The Northern Star floats in orbit above Rhyldan.
An interstellar tin can. A maze of corridors and airlocks and cramped rooms, and not one window with a view outside. A tangle of dark Terran-born alloys, all sharp edges, vertices and angles against the gleaming blue curve of the planet.
Two space-faring ecosystems, facing each other.
A tiny sliver of bright light shines across one of the metallic facets, like the parting of lips in a slow smile. A jaw lowers, widening the crack into a maw.
As red and blue beacons pulse inside, the Northern Star sighs a gust of its inner atmosphere. The deep cold of space bites and freezes all traces of moisture, weaving with them a subtle veil of arctic mist. Glittering frozen cobwebs swirl in the undercurrents of tracking beams that, with slow and gentle tugs, tow a little shuttle away from the ship.
They float side by side, the shuttle a confused newborn that doesn´t quite recognize the lumbering sharp-edged bulk as its mother. And how could it? The Northern Star´s jagged physiognomy is carved by the grim determination of interstellar travel; the unflinching countenance of a pilgrim willing to endure centuries of loneliness crossing the cold dark void…
… while the little shuttle, although born in space, is all round lines and aerodynamic curves that crave nothing but the careless bouncing and prancing of atmospheric flight.
The shuttle´s nose turns to Rhyldan: looming blue, glittering gently, shrouded with white spiraled laces. Calling, culling the little shuttle; challenging it to ride the winds, to dart and pierce the cloudy layers and discover what lies beneath.
As if saying: “I dare you.”
The shuttle makes up its mind; a bluish-white flame flares on its aft and down it goes: it plunges, it dives, it splashes head-on into the generous embrace of Rhyldan´s gravity well.
As if thinking: “I was born for this.”
As if singing: “Surface, surface, here I come!”
As if yelling: “Freefaaall!!!”
It does fall, and it does yell: a feral war cry as it shatters the Kármán line and encounters aerodynamic drag. Gaseous friction howls against its frame and the hot shock layer screeches and glows cherry red, struggling to keep the mounting heat at bay.
It rocks and rattles in Rhyldan´s turbulent troposphere until reverse thrusters kick in and velocity decreases. It is a spaceship no more, the little shuttle; it is now an aircraft, ready to roll in thick, soupy gaseous currents and steep wind shears.
Close to the surface, Rhyldan looks no different that Earth. Land and sky meet far, far away in every direction, a promise too large to ever be fulfilled: rough hills and one tall mountain; green-brown plains; a winding river coursing its way through rocky canyons. Near the tall mountain, not too far ahead, raises a huge mesa, its large flat top clear of obstacles and hidden dangers.
The little shuttle shifts the landing thrusters, all too aware that, high above, the Northern Star keeps watchful eyes and ears: every move and every reading will be recorded for posterity; so, too, will be any screw-up. Gently coming to standstill, the shuttle hovers over the flat surface and then, with as much grace and elegance as it can muster, gravely lowers itself to the ground amidst drafts and whirlwinds of dry dirt.
Rhyldan offers a quiet welcome; nothing moves save the gentle breeze that sweeps the stirred dust away. The mesa is bathed in Earth-like morning sunlight.
The shuttle yawns.
It opens its rear mouth and lowers a long, wide ramp, sticking out like a metallic tongue. It probes and tastes Rhyldan´s soil.
Finding the ground to its liking, it produces a hazmat-clad human from inside.
The twilight inside the main bay gradually turns into morning as the shuttle lowers its stern ramp. Gavin raises a hand to shield his eyes from the bright glare.
“Wow,” he says. “So much light.”
There´s a faint burst of static, then Zedkay´s voice fills Gavin´s helmet. “Say again?” she asks.
“Sunlight,” Gavin says. “I had forgotten how bright it looks like.”
Whisper of static, then: “L´essentiel,” she says, “est invisible pour les yeux.”
“I don´t know what that means.”
“Even if our memories remember,” she says, “our eyes have never seen a sunrise.”
