right on top of the bedside table, beside the glass of water. He grabbed a bunch, plunged them to his mouth, took a sip of water. Swallowed; the friction of the rough pills against his dry throat felt like the Cavalry arriving just when all hope was lost.
Like an expert nanny, the pills slowly but steadily soothed his brain´s tantrums; the hellish pouncing became an irritated thumping, then a gentle beating, then either his brain shrunk or his head expanded and the pain was not gone, but at least manageable.
Thank the dark gods for pills…
He chuckled under the pillows. They had left gods and holy books behind when they´d left Earth, yeah, and he had never been a religious man, but old expressions were like bad weeds.
“Can´t teach an old dog new tricks,” he said aloud, “any more than you can make it forget the old ones.”
There was no reply. Neither Leticia nor Thomas were there to pick up the glove and thoroughly debate the issue; probably dealing with their own pills and pouncing brain issues right now, on top of her ruined sciatic nerve and his stubbornly malfunctioning knee.
Time to get things done, so first things first: bathroom, teeth, brush.
He tossed the pillow across the room. Unshielded against the throbbing light, he kept his eyes half-closed and sat by the bed´s edge. His brain would complain again as soon as he stood up -something to do with varying blood pressure-, but previous hangovers had taught him it would abate as soon as he took a few steps.
Everything went according to plan: by the time he arrived to the bathroom, and while still groggy and sleepy, his head ached no more.
Everything, everything exactly as predicted.
But no, he thought. Nothing as predicted anymore. Everything is about to change; everything.
He turned the bathroom´s light on, and after a bit of winking and wincing, managed to keep his eyes fully open. He stood in front of the mirror.
He looked young.
He felt young.
He smiled. Having all his real teeth was what he liked best about youth.
All in place, everything in its place…
“Better be careful, old dog,” he said to his image. “Today there´s a whole world of new tricks floating out there.”
Yesterday all the screens had flared, and there it was, floating in front of them, just where it was supposed to be.
A blue gleaming pearl, shrouded in white spiraled veils.
A brief tidal wave of cheers and hoorays had followed, then died down, then utter quiet had took hold of the Star. The scanners, blind and deaf and mute for two and a half centuries, had become alive as the ship locked into Rhyldan´s orbit and they probed the surface. Everybody had waited wordlessly for the jury to reach their verdict. Nobody had done anything; nobody knew how long it would take.
A couple of hours later, the scanners went from mute to chatty like crazy, and the tidal wave of joy and relief had returned tenfold.
There´s life down there!
The yelling had grown steadily into an orgy of crazy hopes that were suddenly and largely fulfilled; of centuries of traversing the darkest seas to finally find a sunny, welcoming beach. Of taking one step, and another step, and another step, never daring to look ahead least the unthinkably long way still to go forces you to stop walking; and another step, and another step, and yet another step, and then you realize you are somehow already there.
And there is Life down there.
The uproar had filled every corridor of the Star, every room, every nook and cranny, and had grown until the whole ship was a huge, crazy party.
We´ve made it!
Secluded in his Quarters, the Captain had opened the twenty bottles of Clos du Mesnil he had brought onboard and had, during all those years, sternly saved for this moment; now he liberally shared them with the Heads, Leads and Seconds.
We did it!
Against all odds, we did it!
Spontaneous celebrations had erupted in the Mess Deck, in Hydroponics, down in several depots and a few labs. The hardcore abstemious wasted themselves in wine and gin and beer; people known as strict antisocials were laughing and hugging and singing.
We´ve made it.
We have arrived.
We´ve MADE it!
Ralf´s memories of last night became hazy after Yaco, Kyle and Zedkay had introduced him to some industrial-grade vodka relative, and Itzka Kourailen slipped him some capsules he´d said he´d got from Paulina Skorva, although most surely without Amanda´s prescription nor consent. He remembered Thomas and Leticia embraced and crying together; Kurt and Karl and Faye joining Jurgën Beckenbauer and other engies singing some raucous song in drunken German; Stephanie giggling with Gavin and tugging him towards somewhere; Naomi´s bright smile and loud laughter…
Ralf shook his head.
Naomi´s bright smile and loud laughter? he chuckled. Man was that some strong vodka…
At that point last night, the Mess Deck had started to spin, and his memory was blank afterwards.
The Mess Deck now looked like Ralf would feel without Amanda´s pills: in a state of post-apocalyptic hangover from last night´s wild ride. Like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that had been secretly prayed for during long dull decades: even working at full power, the whirr of the air system was unable to remove the reek of food and alcohol, of vomit and sweat. The floor was littered with scraps and booze stains.
Captain Kjell would be none too happy with the dirty mess, but Kaihanga had been adamant: “This will be the party to end all parties, Captain,” she had said. “We´ve made it to Rhyldan, and there´s life down there. Everybody on janitor duty will either feast and be as drunk as the rest of the Star, or there will be a mutiny to quell.”
None too happy, not at all: Kjell had frowned down at her from the top of his Nordic heights. “That sounds riotous,” he´d said.
