“As befits your new position as head of the department.” Oda twitched a command through his AI and into Volk’s vacuum suit, causing the insignia there to change to the newly appropriate rank.
“Of Martian Operations.” Oda handed Volk his suit and piled the rank tabs for his shipboard uniform on top of it. “Congratulations. This is strictly a field measure, don’t be surprised to find yourself a Lieutenant again once Naval Command finishes processing all the paperwork. Although that might take several years, so maybe you’ll have the seniority to keep it by that point.”
“Sir, what is-”
“Volk.” Oda spoke with surprising gentility. “Your department is four enlisted spacers and their equipment. Given the circumstances, all the evaluations and equipment tracking will be handled by your crew’s normal officers. Just bring them back alive at the end of each day and pull rank whenever you need something that doesn’t step on the toes of another department head. It’s surprisingly easy to do.”
Volk studied the older man’s face for signs he’d gone completely around the bend. The consensus among the officers was that Oda was some kind of nut but Volk had never seen signs of it himself. Until today. And even then, he didn’t really see them so much as just hear a bunch of words that made no sense. “Sir, I’m sure there’s more to being a department head than that.”
“Other than the paperwork?” A ghost of a smile touched Oda’s lips. He leaned in and whispered, “No, not really.”
With that he pivoted and swept back to the front of the ready room to address the rest of the landing team.
“At least they’re punctual,” Gemma said nervously, watching the five visitors clomp through the streets to the Burnt.
“They have not kept us waiting.”
Pak eyed Dorian Drake, the petitioner who Higram had decided to assign to the visitors, and wondered what to make of him. The kind of bizarre, indirect agreement he’d just voiced was typical of the things Dorian said. He’d heard many of his friends and family claim petitioners were just kooks who repackaged canned ideas they got from other people and regurgitated them in an effort to curry influence. It certainly wasn’t true of all the petitioners Pak knew. But it might be true of Dorian. Definitely something to keep an eye on.
As if there wasn’t already enough.
Lieutenant had returned with his four friends.
They looked somewhat different than before. Whereas previously each had carried a fairly large set of stuff in satchels, shoulder bags and in one case strapped across his chest this time most of the odds and ends were stacked on a single cart that navigated the streets with surprising ease. The cart must have had its own motor because none of them seemed to be pulling or pushing it. Mysterious cart aside, most of them came empty handed now, in fact Pak didn’t think they were carrying anything on their persons at all, aside from their suits, save for a couple of boxes strapped to their belts.
And the larger block and antenna device the middle sized man carried strapped over his chest. Pak wondered absently why he kept the antenna pointed at the ground all the time. It must have been important, his hands rarely strayed away.
Pak stepped up out of the Burnt, took a few strides forward and raised a hand in greeting. “Hello, Lieutenant.”
“Hello, Pak. And please, call me Volk. It’s probably going to be simpler.” Volk immediately reached up and removed his helmet revealing his pleasant, grinning face. “You brought friends today. Any chance these are the Elders you hinted at?”
One thing Pak had asked for but the Elders had forbidden was to talk to Volk without his helmet. It seemed that there were a huge number of things the Elders suspected about Thulcandrans but didn’t know for sure. They wouldn’t tell him what those things were so he didn’t know why hiding his face from Volk seemed so important but there it was. For the time being he couldn’t return the gesture. But privately he’d already decided that tomorrow he was talking to Volk face to face, no matter what the Elders decided.
“The Elders want to learn a little bit more about you before they make a decision,” Pak said. “My friends and I are here to try and do that for today.” He gestured to each in turn. “This is Gemma Sanchez, a watcher like myself, and our petitioner, Dorian Drake.”
Volk looked over the three of them, his enthusiasm seeming to deflate a little. “Well, that’s understandable I guess. And since you didn’t get names before, let me introduce my friends.”
He gestured to the shortest member of his party. “Spacer First Class Yiyun Shen.”
Next was the tallest member of the group, a gangly creature that was reached slightly higher than Volk but not nearly so far across. “Spacer First Class Lars Montak.”
Volk switched to the two on his left, starting with the one next to him, who was the most normal looking of the five. “Spacer Reg Barton.”
And finally the one with the box over his chest. “Spacer First Class Irwin Long.”
Dorian looked back and forth across the line of people, the loose fitting helmet of his borrowed Watchers suit flopping comically in the motion. He fumbled with it for a moment, eventually keeping a hand on the top to make sure it didn’t get too far away from him. “Tell me, Volk, isn’t it odd for so many of your people to share a name? Or perhaps, like Watcher Teng, Spacer is the name of a family?” He looked over the four again. “A very large family?”
