The Anzu: Alec
Mary S. Sheppard
Copyright © 2016 Mary S. Sheppard
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
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Cover photo by Matthew G. Sheppard
The Zandu Mission Statement:
A multi-species crew will participate in the exploration of space. This includes but is not limited to planets, moons, galaxies, and space anomalies.
The spaceships: The Zandus built all the spaceships and four are configured for human crews. Each ship is divided into seven Sectors: Engineering, CCN, Security, Technical, Medical, Food and Quarters. CCN includes Command, Control, and Navigation. The Food Sector is where the food is created, but food is dispensed through converters in many places on the ship, including the bar and the lounges.
The crew: Beside humans, there are four species currently on board the ships, the Zandus, the Lolas, the Thebes and the Shapers. All are intelligent, biped, two- armed species that breathe some mixture of air (to be adjusted individually), and can live and work with other species in close proximity.
Zandus – from planet Zolog: usually between 1.2 and 1.5 meters (4 to 5 feet) in height, their bodies are a mix of organic material and energy. They are roundish in shape, and their skin is a luminescent white. They have two arms and can attach mechanical implements on the ends of those arms depending on task. They are either male or female.
Food: mineral shakes once per day, can process alcohol
Examples: Chief, the captain
Lolas – from planet Dracon: Larger than most humans, their reptilian skin can be green, blue, or purple (the color does not necessarily mean male or female). They have two large webbed feet, three eyes, two arms and two hands with five digits on each hand. As a species they work hard and usually play even harder. Lolas have females and males.
Food: eat most anything cold.
Examples: X, Z, CC, TT, DD
Shapers – from planet Forom: Adults range between 1.5 and 1.9 meters. In their natural shape they have two eyes, two arms, and two hands with four digits each. They can change their shape, but there is a limitation on how much they can change. So an additional arm or eye could be formed, but it would not work like the others. On the ship they usually show themselves as a mix of Lola and human. Their species has females and males.
Food: energy pellets twice per day.
Examples: Jamous (Jamez), Denabulus (aka Denab)
Thesbes – from planet Thesbeen: This is an all female species and is usually taller than 1.7 meters (68 inches). Their slender bodies have 2 arms and 2 hands with four digits each. Their faces have delicate features, two large round eyes, which come in various colors, and are mostly framed by long wavy hair. They can read the auras of many species, including humans and Lolas, and this way they can determine truth from lies. They need to sleep more than other species on board, preferring ten to twelve hours. All Thesbes are usually the experts in the field they work in. There are seven Thesbes on board the Anzu.
Food: grains and seeds five times per day.
Examples: Hazel, Tania, Rhoda
Time – the Zandus have divided their time into units similar to humans and they translate to seconds, minutes, hours and days, but they are all based on a decimal system.
50 seconds = 1 minute,
100 minutes = 1 hour,
20 hours = 1 day
It was almost one year, he thought as he tightened the fastener. He was lying on the metal grating underneath the large turbine, not the most comfortable position, but soon he would be finished. He adjusted his breathing tube to get closer. The tube in his nose gave him the right air mix for a human. All the different species on board wore such tubes, except for the Zandus and that was because they had built the spaceship.
Yes, next week would be one year. He had to admit it had gone better than he could have hoped for, when he signed up. Initially it was a six-month commitment, and at first, he had wavered. Missing home would not be a problem, but he had been worried that with few humans out here he would have to depend mostly on the aliens for everything.
Regardless, he had gone and filled out an application. Then he was one of the few selected, and it was at that point that he realized that the opportunity was too great, what was left on Earth was too little and six months was not such a long time.
He had been right and as the first six months passed quickly, he had extended his contract. Now he was sure he would renew the contract again, he loved this job.
“Are you almost finished?”
Alec turned to the voice. It was the green guy. The other one from the same planet was almost purple. The color was not an indication of their sex and in this case both of these aliens were male. “Almost done, X.”
These aliens liked very simple names and this guy was ‘X’ while the other one was ‘Z’. He hadn’t gotten around to asking what happened to ‘Y’, or in fact to some of the other letters of the alphabet.
“I’m glad you’re done Alec, Chief wants to have a word with all of us.”
“Sounds like trouble.”
X broke out laughing.
It wasn’t that funny, thought Alec and wondered if his translator was working correctly.
Everyone on the space ship had to wear translators to communicate. In fact, some humans needed them to communicate with each other, as they did not speak the same language.
Communication mix-ups had happened when the alien ship first arrived to Earth. As the ships hovered over Earth, people had panicked, naturally thinking that this was the beginning of an invasion. Alec remembered the news reports, the soldiers patrolling his neighborhood, the planes in the sky and the tanks rumbling on the streets, as if any of that would have deterred the aliens if they were intent on destruction.
They were not and it took weeks to convince people that this was not an invasion; it was an invitation to be part of a multi-species crew that would explore the galaxy. Earth had been invited to participate as the human race was getting close to developing real space travel.
The people from Earth felt they had had space travel for decades, but all they had to show for it was a smallish base on the moon and in 2030 they had established an outpost on Mars. Still, their efforts were sufficient to be invited said the aliens.
The aliens next asked any interested humans to submit their resumes and they had selected one hundred to join the crews on four ships. It was then that the aliens discovered that many languages were spoken on Earth and that one group of humans might not understand another one. In addition to the language barrier, there were cultural differences and on top of that you had to add the religious differences.
They had assumed all humans were ‘humans’ and had been surprised that one small planet would have so many impediments for integration. At least the language problem would be solved with the use of the translators. Everyone on board wore one and they worked flawlessly.
“Tell Chief, I’ll be there in a sec,” said Alec.
“Okay,” said X as he walked away chuckling.
The chief engineer came from a different planet than the green, blue and purple reptilian skinned guys. Those guys were Lolas and the chief engineer was a Zandu. Unlike the Lolas that were all organic, the Zandus were a mix of physical form, energy and machine. The chief engineer, like most Zandus, had picked a name that went with his job and he preferred to be called Chief.
“This morning the life liquid sensors lit up again,” said Chief. “The pre-fan filters need to be replaced again.”
All five coworkers looked at Alec.
There were five species on board the Anzu and all were represented in Engineering. Besides the Lolas and Zandus, there was Thesbes and the Shapers . All of them had found that Alec could swim well. He had been chosen as the ‘go-to’ guy for this job.
Alec sighed, “Right. I was just wondering, it hasn’t been three months since we changed them, weren’t they designed to last three months?”
“Yes that is the specification, but they need to be changed now,” said Chief.
“Maybe the system is getting old and should be thrown out, trashed,” suggested Alec. It was a joke. He knew the ship had undergone extensive renovations to make it ready for the humans, but it was a new ship.
“Obsolescence is such an archaic concept,” said Chief. He laughed and the others joined him. “We don’t use that word anymore.”
“Really.” Even after a year, Alec was still learning new things everyday.
“We do not trash anything. All things can be reused,” said Chief.
“The rest of us already know this, but your species is… newer,” said Hazel.
She was being diplomatic. She probably was going to say ‘inexperienced’ or ‘backward’ thought Alec.
Hazel was a Thesbes, and like the other Thesbes that Alec had met, they were tall, slim and delicate, like branches on a willow tree. Most Thesbes had large, round eyes that came in a variety of colors, and in Hazel’s case they were a deep brown.
Looking at Hazel, one might think that she would not do well in the rugged engineering environment, but she did great moving gracefully among the machinery, even with the layers of floating gauze that the Thesbes normally wore. She was also gifted in power mechanics.
“Alec, you should get ready,” added Chief.
Alec walked over to the hatch and started to strip down to his underwear. There was one thing he had definitely learned. Humans were looked at as the junior species.
The attitude was prevalent across most of the aliens he had met except Jamous, a fellow engineer and a Shaper. In his case, it was completely opposite and Jamous had told him that he felt very compatible towards humans.
“I think I should have been a human. My name could be James,” he had confided to Alec when they first met. Then he had changed his name officially to Jamez, to make it more human, but still a bit different.
Most shape shifters on board presented a form that was part Lola and part human. Alec thought it was a convention they had to fit in with the rest of the crew. In the case of Jamez, he looked pretty much all human.
“The suit is ready,” said Z as he handed Alec the sterilized, slimy, wet suit that would cover him completely, from head to foot.
An AIRS bag containing the right air mixture for humans was attached. Different AIRS could be attached depending on the species that was breathing.
They had gotten used to him being the primary swimmer and he wondered who would do it if he weren’t here anymore.
X and Z had done it before, but he also knew that one time Z almost didn’t make it back. X and Z’s physique was larger than his and that could be a problem in some of the smaller spaces.
Alec took a deep breath from his oxygen tube, detached it and started to pull on the suit. The headgear had the communication module and a light and when he put it on he was able to breath again.
Even though the air on the ship had a heavy content of argon and helium, much more so than Earth’s air, it also had oxygen and nitrogen, so it wasn’t deadly to humans. Everyone knows that breathing helium makes your voice squeaky and breathing argon makes your voice lower, so Alec did not know what would actually happen if he took a deep breath of that combination, but frankly he didn’t want to experiment.
Z opened the hatch. The difference in pressure between the engineering room and the conduit kept the liquid from coming out, but one could see it moving swiftly.
Alec took the filter carrying case, walked through the shower, which was the final cleaning stage, and then he waited. This was the worse part of this job; he actually hated swimming in that muck.
“All right, stopping the flow now,” shouted Hazel.
Alec looked at the dark liquid below, gauged the speed of the current and stepped down the hatch. Immediately he was swept towards the fans. They had been shut down, but the liquid still had movement and Alec used it to his advantage, to get to the fan filters more quickly. There were four filters located just before the fans and there were four other filters located in the other direction, near the influx of the life liquid. Those had been changed just a couple of weeks ago.
By the time the current took him close to where the filters were, he had slowed down significantly and he started to swim. The extra lighting he had asked for in this area was working well and it made his job easier. He didn’t have to get to close to the filter to see that it had turned light brown. It should have been white.
The previous time he had been down here, just a month ago, the filters he replaced were light yellow. Two months before, the filters he changed were still mostly white, although he had changed them right on schedule. Something was polluting the liquid and it was getting worse.
He pulled the old filter off, packed it in the case and attached the new filter. He moved to the next filter, did the same process and then headed back.
He could only change two out of the four filters at a time. They had determined that being in the life liquid thirty minutes was about the maximum for humans.
Even then, when he climbed up to engineering, he flopped down on the floor to catch his breath. Swimming in the goo seemed to take it out of him. Luckily he didn’t have to do it often.
“You look tired my friend,” said Z. “I can relate.”
“Yeah, maybe I should hit the gym more often.” He handed the case over.
Z took one of the filters out. “It is brown,” he sounded surprised.
“Let me see,” said Chief. “Open it up.”
Z unfurled the filter carefully.
“I’ll notify the captain. This looks very bad,” said Chief.
The next morning Alec was working on the air filtration system when X came up to him.
“Good, I’m glad I found you,” he said.
“Yep. I was checking the air filtration system.”
“Do you think this may affect the life liquid filter?”
“I don’t know, but I needed to check it anyway.”
“It will have to wait. Chief needs you, right away. The new worker is coming and we thought that if she saw another human she might feel more welcome.”
“Yeah,” said Alec turning back to his work. He had been happy on board the Anzu and he wondered if having another human in the group might change the dynamics of the group, especially being a female.
“You don’t think that seeing you will make her feel more welcome?” asked X.
“That is not my job. I’m not here to make everyone feel better.”
X broke out laughing. “That is very true,” he said and walked away.
Alec closed the panel and followed him.
She was pretty; grant her that, he thought. She was probably in her early thirties, light brown hair, two eyes, nice. She greeted everyone in the correct fashion for each race, obviously trying to make a good impression with the team.
She shook his hand as she introduced herself. “Cate.”
“Is that spelt with a ‘c’ or a ‘k’?”
“So its cat with an ‘e’ at the end?”
She nodded and looked strangely at him.
The translator had to be broken, thought Alec. That was supposed to be funny. Then he noticed that her translator had not converted his words, English had to be her primary language.
Then Jamez walked in. Jamez was looking very human today. Muscles pressed against his tight t-shirt and his face looked somewhat like Chris Pratt.
“Hi, my name is Jamez,” he shook her hand gently.
“I’m Cate, nice to meet you.”
Alec tried not to laugh. Jamez was his friend.
“Alec, please show Cate around,” said Chief. “Jamez? A word in my office.”
Cate turned to Alec and she wiped her disappointed look, but he didn’t care. He would show her around quickly and get back to more important things.
“So why did you choose engineering?” he asked as a way to make some conversation.
“I like machines.”
“So do I,” he admitted. “Over people?”
“No.” She looked at him strangely again.
He did. Machines were easier to understand.
“How long have you been working here?” she asked.
“Almost a year.”
“That is a long time. Are you going to renew?”
“I’m considering it. I enjoying this work, I’m learning and I like my coworkers.”
“You must have been one of the first humans.”
“I think I was the 12th human on this ship and this is one of the first ships to have humans.”
“Yes, I know.”
He showed her the different systems and it looked like she was paying attention. Then he opened the hatch and they watched the dark liquid flowing.
“Wow,” she said. “So that is the life liquid?”
“Yeah. You know about it?”
“Of course, I’ve read about it, but this is the first time I have actually seen it.”
They watched in silent awe.
“So the food we eat and water we drink comes from that?” she reached out towards it.
“Don’t touch it.”
She took her hand back immediately.
“You don’t want to contaminate it.”
She nodded. “I know that.”
“Yes to your question. All our food is synthesized from that.”
“And the current is caused by the fans?”
“Yes, the fans pull the liquid through the influx filters, and that clean liquid is then filtered once more before the fans push it into the pipes that lead to the converters,” he showed her the diagram on the wall that showed the process.
“That is fantastic,” she said.
It was, he thought as he looked at the diagram.
The following day when Alec arrived to work, Jamez was milling around. Today his body didn’t look as muscular and his face was not so ‘Chris Pratt’-like. Maybe Chief had said something to him about appearing too human, or too handsome.