Kaihanga had stood firm and grim. “It´s a prediction,” she´d said. “As accurate as any of our eggheads can produce. I may be able to coax my crew to clean after breakfast, but don´t expect them to wait, broom in hand, while everybody else on the ship is having the time of our lives.” She´d narrowed her dark eyes. “The time of our lives,” she stressed.
Kjell had nodded, and the whole Northern Star had become a pandemonium of singing, dancing, drinking, laughing.
Ralf scanned the few tired, shouldn´t-have-drunk-so-much faces. Neither Leticia nor Thomas were there; surely still in their room, quarrelling about who got to use the shower first, him looking for his blackthorn shillelagh, she trying to remember where she´d left her quad cane. Ralf went straight for the coffee dispenser, like a half-drowning man goes for a floating log. Amanda´s pills were the most powerful juju against booze binges, but the ol´ hot black juice had no rivals when it came to keeping people awake.
The thick steamy stream filled his cup; coffee grown in the Northern Star´s bowels, lovingly cared for by Gudrun Brown himself, for whom Hydroponics was the only Lord, and coffee His greatest Gift.
Will we be able to grow it, down there? Will we be able to grow anything?
His brain again started its light hammering against his temples.
“Every rose has its thorn,” he chuckled, choosing a not-so-dirty table and carefully placing his steaming cup of coffee on top. He sang: “Just like eeevery night has it daaawn… just like eeeevery party has its hangooover.” Even when in top shape, he was probably the worst singer onboard.
Yeah. Amanda´s pills would take care of most brains, and Gudrun´s homebrewed coffee would take care of most bodies. But as he took a sip, feeling the hot brew warming his stomach, Ralf peered at the faces around him and knew, as surely as his coffee was good, what was torturing everybody´s mind that morning. Including, of course, his own.
Please, please, please…
Please, Rhyldan, no signs of native sentience…
Please, Rhyldan: no sons.
But first things first, and first was a second cup of coffee.
Staring from time to time to the huge, window-like screens on the walls, to make sure the cloud-shrouded pearl was still there, gleaming blue against the starry night sky.
Noora´s office was dominated by a large dark wooden desk, which according to Noora had been in her family since the end of the 20th century. It was the only possession she had brought onboard; everything else she owned was standard-issue.
She paced excitedly from left to right, unable to stand still or sit down.
“I swear,” she said. “Until half an hour ago, I had no clue, I swear.”
Ralf and Thomas stared at her; Leticia kept her eyes down, like her mind was numb.
“Where is Gavin now?”
“Getting his morning pounding, courtesy of Kyle,” said Ralf. “Under Yaco´s watchful eye, as usual. And then he´s got more shooting with Zedkay. Shotguns, I believe.”
“Makes perfect sense now, doesn´t it?” said Thomas. “That´s why they were training him so hard.”
Leticia raised her head. “This reeks like Doc,” she said. “Him, and that little voyeuristic bitch.”
“They weren´t there,” said Noora. “Tomison was. With Taak, and Kjell, and Kabura. And yes, Taak was talking wonders about our Gavin. And if you think about it for a bit…”
“What?” said Leticia. “Don´t tell me you are okay with this.”
Noora stopped her pacing and looked at her. “Letty… do you realize what this means? Kjell wants a Mnemosyne on the first expedition! Gavin may very well end up being the first human to set foot on an extrasolar planet!”
“But why Gavin?” said Leticia. “Why not Faye, or Laura?”
Noora just stared at her.
“Letty,” said Thomas, “we layered Gavin that way.”
“No, it was not we,” said Leticia. “It was you, you two. Your idea; you wanted a super-toy-soldier, outdoors experience, inherit the world and blah blah blah…”
“Letty…” said Thomas.
“He is not ours.”
Leticia sighed and shrugged.
Noora said: “Randomness and chaos, ok? Or destiny or blind luck or whatever you want to call it. Zhelya and I, we went for a nerd when we layered Laura, and it seems we did good job; our girl wants nothing else but to learn how to program and code all day, and both Drog and Mr. Gao tell me she is quite gifted at it. Kurt and Karl designed a people person, and you´ve seen how Faye turned out: he is already friends with everybody onboard, but he just cannot hold a weapon right. Neither Faye nor Laura are useful on an exploring expedition. On the other hand, Gavin…”
“Don´t look at me,” said Leticia. “I said: `let´s grow somebody who wants to stay indoors´; it was these two that said `oh, no, let´s create us a David-Crockett-meets-Space-Marine´, and now our Gavin…”
Leticia took a deep breath. Thomas put his hand on her shoulder.
“Shh…” he said.
“I´m just worried about him,” she said. “Okay?”
“It´s okay, Letty,” said Thomas. “We all are.”
“Is it official, then?” asked Ralf. “No sons found so far?”
“None,” said Noora. “Not an iota of a trace of a sign of native sentience. Kjell wants to wait for one more week, to go by the book, but so far there´s nothing down there: no cities, no villages, no agriculture nor architecture.”
“Did Kjell tell you who else is going down?”
