The slide of the pistol locked back as he fired his last round. Gunfire was erupting from the barricade ahead and he ducked behind the wall as he ejected the empty magazine. Theo caught his breath as he slammed a full magazine into the pistol and thumbed the slide release. He dropped to a knee and leaned back around the wall, firing twice and silencing the gun there. He sprinted to the next barricade, firing as he ran, clearing the sniper he knew was there.
He leaned against the wall, wishing he’d brought water. The glare and heat were brutal, this sure wasn’t the sun he was used to. There were three rounds left in the .45 and he tapped the thigh pockets on his fatigue pants in the vain hope of finding another. The door to his left slammed open and there was a fusillade of automatic weapon fire but Theo was already twisting away, firing his last three rounds. The Colt went back in the holster with one hand while he pulled the big revolver out with the other. The firing went silent but he wasn’t sure if he’d gotten a clean hit. He kept the revolver up as he quietly jogged to the next corner.
He jumped as the hollow boom of a shotgun echoed from his left. Then there were three more in rapid succession. Theo rolled his eyes. Who the hell had thought up an automatic shotgun? It was masking any sounds there might have been from behind the shipping container. He risked a fast peek around the corner and pulled his head back, letting his brain process what he’d seen.
One of them was just waiting for him, standing out in the open. Theo stepped out, the big silver Ruger thundering as he fired, hitting center mass. The door to his right slammed open and he sprinted, trying to get out of the line of fire. Then, too late, he saw movement from the top of the shipping container. It was already shooting and he stopped running.
“Exercise halted,” the range computer announced. “No objectives completed, you were killed by opponent at A-42 from above. Notice: this exercise is designed for a team of two. Notice: today you have failed this exercise nine out of nine times. Your cumulative score is twenty-two failures out of twenty-two attempts.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Theo muttered, walking back through the course and picking up his discarded magazines.
A new dyad pair, Howard Manson and Kate Adams, were waiting in the shade at the starting gate and Theo nodded at them.
“How’d you do?” Howard asked as Theo slumped on the bench in the shade beside them.
“Pretty well, right up until the point I got killed.”
Kate handed him a bottle of water and Theo nodded his thanks as he drained it.
“So, why are you trying to run a doubles program by yourself?” she asked.
“Just trying to push myself,” Theo said. He didn’t want to get into why he kept making one suicidal run after another, what it reminded him of. “I need to use another automatic next time, the revolver is too slow.”
“Or another shooter,” Howard said. “You ready, Kate?”
She smiled and hopped to her feet. “Let’s get some revenge for poor dead Theo there.”
Howard laughed and gave the range computer the parameters as they walked to the starting gate. They leaned toward each other and kissed as the countdown started. Theo frowned and got up to get more water. He refilled the bottle and headed to the work tables to clean the pistols.
Imae and Holm came into the work area as he worked, looking pleased with themselves. Imae had some kind of exotic looking submachine gun and Holm was carrying the automatic shotgun.
“I figured that was you,” Theo said.
Holm laughed. “Hell yeah that was me. This thing is awesome, you ought to try it on your course.”
Theo laughed. “Way too much boom for the practicals course.”
“How’d you do?” Imae said, getting more water from the cooler.
“Made it to the fourth turn. I didn’t know they put shooters on top of the structures.”
“They move them around?” she asked, picking a spot in front of the big industrial fan to disassemble the submachine gun .
Theo nodded. “Targets and walls both. They keep it randomized so you can’t get through by memorizing the whole thing. You should try it.”
“I’ll stick with seismic survey,” she said, pulling the barrel off and running patch cord through it. “But I do like making lots of noise with these.”
“You should really try this. It’s just what you need,” Holm said, breaking the shotgun down.
Theo snorted. “What I don’t need is the range master finding out that I blew the shit out of all the popup targets.”
“It’d serve ’em right for wasting my boy,” Imae said in a terrible Brooklyn accent. “Next time, we both go and show those fools what’s up. Right, G?”
“Which one of us is G?” Theo asked after they both stared at her for a second.
“Shut up and agree,” Imae sighed.
Theo shut up and nodded.
“Who’s in there shooting now?” Holm asked after a flurry of shooting.
“Howie and Kate.”
“They stopped making out long enough?” Imae said. “They’ve been ridiculous lately.”
“That’s part of the Pairing,” Holm said. “Emma said Wardens and Wards go through that. How do you think they make two people that attracted to each other?”
Theo saw Imae glare at Holm and shake her head. But subtlety wasn’t his thing and he didn’t notice and kept talking.
“I mean, is there supervised kissing? What if one of them is ugly?”
“Part of the early Paring is an assessment of physical and emotional attraction,” Theo said.
Holm laughed. “Oh man, can you imagine that questionnaire? Imagine Jaxson giving that verbal test!”
Imae threw her empty water bottle at him and it bounced off his arm. Holm looked at her, confused.
“Shut up,” Imae said.
Holm looked confused and then froze as he realized why she was glaring at him. “Dude, shit, I’m sorry.”
“Nah, it’s nothing.”
“They don’t make you and Emma do anything like that?” Imae asked, still giving Holm an angry look.
Theo laughed. “What? No, not even close. Anyway, we’re way past stuff like that since we were born as a dyad.”
“Speaking of which, where is she today?” Holm asked.
“Rachel just got back to town so Emma took the day off. She left her phone at home, the newcomers never leave her alone otherwise. She said to tell you she’ll see you later tonight though.”
“Cool. Imae did you hear that Simon is doing a demo of a new grenade launcher?” Holm said. “I want to stay for that if you don’t mind.”
She sighed. “Yeah, fine. I’ll just sit here in front of the fan and slowly die. But you go have fun.”
“Cool,” Holm said, putting the last of the shotgun back together. He put it in the locker and headed back out to the range.
Imae rolled her eyes at Theo and he laughed.
“I’m going to call it a day. You want a ride home?”
“I dunno. Are you just being nice?”
“No, there’s people reserving the course. See on the monitor board up there? Anyway, it’s too hot for me.”
“I gratefully accept.”
Theo opened the windows and let the car cool down before he got in and started it.
“You’re kidding, no AC?” Imae asked as she got in.
“Not back when she was made,” Theo said. “It won’t be bad when we get moving.”
There was already a small crowd gathered around the distance range as Theo pulled out of the parking lot. There was a loud stuttering thump and the slope of the hill erupted in geysers of sand. The crowd cheered.