“Hey Alec, Chief asked me to give Cate the run down on the engines, but she is running late,” said Jamez. “I’m supposed to be checking on converter #2, it’s having a problem.”
“Yeah I heard.”
“Can you check it out for me?”
“Maybe I should give her a tour of the engines,” said Alec. He wasn’t the expert, but he knew enough to give a tour.
“No, please Alec. I think I would be better giving her the tour.”
“Okay, but you owe me.”
“Sure, any thing you like,” Jamez smiled and winked.
That was strange. Maybe Jamez didn’t understand what those signals meant. It made his sexual preference ambivalent if he was winking at him to spend time with her. He would have to explain it to him later.
“Good morning Alec,” said Chief coming out of his office.
“Morning,” he said. It was never really morning, but most agreed it was a pleasant greeting and since it signified the beginning of the work shift, all species used it. The workers on the night shift also used the same greeting at the beginning of their shift.
“What do you think of Cate?” asked Chief.
“Don’t know much. This is her second day.”
“She is not going to be here long. She is training for another ship.”
“Oh. I thought she was the help we had requested.”
“We have requested help, but it is not her.”
“So she is basically wasting our time?”
“No, this is part of her training. Be nice,” said Chief.
“I’m always nice, sir.”
Cate arrived soon after that and Jamez took her to the engine room. Alec wondered if she had figured out he wasn’t human yet.
“Too bad she is not staying with us,” said Chief. “I like her.”
Alec was surprised that Chief had an opinion about her so soon and he was further surprised when he didn’t chastise Cate for arriving late.
He didn’t think a pretty face swayed the aliens, but he couldn’t explain Chief’s reaction. He returned to the problem at hand, there was always something. The life liquid filter problem was only one of many things that needed attention.
As the ship screamed through the galaxy, many parameters needed to be monitored and tweaked, and that was if everything was working smoothly. Right now he would address the problem with converter #2.
He had seen this problem before and suspected the problem was with temperature controller. A few people had complained their ice tea was too warm and their hot tea was not hot enough. Other species had complained as well, but people’s foods had a wider range of temperatures and so he would test the converter with that.
The life liquid fed into the converter through a pipe that was separated from the rest of the system so he didn’t have to worry about touching that. He called Tech Center for help and a Lola was sent to help him disassemble the temperature controls. They soon found the problem. One of the photon emitters had burnt out. These emitters energized the atoms to heat the food or slowed the atoms down to cool it.
“All right CC, this is easy to replace,” said Alec.
All of the Lolas techs he had met went by two letters. He had started to suspect that their names had something to do with the work they did. X and Z were more senior and only had one letter in their names.
“Yes, sir,” said CC.
Alec was not going to correct her about calling him sir, it wasn’t necessary, but it sounded good. In any case all techs called everyone sir.
“Alec?” Chief came in and glanced at the parts on the table. “Looks like you found the problem?”
“The problem is fixed, sir, but the reason it happened is unknown,” said Alec. “That actuator should not have burned out this way. I would like to see what was happening when it failed.”
“Good idea. A log of all food ordered is kept on the mainframe.”
Alec left CC to finish reassembling the unit and logged into the computer. The converter had been functioning properly dispensing food for the Lolas primarily. They like their food crunchy and cool, close to -78 degrees Centigrade (the temperature of dry ice). Then it looked like someone, most likely a human, had asked for Earl Grey tea, extra hot, and it had been served at 85 degrees.
“What did you find?” asked Hazel. “Chief said you had a theory?”
Alec told her what he had found.
“A swing of 160 degrees, although large, should not have burned out the emitter,” she said.
“Well it is fixed for now and I need your help. Jamez is still busy.”
“Still?” That tour was taking a long time.
“Yes. I need to calibrate one of the engines that is not performing optimally, follow me.”
Alec followed Hazel into the engine room. The balancing of the engine was an on-going task. It was not unusual to adjust engine parameters based on power requirements throughout the ship.
Cate and Jamez were standing in the middle of a hologram of engine schematics. She was laughing.
“You are here to rebalance?” asked Jamez noticing them. “Do you need my help?”
“No, I have Alec helping me,” said Hazel. “Are you done explaining the engines to Cate?”
“Almost,” said Jamez looking more serious. He returned to the hologram and his description.
“Okay Hazel, which engine is it?” asked Alec. In the year on board, Alec knew that rebalancing was easy to do with some someone to help and soon they had it working optimally.
Currently the ship was traveling at a medium speed. There was low, medium, high and space flight. The terminology was pretty simple so all the species could understand. Up in the command center there were tweaks made by the pilot so that the each speed could translate into gradients. This way low translated into 1, 2 and 3, medium into 4, 5 and 6 and so on.
He liked to think of it as covering distances. Jupiter was 588 million km from Earth and at low speed it took almost two days to cover that distance. On the other hand Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the sun, was 1.3 parsecs or 40 trillion km away and the ship would use space flight speed taking it less than a day.
“Hey,” said Alec. Cate was standing next to him. He realized it was almost quitting time.
“Some of us are going to the bar and I was told to ask you.”
Okay, thought Alec. She was making it plain that it wasn’t she who was asking. “No thanks, I’m going to finish this first.”
“Hmm, they said you would say that.”
“For a human you are not very friendly are you?”
“I don’t know if that is true. I’m just doing my work and I was not aware all humans are supposed to be friendly.”
“Well, you have probably heard, all work and no play makes a …”
“Dull boy,” he interrupted. “Yep and that is what I strive to be.”
“Okay then, see you tomorrow.”
He didn’t think he was dull. He went to the bar most nights, and actually had a couple of friends whom he met then, but it was much later in the evening. That way he avoided the crowds. Honestly, it wasn’t so much the crowd as some of the humans that frequented the bar earlier. Most of them were gone by the time he arrived, but unfortunately so were his coworkers. It seemed that most of the species on board and many of the humans needed more sleep than he did.
“How far away from Earth do you think we are?” asked Cate.
Alec looked at her. “Clarify.”
“Of course. Days at medium speed, from 0800.”
He smiled. Her question was good; it was precise. It had been eight days since she had come on board, but then she had not boarded on Earth. “320 hours, a little over thirteen days.”
It was her turn to smile. “Just like that. You keep that sort of information on the top of your head?”
“Yeah, I like to keep track of that, among other things.”
“I’ll have to ask you about those things later,” she said as they walked into the conference room.
Yeah, he could look forward to that, he thought.
Chief was already sitting at the table and next to him were seated several other officers, most of them were Zandu. It was their ship and they had the most experience so it made sense they were mostly in charge.
Alec noted that each Zandus was wearing a variety of attachments and that each seemed unique. Chief had changed his usual mechanical gear for something that looked more like hands, probably since he was presenting.
As they waited for the captain and others to show, Alec took a glance at Cate. He had to admit she had fit well with the group. In fact, he had started to agree with Chief that they would miss her when she left.
The meeting started and Chief recounted what was happening to the filters. He ended by mentioning that things were getting worse.
“We have to find what is causing this,” said the captain.
Everyone agreed with that.
“That is the reason I have called this meeting,” said Chief. “The first time we saw this problem was about three months ago.”
“So what changed then?” asked one of the officers.
“I think I know,” said Denabulus, the second mate. “We took on seven more humans.”
The second mate was a Shaper like Jamez, but unlike him, his view on humans was pretty negative. Like most of the shape-shifters on board, Denabulus had taken on a look that was a cross between the Lolas and the humans. He had adopted their large feet, and pointy ears, but he only had two eyes, a well-defined nose and his brownish skin was not scaly.
Alec had heard Denabulus make derogatory comments before and wondered where this comment was taking him.
Meanwhile everyone had turned to look at the Alec and Cate. There were twenty-five humans on board, but they were the only humans present at the meeting. Cate glanced at Alec briefly and looked on as if it didn’t concern her one little bit. He did the same.
“That is just one of the things that happened three months ago,” said Chief. “If it were that easy, I would have tested that theory already. In fact, we are lucky to have Alec since he can change the filter more easily than many of us could.”
That was true, he thought. Several of the species represented in the meeting would not fit in the conduits and some couldn’t even swim.
“Somehow a pollutant has been introduced into the life liquid,” said Chief.
“I thought the system is sealed, except for the hatch in engineering, of course,” said the captain.
“Yes, a hatch that is kept under tight surveillance, so this is the mystery,” said Chief. He pressed a control in front of him. “I’ve brought up a hologram of the life liquid system. Alec will walk us through it.”
Alec got up and actually started to walk through the hologram indicating the process.
“I understand you have been through much of the system?” asked the captain.
“Yes,” said Alec. “I have swum through most of it to verify that the diagrams we have match exactly what is out there. The areas I verified are shown in green.”
“When you swam, did you take enough care to not introduce foreign objects? What about the suit?” asked Denabulus.
His number one fan, thought Alec and for a moment he wanted to ignore the question, but then he took a breath and explained the decontamination procedure.
“I notice some areas are not green?” asked the captain.
“Some areas are too small for me.”
“Right, we need to survey those areas immediately,” said the captain looking around the room. It looked like he was looking for small volunteers.
“Sir, I might be able to fit better than he,” Cate had raised her hand.
“Are you sure? You are the trainee, aren’t you?” asked the captain.
She nodded and then remembered to say yes. Many species did not understand ‘the nod.’
“Good,” said the captain. “You should start mapping those areas right away.”
Chief agreed and the meeting came to a conclusion.
“I hope you like tight, dark spaces,” said Alec as they returned to Engineering.
“Not really, but I thought I should volunteer to help boost the image the others have about us.”
“You noticed. Humans are the low man on the totem pole. We are the newly discovered species, kind of interesting, but definitely not in the same league as the rest of them.”
“Hmmm, is it that bad?’
“No. Not all of them feel that way.”
“That is what Jamez told me.”
“Did you know… ” Alec started. He was thinking of telling her about Jamez, but then stopped. “Do you know how to swim?”
She laughed. “That would be crazy to volunteer for this job without knowing that.”
Chief wanted Cate to swim right away. “It is going to take several trips to plot all those areas and you should start now,” he said.
Alec started to brief her on what she would find. “If you follow the current, it will take you to the fans. After about ten minutes, the current will subside, and you might get disoriented so look at the walls. Some have arrows painted on them and they point towards the hatch. You should be able to see clearly with the light on your head,” he said as Z brought out the suit.
She could use the same suit he had since it molded itself to the wearer. Even X and Z had worn the same suit. She started to undress and Alec paused. She got down to her underwear and Z helped her into the suit.
“Alec?” asked Chief. “You were saying?”
“Uh… yes,” said Alec. He had lost track of what he was saying. “There is more. The life liquid is heavier than water, so the going will be slow. In some places there is handrail you can use to pull yourself along, but some areas will not have anything. That is not shown in the diagram.”
Chief brought out a physical diagram. “You should start in this area and move along here. We have attached a recorder to your light so we can follow your progress. It will also help us review whatever you find later. This area should take you about twenty minutes and that is plenty for your first time down there.”
“In fact, if you want to come back before that, you should,” said Z.
“Z is right about that,” said Alec. “Sometimes the darkness and the heavy liquid pressing against you can be uncomfortable.”
“Right, I think I should go, before I hear anymore of this pep talk,” said Cate.
X opened the hatch and Hazel turned the fans off. Cate waited. She would be swimming in the opposite direction from the fans and there was no point fighting against the current.
“We will be right here for you,” said Jamez. “Give us regular updates.”
Alec noticed his coworkers were more concerned about her than they had ever been about him. Maybe it was because she shared drinks with them.
She stepped into the hatch and disappeared in the goo.
“You probably feel relieved you are not going,” said Z.
“I’m not relieved, I just couldn’t fit,” said Alec. It wasn’t that he was trying to get out of doing his job. He switched the comm on. “Cate, how is it going?”
“Good, I think. It is hard to tell how far I’ve gone.”
“There should be numbers next to the arrows. Those represent meters from the hatch.”
“Meters? Why would they use a human measurement?”
“I drew those to keep track of where I was.”
“I did not know about those,” said Chief.
Alec shrugged. Chief would never be one to go down there.
“Okay, I’m coming up to an arrow,” said Cate. “It is number 1.”
“That means you are 100 meters from the hatch.”
“She is going much slower than you,” said Z off the comm.
Alec nodded. “It is her first time.”
After a few minutes, Cate was on the line again. “I see what you mean about this area. It is a tight squeeze.”
“Be careful,” said Jamez and Alec together.
“Let’s see,” said Cate talking to herself. “Maybe if I turn in this way I can make it.”
There was nothing for a moment and then they heard her again. “I am moving along the smaller tube now.”
“What do you see?” asked Alec.
“The walls are shinny and smooth, nothing unusual.”
“Twelve minutes,” said Z.
“You should start back,” said Alec.
“I am pretty close to making it through this area,” said Cate. “I see an opening at the far end, maybe thirty meters.”
Alec looked at the diagram. “It is further than you think, you should come back.”
“But I haven’t finished,” she said. From the recording they could tell that she had increased her speed.
So, thought Alec, she was one of those types. Driven and didn’t listen. He looked at Chief for support.
“Three more minutes,” said Chief, “and then you have to turn back.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Okay.”
“Z count them,” said Chief.
Z counted the minutes out loud. He got to five and looked at Chief for guidance. A few minutes later Cate said she was turning back.
Alec didn’t like it. She would be in the goo for more than twenty minutes and this was her first time. He looked at the time as it ticked slowly by.
“It has been twenty minutes since she left,” said Z.
It would take more than that, so he shouldn’t worry, but he did. “Cate? You still there?”
“Yes,” she sounded out of breath.
“You doing all right?” asked Alec.
That was concerning. She wasn’t talking like she had on the way out. He switched the comm off and turned to Z. “Do we have the backup suit ready?”
“Do you think there is a problem?” asked Chief.
“I don’t know, but I would like to be ready,” said Alec.
“Jamez, put the backup suit through decontamination,” said the Chief.
That would take only five minutes, but they should have done it before, thought Alec. He should have requested it earlier.
“Two hundred,” said Cate.
“You are almost here,” said Alec.
“Damn, it’s still two hundred,” she complained.
“You are so close.”
They could hear her breathing. “My legs.”
“There is railing from there on. Pull yourself along with that,” said Alec.
