Authors: John Zakour
Tags: #YA, #SF
“That’s just so rudimentary,” Chriz mumbled.
The commander and K999 both gave him a look. Chriz shrank back a step and quivered.
“Anything else?” she prompted me.
“They don’t trust us much, and we don’t trust them any more than they trust us,” I said. “We’ve had very little contact with them.”
The commander smiled. “That is until last week,” she said. “Both our planets are interested in establishing trade relationships. It seems they have a fondness for our chocolate chunk cookies. We sent a ship of our council members to meet with and negotiate with a ship of their politicians in a neutral system, Sirius C minor.” There was silence while the commander let what she said sink in.
“If it turned out well, I doubt we’d be here now,” I said, not bothering to let anything sink in.
The commander smiled at me. It wasn’t a happy smile though.
“That is correct, Scout Moon. Contact has been lost with both ships.” She paused to catch her breath. “They of course blame us. We of course blame them. If something isn’t done soon, we could be on the brink of full-scale, intergalactic war. A war neither side could win.”
“Does anybody ever win a war?” I asked.
GiS shot me a look, but the commander just smiled.
“No, I guess not,” she said earnestly. “But in this war the losses would be even greater.”
Once again everybody stood there in silence. Once again I broke the silence.
“Excuse me, sir, ma’am, but how does this concern us? We’re just bunch of Scouts, Second Class,” I said, even though I had a sneaking suspicion already. I hoped I was wrong. They couldn’t have been thinking what I thought they were thinking.
“We want your squads to go to Sirius C and see if you can find any survivors.”
“What?” everybody except me blurted out.
“It is our hope that you can find out what happened and avert a war,” the commander said.
“These kids aren’t soldiers, Commander,” K999 said.
“Exactly,” the commander said. “After what just happened, the Aquarians would not hear of us sending soldiers into neutral space. They would treat it as an act of war. As would we if they did the same thing.”
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” I said.
“Politicians rarely do,” the commander said, bluntly.
“But these kids are only second class!” GiS said. “Why not send the first class scouts?”
The commander shook her head. “Because the first class scouts are 17 to 18 years old and have been certified with deadly arms. The Aquarians would have none of that.”
“But…” GiS started to say.
“Don’t you have faith in your squad?” the commander asked.
“Of course I do,” GiS answered with surprising confidence. “It’s just they are young. Not fully trained.”
“They know how to fly and how to rescue ships. That’s what we want here,” the commander said.
The commander looked at us all. “I’m not going to beat around the launch pad, scouts. This is a very dangerous mission. Anybody who would like to back down, just say so, and we will get another squad to replace you. You were my top choices, but there are other fine squads that could work nearly as well.”
Nobody said anything, although I was sorely tempted.
The commander smiled. This time it was a smile she felt. “Good. You will take your scout ships into orbit around Mars. There you will dock with the intergalactic starsphere Searcher 0.5. Searcher will be run by SC-711 and a team of bots. It will take you to the Sirius C system. Any questions?”
“The incident with Axel yesterday, was that some kind of planned test?” I asked.
The commander shook her head. “No, that was just a strange coincidence. I had Sigma-II squad picked as one of my top three squads. Your performance yesterday convinced me you think fast on your feet. That will be handy here.”
The commander looked us all over. “I am very proud of you all. I know you will make your entire planet just as proud,” she said.
Man, no pressure there, I thought to myself.
“You are dismissed,” the commander said.
Everybody else turned to leave the room. I stood there for a tic. I had another question.
I wouldn’t be sending you unless I thought you could succeed,
,” the commander said inside my brain.
I decided it was best not to question somebody who could place her thoughts in my head. Was that another sign that I was becoming more mature? I turned and followed my crew out the door.
When we reached the shuttle bay, Alpha-I squad was just leaving. You didn’t have to be an expert in human behavior to tell they weren’t happy about it. They must have been tuning up their shuttles and didn’t like the idea of having to leave the bay, especially for second class students.