Imae shook her head. “I thought he’d grow out of the cadet thing.”
“Don’t tell him, but Emma said he’s pretty good. She’s sure that he’ll ace the new test, if they ever implement it with all the new people around.”
She sighed as he accelerated onto the main road and a hot wind blew through the car.
“Theo, there’s something I need to ask you. But I’m serious, okay? What’s going to happen with Holm and Emma?”
“How would I know? I’m an empath, not psychic.”
“That’s not what I mean. What happened with you and Rachel, is that going to happen with them? Because he really likes Emma. Are they doomed because you two are in a dyad together?”
“Oh, I see. No, creating the right bond between two people can be tricky and that’s why they go through all the Pairing exercises. We have that bond naturally, there’s room in her life for a romantic relationship.”
She looked happier. “Will them being together be creepy for you? Back at the Remembrance, I heard Emma say that you can sense what each other is feeling. Do you know when they’re…you know.”
Theo laughed. “We’re not that linked. We can’t have a conversation in our heads or anything like that. I know she’s happy when they’re together, but I’d already know that because I see it in her body language. I don’t know when they’re kissing or anything else, thank god.”
Imae surprised him by leaning over and kissing his cheek. “Thank you, I was worried about him.”
“Emma wouldn’t have let things get very far if she wasn’t able to have a relationship.”
“And wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was that ethical?” Imae said.
“Who are we talking about now?”
She gave him a look. “Who do you think? Lots of us are pissed at her.”
Theo could see the conversation quickly turning into a minefield full of quicksand and tried to lighten it up. “Us? Are you referring to your other personalities?”
Imae laughed and punched his arm. “I mean your friends.”
“Imae, don’t blame her. It’s just how things came out.”
“Yeah, whatever. Anyone ever tell you that you’re too nice?”
“Emma’s mentioned it once or twice but she’s the Argyro’lsh so it probably doesn’t count.”
She laughed again. “Are you ever going to let that go?”
Theo turned down the road that led to the Ta’avi settlement. “You have brothers and sisters, what do you think?”
Imae shook her head and then pointed to a prefab house that had been added onto several times. “That’s me.”
Theo pulled into the gravel driveway and before Imae could get out, the screen door banged open and an older woman marched onto the front porch.
“Oh no,” Imae said quietly. “I’m really sorry about this. She’s always in my business and now she’s going to make me introduce you and…”
“Imae!” the woman demanded, fists on her hips. “Who’s car is this? Where is your cousin? Who is that boy?”
“He’s just a friend, mother,” Imae said as she got out. “Holm is at the range still.”
“And who are you, just a friend?” the woman demanded, crouching slightly to look past Imae and into the car.
Theo got out of the car and smiled at the woman. Ayr’s mother was formidable but her sister was even worse. The look she gave him had Theo standing up straight and wishing he wasn’t so sweaty.
“Hello, ma’am. My name is Theo.”
The woman’s whole demeanor suddenly changed. “Mercy cherish, you’re the Lady’s son! Please forgive me, my daughter doesn’t always make the best choice of friends but you’re always welcome here. Please, stay and join us for some cool tea.”
“Mom! He was just dropping me off,” Imae protested.
“Imae! Who raised you to be so rude! You bring your friend inside, I’ll put out the glasses.”
The woman rushed back inside and Imae looked at Theo, incredibly embarrassed.
“You can run for it if you want,” she said.
Theo shook his head. “No way, I don’t want her coming after me.”
“Japh, get off the couch!” Imae’s mother yelled from inside. “There’s a Cosineau here! And go change your shirt!”
Ayr rolled her eyes. “I should have had you drop me off on the corner. She doesn’t care who she embarrasses and she’s so nosy.”
Theo had to stop himself from laughing as he followed Imae into the house. He could see exactly where Imae got her personality, not that he was dumb enough to mention it.
Emma tapped on Rachel’s door. She opened it a second later and the two friends hugged tightly. They both knew that the world was changing around them; Rachel was beginning her Warden interviews and Emma’s place on Kawehi’s team was taking her in a different direction. The two of them had spent nearly all their time together since they were children and that was going to be ending soon.
“Come in, I’ll buy you a beer,” Rachel said. “My dad is at work but made us lunch before he left.”
“How are you two doing?”
“Actually, good. He’s more accepting of who I am, we talk a little more now. We’ll never be best friends but I’m starting to like talking to him. How are things here? It looks a lot more crowded.”
“Two big contingents of volunteers arrived while you were gone,” Emma said. “It’s been weird, we were in hiding so long and now everything is just out in the open. It’s hard to get used to.”
Rachel got two cold bottles of beer out and opened them. She handed one to Emma and they clinked the necks together and sipped.
“How did the interviews go?” Emma asked as they sat down.
Rachel made a face. “The most promising one was a project manager from DC that was just hired by the Project. I got the feeling that he thinks a Warden is just what he needs as a new status symbol here. Plus, he kept looking down my shirt and the thought of going through Pairing with him made my skin crawl. The others were even worse.”
“That sucks, maybe they’ll find you someone from the Commonwealth.”
Rachel shook her head as she took a drink of beer. “Most of the help the Others promised will stay off planet since so much of the Dominion went underground. The C-wealth planets don’t want their experts at risk here. I told Lou when I got back that I want to start considering female candidates. It’s not really my thing but it worked out for Amanda and Mirjam. What about you? What do they have you doing?”
Emma sighed. “So, all these new people brought their kids. When we’re not training, I’ve been doing orientation, lectures, tours, the whole thing with the high school kids.”
Rachel hid a smile by taking a drink of beer. Emma wasn’t a big fan of teenagers.
“They don’t pay any attention,” Emma said, frowning. “Then they end up asking a bunch of questions they’d know the answers to if they’d listened in the first place! I don’t want to think about it. Tell me what Washington was like, I’ve never been there.”
Rachel sighed. “Crowded, stinky, and noisy. Lots of willful ignorance from people wishing the Commonwealth and Dominion would both go away. And then there’s all the chaos from the president and the other Dominion agents resigning or being arrested. I couldn’t wait to get back here.”
Emma laughed. “Yeah, anyone who thinks Albuquerque is a crowded metropolis isn’t going to like the East Coast very much. How is Marcus doing?”
“He’s good. He transitioned into fighters, he’s been doing orbital patrols in the Redtail and loves it. We’ve been talking about getting married actually.”
