Martian Scriptures Chapter Twelve – Welcome Shipside

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Craig met the Malacandran delegation just inside the airlock of Landing Bay Two. Procedure dictated that Oda oversee the actual landing procedures and greet their guests as they disembarked from the landing craft, so Craig was forced to cool his heels on the other side of the pressure hull to ensure nothing catastrophic happened to the ship’s command structure. On the balance of things, he found it annoying. Oh, it made sense of course. But there were times he wished he could have just stuck his nose into every interesting thing on the ship, like Kirk had been able to.

Of course, Kirk had plot armor and a team of writers who didn’t have to work hours and hours of meetings, paperwork and constant smoothing of ruffled feathers into their scripts.

But even if he couldn’t go on away missions there was a lot of fun to be had in the captain’s chair. He’d been looking forward to meeting the leaders of Bottletown for the last two days. It was nice to have regular, communicative people to deal with instead of the passive-aggressive silence of Earth. Absently Craig ran his hands over the front of his uniform for the dozenth time and scrubbed a hand over his nonexistent hair, then glanced at his assembled officers. After a little debated he’d settled on Rand, who’d insisted on a small security presence for the meeting, and Dhawan. Tactical and medical seemed like the right mix to strike. He’d have brought Jimenez as well, but someone had to stand watch on the bridge.

And, of course, there was Harriet Thacker. Craig wasn’t sure how she’d gotten back upwell from planetside but there she was, her newly bobbed brown hair looking glossy and professional, a recording unit in hand and some kind of heavy duty AI that he hadn’t seen before strapped to her waist. “Any thoughts you’d like to share based on your first meeting with the Malacandrans, Miss Thacker?”

Harriet stopped flipping through whatever she had on her AI readout and gave him an arch look. “A trip to Mars was all it took for you to finally pay attention to me?”

“I could think of a few other ways you could grab my attention. Flag my AI. Show up at unexpected places on the ship.” He gave her simple but stylish blouse and pants a quick once over. “Change what you wear.”

She feigned shock. “Whatever could you mean, Captain?”

“An evac suit, of course.”

That chilled the air a bit. Craig realized it had come out a bit harsher than he’d intended but, before he could correct the statement the airlock clunked and then cranked open. While Craig was hardly a short man he’d gotten used to cranking his head back a step or two to see Commander Fyodorovich’s face. He wasn’t expecting to have to lean back even further to make eye contact with the serious faced five year old boy Fyodorovich was carrying on his shoulders. The big man practically had to fold in half to step up over the lip of the hatch while also ducking to get through without hitting his passenger’s head on the top. There was a weird, hypnotic awkwardness to the maneuver.

Matched by a weird, choking laugh from Harriet, who was trying her best to treat this with the seriousness it deserved.

Fyodorovich straightened up, walked over to his commanding officer as if arriving with a child in tow was a daily occurrence, and halted at a modified parade rest with his hands resting on the child’s feet to keep him in place. Craig rapidly considered and discarded a number of responses. Finally he ignored his officer and looked up at the boy, offered him a crisp nod and said, “Welcome aboard the Stewart, Eldest.”

The child said, “I’m not the Eldest. My mom is.” He turned to point and Fyodorovich mimicked the action with eerie accuracy, almost as if he and he boy had fused nervous systems at some point. Behind them a tall, slim women with dark hair was just clearing the hatch. Clearly this must be Naomi Bertolini.

She had that vaguely exotic look to her that most people from another planet had, the clear result of dozens of genetic idiosyncrasies settling into a limited gene pool and creating the phenomenon known as ethnicity. With just mother and child to go by so far Earth’s Martian descendants seemed to be marked by very round faces, pronounced ears and above average height, an impression that was driven home when a man who was well over two meters tall followed the Eldest through the door. He was holding the hand of a three or four year old girl. The boy added, “That’s my dad and sister.”

The youngest Bertolini was stuck staring at the edge of the hatchway, clearly unsure how she was supposed to get over it. Craig froze for a moment, getting young children over the lip of an airlock wasn’t something covered in the Diplomatic Procedures he’d reviewed, but before he could say anything her father just smiled and said, “Hup!” And lifted her into the air by her arm then swung her over the threshold. To Craig’s ever increasing surprise the giggling girl swung forward on both arms, her other hand held by his executive officer. The girl didn’t let go of Oda’s hand once she was over the lip of the hatch or even when he stepped through behind her. At first Craig thought he might get to see Oda put out by someone else for once. But from the satisfied way Oda watched the girl swing along between them Craig was doomed for disappointment. He made a mental note to check with Fyodorovich and see who’s idea it was to give the guest’s kids piggyback rides.

A second family of four followed behind Oda. Like the first wave, the adults were tall. The wavy brown hair and thoughtful blue eyes suggested that the man who came first was Naomi Bertolini’s younger brother. He was flanked by a woman that was almost two meters herself, although still more than a head shorter than her companion, with deep red hair. They had two boys sandwiched between them and all three were looking around at the ship with a faint sense of awe.

Craig also got his first impression of their culture. All eight of the Malacandran Martians had long hair, waist length in the case of the adults and at least shoulder length on all of the children. The kids were all wearing fairly amorphous coveralls but the adults were clothed according to gender, with the men in belted tunics and pants while the women wore blouses with loose, flowing sleeves tucked into high waisted bottoms. Naomi wore a skirt, the other woman pants. Reports had mentioned that the Eldest wore utilitarian clothes while planetside, at a guess this was more formal attire.

Satisfied that he couldn’t learn any more by looking over the group Craig focused his attention on Naomi. “Welcome aboard the Rodenberry Stellar Navy’s Stewart, Eldest. I’m Captain Craig Gyle.” He gestured to his officers. “These are Commanders Barton Rand and Varu Dhawan, in charge of our tactical and medical departments. And, of course, you’ve already met Miss Thacker.”

Naomi held out her hand for a handshake, which Craig accepted. “A pleasure to meet you, Captain.” The rank sounded a little uncertain, as if the word wasn’t something she was used to saying. “I’m Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest in Bottletown. But you probably knew that.”

“Commander Fyodorovich speaks highly of you.” It wasn’t a very meaningful compliment but it seemed to please her none the less.

“Volk is a wonderful guest. Let me introduce my family.”

And they were all family. Her husband was a doctor named Greg, the other two adults her brother Victor Pracht and sister-in-law Alyssa. The Bertolini children were Greg Jr. and Tancia, the Pracht boys were Harold and Brent. Craig filed all this under things he would have to look up in his AI later.  It did raise the interesting question of why she’d chosen to bring family on this visit, rather than other senior leaders of the colony, but that was something he filed under things to ask if he wanted to end diplomatic relations. Nepotism was a universal constant in human affairs. But it wasn’t something he was interested in seeing on his ship, which meant he’d be keeping a sharp eye on Fyodorovich for the next few hours. Four children under ten gave Craig a great chance to see if the rookie department head’s legendary cool under pressure extended to these kind of formal situations.