Alano, Andi and Andra, were all big, blonde and blue eyed. They were triplets, all GI, genetically improved. If Andra didn’t have breasts, I’d be hard pressed to tell her apart from Alano and Andi. They looked like grownups compared to us. I wasn’t sure why we were going and they weren’t. I knew what the commander had said, but I couldn’t help thinking that we were going because we were more expendable.
Alano came over and gave GiS a polite if not heartfelt little salute.
“Alpha-I clearing the deck as ordered, sir,” he said, in almost robotic tone.
“Very good, Alpha-I,” GiS said.
You could see it in their nonblemished faces that they were thinking the same thing as I was.
Why are they here?
They were of course too good scouts to question authority, but it was eating them up inside. Remember how I said with GiS there is always a tradeoff? They gain something but lose something else. With Alpha-Is, the thing they lost was some of their humility. It was still in there. There just wasn’t very much of it and they didn’t let it out all that often. Like Andra told me once when she crushed me in a fooseball game, “It’s hard to be humble when you are as good as we are.”
As soon as Alpha-I cleared the area, GiS entered his access code into the shuttle bay’s entry door. He put his foot up on the door’s DNA scanner.
“Due to extra security of this mission, please enter security confirmation phrase,” the door said.
GiS stood there for a tic just staring at the door.
“You do remember your phrase,” I said to GiS.
“Of course he remembers,” Zenna said. “GiS has an excellent memory. He never forgets one of our birthdays.” She looked at him looking at the big metallic door. “You do remember the code. Right?”
GiS dropped his head. “I remember it,” he said softly.
“Please enter extra security phrase,” the door repeated, this time it sounded a bit uppity.
“Bananas, Bananas, here and there. Bananas, Bananas everywhere. I love to eat them day or night. Bananas, Bananas are out of sight…” GiS said meekly.
I looked at him. He looked at me. He pointed at me. “Not one word!”
I put my hand over my mouth. If we survived this mission I was going to have to give GiS a hard time about that. Only right now wasn’t the time. We had a job to do and we couldn’t let anything distract us.
“Phrase verified,” the door chirped, sounding like we had just made its day. “Have a nice flight and remember to always harness up. It’s not just a good idea, it’s also regulation 13, section 23 c.
The door recessed into the wall.
We all entered the shuttle bay.
I can safely say the shuttle bay is my favorite place in the station. I really like the rec room. My dorm room is okay. On a good day (when they aren’t serving Hungarian rehashed hash), the mess hall can be alright. The astrolab and simulators are cool. But the shuttle bay rocks my socks off!
You wouldn’t think much of it to look at it. It was a big round open area with a dozen huge doors each positioned exactly 30 degrees from each other. The bay was kind of like a glorified warehouse that happened to be located on the bottom section of a space station. Twelve shuttles could launch or land here at once. There was no place on the station I would rather be.
GiS always said that I had space dust in my blood. That’s probably why I liked it here so much. That’s the reason he thought I had potential to be a great pilot. He’d also say that I’d let that space dust clog my ears and my brain. That’s the reason he wasn’t sure I would ever reach that potential. That’s GiS — he can’t give a compliment without balancing it with a critique. I guess it makes him feel all sage and useful.
The bay was huge, as big as any two stadiums I had ever seen. You could play a couple of anti-grav soccer games inside of it without either interfering with the other. Across the bay I could see both our and Kappa’s shuttles. They were up on elevated landing pads being tuned by numerous little vacuum-cleaner-sized bots zooming around this way and that way. They were like a hyper-electronic pit crew.
A tram cart rolled over to us. “Would you like a lift to your shuttles?” the cart asked in a happy, but metallic, voice. This was different. Normally, all classes except First must walk to their shuttles. It’s considered a good way to build character.
“We’ll walk,” K999 answered for all of us. Apparently we still needed some character building.
