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Illiya Chapter 3: Bridges

Bridges

Approach

Half an hour later, mother and daughter floated in the small kitchen, eating from vacuum-sealed foil dinner packets. They had invited Henry to join them, but he had gracefully declined, taking his food packets away to eat in his quarters. Taylor floated up-side down as she ate, which was beginning to annoy her mother, especially as her other hand held the cat against her chest.

“Would you put down the cat and straighten up, please?” said Susan as she closed the valve on the empty packet. “I want to talk to your head, not your feet.”

“There’s no ‘up’ in free-fall, Mum, and she doesn’t shed, no germs in the food or anything,” said Taylor as she pushed away from the floor, starting a slow spin. She hooked her toes against the edge of the table to stop her movement, leaving her looking downward at her mother.

“Would you get down here-oh, never mind,” said Susan as she pushed down on the floor with her toes and stretched out her athletic frame. She caught a hand grip on the ceiling, and pushed back a bit so that her head was level with Taylor’s. “You’re not making this easy.”

Taylor smiled. “Sorry. I don’t get much zero-G time at school, that’s reserved mostly for seniors. It’s a special kind of freedom getting to choose which way is up.”

Susan sighed and reached out to stroke Squilm, who closed her eyes and purred contentedly. “Well, that’s fine, another benefit for you in coming along on this trip with your mother. Now that we still have a bit of time alone and we’re finally talking, tell me everything. What have you been up to since I saw you last? Tell me how things are going at university.”

“You talked to my dean, you should have a pretty fair idea of how I’m doing with my third year classes.”

“He was pretty happy with how you’re progressing with your courses and your grades. But I wanted to know how you are doing – how are you enjoying the university experience, are you making good friends, that kind of thing.”

Taylor crumpled the foil packet and tucked a few wayward strands of hair behind her left ear. “It’s really more of a technical college.”

“It’s called Ganymede U,” Susan pointed out. “Your father and I went there too, remember.”

Taylor nodded. “It’s okay, and it’s got all the classes I want, so that’s good. But it is quite specialised, there aren’t as many general degrees as most universities on Earth. There’s talk of reclassifying it as a technical college.”

Susan smiled. “People have been spreading that rumour for years, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen, not with students and faculty from fifty systems filling its halls. It’s recognised as the best school for spacers in the Orion Spur. I think the stunning view of Jupiter right out the window helps as well. I strained my neck looking up through the skylight for most of my advanced chemistry classes.”

Taylor smiled and scratched Squilm behind the ears. “Yeah, it’s a great view, and a good school. I’m pretty happy with my course selection, and there are some great professors. My xenobiology class is led by an Arcturan.”

Susan whistled. “So old blue-scales is still there teaching?”

Taylor frowned. “Professor Xintic is one of my best teachers, Mum.”

“Sorry, of course. He was when I was there about twenty three years ago, it’s just that he was a bit strange.”

“Just because he can go outside on the surface of Ganymede without a suit doesn’t make him strange.”

You can’t do that,” Susan shook her head. “And don’t you ever try. There was a student who was having a deep conversation with professor Xintic and walked right into the airlock with him. Before the professor realised what was happening, it was too late.”

“That’s an urban legend, Mum.”

Susan shook her head. “His name was Hiptac Zander, and he was in my class. It was weeks before we were allowed outside again. Some of the students dropped out of his class. There was a hearing and Xintic almost lost his job.”

“I’m sorry, Mum.”

“That’s okay, just make sure you’re always paying attention. I’m still your mother, and I worry about you. You know how students can get easily distracted, and I’m not just talking about boys. There’s too much AR used in that environment. Accidents happen.”

“I’ll be careful.”

Susan nodded. “Good. Don’t worry your poor mother.”

Taylor grinned, then her eyebrows pulled together in thought. “Hey Mum…”

“Yes?”

“Um, can you tell me why, if the university is filled with all kinds of space-faring species, and there are mixed species crews on lots of other ships including the commonwealth navy, why is your survey crew all human?”