 

Geraldine Jimenez rarely got to stand watch on the bridge. By her estimate there were at least twelve officers on the ship with more seniority and command experience between her and the Stewart‘s big chair. Pretty much the only time it happened was when all those other officers had some kind of important function that would keep them in their own departments while the Captain and XO were off the bridge. So naturally she was officer on duty during the Martian’s visit to the ship.

Bridge time was vital to forwarding your career so really there was nothing to complain about. But Jimenez preferred being involved in things rather than being sidelined and being stuck on the bridge felt a lot like sidelining at the moment. She tried to console herself by remembering that ship tours were boring and based on reports from SFC Long the Bottletown colony didn’t seem to have any significant fighting capability so they weren’t really expected to cause trouble.

So she dug deeper into her current project and compared historical maps against modern scans and tried to work out what the insides of the colony looked like. The bridge was quiet and it helped to pass the time. She had just started evaluating where she might ask Shen to set up sensor relays when she got a ping from Hoyle directing her to a recent transmission packet from the grav relay that kept them in touch with the Spiner and the rest of the fleet. It wasn’t time for one of their regular check-ins so this was definitely something to take note of.

Concerned, Jimenez opened it to see if it merited passing on to the Captain immediately, or if some comm spacer had just gotten an itchy finger while manning the relay. The first few lines were pretty much what she expected, and included instructions that they were to finish with the day’s diplomatic functions. That alone was enough to suggest she could leave the message for the Captain to get to on his next duty shift. But she kept reading, just to be sure.

Which is why she decided she would have to interrupt the tour for at least a few minutes after all.


 

Two hours into proceedings Craig decided that perhaps Fyodorovich had a good sense for how to handle his diplomatic duties after all. Alyssa and Naomi had been fascinated by their trip to the ship’s power plant and Greg Bertolini had many questions for Dhawan as they passed through Sickbay. Victor said little and kept an eye on the four children, with help from Fyodorovich.

The big man had a way with kids that Craig also wouldn’t have given him credit for.

The lunch break in the officer’s mess served as the first real chance for them to decompress since their arrival. Seating had been left to the Head Steward and Craig found himself at a table with the Eldest, her husband and Oda. They had barely started on the soup when Naomi’s questions started, but they weren’t the questions Craig had been expecting.

“Where are your families, Captain?” She was genuinely perplexed. “Your whole crew is of marriageable age but I haven’t seen a single child here.”

“We rarely take our families into space.” Craig hadn’t been expecting the question but it was something that was routinely debated among the kinds of people who formulated the Rudeness Pact so he had an answer on hand.. “It seems Malacandrans value the community and strength close family brings, and I truly respect that. But few spacers would think of bringing family aboard a vessel like ours if for no other reason than how dangerous it is.”

That alarmed her. “You ship is dangerous?”

“Not always,” Craig hastened to assure her. “In orbit, like we are now, this ship is just as safe as your colony. But travel between stars has many dangers. Engines can fail and strand us months or even years away from help. There are many stellar phenomena that we haven’t mapped which we will happen across unexpectedly and can damage the ship. And there’s the ever present danger of space pirates.”

“But wouldn’t your family be a bulwark against such dangers?”

Craig smiled faintly. “I’d rather think of myself as that bulwark for my family. Besides, starships have little room for people who aren’t a part of the ship’s functioning. Everyone has to pull their weight. What if a spacer married a terraformer? That’s a skillset that’s vital to our home planet but has no useful application in space.”

“But surely,” Greg objected, “you have to need so many more sets of skills on a ship in space than in a colony.”

Craig hesitated, trying to find a way to phrase things that didn’t come off as offensive. “Let me turn that around on you. Do you have people who dedicate their whole lives to music? To telling stories? To the design of buildings?”

“No.” Greg looked perplexed at the question. “We could never afford to spare the people. Bottletown’s population is far too low.”

“In that respect,” Craig replied, “you are far more like a starship than like a city on Rodenberry. There are many people who are full time musicians, writers, artists and architects there but there’s no need for, nor place for, people who spend all their time on those endeavors on the Stewart. But in New San Francisco there is not only a place for them, there’s a need for them.”

Craig intended to continue on that line of thought but he was interrupted by the sound of Jimenez clearing her throat at his shoulder. He glanced back to find his security chief standing with her arms folded, AI cradled in one hand. A classic pose for someone with a message for their superior. He looked back to the table. “I’m sorry, it seems something has come up. Would you excuse me for just a minute?”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twelve – Ups and Downs

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The last to arrive was Lieutenant Commander Fyodorovich, to no one’s surprise. He hustled into the conference room just seconds before the clock rolled over to 20:00 hours, his uniform still creased across his shoulders and under his arms in the way all uniforms were right after someone climbed out of an evac suit. In just the few days since the man had been promoted he seemed to have aged several years, new lines had appeared around his nose and lips and the shadows under his eyes told of new levels of exhaustion. Before he could slip into the last open seat in the conference room Craig said, “Thank you for making the trip up from Mars, Commander Fyodorovich. I know you’ve come a way already but would you mind briefing us on what you’ve found so far?”

Fyodorovich moved the chair back under the table with a nod and stepped over to the presentation display and slipped his AI into the slot at the base. A moment later the holoprojector was taking them on a rapid tour of Borealis colony, both the part the locals knew as “Old Borealis” and the inhabited portion known as “Bottletown”, with Fyodorovich providing a concise commentary on it all.

“While nothing in and around Bottletown looks more developed technologically,” Fyodorovic said as his brief talk wound down, “it is definitely newer. The fishers, as the Eldest called them, have certainly done a good job manufacturing parts to replace anything that breaks.”

“They haven’t upgraded anything at all?” Deveneaux asked, more than a little incredulous.

“To be honest, s-” Fyodorovich caught himself just before calling his fellow Lt. Cmndr. ‘sir’ and tried again. “To be honest, we’re not sure they really understand how a lot of their technology works. There’s a lot of rote procedure down there, but very few of them have a broad enough understanding of what they’re working with to adequately explain the principles behind the technology, much less how they might go about improving it. I think Naomi might have enough of a grasp on how a fusion reactor works to design her own but she’s a special case.”

“Thank you.” Fyodorovich ejected his AI and Craig gave his juniormost department head a moment to get back to his seat before sizing up his senior staffers with a careful eye. They’d broken up along rough areas of responsibility. Deveneaux, along with Commander Rand and Lieutenant Jiminez, occupied the three seats to Craig’s left, together they were those responsible for the safety and smooth functioning of the ship. While engineering might seem out of place along with tactical and security officers in Craig’s experience the two areas really went hand in hand.

To Craig’s right were Commander Oda and Lieutenant Commander Dhawan, his second in command and chief medical officer respectively. Together they saw to the health of the crew, although in Craig’s mind it was more a tug of war between Oda’s secretive attempts to drive people insane and Dhawan’s best efforts to see the crew stayed as they were. The two men almost never talked to each other, which Craig assumed was due to Oda’s malicious delight in watching people annoy each other putting off Dhawan’s medical sensibilities, but by the same token Craig didn’t know of any overt conflict between them either.