“No,” Noora said. “He did tell me that they are planning a seven-man team, and that they have a list of about twenty names they are considering. All volunteers. Kjell said that if we are ok, Gavin may be one of them; and I´m telling you guys right now, loud and clear: we are okay. Understood?”
“Letty?” Noora asked.
“Alright,” Leticia said. “Whatever.”
“Great,” said Noora. “Needless to say, this is Classified, with capital C. Kjell will make up his mind and announce it in a couple of days; until then, this does not leave this room. Not a word to anybody. Oh, and no betting on Kjell´s List, either.”
“Ok…” said Thomas.
“All right…” said Ralf.
“Bitch clone´s be botched,” said Leticia. “She was grooming Gavin all this time. That´s why she wanted to watch him; that´s why Yaco was so willing to train him.” She looked at Noora. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” said Noora. “Chaos or fate, Gavin is perfect for the job: inquisitive and curious, but also calm when under pressure.”
“When under the betablockers, you mean?” said Leticia.
“You´ve seen the feeds,” said Noora. “He remains calm even when his head is smashing against the ground. He should love to be outdoors; you guys have made him that way. And apparently he is also good with weapons; even Taak says so.”
“So,” Leticia sighed, “is it a done deal?”
“Almost,” Noora said. She turned to Ralf. “Kjell and Taak wanted one last assessment, so they want to talk to you in private.”
“Why him?” asked Thomas.
Noora shrugged. “The official reason is that Ralf´s our team´s psychiatrist, so they want you to corroborate Kourailen´s opinion. But knowing Kjell… I´m ninety-nine percent sure he wants a second opinion on the whole Mnemosyne process, and would like to ask one of you guys directly. Directly as in: not through me.”
“Heh,” chuckled Thomas. “Zedkay has probably singled Ralf as a target.”
“Botched bitch,” muttered Leticia.
Noora stared at Ralf. “I want Gavin on that expedition. This is too big to miss; do not let Taak or Kjell change their minds about him. Okay?”
Ralf looked at Leticia, who was staring at the table. “Understood,” he said. “Gavin´s going down.”
The four of them met again in Noora´s office about three hours later.
“So?” asked Noora.
“Gavin´s going down,” he said.
“You think? You guess?”
“I know,” he said.
Noora narrowed her big, round eyes. “According to which facts?”
“According to chief Taak.” said Ralf. “He told me himself. Gavin is one of the chosen seven; he´s going down.”
“Great,” said Noora. “Great, great, great. We must have done something right, we must have. He said they were happy with Gavin, then?”
“He actually said, quote, extremely pleased, unquote. His exact words.”
Her smile was big and wide. “That´s as good as coming from Kjell himself.”
“I´d say it´s safe to assume that much, yes,” said Ralf, “because Kjell himself was nodding.”
He waited for that to sink, then he added: “You were right about me being a psychiatrist, by the way: they did want me to validate Kourailen´s assessment.”
“Which you did, I hope?”
“Of course I did, yes. Doc thinks the world of Gavin, by the way.”
“Great,” smiled Noora. “Great, great, great. Damn is this great!”
Thomas asked: “Does that mean that Gavin is free to move around without constant supervision?”
“Well…” said Ralf, “Not exactly. They asked me if I was willing to continue with Gavin´s supervision, to which I also agreed.”
“Wait, wait,” said Letty. “Why did he ask just you and not all of us? Why do you get to keep on supervising Gavin and we don´t?”
“Because you are not going down,” said Ralf. “Are you?”
“Of course not!” she said, “but wh…”
She froze mid-sentence as she understood. So did Thomas and Noora.
“Did they… I mean, you…?”
“Yeah,” said Ralf. “They offered me a spot.”
“But Kjell didn´t tell me anything!” said Noora.
“Taak promised me they wouldn´t tell anybody if I refused,” Ralf said. “Which is kinda nice of them; not making me look like a coward if I say no.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I told him I´d think about it.”
They stared at him.
He shrugged. “Everybody in that expedition will have to fulfill several roles. They want a Mnemosyne tech just in case Gavin needs it; they also want a psychiatrist just in case anybody needs it, so with me they kill two birds with one stone…”
“… and if they send you down there, they don´t have to send one of Tomison´s mindmongers,” smiled Noora. “That´s three birds Kjell is killing with you, Puppy.”
“I wonder,” Thomas said, “if that’s not the foremost reason.”
“I couldn´t care less, really,” Noora said. “If they want to play politics, that´s their game; but two of us in the first expedition, that´s just great, great, great!”
“You are really going, Puppy?”
“Well,” said Ralf, “they have about fifteen people they are considering. But they want Gavin down there, so I guess my odds are good.” He looked at the walls of Noora´s office, as if he could see through them. “Damn,” he said. “I just can´t believe how that sounds. I´m about to set foot on Rhyldan.”
Many social dynamics that had remained in stasis or in hibernation during the trip all of a sudden came back to life as if Rhyldan, floating out there just within reach, had signaled the return of Springtime to human interaction. Most noticeable among these were financial speculation, inflation, and money markets. And, as with any transaction, there were two sides to this coin.