Susan paused. “Well, there are a few reasons, I suppose. The survey ships are fast but very small, and it’s easier to design the life support systems for a single species than trying to handle several. That takes up a lot of room. You probably noticed a lot of of the students and professors carrying special backpacks, and some of them had helmets or bio suits?”

Taylor nodded. “Yeah, some of them. But a lot of others seemed to be just fine without that.”

“Yes, there are about a dozen or so species that are atmosphere compatible with humans without much adjustment. So I guess that’s not really a good excuse.”

“No, it’s not.”

Susan pursed her lips. “Well, to be quite honest, it probably has more to do with politics and economics than anything else. If a survey crew was manned by three separate species, who would claim the planet for colonisation?”

“I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Although most species are friendly and fairly co-operative, there’s still competition, and a new planet can be a big drain or a boost for the home planet’s economy. Once the survey crews finish their job, the banks move in and all of the investment starts. Colonisation is big business. So it’s a lot easier if the crew is from a single species. No interplanetary conflicts of ownership.”

Taylor frowned. “Wouldn’t the company or planet that funded the mission get ownership?”

Susan shook her head. “You might think so, but there’s something powerful about planting a flag in the ground first. It’s a strong visual. We lost Hexan-six because a junior engineer from Seexel planted a small flag as a joke and sent the vid to his friends. It went viral, and that was just the beginning. Now, the net income from that planet contributes thirteen trillion credits a year to the Seexel treasury, but it was a humanfunded mission. I can assure you that hasn’t been allowed to happen again, strictly single-species ships from then on. We’re still cordial with the Seexal, but the relationship is strained. Colonisation can really pay off when a planet starts doing well, or it can cost a lot and produce next to nothing. It’s a big gamble.”

“That just sounds so… commercial.”

Susan nodded. “It is, but I try not to think about it. I prefer to focus on the excitement of first discovery, being one of the first humans to set eyes on the surface of a new planet. The fact that the spot we landed on might be someone’s swimming pool or the foundation of a high-rise tower in a hundred years is something I just block out. “

Taylor stared up at the ceiling. “It might be hard for me to forget what the place might become.”

Susan shrugged. “Or, the landing site could stay the same way for another thousand years. We never know which planets they will choose to develop and which they will pass by, but they keep sending us out to have a look and that’s the exciting part. I prefer to live in the present and enjoy being there first, and experiencing that with my crew. Exploration has its hazards, but it can be a lot of fun.”

The two sat in silence for a few minutes, then Susan clapped her hands together. “Now, talking about distractions and living in the present, I think you mentioned a boy in our Christmas vid call. His name was Hans, I think, or was it George… or Stephen? I’m losing track.”

“Gerrard, Mum. His name’s Gerrard.”

Squilm looked up at Susan, then closed her eyes, tail twitching.

Susan sighed. “Sorry, I forgot. It’s not like he’s your first boyfriend though. Nudge down a bit, would you?”

Taylor had been slowly drifting towards the ceiling and adjusted her position. “We were starting to get serious.”

“Were?” Susan raised an eyebrow and touched the small display on her wrist. A captain had to keep an eye on things, even when eating. A wire frame model of the target solar system appeared in the air above her wrist. You couldn’t actually see through null space, but gravitational signatures could be detected by the null space drive and then modelled into a more conventional form for viewing. She tapped her wrist and the wire frame disappeared.

“We’d been going together for nearly a month, but it didn’t work out,” Taylor frowned.

“What happened?”

“I caught him in the arms, I mean tentacles of a Zelani in his room.”

“I’m sorry, Taylor,” Susan reached out a hand towards her daughter. “I know the Zelani can be very tempting.”

Taylor shrugged. “Better I found out now, I guess. You won’t know if you’ve found the right guy unless you date a few of them.” Taylor pushed off the ceiling and drifted onto a padded stool, then strapped herself down loosely.

Susan matched her daughter’s movements and pulled herself down onto a stool across the table. “That’s part of the fun of being at university.”

“Yeah, but it still hurts when it doesn’t work out.”

“You’ll find a nice young man, don’t you worry.”

“I’m not in a rush.”

