“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?”
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?