The ramp touches the ground and reveals a patch of rocky, greenish-brown soil.
“Ramp´s down,” he says.
“Good. Move forward. Do not leave the ramp; the Star is watching.”
Gavin takes a few careful steps, his eyes downcast and vigilant: the bright yellow hazmat suit is his epidermis now, and walking is somewhat tricky with your head stuck inside the helmet´s restricted field of vision.
Static, then: “Talk to me,” she says. “G okay?”
“Feels ok, yes. Actually…” he performs a few little jumps. “Actually, G feels perfect. Pretty much compensates for all the gear.”
“All greens. No reds.”
Gavin looks ahead. Real ground, at the base of the ramp. Real ground; not the dull metallic floor of the Northern Star, smooth flat steel worn and polished by centuries of footsteps. No: what´s in front of him is natural terrain, uneven and rough; not made, not built, never touched by Homo sapiens.
The kind of ground Ralf and Letty and Thomas have grown Gavin for.
His feet want to move forward, keep going, run ahead: three more steps and they will meet the soil, touch ground, hit dirt. Gavin wills them to behave and stay put.
He stays still.
He doesn´t want to be shot in the head.
“No body onboard the Star was born from a womb, Gavin, dear,” Leticia had said.
“Every body comes from the same cloning vats,” Ralf had said. “Mine, yours, everybody´s body: right off the vats.”
“Just as human as you are,” she´d said.
“Our feet know no other floor than the Star´s,” Thomas´d said. “Remember that. Our chips may remind us of Earth, and parents, and family, but not a single body onboard has experienced any of that firsthand.”
Gavin had nodded.
“Just a memory,” Leticia´d said. “Carved in silicon and buried under several reincarnations of cloned flesh. Never forget that, Gavin: every body is every bit, every cell as human as your are.”
“Gavin,” says Zedkay, “talk to me.”
“Ground looks solid,” he says.
“As far as I can tell, yeah. Rough, uneven, but flat enough for walking on top with ease. Can´t see much from up here; the Odgerel blocks most of my vision.”
“Wizard,” she says, “what´s your take?”
Hyun-woo´s voice is just a faraway whisper.
“Can´t hear you,” says Gavin. “Too low.”
“Speak into the mic, Wizard,” says Zedkay. “Golem boy can´t hear you.”
“I said,” says Hyun-woo, “so far everything reads great.” There´s a clear too-good-to-be-true surprise in his voice. “Even better than our previous scans from Above. I mean, in fact… gosh, the only word is miracle.”
“Means I can take off this fucking helmet?” says Gavin.
Both Zedkay and Hyun-woo shout: “No!”
“Just means the Star doesn´t have to pack and leave,” says Zedkay. “Not right now, at least. Does our Geisha agree?”
Naomi´s voice is barely a dB above a whisper. “Cannot say. If there´s something I can find, I´ll be the last to know, anyway.”
“Bien,” says Zedkay. “Step two, then. I will exit the shuttle. Yaco, take the deck. Comm Up: Odgerel is a go.”
“I have the deck,” Yaco says, and then: “Star, this is the Odgerel. Our ramp is down, and all our lights are green; here we go.”
Gavin can crane his neck inside the hazmat helmet, but to look back he would have to turn himself around. Not something he wants to do while standing on the ramp´s steeply inclined plane; the embarrassment of tripping and landing ass-first on Rhyldan would make a headshot from Zedkay a welcome alternative.
She approaches. Her suit is vivid orange, and by her somewhat awkward movements Gavin can tell she is none too happy inside; Zedkay looks even more hard-work-no-play than usual. But no amount of discomfort prevents her from cradling her rifle as if she was bringing her firstborn to a sacrificial pyre.
Ralf had patted him on the back and had said: “Cheer up, big guy. They may say I´m going Down to keep an eye on you, but we all know it´s you who will have to take care of sorry geek butt when we hit dirt.”
Gavin had smiled. “I´ll do my best, Pops.”
“That´s all that´s humanly possible,” Pops´d said.