Chief looked at him. “What is it?”
“She could have leg cramps,” explained Alec.
“One hundred,” she said.
Alec looked at Jamez.
“Two more minutes. It is still two more,” said Jamez.
Alec started to undress. He would put the suit on as soon as it was ready, jump through the shower and go get her.
“Here is suit,” Jamez almost threw it at him.
Alec started to squeeze himself into the suit and then X shouted that he saw something.
Cate was hanging onto the bottom of the ladder, but she had to climb up by herself. They couldn’t reach in because that would contaminate the life liquid.
X and Jamez shouted encouragement as Alec continued to put on the suit. He was closing the suit when Cate showed up the hatch. She didn’t look good. He reached out to her just as she started to keel over and was able to cushion her decent. Both of them ended on the floor.
“You made it,” he said.
He removed her headgear. It was heavier than usual. The recording device had added about 500 grams of weight.
“I just need to rest a moment,” she said, “Let me catch my breath.”
“No problem. Take your time,” said Alec. Her breathing was starting to sound normal again.
“You should not have gone that long,” said Jamez.
“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe it was not one of the best decisions on my part.”
She got off Alec and Z and X helped her get the suit off.
“You should rest,” said Jamez.
“Before that, I would like a word,” said the Chief. “If you are up to it.”
“Yes, of course, sir,” said Cate as she dressed.
Everyone went back to work as Alec took the suit off.
“You were going to come after me?” she asked.
“Just in case.”
“Thanks, that was nice.”
“No problem. I would have done the same for any of my coworkers.”
“Of course.” She left him dressing and went into the Chief’s office.
“Close the door,” said the Chief.
Alec wondered what that was about and turned to look. He wasn’t going to hear anything, but he should be able to read their expressions through the glass walls of Chief’s office. Well, actually, he had not learned to read Chief’s expression so he was counting on seeing hers.
It appeared she was being reprimanded. She looked contrite and was not saying much.
Chief was being a bit harsh, thought Alec. She had made an error in judgment, but nothing bad had happened and she was new to the job. You had to learn someway.
He finished dressing and went back to monitor systems. Later he heard her apologize to the others that she would miss their usual drink at the bar.
“I am going to my cabin to rest.”
“Do you need company?” asked Jamez.
“No, thanks,” she said.
That Jamez, thought Alec as he continued to look at the monitor, he was always trying.
“Hey Alec,” said Cate.
He turned to her, “Hey.”
“Just wanted to say thanks again. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow.”
He went to the bar late that night. The place was looking more and more like home. They had convinced the Zandu to dim the lights, add tables of different sizes, for different size groups and the new background music was definitely a plus.
He didn’t have a ‘usual’ stool, but he always sat at the bar. Josh, the bartender nodded to him a greeting. He was human.
“Same as usual?” he asked.
“Make it a double.”
“That kind of day?”
“Yeah,” said Alec as he looked around.
It was the same bunch of guys at this time of the night. Then he saw her. She was sitting at a table and there were several guys around her. What was Cate doing? Didn’t she say she was going to rest?
“Here is your double scotch, neat,” said Josh.
“Thanks,” said Alec turning back to the bartender. “Does she come here often?”
“Almost every night, but usually earlier and with the group of coworkers.”
“Aren’t you one of her coworkers?”
“Yeah, but I like to come at this time. There are usually less people to bother me.”
“I get it. I’ll leave you alone.”
He couldn’t help himself and had to turn to look. Her three admirers, two were definitely human, were telling her stories. She didn’t seem too interested. Suddenly she looked up and caught his eye.
He turned around quickly and concentrated on his drink.
“Hi.” She was standing next to him.
“So you do come to the bar and it looks like you do drink.”
“Yeah, I just like the bar at this time.”
It sounded like she didn’t believe him and two could play this game. “Didn’t you say you were going to rest?”
“I did, but then I couldn’t sleep. Mind if I sit down here?” She didn’t wait for his response and sat down next to him.
There were plenty of stools and he couldn’t very well say he had saved all of them for his imaginary friends. In any case, there was nothing wrong having her sit next to him.
They drank in silence and that should have made him happy, but it was a tense silence.
“You did well today,” he said.
“I could have done better.”
Ah, thought Alec. “Did Chief have a complaint?”
“He did,” she said and didn’t elaborate.
“Maybe he expects perfection from you. He seems to be a fan.”
She had a nice smile.
“Are you ready for a refill?” asked Josh.
She looked at her empty wine glass. “I better not. I have to go back into the life liquid tomorrow.”
The bartender looked at Alec, who shook his head in the negative.
“You are going down so soon?” asked Alec.
“Chief asked me and I know I can do it. This time I will make sure to look around more, to get a better recordings.”
That must have been the complaint, thought Alec. “It will be good if you do. We need to figure out what’s going on with the filters.”
“Will you be there?”
“I wasn’t planning a vacation any time soon,” he said and was rewarded with another smile.
“How many times have you been down there?” she asked.
“Ten, eleven if you count my training, which was less than fifteen minutes, by the way.”
She smiled. “I should go.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
They headed out into the hallway and started to walk. They passed the officer quarters, went down a level to the next level of officers and finally to where the peons like him resided. He was surprised when they continued to the next level down.
“Wow I didn’t know anyone was down here,” he said.
“They keep the trainees down here.”
She opened the door to her cabin and he peeked inside. It was tiny. She would barely fit on the bed and knowing that was somehow comforting to him.
They said good night and he headed up a level.
“While Cate is getting ready to go, I would like a word with you, Alec,” said Chief the next day.
“Another one called to the boss’ office. It seems like everyone is getting in trouble,” said X.
“Except you and me,” said Z.
“Yeah, that because we just do our work, consistently and well,” said X. He lifted the middle finger. It was the Lolas’ way of showing congratulations; on Earth it meant something totally different.
Their self-approval didn’t require any comment from Alec, but he followed Chief a bit reluctantly. Cate had started to undress.
Chief sat down and indicated Alec should sit as well. He wondered what this conversation could be about.
“You did well yesterday,” said Chief.
“Oh,” paused Alec, “thanks.”
“In fact, I have noticed that you have valuable qualities that could translate into another job.”
Wait, thought Alec. Was Chief trying to get rid of him? He loved engineering.
“What do you think?” asked Chief.
“I like working here, in this group.”
“That could be your flaw, lack of imagination of what you could do with your potential.”
That sounded like a compliment, kind of. “What do you mean by another job?”
“There are many things you could do, for example, you could be a Lead Engineer.”
Alec smiled. “That would be fine, but a human as a Lead? Wouldn’t X and Z take exception to me being promoted before them?”
“I am not promoting you right now. I am just submitting your name for consideration, and only if you like.”
“I would like that.”
“Then I will submit your name. That is all.”
Alec stood up to leave.
“You shouldn’t worry about the others,” said Chief. “Most are working in the best job for their abilities and they know it. Not all species have the ambition humans have.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“Now you better get out there. The backup suit is ready for you, just in case.”
Alec tried to keep his excitement under control as he rejoined the others.
“That looked serious,” said Z looking at him with three questioning eyes. “Hope you’re not in trouble.”
“No,” said Alec. “He gave me some pointers, for improvement.”
“We all needs those, right X?” asked Z.
“And right you are Z,” said X.
Those two were getting more alike each day. “Hey, Cate are you ready?”
“Yeah.” She stepped into the shower and a minute later started down the hatch.
“Don’t get tired,” said Alec.
“It should be easier,” she answered. “I know what to expect.”
It went much smoother and Cate made it all the way through the narrow conduit. She was taking her time to make a good recording as well. When she came back up, Chief told her she had done a good job.
“Thank you sir,” she said. “Did you see anything unusual?”
“No, but now we can review your swim in more detail. It helps we have the recording.”
She smiled as she started to take the suit off.
Alec would never get tired of this part.
“Cate, we don’t need you here for the rest of the day if you want to go rest,” said Chief.
“I don’t need to, I’m fine,” said Cate.
“Wonderful,” said Jamez. “In that case there was something in the engine room I wanted you to see.”
Cate said she was looking forward to that and followed him to the engine room.
Chief then asked Alec and Hazel to review the recording. “I know we didn’t see anything when we were watching real time, but I want you to look at it slowly. There may have been something we missed.”
Hazel joined Alec at his workstation and they started to watch.
“The recording is much better than before,” said Hazel.
They watched for a moment.
“Do you like her?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Is it something I shouldn’t ask? Is it private?”
“Yes actually, but why did you ask?”
“She is a female human and you are male.”
He smiled, “That does not mean we automatically like each other. Not all males like all the females or vice versa.”
“But you look at her, very often.”
“Ah,” said Alec not sure how to explain it, then he saw something unusual on the monitor. “Wait.” He paused the recording and enlarged it.
There was dark, perfectly round circle on the wall of the shinny, grey conduit.
“What is that?” Hazel big brown eyes had gotten larger.
“No idea, but we should show Chief.”
Chief didn’t know what it was either. “We need a sample. Cate will go down tomorrow and get one.”
“Is she going down again, sir?”
“You know that swimming in that goo is a grueling process and that it takes a lot energy?”
“She will let me know if she can not do it,” said Chief.
Alec didn’t say more, but it seemed that Chief expected a lot from her and there was nothing he could do to help. It would have been nice to have a robot that could go down anytime they needed, but introducing anything metallic would be disastrous to the life liquid. Everything that went down there had to be organic.
“I want you and Hazel to recheck the rest of the recording. You might have missed something that looks this small,” said Chief.
Alec glanced at the time. It was almost quitting time and the group would be going out for drinks. Today he wanted to join them. He was dying to tell Cate about his possible promotion.
Cate might be the only one of his coworkers that could understand. He wasn’t sure that X and Z would be happy about being passed over, and Jamez would probably not care. His only other coworker was Hazel and no one really knew what she thought about. She kept to herself even more than he.
“Am I keeping you from something more important?” asked Chief.
Alec had to be careful. His possible promotion could become improbable quickly. “No, sir. The job at hand is the most important thing I have to do.”
“Very well said,” agreed Chief.
Alec returned to the monitor with Hazel and they reviewed Cate’s entire trip. No further spots were found. When he finished, the day shift was gone and the night shift had come in.
“I don’t know if finding nothing else is good, or bad, but why don’t you tell Chief,” said Hazel. “I need to rest.”
Alec knew that Hazel needed more rest than the others so he said he would. He found Chief still in his office.
“We didn’t find any other spots, sir,” said Alec.
“At least in the area recorded.”
“Yes sir. Cate can get a sample of this spot, but it is almost all the way on the other end of the narrow conduit. After that she needs to continue checking the other areas as well.”
“I know and I know it is a problem. I was looking at the rest of the crew to see if anyone else could swim and fit into those narrow spaces.”
That was a good idea, thought Alec.
“It would have been a good idea,” said Chief, “but everyone that could fit in the small conduit, cannot do it. Humans are the best candidates for the job, but there are only twenty-five of you. Six do not even know how to swim, and one of the strong candidates that can swim, has claustrophobia. I thought we had more humans on board.” Chief sounded disappointed.
“I wouldn’t mind more humans, sir,” Alec smiled.
“Still it is perplexing how humans can live on a planet that is 71% covered by water and not know how to swim. Well, we can’t do anything about that and we can’t delay this. The preservation of the life liquid is crucial.”
“I will see you in the morning.”
Alec went back to his cabin and thought about the problem. He wouldn’t go to the bar, it had been a long day and in any case he knew she was probably long gone.
The solution popped into his conscious when he woke up the next day. He hurried to Engineering and was busy at work when Chief found him.
“What are you working on?”
“I think I have a solution to our problem, Chief. It is a harness. It will allow me to take Cate to where the conduit narrows.”
“You can swim with her?”
“She would be floating so it should be easy to pull her along and that way she wouldn’t expend energy. The harness is organic.” He showed him how it would work.
“This is excellent,” said Chief as he looked at the contraption. “Yes, it is easy to disconnect and that would allow her to swim the remaining distance to collect the sample.”
“Good work, Alec. We can get the sample today and tomorrow we can continue to survey the other areas.”
Alec gritted his teeth as he thought about that. He always had a slight sense of claustrophobia when he swam in the thick liquid, but usually he could deal with it knowing it was for a short time and not too often.
“Alec, you are certain you can do this?” asked Chief.
Maybe Chief saw his hesitation. “I can do it. Yes, sir.”
He knew that the Chief required a commitment in a clear language. Chief had to deal with many species and this was the only way to have clear communications between them.
When Alec and Chief arrived to the hatch, Cate was getting ready, but she was moving slower than she had before.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Morning Cate,” said Alec.
“Cate, I was just talking with Alec and he thinks he has a solution,” said Chief. He told the group what Alec had suggested.
“So you think you can pull me along?” asked Cate.
“Yes, I am a strong swimmer. That way you can just relax the whole way there.”
“I don’t have to be dead weight, you know. You won’t mind if I help a bit?”
“Not at all. It will get us there and back faster.”
“That is always good,” she said as she finished putting on the suit.
He put on the suit and attached the harness. Once he stepped into the life liquid he attached the other end to Cate. Then he turned to swim. The harness dug into his shoulders, but he was not moving. He took a deep breath, kicked stronger and swung his arms out forcefully. They started to move. At first it was slowly and then she started to kick her legs. They finally started to move at a good pace.
It had been harder than he had thought. Somehow the life liquid seemed heavier. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” she said. “I should be asking you.”
“I’m fine. Don’t help too much. Conserve your energy,” said Alec. He could only speak in short sentences.
“Don’t worry, this is easy.”
“Four hundred,” he read as went by the marker.
“Four hundred,” she said a few seconds later.
Maybe he should have shortened the length of the harness, he thought, but in any case they were making good progress.
He reached where the conduit narrowed and he stopped. He pulled the line towards him, bringing her along.
“Cate, you should be able to keep the harness on,” he told her. “I can pull you back, if you need.”
“Okay,” she said. “But it is about twenty meters away.”
“I have extra,” he said as he unfurled the coil. She accepted his suggestion readily so he knew it was the right decision.
“All right, that looks good,” she said as she headed into the narrow conduit.