Finally, Lieutenant Hoyle from communications, Lieutenant Commander Tannish, chief flight officer, and Lieutenant Commander Wallace, the Quartermaster, made up the logistical officers that held the day to day functioning of the ship together.

And, of course, there was Fyodorovich himself, who looked a bit uncomfortable among them but otherwise was performing as well as could be expected.

“Ladies and gentleman,” Craig said, evaluating his crew. “Thirty minutes ago I filed my daily report with Admiral Carrington. I fully expect that, by 08:00 tomorrow we will receive orders recalling us to Earth.”

“I take it you think he’ll conclude that Mars has nothing to tell us about the situation on Earth?” Rand asked.

Craig grimaced. “I’m afraid that’s exactly what he’ll conclude. The situation down there is exceedingly strange, but it’s pretty clear just from what I heard today that the original purpose of our visit – to learn why Earth is hostile to us – is pretty much shot. Bottletown is as clueless on that front as we are. A mission under Rodenberry command would most likely stay to unravel the rest of the puzzle down there. I’m not sure Carrington will chose the same.”

“That doesn’t seem to be the most forward looking decision, Captain,” Oda said. “There is a great deal still to piece together here and there is still the possibility that whatever happened to the colonists here is a danger to us as well.”

“I doubt that,” Jimenez said. “Neither Borealis Colony nor Bottletown seem much more advanced than the Departure era. My understanding from Engineering is that they’re still running on their original generator. I doubt anything that Earth could have done to Mars in the decade or so after Departure is something we couldn’t easily deal with today. By the same token, if Bottletown is in no danger out here, I doubt we are.”

“But can we even explain what happened to Borealis?” Dhawan asked. “The account from Bottletown seems to be that everyone collapsed suddenly. Doesn’t seem to be a bioweapon, part of the colony survived and Earth took the bodies away. Long distance neural disrupters have been bandied about at the theoretical level before. What if someone on Earth found a way to propagate the necessary EM fields? Could we defend against something like that? Especially if the necessary technology has been advancing over the last two hundred years.”

“I don’t see how that kind of unfounded speculation helps us,” Jimenez shot back.

Craig hated to cut in there since it looked like he was taking Jimenez’s side but the conversation was quickly veering off course. “It doesn’t, I’m afraid.” He gave Dhawan an apologetic look. “Beyond being something that we could point out. What I want from each of you is a comprehensive list of reasons we could offer the Admiral to remain here. I also want to hear any reasons you might have for why we should leave – I’m not entirely opposed to that course of action although I admit I would find it very disappointing. So take your AIs, have them review the past few days of recordings from the landing team and bring me anything that jumps out. In the meantime, Commander Tannish’s suggestion that we bring some of the colonists to the ship has bought us some time. I don’t think the Admiral will pull us out with a major diplomatic promise unfulfilled.”

“Is he talking about Hellfire Carrington?” Hoyle’s whisper to Wallace was not as quiet as she’d probably intended it to be. Clearly she bought into the Admiral’s reputation as a hot headed, hard driving spacer who’d blown apart the alliance between the Gallilean moons of Diana and Minerva with a single heavy cruiser.

“Lieutenant,” he said with a practiced edge in his voice that immediately had everyone’s attention. “I know Vice Admiral Carrington’s past deeds make us all think of him as some kind of near mythical figure. I’ve heard ‘the spacer’s Patton’ bandied about before. But my personal experience with him suggests he’s also a man who values understanding the situations he’s in as much as any Rodenberry spacer. If we can make the case that there’s still something of value to learn here I’m sure he’ll be attentive to it.”

A look around the table confirmed that they all understood he wasn’t interested in debating this further. “Now, let’s move on to tomorrow’s diplomatic visit. Commander Fyodorovich will be playing host to our guests. I’d like him brought up to speed on what each of our departments is planning to present to the emissaries from Bottletown.”

What followed wasn’t exactly promising. The Stewart had been loaded with an abundance of experienced officers with considerable expertise in their respective field for the visit to Earth. They’d all hoped to learn more about the advances in their fields Earth had made in the centuries of enforced silence and Craig had been happy to have the best and brightest the Navy could give him. It had never occurred to him that he’d also stuffed his officer roster full of far more senior officers than a ship of its class would typically have on a deep space cruise.

Oda had realized this, of course, but he’d kept quiet because he knew too many chiefs and not enough Indians would result in his favorite kinds of command situations.

So now Craig was in the uncomfortable position of watching a very junior officer who’d jumped past half a dozen more experienced officers to head a department struggle to coordinate a very simple tour. There were already two or three people who’d started the cruise at the rank Fyodorovich now held provisionally who were complaining about his promotion and if he botched this assignment that was only going to get louder.

Fyodorovich had made serviceable, competent reports so far and seemed to be handling his people well. The Eldest had been receptive to him during their talks. But Craig knew if the rest of the senior staff turned against the young man he’d be forced to replace him. There were already rumors swirling about Fyodorovich. It was going to start hurting morale, to say nothing of the damage it could do to the career of a bright and promising young officer.

An hour and a half later the meeting was wrapping up, with most of those present doing their best to suppress yawns. Fyodorovich had been quiet for a while, focusing on making detailed notes with his AI and only occasionally interjecting to ask a pertinent question. A lot was hanging on how he performed tomorrow and Craig hoped he would live up to expectations. But tomorrow had time enough for those worries. He put them out of his mind and rocked forward in his chair in preparation to stand, saying, “If there’s no further business…”

Fyodorovich stowed his AI and said, “Actually, Captain, as I’ll probably be busy all day tomorrow with Naomi and anyone she brings up with her, I thought I should mention it now.”

Craig hesitated. “Mention what?”

“What you should tell the Admiral if he tries to withdraw us because Bottletown doesn’t know what happened to Borealis.” Fyodorovich spread his hands. “Tell them they might.”

Craig settled back into the chair, looking at the younger man skeptically. “Are you suggesting I lie to the Admiral?”

“No, Captain, remind him what we’re dealing with. I know they say they don’t know what happened and nothing in their archives speak to the subject. But consider. The Elders of Bottletown are all very young – the Eldest is twenty years old. I don’t know what happened to cause that but it’s clearly cost them a lot of institutional knowledge.”  Fyodorovich held up his AI as if they could still see it projecting his report on the holodisplay. “Sir, I wasn’t kidding when I said they don’t seem to know how most of they’re technology works. They don’t even know how to fix simple hydraulics. They have to throw the whole assembly into a nanofactury vat and rebuild the thing from scratch. They have about three dozen people in a colony of fifteen hundred that study computer programming at all. They could have the complete history of the human race in their computer core and not know it. The historic archives Borealis left may be password protected or encrypted; if so no one I’ve met so far has the knowhow to bypass or decrypt them. Getting answers may be as simple as getting direct computer access.”

“And how difficult do you think that will be?”

Fyodorovich shrugged. “I’ve been avoiding even mildly intrusive suggestions like that so far because we didn’t know what we were dealing with. It didn’t seem wise to pry.”