On the ramp, Zedkay stands besides Gavin. Her suit and helmet make her taller, about Gavin´s shoulder.
“Wizard, Geisha,” she says, “is everything still green?”
“Like a shining emerald,” says Hyun-woo.
“As the Shogun´s gardens in springtime,” Naomi says.
Even though nobody else can see them, Zedkay nods. Then she turns to Gavin, makes sure he is looking at her, puts her extended index finger over where her helmet´s mouth would be. She pouts her lips as if blowing a small flame from her index´s fingertip.
Puzzled, Gavin silently mouths: “Quiet?”
Zedkay winks and nods.
“Okay,” she says. “I´m stepping down.”
Her feet stay still. She pats Gavin on the back.
He looks at her, confused. She nods again, and gently pushes him forward.
He takes a single step…
… then another…
… and another…
“I´m just about to touch ground,” Zedkay says. “As I stride forwards…”
Gavin´s right foot finds the alien soil; he feels a welcoming electric-like jolt crawling up his leg, his chest and arms, his head.
“… all Humanity makes a huge leap,” she says.
Gavin puts his left foot down, and stands tall and firm.
“Odgerel…” says Zedkay, “mankind has set foot Rhyldan.”
Mingled with bursts of static, the cheers of the other five explorers flood Gavin´s helmet.
“Zeddy,” says Yaco, “you won´t believe the amount of noise you´ve just generated onboard the Star.”
“I think tonight´s party up there will dwarf the one after darkspace,” says Hyun-woo, and his voice says he wouldn´t trade it for being here, not for the whole world.
Gavin finds Zedkay has sneaked by his side and she too now stands with both feet over the rough alien terrain. With the view unencumbered by the shuttle, their eyes swim in the faraway horizon and get drunk in gleaming blue sky.
“Hey Zeddy, in Comm,” whispers Yaco, and then he switches to a formal tone. “Yes, Sir; Lieutenant Decroux is listening, Sir.”
“Well done, Lieutenant,” says Captain Kjell, his voice a bit jaded.
“Just doing my job, Sir,” she replies.
“A great job, Lieutenant. There´s a place in History books for people like you.”
Gavin stares at Zedkay, who grins and winks.
“Thank you, Sir,” she replies. “It sounds a bit too much for a few footsteps.”
“First few footsteps on an extrasolar planet, Lieutenant. Congratulations.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Keep up the good work, Lieutenant. We are counting on you Down there. On you, and all your crew. Captain out.”
Gavin is still staring at Zedkay. She winks again, then puts her index finger over Gavin´s faceplate, covering his mouth.
She says: “Sshhh…”
“Come again, Zedkay?” Yaco says. “Did you just say something?”
“No,” she says. “I do not think I did.”
“Hum. Must´ve been the static,” says Yaco. “That was probably it. Oh, and by the way… congrats, girl, history books and all. I mean, Lieutenant, Sir; on behalf of Humanity, good job with those first footsteps.”
Zedkay looks at Gavin, shrugs, and smiles.
Voices from Above
Yaco checked his dashboard: the commlink between the Odgerel and the Northern Star was finally locked solid, no interferences; Rhyldan´s electromagnetic spectrum unmolested by the Terrans´ eavesdropping.
And quiet and mute, Rhyldan´s spectrum. As silent down here as it was from orbit.
Yaco comm´d Up: “Maritza… voçe ahí?”
Tiny jolt of static, then: “Ajá,” she said. Even through radio, her voice was wrapped in husky velvets. “Como va todo allí abajo?”
“Beleza,” he said.
Static flared with another female voice: “Guys, c´mon…” whispered Noora. “Don´t do that.”
Noora´s rustling drawl reminded Yaco of a lush oasis gently waving under the desert breeze. He smiled and, with his thickest accent, sang: “Eu preciso te falar… Te encontrar de qualquer jeito…”
Son of a bitch was a rather good singer.
