Two by four by three—those were the proportions of the standard ship cabin. Thinking about it, it was amazing how people surrendered their fate to a ship, voluntarily placing themselves within six walls of steel surrounded by the vast vacuum of space. Some claimed it was a philosophical, almost spiritual, experience; I found it borderline absurd. The worst part was that, every now and again, there would be someone who’d agree with me.
“You can’t keep me here!” Cadet Diana Virr shouted as she slammed on the door of her quarters. “You have no right! I need urgent medical attention!”
“Does she?” Captain Gibraltar asked from the the bridge.
“Doubtful.” Ji Hiu, the commanding officer, poured himself a cup of tea from the food dispenser. “Just a normal panic attack, skipper. She’ll get over it.”
“Elcy?” The captain zoomed in on the cadet’s image displayed on the screen.
The cadet was quite slightly short for her age, pale, slender, and definitely not the type of person that typically joined the fleet. Her file indicated she had received above average scores during her eight months of training and was classified as mentally fit. One space scuffle later and that medical opinion was in question.
“Readings are elevated, but she’s fine.” My subroutines had pulled the data from the nanites in her system. “Minor injuries to the hands and knuckles.”
“Just tranq her quarters,” Commander Hiu grumbled.
“There might be complications with this one,” Captain Gibraltar sighed. “She’s hasn’t even been here a week.”
“You’re overthinking this. Most cadet gets jumpy after combat. Not your fault we caught a patrol on her third day.” The CO took a gulp of his drink, then threw the rest in the recycler. “Five days confinement and she’ll be as good as new.”
“How are the other cadets doing?” The captain didn’t mention my name, but I knew he was addressing me.
“Their readings seem fine. Slightly shaken, but well within parameters.” To be safe, I went through the vitals of the entire crew. A few had self-confined themselves to quarters and requested sedative boosts, but the vast majority were in acceptable condition. “Doctor is stressed out, but crew is in full combat readiness.”
“There’s an irony for you,” Commander Hiu laughed. “Seriously, Cap, why stress over this? In two months she’ll be off the ship and someone else’s problem.”
In her quarters, Diana had broken down on the floor, crying. I couldn’t tell if it was the battle that had driven her to this state, or onboard life in general. As the newest cadet, she had gotten quite a rude awakening: information overload, auxiliary duties, surprise inspections from the security officer, dozens of small details that people took for granted until they started missing them. The training process usually weeded out candidates that weren’t fit for ship duty, but every now and again a borderline case would sneak through.
“I’ll take care of it,” I announced. “With your permission, Captain.”
Gibraltar cut the video feed without saying a word. His bio readings were slightly elevated as well.
“Unless you want me to have a shuttle ready,” I offered.
“Will you be able to handle her?” The captain rubbed his temples. “I don’t want her to get worse.”
“Hey, it’s my job to take care of my staff and crew.” I tried to lighten the mood. “I managed to handle you sorry lot for three years.” Hiu let out a laugh at my words. “Jokes aside, I’ll make sure she’s fine.”
After all, I knew the cadet’s state of mind wasn’t the only one that needed fixing. Unlike ships, humans were social creatures and on occasion highly susceptible to other’s suffering. Diana might be just one person, but her state was affecting several more... including the captain.
“She’s yours, Elcy.” Captain Gibraltar stood up. “I’m going to sleep. Remain in yellow alert. Hiu has the bridge.”
“Got it.” I initiated a deep sensor sweep around me. “Hey, Diana,” I said in the cadet’s quarters. “I’m Elcy and I’d like to talk to you for a bit.”
“Hey, Elcy,” Ally said standing at the doorway of my quarters. “Have a minute?”
“Sure.” I smiled from my bed. “Come in,” I invited her, although technically she was already halfway in. Since my return, I had asked Prometheus to automatically open the door when someone approached. So far, only Elec had passed by to make sure I was in one piece. We had engaged in a bit of small talk, after which he had been called to one of the labs. Unlike me, he was on active duty, as was Shiala.
“Thanks.” Ally took a tentative step forward. “So this is your place?” She looked around. I was unsure what she expected to see, but could guarantee it wasn’t there—the only thing my room had to offer were bare walls, a compartment with standard cadet uniforms, and sandals on a bed stand. “It’s very... you.”
“Thanks.” I moved to the end of the bed. “Sorry I don’t have a chair to offer.”
“No, it’s fine.” She moved to the only point of interest. “Are these your sandals?” She pointed. “I... it would be curious to see you in them.”
“I’m fine, Ally.” I decided to put an end to the awkwardness. “This isn’t my first mess up.”
If I were a ship, I’d send a request to see her nanite readings. I was half convinced Prometheus was doing that right now.
The woman remained in the corner of the room, her back turned to me, pretending to be looking at my sandals. After twenty-three seconds, she gave up and sat on the bed beside me.
“What did you feel when you held the artifact?” she asked. “Was there any tingling or static?”
“No, nothing of the sort.” I leaned back against the wall. “Is it true that you found more artifact locations on the planet?”
“You have no idea. At one point, Prometheus stopped to perform a self-diagnostic. The captain was worried something might have affected the data.”
“And the other planets?”