Emma’s eyebrows went up. “While you’re a Warden?”
Rachel shook her head. “If we got married they’d keep us together and my scores are high enough to join the Raptors. Although he keeps talking about having babies and me staying safe while he’s operational.”
“Does he not remember that you’re Garragh?” Emma asked carefully.
Rachel didn’t meet her eyes. “He said you two worked out, that we could make it work.”
“Yeah, I think there was a fair amount of science that went into making Theo and I. The lab that did the work was on Garradya Hoh. I don’t know if any of them made it out.”
Rachel shrugged. “I don’t care about kids. I just don’t want to get stuck with someone they have to force me to like.”
Emma nodded without saying anything. Ever since spring, Rachel had been getting more and more picky about who she wanted to Pair with. Emma had a good idea why. Once, she would have told Rachel whether she wanted to hear it or not. It wouldn’t change anything and Emma wished her friend wasn’t so stubborn.
“Theo’s fine, by the way.”
Rachel’s face flushed. “I didn’t know if I should ask. I’ve screwed up his life enough already.”
Emma made a rude noise. “You two need to go back to just being friends. That’s what most important anyway. Life is going to be so screwed up that nothing else really matters, does it?”
Rachel, still blushing, nodded. “Fine, how is Theo doing then?”
“He’s good. He misses you but he understands what you’re going through.”
“I’ll really try to spend some time hanging out with you guys while I’m home,” Rachel said. “Any good gossip lately?”
Emma’s eyes lit up. “I almost forget, the love triangle worked out their differences! Right after you left the girls went to Jason and…”
Kawehi had moved her office down to the Bastion, she wasn’t actually dealing with Cadet training but she was a lot less distracted down here. Upstairs, the temptation to help out with the little ones was too strong. She was reviewing something on her screen when Marisol tapped on the door.
“Hey there,” Kawehi said, looking up.
“I can come back if you’re busy.”
Kawehi sat back and stretched her shoulders. “No, come in. How did your last run go?”
Marisol shrugged after sitting across the desk. “We escorted some physicist and his family back here.”
Kawehi smiled. “You’ve got that look on your face. What happened?”
Marisol tried not to rant but couldn’t help it. “They thought we were there to pack boxes and babysit while they went out with friends! Without any of us along for protection! How are these people so stupid?”
Kawehi was openly grinning and after a moment, Marisol sighed. “You’re getting me back for the patience remark, aren’t you?”
“Me? Of course I would never do anything like that,” Kawehi said.
They both laughed.
“Your team is back?”
“Yeah, got a day off and I thought I’d come in and lobby Lou for some replacements. Hell, beg Lou for new troops. I can’t take much more of these ass and trash missions. I just stopped by to see if you wanted to grab lunch later.”
“Oh, I thought Lou had sent you over. I asked him to.”
“What’s going on?”
“First, there’s no one to give you. The cupboard is pretty bare of personnel at the moment with all the changes going on.”
Marisol sighed. “Dammit. Look, I’m glad Toni and Ian finally got married and I wish them all the best, but their timing was absolute shit. Even if I got all three of the new graduates, I’d still need one more to be full strength. But I heard the noobs got split between Ivan and Harry’s teams?”
Kawehi nodded and Marisol sighed again.
“I shouldn’t have given those two to the Ethiopian Center. They’re probably starting to think about splitting us up to use in the replacement pool.”
“They were past thinking about it,” Kawehi said. “Since the Project is in the public eye now, Ops believes that IRTs won’t be as critical planetside. Personnel from regular military and law enforcement can hunt down the remaining Dominion.”
“That’s utterly idiotic, Dommies aren’t some raggedy-assed terrorist group. And they don’t have the training to deal with Other tech! They’re not going to be…”
She stopped as Kawehi held up a hand.
“Before you really get going, I have another option.”
Marisol took a deep breath. “Working here? I don’t know how’d I’d be as an instructor, Kay.”
Kawehi got up and locked the door. It was unusual and Marisol watched Kawehi curiously as she sat back down.
“This conversation is classified and isn’t to be discussed outside of a secure area,” Kawehi said formally. “Do you understand?”
“The title of training adjutant here is a fiction. My rank was reactivated last fall and I’ve been tasked to assemble a new team. You and what’s left of your IRT are on my short list of experienced operatives that I’d like to recruit. That’s why you haven’t been split up already.”
Marisol nodded slowly. “I wondered why you were throwing so much advanced training at the Cosineau twins.”
Kawehi nodded. “Yeah, Theo’s being trained as my deputy. I think he’s going to be good, once he gets over the usual self-doubt. I’m looking at some other noobs but for now, he could really use guidance from experienced troopers. Especially ones he’s not in love with.”
“You’re not still beating yourself up about that?”
“Hardly, it was necessary at the time. The attachment between us is dying down but it still gets in the way.”
“Between you?” Marisol asked, eyebrows going up.
Kawehi looked at the pen she was twirling. “Yes, he’s a strong empath and I got caught in a feedback loop when I projected emotion onto him. I can think around it but I can’t be completely sure that I’m not affected when making operational decisions at this level. So, I need an operator I can trust to work with him.”
Marisol frowned. “You’re not forming a new Incident Response Troop, are you?”
Kawehi shook her head. “Jonah’s IRT was a cover. We were attached to Section Tango. The team I am forming is a replacement for that.”
Marisol nodded. “I always had the feeling you guys were more specialized. If I can ask, who are you working with offworld?”
“Administratively, we’re attached to the Radiant Fists of the Emperor. Things are a little more complicated operationally but we serve the Council.”
Marisol whistled. “The Xero’pah and you’re talking about a unit directly tied to the Commonwealth council? Are you working with the Directorate?”
Kawehi held up a hand. “We’re getting into information I can’t discuss outside of my team.”
Marisol waved dismissively. “Of course I’m in, you had to ask? The rest of them will follow, guarantee. They’ve been together too long to consider splitting up.”
“It’s going to be offworld work, probably exclusively.”
Marisol grinned. “Like that’s going to be a problem for any of us? Uhm, people’s families though, what were you thinking there?”
“Team dependents will be evacuated to Haven as soon as we’re operational.”
“Wow, Haven. That’s very nice of you.”
Kawehi shook her head. “No, it was a cold blooded decision. People need to be focused on the mission, not worrying about home.”