Noora giggled; the murmur of tiny droplets splashing into an underground pond. “How can I argue with that,” she said, “if I don´t understand a word?”
“He meant `Okay, Noora´”, said Maritza´s husky velvets, “with the kind of gusto only found south of the Pyrenees.”
“Yeah…” said Noora, some sadness mingling in her clear stream. “I do wonder if anything at all can be found now back Home…”
“Home is where the Odgerel is, Doctor Hasanat,” smiled Yaco. “Rrrigth down here.”
“Which is the whole point of us coming all this way,” said Maritza. “Right?”
“Right,” said Noora. “So, Yaco,” now her tone gained the gentle firmness of those high above in the chain of command, “I need to talk to my boy.”
“Roger that,” said Yaco. “Werewolf or Flesh Golem?”
“Flesh Golem?” said Maritza.
“That´s Gavin,” said Noora. “That´s how the Secs call him.”
“You should see him fight,” said Yaco. “Made of flesh but tougher than nails, Gavin the Golem; tougher than hard rocks. Damn fine job you´ve done with him, Doctor Hasanat, if I may say so.”
“Gavin´s body was Danio´s crew´s job, actually,” said Noora. “It was them that cut Gavin´s bespoke DNA.”
“Yet Gavin´s willpower is your doing, Doctor. And on the battlefield, it´s Willpower what fuels Flesh.”
“Maybe… or maybe it was just beginner´s luck.”
“Then allow me to request Gavin be officially promoted to the position of Good Luck Charm, Doctor, because so far everything´s white magic down here.”
“Can´t say I envy your luck, Yaco,” said Maritza. “There´s one heck of party about to explode Up here. All thanks to Zedkay, by the way.”
“Yeah,” laughed Yaco. “I´d say that Zeddy´s da Man, but she may like it too much.”
Maritza laughed too. Noora said: “Is she still out there?”
“Zedkay? Yep. Took your boy for a long walk; you know, each footstep´s an extra footnote in mankind´s history, that kind of stuff. Your boy´s as good an explorer as he is a fighter, she says.”
“Now does she,” said Noora, and it did not sound like a question.
“Don´t bother them, then. Give me… Werewolf, you said?”
Yaco laughed. “Yeah. Give me a minute, Doctor Hasanat; I´ll get you your Hounds.”
Befuddled, Ralf stared at the jumbled dashboard: buttons, knobs, lights flashing all over. He threw a pleading glance at Yaco.
“This one,” Yaco whispered, pointing to a switch with an `N.S.´ label.
“Glad to hear your voice, Ralf. How are things down there?”
“Right now, smooth and steady. A few moments ago… well, I´ve never been a fan of roller coasters, let me tell you that. And we´ve just been through the orbital version of one.”
“Ah, c´mon!” whispered Yaco. “That was fun!”
“How´s Gavin?” asked Noora.
“As far as his signals go, he´s still alive.”
“Zedkay has not shot him yet, then?”
“Apparently, she has not.”
“Well…” sighed Noora, “I´m sure happy those two are getting along.”
“Getting along just fine,” Yaco said.
There was a pause, then the faintest frying noise, then she said: “I´m sure glad all the required steps were followed correctly.”
Ralf cast a nervous sidelong glance towards Yaco. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, working on that.”
“Good,” said Noora. “I´m glad you are.”
“Yeah,” said Ralf, “working on that.”
“Glad you are,” said Noora.
Yaco said: “Don´t you worry about anything, Doctor Hasanat. I assure you that Lieutenant Decroux and I are keeping four eyes on both your puppy and your pet project. You know us Secs: mission received, mission accomplished.”
Silence in the line.
Yaco asked: “Would there be anything else, Doctor?”
“No, Yaco; that´s about it. Star out.”
“Odgerel out,” said Yaco, and flipped the switch. He turned to Ralf: “So! Your boss surely likes to keep you on a tight leash, eh, Puppy?”
“Well, you know… bosses…”
“Oh yes I do!” laughed Yaco. “There´s nothing Noora can teach Chief Taak about short leashes, let me tell ya´, not in her worst day.”