Alec was left with his thoughts and not much else. He closed his eyes. It was weird feeling to be in the total darkness, floating, or falling…
“I have the sample,” said Cate, cutting into his daydreaming.
It had not taken her long. “Do you want a pull?”
“Yeah, sure,” she said.
He started to pull, expecting more resistance; but the line pulled easily. She must have been swimming along. When she reached him they started back. His muscles were aching from the exertion and the coolness of the life liquid was starting to seep through the suit.
“This is the way to travel,” she said.
“Yeah I should charge you a fee,” he said.
“Did you come up with this contraption?”
“Yeah,” he grunted. He couldn’t swim and talk.
“It reminds me of a hiking backpack. I remember the last time I went hiking; it was in the California Sierras. It was spring and luckily it was a year with lots of rain so the waterfalls were full.”
He had hiked the Sierras quite often and he started to remember it as she told him what she had seen and where she had been.
“Two hundred,” she said.
Wow, thought Alec. Somehow he was closer than he had thought. He got a new burst of energy.
Chief took the sample and told them to take the rest of the day off. He didn’t ask if they wanted to and frankly Alec felt it was a good idea.
Cate walked with him towards the living quarters. “I hope the sample tells them what they need.”
“Yeah, but you realize that we still have to investigate the other areas.” He was not looking forward to that. “I don’t know how you are able to go down every day. I’m pretty beat.”
“I don’t think we have an option. We have to figure what is wrong soon, and in any case, women are supposed to be better swimmers,” she smiled. “They are more buoyant.”
That made him laugh.
“Actually I was considering not going today, but then you showed up with your idea.”
“So I saved you from having to tell Chief something he might not like.”
“He told me the other day that I have to express myself more clearly. He said that real courage is when you are honest with yourself.”
“I like that,” he said as they arrived to his cabin. “Well this is where I get off.” He opened his door and she peeked around him.
Her eyes took everything in. “Your cabin is much bigger and…”
He didn’t hear the rest as his mind started to drift. She was nice and here they were, two humans alone with many possibilities.
“Oh yeah, I’m sorry I …”
“You look tired. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He wished her good night.
It was crazy. There was no world where she would be interested in someone like him. She was friendly, and outgoing and she also was competitive and very focused. He was quiet, mostly an introvert and kind of happy with where and what he was.
He lay down and his tired body started to relax, but his mind was racing. She was trainee and in any case she would not be here for long. How long, he wondered. Maybe she could request to stay longer.
The next day, the ship entered a solar system that had never been mapped before. Six planets circled the F type sun and an astounding four were in the habitable zone. The definition of ‘habitable’ was different from the human’s definition, which was Earth centric; it now included higher pressures, a wider range of temperatures and non-water solvents.
Excitement was running high on the ship and reminded everyone of the ship’s primary mission.
The captain had been on such missions before and knew to gather all the scientists and officers in a conference room to determine their needs before things got out of hand. The scientists had already started to place requests with the various departments and he didn’t want duplication of effort or fights for resources.
The captain told them his decision; one team would be sent to each of the planets to investigate them concurrently. It was an unusual decision that would tax the ships resources but the scientists were so delighted they didn’t ask. As soon as the meeting finished, they went to form the teams and prepare the instruments that would be needed.
Chief called his own meeting with the engineering team. He told them the result of the meeting. “So the captain has requested four teams, all working at the same time, to investigate the planets.”
“Four teams? Isn’t that unusual?” asked Hazel.
“It is,” said Chief not explaining further.
Alec had his own theory. The captain was aware of the life liquid problem and maybe he was trying to investigate the planets quickly before it became impossible to do so.
“As usual,” said Chief, “we will support each of those teams.”
Alec was instantly alert. Three of his fellow engineers would be selected and that would leave one slot available.
“X, you will accompany the team with the first mate, Z, you will be with the third mate and Jamez, you are with the principal scientist, Rhoda. That leaves one team to be supported,” said Chief.
“I would like to go,” said Cate.
Alec looked at her surprised. He didn’t think there was any question that he should be the one picked
Chief turned to him. “Alec? Would you like to go as well?”
“Of course, sir,” said Alec.
“Well you are both qualified to accompany the second mate’s team, so you decide among yourselves. I’ll give you five minutes to let me know who is going.”
They stepped out of Chief’s office. “I didn’t think you would want to go,” said Alec.
“Why would I not want an opportunity to walk on a new planet?”
“Okay, but I have been with this group longer than you.”
“I should tell you something about me,” she said.
He looked at her, and one thought raced through his head, but she had to be human. He had seen her in her underwear, or could there be another species that looked so similar? Was that it, or…
“I’m not an engineering trainee,” she said.
“What?” That had not been in any of his thoughts. “Then why are you … ”
“Training in engineering? It is part of my overall training to be a third mate.”
“Third mate?” A human third mate? That would be amazing.
“Yes, I am going to be the first human to be a third mate, so they’re not making a big deal about this until I actually become one. I took the qualifying tests.”
“Of course. Most of the Zandus know and so does Jamez. I have been training with CCN in the early morning. That is why I am sometimes late to Engineering.”
CCN was Command, Communications and Navigation and now he understood why Chief had not reprimanded her for being late. “I didn’t know it was possible for humans to be officers.”
“It has been over a year since humans were first included and now it is possible to have human officers. Going to down to a planet will help in my development,” she said.
“Well, I think it would help in my development as well and once you become third mate, you will have plenty of chances to walk on other planets.”
She glared at him.
He was not going to give in so easily. In all the time he had been on board, they had visited three planets and he knew that X, Z or Jamez would go before he ever did.
“Cate, Alec?” Chief called them from his office. “Come back inside.”
“We have not decided,” said Alec.
“Actually Jamez has decided for you,” said Chief. “He has convinced me that both of you should go. Cate, you will take his place and go with Rhoda and Alec will go with the second mate, Denabulus.”
As Alec climbed into the shuttle, he looked at the team assembled. In Alec’s short experience, Zandus rarely stepped off the ship so none were accompanying the landing team. Shapers, like Denabulus, led most teams, although occasionally a Thesbes was in charge. The Thesbes that was coming with them, Tania, was a life scientist and there were also two Lolas, for security.
It was too bad he had been assigned to this particular team. He knew how Denabulus felt about humans, but he wouldn’t let it get to him. Denabulus had already made it clear to Alec that he did not expect much from him.
“And please try to not get in the way,” said Denabulus repeating himself. “I know humans are very excitable and this being your first time on a planet other than Earth you might do something stupid, but try to control yourself.”
“I will try, sir,” said Alec dryly.
Tania glanced at him with pity while the Lolas avoided looking at him altogether. Nothing was going to faze him, he was going to step on a new planet and it was hard not to be excited.
“Two minutes to land,” said the pilot over the intercom.
The shuttle was the shape of a two story Frisbee and the passengers sat in a circle facing each other on the lower floor while the pilot sat in the center, in the upper floor.
“This planet has frequent dust storms, but we have timed our arrival between storm systems. Still, our time here is limited so we will have to collect data quickly,” said Denabulus. “Security I want you to go first, and Tania will follow closely. Alec, you can pick up the rear, just don’t …don’t do anything and make sure to keep up with the rest of us.”
He actually sounded a bit worried about him, thought Alec.
“The pilot will be leaving right away to not attract unwanted attention,” said Denabulus.
Alec looked at the group and didn’t say anything. But he was sure the flying saucer would be less strange to any of the inhabitants of this world than seeing its occupants. This was assuming there were inhabitants and assuming they were conscious enough to recognize them. Life could come in many forms.
Tania would know that answer right away. As most Thesbes, she was an expert in her field and she was already checking the many small monitors attached to her arms.
The shuttle touched down with a slight bump and the two Lolas jumped up and went to the door. They opened it, deployed the ramp and headed down.
Just like that; they were on a new planet.
The others got up and Alec followed. As he reached the top of the ramp, he had to pause. It was unlike anything he had seen before.
The air was pink and seemed to sparkle while the soil around the shuttle was a combination of bright green and orange.
He took a breath of air and it seemed all right. Of course he had his breathing tube connected. The air pressure on this planet was similar to that of Earth’s so no space suit was required, but they were all wearing a light suit that would protect them from temperature differences and from radiation.
In the distance he could see a huge wall of gray clouds heading their way. That had to be the dust storm.
“Come on, Alec,” said Denabulus.
Alec hurried down the ramp and as soon as he touched the ground, the ramp retracted. He walked towards the group as the shuttle took off.
Everyone was busy. The Lolas were establishing a perimeter and then they would guard the area, Denabulus was taking measurements and updating the captain and other scientists on board the ship, and Tania was collecting samples.
Earlier, she had told him that if she could not detect something living, she would collect soil and rock samples to see if they were suitable for life. These could give hints on whether something had lived there previously.
Alec looked around, it was strange to put an engineer on each team, there wasn’t anything for him to do, but he wasn’t complaining.
“Okay everyone, status,” said Denabulus.
“Status, normal,” said one of the Lolas.
“I need help,” said Tania. “I’m running out of time.”
“Right, what do you need?” asked Denabulus.
“I need two samples. One from those black rocks up there,” Tania pointed to a small hill with two strange looking stones on top, “and another from that rock outcropping.”
“I will get the one on the hill,” said Denabulus taking a specimen case from Tania. “Alec, you go get the other sample.”
Tania waved a specimen case at him and he took it and walked towards the outcropping. The orange rock face was composed of sedentary rock similar to ones back home.
“Cut a good size piece,” said Tania.
Something was strange, thought Alec. The rock types didn’t look right. He knew that these would be different from the ones found on Earth, but the sedimentary outcropping had a crystalline matrix embedded in it. Alec measured the position of the crystal with the intention of cutting the entire piece out. The crystal was shinny and smooth on the surface but it had bluish striations embedded within. It kind of looked like veins.
He took a picture wondering if the crystal would feel rough. Suddenly he had a strong feeling to touch it. He reached out with his glove and nothing happened.
The crystal glistened in the sun, touch me, it seemed to say.
Don’t do it, warned a part of his mind. It would be all right said another part of his brain, Tania had not found anything living.
He took the glove off and touched the shinny surface. The crystal seemed to undulate and then it moved.
Alec was stunned. He wasn’t sure he was seeing right. It wasn’t much of a movement and it could have been a trick of the light especially with the clouds that were gathering with the impeding storm. He stared at the structure for a minute. Nothing.
He looked around and saw that Denabulus was getting ready to take a piece of the black rocks on the hill. Those rocks looked very different from the ones next to him.
“Alec, are you done?” asked Tania. “I need you to…”
She didn’t finish as Denabulus let out a shout, “Ow, what was that!”
Alec turned to see Denabulus backing away from the rocks that had started to glow as if charged with electricity. Denabulus did not get far. An electric bolt originated from the rocks and hit him. He lost his footing and came down hard.
Immediately Alec and the two Lolas ran up the hill, but before they reached Denabulus the two Lolas stopped. They pointed their phasers at the rocks.
Alec didn’t stop. Denabulus was still on the ground and all he could think was to get him out of there.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“I think I’m okay,” said Denabulus. “Help me up.”
Alec helped him and they slowly went down the hill. There was a large black spot on the leg of the suit where the bolt had hit.
Tania called the shuttle and they put some distance between themselves and the black rocks as they waited to be picked up.
“What happened down there?” asked the captain.
“When I tried to take a sample of one of the large, black rocks, the rock reflected the laser beam,” said Denabulus.
“It could be a very hard material and basic geometry could account for that,” said the captain.
“Yes, but then the rocks built up a charge on its own and hit me.” He pointed to his leg. “There was no basic geometry to account for that.”
Luckily his leg had not sustained much damage, thought Alec.
“Could the black rocks be a sort of security system; something left from an intelligent species designed to protect something?” asked the captain.
“Then the question would be, what is the something?” asked Denabulus.
“Tania, you did not show any life readings?”
“No, sir. None. Not even after Denabulus was hit, but I don’t think our monitors were programmed for such different life.”
“Sir, I don’t know about the black rocks, but I think some of those other rocks are alive,” said Alec. He explained about what he had seen. “I think I saw the crystal move.”
“You think, but you are not certain?” asked the captain.
“No, sir. I was waiting to see if it moved again when Denabulus was attacked.”
“And you are sure he was attacked?”
“I clearly saw an electric field form between the rocks and then the bolt was directed to Denabulus, sir. He was moving away at the time.”
“A security system would do the same. This does not convince me that it is alive, but I think it is definitely worth another look,” said the captain. “I will send another team, I want a different perspective on this.”
Alec could sense the disappointment in the others.
“Sir, would you like us to brief the next team on what we found?” asked Denabulus.
“No. I will let them know what they need to know,” said the captain.
The composition of all four planets in the system was similar and they each had aluminum as a major component so the planets were called Alumina 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The name was temporary, as the Interspecies Galactic Designation Convention would designate their actual name at a later date. They would decide on a name as long as no life was found on the planet. If there was something alive, they would ask it for a name first.
Only Alumina 2 was to be visited again. None of the other planets had anything as interesting or possibly alive. Rumors were flying about what had been found, but the next team was sent down before they heard too much.
“All they were told is that the rocks have electric properties and that they should be careful,” said Tania.
Alec had met her on his way to work the next morning.
“The electric property part is kind of true,” said Alec.
“Yes, but if they try to take a sample of the black rock, it may not be as forgiving as it was with us.” She was obviously in the ‘rocks are alive’ camp.
“But, that would mean that the rocks have a memory of the previous time,” pointed out Alec.
“Who knows? If they did, it would good for science, but not so good for the scientists taking the sample. I’m not sure they should take that risk.”
“Yes. I see your point.”
“Alec, I want to ask you some questions about what you saw down there, but I know you are on your way to work. Can we talk later?”
“Let’s meet at the bar. I think most humans like it there?”
Most of the humans did, but he had rarely seen Thesbes in the bar. She was doing it so he would comfortable. “No. Let’s meet in conference room C45.”
“All right,” said Tania.
“Sit down,” said Chief as Alec walked into his office that afternoon.
Cate was already there, waiting. She nodded in his direction as he came in. “How was you trip to the surface?”