Even though Kawehi’s tone was cold, Marisol smiled. “Bullshit, but I won’t tell.”
Kawehi grinned at her and pushed a folder across the desk. “Better not. These are details on a scouting and scientific mission. Very routine, it’ll provide the newbies with some experience without too much danger…”
The next morning, the twin’s tablets both chimed as they were getting in Emma’s truck to head to the school. It was a notification that Kawehi was clearing their schedules for an all day briefing. They grinned at each other and headed to the school building. Because of the traffic, a new phenomena in town, they were nearly late. Marisol and her team were sitting in the briefing room, a small theater-like arrangement, when they came in. They were chatting quietly but all waved at the twins. There were a few other senior students that Theo and Emma had trained with a few times and Theo was surprised to see Rachel and Marcus sitting together. Emma gave him a reassuring bump with her shoulder before going to sit beside Rachel. Theo took a deep breath and went to sit behind the two of them. Rachel got up and gave him a quick hug and Marcus reached back to shake his hand.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
Theo nodded. “Pretty interesting. How about you?”
“Transitioned into fighters, it’s awesome.”
“Theo, you’re coming out for dinner with us, right?” Rachel asked.
Theo felt a mental nudge from Emma and nodded. “Sure, when?”
Before she could answer, the door opened again and they all turned around. But instead of Kawehi, it was Ayr and an older human Pioneer that Theo had seen around.
Ayr saw Theo and smiled at him. She came down to sit next to him. “Hey guys. What’s going on?”
“You know as much as we do,” Emma said. “Maybe we’re all in trouble.”
“They can’t prove anything,” Ayr said immediately.
“You’ve been hanging around these two too much,” Rachel told her and Ayr laughed.
“Good afternoon everyone,” Kawehi said as she came in. “It looks like everyone is here. Jaxson, please isolate the room for a classified briefing.”
There was a strange buzzing hum at the base of Theo’s hearing. Ayr made a face and rubbed her ears. Theo looked at her curiously.
“That always makes me itch,” she whispered.
Kawehi walked to the front of the theatre and the sounds of multiple bolts securing the door seemed loud in the suddenly quiet room.
“Let’s get started,” Kawehi said. “This information is not to be discussed outside of a secure room. It concerns an upcoming operation you will be involved with.
Ayr looked as confused as Theo felt but he saw her nod along with everyone else.
“Then on to business,” Kawehi said. “This concerns an operation on a planet known as Alnatic C. It was originally a colony world for the Gyr but their government recently ruled that it should be a joint colony between the humans and Ta’avi.”
Ayr sat forward in her seat, staring at Kawehi who looked back at her.
“I’m aware of the immense personal stake that gives you in the mission, Ayr. I won’t insult your intelligence by reminding you of the secrecy of this classification. It’s a lot to ask of you personally but I wouldn’t have requested your participation if I had any doubts about your abilities.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ayr said.
“Thank you. Now, we’re not privy to the details at this level, but we can assume that they got something in return,” Kawehi said.
“We probably traded them for Bruce Springsteen,” Deirdre said and there were laughs in the room.
“Moving on,” Kawehi said, smiling. “Long range surveys located a geologic anomaly that has some resemblance to a super-caldera. Think of the Beccan Traps or Yellowstone. The Commonwealth wants to be very sure that future colonists aren’t looking at an imminent catastrophe and have tasked a survey team be dispatched to investigate. You’ll be mapping the area while establishing remote monitoring stations in appropriate locations. Senior Pioneer Jonas Bray will be directing the scientific work and Pioneer Hean’dellsar Aelriyinayr will be leading the Pioneers operationally. Captain Marisol Gutierrez and her IRT will provide a nucleus for a security team that she’ll be leading operationally.”
Theo glanced at Ayr. She was shocked, mouth open like she was about to protest.
“Your team will make planetfall in a pair of Otter class shuttles. The anomalous area in question is a little more than sixty kilometers in diameter, so the shuttles will remain planetside to provide transportation and support. Lieutenant Carlsson and Warden Parvathi will be serving as pilots. Overall, the operation will be overseen by my deputy, Theo Cosineau.”
Theo suddenly knew how Ayr was feeling. She looked at him, they were all looking at him. He wondered what they were seeing. The kid they’d rescued that had broken down weeping in the back of the truck or was it the vegetable he’d been when he’d gotten here? Did it matter? Could he do this?
Emma glanced back and smiled at him and he was able to push the doubts back a little. Kawehi was still talking as she did something with her tablet.
“I’ve authorized access to the mission specifics for all of you. Since this is the first you’re hearing about it, take some time to familiarize yourselves with the specifics. We’ll meet back here after lunch and work through the details. I want a word with Ayr and Theo, I’ll see the rest of you in three hours. Jaxson unseal the room please.”
“I’ll wait for you in the hall,” Emma muttered as they got up.
Theo nodded, his mind still racing. Ayr followed him to the table were Kawehi was sitting as the room emptied.
“Okay you two,” Kawehi said when they were alone. “Ayr, you were highly recommended to lead the Pioneer team. I know it’s short notice but are you up for it?”
Ayr still looked shocked. “Uh, I think so.”
“You don’t sound sure. What was that Pioneer motto of yours?” Kawehi asked.
“‘Take up the task eternal, all the rest on us depend,'” Ayr said immediately.
“Pioneers, oh Pioneers,” Kawehi said with a grin.
Ayr’s voice was stronger. “I’ll get it done, Captain.”
“I don’t doubt that at all,” Kawehi said.
She looked at Theo and smiled. He swallowed against the butterflies in his stomach, annoyed that she still did this to him.
“You looked a little panicked, Theo.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready for this. You’re not going at all?”
“Do you remember asking me if anyone ever graduated from this place?”
He nodded. “You said there were better things than a stupid hat and a robe.”
“Welcome to graduation, Theo.”
She looked into his eyes for a long moment before they both looked away, embarrassed and Kawehi cleared her throat.
“If I had any doubts in your abilities I wouldn’t be training you as my second, let along giving you the team. Got it?”
“Okay, I suggest both of you go over the details together in the couple of hours. Pay attention to anything you think you might be missing, you’re going to be a long way from home.”
Two days later, the twins got up at the usual time and loaded their gear into the back of the Scout. Amanda and Mirjam had already left for work and Theo was kind of glad. They’d had a family dinner last night and the worry both women were hiding made the evening very tense for Theo.
