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Illiya Chapter 4: Full House

Full house

Debrief

The crew gathered on the bridge half an hour after waking. After reprimanding Leigh for his foolhardiness, Susan had left the rest of the crew to wake themselves up and follow their personal post-hibernation rituals. Most of them had consumed a quick breakfast of prepackaged food. Calling it ‘slop’ was a disservice – the food was tasty, and they had a wide range of options to choose from – at least at the start of the mission. By the end of the trip they would be down to the baked beans and lentil paste, which had their own atmospheric quality issues in confined spaces. By the time they got home, they would all be looking for a solid meal on real plates – and time away from each other. But for now, the mission was fresh, they weren’t getting on each other’s nerves – yet – and they all had a job to do.

Susan Foster, pilot and captain of the survey ship Zanzibar stood at the back of the room, taking in the small bridge with a quick visual sweep. The three command stations were evenly spaced across the front of the bridge, navigation, science and engineering. The captain’s chair sat just behind the gap between the navigation and science stations. Each of the stations could be switched to cover any of the other functions in case of damage or an emergency, and the captain’s chair could slave all of the ship’s functions when needed. The chairs were now full, leaving two of her crew standing at the edges of the room waiting for their captain to brief them. Taylor sat in her mother’s chair, one knee up and picking away at the edge of a fingernail, which was attracting sullen glances from Carla and Trent. Trent didn’t appreciate the change of routine and had been pretty clear about that when Taylor first came on board.

“Up, you, out of my chair!” said Susan with a firmer tone than was strictly necessary.

Taylor jumped out of the chair and tripped on one of the science console footings. Susan noticed the two sullen faces turn to snickers. I could have handled that better, she thought. The rest of the crew seemed to be willing to put up with the captain’s daughter – as long as she behaved.

And behaving started with following a good example. Daughter or not, she couldn’t interfere with the running of the ship, and that meant not annoying the crew right after they woke up. Cryo pods had a tendency to make a person wake up cranky.

Susan passed beside her chair, pressed a button on the armrest and the collection of images on the view screen switched to a large close-up of the target planet. She walked over to stand in front of the main view screen, and turned to face the crew. The green planet turned behind her, filling up most of the wall.

Taylor moved over to the side of the view screen, stopping beside the team’s Xenobiologist, Carla Santos. She had short-clipped black hair and medium olive skin, but the epicanthal fold of her eyes hinted at a blended Asian heritage. At 160 cm the top of her head just cleared Taylor’s shoulder. Carla briefly inspected Taylor from head to toe with a sweep of her cold grey eyes, then pressed her lips together into a disapproving line. Not a motherly face, Taylor shuddered.

Carla gave Taylor another quick glance before returning her attention to the captain. She was the epitome of professionalism – to a fault, some would say. She was precise, accurate, controlled and generally lacking in human warmth, but she had a fiery temper to make up for it.

On the far side of the room Angus McLaren gave Taylor a wink. He was the mission hydrologist, and also served as the medic and Xeno-psychologist, though how you could ever hope to get inside the head (or heads) of a race you had just met was a mystery to her. Angus had been with the crew the longest, and acted like the grandfather of the team, always looking out for the well-being of the crew. His personal goal was to survey a hundred planets. At seventy-three, this would be the ninety-third planet under his belt.

Taylor glanced at the console in front of Angus. Leigh O’Brien, fifty-nine, sat at the engineer’s console doing a systems check. He was quick to smile or crack a joke, and had been with the crew for two years. He was bright, friendly, and could fix just about anything that needed repairs, including Taylor’s hair dryer. Leigh told lots of stories but said little about the Xathen war, other than that he had seen a few battles near the end. When she tried to question him further as they were departing sol system, he grinned and changed the topic.