“It was fantastic,” said Alec. “How was yours?”
“Not as interesting as yours, from what I’ve heard. You found life?”
“We aren’t sure it is life. Another team has been sent down to get a different viewpoint.”
“What do you think?”
“It looked pretty lively to me.”
“As interesting as this is,” interrupted Chief. “We have discovered something about the life liquid and I wanted you to know about it right away.”
It didn’t sound like good news and Alec sat down. “What is it?”
“Other ships have also been affected in the same way.”
That was not unexpected, thought Alec, as he waited to hear the rest.
“All the infected ships are cross referencing all factors to try to determine what could have caused this and one thing stood out right away,” said Chief. “There are humans on board all those ships.”
“Wait, sir, are the only ships infected the ones with humans onboard?” asked Alec.
“Yes. Only the ones with humans,” he said deliberately.
“How many ships is that?” asked Cate.
“Four ships have humans crews,” said Chief.
It was still four. That number had not changed since Alec had first been assigned, but he just had to make sure “So none of the other ships have a problem?”
“That is correct. Of course we are continuing to look at all factors, but many suspect you are the reason for the life liquid problem. I’m afraid you might start to feel some repercussions.”
“I don’t understand,” said Cate.
“I do,” said Alec. “We will be blamed for what is happening even if they don’t know for sure.”
“But how can it be us?” asked Cate. “The only contact we have with the life liquid is when we put on the suits, and those are disinfected and I’m pretty sure they are not permeable.”
“They are impermeable,” said Chief. “We don’t know how it is happening, but if humans are responsible in any way, we will have to…”
“Take us back to Earth,” finished Alec.
“Yes we would,” said Chief.
They sat for a moment in silence.
“What did you find from the sample we took yesterday?” asked Alec.
“I believe you humans call it a fungus,” said Chief.
Damn, thought Alec. A fungus could very well come from Earth. “Do you know what type of fungus?”
“Not yet. You might find this amusing. It was a human onboard the Garuda that found it to be a fungus. She is working with the medical team on that ship.”
Alec had visited the Garuda once before. All four ships that had humans as part of their crew had been named after Earth’s mythological birds. Most of the other species didn’t care about names and the Zandus were trying to be accommodating to the humans that liked to name things.
The Garuda was a creature that was part human and part bird that exists in Indian mythology. It was so brilliantly colored it was mistaken for the god of fire. In Japan this creature was called Karura and that was the name of one of the other ships. The fourth ship was named the Benu after the Egyptian version of the Phoenix.
The theme for fire breathing birds also applied to the Anzu as that was the name of an ancient Sumerian bird with the body of an eagle and the head of a lion that could breath water and fire. In the Sumerian stories the Anzu stole the Tablets of Destiny and that gave him godly powers over the mortal world.
“How many humans in those ships do what we do here?” asked Cate.
“You mean swim in the life liquid?” asked Chief.
“Humans have been selected to change the filters on all these ships. You are much better at swimming and you fit better than others in the conduits. On the ships without humans, the Lolas do it, like they did here, before you came on board.”
Maybe it was the swimming action that was causing the fungus, thought Alec grasping at straws. They had to figure this out.
“Do you want us to continue to survey the other areas?” asked Cate.
“No. We still need to see the condition on the other conduits, but it is too risky to have you do it. I am going to have X and Z do it.”
“But they won’t fit,” stated Alec and then remembered to add, “Sir.”
“I have made an organic extension to the recorder and Z will be able to record parts of the narrow conduit using that. Of course it will not cover the entire length, but it should give us a good idea of the condition of the conduit.”
As they walked out of the office, Cate turned to Alec. “What do you think? Is there a way we could be responsible for what is happening?”
“I don’t see how. The Lolas wore the same suits, and they had no issues. One thing I have noticed is that some are not too friendly towards humans and this might give them an excuse to make it tough on us.”
“I think we can handle it.”
“I am hoping we will.”
Z did not seem happy about going in their place. “I think humans are not to blame for the fungus. Who ever said that is wrong,” he said.
Z was sounding very pro-human, but it might have been because he would have to swim in the goop now.
“Z, I agree with you,” said Chief, “but right now I don’t want to take any risks.”
Z’s three eyes were scrunched into a scowl as he climbed down the hatch. He was carrying an extra light and the extended recorder.
The Lolas were powerful beings and Z swam through the larger conduits quite easily, even with the additional weight. Alec and Hazel tracked his progress watching the recording. He stopped near the narrow conduit near the fans and extended the recorder.
“What is that?” asked Hazel.
“I don’t know, it looks really dark,” said Alec. “Z, do you have the light on?”
“I do Alec. The walls in the conduit look totally black.”
The conduits near the fans were covered in black fungus.
“This is very bad,” said Chief when saw it.
“How soon before we run out of food?” asked Hazel.
Without the life liquid, the converters would be useless. They would have to resort to stockpiling a wide variety of food to cover the requirements of all the species on board. Not only would it be a nightmare to keep things fresh and edible, in terms of warehousing and storage temperatures, but cooking all these items would also present a problem. The ship’s mission of space exploration was at risk.
Chief didn’t answer Hazel’s question. “I am going to inform the captain of our findings.”
In the meantime Z came back up the hatch and his scowl had been replaced by worry. He already knew what his findings meant. “By the way, the life liquid seems to feel thicker than before,” he said.
“That is what I felt as well,” said Alec, “but I thought I was imagining things.
“You weren’t,” said Chief, “the viscosity of the life liquid has changed.”
The mood in Engineering was somber the rest of the day.
“I can’t wait until quitting time,” said Cate. “I need to get a drink.”
“We too,” said X, speaking for Z.
Alec had noticed they were doing that more often.
“How about you, Alec?” asked Jamez.
“I will definitely go with you tonight,” he said. His days on the ship might be numbered.
“Wow,” said X. “On one hand we have bad news about the life liquid, but on the other Alec is joining us to the bar.”
“That does not offset it,” said Z. “It is still negative all around.”
Alec did not make it to the bar later. All the humans on the ship were rounded up and relocated to one area of the ship. The aliens tried to make it seem it was an ordinary event that could happen on occasionally, but it wasn’t.
The ship was also heading back to Earth. It wasn’t that he had felt the ship change direction, one did not feel those types of movement on board, but Chief had informed them.
“All the ships with human crews are heading back,” said Chief. “We think it is best that you stay on Earth for now. Please be clear that we are not blaming you for what has happened to the life liquid.”
Yeah, it would be hard to blame humans for being humans, thought Alec.
“But we cannot continue on our missions without the life liquid and until we clear that up, we are just being cautious,” said Chief. “You will not be required to do any more work and you will be placed together, in better quarters.”
Alec tried to not smile at the alien’s description of being imprisoned.
“Alec, you have been with us for close to one year and your dedication and work is to be applauded. I have written a commendation.”
That wasn’t going to help with any job on Earth. On the contrary, there might be a lot of resentment towards the humans being returned as having messed it up for everyone else. Damn, he had loved working on board this beautiful ship.
“If we resolve the liquid life problem, you would be invited to return, so look at this as a temporary situation,” finished Chief.
Alec had a hard time believing it. Chief had never lied to him, but this is something humans would say when it was never going to happen. Alec stood up.
“I don’t know how they can blame you and the others for the problems with the life liquid,” said Jamez.
Alec thought it was funny he would say that. Jamez didn’t look so human anymore. He had changed to look like a cross between the Lolas and the humans, just like the other shape shifters.
“How many days until we get to Earth?” asked Cate.
“Eight days,” said Chief, “but first we are finishing investigating Alumina 2.”
It should have taken sixteen days at medium speed, thought Alec, so they were going to go back at a much faster speed. They must be anxious to get rid of the humans.
Hazel offered to show them their new quarters and they went to pick up their things, but there wasn’t much. Alec didn’t have too many personal items and Cate, in her tiny cabin, had even less, so soon they were on their way up the levels to the officer’s quarters. They went through a pair of large doors he had never noticed before and Hazel showed them to their new rooms.
One thing was true; they had been upgraded. They might not have much to do for the next eight days, but they would do it comfortably.
“These rooms are really nice,” said Hazel as she looked around.
“There is also an area where you can socialize.” She pointed to the officer’s lounge at the end of the hallway and Alec could see that people were there already.
“Alec and Cate, I hope we resolve this mess quickly and we can work as before,” said Hazel.
“I hope so too,” said Alec. “Hazel, I was supposed to meet with Tania at eighteen hundred, can you let her know?”
All Thesbes went by one name and with only seven on board, everyone knew who they were. “Yes, Tania.”
“She’ll know. The ship has been informed about the relocation. In fact one of these rooms was hers.”
“Oh?” Alec had not known Tania was an officer.
“Tania went down to Alumina 2 with you, didn’t she?”
“Yes, that’s what we were meeting about. Has the team returned from there?”
“No. I think they were still observing. Well,” she paused.
She was probably deciding how to say goodbye tactfully, thought Alec. “We’ll see you soon,” he said.
Hazel turned and went out the doors that led to the rest of the ship. They locked right behind her.
“Come on, Alec, let’s go check the lounge,” said Cate.
“Yeah.” He had to keep upbeat about this situation. As they walked in, he did a quick count; there were twenty-five humans. All were here.
“Alec. It has been a while.”
It was Jennifer. The Jennifer he tried to avoid by going to the bar in the late hours. “Hello Jennifer.”
“Hi,” said Cate introducing herself. “I work with Alec.”
“We have that in common then,” said Jennifer. “I too have ‘worked with Alec’ and we did have fun didn’t we?” She used her hands to show the quotes.
A look of confusion passed over Cate’s face and then she looked away.
Jennifer was wrong in assuming Cate had had sex with him. He had not, and the way things were going, he might not ever.
With Jennifer, sex was not personal, it was just sex. She didn’t do it for money; it was just a biological urge. That is what she had led him to believe. Luckily he realized humans were still humans, even out in space, and he had ended it before it became anything. Alec did not like conflict and avoiding Jennifer was the way he handled that.
“Gorgeous, let me introduce myself,” said George introducing himself. “I was thinking, now that you are no longer officer material, you might reconsider your options, especially since we’re heading back to Earth. You can hang out with a lowly engineer or with a pilot with a degree from one of the most…”
Alec tuned George out. He had heard it all before and he remembered this was the second reason to avoid going to the bar early.
“Thank you George, I think I will do fine by myself,” Cate smiled. “I think I’m going to go to back to the room, I am a bit tired.”
“Wow, she sure showed both of you,” said Jennifer after Cate left. “I’m surprised you didn’t make your move earlier Alec.”
She shouldn’t be surprised thought Alec. She didn’t know him. Suddenly he also felt tired, dreading the long, long eight days.
He stayed in the lounge a bit longer and after talking to several the people he went back to his room. He needed to figure out a way to fix things, so they could go back to where they were supposed to be.
The doors to the officer cabins were special. You could leave them open, close them solid or close them transparent. The last option allowed one to see through them, but not to hear and this option was used when one had a meeting and didn’t want to disturb others. He left the door to his cabin open and Tania found him later.
“Hi Alec, can we meet now?”
“Yes, sir, I am quite available. Come in please.”
“I’m sorry you have been relocated.”
“I’m sorry you were relocated as well, sir.”
She sat down. “Tell me exactly what you saw and please don’t call me sir. Most Thesbes prefer to be called by their names. It’s easy since we only have one name.”
He told her about seeing the crystalline structure in the sedimentary rock.
“And while you were looking at the crystal, it moved?”
Alec didn’t say anything.
“The team that was sent to the planet has returned and although they spent hours observing the crystalline structure, it did not move.”
“I touched it.”
“You touched the crystal with your glove and it moved?”
Thesbes have a unique property, which helps the gentle species survive. They are natural lie detectors. Hazel had told him that they could see the aura around many species and that they could interpret the colors they saw as the truth or lies. In any case, he wasn’t planning on lying.
“I took my glove off and touched the crystal with my hand. I know I shouldn’t have, but something about the surface and the striations underneath made me feel like touching it. Also, we knew there was nothing alive on the surface, so I didn’t think it was dangerous.”
“Our monitors were not calibrated for this type of life form. They are now,” said Tania. “Well another team is going down and I will tell them what you said.”
Alec nodded and remembered to say yes.
She stood up and as she was leaving she turned to him. “Alec, have you ever touched the life liquid without your suit?”
“No,” said Alec surprised she could even think that.
She studied him for a moment and then said, “Good.” She turned and left.
Damn, was that what everyone was thinking? That he or some other human had contaminated the life liquid? Actually it was strange no one had asked him that question before.
He was certain Tania had read his aura, or auralized him, and now she would know that he told the truth. The problem was that maybe he or another human might have done something without even being aware of what they had done. He sighed and headed to the officer’s lounge for a drink.
“We just need to fix this,” said Cate.
Cate had come out of hiding that morning and had met Alec in his room.
“When I went to the bar before, I was usually with Jamez and the others and was able avoid some of those people,” she said, “but I can’t stay in my cabin forever.”
“Yeah, we haven’t left Alumina 2 yet, and you know it is 8 more days after that.”
“I can’t stare at four walls for that long.”
“And this way we can work together to find why the life liquid has gone bad.”
“You think we can figure it out?”
“I’m going to try like crazy.”
“Okay, that is a better way to go crazy.”
When they arrived at the lounge, George immediately attacked, “We have been thinking that it has to be something you did. The rest of us have never been close to the life liquid, much less touched it.”
It was just the second day of their internment, so he shouldn’t let George grate on him. He was not the authority on being right.
“Cate and I have not touched it,” said Alec evenly.
“But you swam in it,” said George.
“Yes,” said Alec reminding George of the decontamination process they underwent each time. George knew this, but somehow he had conveniently forgotten the process. “If it were that simple, don’t you think they would have found the problem already?”
“Also, why would the other ships have the same problem if it was something we did wrong?” asked Cate.
Alec thought of walking away, but there weren’t too many places he could go. It was a bad situation. Everyone had been so busy working, from day to day they had not had time for quibbling, but now they had nothing to do.
Alec looked around the lounge noticing all the drinks being served. Josh was the only one who was busy now as the bartender and it wasn’t even noon.