Craig adjusted his opinion of the room’s youngest officer back up a notch. What he said had truth in it, although how much was anyone’s guess. Still, it was a good point to bring up to the Admiral, if he needed it. “If it comes to it, I will remind the Admiral that Bottletown might not know everything it has in its computers. Thank you, Mr. Fyodorovich. Now, let’s all call it a night and let you get back down to the planet. You have a long day ahead tomorrow.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Eleven – Children

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Volk Fyodorovich was obsessed with the Eldest. There was no other way for Pak to explain his behavior. The stranger from space mostly ignored Elder Nobari’s explanation of the fisher’s systems and how they allowed the colony perfect recycling and manufacturing abilities by breaking down and reassembling things on the atomic level, although from comments made by the archivist – or as they called her the journalist – in the group it sounded like the fisher tanks were something they understood already. Instead, Volk plied Naomi with questions.

Was she married? Children? He was astonished to hear she had two. What were the responsibilities of the Eldest? If they were mostly ceremonial, why had the Elders chosen her to lead the day’s discussions with him? And on and on.

By the time the tour of the fisher’s plant ended they were practically three groups. Volk and Naomi were pumping each other for information on their respective cultures, with Volk seeming very interested in Naomi in particular.

Harriet and Elder Nobari talked extensively about the fishers and how their work supported the colony. She took particular note of how the fishers on duty that day were in the middle of breaking down and rebuilding an old set of conduits from the Sun Bottle. That was pretty much the only time Naomi abandoned her deep discussion with Volk to move the group along. Pak had been expecting her to stop and talk about the conduits or the Bottle itself, since that was her field of expertise, but instead she just whisked them on to the refineries where the fisher’s pools were kept pure and functional.

As for Pak and the small, quiet woman named Shen, they walked behind the other four and said very little. Shen was quiet and frankly a bit off-putting, still hiding behind her helmet and wrapped in Silence. She didn’t carry the antenna box on this outing but Pak almost wished she did, since it would give him something, anything to talk about.

As it happened, she found something to ask first. “Why isn’t the Head Watcher a position for an Elder?”

The question came out of nowhere, without her even bothering to turn her head and look at him, but Pak had been so busy eavesdropping on Elder Nobari discussing the programming at work in the fisher’s research room that he almost missed it. In fact, for a moment he wasn’t sure Shen was the one who’d spoken until he looked at her and she spread her hands in a questioning fashion. “It is, technically speaking.”

“Technically?”

“Bottletown needs a lot of things to keep in going, doctors, farmers, weathermen, bottlekeepers, fishers, watchers, petitioners, the list goes on.” He shrugged. “And there are some jobs, like programmers, who can only be filled by Elders. There’s only so many of them to go around. And there’s not really a lot for watchers to do from day to day, at least until the past couple of days. So a lot of the time no one stays in the Watchtower until they’re an Elder, and so we don’t have any Elder to oversee us and we have to make do. It happens sometimes in other parts of the colony. Farmers and petitioners have gone without before, although not for as long a time as the watchers.”

“I would think the town guard would be a group that would require at least one Elder to lead it.”

“We’re not guards, we’re watchers.” Pak gestured vaguely in the direction of the old settlement outside. “A long time ago Thulcandra subdued the people of Borealis. We don’t know how or why, but it happened. When that was done Thulcandrans came and took all the Borealins away. We didn’t have the knowledge or power to fight back so Bottletown was established to let us hide. But we couldn’t stay in there forever, we needed the aboveground farms and stuff like that. So watchers were put in the Watchtower to see if anything ever came out of the Silence.”

“And when you see something coming you all hide in Bottletown.” Shen’s helmet hid her face from view so Pak wasn’t sure what she thought of it but her voice sounded distant and pensive.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” A slight change in tone of voice and barely visible change in posture combined to somehow suggest Shen was paying more attention than a moment ago. “What do you want to know?”

“Why did you come back when it was clear that Earth had gone Silent?” Pak tried to keep the frustration from his voice but it was one thing that had bothered him since the day he understood what had happened to Borealis. “Why care about people who cut you off totally?”

“Listen, kid…” Pak bristled at that but stopped himself from cutting her off. “I know you’ve never left this dome and that’s not your fault. But you need to understand that space is a big place. A really big place. Even moving at superluminal speeds it can take months to move from one inhabited planet to another and, as far as we can tell so far, we’re the only ones out there. It’s lonely enough without cutting people off arbitrarily. And we never knew why Earth never contacted us. There are thousands of issues that could have kept couriers from getting through. They may not even have known there was anyone to talk to. Did you?”

Pak started. “What?”

“I mean, why did Bottletown go silent? Why did they never talk to us?”

“Oh.” The clarity that question brought was unsettling, both in what it said about Malacandra and what it implied might have happened on Thulcandra. “We never did because we didn’t know.”

“One of the Great Man’s first lessons, kid. Don’t assume motives.”

He didn’t know who the Great Man was but the lesson was well taken, none the less.


 

By the end of the grand tour Volk was certain of two things. The first was that Naomi hadn’t lied to him. At barely twenty years old she was, in fact, the oldest person in Bottletown. They hadn’t met anyone that could conceivably be older. The other was that the Malacandrans thought this was a normal state of affairs.

No one had come out and said so. In fact, Volk wouldn’t have found that very convincing. But he’d seen so many weird and warped ideas about human growth and aging taken for granted in the past two hours that it made his head spin. And served as stronger proof that the colony saw twenty as old – or even ancient – than any lecture on cultural norms could.

He’d been introduced to two thirteen year olds as newlyweds, to his barely concealed horror. Thacker had clearly wanted to ask dozens of questions about that but for once Volk opted to explicitly break with his orders and quashed that line of questioning. Beyond that he’d found people in their late teens leading every work detail and twelve year olds digging through the guts of industrial equipment. By the time Naomi brought them into the fusion plant proper and led them into a cafeteria for lunch Volk had entirely lost his appetite.

He tried to distract himself from his discomfort by gawking around at the building. The core of a fusion reactor is not big, in and of itself. If he was suicidal he could have fit one into his quarters on the Stewart. It was the containment fields, passive radiation shielding, coolant pumps and other components that took up most of the space. That, and all the hallways, offices and watch rooms for the people that kept it running.

Bottletown took things a step further. A massive balcony ran around the top of the power plant in a kind of open air promenade except with a roof. The balcony itself was about twenty feet wide and covered about a third of the open space over the oval shaped reactor two or three hundred feet below, practically resting on the Martian bedrock. There were green spaces and seating areas. About eight small kitchens opening off of the promenade were serving food. It really felt like a town square and Volk could kind of understand why they’d named their reformed colony after their reactor.

Volk drew Naomi’s attention to two sets of double doors, one on either end of the long oval. “What’s through those?”

Naomi pointed to the closer door, off to their left. “That’s the office for the Eldest although, since we’re largely a ceremonial thing, it doesn’t see a whole lot of use. We really only open it up about twice a cent.”

“Any chance we’d be able to see what happens there?”

“Depends how long you stay. The next major even is in…” She paused for a moment, counting days in her head. “Three weeks?”

“Shouldn’t you know?” Volk was amused. “Aren’t you officiating?”