Emma drove her truck down the field. As they got closer, they could see a large, dark gray airplane sitting next to the hanger. The back was folded down into a ramp and people were moving stuff inside.
“Can’t believe those are sitting out in the open,” Emma said.
“How do you mean?” Theo asked.
“That’s what we’re taking to the transfer station. The acronym for it is ARVKS, so everyone calls them Aardvarks. They were never taken outside in the daylight before.”
The gate to the airfield was another reminder of how much things had changed. Instead of the decrepit guard shack, there was a new looking modular trailer behind a wall of concrete barriers and armed guards were everywhere. Theo and Emma checked in and were pointed to a long term parking lot. They grabbed their bags and walked through another set of security gates. Then they were inside the hangar, grateful for the shade and giant fans. Most of the team was already there and Emma went to help check the pallets of gear they’d be taking with them. Theo was walking over to help but Marisol caught his eye. He walked over to where she was doing something with her tablet.
“Glad you’re here, kid. I’m trying to check the cargo manifest but Ops keeps sending last minute questions about crew roster stuff.”
“They couldn’t have done that in the last two days?”
She grinned. “Welcome to the bureaucracy. You deal with those questions and I’ll look over the cargo manifest.”
Theo opened his tablet and Marisol dumped all the Ops mail on him. Theo spent a frustrating forty-five minutes dealing with personnel issues but finally the mail queue was empty. The last of the pallets was being strapped down while Marisol watched.
“Everything good?” she asked him.
“Yeah, let’s get the hell out of here before they find something else,” Theo muttered.
Marisol laughed. “I’ve said that before. Everyone is inside, let’s run through the roster together.
Theo nodded as they walked into the plane. He hadn’t realized how much paperwork there was in leading a team, even one this small. Two pilots, Marisol’s team, a medical specialist, Jonas the geologist, a couple of cadets, and sixteen Pioneers. They were mostly Ta’avi. Theo hadn’t been surprised when Ayr organized a roster than included Imae and Holm. He was happy to have a couple friends along but it was scary to think that he was responsible for their safety.
The Aardvarks had spartan interiors, exposed ribs and braces with bundles of wires and hoses attached and running in all directions. The back of the aircraft was taken up with a couple of pallets of equipment and the team’s bags. In front of that were four rows of seats facing each other. It was obvious they were a temporary addition to the cavernous interior of the Aardvark.
When they had everyone accounted for, Marisol had Theo tell the loadmaster that they were ready. Soon the ramp was folded up into the plane and the smaller hatches for people were all closed and the Aardvark’s engines started.
Theo grabbed a seat near Marisol who looked like she was already asleep. Emma was in another row, cracking jokes with Ayr and Rachel. The lights overhead dimmed as Deidre sat down across from him.
“Getting as much sleep as you can is a good idea,” she said, putting her feet on the chair next to him.
Theo shook his head. “It’s my first time up-top. I’m too excited to sleep. Are there any windows in this thing?”
She laughed and showed him how to link his tablet to the ship’s network. One of the crew came by to make sure everyone had seatbelts fastened. To Theo, it seemed like a very short time until the Aardvark’s engines were roaring as it raced down the runway. He’d always had the idea he could step back into some kind of normal life but as the ship left the ground, that illusion stayed behind him on the ground. He was committed.
Theo was one of the very few people still awake when the Aardvark ducked out of the Slingshot arrival gate, dropping them back into normal space. After a few minutes, a crewman walked through the passenger area. He was surprised to see Theo was awake.
“You can make out the transfer station on the forward cameras,” he murmured as he walked by.
Theo immediately picked up his tablet and linked to the transport’s network. Ahead of them was a massive black cylinder, visible in the harsh white light from the nearby double star. As they got closer, he began to notice tiny specks around the cylinder and realized they were ships at least as big as the Aardvark he was riding. This thing was big. There were what looked like an old fashioned TV antennas extending from either end and he saw a few of the distant ships docking along the arms.
“First time?” the crewman asked as he headed to the back of the plane again.
Theo nodded. “Are we docking on those antenna things?”
“No, those are reserved for Fleet ships. The crews have berthing in the central areas, near the ships. We’re headed for a berthing bay on the cylinder itself. You can’t see them from here, but they’re located about a third of the way up the main habitat.”
“That thing is huge.”
The crewman nodded. “The Gyr don’t bother building stations, they hollow them out of large asteroids or moons.”
Theo thanked the crewman who nodded and continued whatever errand he was doing. The cylinder was getting closer but he could feel the Aardvark starting to decelerate. It would be a while yet. He sat back and watched the cylinder get incrementally closer and then his eyes drifted shut.
There was a thump that shook the ship and Theo’s eyes popped open. He looked around but no one else looked alarmed. Or even awake. He checked his tablet and saw that he’d slept for half an hour. The cameras outside were still active but there wasn’t anything to see.
There was a clang and another jolt and then some random banging sounds. Theo looked at Deidre, she was still asleep.
“What?” she said without opening her eyes.
“Oh hey. Just wondering what’s next.”
“Relax,” she said. “They don’t keep atmosphere in the the big hanger bays and it takes time to pressurize such a big space. They’ll tell us when they’re ready. Go to sleep.”
“Deed, we’re in space and going to another planet! How am I supposed to even stay in my chair?”
She didn’t say anything.
“Space!” Theo whispered. “How can you think about sleeping?”
Deidre finally opened her eyes and squinted at him. “Well, I can’t because someone is being Mr. Motormouth.”
There were more mysterious noises but finally the main lights in the passenger compartment came on. There was a wave of yawning and stretching around him as people woke up.
They collected their gear bags and moved toward the smaller door in the front of the Aardvark rather than the rear ramp they had used to board. Theo moved slower than everyone else, making sure no one had left anything behind. He was a little surprised to see Rachel waiting for him at the hatch. Outside, Theo got his first inside view of the station. It wasn’t terribly impressive; there were metal floors and walls streaked with what looked like grease and hydraulic oil. The walls were painted the same weird yellow-green that made up large parts of the Aardvarks interior. Differently colored pipes and conduits ran all over the place. Two Redtail fighters were parked in a corner of the hangar bay. There were work crews in different colored shirts crawling all over the stubby arrowhead-shaped fighters. They were wearing heavy gloves and insulated hats and Theo noticed everyone from his team jogging toward the hatch set into the wall.