“Maybe we have affected the life liquid with the air we exhale,” said Evan. “Maybe we should have worn masks. We put out carbon dioxide and maybe that hurt the life liquid.”
Evan was his friend and he worked in the Food Sector as a food programmer and tester. Basically the converters did the cooking and processing, but the converter had to know how the food was supposed to look and taste so someone had to program it and that was Evan’s job.
“They already thought about that Evan, and it is one of the first things they tested,” said Alec. He thought about asking which of the foods would use more of the life liquid, but then he didn’t. It wasn’t like you could ask one group and not another to cut down on food, could you?
Food for the humans was one of the more complicated on board and Evan could not do it alone, although he had tried. He had admitted to Alec that he had gained weight in the last months on board trying to achieve that goal.
“Of course gaining weight out here, is not as bad as on Earth,” Evan told him one night.
They would share a drink at the bar regularly.
“With less gravity to pull you down, your bones don’t feel it as much,” said Evan.
“Yeah, but don’t love your job too much,” Alec remembered warning him, “you might have to return to Earth at some point and then you will pay the consequences.”
“I guess you’re right. I will try to delegate some of the testing to the others,” said Evan.
There were three other humans working with him, but Alec suspected Evan had the best taste buds among the group and that was why he was lead.
Each species had their own food service with the Zandu’s food being the simplest since they preferred a synthetically flavored shake that came in different colors. They only drank the shake once a day and it was usually presented in a long, thin, frosty vessel.
The Shaper’s food was simple as well consisting of hi-energy pellets, which they ingested twice a day. They did not spend much time on their meals and rarely stopped what they were doing to eat. It was like food on the go.
The Thesbes ate as lightly as their figures suggested, and their diet consisted mostly of nuts and seeds, in small quantities, about five times a day. Some of the humans on board joked that it was kind of like bird food.
Finally the Lolas ate pretty much everything, as long as it was icy cold. He had seen X and Z eat human food as well as some of the seeds and grains of the Shapers. They liked to sit down to eat their two large meals and usually napped briefly afterwards.
“It’s not in the air, and it’s not in the decontamination of the suits,” said Alec. “What has changed?”
“Everything changes all the time,” said George. “Having humans on board a year ago was a big change for the Anzu.”
“But the problem started three months ago,” said Alec.
“Humans were already on board then,” said Evan.
“Most, but not all. Remember, three months ago we picked up seven people,” said George. “Maybe one of them brought something on board.”
There were glances all around. With twenty-five people everyone knew who the seven were. In fact, in Alec’s opinion, they all knew too much about everyone.
“We are not any different than you,” said a guy who had come on board three months ago. His name was Ralph.
“That is your opinion,” said George. “Actually, one of the newest people was very close to the life liquid.” He stared at Cate.
“George, the procedures for swimming in the life liquid were the same for her as they have been for me,” pointed out Alec. “And remember I have been changing the filter for much longer than three months.”
“Well maybe it took a while to build up,” said Ralph. “Maybe it has been going on since humans first arrived.”
Alec sighed. Ralph could be right or maybe he was trying to take blame off the seven new people, but something in his gut told him that wasn’t true. Of course, the gut was never good evidence.
“I heard it is a fungus in the conduit,” said Jennifer.
“I heard that as well. What was it?” asked Evan. “Does anyone know?”
“It is similar to the chocolate spot,” said Cate.
“Really? That doesn’t sound bad,” said Jennifer.
“The name is deceiving,” said Alec. “It usually occurs in plants and the only cure is to cut off the affected leaves.”
“How are you going to that with conduits?” asked Jennifer.
“I have no idea,” said Alec.
“Walk with me Alec,” said Chief later that morning.
Alec was glad to leave the area of internment. They had started to rehash the same conversation and he hated the lack of action. Even the blaming of one group or another was getting old.
As they walked, he noticed Chief was wearing a simple attachment on one of his arms. It was usually what he used when having a meeting. “Any news about the life liquid, sir?” asked Alec.
“No. I was just informing the captain that things have reached a critical point. Remember the spot Cate found on that conduit, the first spot? Well, Z went back to that area and the fungus has spread.”
Alec suspected that might happen.
“We have managed to block the affected conduits, but I think that it will only slow down the infection. We need to cut the pieces off to achieve a lasting cure, and that will take a major rework of the space ship’s internal sections.”
“That could be complicated, sir,” said Alec.
“I know. The captain has put in the request, but so have the other three affected ships. Doing such considerable work will strain the resources on Gliese 65.”
“Sir, you wouldn’t go back to Zolog, to work on the space ships?”
“No, we would not want to take anything that might be contaminated back home. In any case, Gliese 65 is closer. There is something else that is worrying me,” said Chief. “We are going to run out of food.”
“Before we get to Earth?” asked Alec.
“At the current rate of consumption, we will reach Earth, but not Gliese 65. Even after dropping off the twenty-five of you, we will run out of life liquid. We are considering putting some of the crew in stasis. Most of the species on board can easily endure months in deep sleep, and it shouldn’t take that long to fix this problem.”
“Sir, I have seen Lolas eat human food, so you could replenish their food supplies when we get to Earth.”
“Yes, we plan to do that. Even the Shapers are looking into Earth alternatives they might able to eat. I believe they have requested Evan’s help.”
Lucky Evan, thought Alec, he would have something to do and feel useful again.
“We are also in the process of converting one of the hangers to be used to store the food we bring on board,” Chief sighed. “Everything is so much more complicated without the life liquid and now we are being delayed by the scientists who want to spend more time on Alumina 2.”
They started walking back to the former officer’s quarters or current internment center.
“I meant to ask you sir, why did the Zandus construct the conduits for the life liquid like they did?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your race built this ship, but you cannot maintain or fix the life liquid system.”
He was quiet for a moment. “You noticed.”
Alec didn’t know what that meant. “Sir?”
“We modified some of the systems from the original specs after we invited other species on board the Anzu.”
A thought suddenly occurred to Alec. “Sir, you mean you modified systems to give us work?”
“Not so much as to give you work, but it is important everyone has meaningful work. The modifications also gave us more space which we used to increase the number of sleeping quarters.”
“And why did you include all of us in the first place sir? It seems you could do these missions without all the different species.”
“Yes we could, but some Zandus have a major failing and this is a way to correct that.”
Alec was curious, but wondered how to ask Chief.
“Do you want to know what our failing is?”
“There are many among us that think we are superior to all of you.”
“You are technologically more advanced than the rest of us, sir.”
“Yes, but that does not make us superior. Every time we work with others, we are constantly amazed and learn from all of you, no matter where you’re from.”
That was extremely candid of him, thought Alec. He didn’t think humans would admit so easily to any flaws.
“Every time we learn it helps to dispel any superior ideas some might have. The exercise has proved invaluable countless times.”
“Except for this time sir, when humans ruined the life liquid.”
“I still believe humans are not to blame for this, but many on the ship do, so it is partially for your safety to keep you contained in that area.
“Sir, I been thinking, is the progression of the fungus the same, or is it getting faster? Maybe we can figure out the exact time it started and then determine what caused it.”
“I am not sure. I will check on that and let you know,” said Chief. “Thank you Alec.”
“Thank you sir for … ,” Alec paused. There were many things to thank him for. For confiding in him, and for taking him out of his prison, but he didn’t want to sound needy. He wished he could take back the preposition, but it hung out there for a moment, before he said good-bye.
Later that day, he received a message from Chief. The rate of growth of the fungus was steady and they had pinpointed the beginning of it to three months ago.
Good, thought Alec. Now they could work on finding the source of the fungus. Someone or something had introduced it three months ago. He stopped by Cate’s room. “Come with me, I’m going to the lounge. I just found out the fungus was introduced exactly three months ago.”
Things were different with Cate, thought Alec. He didn’t think he had a chance with her when he first met her and now he knew she was not his type, but they had been friends and he could use her help. “Cate, I know there are people there you don’t like, but if we find how the fungus was introduced, we can fix it and then we can stay.”
“You’re right, Alec,” she nodded. “I can do this.” She got up and followed him into the lounge.
Alec noticed the liquor was still flowing freely. Chief had told him that soon it would be rationed and Alec wanted to ask questions while everyone was still in good mood.
Alec had wondered why it was not rationed already, but Chief explained they had been hopeful that that would not be necessary, seeing how much humans enjoyed liquor.
“Hello, everyone,” said Alec loudly.
Some of the people turned to him, but some ignored him.
“They have found that the fungus was introduced exactly three months ago,” said Alec.
“Wait, are you sure, or are you trying to cover your swimming ass?” asked Ralph.
“I am not blaming anyone,” said Alec, “but the good news is we have the exact moment this started so it might have been something that came on board with you.”
“We were screened carefully before coming on,” said Ralph moving towards him.
“Yes, of course,” said Alec. “It might be something that is not obvious. We just need to figure what changed three months ago.”
“Frankly, I think this is progress,” said George. “Now we know exactly which humans are responsible for this.”
Ralph got in front of George. “You want to repeat what you said?”
“George, just shut up, you’re not helping,” said Alec. “Come on, Ralph we can figure this out.”
“Who died and made you king?” asked George.
“Fine,” said Alec. “Who wants to figure this out so we can fix the problem and stay on this ship, or who wants to listen to what George has to say.”
“I suggest we vote on it,” said Ralph. “Raise you hands for Alec.”
Most of the people sided with Alec.
“Okay, I am willing to listen to any suggestions. Even crazy ones,” said Alec.
“Maybe the screening process changed and something got through,” said Cate. “Do any of you work in Security?”
Four people said they did, but none had seen any changes to the screening process.
“Maybe one of you brought something board?” asked Alec.
“You know personal items are limited, but just to make you happy, give me that,” said Ralph as he grabbed a monitor. “Here, are all the belongings I brought with me.”
The list of his personal items didn’t even fill the screen, observed Alec.
Cate studied it over his shoulder. “I don’t see anything here.”
“Go on,” said Ralph to the woman next to him. “Send him the list of what you brought on board.”
She did and soon after Alec received the lists of the others.
Alec realized that he and these people had one thing in common, few personal items. When the aliens had suggested few items, he had not had any problem with that, he didn’t have many cherished items, but now he saw that the others were similar to him.
Suddenly an announcement was made over the intercom system. All liquor would be rationed to three alcoholic drinks per day starting immediately.
“What is this? We are basically trapped with nothing to do and now we can’t have a drink?” asked George. “What the hell. The next thing they will be cutting is the food.”
“I rather they cut the food than the liquor,” said Ralph.
“They will have to cut the food as well,” said Alec. “More conduits have been infected and as the life liquid is depleted, they have to ensure there will be enough for everyone.”
“Are we going to make it back to Earth?” Jennifer looked nervous.
“I think we will,” said Alec noticing the concern on everyone. This would make them cooperate fully and he took advantage of it.
It was late that evening when Tania came to the lounge. “Hello Alec, can we talk?”
Several people looked at them.
“Yeah, let’s go to my cabin,” he went to his quarters and closed the door transparent. “So what bring you back? Are you going to auralize me again?”
“No. I had to do that, you understand?”
“Yeah, I get it. So are you convinced I am telling the truth?”
“I suspected that, but we know that many humans do not tell the truth.”
“Yeah, it’s not a well-kept secret of our species.”
She made a weird noise and said, “That’s funny.”
It must have been her laugh. His translator should have translated it as a laugh, but it hadn’t. He would have to fix that, thought Alec.
“Anyway, the team went down, a Lola touched the crystal, and nothing happened.”
“I can’t explain that,” said Alec. “Maybe I saw something that didn’t happen. Maybe it didn’t move and it was a trick of the light?”
“No, I don’t think so. You said the crystal was one centimeter by three?”
“Now it is three by five.”
“Yes and it is in slightly a different location from your initial measurements. We checked.”
“We would like you to go down and do exactly what you did before.”
“I like you Alec. Some might not want to help if they were being held in…” her voice faded.
“Don’t worry Tania, I understand why you have us confined to one area on the ship. On the other hand, aren’t we running out of food? Shouldn’t we be leaving Alumina 2 by now?”
“Yes, so the sooner we find out what is going down there and resolve this, the better. Get some sleep and I’ll call you at 0500.”
Hours later they were on their way back to Alumina 2. Few had gotten much sleep, but the captain had warned the scientists that they would be leaving in the next five hours and the scientists were anxious to use every minute they had. Many more crystalline structures had been found circling the hill with the black rocks.
Denabulus, was again in charge of the landing party, but this time the landing party was larger than before. The ship’s principal scientist, a Thesbes by the name of Rhoda, had requested to come along and there were also four Lolas for security.
During the trip down Denabulus sat next to Alec and asked him how he liked going to the planet for the second time. “You are the first human to do that,” he added.
“Yeah, I guess it was fortunate I was on the team that discovered life,” said Alec.
“Yeah, it was fortunate. You should call me Denab. I think shorter names are easier for humans?”
“In some cases,” said Alec.
“In many cases,” corrected Rhoda who was listening, “and you are not the only species to think so. That is why we Thesbes have all opted to have only one short name. You should consider that Denabulus.”
Denab didn’t say a word.
The shuttle landed, and the four Lolas quickly went down the ramp. They hurried to the rock outcropping where Alec had first touched the crystal and set a perimeter around it. Alec didn’t think that establishing a perimeter would matter much if the black rocks launched another electric bolt.
Rhoda led the group to the orange outcropping.
“It does look different,” said Alec. He looked at the rest of the surface just to make sure there weren’t other crystals.
“It is the only one here,” he said mostly to himself. He stared at it.
“What are you doing?” asked Rhoda.
“I am doing exactly what I did before,” said Alec. He continued to study the crystal while the others continued to study him.
Then suddenly he felt something. He took off his glove and touched it. The crystal quivered and shifted a tiny bit.
“Oh,” said Tania.
“Remarkable,” said Rhoda.
“Yep, I definitely saw it move,” said Alec putting his glove back on.
“Step away Alec,” said Rhoda giving him a slight push. “Tania, go ahead, scan it.”
Tania took reading of the crystal. “The water content has increased.”
They all looked at Alec. They would know that the amount of water in an adult human was 57 to 60% and somehow he had deposited some of it on the crystal.