“That’s good, but don’t take too long, either. The good ones tend to get snapped up early. Just to put it in perspective, in a few more years I’ll be old enough to be a grandmother.”

Taylor sputtered. “Ewww, Mum! I’m still in university and I’ve got lots of time. I want to live and have some fun first!”

“You don’t have as much time as you think, so you have to keep your eyes open. I met your father at university, and we had lots of fun when we were younger – but we did most of it together.”

Taylor fell silent and played with her hair, pulling it out straight behind her head.

Squilm looked up from where she lay against Taylor’s chest, watching the ends of Taylor’s hair waving in the air. She climbed up onto Taylor’s shoulder, dug her virtual claws into Taylor’s shirt, then launched herself out into the air. She floated through Taylor’s hair and drifted towards the far wall.

“You really should trim that hair,” Susan commented. “I told you it’s not safe for space travel, especially in zero gravity. It could get sucked into a vent, or caught on equipment. I could cut it for you.”

“I’m keeping my hair long. It took a long time to grow back the last time I cut it.”

“If you’re going to keep it long, you need to secure it better until we switch the gravity back on. Would you like it back on now?” Susan offered, a finger poised over her wrist control.

“No thanks, Mum, artificial gravity makes me feel sick,” said Taylor as she pulled her hair through her hands and tied it into a loose knot.

“You have to move a bit slower, that’s all. They use differential artificial gravity fields on Ganymede to make the school earth-normal,” shrugged Susan. “But it doesn’t matter, I like to have it off until we start manoeuvring and you said you wanted more zero-G practice.”

“I can keep my hair tied up,” said Taylor.

Susan nodded and glanced at her wrist console. “Actually, we’ll be dropping out of null space in a few minutes, and I’ll be switching the artificial gravity on after that. After a few instrument checks we’ll wake up the rest of the crew and start the initial survey as we approach the planet. After a day or so in orbit we’ll land if its safe. Then you can have some real gravity.”

Taylor nodded. “That will be nice. So, what is this place we’re going to?”

Susan looked at her daughter. “It doesn’t have an official name yet. Its chart designation is, let me see…” she said, consulting her wrist console, “XJ546GV2-M-2.”

Taylor stretched. “Do you think they’ll have any snow? I miss skiing. Ganymede’s got some great runs. With a little boost from a suit jet-pack, you can really get moving.”

“We won’t know until we get into orbit, and then you can check it out for yourself,” suggested Susan. “You can check the surface scans for signs of snow at higher elevations and in the polar regions. Then you can make some plans, take the flyer to one of the slopes if you like. You could be the first person to cut through fresh powder on this planet, if they have any.”

Taylor grinned. “I could put that on my CV.”

Susan shook her head. “More suited to a vid, but you wouldn’t be the first person to do that on a new planet. I suggest you take a few vids, enjoy the snow and tell your kids and grandkids about it when you’re older.”

Taylor leaned back on the stool, pressing her toes against the bottom of the table. She adjusted the strap to try and hold herself out straight, but gave up when she started to slide back off the stool. “Do you know much about the planet? Why does it only have a designation code and not a name?”

Susan adjusted the strap on her seat. “You should know the answer to that. A planet is only named when it’s settled, and the protocol is that it’s named by the inhabitants themselves. It will be their home after all.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” said Taylor, waving an arm, which resulted in her sliding away from the stool. “So this planet was discovered what, a couple hundred years ago?”

“It was actually charted a long time before that, about six hundred years back. But it was first visited a hundred and thirty years ago by another planetary survey unit.”

Taylor frowned. “So we’re not the first ones to go there. Why are we going?”

“They stopped transmitting within a few hours of landing,” said Susan, a frown creasing her forehead.

“Did anyone ever find out what happened?” asked Taylor as she floated back towards the table and hooked the edge with her fingers. She glanced over her shoulder to see where Squilm had gotten to. The cat looked down at her from the ceiling and walked towards the nearest wall, tail twitching.

“Nobody knows. They never came back,” said Susan.