Optimists were behind the inflationary drive: since they were soon to end their long trip, what was the point of hoarding Community Credits? Creds bought you the most sought-after luxuries onboard the Star: privacy, space, and the best booze… but as soon as mankind set foot on Rhyldan, space and privacy would become a widely available commodity, wouldn´t they? The moment Colonization began, the Star´s Creds would become worthless, so therefore the rational thing to do was to burn them now; preferably on the best possible vodka and beer, which in turn had the collateral effect of spiking optimism even higher.
Pessimists, on the other hand, were making the case for deflation: if for whatever reason Rhyldan was a no-go, then it was another three centuries until the Kykliff System; a long winter was coming, it was time for hoarding and saving, and if fools wanted to part with their Creds, the pessimists were only too happy to help them.
And, needless to say, quite a few awoke in themselves some dormant reflexes for brokering and dealing, and made a profit from both sides.
Uncertainty, anxiety and wildly fluctuating prices encouraged another entrenched social dynamic: gambling. Mountains of Creds were won and lost in Poker hands; fortunes were exchanged at the turn of Mahjong tiles; high stakes were waged for pretty much everything. And from this maelstrom of rolling cards and chips and dices, the first Rhyldan game arose: it was called Kjell´s Seven, or The Chosen, or the Captain´s List.
Who, and in which order, would Captain Kjell announce as the members of the first expedition that would reach the planet´s surface?
And so arrived what was later informally known as List Day.
About a fifth of the Star crew managed to cram themselves in the Auditorium where Kjell, flanked by Taak and Kabura, would make the announcement. The rest was stuck to a screen, like they had been on Arrival´s Day when all eyes had watched the countdown reach to zero. Everybody had a list in hand: there were a couple dozen names that were rumored to be under consideration, and it was confirmed that a crew of seven would take part in the mission.
A soft three-note chime filled rooms, corridors and decks. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Kjell´s voice said, “this is your Captain speaking.”
He went straight to the point. Two security officers would ensure the safety of the expedition: Lieutenants Danielle Decroux and Rodrigo Souza. From Aft to Prow there were nods of agreement: odds were so overwhelmingly in their favor that nobody had dared to bet against them.
What did make things a bit interesting was that, according to rumors, there should have been a third Sec officer, and it was considered a safe bet that Lieutenant Kyle Williams would be that third: hands down the most experienced shuttle pilot onboard the Star, Kyle seemed like the obvious choice for being behind the expedition´s steering wheel.
But neither Kyle nor any other Sec was mentioned.
“Well,” most people said, “this is gonna be interesting.” Why was Captain Kjell sending only two Secs to keep the expedition safe?
That was the warm-up round.
Cheers and hoorays were heard from Sci when Doctor Choi Hyun-woo was named third. He was quite an obvious choice, and his odds had been 4 to 1; hailed among the eggheads as the Lord of Inorganic Chemistry, and known to pretty much everybody as a genuinely good guy, few doubted that should Rhyldan´s atmosphere have some chem or poison harmful to humans it was Choi the man to find it, and perhaps even come up with a workaround to neutralize it.
Fourth was the microbiologist, and this is when the surprises started. Byrnes was favorite, with Terbish trailing close, yet it was Naomi Yamada who got selected. She was undoubtedly an expert on all things that grow on Petri dishes, and quite a proficient M.D. when infections and allergies were concerned, but also known as extremely shy, introverted, and usually happier interacting with germs than talking to people; many doubted she would be capable of enduring the long quarantine down in Rhyldan, when the explorers would be forced to spend weeks together sharing the small communal space of the shuttle. Those that had betted for her were made quite wealthy, and later that evening a small friendly crowd surrounded Naomi offering her gifts and drinks; she refused them all, and isolated herself in her room to be left alone.
For the fifth place on the shuttle, odds were split 50/50 between Farah “Luckyshot” Kapoor and Yves Racine. Tough choice: in case the expedition should find something suspected to be a non-natural structure, who would be better suited to establish if it had been made by a sentient species? A Civil Engineer who had earned her “Luckyshot” nickname while, supervising the excavation of what would be the foundations of T.H.E. Corp HQ, stumbled upon the remnants of a lost civilization and thus started her trailblazing career in Archaeology? Or an Anthropologist specialized in remote, primitive tribes, and officially recognized back on Earth as among the handful of hyperglots fluent in more than forty non-related languages?
Half the Star cheered Farah when Kjell chose her; the other half grumbled, but no one had much reason for complaints: after all, nobody really wanted Farah to find anything down on Rhyldan.
Sixth, la pièce de résistance, where onboard politics was expected to rear its ugly head: the expedition´s Psycho. It was pretty much accepted by the Star crew that Psychos were like walls: all around you, all the time, and nothing you could do about it except walking straight and trying your best not to bang your head against them. And it was true that the seven explorers, facing the unknown during their long quarantine, could really use a psychiatrist who knew what pill they should take to keep their anxieties at bay.