Volk’s loud laugh seemed to take Dorian by surprise. “No, no, that’s another cultural miscue, I’m afraid. Spacer, Spacer First Class and Lieutenant are ranks. They kind of designate our places in a hierarchy, like Watcher or Elder but more… generalized, I guess?”
Pak was grateful for his helmet hiding his embarrassment. He’d made the same mistake as Dorian but it had taken the other man to discover the error. But if Dorian was bothered by the misunderstanding he did nothing to show it. “I see, I see,” the petitioner said, rubbing his hands together. “Well your spacers are welcome on Malacandra, for now, as are you. But now we must determine how long that will be the case. Walk with us for a while, Lieutenant Volk Fyodorovich.”
Volk hadn’t been expecting the great test to judge their worthiness to be on Mars to consist of a tour of the terraforming facilities but that’s exactly what they wound up getting. Dorian showed them the Martian weather control system, the soil enrichment plants and the fields. While Volk had never studied terraforming academically he, like many Rodenberry kids, had been raised by part time terraformers out on the edges of a newly settled planet and he could kind of guess at how most of these systems worked even though they were a good two hundred and fifty years out of date.
“It’s pretty impressive, even if it’s meant to work under a dome,” he admitted to Dorian as they completed their loop a good two hours later and started back towards the town square.
“You do not live under a dome at your Rodenberry?” Dorian asked.
“Nope. Rodenberry had a breathable atmosphere when we found it. The composition will be different when we’re done with the planet in another couple of hundred years but we never needed domes.” Volk waved his hand in the general direction of the weather control system. “Made some of these systems infeasible for us.”
“What do Rodenberry’s hnau think of your work?”
It had been a while since an unfamiliar word had popped up. Volk made a mental note of it although he was sure linguistic experts on the Stewart and Spiner were already digging into the word and cross referencing it. “I’m sorry, a hnau is what?”
“A living creature with the power of speech and decision, like you or I.”
Nanofacturing had been very new technology at the time of Departure. Each of the twelve colony ships dispatched from Earth had carried a primitive nanofacturing plant on board, a luxury that hadn’t been available to the Borealis colony when it was created. In the many debates he’d heard in the last twenty hours attempting to date when Borealis was cut off from Earth one data point that had come up continually was the poor fit of Pak’s environmental suit. A colony without a nanofactury wouldn’t be able to easily tweak those kinds of suits, made of very specialized polymers, to fit different people and probably wouldn’t bother in most cases.
When Gemma and Dorian had shown up in equally ill-fitting gear that had pretty much settled the point in Volk’s mind.
But now, after watching Dorian fumble awkwardly around the colony for two hours, Volk wondered if perhaps it might have actually been some kind of careful gambit, put in motion from before they even entered the dome. Because watching Dorian stand there, his fingertips pressed together almost as if he was praying, his helmet tilted forward on the crown of his head and hiding his face in its tinted depths, Volk suddenly felt like he was being weighed. It was an unsettling feeling and totally at odds with his impression of Dorian so far.
“There was no sentient life – no hnau – on Rodenberry when it was discovered,” Volk said, watching Dorian very carefully. He gave a slight start at the answer but Volk wasn’t sure why. “We wouldn’t have terraformed without their approval if there was.”
“No?” Dorian cocked his head and again the helmet moved comically. Volk finally placed the feeling he was developing in the pit of his stomach. It was like being around the JAG officer that investigated him after the hull breach on the Yamato. “You would have felt no duty to humanity, to ensure they could thrive and dominate the world?”
“All people have a duty to humanity,” Volk replied, very aware that he was walking blind through a philosophical minefield in ways that he, like so many other Rodenberry children, had seen played out time and again in the works of the Great Man. “But we would not consider it fulfilled by simply ignoring other hnau. Our belief is that cooperation in such circumstances, a true understanding of the needs and desires of all involved, is the best way towards thriving.”
For a moment longer the petitioner watched Volk from behind his impassive mask – or at least, so it seemed. Dorian could just as easily have been reading something off in the corner of a heads up display. But in his gut Volk knew he was still being judged. He just wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. Rodenberry had been an optimist, certain that enlightened people would all arrive at similar views on the important philosophical subjects given time. In that, at least, he had proven woefully shortsighted.
“I think,” Dorian announced abruptly, “it would be proper to offer you a shelter for the evening. You brought many supplies for a longer stay, correct?”
“Select a building to your liking and make it your resting place for the evening. Set up whatever you like from your belongings.” Dorian spread his hands. “We cannot offer you power, I’m afraid, but what space you wish to take for the moment is yours.”