“And the other door,” Naomi said with the smoothness of someone ducking responsibility, “is Ransom’s Office.”

“Ransom?” Volk’s eyebrows shot up. There was an interesting choice of words, one the sociologists were probably going to have a field day with. “Who’s Ransom?”

“Our…” Another pause as she considered. “Founder, I suppose you would say. A very important figure in the creation of Bottletown, certainly. We preserve his office for posterity, along with some of our most important records. And before you ask, it’s not something we can share with outsiders, that’s one of the things that’s very clear.”

“How does one go about not being an outsider, if I might ask?” Thacker sounded more like she wanted to know for completion’s sake, rather than asking out of a desire to join the colony.

Naomi gave a half shrug, looking uncomfortable for the first time since they’d met. “Ransom’s notes don’t really address that. We’re not supposed to share them with outsiders, but he was supposed to go to Earth and try and find allies for the cause – opponents for Thulcandra. When they came – if they came – they would identify him by name.”

That was when things clicked in Volk’s head. “Was his name Elwin? Elwin Ransom?”

“Yes.”

Which explained at least one thing about his first meeting with Pak. At least that was one thing the people shipside could stop trying to figure out. “How was he going about gathering allies?”

“He said he was going to write a book with a friend he knew on Thulcandra.” She spread her hands helplessly. “Unfortunately Ransom never mentioned his friend’s name. All we really have are copies of the notes his book was to be based on.”

Volk frowned. It really wasn’t much to go on but it was a place to start. The shipboard archives might have something. Thacker took his pause as an invitation to jump in again. “What if we never saw this book Mr. Ransom was supposed to publish?”

“Well, that’s why we sent a petitioner to you on your first day. Dorian is well educated on Ransom’s notes, as most petitioners are, and can teach the concepts in them directly or through questions. He evaluated how well you seemed to align with them, and we decided to take you in for a trial period.”

“Well I guess that covers all your bases,” Volk mused. “I hope we can still earn your trust, even if we haven’t met this Ransom guy or read his book. In a gesture of good faith, would you like to bring a party up to our starship tomorrow?”

Naomi lit up like a wayfinder beacon at night. “Could I?”

Volk tried his best not to feel like he was luring a child into a dark alley. She was older than he’d been when he’d joined the Navy. “We’d love to have you aboard and there’s no need to commit to understanding Gene Rodenberry’s work beforehand. Although we’d also be happy to share that with you, too.”

“How many people could we bring?” Nobari asked.

And they fell to hammering out the details, another thing Volk was getting used to with frightening speed. A part of him worried that he was practically turning into a desk jockey. That was the part he paid the most attention to. It distracted him from the part growing increasingly concerned at what he was seeing in Bottletown. A city run by children. An insular religious system waiting for the return of a departed prophet who was supposed to have evangelized the solar system. And still not a single damned clue what had happened to the Homeworld. They’d staggered to Mars hoping for some insight, they were getting even more mysteries.

Still, for his own part Volk was confident they’d come out all right. But for Naomi, Pak and the others in Bottletown? He wasn’t so sure…

Martian Scriptures Chapter Ten – The Pact

Previous Chapter

“What do you think, Shen? Twenty two?”

“Less.” The petite Han woman had the advantage of still having her helmet on, so she was able to zoom in and take in more details. “Well, maybe not. Not older than twenty five. Definitely not sixty.”

“You didn’t know about this?”

Volk grunted, tempted to ignore the journalist’s question. But Oda had stressed that the captain was interested in helping Miss Thacker make the most thorough record of the meeting possible and that he should allow interviews when possible, including interviews of his own team. That included him. “We suspected it, but we’d only seen Pak outside of a suit before today and one is a really small sample size to base any assumptions on.”

“Which one is Pak?” Thacker asked.

“The young one, in front. He said he was a watcher, which we assumed was guard. Low ranked guards tend to be young.”

“There were hints that the man we met yesterday was younger as well,” Shen added. “The way his voice didn’t sound like it had finished breaking. The way he walked.”

“You can guess age based on walk?” Thacker sounded skeptical.

“It’s got to do with whether the bones have fused.” SFC Shen was a master of the professional deadpan when on duty. Volk had gotten a bit of a shock when he’d walked in on her playing cards with Long after the end of the day. He made a mental note not to let Thacker see that side of Shen.

Pak and the two others with him were approaching earshot. “Let’s go greet our hosts, shall we?”

They were two groups of three. Volk had initially intended to just bring Shen with him and leave the other three to make scans and survey the empty buildings in the city – adding Thacker had been a last minute adjustment. But it had balanced things, which was nice. On the other side of the equation was Pak and two older people who looked about the same age as each other. One was an average sized woman with a bright, intelligent face and long braided brown hair on top of a red set of coveralls. While the clothes looked quite utilitarian there were numerous decorative patches and stretches of embroidery that gave the garment a lot of personality. The biggest of them was a patch with an eight pointed star surrounded by a jar or bottle of some sort, positioned over her heart.

The other was a very broad chested man with a wispy reddish beard that came down to his collar bone and piercing eyes. He also braided his hair, which was just as long as his companions, but he wore a full body jacket over a knee length tunic belted in by a broad, shiny black belt. Beneath that were equally loose and flowing pants and simple cloth and rubber shoes.

And, as Shen had said, neither one looked like they could be a day over twenty five years old. Volk was willing to bet they were younger.

He stepped forward and offered the trio a salute. “Good morning. I’m Lieutenant Commander Volk Fyodorovich, of the Rodenberry Stellar Navy. This is Spacer First Class Yiyun Shen,” he swept a hand towards Shen then looped it around to point to Thacker, “and this is Miss Harriet Thacker.”

The woman in red stepped forward and extended her hand. Volk hesitated a split second then shook it. From her broad smile Volk deduced that was what she’d been expecting and carefully let out the breath he’d been holding. “Pleased to meet you, Volk. I am the Eldest, Naomi Bertolini. This is Elder Nobari Masamune.” Volk goggled in momentary surprise. It was stupid, of course, outside of the Han none of the Triad World colonies had brought large enough contingents of any given ethnicity for those ethnic signifier to last more than a generation or two. Most ethnic names no longer meant anything there, it made sense that Mars would be the same. Naomi didn’t look at all Italian and that didn’t bother him. But he hadn’t been expecting a name from a Han language group to be detached from a Han ethnicity, especially since Teng did have strong Han features.

Which brought him back to Naomi, who had moved on oblivious to Volk’s momentary confusion. “And, of course, you know Watcher Teng.”

Volk gave a broad smile and said, “Of course. I’m pleased to finally meet you, ma’am.” With a sudden flash of horror Volk realized he was getting used to this patty cake, play nice chit chatting. He firmly sat on that revelation so it would keep until he was off duty. “Not to sound impatient but does this mean we are formalizing relations?”

“I’m not sure what formalizing relations entails on your side of things,” Naomi replied, her smile just as broad as his. “But Bottletown has never had to formalize relations with anywhere else before, so you’ll forgive me if we have to grope our way through the dark in this circumstance.”