“That is why nothing happened when we had the Lola touch it,” said Rhoda. “Their bodies have less water content.”
So the crystal had taken water from him, thought Alec. Should he be concerned?
“Don’t worry,” said Tania. “It just took molecules of water, nothing that would affect you.”
Maybe she was also a mind reader thought Alec.
“So maybe those two black rocks are alive as well,” said Denab.
“We can’t make that conclusion,” said Rhoda, “but one thing is for sure. We have to stay to check it out.”
“But we can’t,” said Alec and then added, “sir. We will run out of food.”
“I know that. I am the principal scientist so obviously I know that,” Rhoda raised her voice. “I am considering all options and I am surprised Tania didn’t tell you that we Thesbes like to go by our names and not sir.”
Damn, he was such a newbie. He should have kept mouth shut.
Tania glanced at him. “But Rhoda, he does have a point.”
“I know, but it is very frustrating that we are about to discover a new life form and we have to leave. It is all because of the life liquid. You swam in it, Alec. Don’t you have an idea what is happening?”
“No,” said Alec almost adding the sir. Rhoda was very much a sir.
“Denab, find out how much time we have before we have to leave,” said Rhoda.
Denab started talking with the captain while Tania helped Rhoda measure and analyze.
“I’m sorry Rhoda, but the captain says the ship is still scheduled to leave in three hours,” said Denab.
“Right. The captain has no idea,” said Rhoda under her breath. “Okay, pack it up then.”
Alec was surprised Rhoda hadn’t argued more and soon they were back in the shuttle. As the shuttle took off, Alec closed his eyes. He was tired, but at least they knew he wasn’t crazy. When he opened his eyes, Tania was staring at him. He stared back. She had the most gorgeous, warm, brown eyes with little flecks of gold. Then he shook his head to dispel any thoughts, just in case she could read his mind.
They arrived to the Anzu, Denab offered to walk with him back to his cabin. Alec wondered if it was to ensure he went back to his jail.
“Hey Alec, I wanted to thank you for helping me the other day. I didn’t have a chance to do that before.”
“Oh, it was no problem.”
“I have come to realize that not all humans are the same, just like not all of us Shapers are the same. On the other hand, I still think all Lolas are the same.” He laughed.
“Mostly the same,” smiled Alec.
“Yeah you’re right. Mostly. Well hopefully we will fix the life liquid problem and we will get to work together.” He opened the doors, let Alec through and closed them afterwards.
Alec debated whether to head to the lounge or go back to his cabin. He decided to go back to his cabin and found Cate waiting outside his door.
“Hi,” she said. “I heard you guys were back from the surface. How was your trip down?”
“Let’s go inside.” He closed the door to transparent and told her what they had found.
“I understand this is an exciting scientific achievement, but shouldn’t we be leaving this planet? Aren’t we going to run out of food?”
“Yeah. I brought that up and it was not too well received by the chief scientist.”
“Ah, Rhoda, I went down with her. I made the mistake of calling her sir.”
Alec smiled, “So did I. She is not your typical Thesbes.”
“True. Hey, have you heard that some of the crew is going to be put into deep sleep to conserve food?”
“Yeah, Chief mentioned it.”
“Well several humans want to do it.”
“Why would they?”
“If they’re asleep they won’t get bored and their bodies will not age during that time.”
“It’s not going to be for too long, but I can relate to the part of being bored. Do you know if it’s possible to nominate a couple of people to be put to sleep?”
She laughed. “I think I know whom you’re talking about. Well, the reason I came is I found out that we picked up cargo at the same time we picked up the seven people.”
“Cargo? What kind of cargo?”
“I don’t know. None of the people were involved, but several saw the containers being loaded.”
“Good job, Cate. Let’s find out what was loaded,” said Alec. He called Chief directly.
“I’m in the engine room with Jamez,” said Chief. “Please wait a minute.”
As they waited, Alec happened to look out the door and there was Tania. She saw him and Cate and immediately turned away.
Alec’s heart had started to beat more quickly, and then he heard Chief repeat his name, “Alec?”
“Oh, Chief,” said Alec. “Cate found that we received cargo exactly three months ago and we were wondering what it was?”
“I was not aware we picked up supplies then. Do you think something was brought on board that affected the liquid life?”
“It fits the time frame,” said Alec.
“I will look into it,” said Chief.
“I have a good feeling about this,” said Cate. “Let’s go to the lounge to wait for Chief’s reply.”
Tania was gone and he could not very well chase after her. It was better to go with Cate and forget those crazy thoughts.
“How many drink credits do you have?” asked Cate.
“Four or five, I’m not sure.” He had not been drinking his allotted daily amount.
“Do you know that some will pay cash for your liquor credits? I sold two of mine yesterday.”
“Yes, I figure I can make some dough.”
“But we don’t need money on board.”
“We will when we back home.”
Yes, thought Alec, another thing he had not worried about while on board.
They walked into the lounge and Cate announced that Alec had liquor credits to sell. Suddenly he was the most popular guy around.
He saved one credit to buy a beer and was nursing it when Jamez walked in. “Alec. Is Cate around?”
Alec pointed in her direction.
“I need both of you to come with me. Chief wants to see you.”
As they walked Jamez asked Cate how she was doing.
“I am doing as well as can be in our situation,” said Cate. “Thanks for asking.”
“By the way, I am doing well too,” said Alec.
“That’s good of course,” said Jamez.
“So did Chief find something?” asked Alec trying to steer the conversation back to work.
“Chief didn’t tell me, but he has called a meeting, and he wanted you two there. I suspect so.”
It must be something significant, thought Alec. They were heading to one of the larger conference rooms. When they arrived, they had to take a seat at the back of the room, it seemed many had been invited.
Chief started the meeting right away. He said it was good so many were there to hear the news directly and that should prevent having rumors afterwards. “This morning another ship was reported to have its life liquid infected.”
But there were no other ships with humans, thought Alec.
“There were no humans on board and none have ever visited this ship. This of course discounts the humans as being the cause. In fact, our own humans have pointed to the real problem.”
The audience was paying close attention.
“Months ago, we upgraded the filters in the life liquid. It was a minor change and the new filters looked very much like the older one. The change was in the material used and it was considered so minor, most of us were not informed.”
Some heads would roll, thought Alec.
“The new material interacts with the life liquid and the result is the fungus we have. We need to replace all the filters with older ones right away. Fortunately we still have several old filters on board.”
The captain got up. “Even after we replace those filters, we still do not know how long it will take for the life liquid to recover so we are still implementing the deep sleep option for part of the crew. This will ensure there will be sufficient food for all of us. Any questions?”
Rhoda stood up. “Does that mean we can stay around Alumina 2 longer?”
“No,” said the captain. “We are in the process of selecting who will be put to sleep and once we do, we will head to the nearest space station. We cannot risk running out of food. Anything else?”
There wasn’t and the meeting ended.
“Sounds like you will be back in business,” said Jamez. “Congrats.”
Chief came to talk to them. “Did you hear the news?”
“Yes, sir,” said Alec.
“Good. Walk with me. We need to change those filters right away,” said Chief heading out the door.
Cate, Jamez and Alec followed him.
“We will start with the influx filters. Alec, you will go right away and change two of them and as soon as you return Cate will do the same with the other two. I will have X and Z ready with the backup suit just in case, but there shouldn’t be a problem if we keep to within the acceptable time parameters, don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir,” said both Cate and Alec together.
“I have scheduled ten hours of rest in-between your swims. Sorry it is not more time, but you understand the urgency.”
All eight filters had to be replaced, but with the two of them, each one had to make only two trips each. It was very do-able, thought Alec.
“We will be done by tomorrow evening and then we just wait for the life liquid to clear itself.” Chief didn’t smile, but if he could, he would have.
Alec went to the bar soon after he had replaced the influx filters. Cate was already swimming and with X and Z supporting, he didn’t need to be there.
Actually, he should have been sleeping since he would be back at it, in, he looked at the time, eight hours, but he couldn’t and when Jamez asked to meet him there, he agreed.
Jamez was seated at a table already. “I was trying to remember the last time I saw you here,” he said.
“I prefer to come later, when it is quieter,” said Alec, “although tonight it is very quiet.”
“There are less humans and Lolas.”
“Yeah,” said Alec as he ordered a drink from a Lola. Over 30% of the crew, including 15 humans, had been put to sleep and Josh was one of those.
“Alec, I know we are friends so I wanted to ask you something.”
“Go ahead,” said Alec not paying much attention. It was probably questions about humans.
“Do you love Cate?”
Alec almost choked on his whiskey. “No,” he said much too quickly.
“Good,” said Jamez. “If you did, I would not have a chance. I think she would prefer you to me, but now my plan will work. I know I will have to improve so she will notice me, but there is a position opening for lead engineer and I am going to apply for it. What do you think?”
What he said was wrong on so many levels it took him a moment to reply. He started with, “Do you love her?”
“Yes, in the classic human way,” said Jamez.
“You worry that I am not human? I could be. I could be any human she might like. I know I can’t give her children, but I believe she is not the type of woman who wants little ones. They would detract from her career, don’t you think?”
He had had that impression, thought Alec but there was bigger impediment. “I don’t know her that well, but Jamez you are a different species.”
“I know,” said Jamez as he put his hand on Alec’s. He looked into his eyes. “I think we can overcome this.”
“Yeah,” said Alec removing his hand. “Jamez, when you hold hands like that, humans interpret that gesture as fondness.”
“Yes. I am fond of you.”
“We are friends, but to me, that kind of hand holding is more intimate, almost sexual.”
“Oh, I didn’t know.”
“Exactly. An interspecies relationship might be a lot more complicated than you imagine.”
“So you are against it?”
Just then Tania walked into the bar. She saw them and headed towards them.
“Alec?” Jamez was waiting for a response. “Oh, hello Tania.”
“Hello Jamez, Alec. Can I join you?”
“Sure,” said Jamez. “We were just talking about interspecies relationships.”
“Interesting subject,” said Tania.
“He is against it,” said Jamez.
“No. I am not against it. I just said it would be complicated. Things can be interpreted very differently from one species to another.”
“Yeah,” said Jamez. He took Tania’s hand and held it. “He said that means I am fond of you and that we are more than friends.”
“Oh,” said Tania. “Touching hands is significant in our world as well.”
“Is it lust?” asked Jamez. He turned to Tania. “Lust is when you crave each other’s bodies.”
“I know what it is,” said Tania. “So is it?”
“No. Holding hands is not lust. In fact for two men to hold hands in countries in Africa, the Middle East and in India is very commonplace and it just means friendship.”
“That does sound complicated,” said Jamez.
“You know, I’m not an expert on relationships, maybe there is someone else,” Alec looked around the bar hoping he could get away.
“I think you know enough to enlighten us,” said Tania.
“Oh, I just remembered something else,” said Jamez. “I saw Dmitry and Pasha kiss each other on the cheek, three times. Does that mean they are a couple?”
“No,” said Alec. “Dmitry and Pasha are Russian and that is a common greeting in that country.”
“Wow, that is amazing the same gestures mean different things depending on where the people were born,” said Jamez. “Where is Cate from?”
“I think she is Canadian, which is a lot like the USA.”
“I could say I am Russian and kiss her on the cheek?”
Alec laughed. “I guess you could but she is not going to believe that.”
“Look Alec,” said Jamez. His face was changing and he started to look like Dmitry. “Even now?”
Alec had never seen an actual shifting and it was fascinating how subtle changes made the total appearance so different. “Come on, Jamez, be yourself.”
Tania put her hand over his. “So this means fondness for you?”
“Yes,” said Alec removing his hand. “I have to go. Actually I am surprised you are up this late Tania.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said looking at him with her perfect almond colored eyes.
He could get lost in those eyes too easily. He got up suddenly. “See you tomorrow, guys.” Then he hurried out of the bar.
Luckily he was tired and fell right asleep.
He pulled the filter carrier alongside him. Going in this direction was always easier and the current helped him along. As soon as he came back, Cate would enter the life liquid, finish the job and hopefully there would be no more swimming for a while.
He knew that the ship was getting ready to leave the orbit of Alumina 2. They should have done so already, but there was some sort of hang-up. He was not privy as to why; it was above his pay grade, but that didn’t bother him. He was happy he was back at work and he had plans. Regardless of Jamez, he was going to try for the lead engineer position.
He was also going to try to be friendlier with his coworkers. Just think, he and Denabulus had barely exchanged a greeting and after a few moments together he was now his buddy, Denab. Alec smiled as he swam.
When he came back up the hatch, Cate was ready to go.
“Go ahead Cate,” said Chief. “We still have to make the change.”
Alec thought that a weird comment, but wished her luck as she went through the shower.
“While you were gone, an emergency came up,” said Chief.
Alec had started to dress and now stopped to listen.
“Someone took a shuttle down to the planet. We have had to delay our departure,” said Chief.
Of course Chief knew who it was, thought Alec.
“As you can imagine, this is in violation of the captain’s orders. The emergency does not affect us directly, so we let you complete your task and that is why Cate is completing hers.”
“Yes,” mumbled Alec, “otherwise we will have another type of emergency.”
“Exactly,” said Chief. “The delay puts more pressure on our food supply and getting the life liquid clean is paramount.”
That should teach him to swim happily, thought Alec.
Chief told him to finish dressing and he could leave for the day. As he walked by Chief’s office he just had to ask, “Chief, who took the shuttle?”
“Rhoda. We were hoping she would reconsider and return quickly, but it doesn’t seem that is going to happen.”
“Oh. Rhoda was down on Alumina 2 with me.”
“I know. She is intent on finding out more about the rocks down there and she even abducted a couple of the crew to help her.”
“That could be dangerous. Denab was lucky he was not hurt badly.”
“We are aware of that. There is a team down there right now, trying to negotiate with her.”
“Sir? I thought Thesbes were normally very logical,” said Alec.
“Usually they are. They are reserved, analytical and logical, similar to us,” said Chief. “The doctors think it may be a mental condition that has been seen on occasion. They don’t know what causes it.”
Maybe it wasn’t so mental, thought Alec. Rhoda had seemed too calm when ordered to return to the ship and that had been inconsistent with her obsession to find a life form. Maybe this was all part of her plan. Well there was nothing he could do about that.