There were at least five names with decent odds to be Rhyldan´s first mindgamer, with Doc Kourailen being hailed by those that believed Kjell would try to keep the expedition as far away from Tomison´s clutches as he politely could, and with Thierry Eboue being betted on by those that thought Tomison would be able to convince Kjell to send his favorite lap poodle down to Rhyldan. So it was a rather huge shock when Kjell said: “As the expedition psychiatrist, Doctor Ralf Hounds.”
He was on nobody´s list. His résumé had to be dug from the database to check that Doctor Hounds was indeed a psychiatrist, besides being a neurologist, a neural engineer, and of course part of the Mnemosyne team.
Was it a masterpiece of a political maneuver by Kjell to cockblock Tomison? Or was there something else going on behind the scenes? It all made a bit more sense a moment later when Captain Kjell named the last member.
Some said: “Gavin who? Who´s that?”
Many said: “Interesting choice… one of the Mnemosynes, right?”
A few said nothing, but thought: No way!! Is Kjell sending down the freak??
The game changed the instant after Captain Kjell made the names public; Kjell´s Seven morphed into guessing, debating and betting, right there on the spot, who among the chosen would or should be the first to set foot on Rhyldan.
“Yaco or Zedkay, of course,” said the Secs. “That´s what they are for: to be the expedition´s spearpoint.”
“But it´s not a military expedition, is it?” said the Scientists. “It´s a scientific expedition, arguably the most important in History; therefore, a scientist should step down first.”
“On the contrary, that´s exactly why a Sec officer should go first! Do you really want our most precious eggheads to walk blindly into unknown dangers?”
Others said that Sec or Sci didn´t matter: the important issue was that a lady should go first. A few revealed that they hadn´t left their holy books behind and wanted somebody that shared their flavor of superstition to lead the way. And a rather large number said: “Sci or Sec, male or female… Any of them is okay by me, as long as it´s a real human.”
As in: not the freak.
As in: not the Mnemosyne.
The Auditorium´s crowd boiled with chatter and discussion.
On the Auditorium´s stage, Kjell, Taak and Kabura were conferring among themselves, their mics turned off. It was rather clear that they hadn´t thought that the issue of who should step first on Rhyldan held such prominence.
After a while, Chief Taak announced: “As the highest ranked officer on the expedition, Lieutenant Danielle Decroux will be in charge. In such role she will lead the team, follow the standard procedures as closely as possible, and to the best of her judgment and abilities deal with any unforeseen circumstances and situations.”
“But who will go first?” yelled somebody.
“Yeah! Who will set foot first?” yelled somebody else.
“Lieutenant Decroux will answer that herself,” Chief Taak said.
Zedkay stood up from her seat. Somebody handed her a mic. “First on the ramp,” she said, “will be Gavin, the Mnemosyne clone.”
A tense, edgy murmur began to spread; she raised a hand and cut it. “I have said the ramp. Not the ground.”
Somebody shouted: “Why?”
“Standard protocol,” she said. “When facing unknown dangers, send your cannon fodder in front.”
A few laughed; most were not entirely certain whether Zedkay had been serious or joking, and both Kjell and Taak kept a straight, somber face. Leticia, a few rows behind, glared at Zedkay.
“After a prudent time,” Zedkay continued, “and assuming the Mnemosyne is still alive, I´ll descend myself from the shuttle and will set foot on Rhyldan.”
The murmurs now had a definitely approving tone: hierarchy would be enforced and preserved, feminists would get first step, among the superstitious it was rumored that Zedkay was herself a closet monotheist. Yet somebody yelled: “What if the clone, like, runs ahead of you and touches Rhyldan first?”
“Disobeying a direct order is tantamount to mutiny,” Zedkay said. “In which case there will be a smoking hole in the back of the clone´s helmet, and the remnants of his skull will be a bloody mess.”
She looked at Chief Taak, who nodded in grim agreement.
“Besides,” Zedkay said, looking straight at Leticia, “we can make as many clones as we need. Which, by definition, makes them expendable.”
The crowd rumbled, not all of it disapprovingly. For a moment, the coals in Leticia´s eyes were as close as looks can get to screaming revenge, but she kept her mouth shut and, after a while, looked away.
“Good,” Zedkay said, scanning the crowd. “Any further concerns about expedition protocol?”
There were none.
Gavin and Ralf were gone to the Sec area: Kjell and Taak had requested the seven chosen to meet with them, for further directives and instructions.
Noora, Leticia and Thomas quickly returned to Noora´s office, without exchanging a word while they negotiated the Star´s twisting corridors. The atmosphere was so tense it could have been cut with a blade.
At last, as they arrived and sat around the big wooden desk, and the office´s door was closed allowing them some privacy, Leticia let out her repressed fury. “Botch that little bitch´s clone!” she screamed. “Hope Danio weaves some tumor into her rotten brain next time around!”
“C´mon, Letty,” said Thomas. “Calm down. Shouldn´t we be celebrating? Kjell has just confirmed it: Gavin and Ralf will be on the first team…”
“She said expendable. Remember? She called him expendable. That´s what that little bitch said!”
