Alyssa watched the ship’s captain leave warily. Over the past few days she’d come to the realization that she didn’t like the Rodenberries much. There was nothing she could really put her finger on, just a general sense of condescension that seemed to come whenever they were around. She could never quite get away from the notion that they knew more than they let on. But Naomi was enjoying her time with them and that had to be enough.
“Where’s he going?” Brent asked.
“I’m not sure, honey,” she told her son. “If it’s important I’m sure they’ll let us know.”
In fact she wasn’t sure of that at all, but from the vaguely worried look on Volk’s face as he tracked the captain’s path out of the dining area he hadn’t been expecting this either. But he said, “I wouldn’t worry, buddy. Captain’s a busy man. The Stewart has a crew of almost eight hundred – that’s about half as many people as Bottletown, and none of ’em are kids like you. Everyone needs a piece of his time sooner or later. Your aunt probably has lots of interruptions to deal with, too.”
“Yeah.” In the seat next to Brent, Naomi’s son slumped with his shoulders and chin resting on the table, staring at his food with the dispassionate contempt of the child who will not taste anything because he already knows he doesn’t like it. “This was supposed to be her five days’ grace.”
Alyssa tensed up. But Volk’s attention was entirely on the children he was talking to, and all he said was, “Is that like some sort of vacation?”
“I dunno,” Junior replied. “What’s a vacation?”
Volk shifted awkwardly. It was the kind of awkwardness he showed when something made him uncomfortable, like when he met the newlyweds the day before, and usually resulted in him looking to the nearest fellow Rodenberry for some reason. But he was the only one at the table with her, Victor and the four kids so he had to settle for rubbing the back of his head in confusion. “Gee, I never had to describe one before. It’s when you stop doing what you normally do and take some time to relax and reconnect with family and friends?”
“That’s an excellent way to look at the five day’s grace,” Victor said.
“Well, then I can understand the issue,” Volk said with a grin. “My dad was in the Stellar Navy too, and it was a lot smaller then. He got called away all the time, in the middle of vacations, during ball games, the whole nine yards.”
Victor nodded, although Alyssa could see he hadn’t followed all of what Volk said either. “Is it common for children to follow their parents footsteps on Rodenberry?”
“No more so than in other places, I’d think.” Volk drummed his fingers on the table top for a moment, looking off in the distance as he thought. “Cultures that emphasize hereditary jobs exist, of course, but in the colonies we don’t have the luxury of pigeonholing people like that. I’d assume Bottletown is much the same?”
“Yes,” Alyssa said. “My parents were a doctor and a fisher. We do have some people who give that impression, though. The Nobaris have been fishers for the last three or four generations.”
“Yeah, that’s not the Fyodoroviches. Dad was the black sheep of the family. His parents were terraformers on Newton. He basically ran away from home and moved to Rodenberry when he was young.” Alyssa shuddered, as much at the casual way Volk said it and proceeded to chew on the stringy stuff he called pasta as what he said. They’d all been prepared for people from outside of Malacandra to be different, but such flippancy about leaving home and family still shocked her.
Volk didn’t notice, just swallowed down his mouthful and asked, “How does Bottletown handle work, anyway? With your population and the amount of stuff you have to maintain I imagine you can’t let people do whatever they want.”
“That’s actually part of my job,” Victor said, the relief on his face telling Alyssa he’d read the mood and grabbed the first subject to come to hand to change to. “I’m a mentor. We teach children the basics of life tasks around Bottletown and test their aptitudes. When they hit about thirty cents they start going through more advanced testing until we can recommend some fields of work to them. At forty cents they’re apprenticed in various fields of work until they find one that suits them. We try to get it done by sixty cents, although sometimes people never quite find a place.”
Volk grunted. “Sounds about as sensible as any other process I’ve heard of.”
“What about your father?” Alyssa asked. “Why did he leave home? Surely no mentor could have suggested something like that.”
Another minute of thoughtful chewing, then, “Well, I suppose in a sense he did. Rodenberry is nominally founded on the ideals of an actual historical figure from Earth’s history.”
“Gene Rodenberry,” Victor put in. “I’ve heard Miss Thacker mention him.”