“They don’t bother warming up the bays,” Rachel said from beside him. “In fact, if there’s no cargo going back in the ‘varks, they’ll be pumping the air back out as soon as our supplies are unloaded. There’s constantly ships arriving, so they clear the landing areas as quickly as they can. Marisol has everyone else waiting in the arrival area, ready?”
The air immediately turned bitterly cold as they stepped out of the Aardvark and Rachel and Theo quickly jogged toward the smaller hatchway. There was a man in a grubby work uniform pointing them down a short hallway that ended in another hatchway. On the other side was an area that looked a lot like a airport, minus the windows.
“Which of you is the commander?” a tall woman in another of the work uniforms asked impatiently.
“That’s me,” Theo said.
“I’m here to show you the way to your quarters. Let’s go.”
Theo looked over his shoulder as they walked. Marisol nodded at him from the back of the pack and gave him a quick thumbs up.
“Where are you from?” the tall woman asked as she strode along. Her voice was metallic sounding.
“Almaro, New Mexico,” Theo said.
She glanced at him. “Never heard of it.”
“You’ve never heard of New Mexico? It’s in America.”
“America? Oh, wait, you’re the bunch from Terra. First time up-top?”
Theo nodded and noticed that her voice was coming from a small box clipped to the front of her tunic. Her lip movements didn’t match what she was saying and he realized she was wearing a translator. He was a little embarrassed that he’d assumed she was human.
After a few minutes of walking, they went through another hatch and into an area that looked a lot like a hotel lobby. They walked through and down another hallway before stopping in a common area with couches and monitors.
“Your rooms are A-15 through C-26,” the woman said to all of them, pointing at placards on the hallways printed in a lot of different languages. “If you have any issues, go back down to the main desk and they’ll help you out.”
“Thanks,” Theo said but she was already quickly walking away.
The rooms were fairly small with a pair of bunkbeds in each. On the other wall was a desk top that folded down and an odd looking chair. Beside each of the doors were a pair of names and the group milled around, figuring out who belonged where. Theo finally found his room and was a little surprised that there was only one name beside his door.
He went in and it was just a little larger than the others with a single bed and a bigger desk. There was a door in the back that opened into a tiny bathroom. He dropped his duffle on the bed and went back out into the hallway. Most of the team was already laying on the bunks and Theo looked at his tablet and realized it was two in the morning for them.
Marisol had her own room in another hallway. The door was open and Theo saw that it was a copy of the room he had. He tapped on the doorframe and Marisol looked up from what she was reading.
“While we were waiting in Arrival, I told everyone to stay close to our berthing area until tomorrow. If people want to tour the station, we can set something up but I don’t advise letting them wander around alone. It’s easy to get lost here.”
Theo nodded. “Makes sense. What else needs to be done?”
She yawned and closed the tablet. “Nothing. You should get some sleep though. I’ve got quicksleep tabs if you need one.”
“I think I’ll be okay. G’night then Marisol.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Theo’s second day in space was even more disappointing. There was a whole new set of queries and forms to get through. Emma stopped by at one point to tell him that they were getting tours of the station. Theo looked down at the authorization forms for bringing live ammunition on an exercise and sighed.
“Thanks for thinking of me but I’m swamped here.”
“Don’t spend all day working,” she said before heading down the corridor to where everyone was waiting.
“If you know a way to get out of that, let me know,” Theo muttered to himself. He was irritated that she wasn’t sticking around to help him at first.
That’s not her job. This is your job, he thought to himself as he started on the next set of forms.
Marisol finally took pity on him at dinner. She loaded the remaining messages onto her tablet and told him to take off. Theo got up and stretched and went to find something to eat.
The cafeteria was nearby, and like everything else, kind of a disappointment. It could have been anywhere really. Most of the team waved at him from the tables. From the looks of things, they had already eaten. Theo got in line, wondering what kind of food they served in space. There was no one at the counter but a large brown packet made of heavy plastic slid out of a slot and he took it.
“These are our field rations,” he said, surprised.
“Not a lot of Terrans around here,” Deidre said from behind him. “Not enough to bother with stocking food on the station, so we brought our own.”
Theo sighed again and waited for her to collect her rations before finding Shep and Emma at a table.
“How was your first day in space?” Emma asked.
Theo pulled the tab that drew a razor sharp ribbon around the top of the packet. “Busy. How was the tour?”
“Do you really want to know?”
Theo looked at the beige slop in the ration tray. Turkey and noodles with peas, the one meal that no one liked. “Unless it sucked, not really. How did I get stuck with this crap?”
“We got the last two,” Deidre said, sitting down with them. “If you’d been here earlier, you might have gotten a better choice.”
Shep and Emma grinned at each other as Theo ate a spoonful of the wretched meal and made a face.
“Mm, just as awful as I remember,” Deirdre said, smelling the sludge. “Did you tell him?”
“We thought we’d let him enjoy his dinner first,” Shep said.
Theo put the spoon in the packet and took the dry brownie out. It crumbled in his fingers, falling into the beige glop. He looked up as Emma laughed. He was suddenly furious but he pushed it down as he busied himself with resealing the food.
“You aren’t going to eat that?” Shep asked.
“Not right now. I’m going to go back and help Marisol with the rest of the paperwork.”
“Nope,” Deirdre said. “We’ve been yanking your chain. We’re taking you out to dinner.”
“Thanks, but I have a lot to do before I get to sleep tonight.”
“And Marisol said she didn’t want to see you until tomorrow,” Shep said. “Come on, you’ve earned it.”
Theo, Emma, Deidre and Shep stopped in the main lock for the habitation. Theo had expected an oversized door, a bigger version of the airlocks he’d seen all over the station. Instead they were standing in what looked like a busy open air mall with a large, low, archway at one end.
“You ready?” Emma asked.
Theo shrugged. “Nothing can beat seeing it from the outside.”
“You ancient space jockey, you,” Shep said. “Hey, you should close your eyes.”
“Yeah, do it,” Emma said.
“If they push me out of an airlock, avenge me,” Theo said to Deirdre.
She gave him a thumbs up and Theo closed his eyes and Emma took his hand. They walked forward and the noise around them changed, he could tell they were in a larger space.
“Okay,” Emma said and Theo opened his eyes.