“Didn’t somebody investigate?” Taylor snagged the empty food packets out of the air. She pushed away from the table and put them in the recycler.

Henry’s voice came through a speaker in the ceiling. “Three minutes to null space exit and system insertion. Captain, you’d better get ready.”

“Thanks Henry!” Susan unstrapped herself and pushed off into the passageway towards the bridge. “That was right around the time of the Xathen invasion of this sector. The survey ship was cut off behind the front line, and we couldn’t send anyone to find out what happened. We – I mean central control, it was a long time ago – assumed that the team was attacked by the Xathen.”

Taylor clasped her hands around her shoulders as she spiralled down the centre of the passage. “I thought you said there wasn’t supposed to be any danger on this trip.”

“That was a long time ago, and the Xathen were pushed back well over thirty years ago. But we always prepare for the unexpected, and it’s standard procedure to do an initial survey before we land. Hold on with the questions for a minute, I’ve got work to do.” Susan reached out and grabbed a hand grip at the entrance to the bridge, then redirected her momentum towards her chair.

“Okay, okay,” said Taylor as she pivoted around the corner behind her mother.

“Aren’t you worried about Squilm?” asked Susan with a small smile.

Taylor shook her head, throwing her spin slightly off-centre. “She’ll find me. She always does.”

Henry was busy at the navigation console and glanced up as the two women floated into the bridge. “Ready when you are, Captain.”

“Thanks Henry,” smiled Susan as she drifted towards her chair. Taylor was halfway to her chair when her mother finished strapping in. Taylor snagged the edge of the chair and pivoted into her seat and clipped on the restraints.

“Ready, Henry,” nodded Susan as she traced her finger down the system insertion checklist.

“Dropping into normal space in 3…2…1,” Henry called out and pressed a button in the air above the console.

Taylor felt a sudden nausea that passed after a few moments. A wire frame view of the target solar system flickered on the main view screen, then was replaced by the image of a bright yellow star against a dark starry backdrop in the centre of the view screen. The artificial gravity came on slowly, to prevent mid-air objects falling suddenly to the deck. Taylor’s hair slowly drifted downward onto her back.

“Welcome to the Perseus Transit,” said Henry.

“It has fewer visible stars than Sol system,” said Taylor.

“The Perseus Transit is at the intersection of the Orion Spur and the major Perseus arm of the galaxy,” Henry pulled up a diagram on the side of the screen. “Even so, it has a lower star density than the inward spiral section.”

“It’s a nice star pattern,” observed Taylor. “It would make a good poster.”

“The target planet is second out from the sun,” Susan pulled up a model of the system over the centre of her console. “Average orbital radius is a hundred and forty seven million kilometres.”

“How many planets?” asked Taylor, watching the large view screen.

Henry looked up from his console. “Seven planets, the innermost has no discernible atmosphere. Another rocky planet outward from the target, I mean XJ546GV2-M-2. Four gas giants are further away from the sun, one of them is close to the size of Jupiter. The other three are smaller than Neptune. There’s an asteroid belt between the first and second planet.”

“Solar weather report?” asked Susan.

“The sun appears to be in a stable period, only a few sunspots visible,” said Henry. “Solar wind pressure nominal, typical for a main phase class G star. It’s a little warmer than Sol, but not by much.”

Susan nodded and turned to face Taylor. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Taylor brought up an AR image of the target planet above her console, then turned towards her mother. “It looks really green. So who did they send to investigate after the first crew?”

“Us.”

“What? We’re the first ones? After all this time?”

Susan shrugged. “It wasn’t a priority.”

“But what if there were survivors?” asked Taylor, shocked. “They just left them there!”

Susan sighed. “We don’t know anything. They could all be dead, or they could have survived for a while. They would have run out of food quickly if the biome wasn’t compatible. Pretty much everyone assumed the crew would be dead after a hundred and thirty years – so there was no urgency to go back, especially during the war.”

Taylor tapped her fingers on a virtual keyboard at the edge of her console. “But they could be alive, right? Average human lifespan is now about one eighty. And they could have had kids, if it was a mixed crew. So we might find them or their descendants, if they made it. The records say it’s a Class M planet, slightly larger than earth, and look how green the landmasses are! Carbon-based life forms, and that green looks like it could be chlorophyll, or something similar – maybe they found a way to survive!”