Trent Jones, forty-three, sat at the science console on the right side of the room. He shared it with Carla, but for this phase of the mission, the orbital survey demanded his speciality – cartography and geology. Trent was a confident figure as he made notes on a pad of sketch paper, splitting his attention between the main screen and the console in front of him. He was slightly taller than Taylor but broader, with chocolate brown skin, a wide nose, black curly hair and deep brown eyes. His first task was to determine a suitable place for the first landing, and he had made sketches of potential locations. Although the computer could do it for him, spitting out a detailed, radar-based map accurate to within two metres, he still liked the feel of ‘old-fashioned’ maps. Besides, the computer filled up the entire map from edge to edge – leaving no room for the dragons and other creatures he liked to add in. “Because monsters exist”, he had told Taylor with a wink when she first met him. She had laughed at that, but his sullen look made her stop short. He hadn’t smiled at her much since.

“Henry, could you check our orbital zone again please. I don’t want any surprises,” Susan called out from the front of the room.

He nodded, focusing his attention on the navigation console in the centre of the room. Henry Parata, medium height, black hair, dark skin, firm shoulders, well-muscled, strong features… he caught Taylor staring and gave her a wink. Taylor blushed and looked over at her mother, who cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention.

“I hope you had a good rest, because we’ve got a lot of work to do. Standard orbital procedures for the next thirty-six hours, then we decide whether or not to land. However, this isn’t a standard mission. If you recall, a prior survey crew came here a hundred and thirty years ago, but they stopped transmitting after only a few hours on the ground so we don’t know what happened to them. We have to prepare for anything, including the possibility of survivors.”

Carla snorted. “Not bloody likely.”

Susan shook her head. “I agree, it’s a low probability. But our mission brief states we need to allow for the possibility. That’s why part of the cargo bay was fitted out with a cluster of stasis tubes to bring back any survivors – or their remains, if we find any. HQ wants to know what happened here.”

Taylor held up a hand.

“Yes, Taylor?” said Susan.

“Why would they put stasis tubes in the cargo hold, but have cryo pods for the crew? Why not just have stasis tubes for the crew as well?”

Carla gave Taylor a frosty glare. “The answer is obvious. Stasis tubes have only one function. They stop time for whatever is inside, but the cryo-tubes on a survey ship serve multiple functions. The first is full cryo, which freezes the person inside for long-duration trips and conserves our limited food supplies. There is also a hibernation mode which slows down metabolic processes but does not stop them. The cryo pods can be used to heal someone who is convalescing after an injury or illness, but it is not a full medical pod. They sleep, but the body can slowly repair itself once the medical pod has done most of the work, with limited impact on our supplies. With a stasis field, you are just as injured or sick when you come out as when they switched on the field. It is better to have a crew member more functional when they wake up. We have a small crew.”

Taylor flushed. “I didn’t know…”

“That much was obvious,” snapped Carla.

Susan shook her head. “Moving on… there’s a lot for us to do before we land, and-”

“Those stasis tubes take up too much space,” muttered Trent. “Hardly any room for my samples now, and they made me leave half of my equipment behind. I had to fight with them to let me bring the small core sample drill. It only goes down to twenty meters, practically useless for a job like this.”

Susan frowned at the interruption. “Sorry, Trent, I know you love your rocks.”

“They aren’t just rocks,” protested Trent. “They are the memories of a planet. Spores, fossils, gasses, anything can be trapped in those layers. If we want to understand a planet, we need to have those rock samples.”

“We’ll have to use the on-board lab and do the best we can, and take home what we can for analysis,” said Susan, casting a glance at Carla.

“They leave me to work with toys, and expect me to do a thorough job…” muttered Trent, then fell silent.

“If we don’t find the prior crew or their remains, we’re authorised to use the pods for returning biological samples,” said Susan. “Regardless of all that, it’s our job to finish what they started – surveying the planet.”

Carla nodded. “Better than the standard tissue sample units, it would be good to bring back whole specimens for a change.”

Does she mean alive or dead? thought Taylor with a shudder. She edged further away from Carla until her shoulder bumped into the edge of the view screen.

Susan cleared her throat. “Now, we don’t know why they stopped transmitting, or if they survived. Because it happened during the start of the Xathen war, we have to assume the Xathen could have been the cause, so we need to check for any traps the Xathen may have left behind. So far we have found nothing in orbit except the other ship’s damaged relay satellite. What’s the report, Henry?”