“Aw, c´mon…” said Ralf. “The Chief cannot be that bad…”
“Taak? Let me put it this way: Once upon a time, many lifetimes ago when I was a PV-nothing, our platoon was stuck like the wen on the arse of a goddamned, god-forsaken little patch of tropical rainforest. Nobody seemed to know why the dark we were there, or what the dark we were supposed to be protecting, or fighting, or scouting; we did nothing other than to keep guard duty and keep the station clean. Which was easier said than done, let me tell you: our pathetic joke of a base was surrounded by a thick, humid tropical jungle, and something about the heat, the water and the food gave everyone in the platoon permanent diarrhea. And, needless to say, the sewage composter refused to work.”
“Heh…” said Ralf, “yet another proof that Murphy´s law is universal…”
“If you mean that the Universe is a tragic comedy and Murphy is the playwright then yes, he´s as universal as thermodynamics. Anyway! Our CO at the time, always eager to find a wealth of opportunity in every crisis, decided that the manual excavation of cesspools and shit trenches was indeed the perfect occupation for bored, rebellious, unruly soldiers. So that´s how we spent the larger part of that tour of duty: too busy paddling shit to even notice there was a war going on around us.”
Yaco caressed the Northern Star insignia on his chest. “Now, this tour of duty is surely longer; and what we are doing this time is no small piece of shit. But whenever Taak gets serious…” he made a gesture like grabbing a spade and excavating, “boy o boy can he make me wish I was young again, digging trenches.”
Ralf chuckled. “All right,” he said. “I won´t be trading him for Noora.”
“She is okay in my book, your Doctor Hasanat.”
“She is,” said Ralf. “She really is.”
“Although…” Yaco lowered his voice to barely a whisper. “Just some friendly advice, if I may?”
“Okay… I mean, as long as it´s not something about trying Arabic this time, ok? She is my boss.”
Yaco laughed. “No, nothing like that.”
“Very well. Shoot.”
“That thing about the required steps that Noora mentioned?”
Ralf smile vanished. “Yes…?”
“Why would Noora use one of those Tomison´s trademarked phrases that everybody on board loves to hate?”
“I-I don´t know… I mean, it´s… it´s just an expression…”
“And why would she drop it right after she noticed I was listening, and then abruptly change subject? Not to mention you getting all nervous, looking this way and that as soon as she said it, like you were exchanging coded phrases?”
Ralf sighed. “Was it that obvious?”
“Yeah,” smiled Yaco. “It kinda was. Why do you guys need to play spies and secret codes, anyway?”
Ralf could not help throwing a quick, guilty glance towards the door.
“Gotta learn to control those eyeballs, meu cara,” Yaco said. “They tend to reveal what you want to keep secret. It´s Gavin, isn´t it?”
“Yeah,” admitted Ralf.
“My guts were right, right? Let me guess: some people onboard are none too comfortable with the Mnemosynes. And that has Noora worried.”
“And she´s not sure which side I´m in, correct?”
“Hey, Yaco… it´s not like that. Noora is just being careful, that´s all.”
“Ok with me, my friend. Working in Sec means you should never have to say `I´m sorry´; safe is much better, always.”
“Heh,” Ralf said. “Like you said: guess we are just learning this new game ourselves.”
Yaco caressed a few switches on the dashboard. “I can get you a safe link with Noora, if you need it.”
Yaco shrugged. “As private as anything can be in that flying tin can. You can bet your ass that Gao and his System geeks could listen to you if they wanted to… but at least it will make it really hard for other rookie spies to keep up with the game.”
“I thought… I mean, won´t that get you in trouble? Setting us a private channel?”
“You get in trouble only if you get caught, my friend,” Yaco smiled. “Didn´t Noora tell you that? It´s, like, Secret Agents 101.”
Alone in the Odgerel´s comm room, Ralf waits for the red light to flash, then flips the switches Yaco has shown him a few moments ago.
“Hello there, old friend,” says Thomas.