“That,” Volk jabbed with his fork for emphasis, “is the man. The Stellar Navy has a whole course track on his philosophy and how it’s endured the centuries since his death. Anyway, point is dad was familiar with Rodenberry’s work and when people decided to found a new colony attempting to realize some of his ideals dad bought in and went along with it. He snuck aboard one of the colony ships just before he turned sixteen – that’s a little less than sixty cents – and the rest is history.”
Alyssa’s left hand absently moved to cover Harold’s rubbing her son’s arm protectively. He ignored it and kept eating. “And no one said anything? How did he not get sent back?”
“Dad gets incredibly sketchy with those details.” Volk shrugged. “He’s the kind of guy who wants to be in the thick of things. We do share that in common.”
“What about Rodenberry encouraged that kind of loyalty?” Victor asked.
“Well, there was the emphasis on the universal value of human life,” Volk answered, swirling the past around his plate in a lazy red spiral. “The idea of cooperation uplifting us further than conflict. The potential of the future and the thrill of discovery.”
Victor nodded. “High ideals. Based on what Ransom told us, often paid lip service but rarely enacted.”
“Your Mr. Ransom–“
“Dr. Ransom,” Alyssa corrected him.
“–Dr. Ransom was a wise man,” Volk said. He set his fork aside with a grimace, as if his appetite had left him. “Rodenberry was founded in part as an objection to a major conflict, and out of a desire to stay out of future wars. Cooperation being the higher principle. Didn’t keep us from getting drawn into the most recent war.”
“Ideals are a tricky thing,” Victor admitted. “Ransom was also in favor of recognizing the value in all hnau and relying on the guidance of the eldil. Now we no longer hear the eldil and even among humans we have a hard time remembering the value of hnau.”
Volk studied him for a minute and Alyssa was suddenly aware of that air of condescension once again. It had faded for a few minutes but now it was back. “A lot of Rodenberry’s work was on the subject of the difficulties and contradictions in a set of high minded ideals. You’ll get a chance to see some of it, we’re planning to screen a couple of his works near the end of the tour.”
The conversation moved on but Alyssa never felt the distance between Volk and her family shrink again. It was disappointing. For a minute she’d felt like she could really connect with him. She spent the rest of the meal wondering what had prompted the change.
The lag was noticeable but not something he couldn’t ignore. Privately, Craig was impressed. He knew that gravitic communications relays were only a generation or two behind EM comms but he’d never used one before and seeing, as they say, is believing. Admiral Carrington was less reserved with his opinions. “No way for the rest of the fleet to use it? Bit of an exaggeration it seems, Captain Gyle.”
“In my defense, this is something Lieutenant Hoyle and her opposite number on the Spiner came up with, not something in the manual.” Criag noticed the Admiral’s eyebrow raise a few seconds after the remark and wondered if he shouldn’t have mentioned his Comm officer by name. The Copernicans were not above poaching talent from other planets. “It does put the fleet in a better position for system wide operations, but keep in mind it still requires one of our ships on each end of the line to function.”
“Not ideal, I agree.” That wasn’t his point but he let the Admiral’s remark pass. “And I presume it’s also not why you chose to call me up. This is about your being recalled to Earth.”
“Admiral, we’re making real progress–“
“I understand the basic Rodenberry desire–“
Both officers stopped short. Carrington had paused for some reason and Gyle had misunderstood it as the end of a thought. With the lag added in they’d wound up talking over each other. With a motion of his hand Craig asked the Admiral to continue. Two seconds later he did. “Let me put this another way. I’ve read your reports and I’m sure you don’t want to leave the problem of Borealis colony unsolved. Clearly a lot of strange things have happened there in the years since Departure. I can respect your dedication to doing your job, but I wouldn’t agree with the priorities under normal circumstances.”
Craig frowned. This wasn’t sounding like quite the conversation he was expecting. “Under normal circumstances?”
“That’s right. You see, we’re no longer interested in what Borealis can or cannot tell us about the lost time between the Departure and now. We think we have a fairly clear idea what happened.” Carrington spread his hands. “But we have a new consideration to keep in mind.”