Henry looked up from his console. “The solar array is damaged, possibly by a small particle beam, but it could also be from a micro-meteorite. The hole’s small and clean, so it would have been moving fast. Either way it was a lucky shot. Did a good job on some of the panels, fried some of the electronics in the process, but she was functioning just enough to maintain orbit. She’ll never send a message again, though. Looks like it holed the transmit buffer memory core.”

Susan nodded. “Henry, please deploy a new relay satellite. No, on second thought, make it two.”

“I’m on it,” said Henry, returning his attention to his console.

“Well, that’s about it for the briefing. I recommend you review the previous ship’s logs to familiarise yourselves with what little we know about the planet, and look for any differences in the data from back then and the measurements we’re gathering. In the meantime, I’m going to have a nap. It’s time you all did some work for a change,” Susan yawned. “But before I do that, are there any comments?”

Angus spoke up. “It looks beautiful.”

Trent nodded. “She’s got fine bones. Not much in the way of major tectonic activity in its recent past that I can tell yet. But all those trees make it hard to see surface features and fault lines.”

Leigh frowned. “In beauty lays the trap.”

Susan turned to Leigh, eyebrow raised. “Have you seen something, Leigh?”

Leigh shook his head. “Nay, it’s an old saying, to remind you to look deeper than what you can see.”

Taylor watched her mother walk to the back of the room and turn towards the sleeping quarters. She stepped away from the edge of the screen and stared at the turning planet for a few moments and stifled a yawn. I don’t need a nap. Naps are for kids and old people, she thought. But a short snooze isn’t a bad idea…

Science quiz

“Wake up, sleepy head,” said a deep voice, startling Taylor awake.

She wiped her bleary eyes, surprised to see the grinning face of Henry hovering above her nose. Her heart did a flip-flop, then she yawned, bringing a hand up to cover her mouth – and the likely possibility of morning breath. He does look good, mused Taylor as he stood up and walked to the corner of the room.

“Captain said you’d want to take part in the next stage of the survey, you’d better hurry or you’ll miss it.”

“How long was I asleep?” asked Taylor, wiping a small bit of drool from the corner of her mouth. I hope he didn’t see that.

Henry checked his wrist communicator. “About six hours, time to put you to some use,” he said with a wink and left the room.

Six hours-! Thought Taylor as she sat up a little too quickly. A sharp jab in her neck started her head throbbing. It passed in a few moments, but she took her time to put on her boots and stand up. “I hate artificial gravity,” she muttered.

Taylor entered the bridge a few minutes later, her teeth brushed, face clean and knots removed from her hair.

Susan glanced up and nodded. “It’s about time you got up.”

Carla glared from where she sat at the engineering console. She had a series of screens around the front edge of the console showing various views of survey data. Henry was nowhere to be seen.

Susan pointed over her shoulder. “Henry’s off shift and going to have a rest, now that you’ve finally cleared out of his bunk.”

Taylor blushed, then felt guilty. She’d kept him from his sleep-shift, and he might be extra tired as a result. What if he made a mistake? What if it was her fault? What if…

“Have a look at this,” Carla pointed at the center of her console.

“Sorry, what-?” said Taylor, bringing her attention back into the room and away from the bunk she had just vacated.

“The captain said you should examine this data,” Carla waved at the console. “She said you’re studying the planetary sciences, right?”

Taylor moved closer to peer at the displays. “Um, yes, those are some of my subjects. I’m also studying…”

Carla tapped a painted fingernail on the dull grey console in an impatient staccato. “So tell me what you see.”

“Uh, just the screens…”

Carla tapped her temple. “Are you on?”

Taylor pulled out her AR glasses and slipped them on. A detailed model of the solar system appeared in the air above the console. She pulled out her haptic gloves from another pocket and tugged them on to her hands.

Carla shook her head. “I’m surprised you aren’t implanted already. I believe that most students your age have already been implanted, yes?”

Taylor nodded, her cheeks colouring. “Mum wants me to be able to know what’s real, she won’t let me get implanted yet. Says I need to be an adult first, and make the choice myself. But she said she would pay for them if I really want them.”

Carla cast a glance over at Susan, who nodded. “With the glasses, it’s pretty clear what’s real and what’s not.”

Carla tapped her nails on the console.