“We remember, Letty,” said Noora. “We were there…”
“Then how can you tell me to calm down!?”
“… and I clearly remember a lot of other people in the Auditorium, listening to Zedkay. Not many of which were actually disagreeing with what she was saying. And I´m sad to say it, Letty, dear, but among those nodding eagerly were a few of our fellow eggheads from other teams. Paulina Skorva, for example, said, and I quote: `I didn´t leave everything behind just to let him get to Rhyldan first´. End quote.”
Leticia sighed. “It´s just that… after all these years…” She closed her eyes, and rubbed her eyelids with her fingertips.
Thomas rapped the pommel of his shillelagh against the steel walls: *toc*, *toc*, *toc*. As he caught Leticia´s attention, he swung the shillelagh like a mace and lightly tipped Leticia´s skull with the knob. “We are still monkeys, Letty. Monkeys that speak softly only if the other monkey happens to have a bigger stick. When we face a strange face we either run away, or bash heads most thoroughly. And it´s quite clear that Gavin is a strange face for some.”
“Gavin is no different from us! Not more than any human from another!”
Thomas shrugged. “It´s always about the tiny differences. Like the palette of pigmentation, or how you call your imaginary Friend up in the sky; that´s all the excuse Group A needed to wipe out Group B throughout history.”
“We left that behind,” said Noora.
“Did we?” said Thomas. “Or did we just run away from it?”
Thomas shrugged. “Can we outrun ourselves?”
“Now you´re talking like Doc and Tomison,” Letty said. “Even posing psychobabbling questions.”
Thomas smirked. “Let´s stick to facts, then. Both Ralf and Gavin are in that expedition. I´d say that allows the Mnemosyne team some serious bragging and celebration rights, which may very well include plenty of ethylic beverages. Who cares who´s going to be the first to step on Rhyldan?”
“She called him expendable,” Leticia said, clenching her jaw. “That little French bitch.”
“Okay, Letty, that´s enough,” said Noora. “Am I disappointed that some of our crewmates seem to be closet racists? Yes, I am. Should we repay that with aggression ourselves? No; no way.”
“Yeah, go ahead, turn the other cheek,” said Leticia. “Because that always works so well…”
“Enough,” said Noora; she didn´t quite raise her voice, but her tone had turned cold and sharp.
Letty hissed or sighed; they could have not told for sure. “Okay,” she said. “I´ll try to let this slip.”
“That´s all I´m asking,” Noora said.
“I´ll do my best,” said Leticia. “But I will not forget. And don´t you dare ask me to forgive.”
Unlike other meeting rooms, the Sec´s walls are covered with mirrors instead of screens. The implication is clear: this could serve as an interrogation room. And in a way, that´s what it is right now: Gavin has a few questions; Ralf, Hyu-woo and Farah have lots.
Zedkay has already failed to explain, twice, who is going to be when in which area of the shuttle. To illustrate her point, she is using three circles drawn over the table:
> the innermost is Green, for Isolation;
> the middle circle is Yellow, for Sterile;
> the encroaching, largest ring is Red, for Outer areas and Outside.
The concentric circles do look a bit like a bull’s-eye, and Zedkay´s answers are as surgical as her shooting, but her lack of patience for the eggheads´ endless tangents and sidetracking is seriously marring her exposition.
Standing by her left, Yaco never misses the opportunity to explain everything again, with twice the word count and thrice the friendliness. But the true hero of the hour is Doctor Choi Hyun-woo: best chemist onboard, moonlights as meteorologist, and with a passion for boardgames, wargames, and hand-painted miniatures. He has brought a broad selection of his trove; now he hands Yaco a Flesh Golem and a fireblade-wielding Valkyrie to help him illustrate the issue.
“Okay,” says Yaco, “say this is Zedkay,” he shows the Valkyrie in his left hand, “and say this is Gavin,” he shows the Golem in his right.
“Ten Creds on the Valkyrie,” says Ralf.
“Pops, c´mon!” says Gavin. “Have a little faith in me?”
“It has nothing to do with Faith, kid,” says Hyun-woo. “Flesh against a Fire? That poor Golem doesn´t stand a chance.”
“But I thought they were both on the same team?” Farah asks. “Why would they fight each other?”
Hyun-woo whispers to Ralf: “Ten Creds says they Valkyrie is Lawful Neutral.”
Ralf replies: “Fifteen says she lost her sense of humor in Asgard.”
Yaco, serious for once, says: “Gentlemen… please? As if this topic were, I don´t know… important?”
Ralf and Hyun-woo nod.
“Okay”, says Yaco. “First out of the shuttle,” he places the Valkyrie over the Red, outermost circle, “will be Zedkay. That´s set. Right behind her,” he places the Flesh Golem by the Valkyrie, “my good man Gavin. As mentioned, always a few steps behind Zedkay, lest he be shot in the head. Okay, Gav?”
“Both in a suit?” says Ralf.
“Yes,” says Zedkay.
“Both in a suit,” says Yaco. “And, while suited, they´ll take their first few steps out there, on Rhyldan´s ground.”