As we walked toward the shuttles I couldn’t help thinking about my feelings toward that machine. It’s not love. At least it’s not the same kind of love I have for my mom and dad. It’s not like the kind of love I have for my dog Pooper (hey, I named him when I was four). It’s also different from the kind of love I have for my crew. They might get on my nerves from time to time, but I would do anything for them. It’s surely different from the feeling I have for certain girls, say Kymm, but I’m not even going to go there. My shuttle, my ship, I can’t explain my feelings for it. It’s a machine. I don’t think I can love a machine. Bloop, I don’t want to love a machine. That’s just plain wrong. They have help groups for people like that. My relationship with my shuttle is different. When I get in and take the control stick in my hand, it’s like the shuttle and I become one. It’s a hard feeling to explain, especially if you’re not a pilot.
I talked about it once with Kymm. I was sure she’d make some crack about how the control stick was a substitute for something I was lacking in my manhood — and she did. She couldn’t resist the dig, though I know she’s just doing it to cover up her attraction to me. After that, though, she admitted she felt the same way. Though she didn’t think she had the same passion for it than I did. She, of course, put in another dig about my manhood. Kymm, like GiS, couldn’t give me something without taking something back. It was part of her nature and part of our rivalry. I guess it was just one of those life tradeoffs.
After a few minutes, we reached the shuttle. It was about the size of the old-fashioned school bus you see in museums. In fact, some people even called them “space buses” as they had the same rounded look to them. I always thought they looked like a cross between a speed boat and a bus with short rounded wings. They were meant to be functional, not pretty. Still, I found the look pleasing in an aerodynamic sort of way. (I guess on some level I’m as geeky as Elvin.) There was a ramp that led from the floor to the landing pad. I walked up the ramp to the shuttle door.
I gave the shuttle, my shuttle, a pat on the side.
“You do know it is only a machine,” Kymm called as she walked by toward her shuttle.
“Yep, I know,” I said. “Still, it doesn’t matter.”
I opened the door and walked in. My squad followed. They were much more business-like, much less excited than I was. The back part of the shuttle was open, reserved for cargo or anything else we needed to carry. It had pop-up seats that were usually stored under the floor. If you needed them, they were available with the push of a button.
The navigator’s control console was near the front on the left side of the shuttle. The engineer’s control console and panel were on the front right side. The walls next to each console were lined with information screens. They could show anything from the status of the ship’s engines to any view of what was outside from any angle. Once, much to GiS’s chagrin, Elvin even programmed them so they would give me highlights of the Mets’ game.
Elvin and Zenna quickly moved to their seats. They started taking readings.
The pilot’s and squad commander’s seats were located next to each other, near the front of the shuttle. This gave a good clear view of the shuttle’s front window and the panoramic view screens located above and below the window. I moved slowly toward my seat. I wanted to savor the moment.
The seats were big and comfy and could swivel 360 degrees, and tilt 180 degrees. You can actually spin them so fast you can make yourself barf. (Trust me, I’m speaking from experience.) Both seats had control panels on the left and right arms. It didn’t matter which one you used. Both panels were fully programmable. The arms of the chair were also lined with control buttons, just in the case the computer went down and you had to do things the old-fashioned way and press a button.
“Engines look a-okay,” Zenna said.
“We are cleared for near hyper-speed. Searcher 0.5 is currently in orbit 1000 kilometers above Mars. I’ve laid in a course,” Elvin said. “The computer had one laid out, but mine actually saves us seven tics. I estimate the flight to be six minutes and twelve tics.”
“Could you be more exact?” I asked, jokingly.
“I could, but it would be wasted on you,” Elvin said, seriously.
I positioned myself a little better into the pilot’s seat. It just felt right. “I’m locked and loaded,” I said.
“Actually we only have tractor beams,” SC-711 corrected from the ship’s intercom.
“Figure of speech there, SC,” I said.
“Oh, I knew that,” SC-711 said.
GiS gave me “the look.” “Don’t give the computer a hard time,” he said.
I nodded my agreement. This was not the time to pick an argument.
“We are cleared for departure,” SC-711 said.
“We?” I asked.
“I will be functioning as your ship’s computer interface for this mission,” SC-711 said.
“I’m honored,” I said.
“As well you should be.”