Taylor caught sight of Squilm’s orange tail disappearing under the console and smiled.

“This is not humorous, young lady. If having to use AR glasses compromises your abilities in the field, it is no laughing matter.”

Taylor’s smile faded. “Of course.”

Susan looked at Carla. “In a few days she’ll be twenty, and she can make an informed decision about getting implanted.”

“You know I want them,” Taylor sighed.

“You can get them done when you get back to Ganymede, but tell me on your birthday.”

Taylor sighed and adjusted her glasses.

Carla tapped the console. “So tell me what is in front of you, now that you can actually see.”

Taylor flushed and scanned the screens and the floating solar system in front of her. “The screen on the left shows the atmospheric readings from… ten minutes ago. And the middle one, those are the readings from the original survey mission a hundred and thirty years ago.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Carla waved her hands impatiently. “Any first year student would know that. But what does it say?”

Feeling like she was back in mid-term exams, she took a deep breath and studied the screens, then examined the solar system. Her eyes flicked back to the two screens. “I don’t know, the data is almost the same…” began Taylor.

Carla cut her off. “Almost the same can kill you. Look closer.”

Taylor frowned and pushed the solar system aside so she could see both screens more clearly. “Um… Oxygen is one percent higher. CO2 is two percent lower. Argon up ten parts in a million. Nitrogen is unchanged. Sulphur dioxide is up ten parts in a billion. Radon…”

“Good, good, so you have eyes,” Carla nodded. “But why is it different?”

Taylor stared at the console.

Carla waited, fingernails clicking on the dull grey metal.

Taylor looked up at the solar system, then back at the screens. She was missing something.

“University teaches you information,” Carla shook her head. “If only they could make you think.”

Taylor glanced at the third screen, which displayed navigation and geospatial data. She stared at it for a few moments, then pulled the solar system closer to her. She reached out towards the third screen and flicked her fingers to the left. The solar system flickered and changed. She flicked her fingers to the right and the solar system returned to its previous configuration. “It’s early springtime!”

Carla looked up at Taylor with surprise. Taylor was grinning. “Interesting. Wipe that smile off your face, science is a serious business.”

Susan hid a smile behind her hand as she studied a report.

Carla frowned at Taylor and pulled the solar system back to the centre of the console. “Explain how you came to that conclusion.”

Taylor was ready. She pointed to the small blue-green sphere representing the target planet. She spread her fingertips to enlarge it, then pulled the green ball into the middle of the console. The other planets vanished as the scale changed. “In a biosphere with photosynthesis, higher oxygen means growth, and lower carbon dioxide levels as the carbon is sequestered. When things are growing, oxygen increases in the atmosphere. Oxygen levels are lower in the autumn and winter due to slower growth, organic decay releases carbon dioxide, and then oxygen increases again in the spring and summer as new growth emerges.”

Carla refused to be impressed. “It could be spring or autumn, and you are assuming carbon-based photosynthesis, which may not always be the case, but it seems to be the rule on this planet. However, there are many other causes for changes in atmospheric composition. You are just guessing.”

“Early spring,” corrected Taylor.

Carla frowned. “Yes, yes, you said that. Explain.”

Taylor pinched her fingers together and the green planet shrunk, brining the rest of the solar system back into view. “There, look at the position of the planet in its orbit around the sun. The planet will be nearing the rising equinox between apogee and perigee in a week or two – moving into its closest point in its orbit around the sun. When the original crew were here, the planet was nearing the falling equinox, between perigee and apogee, when the planet was moving further away from the sun.”

Carla shook her head. “On most planets you have spring and autumn, or summer and winter at the same time, one in the northern hemisphere, the other in the southern hemisphere. Why do you think it is spring? That is a wild generalisation of an immature student.”

Taylor pointed to the third screen, then tapped her index and middle finger together. Lines appeared in the solar system, showing the orbital plane of the solar system, and a thick yellow line stuck out through the axis of each planet. “Look at the orbital inclination – the target planet is side on to the sun it orbits, its axis is eighty-nine degrees off the orbital plane. The same amount of sunlight hits the northern and southern hemispheres on any given day. If it’s summer on the planet, it’s summer everywhere. The seasons on this planet only arise from the planet’s distance from the sun.”