From the outside, Main Axis had looked like a gigantic polished black cylinder. Theo had assumed it would have been honeycombed with different sections, so the sight in front of him was completely unexpected. The whole cylinder was one gigantic space, startlingly green and blue from the gardens, rivers and ponds. A long bar was suspended in the center, emitting a mellow golden light on half the cylinder. His eyes followed a river as it flowed past them and up an impossibly steep curve to arch overhead. It was darker up there and he felt a sudden vertigo as he saw figures far above him in twilight gardens. Theo got very dizzy and swayed on his feet.
“Whoops, grab him,” Shep said.
Emma laughed, putting her arm around him. “Don’t look up yet, look down the length until you’re used to it.”
Theo had closed his eyes and nodded. He opened them again, careful to keep looking down.
“Don’t worry, you get used to it really fast,” Deirdre said.
Theo swallowed and nodded. “But what if there was a hull breach?”
“The soul of an engineer,” Emma said, hugging him with one arm.
“Seriously, there’s lot of stuff flying through space.”
“Gyr station, so there’s Gyr gravity tech,” Shep said. “There are fields surrounding the station that repel anything with mass. If something did manage to get through, we’re standing inside a nickel-iron can. At the thinnest point, there’s around fifteen meters of hull between us and the vacuum. I don’t think a hull breach has ever happened on a Gyr habitat.”
“I grew up in one of these,” Deidre said. “There’s stories about a station being hit by something that broke it in half. Supposedly it happened about ten thousand Terran standard years ago, I never heard if it had really happened or not.”
Theo carefully looked up. “It’s night time up there?”
“Yep,” Emma said. “Set to about a thirty hour day as a compromise between species. Lots of plants and animals don’t do well without some kind of dark cycle.”
“That’s where we’re heading,” Shep said, pointing at a spot on the twilight “wall” of the station. “It’s called Michel’s. Theo, just wait until you taste the shrimp at this place. The owner is a Terran, a honest-to-god Cajun, who grows them in ponds that are engineered to imitate a bayou. Come on, this is going to be great.”
He took Deidre’s hand and they headed down a busy path.
“More like you imagined?” Emma asked as they followed.
Theo nodded happily. He noticed two Xero’pah sitting and drinking something, looking very formal, even though they were sitting cross legged in the grass. There were a lot of Gyr wandering around as well. There were also beings he’d never seen before. One of them stalked quickly up the path toward them. Its legs were articulated the opposite of a human’s, giving the Other a predatory stride. There wasn’t room for both of them on the path so Theo stepped to the side.
It hissed something as it drew nearer and his stomach tensed. “Greetings,” the translator said.
“Hello,” Theo said as it went past. “Have a good day.”
The Other stopped and he thought it was looking at him but he wasn’t sure where the eyes were.
“May your waking cycle be pleasant as well,” it said before turning away to continue down the path.
He stared at its back as it kept walking.
“Emma,” he finally whispered. “Did you…”
She laughed. “I know, but it’s just a weird coincidence. The Project had a huge investigation when Alien came out. They thought someone had leaked information.”
Theo shuddered, the movie had terrified him. “Are they like the xenomorphs?”
“Nope, the Ulthira are absolute sweethearts,” Emma said. “One of our close allies in fact.”
Theo looked back over his shoulder and caught the Ulthira watching him. Theo waved and, after a pause, it waved back before going back to whatever errand it was on.
Emma smiled at him and linked her arm through his as they started walking again. “You make me proud, Sparrow.”
“Something terrifies you but you just wave and say hello. If it makes you feel any better, we made it just as uncomfortable. They think humans are terrifying.”
“No, the correct term is ‘it.’ There’s no him or her, they’re parthenogenic.”
“No face hugging?”
Emma laughed. “Superficial resemblance only, I promise.”
They followed the other two to a shack that looked like it had been plucked from the bayou. Shep and Deirdre were sitting on the porch talking to a man they introduced as Michel, the owner.
“How did you get a house up here?” Theo asked.
“Made it all myself,” Michel said proudly. “I needed a little touch of home so I made me a shack, the pond came later. Suddenly I’m cooking for the odd Earthling that comes on station. I start all rodee but now I’m lazy, I sit in one place and va ya with everyone going by. You want a drink?”
Theo and Emma both nodded and the man smiled happily as he went inside.
“He’s really a theoretical physicist,” Shep said. “Been out here for almost ten years now.”
The man came back with Mason jars full of something colorful.
“You two go slow with those,” Deidre warned them as they took a sip.
“There you go, cher, taking all my fun,” Michel said. “What you think of the place so far?”
“Theo almost bumped into an Ulthira on the way here,” Emma said.
Deirdre sniffed. “Doesn’t smell like you crapped your pants.”
Emma laughed. “This is the Sparrow we’re talking about. He made friends.”
“We just waved at each other,” Theo said, a little embarrassed.
“I was on Jeonus when I saw my first Ulthira,” Shep said. “We ran into each other in a corridor. It made a weird whistling noise that scared the hell out of me.”
Deirdre laughed. “Tell the rest.”
Shep shrugged. “I ran like hell and hid. Seemed like the thing to do.”
“We were out drinking and it took forever to find him,” Deirdre said. “The funny part was that the whistling noise was an Ulthira version of a scream. He ran away from Shep just as fast.”
“It,” Shep said. “Don’t be offensive.”
Deidre saw the look on Theo’s face and laughed. “They don’t like it when we say him or her, they think the idea of two genders is disgusting.”
“Speaking of which, did you know there’s a big Ulthira market for human porn?” Michel asked.
“Really? Why?” Theo asked.
“I hear they use them as horror movies,” Michel said. “So you’ve seen Alien, Theo?”
“I watched it with him,” Emma said. “It was hilarious.”
“Ooh, he rolled his eyes,” Deidre laughed. “Tell us.”
“I’ve seen it a bunch of times so I fell asleep. Amanda and Mirjam fell asleep too. Theo scared us all awake, he was standing on the couch yelling ‘Get out of there, you stupid bitch!'”
Everyone started laughing, even Theo although his face was hot.
“Excuse me,” the mechanical voice of a translator. “You are the human James Shepherd.”
They looked over to see a Gyr standing on the path.
“That’s me,” Shep said. “How may I serve?”
“You will not recognize, know, recollect this form. I am newly budded but you know my root, Vuli.”
Shep hooted and jumped up. He vaulted the railing, landing on the path beside the Gyr. They hugged, slapping each other’s backs.
“Vuli! I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”
“Do not be distressed, sad, broken hearted,” the translator said. “You can’t see the differences with those pathetic eyes.”