“That’s very generous.” Volk still couldn’t tell if Dorian approved or disapproved of them. The man had an enviable steadiness to his voice. “Are we allowed to stay, then?”
“For the moment, although it would be forward of me to make a decision that ultimately rests with the Elders.”
“You are not an Elder yourself?”
“Not yet, no.” Dorian hesitated, his head again tilting in that unsettling, judging way. “But I think you will have the opportunity to speak to one soon. Good day, Lieutenant Volk Fyodorovich.”
When he came back late that evening, Pak found Volk and his friends settled into one of the houses just outside the Burnt. They’d set up some portable lights, a couple of computer terminals and two large antennas on the top of the building. He wasn’t sure how they were powering everything but if pressed he would have guessed the rolling cart they’d brought had some kind of massive battery in it.
In another surprise, Volk’s group had all shed their dingy gray suits. Beneath the featureless rubbery things they’d been wearing Pak was surprised to see their clothes were full of color. The torso of Volk’s shirt was a bright gold with a black collar and sleeves. Gold braid ringed his cuffs and the seams of his black pants.
The short member of the party – Shen, as he recalled – turned out to be a woman with a similar style of clothes but colored in red rather than gold. Shen and Volk were standing outside the front door as Pak approached, and he couldn’t help but notice that Shen was now carrying the box and antenna that Long had been carrying before. Once again, he wondered what it was for.
Shen spotted him first and gestured to him, prompting Volk to turn and raise a hand in greeting. “Hello. Is that you, Pak?”
“It’s me.” He hesitated for a moment, then reached up and pulled off his helmet, giving the big man his best effort and a warm smile. It must not have worked very well, for a moment Volk looked very surprised. “The Eldest wants to speak with you tomorrow, along with a few of the other Elders.”
“Of course,” Volk said, his expression returning to normal with no sign of what might have unsettled him. “We’re looking forward to it. I trust this means the petitioner gave us a good report?”
“He was…” Pak hesitated as he searched for words. “He was less suspicious.”
“Well, that’s a start, I guess.” Volk made show of looking over Pak’s shoulder. “Gemma isn’t with you?”
“She was supposed to keep an eye on Dorian. I guess he’s a bit of a well-known clutz.” Although in his opinion that kind of made for a case of the blind leading the blind. But nothing bad had come of it, so he wouldn’t complain. Instead he dug a timepiece out of a pocket and handed it to Volk. “The exact conversion of one clock to another can be difficult so we thought it simplest to give you a local watch and allow you to calibrate based on that. We’d like you to be out in the Burnt by 07:30 tomorrow morning.”
Volk took the watch from him and stuck it in a pocket cleverly sewn into the side of the belt he was wearing. “Thank you. We’ll do our best to be punctual. While you’re here, can I ask you something?”
Pak hesitated, his helmet halfway up to his head already. “Sure. What is it?”
“Is there any requirement to become an Elder? Or is it decided entirely by age?”
That was an interesting question, but a fair one given that Volk was about to talk to a large number of Elders. “You become an Elder at sixty,” Pak replied. “I take it that’s not how you became a Lieutenant?”
“No,” Volk said with a smile. “I had to undergo a number of evaluations to make sure I met very specific criteria in order to get promoted.”
“Oh, we do that, too, but the Elders use a tool called profiling. It’s how people get assigned to their ultimate duty stations. Most of the time.” Pak shrugged. “I volunteered to be a Watcher, but I wasn’t really expecting to wind up doing all… this.”
Volk nodded in understanding. “That’s how it turns out most of the time, believe it or not. There are lots of spacers out there who will never volunteer for anything because of it.”
“Are you one of them?”
Volk leaned closer, conspiratorially. “No. This kind of thing is why I do volunteer.”
Pak grinned. “Having done this once, I can kind of understand that. I’ll see you tomorrow, Volk.”
“Take care, Pak.”
As he headed back towards the entrance to Bottletown Pak felt quite good about himself. Volk seemed like a great person, with the kind of assurance and steadiness Pak tended to associate with the best of the Elders he’d met in his own life. Volk seemed to want to be friendly with them, and he’d passed Dorian’s test that afternoon. Most of all, Pak just found himself wanting to be friends with the big man, so he was glad to finally have some of the barriers down between them. He’d thought the day’s meetings had gone well. But when he turned to glance over his shoulder he saw Volk speaking quietly with Shen about something and both of them looked surprised and worried. They hadn’t looked that way when he’d walked up. He wondered what had happened.