“Well, in that case formalizing relations can just mean you’re willing to talk with us on a regular basis and allow us to visit your colony,” Volk said. “Anything beyond that we can hammer out over the next few days.”

“Visit? Of course.” Naomi gave a questioning look to Pak and once again Volk felt disconcerted at the way Pak was treated. He’d initially pegged the kid as twelve when he took his helmet off but, going by size, he had to be closer to fifteen or sixteen. Or big for his age.

Either way, Borealis colony’s Eldest seemed to have no problem deferring to him on security issues and Pak was apparently up to the task because he pulled a handful of cards from a pocket in his suit – it wasn’t lost on Volk that he was still in his orange and black vacuum suit – and handed one to each of Volk’s party. “I’ve consulted the documents on guests and had the fishers make these cards. Present them to the access door and they’ll notify the Watchtower of your presence and someone will come to admit you.”

As Thacker took her card she hit Pak with a brilliant smile that was there and gone, like a knife, as she asked, “Fishers? Do you keep them on the bottom of a tank?”

The sound of Pak’s brain derailing was audible to everyone, coming out as a weak, “Huh?”

Fortunately, before Volk had to step in, Nobari deflected Thacker’s attention. “We build all equipment here via nanofactury vats. We who oversee the process and extract finished product from the vats are called fishers.”

Volk turned his own access card over in his hand and evaluated it. Rodenberry manufacturing probably couldn’t create anything of better quality although the methodology itself would be considered pretty primitive now. AIs handled most of this kind of security and authentication these days. “You’re a kind of engineer then, Elder Nobari?”

“You could say that.” He seemed a little uncertain, though.

“If I could ask…” Pak looked like he’d recovered from Thacker’s charm offensive and Volk moved his estimation of the kid up a few notches. “I know that Volk is the Eldest in your group, but what role do Spacer First Class Shen and Miss Thacker fill?”

“Well, I’m sure there are differences but Shen’s job is probably a lot like yours. She’s part of our ship’s security and tactical department. And Miss Thacker is a journalist.”

“A journalist?” Naomi asked.

Volk shot Thacker a glance and she took the cue. “I observe events and talk to people, record it all and send it on so that the people of Rodenberry can get some idea of what is happening out here.”

“Like an archivist.”

“There are certainly similarities,” Thacker said.

“Well.” Naomi clapped her hands together and rubbed them eagerly. “I’m sure you have many questions and we have just as many for you, so let’s get to it. I’ll show you around Bottletown and answer any questions that come up. In the mean time I’d like to hear about the ship you came on.”

Volk looked from Naomi to the town around them in a bit of confusion. “Another tour? I’m pretty sure Dorian showed us the highlights yesterday.”

“That?” Naomi grinned. “Well, yes we do use some of the old facilities. But you haven’t seen the town proper yet.”

“Well then,” he said, “lead on!”


 

It turned out that Bottletown took up most of the northern half of the colony’s dome, a large complex of buildings and underground structures heaped up around the colony’s fusion reactor or dug into the side of the ridge the reactor sat next to. While Volk was initially worried that the reactor’s notable radiation leaks might be contaminating the environment a few preliminary scans confirmed that the reactor’s powerful magnetic fields were keeping the radiation moving towards the outside of the colony. A quick consultation with Deveneaux’s people told him that no one shipside had any firm ideas what was wrong with the reactor but that it shouldn’t pose any danger for the time being.

There was a lot of background chatter about how the fields aligned and what that might mean about how the reactor was configured but it all went over Volk’s head and mostly served as a distraction from more pressing matters so he filed it all under things to ask Naomi later.

What was clear is that the reactor wasn’t leaking into the colony and causing any problems – or unforeseen benefits – and that meant his next question was pretty straight forward.

“You’re satisfied with the condition of our Sun Bottle?”

Straight forward assuming Naomi didn’t keep derailing his train of thought. “I’m guessing you call your reactor a Sun Bottle?”

Behind her Volk saw Pak and Nobari exchange a mystified look but Naomi herself seemed to recognize the term immediately. “That’s right. The Bottle is more than just a reactor, however. It is the heart of Bottletown.”

Which explained why they called the colony that. “If you don’t mind my asking, why did you change the name of your colony? And why don’t you use the old settlement?” Volk waved his hand in the general direction of the empty buildings behind him. “This all looks like old industrial and laboratory space.”

For the first time Naomi lost some of her frank and open attitude. “We don’t know all the details, Volk. What I can tell you is that Bottletown and Borealis are two different societies. We were established after Borealis was Silenced.”

“Silenced?” The capital letter was clearly audible in the way Naomi said it. “What does that mean?”

“We don’t know,” she admitted. “Very little is left from that time. The founders of Bottletown just told us that one day the Thulcandrans crossed the Silence to Malacandra, loaded the Malacandrans of Borealis onto ships and departed. They do not clearly say how they were able to bypass the eldil of the Lunar siege or why the Oyarsa did not intervene on their behalf. To tell the truth, these were things we were hoping you could tell us.”

There were a lot of things Volk didn’t understand about that answer, which only made him feel worse. Just about anything he could say was a potential landmine and it was vital that he avoid or diffuse as many as possible before moving on. Over the centuries millions, perhaps billions, of people had discussed and debated the works of Gene Rodenberry and his successors and a number of simple steps to avoid the most common pitfall tropes of his work, as if they were simple and easy things to do. The truth was, Volk was absolutely certain he was going to cause an interplanetary incident in the next five minutes if he didn’t deploy at least one of these techniques and yet, as he opened his mouth to propose it, he found his voice stuck in his throat. The sheer nonsensical nature of it made it almost impossible to force out.

Naomi saw him struggling but misunderstood. “If you don’t wish to tell us now we will not change our attitude towards you. I’m sure that, in time -”

“That’s not the issue, Eldest,” Volk said hurriedly. “This may sound odd to you, but I want to offer you something my people call a Rudeness Pact.”

Somewhere behind him Volk heard Thacker let out a strangled noise halfway between gasp and laugh. Naomi ignored it. “A Rudeness Pact?”

“Yes. It’s an agreement between two people or groups of people who share little to no culture in common. It allows any insult, faux pas or taboo breaking to be ignored once under the assumption that it stems from ignorance and not malice.” Volk indicated the two of them. “This pact could exist between the two of us or our ship and Bottletown, whichever you prefer, but with it in place I think we could discuss these kinds of questions without having to qualify things quite so much.”

“Had I been qualifying things overmuch?” Naomi’s knowing smile suggested she knew Volk was offering the pact for his own comfort, rather than hers. Then she turned serious. “What if this is used as an excuse to take something that belongs to another?”

A question that typically came up when the Pact was bandied about. “The Rudeness Pact is intended for words, gestures and other actions. Generally, if it involves property or harm to another the Pact doesn’t extend to it.”

“Then I’ll agree to this pact between you and I. If more from your ship come to visit on a regular basis then we’ll consider expanding it. Still, you Rodenberry people must overthink a lot of things.”