“Why there?” asks Farah. “I mean, who picked this spot, anyway?”
Zedkay says: “Lieutenant Williams.”
“Indeed,” says Yaco. “Since arrival, Kyle has spent most of his time on low-orbit scouting missions, surveying the surface to determine the best landing location.”
“But what makes it best?” asks Hyun-woo. “Why are we landing in this particular spot, and not any other?”
Yaco and Zedkay exchange brief glances.
“Open and clear,” says Zedkay.
“It´s a flat, dry patch of land,” says Yaco. “No vegetation of any kind: means it´s easy to land.”
“I see,” says Farah. “And not a suitable ecosystem for big and hungry predators that may consider us yummy, right?”
“Exactly,” Yaco says. “A dry patch of barren land that no big predator should call home.”
“Poor Valkyrie,” Ralf says to Hyun-woo. “No trolls to slay with flames.”
“She´s gonna be bored to death,” Hyun-woo agrees.
“So!” Yaco says. “Valkyrie and Golem they´ll explore the dry, barren patch of land outside as much as they want or can, then at the end of the first day…” Yaco moves the Golem and the Valkyrie to the Yellow circle, “they´ll Detox and Decontaminate, and return to the Sterile area.”
“Removing their suits?”
“Removing their suits, of course.”
Naomi Yamada raises a small, delicate hand.
Yaco encourages her with a smile.
She asks: “Just like a Biolab?”
“Exactly like a Biolab, Doctor Yamada,” Yaco says. “Anybody going from Sterile to Outer will have to wear a suit; anybody coming back from Outer will go through Decon & Detox, remove the suit, and only then get into Sterile.”
Naomi nods timidly. She reminds Ralf of a girlfriend he had at College, so many lifetimes ago: cute and fragile as a porcelain doll; thick black hair and dark Asian eyes that always seem to be looking for a way out of a slightly embarrassing first date. Ralf´s long-ago girlfriend would have painted her lips in some dark hue of slightly fluorescent violet; Naomi´s, wearing no make-up, are a vivid shade of pink.
Yaco rummages through Hyun-woo´s miniatures´ box. “Meanwhile,” he says, “in the Isolation area…” He lifts a Geisha carrying a naginata, and puts it in the innermost green circle, “Doctor Naomi Yamada, the group´s healer…”
“Wow,” says Ralf, “that´s one big scalpel.”
Naomi´s eyes flutter and avoid all contact.
“I feel like casting spells,” says Hyun-woo.
“Of course!” says Yaco. He takes out a gray Wizard with long white beard and a big hat, he says: “Doctor Choi Hyun-woo, also in Isolation…” and puts the Wizard in the Green circle by the Geisha…
“We need more meatshield,” says Ralf.
… Yaco nods, rummages a bit more, produces a crocodile-headed Sobkian carrying a scimitar and says: “My humble self, officer Souza,” then shows a Werewolf, “Doctor `Puppy´ Hounds, obviously,” in the Green he flanks the Wizard and the Geisha with the Sobkian and the Werewolf…
“Good, good,” says Hyun-woo, “starting to look like a decent Party.”
“We will be screwed if we find locked doors,” says Ralf. “Can we do something about that?”
… Yaco seeks, finds, says: “Last but not least, Doctor Farah `Luckyshot´ Kapoor,” and places besides the Sobkian an incredibly detailed miniature of Layla Rouge, interstellar scoundrel and thief.
“Hey!” says Farah. “Why do I get to be Layla? I hated her movies!”
“Well…” says Yaco. “You both have a knack for Archaeology, and are after ancient alien artifacts, are you not?”
“Yeah, we are…” says Farah, “and we´re both brunette. Guess all I need is a D-rack, a wasp-like waist and a big round ass, and I´m just like her. Oh, and be a certified genius and master hacker. And learn eight more languages. And be an expert shot…”
“Hey, every party needs a Rogue,” says Hyun-woo. “Has been that way since Gygaxian times.”
“And all other roles are taken,” says Ralf. “Plus, Rogues usually put a lot of Faith points in Luck, do they not? I would say that we are following tradition, theme and mood to the letter, Doctor Luckyshot!”
“But why do you guys get to be a Warlock and a Werewolf, and I´m stuck with a horny teen´s wet dream? Besides, you guys are all Fantasy and I´m Sci-fi... at least let me be an Amazon like Zedkay, for crying out loud!”
Zedkay looks up towards the ceiling, praying to some forgotten deity for a bit of mental fortitude.
“Moving on!” says Yaco. He arranges Geisha, Wizard, Sobkian, Werewolf and Rogue inside the Green circle. “Isolation,” he says. “Name should be pretty obvious. Anybody there stays in there, all the time, until it´s their turn to move to Sterile. Once out of Isol, there´s no coming back to Isol. Questions?”
Ralf and Hyun-woo shake heads; Farah grumbles loudly. Naomi looks downwards and keeps quiet.
“Good,” says Yaco. “So! After a few days…”
“How many, exactly?” asks Ralf.
“Three,” says Zedkay.