Susan nodded. “Perhaps, but the odds…”

Taylor shook her head and expanded the planet in front of her, bringing up additional details. “I think the odds would have been pretty good, Mum – look at these results from their reports – Oxygen, 45%. Nitrogen, 40%, and Carbon dioxide, Phosphorous, Sulphur – all within human breathable norm. Two small moons, so there would be moderate tides.”

Taylor looked closely at the green planet as she magnified the detail with her fingers. “The whole planet’s a garden. It could be a paradise!”

Susan looked thoughtfully at her daughter. “Well, I’m impressed. You actually did learn something at Ganymede U, other than about boys.”

Taylor grimaced. “Give me some credit, Mum. I got a B+ in atmospheric science and an A in astrophysics last term. I work hard.”

Susan nodded. “I know you do. I’m proud of you.”

Taylor flushed and fell silent.

Susan raised an eyebrow. “Actually, it’s your Xenobiology grade that I’ll be interested in soon. We’ll be entering orbit around the planet in three hours.”

In orbit

Taylor leaned forward in her seat at the center console, staring at the main view screen. Vibrant greens filled her vision as the planet turned below them. “So this planet, you said it doesn’t have an official name.”

Susan tapped a row of symbols and watched a series of lights turn green, one by one. “That’s right.”

“But it’s got to have a name, right? Even a temporary one,” insisted Taylor. “I mean, it’s beautiful! No pollution, nothing but green wherever you look. It’s a paradise!”

“Aeden,” sighed Susan.

“Sorry, what?” asked Taylor, turning towards her mother.

“The survey team’s initial notes suggested a name for the planet shortly after they landed. Strictly against protocol, but it seems they didn’t like a bunch of numbers and letters either. They said if they had any choice in the matter, they would call it Aeden.”

“What, Eden, like the Garden of Eden from the bible?” asked Taylor, eyebrows raised.

Susan shook her head. “No, Ae-den, Eden with an ‘a’ at the front. Here, let me check the notes again.” She pulled up a glowing window above her console and flicked through a series of screens.

Reading the scrolling text, Susan placed a finger on the virtual display to pause it. “This has the standard survey measurements and observations, crew notes, that type of thing.” She flicked her finger on the screen until she found the passage she was looking for. “See, here it is…” she said, and pushed the glowing window towards Taylor. It disappeared, then slid into view over Taylor’s console.

Taylor adjusted her glasses and pulled the floating window closer. “‘Initial drone surveys show that this planet is a botanical paradise, with lush vegetation everywhere you look.’ And… um, more pages of notes and measurements. Uh, planetary year is 322 local days, which are approximately 22.6 earth hours long. Gravity is 1.05 Earth normal at datum. Two moons, the larger one is about half the mass of Luna, Earth’s moon, and it has a roughly circular orbit with a period of 330 earth hours, forty-seven earth standard minutes, based on their limited observation period. The smaller moon is about an eighth of Luna’s mass and has a highly eccentric orbit with a period of 279 earth hours, fifty-three minutes. Huh!” Taylor looked up at the view screen.

“What is it?” asked Susan.

“The orbits of the two moons intersect.”

“Probability of lunar object collision?”

“Uh, low. The orbit of the larger moon is parallel to the ecliptic, but the smaller moon’s orbital plane is two degrees off the ecliptic. They pass right by each other close to perigee, but it looks like it can be a near miss sometimes.”

“Supposition?” asked Susan.

“Uh, it’s possible the smaller moon is a capture, extra-solar in origin, or the different orbital plane could be the result of an impact. But both orbits appear to be stable.”

“Good analysis. We’ll compare those measurements with current observations. Anything else?”

Taylor flicked through the text with a finger. “Oh, wait, here you go. It says ‘Dixon suggested the planet should be called Aeden.’“

“What else did it say?” asked Susan.