“Thank you, Naomi, that sounds a lot like a compliment to me.” Volk took a deep breath and came out swinging. “Am I to understand the Oyarsa is a god, or some other local religious figure? Because that’s how you seem to speak of him. Or her. Or it.”

Naomi’s smile vanished in an instant, replaced with surprise then a hard but not quite hostile expression. “Okay, I take all that back. Your Pact is probably a good idea.” She took a deep breath of her own and let it out slowly. “The Oyarsa is not the Creator, but rather an eldil left by the Creator to watch over this planet specifically. Since they share the name Malacandra, we refer to the eldil as Oyarsa, which roughly means guardian, and the planet as Malacandra.”

So monotheistic deism? Possibly. But better to let the sociologists shipside think about those things. “And the lunar siege?”

“Established to contain the Oyarsa of Thulcandra within the moon’s orbit after his rebellion.”

That was starting to sound more like Abrahamic deism specifically, with the eldil as angels and the Oyarsa of Earth serving as the devil. Someday someone was going to write a paper on all this and finish their doctorate but that person was not Volk Fyodorovich. “And the eldil are powerful, immortal beings that appear and disappear at will, generally carrying messages?”

“Yes.” Naomi looked relieved that he seemed to be understanding things now. “You’ve heard of them? Perhaps met them, up in the heavens?”

“I’ve never met them, or heard of anyone who has,” Volk said, wondering how the best way to approach the matter was. “But the concept is frequently discussed among religious scholars. I’m afraid I’m not one of those, either.”

Naomi’s temporary optimism flagged again. “And the Lunar siege? The Silencing of Borealis?”

“At no point in the history of space flight are there any records suggesting the Moon posed any sort of barrier to entering or leaving Earth space. As for Borealis…” Volk shook his head sadly. “Well, we hadn’t communicated with Earth or Mars in nearly two centuries. We came here to reestablish contact. When we arrived at Earth they refused to talk to us, we came here because we hoped to learn something from you. I’m afraid we don’t know any more about what happened to Borealis colony than you do. It was a thriving place when last we heard.”

For a moment Naomi looked so crestfallen that it would have been comical, if it hadn’t also perfectly encapsulated how Volk felt on learning that Earth had closed itself off to them. “Look on the bright side,” he added. “At least now we share a common interest. We want to know what happened in the past. A good foundation for an ongoing relationship, don’t you think?”

That seemed to pull her up out of her funk. “Yes. Yes, I do think so. Now, do you still want to look over the rest of Bottletown? Or does knowing how little we can share with you change your priorities?”

“I think we have time for the tour,” he replied, not mentioning that Captian Gyle would undoubtedly contact him if he thought this new information mandated some change in approach.

Naomi led him towards one of the freestanding buildings next to the reactor. “This is the primary indoor manufacturing facility, where most of our fishers and some of our farmers work.”

“I see.” Volk studied Naomi in profile, once again trying to unravel the mystery of who this woman was and how someone so young came to lead a colony. Then again, with the Pact in place, perhaps it was time to ask. “Naomi, how did you come to be Eldest?”

She gave him an amused look. “The usual way, I suppose. I was born before everyone else.”

“So the title really is just based on age?”

“It is.”

Curiouser and curiouser. “How old are you?”

This time she just laughed. “Is that question not rude to Rodenberries or are you just having fun since I can’t get angry at you?”

“Some people do treat the Pact as a game but not me. I’m legitimately curious.”

“I’m seventy three cents, and three days.”

Certainty settled in his stomach like lead. “Cents is not a term we use, Eldest. I presume it’s a hundred of something?”

“Yes, Volk. A cent is one hundred days, based on the Malacandran day.”

She was seventy three hundred and three days old, based on the Martian day. Which translated to roughly twenty and a half Earth years.

The Eldest person in Bottletown was younger than the youngest member of the Colonial Fleet. What kind of world had they stumbled into?

Martian Scriptures Chapter Nine – Dinner Plans

Previous Chapter

“Good evening, Captain.” Harriet had the fleeting pleasure of watching Captain Gyle nearly jump out of his uniform in surprise. “A moment of your time?”

Her latest escalation in the constant war for the Captain’s attention had taken her to Section 232, where one of the ship’s Flex Labs was located. None of the carefully cultivated contacts in the ship’s officer corps had been willing to simply tell her where the Mars landing mission was being coordinated from but by piecing together hints from Lieutenant Hoyle, the ship’s communications chief, and Lieutenant Commander Milosevic, the Quartermaster, she’d eventually narrowed down the possibilities to one of two labs here in the forward section of the ship. And she hadn’t spotted the captain at all yesterday when she staked out Section 268.

Which by process of elimination left her waiting by Lab 232 when the Captain and Commander Oda exited around 1900 hours. While Gyle, a man who clearly believed he had more control over how he presented than he actually did, twitched like he’d been shocked when she greeted him, Oda just gave her an enigmatic smile and nod of greeting. “Hello, Ms. Thacker,” Gyle said, straightening his uniform tunic. “I’m surprised to see you. Here.”

The question implied was obvious but Harriet was the reporter and wanted him to remember that. “I was hoping we could discuss when it will be possible for me to join the landing team on Mars?”

“We were just discussing that, as a matter of fact,” Gyle said, his normal equilibrium returning. “The Martian authorities finally gave us permission to meet with them just this afternoon. At this point we’re confident good relations can be maintained so we’re preparing a second landing team and we have earmarked a seat on the landing craft for you, if you want it. Perhaps you’d like to discuss the details with us as we head to dinner?”

Harriet glanced from the captain to his officer, trying to judge the situation, but she couldn’t pick up on anything under the surface, so she nodded and said, “Certainly, Captain. I’d like nothing better.”


 

“… so while you’d be expected to follow Lieutenant Commander Fyodorovich’s orders for your safety, you’d otherwise have complete access to the crew on site and any Martians willing to speak to you,” Gyle said, pulling a chair out for her next to his own. The officer’s mess was mostly empty by that late hour but the steward on duty had apparently set something aside for the Captain and Commander and, on seeing Harriet, had set a place for her as well.

Harriet had mostly eaten in her own quarters or, on occasion, with one of the officers she’d gotten to know fairly well. It was her first time at the Captain’s table. Tentatively, she took the offered seat. “I’m not familiar with Commander Fyodorovich. What was his posting before this?”

“He was a member of the surveyors and led a team,” Oda replied. He was carefully lifting the cover off of his plate to examine the food. “Is this rabbit?”

“Looks like a roulade,” Gyle murmured, taking a deep breath and savoring the smell. “Chef must have used a good red wine from the New Orange Coast.”

As the two officers were appreciating the food a third plate appeared before Harriet, a simple round meat confection resting on a bed of rice and crisp green vegetables. It looked and smelled good but she couldn’t for the life of her identify the smell of wine, much less where it was from. She gave Gyle a wry smile. “A Siskoan, Captain? A little predictable, don’t you think?”

“I’m a Kirk man to the core, to tell the truth.” He carefully cut a wedge out of the roulade and took a bite, chewing slowly and deliberately before swallowing. “But I’ll admit there is a lot to admire about Avery Brooks and his performance as Sisko. And anyone should be able to appreciate a good meal prepared well.”