“Three days after landing,” Yaco points to the Golem on the yellow Sterile area, “Gavin here will take off his suit,” he pushes the Golem from the Yellow to the outer Red circle, “and, without his suit, move to the Outer area. Permanently.”
“Out there?” asks Ralf. “With no suit?”
“Out there in Rhyldan,” says Yaco, “without his suit.”
“And now he can´t get back into Sterile?”
“Of course not. He´s been exposed to Rhyldan; he now cannot breach the shuttle´s atmosphere”
Ralf looks at Gavin. Gavin says: “Don´t worry, Pops. I´ll be ok. You´ve grown me for this.”
“That´s the spirit!” says Yaco.
“And if I die you can clone me, right?” asks Gavin. “Like you guys?”
“That is the plan,” says Zedkay.
“Do you mean, that he dies?” asks Farah.
Zedkay stares at her.
“Yes, Gavin,” says Yaco, “that´s of course the plan.”
“And the rest of us…?” asks Hyun-woo. “I mean, assuming that the plan allows for the contingency of us still being alive?”
Yaco checks his notes. “During the next week, Zedkay will stay in Sterile; she will go Out in a suit, and after D&D she will come back to Sterile. After that week, if all goes well…” he moves the Valkyrie from Yellow to Red, by the Golem, “she will permanently unsuit and join Gavin in the Outer area.”
“Welcome out, Zeddy,” says Gavin. “Glad you could join me.”
“It is good to be out,” Zedkay says.
Ralf points at the Yellow circle, now empty. “Nobody stays in Sterile that day?”
“Sterile stays empty that day, yes. As a buffer, in case things go south with either Gavin or Zedkay. Then, next day,” he pushes the Werewolf and Rogue from Green to Yellow, “Ralf and Farah move to Sterile, while the rest of us,” he points at the Wizard, Geisha and Sobkian in the Green circle, “remains in Isolation.”
“And Ralf and me, we can go outside inside our suits?” asks Farah.
“As much as you want,” says Yaco, “and post D&D you can go back to Sterile.”
“We´ll be roommates!” winks Farah to Ralf. “Hope Leticia doesn´t get all jealous with me sharing her puppy…”
“That was over looong ago,” says Ralf. “And it was more like an experiment than a relationship, really.”
“I don´t know,” says Farah, “Letty looks like the possessive type…”
Zedkay taps her short-nailed index over the table.
“A week after that,” says Yaco, “we mesh Isol and Sterile.”
On the table, the innermost circle´s color fades from Green to Yellow.
Ralf asks: “Basically means Isol becomes a part of Sterile, correct?”
“Correct,” says Yaco. “We mesh them into one huge Sterile area. Wizard, Geisha, and Sobkian join Rogue and Werewolf in there, and they also get to go out with their suits on.”
“And, at the end of each day,” says Ralf, “those five go through D&D, remove their suits, and return to Sterile.”
“That´s about it,” says Yaco.
“Simple enough!” says Ralf.
“Great!” says Hyun-woo. “I cannot wait to get my hands on some of those rocks down there. Should be fun!”
“Yeah, super fun…” smiles Farah.
“To each his own,” says Hyun-woo.
“When do we move to Outer?” asks Ralf. “When will we be unsuited to go out?”
“Let me see…” says Yaco. He pushes the Rogue from Yellow to Red, right by the Valkyrie and Golem, “Farah should permanently join Zedkay and Gavin outside by the third week, then…” pushes the Werewolf out, “Ralf the fourth, then…” pushes the Wizard, “out-of-jail card for Hyun-woo on the fifth. And if all goes well…”
The Geisha and the Sobkian remain alone in the Yellow circle. Yaco looks at Naomi: “After forty two days on Rhyldan, Doctor Yamada and the Sobkian are the last to go Out without their helmets.”
“And then it´s another quarantine,” says Ralf.
“Yep,” says Yaco, “another forty days, this time none of us with suits, as double-check.”
“Damn…” sighs Ralf.
“It´s gonna be some long three months…” says Hyun-woo.
“Yeah, that´s kinda the point,” says Yaco. “But at least the whole shuttle will be Outer area during the second quarantine and none of us will be locked up in Isol. Compared with the first, the second should be a breeze.”
“And after the second quarantine?” asks Gavin.
Zedkay makes a circling motion with her index finger, as if pointing to the whole spaceship. “Then everything goes down.”
Farah makes Layla the Rogue cavort and somersault over the table.
“Yayyy!” she giggles, “let´s build us a Colony!”
Gavin the Golem, Ralf the Werewolf and Hyun-woo the Wizard dance around the Red circle.
Yaco laughs and lets the Sobkian join the party; Zedkay sighs and covers her face with her hands.
Naomi whispers something, not raising her head.
“Sorry, o beautiful, naginata-wielding Geisha,” says the Werewolf, “I was unable to hear you over this most infernal racket. Pray tell, what did you say?”
Naomi glances at Ralf, shakes her head, and with a tiny, sad smile whispers: “Don´t worry, Puppy. Never mind.”
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)