Taylor frowned and scrolled to the bottom of the entry, then scrolled back up. “Looks like it’s the last journal entry they sent.”

Susan nodded. “Normally there is a very detailed report, and the file is flagged when they find indigenous species. Have a look for yourself, consider it a practical test.”

Taylor scrolled back up. “Wait, oh here we go. They mention a large furred species with six legs, a variety of insects, a few bird variants and a range of smaller animals they observed through the cameras right after landing.”

Susan nodded. “That’s what I remember.”

Taylor brightened. “But that’s great, isn’t it? There are complex animal life forms there!”

Susan nodded slowly. “Yes there are, but that’s not always good news.”

“What?” said Taylor. “Why wouldn’t it be good news?”

Susan stared at the large green planet turning on the view screen. “Where there are life forms on a new planet, we expect to find vegetation and insects or animals of some sort, otherwise we might not consider a planet for habitation. However, the report was incomplete, there are far too many gaps. The record only covers the first few hours after landing, and atmospheric measurements and a few sample vids. There’s a lot we don’t know.”

“But that’s why we’re here right? To figure it out?”

Susan nodded. “Yes, we are, and having signs of life is usually good. It’s much easier to work with a planet if there’s a stable biosphere in place, instead of terraforming a sterile world from scratch. Terraforming takes centuries and is costly enough for investors to pass most planets by, unless there are enough high-value ores to mine over a long period. People don’t like living in domes for very long, so in the end it can be worth it. However, native organics can hold a lot more potential for profit than raw materials. A single Trillian crystal orchid can sell for five hundred thousand credits, due to its rarity.”

“I don’t care about profits, Mum, and I thought you didn’t either.”

Susan sighed. “I don’t. I’m just trying to put things in perspective for you. The problem is if there is intelligent life, everything changes. Ownership stays with the locals, and then there’s commonwealth membership, if they want that. However, this is right on the edge of Xathen space, so if we found any intelligent life, that could get really interesting…”

“You’re over-complicating things, Mum,” said Taylor.

“Maybe,” Susan slowly nodded. “Maybe. But what worries me is what we don’t know.”

“You said that they stopped transmitting, right?” Taylor said as she touched a corner of the glowing window, making it disappear. “What if they did record all of that, and it just didn’t make it through. Maybe some space junk knocked out the satellite. Maybe there was a storm and the ship got fried by lightning so it couldn’t take off or transmit, the ship’s null space transmitter doesn’t work that deep inside a gravity well, so they’d need that satellite. Maybe…”

Susan waved a hand, interrupting her daughter. “Perhaps you’re right. We won’t know what happened until we’ve had a close examination of the first ship’s logs, if they survived.”

“Or maybe it was the Xathen,” said Taylor, suddenly nervous. “They could have done it.”

Susan frowned and motioned towards the screen with her hands. The large view screen zoomed closer onto the planet, showing alternating patches of green forest and white clouds scrolling by. So far, they had observed no signs of habitation, no buildings, no roads or structures. On the surface, anyway, mused Susan, recalling the wide range of subterranean-dwelling insectoid and animal species humanity had previously encountered. Some of them had been quite aggressive at first contact. She shuddered.

She flicked her wrist, and the view zoomed back out until the black of space framed the edges of the screen. “Maybe, there are lots of maybes. That’s why we have protocols and engage every new planet by the book. This includes looking for traps left behind by the Xathen if they were the cause of the other ship’s disappearance. We’ve been analysing the orbital zones above and below the two moons since we started our system insertion procedures and have found nothing suspicious. The only orbiting metallic object besides us is the original relay satellite, but it isn’t responding to our diagnostic queries. The rest of the zone is clear.”

“Perhaps the batteries are dead?” suggested Taylor.

Susan glanced up at her daughter. “The solar panels should keep them topped up, unless they were damaged. But we’ll find out soon enough, the satellite is coming into range and we’re going to pull it in and have a look.”

Wakeup

Susan turned to the console on her left. “Ready to play catch, Henry?”

Henry stared at the AR projection over his console, a look of concentration on his face as he worked a virtual joystick control with each hand. “Glove is open, ready to catch that flying space ball, captain.”