When I asked, Ally’s smile dropped. As if someone had flipped a switch, she went silent once more, staring at nothing in the far corner.
“It’s okay to say you can’t talk about it.” I felt like a ship dealing with one of my crew again.
“It’s not that,” she whispered. “The major ordered that we focus only on planet five. But I think the order comes from higher up, much higher up.” There was a slight pause. “After the disruption when you went down, all projects relating to the other planets were scrapped. The data was stored away on physical units and we were told to focus on current projects and leave the rest for later. Later never came.”
Poor Ally. She was unaware of my conversation with Major Tanner. Knowing the fleet, command had likely issued an order that Prometheus stand down and wait to be relieved by a vessel with a higher security clearance. We might have initiated third contact, but we were being sent on our way.
“It happens.” I’d lie if I didn’t feel disappointed. “I take it we’re moving to a new star system?”
“Huh?” Ally briskly turned her head towards me. “We’re not moving for a while. There’s still some big discussion about which site to pick, exactly, but we’re going back down and taking you along.”
“Back down?” I tilted my head.
“Look—” Ally moved closer “—I’m not supposed to tell you this, but since you’ll be coming along anyway...” She paused for a moment, glancing at the door, as if someone might burst in any moment. “I think we found something. And it’s huge.”
“A new artifact?” I whispered.
“No, far bigger.” Her eyes lit up. “When the rescue team went down to save you, they put in place a deep earth probe. It wasn’t to be activated until you got back onboard. The captain didn’t want a repeat of the previous catastrophe. When we turned it on we found a hollow area under the surface. The significant thing is that we also got readings of large deposits of cobalt at the same location.”
“Cobalt deposits,” I repeated. It was virtually impossible for them to occur in nature. “Where?”
“I don’t know exactly. Everything’s coded. I know what the terrain looks like, but not where it is. Another of the new security arrangements.” The woman frowned. “The thing is, the mission is already planned. You’ll be going, along with a team of five exos. I’m not sure when you’ll leave, but it’ll be soon.”
“Thanks.” I wasn’t sure why she was telling me.
“I’ll be there with you. The suit we’re making for you will have full scanning capabilities and—”
“What about weapons?” I interrupted. “If all that was created by someone, they probably won’t be too happy that we’re playing with their toys.”
“No weapons.” She pursed her lips. “Just drilling equipment.”
Well, I guess that’s something. At least it isn’t work in the mine.
“I don’t want you to go!” Sev shouted. He had grown quite a bit in the two years we’d been on this planet, but in many aspects he was still a child. This was a perfect example. “I want you to stay home with me!”
It was the same thing all over again. In his childish world, there were no such things as work and money. His mother’s trust fund and my retirement package had been enough to buy a piece of land and build a house, but they weren’t infinite. As a result, I had accepted one of the few high-paying jobs that didn’t ask questions regarding origin. It was a temporary measure, but the more I tried to reason with Sev, the more stubborn he became.
“Sev, be reasonable,” I sighed. “Mining opportunities won’t last forever. In a few weeks, drilling drones will arrive and when that happens, our window will close.”
“Good!” He stomped his foot on the ground. “I don’t want you to go!”
“I really can’t understand you.” I looked at him. He was half a head taller than me now, looking back with fear in his eyes. I was certain he had skipped school and run the entire distance here. “It’s only a few shifts.”
“I don’t want you to die!”
The other volunteer miners went quiet, enjoying the spectacle. They weren’t bad people, just never missed chance for gossip, and I provided plenty. I could hear their whispers discussing that if anyone was safe, it was me, and they were right. Retirement might have put me in an organic body, but it was significantly more durable than any unenhanced human. I had tried to explain it to Sev many times, but his stubbornness acted like an impenetrable force field.
“Sev, there are safeguards in place. The chances of—”
“You said the same thing before mom nearly died!” he shouted.
That’s a low blow, Sev. The memories of the incident were still in my core, unedited in their entirety. I knew perfectly well what had happened and how much I was at fault; I also knew part of the reasoning that was going in the boy’s mind. He had pretty much lost both parents to an accident and now was terrified I might abandon him to tragedy as well.
“Come here.” I put my hand on his shoulder. Normally he’d pull away when I did that. This time he remained still, trying to mask his shivering with anger. “Nothing is going to happen to me. I’m a wiseass battleship that has been through more battles than your math teachers can count.” The joke was abysmal, but managed to make him smile for a split second. “What chance do a few rocks stand?”
“Even rocks can kill,” he whispered. “Why must you go?”
Because unlike you, I’m not blissfully ignorant of the realities of income necessity and taxation. “Machines will be doing all the work. I’m just there to move tech from place to place.” Technically, that wasn’t a lie, although I suspected even a child could see through my explanation. If there wasn’t danger involved, the monetary incentives wouldn’t be so high. “It’s just for a few weeks. It’ll be over before you know it.”
Sev pulled away. I didn’t need ship sensors to tell he was upset. Entering his teenage years, he very much remained the child I had taken custody over, though now with an attitude.
“Fine,” he said, his back to me. “You can work your stupid shifts! But I’ll be here as well! Every day I’ll stand here and wait until you’re done!” He turned around. “And there’s nothing you can do about it!”