“Sir, I am going to move my stuff back to my quarters,” said Alec.
“Go ahead. It is a good time to do so,” said Chief.
He had just arrived back at his cabin carrying his stuff when Denab saw him.
“I was just looking for you,” he said. “The captain needs to talk with you.”
“Okay,” said Alec. He dropped his stuff on the bed in his cabin and followed Denab out.
“You heard about Rhoda?” asked Denab.
“Yes, Chief told me.”
“Well, Rhoda wants you down there.”
“She said the crystalline form is linked to you.”
“It took a few of my water molecules. I don’t think we have a link.”
“You may be wrong,” said Denab stopping in front of the captain’s door. He announced himself and the door opened. The captain was sitting at his desk and next to him was his Artificial Intelligence assistant.
Alec had never had the chance to study an AI assistant. This one did not look humanoid, or like any other species on board. It had two very round lights in the place where eyes normally went, and in the case of this assistant, they were yellow and green. Alec had heard they could look at the world using different sensors, like gamma ray, x-ray ultra violet or infrared. It probably could detect lies as well, he thought as he tried not to stare.
“Come in Alec, sit down,” said the captain.
“Yes sir.” Alec was surprised he knew his name, but then he had asked for him.
Denab sat down next to him.
“A23, tell Alec what is happening with Rhoda,” said the captain.
A23, the AI assistant, repeated the story Alec had heard from Chief. It spoke in clear English and had a female British accent.
“So,” said the captain when she finished. “Rhoda will not return until you go down.”
“Why me, sir?” He had to ask again. The thing down there just could not be linked to him.
“The crystal grew and moved when you touch it.”
“You mean when a human touches it, sir?”
“No. Unfortunately, Rhoda took a human and a Lola down to the planet thinking that one of them would affect the crystalline structure, but there was no change.”
“I don’t know why it would be different with me, sir.”
“I don’t know either, but right now we need you to go down there and convince her to return. If she doesn’t, we will be forced to leave her and the other two. I cannot risk the welfare of the entire ship for a few.”
“I will try, sir.” He had to; he knew they would not survive long if they were left on the planet.
Denab and four Lolas accompanied him down. They landed and as the ramp deployed Rhoda contacted them.
“Denabulus, do you have Alec?”
“Yes we do,” said Denab.
“Let me talk to him.”
Denab passed the ship’s comm to him.
“Alec, good. Look I only want you to come down the ramp.”
“Yes. The others can wait on the shuttle.”
Alec looked at Denab. “All right, I will let them know.” He didn’t have to, since they all had heard.
Alec headed out the door alone. The planet’s colors were as amazing as before, and he almost paused to take in the view, but then he saw Rhoda. She was at orange rock outcropping and there was a Lola and a human on the ground next to her. She was waving a weapon carelessly in their direction.
She saw him. “Alec, get over here,” she shouted.
As he got closer Alec recognized the human, it was Evan. He couldn’t identify the Lola, but he didn’t know too many Lolas by name.
Evan turned to him and his eyes were wide with fright.
“Are you all right Evan?” asked Alec.
Evan nodded slightly.
“Don’t worry about him, he is fine, but I’m sorry to say TT got a bit hurt. By the way, I have determined that the black rocks are not alive. They provide a sort of protection for the crystals and I do not know how to turn it off.”
Alec saw that the Lola was holding his side and something was oozing through his five fingers. “What happened?”
“When Evan touched the crystal, the rocks were glowing but nothing happened, so I had TT try. Apparently those two black rocks didn’t like that and hit him with an electric charge. This didn’t happen to you, Alec. You are the only one that makes this work and I want to know why.”
“I will help you Rhoda, but you have to let Evan and TT go.”
She thought about it for a second.
“Come on Rhoda, there’s nothing they can do and I promise to help you.”
“All right, both of you can go, but Alec, I want you close to me, right here.”
Evan stood up quickly and helped TT up. They shuffled towards Alec.
“Get to the shuttle, and don’t stop,” said Alec as they passed him. He was afraid that Rhoda or the black rocks might change their mind.
“What are you trying to prove, Rhoda?” he asked as he approached her. “You saw the crystals move already and you can take the credit for finding a new life form.”
“How little you know. It’s not that easy.” Rhoda started to explain how she needed to measure the growth and determine if the structure was replicating itself or if the growth was uniquely different from the rest…
Alec stopped listening; he could see the black rocks on the hill were glowing faintly. That is how they had looked before the bolt hit Denab and he had been lucky to be hit so lightly. Now TT had been hit from a distance and the result had been that big gash. Maybe Tania was right about the system remembering.
“Rhoda, we should go,” he said.
“Of course, as soon you make the crystal grow. Haven’t you been listening?”
“No. I think we have to go now, look at the rocks.”
“No Alec,” she barely glanced at them. “We are not going anywhere, I know the rocks won’t hurt you. Go on touch it, right now,” she was waving her weapon dangerously towards his face.
He had to choose, the crystal or a deranged scientist.
Previously he had waited for a feeling, almost a permission to touch the crystal, but now he couldn’t wait. The rocks were glowing more intensely. He took off his glove and touched the crystal.
Rhoda stared for a second. “Damn it. Nothing is happening,” she shouted.
She was wrong. The black rocks released a bolt and Alec felt the air tingle around him. He dropped down, but he wasn’t fast enough and the bolt hit him in his shoulder.
He fell to the ground holding onto the shoulder. The pain seared down his arm, but he didn’t have time to think. Almost immediately another bolt was released and this one hit Rhoda squarely in her back. She crumpled down on top of him.
He could feel she was breathing, but she appeared to be unconscious. He tried to move her off him gently, but it was difficult. Suddenly two hands helped.
“Alec, can you get to the shuttle?” said Denab.
“Yeah. I think so.”
“We’ll take care of her.”
Two of the Lolas were pointing their weapons toward the rocks while the other two were setting up the maglev stretcher.
Alec didn’t wait and hurried back to the shuttle holding onto his injured arm.
The pilot was waiting for him. He helped him out of his suit and then cut off his t-shirt to study the wound. Alec took a glance; it felt worse than it looked.
“Don’t worry, it will heal well,” said the pilot as he poured a liquid on the wound. He then covered it with a blue bandage.
“Do you want to sleep?” asked the pilot holding something that looked like a pen.
“No. No, I’m okay.”
“All right, go sit,” said the pilot.
Alec already felt some relief. He sat down next to TT and noticed he looked better as well, although his green bandage was much larger. It covered most of his side.
“Thanks for saving us,” said Evan.
“I didn’t do anything,” said Alec.
“You did and thanks.”
A few minutes later, the four Lolas came in with Rhoda and Denab. She was left on the floating stretcher for the trip back and as soon as they docked, the medical team came on board the shuttle. Two nurses came for him and the Lola.
“How are you feeling?” asked his nurse.
She was blonde, petite and human. He tried to remember her name, it was Betsy or Bettina and she was one of the few humans who did not frequent the bar much.
“Betty, take care of my friend,” said Evan.
“Of course Evan, that is my job,” said Betty. “Can you walk?”
“Sure,” said Alec. He stood up and followed her out.
He had never been in the Medical Center. It was clean, shiny and sparse, but the walls seemed to be covered with little doors.
Nurse Betty pointed to a cot. A stiff looking curtain surrounded the cot on three sides. “You can wait there. The doctors are with Rhoda, but they will be here soon.”
“How is she?”
“It is too early to tell,” said Betty as she walked away.
He didn’t lie down. He sat down and tried to look at his wound. The bandage was firmly attached and he wondered if it was a good idea to pry it off just for curiosity sake.
Then he noticed the curtain move slightly and got up to see what was behind it. TT was lying on a cot with two of his three eyes closed. The other eye focused on him.
“TT, how are you?”
“I feel all right.”
Alec could see that he still had the bandage. It was hard to tell how bad his injury was.
“These are pretty cool bandages, aren’t they?” said Alec.
TT didn’t say anything.
Alec returned to his cot.
“You’re a lucky guy,” said TT from the other side.
“Why is that?”
“That pretty Thesbes likes you.”
“No,” TT sounded incredulous. “Tania.”
“How do you know that?”
“I was sitting right next to you and Jamez at the bar.”
Alec felt badly. He hadn’t even noticed TT; he was just another blue guy at the bar.
“Actually, it seemed Jamez likes you as well.”
“Yeah,” said Alec remembering the handholding. “We’re all just friends. We were talking about different human customs that is all.”
“Still, most Thesbes hate to come to the bar, so she must like you somewhat,” said TT. “Thesbes are not like you or me.”
“Oh,” said Alec thinking about that for a bit. “Hey, if the doctor doesn’t come soon, I was thinking of leaving. I’m not feeling bad and I hate it when the doctors poke and probe you, want to join me?”
TT started to laugh and stopped abruptly. “Ow, I think I better stay, my side is starting to hurt.”
Just then Nurse Betty and two Lolas came walking in. One of the Lolas went to the other side of the curtain and one came with Betty.
“This is Doctor K,” said Betty.
“How are you feeling?” asked Dr. K.
“I’m fine. I don’t want to waste your time. Maybe I can go?”
“Nurse, take the bandage off.”
Alec gritted his teeth waiting for Betty to yank the thing off. Instead, she shinned a beam of light and the bandage slid off.
Dr. K stepped closer. “The pilot did a good job. See how the skin is pink? It is not bright red and there is no pus or slime.”
“Yes doctor,” said Betty.
Alec craned his neck to see, there shouldn’t be slime.
“This bandage was developed specifically for humans,” continued Dr. K, “and it does a good job healing when the wound is not large. I’m glad to see that it is working.”
“So, I’m the guinea pig,” said Alec.
Nurse Betty smiled, but Dr. K looked serious.
I guess it was better to be the guinea pig now rather than when the wound was worse, he thought. “Does this blue bandage work on a burn only?”
The doctor stopped what she was doing; seemingly surprised the patient would talk, but then answered. “It works on burns, bites and inflammation. The white ones are for minor bleeding wounds.”
“And the greens bandages are for Lolas?”
“Yes, as well as the black ones. Nurse Betty, please put on a new bandage, but I would like him to stay here for a few hours. When one experiences a trauma sometimes it takes some time for it to surface.”
“Yes, doctor.” She started to place a fresh blue bandage on his injury.
“What about the Zandus? What color of bandage do they use?” asked Alec.
The doctor had started to leave and she stopped in mid-step. “You are a very curious human aren’t you?”
“The Zandus do not need bandages. Alec, stay until the nurse says you can go, I want you back in two days and you should leave the bandage on.” Dr. K went to the other side of the curtain.
You might as well rest Alec,” said Betty as she fluffed up the pillow.
She was right, thought Alec, feeling tired.
“Nurse Betty, please come” called Dr. K from the other side.
Betty hurried over.
After a few minutes of not hearing anything, he wanted to ask how TT was doing, but he didn’t want to disturb.
He knew the voice and turned to find Tania.
“I heard you were hurt. Are you all right?” she asked.
He briefly thought about exaggerating his condition to get more pity, but then he saw she was worried. “It’s nothing Tania. They just want me here for a couple of hours.” He sat up.
“Oh,” she said coming closer. She looked at his bandage but there wasn’t much to see.
Then they heard TT complaining.
“TT got it worse and Rhoda is the worst of all,” said Alec.
Tania looked down. “I don’t think she will make it.”
“They are still working on her, so don’t think that way.”
“We can sense when one of us is injured badly,” she sighed. “I don’t know why she acted the way she did.”
“Chief said that impulsive behavior sometimes surfaces in Thesbes and Zandus.”
“He is right,” she looked at him sadly, “otherwise we are very logical, as you know.”
“Hey, looks like you already have a guest,” said Jamez as he walked into the medical bay. “Hello Tania.”
“Jamez, come on in,” said Alec.
“I came to tell you the good news. Chief says that the life liquid is recovering nicely.”
“That is good news,” said Alec.
“Wow, it’s a crowd,” said a new voice.
It was Cate.
“Might as well squeeze in here,” said Alec waving her over.
“Glad to see you are doing all right. I guess Jamez gave you the news?”
“He just did.”
“We’ll wake up everyone when we are sure to have enough life liquid, but things are looking up,” said Cate.
“They sure are,” said Jamez looking at Cate.
“Excuse me everyone,” interrupted Nurse Betty. “The reason Alec is here is to rest and with all of you here, that is impossible.”
“All right, Nurse Betty is correct,” said Jamez.
They all started to leave.
“Hey Alec, we’re going to get a drink later, want to join us after you’re released?” asked Jamez.
“Sure, that would be great,” said Alec looking forward to that. This small group was becoming his good friends. Things were definitely looking up.
Although my writing is based on fiction, my love of science and technology drives me to research the ‘real things’ and I like to add these into the stories. I am currently writing three series and in most of the women are intelligent and independent, and the men that are considerate and thoughtful.
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Mary S. Sheppard
A Where is Now Story
About Blooming Time -
Amy had always been dedicated to her job as a biochemist at BioTime Labs. It was the kind of work one could get dedicated to – saving the world, or least, curing diseases that afflicted the people of her time, in 2066. The plants whose chemical composition could provide such remedies are now extinct so one had to travel though time. Amy was not supposed to be one of the first time travelers.
Available in print and eBook.
The Feelings Are the Same Series
About Book I –
Since 1954, the Neubulisskys, from Planet Neubulis, have abducted people from around the world for their psychological experiments. The experiments are about human feelings and interactions, and Suki, having few friends and relatives, seemed perfect for the project of loneliness. Or so they thought.
Available as eBooks.
The mission of The Anzu was clear and simple, the exploration of space. The Zandu, the builders of the spaceship, were a highly advanced and logical race and they planned to include other species in their quest. Their intent was not only to learn from their travels, but also to learn from each other, they had not counted on how disparate intelligent beings could be. When Alec was born in Santa Cruz, California, he had no idea he would be part of a interplanetary crew. There are currently twenty-four humans on board and after a year in space, there is one thing Alec knows for sure, there is nowhere else he would rather be, even if the humans are not in the majority or in charge.