“Can you join us?” Shep said.
“Indeed, I was searching, seeking, you. You were not in your sleeping space but I remembered your fondness for eating boiled insects here.”
Theo gave Emma a sharp look and she shrugged.
“Gyr are very literal,” she said.
“And they’re very tasty insects,” Michel assured him.
Shep led the Gyr to the table on the porch and Michel produced a strange looking chair for the Gyr.
“This is an old friend, Vulatari,” Shep said to the rest of them as Vuli sat on the bench shaped chair. “Vuli, this is my teammate Deirdre, beside her is Emma and Emma’s brother, Theo.”
“It is a pleasure, happiness, gratification to behold all of you,” the Gyr said.
Theo could feel the vibrations of the Vuli’s actual voice in his chest. He could hear an occasional sound but Gyr voices were mostly below the frequencies a human could hear. It wouldn’t help if he could, Gyr speech sounded like stones rubbing together.
Vuli wore the tight fitting leg coverings, heavy boots, and vest that most other Gyr wore. The flat box of the translator was tucked into the thick vest that was completely covered by pockets.
Theo was glad he’d gotten through xenology last semester. He could tell Vuli was female, she had a longer and redder top crest than a male would. He knew that the crest was used for emphasis in conversations between Gyr, much like raising a voice for a human. The rest of her body was an orangish-brown with short thick fur that thinned toward the ends of their arms and legs, leaving their massive hands and feet bare. The Gyr’s hand, taking a squat beaker of something from the owner, looked like a large, old-fashioned, catchers mitt. A line of grasping digits, squared off and powerful, ran down either side of the hand. The Gyr also had slender, dexterous fingers on the end of the hand but normally kept them folded down against their palm, safely out of danger.
The muscular arms the hands attached to were longer in proportion to the broad body than a humans. There were two complicated double elbows, one midway up the forearm and the second where a human’s bicep would be. The Gyr could reach behind their backs as easily as their fronts and the arrangement of the elbows amplified their already impressive strength. In class, Theo had seen a video of a Gyr throwing a cantaloupe sized rock hundreds of meters. It was impressive and a little intimidating but what was worse, the Gyr thought distance weapons were cheating. They preferred to get into close quarters, within the reach of their long arms. Theo couldn’t imagine how hard a Gyr could punch with the massive flat hand curled into a large cylindrical fist.
The Gyr were bipedal, their hips and knees being as complex as their arms. The hips were higher on their torso than a human’s and they could run incredibly fast. Their torsos were very broad, partly to house their massive shoulders and hips. The heavy bones and muscles of the torso also held nearly all of the Gyr’s organs, making them incredibly tough. Between the massive shoulders was a small head although it was nearly solid bone. With the brain deep inside their thorax, its chief purpose was to provide a place for sensory organs .There were a series of round black eyes set around it as well as complicated sets of nostrils that were mostly hidden under the fur. There was a secondary mouth used mostly for speaking and drinking. Their main mouth was hidden in the fur at the base of the “neck,” or where the neck would have ended if there was one. The largest sense organ in the knobby head were massive articulated ears that normally folded back against the skull.
Gyr enjoyed working with the Founder’s Children, explaining that the humanoids had a pleasing shape and odor. There had been several Gyr present at the first contacts between humans and Others and they had been immediately fascinated by the humans. Amanda had mentioned that postings with humans were highly sought after and coming to work on Earth was a dream for most Gyr. Even better than the bipedal humans was the music that was easily found anywhere on Earth.
So far, human music was unique to the Commonwealth. The Xero’pah had a sort of a chanting opera with droning melodies but it was a serious ritual activity. They didn’t normally sing at all. The Ta’avi and Garragh both had simple instruments, mostly drums and simple flutes. None of the other races of people had put anything close to the effort humans had into making music. When Earth was first discovered, the radio signals that had radiated outward had caused a sensation. Before contact, it was widely thought that there were two peoples on Earth, the humans and another that used the musical melodies as speech. When the first trading began, records from Earth had commanded incredible prices, giving the newest member of the Commonwealth an incredibly lucrative export. Musical instruments were a close second in exports. The Others were fascinated by them as pieces of art but very few learned to play them and no one could approach humans in musical ability.
The huge ears of the Gyr, sensitive to a huge range of aural frequencies, had taken to music with a passion that surprised and baffled Others and humans alike. Gyr were fairly reticent about their physiology but there was a theory that music created a physical response, similar to the effects of certain drugs on a human.
“It is my pleasure to meet all of you,” Vuli’s translator said. “James the Sheep Herder and I became acquainted eight of your years ago. He was newly arrived to space and I took him as an egg. He made many blunder, mistakes, errors, missteps, faux pas…”
“They get the point,” Shep said.
The Gyr’s translator laughed. “Before we enjoy embarrassing Mr. Sheep Herder, I must say that I am on an official business, errand, task. I am familiar with the planet you are to survey and it was suggested to me that I offer my services, guidance, experience, to your expedition. I am to understand that the Kawehi Moana remained on Terra. Is her egg familiar, friendly, understanding to Others?”
“The egg is indeed understanding and friendly with Others,” Shep said, winking at Theo.
“That is good, acceptable, encouraging. My last task was with one who was terrified of me. It made communication, the speaking and sharing, difficult, disheartening, very annoying. Who is this egg of Kawehi? Does she possess at least moderate intelligence?”
Emma laughed. “He’s a male and he’s bright enough to tie his shoes at least.”
“Okay, you know what?” Theo said and the other three laughed.
“Theo here is Kawehi’s egg,” Shep told Vuli. “He has been toiling on our behalf all day.”
The Gyr shifted to face Theo. “Greetings and happiness, egg of Kawehi Moana. We can speak of this later if you are weary.”
“No, it’s fine,” Theo said. “I’m happy to meet you and I’m glad you’re coming along. Welcome to the team.”
“I thank you, I will request your time tomorrow to share, elucidate, inform you of the planet? Is Marisol Gutierrez here? She is known to me.”
Theo nodded. “She’s teaching me the job.”
The Gyr shivered all over. “She is most terrifying, horrendous, dangerous. I like her very much. So I am happy she remains with you, she smells very good.”
Theo wondered what Marisol would make of that and had to struggle to keep his face straight. Luckily, Michel came out with a huge pot of crayfish and they got to work eating them.