Susan pretended to study the report as she listened.

Carla raised an eyebrow. “That is… well thought out. There may be hope for you yet.”

Taylor beamed, then put on a serious look as Carla glanced up at her.

“What else do you see? What is the year like on this planet? How long is the winter? How hot is the summer likely to be?”

Taylor studied the screens and the model of the solar system floating above the console. “I would guess that based on its elliptical orbit around the sun, the current position of the planet and the temperature measurements we see right here, the winter would be mild at lower elevations, and not much different from summer – maybe ten or fifteen degrees, with water ice at higher elevations and polar latitudes in winter.”

“Pah! More guesses!” Carla waved her hands. “That is not science. The difference between average winter and summer temperatures should be 12.3 degrees centigrade at the equator, plus or minus two point two degrees.”

“That’s practically the same thing I said! Besides, we don’t know that,” said Taylor. “Our dataset is limited. We don’t have measurements for the actual summer or winter on this planet.”

Carla’s cheeks flushed. “Of course not. In the absence of a full data set, we must extrapolate.”

“You mean guess,” said Taylor.

Susan looked away, unable to hide her smile.

Carla’s colour deepened. “There are no guesses in science. There is information, analysis, observation, hypotheses, interpolation and extrapolation based on comparing similar systems, and filling in the gaps.”

“But we’re not using a large enough dataset from this system,” said Taylor, refusing to let it go. “Therefore it’s an educated guess.”

Carla snapped her fingers. The screens went blank and the model of the solar system vanished. “Enough. You still have a lot to learn. Atmosphere is easy. Xenobiology is much more complex. I’m sure you will find it a lot more difficult. Now go, I have work to do.” She waved her hand, dismissing Taylor.

As Taylor walked away, Carla called out. “Besides, you’re wrong.”

Taylor whirled around. Squilm rubbed her face against Taylor’s legs, but she didn’t notice. “What am I wrong about, besides everything?”

Carla turned to the console and brought the screens back to life. “It’s not early spring. It’s late winter. You forgot the hysteresis effect. And the most important thing, the simplest thing, even a child would have seen it.”

“And what’s that?” demanded Taylor, cheeks reddening.

“Conditions are different from the prior survey,” said Carla, tapping her fingernails on the console. “That’s important to remember. Spring, or late winter, can be a very dangerous time.”

Carla glanced at the coffee mug Henry had left on the console. “Spring often means mating season for smaller species, and birthing season for larger fauna, and their behaviour can be unpredictable during that time.”

Taylor stormed out of the bridge and down the side passageway into the kitchen. Squilm cast a sullen glance at Carla and then followed Taylor out of the bridge.

Her mother was waiting there holding out a cup of coffee. Susan handed Taylor the cup, made herself another then whispered, “You impressed her.”

Taylor shook her head, eyes brimming with tears. “No, she thinks I’m an idiot.”

Susan put a hand on Taylor’s arm. “No, she’s tough on everyone. You did well. In fact, you might have scared her.”

Taylor snorted. “Yeah, right.”

Susan sighed. “I’m serious. Carla feels she has to be the expert. She’s driven. Carla works in a highly competitive field, and she struggles to get respect from her peers. She keeps submitting papers on her research, but they never get published.”

“Why should I care about that?” said Taylor, wiping her nose. She leaned down to stroke Squilm, who licked her glove. Taylor felt a small tingle against her fingers.

“Well… you’re bright, young, faced all of her challenges head-on, and you were fast in your responses. You didn’t back down, you even challenged her. And you were right from what I could tell, and you haven’t even graduated yet. That’s what scares her.”

“Why would that scare her?” asked Taylor.

“Because… it shows she can be replaced. That’s hard for some people to take,” said Susan, sipping her coffee.

Taylor took a quick gulp of the coffee and burned her tongue. “Well, she’s got nothing to worry about. In two months I’ll be long gone, and she can have all of this,” Taylor waved her arms in a big arc. Squilm followed the motion with her eyes, then sat down and began to lick herself.

“Two months can be a long time,” said Susan, placing her cup into the recycler.


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