Susan nodded. “Let me know when it’s in,” she said, stretching as she rose from her seat. Artificial gravity had its limitations, and she had learned long ago that getting up too quickly could leave a headache that lasted for hours. Taylor had been right about that part.

“I’m going to go check on the crew, they should be awake about now,” said Susan, yawning. She hadn’t slept since they made orbit, and a short snooze would be nice. It was always good to start a survey with a clear head. Fortunately she knew a few people who would be waking up from a good long nap. She entered the sleeping pod bay to find her systems engineer zipping up his flight boots. The other gleaming white pods were nearing the end of their wake-up cycle.

“Morning, Leigh,” smiled Susan. “Have a nice rest?”

Leigh O’Brien finished tucking in a pant leg and stood up, raising his right hand in a quick salute. “Top of the morning, Ma’am… I mean captain. I presume all is well? We’re here already? Or did you need help with our passenger?” he brushed his freckled hand through his grey-streaked wiry red hair.

Susan returned his salute with an off-hand wave. “We’re in orbit, no anomalies, no alerts, so far a pretty smooth ride. We found the relay satellite and Henry’s just pulling it in now.”

Leigh nodded. “No mutinies, then? Henry managed to keep a sane head with our passenger running about?” he grinned, miming constant chatter with his left hand.

Susan laughed. “Henry’s fine. He mostly kept to himself. The passenger… I mean Taylor and I were just catching up. Thanks for that time alone, I appreciate it.”

Leigh nodded, his freckled face breaking into a broad grin that created small wrinkles around his bright blue eyes. “No problem. Too bad, I always wanted to know what it would be like to wake up to a mutiny. Perhaps next time.”

Susan frowned. “Leigh, why are you already dressed while the others are still completing their wake-up cycle? The system wakes up all the pods at the same time.”

Leigh looked down at his feet, studying a scuff mark on his shoe.

What did you do, Leigh?”

“Ah, well, nothing major, Ma’am, I just tweaked the pod a bit.”

Tweaked!” shrilled Susan. “You may be the handiest man I know and can fix or rebuild just about anything, but tampering with the sleeping pods crosses the line. You could have been killed!”

Leigh flushed. “It’s not that big a deal. I just shortened the last part of the cycle by a few minutes. It’s wasted time if you ask me, a little extra coddling warm-up. I just wanted to be up first, in case of… you know…” he tapered off, staring at the evenly spaced hand grips on the far wall. The paint had worn off the wall under several of them.

“Mutiny?” finished Susan, shaking her head. “Fantasies, Leigh. There hasn’t been a mutiny on a ship for centuries, and not once on a survey mission.”

He stretched and let out a big yawn. “Well, I do like to be up first, get the best bit ‘o breakfast, right?”

Susan stared at him. “It’s the same packet slop every day. How many times have you fiddled with the wake-up cycle on your pod?”

Leigh looked sheepish. “Not that many, this is the fourth time.”

Susan sat down on a nearby bench and took a deep breath. “Four times I could have lost my chief engineer! It’s a wonder you don’t have icicles in your brain. Although that could explain a few things…” she put her face in her hands. “Promise me you won’t ever do that again. I’m going to have to put that on your record, Leigh.”

“Ah, I promise, Ma’am, didn’t mean no harm by it. But it was just a hibernation cycle, the warm up wasn’t really needed anyway.”

Susan stood up in one swift movement, sending shooting pains into her skull. Dammit.

She turned to inspect the other pods, which were just starting to open. “You didn’t do anything to the other pods, did you?” she said, voice rising.

Leigh took a step backward, his face flushing as red as his hair. “Never, Ma’am! Only my own pod, ever.”

Susan glared at him, arms crossed.

Leigh fiddled with his belt. “I swear, Ma’am, it’s only ever been mine.”

“Never again,” she said firmly.

Leigh hung his head. “Yes, Ma’am. I mean… no, never again.”

Susan walked over and lifted one of the pod lids all the way open. “Rise and shine, slackers!”


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