“Hey, Puppy, dear,” says Leticia; she sounds a bit sad, like a mother whose dear sons never bother calling. “How did you manage to…?”
Noora interrupts her. “Have all the required steps been followed correctly?” she asks.
“I´m alone,” says Ralf.
“You are?” asks Noora, cautiously.
“Yeah, I am,” says Ralf. “I guess we should have come up with yet another code phrase for confirming that, too. Preferably one that would take Yaco more than three seconds to break through.”
“Yeah, he did,” says Ralf. “Like if I had it written in my botched forehead.”
Leticia laughs, and Ralf is glad to hear some mirth in her voice. “I knew Yaco was a bit too much Alpha for you to handle, Puppy,” she says.
“Yeah. Either that, or I suck at this secret code stuff. Probably both.”
“Is this link safe?” says Noora.
“I wouldn´t know, boss,” says Ralf. “He could be recording everything as far as I know. But I am alone, and Yaco seems like a good chap. So…”
“So!” says Noora. “You guys made History Down there today. And made everybody happy Up here. Zedkay being the first to set foot on Rhyldan seems to have calmed down the Mnemosynes-are-not-real-humans zealots.”
“And so begins the waiting game,” says Thomas.
“It´s gonna be tough,” Ralf says.
Letty asks: “You locked up in there?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Zedkay and Gavin are in the Sterile area; the rest of us are locked up here in Isolation. I won´t leave here for a couple of weeks, says the schedule.”
If I ever leave, he thinks. And he knows his friends in orbit think the same.
“He should go outside with no helmet in three days. So says the schedule.”
“Yeah, three days. As Goldilocks´ three bears, and three´s the charm, etcetera.”
“Who da heck came up with those numbers?” asks Letty.
Ralf shrugs. “Some fellow egghead back on Terra, I guess. Hyun-woo says the air is green as far as Inorganic Chemistry goes; and we all know that Naomi´s biotests are pretty much guesswork until somebody actually inhales the air. I dunno… at least the forty days of quarantine have some historical basis.”
There´s complete silence in the line; not even traces of static.
“Puppy, dear…” says Leticia.
“I know, Letty. Don’t worry; I know.”
“From all of us,” says Noora.
“When the night is overcome,” says Thomas, “may you rise to find the sun.”
“Thanks, Tommy,” says Ralf. “Make a big toast tonight for all of us Down here, will you? I´ve just learned that we ain´t got no booze onboard the Odgerel.”
“Man, that´s mean,” laughs Thomas.
“Yeah; downright cruel,” says Ralf. “Guess that, as this expedition´s Head Psycho, tonight I´m gonna authorize a double round of betablockers. On da house!”
“Yeah!” says Thomas.
“Careful you don´t run out of them, Puppy,” says Leticia, and Ralf knows she is smiling.
And, since he likes her smiling, he doesn´t tell her that they cannot possibly run out of blockers: they have enough to keep the seven explorers doped for years. Just in case the Northern Star has to pull away, and leave them stranded down there.
He says: “Don´t worry, Letty. We have more than enough blockers to keep us going for the whole quarantine.”
“Good luck, Puppy.”
“Take care, old friend.”
“Star out,” says Noora.
“Odgerel out,” says Ralf. He flips some switches; he´ll have to ask Yaco later to make sure those were the right ones.
He rubs his tired eyes with the palms of his hands and takes a long, deep breath.
He leans back on the chair.
He stares upwards: through the roof, floating in the sky, swimming in orbit, is the place he has called Home for centuries.
“May it be the Northern Star shines bright upon us,” he whispers. “May it be when darkness falls our hearts will stay true.”
He closes his eyes.
“We walk a lonely road,” he says. “Oh how far we are from Home…”
The whisper of a tender breeze answers him through the comms.
Startled, Ralf opens his eyes.
“Letty?” he says. “Noora? Thomas?”
There´s nobody on the other side of the line.
The Northern Star is mute.
Rhyldan is quiet.