Craig mentally ran through the daily reports they’d been receiving but couldn’t imagine how the fleet had managed to work everything out based on the activities they’d reported. Or what consideration had Carrington second guessing what their next step should be. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, sir.”
A nearly unbearable two seconds passed, then the Admiral nodded and said, “It’s something that happened just recently, to tell you the truth. Let me start by introducing you to two people I expect you’ll get to know very well in the next few days. This is Corporal Martin Langly, of the Johnston.” Craig looked at the tall, dark haired man skeptically, trying to remember if Langly had been one of the Johnston’s crew that they’d rescued. Then he was joined by a shorter, blond woman with long hair and the air of a bewildered grounder, still adjusting to artificial gravity. The Admiral gestured to her and added, “And the lovely Miss Aubrey Vance, of Fort Worth, Texas.”
Volk felt a mix of satisfaction and relief as he watched the Captain shake hands with the Eldest. The nightmare tour was finally over and he was free to escort the Malacandrans back to the surface. By his estimate he’d spent thirty percent of the day on the duties he’d been assigned and the rest scrambling to put out fires. From the moment Naomi had showed up with children in tow he’d practically abandoned his plans for the day, although to his surprise the children of Bottletown were incredibly well behaved and willing to sit through what they had to see as long and boring discussions while strange adults tried to keep them away from control panels and equipment.
If that was the start of his problems it certainly hadn’t been the biggest. Every senior officer they’d met with had tried to pump the Malacandrans on some obscure topic of their particular interest, usually going way over time. Volk had practically been forced to drag his guests away at gunpoint before they were overwhelmed by questions they didn’t even fully understand. He strongly suspected trouble was brewing between the Department of Martian Operations and the rest of the ship.
But it was over. Finally, finally over, and he could go back down to the planet and get back to trying to figure out mysteries less complex than shipboard politics. Like why an entire colony had disappeared two hundred years ago. A slight adjustment in the Captain’s posture cued him in to the fact that the conversation was winding down and Volk tuned his mind back into the present.
“…sincerely hope that this marks the beginning of a long lasting connection between us,” Gyle was saying. “Perhaps we can even make a lengthier exchange, place some of our own crew in your colony for a month or two.”
“An interesting offer, Captain,” Naomi said. “But not one we can really contemplate now. Still, I’ll mention it to Elder Nobari and I’m sure something could be found for them to do.”
Gyle chuckled. “At the very least you could put them in a corner and just let them watch.”
Greg Jr. yawned, more likely out of exhaustion than boredom Volk thought, but it served as a good cue for him to step in. “And on that note, I think it’s time we got you back to the surface.”
“Thank you, Volk, you’ve been a great host.” Naomi looked uncomfortable for just a moment. “I hate to return the favor so poorly, but I have to ask that you return here after you drop us off.”
Volk’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh? Why is that?”
“I trust nothing you saw on your visit upset you?” The Captain asked.
“Volk and I have an agreement that makes that impossible,” Naomi replied in amusement. “But there are certain parts of life in Bottletown which just aren’t for outsiders. You’ll be free to return the day after tomorrow.”
“The timing there is actually quite good,” Gyle admitted. “The fleet has called us back to Earth for a day. We’d intended to leave Volk’s team with you for a day and rejoin you after. But since it seems both of our cultures have demands to make of us let’s say we’ll meet again in two days. Fair?”
“Perfectly.” Naomi rested a hand on Junior’s shoulder and led her family through the airlock and into the landing bay. Loading up four active kids for the ride to the ship had been difficult that morning, getting four sleepy kids strapped in for the ride down planetside proved even harder. But what had to be done got done, then he was shaking hands with Naomi as well.
“Have a safe flight, Eldest,” he said. “I look forward to getting back to Bottletown.” And to his surprise, it was true. As much as he had originally disliked being stuck in one place with no unfamiliar terrain to clamber over he found himself enjoying the time he spent under the old Borealis dome.
“I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you.” Naomi and her family waved as the lander’s hatch swung closed. Volk backed away and let the lander’s pilot take the small ship up and towards the outer airlock, then turned and headed for the inner lock without looking back. He wouldn’t question Naomi’s wording until later.