“Hm.” As a guest of the ship, Harriet had been fed from the officer’s mess for the duration of her stay on the Stewart and she had to admit she’d eaten better there than at pretty much any other time in her life, barring a few special events like weddings. For the first time she wondered if that was standard in the Navy or a reflection of the ship’s CO. Either way, it was true that the food was excellent. “Captain, can I ask you something?”

Gyle raised an eyebrow. “Certainly.”

“Why hasn’t there been any kind of update available on the ship’s operation?”

Both Captain and XO hesitated at the question. There was a moment’s silent communication, then Oda answered, “We were not sure what the situation on Mars was, initially and, as we said, the culture there is still very foreign to-“

“You’ve misunderstood my question.” Harriet took a sip of water as a cover to let her marshal her thoughts. “You know that every ship in the fleet has reporters embedded in it, correct?”

“Of course,” Gyle said. “The Triad Worlds all want to know what happens here just as badly as Genies do.”

“Well. You may not know it, but there is something of a professional courtesy among journalists. We talk to each other. And one thing I was interested to learn from my peers is that all of the Triad Worlds governments have standing procedures in place for how to deal with embedded reporters. There’s an officer in the Communications division assigned as liaison. Clear expectations for dress and behavior in combat. Methods to request interviews with, and service records for, members of the crew.” Harriet folded her arms and peered at the two officers dining with her. “But here I’ve had to cultivate my own contacts among the officers, barely received any clear guidance on who to communicate with or how to behave in dangerous situations until we arrived in Earth orbit and had to personally hunt down the Captain in order to request comment. I’m told that the Rodenberry Stellar Navy is every bit the spacefaring force as the Copernican Spacer Corps in skill and organization, if not in number, but I have to admit that now that I’ve experienced it first hand things sure don’t feel that way.”

“You had not complained until now,” Oda said, looking a little amused at her outburst.

“Not to you,” she countered. “Because I didn’t know how to contact you directly, and I have enough sense not to just yell at you on the Bridge. But I assure you, many members of this crew have heard my complaints.”

Oda looked a bit miffed at the sharpness of her reply but Gyle was nodding thoughtfully. “You raise good points, Miss Thacker. In my time in the Navy I never heard of embedded reporters until the Second Galilean War and, even then, they almost always embedded alongside members of the civilian authorities who handled most of those kinds of details.” His fork wound through the rice and greens on his plate describing ever expanding concentric circles. “We can’t have anything like clear procedures laid out by tomorrow but I think we can consider Lieutenant Hoyle your Liaison for the time being. Oda, I’d like you to facilitate with Hoyle and Fyodorovich and get to work on spelling out what the expectations and lines of communication will be.”

“Certainly.” Oda’s more inscrutable default expression was back in place. “I look forward to sorting out the details with Miss Thacker.”

For a brief second Harriet thought she saw a glint in his eye as he said that, an almost mischievous expression that vanished faster than it appeared. She decided it best to ignore for the moment. “Likewise.”

Gyle looked satisfied with himself for a brief moment before his left hand slid off the table towards his waist, the near-universal sign that someone’s personal AI was asking for their attention. With a disappointed glance towards the half-finished roulade on his plate Gyle got to his feet and said, “I’m sorry, would you two excuse me for a moment?”

“Of course, Captain,” Harriet said, surprised to find herself in chorus with Oda. Gyle stepped away and left the two of them in an uncomfortable silence. Ten minutes later, after Harriet had tried and failed to get any kind of meaningful discussion out of Oda, the captain returned but deftly avoided any attempt on her part to learn what had happened. It was frustrating but not a dead end.

Just because there was no official procedure yet didn’t mean she didn’t have options. After dinner, she decided she’d just have to go and pester Hoyle for some clue as to what had happened.


 

“I’m sorry about this, Greg.” It felt odd for Alyssa to apologize even as she accepted a cup of coffee from him but everything about the last few days had felt subtly off so, in a way, at least things were consistent.

“When we were younger this kind of thing is what we lived for,” he said, taking a seat on the couch beside her chair and bringing one ankle up to rest on the other knee. “How are you feeling about all this?”

“Not great,” she admitted, in between puffing on the drink to cool it. “Thanks for asking, Elder Doctor.”

Greg spared her a pained smile over the rim of his mug. “Just doing what we do in uncertain times.”

“Our duties.” It wasn’t quite the traditional formulation but it was well taken none the less.

Naomi hustled into the room, Vincent trailing just behind her looking vaguely worried. In other circumstances that would be a cue for Alyssa to get worried too but, when it came to his older sister, Vincent had been needlessly worried for the past two cents. Naomi handed her husband a plate of sandwiches and settled down in the crook of his arm. Vincent handed Alyssa a plate to put her mug on and stepped behind her to lean on the back of her chair. If not for the circumstances it could have been any typical night at the Bertolinis. For a few moments they just nibbled on sandwiches and enjoyed the quiet.

But the question had to be asked sooner or later and eventually Vincent decided to take the bull by the horns. “What are you going to do about them?”

Naomi stalled by reaching for her lemonade and taking a long, slow drink from it before answering. “I think I’m going to talk to them directly.”

“You?” Alyssa asked, surprised. She loved Naomi like few people in her life, valued her experience and insight into the Sun Bottle more than anyone living, but even Alyssa knew that she was a bad fit for anything that required a solid judgement of people. Naomi was too good natured, too trusting, too nice for anything that required clear judgement of people. She’d always had Vincent and, later, Gregory for those tasks.

“I need to talk to the myself,” Naomi said. “It’s fine to hear what Higram and Dorian thought of them but I have questions I want to ask them myself.”

Vincent’s hand rested on Alyssa’s shoulder and she reached up to give it a comforting squeeze, offering reassurance she didn’t quite feel herself. “Perhaps,” he said, “you should bring Alyssa with you.”

“No.” Naomi’s sad smile said she understood why Alyssa felt disappointed, and that they both knew they couldn’t change anything and live up to the standards of the Elders they’d always aspired to be. “Alyssa is on duty at the Sun Bottle tomorrow, and currently Elders there are in short supply. I’m not supposed to be there – five day’s grace, remember?”

“How could I forget?” Vincent’s voice was barely a whisper.

“What about Masamune?” Greg asked.

“He’ll be there as well,” Naomi conceded. “Along with the head Watcher. But the Nobari’s are so practical. And I don’t know Teng Pak Won all that well.”

“You don’t trust him?” Alyssa quickly replayed what she’d heard from the Watcher over the last two days. “He seems like a reliably man.”

“He’s unmarried, which is a bit odd at his age. But otherwise I agree. The thing is, we’re on the cusp of having everything we know about the world changed, one way or another. There are so many knew things to hear.” She gave a helpless shrug. “I suppose I just want to hear them with my own ears. Before the Silence.”

The world suddenly turned blurry and Alyssa fumbled to get her mug own onto the saucer without scalding herself. Distantly she heard Greg saying, “Of course you do. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

But they all knew it wouldn’t.