Oh, a century or so later … everyone ready? Good.
"SPACE … it's fucking big.
"These are the voyages of the starship Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the—"
Hadrian spun in his chair. "Ah, my first commander, I presume."
The woman standing before him saluted. "Halley Sin-Dour, sir, reporting for duty."
"Thank you, sir. The ranking bridge officers are awaiting review, sir."
"Are they now? Excellent." Hadrian Alan Sawback rose from behind his desk. He smoothed out his uniform.
"Captain? You do not seem to be attired in regulation uniform. The official dress for Terran Space Fleet, captain's rank—"
"Ah, but whose ship is this, 2IC?"
She blinked. "You command this ASF vessel, sir."
"Precisely." Hadrian adjusted the shirt once again. "This is polyester."
"Excuse me—poly what?"
"Now," said Hadrian, "do lead onward. To the bridge! We should get these formalities done with. I want to be on our way as soon as possible."
"Of course, sir," said Sin-Dour. "I understand. The inaugural voyage of a new ship and a new crew…"
Hadrian swung one leg to clear the back of the chair and then stepped round the desk. "Newly commissioned captain, too. It is indeed a clean slate. Our lives begin today, in fact. Everything else was mere preparation. Today, Sin-Dour, the glory begins."
"Sir, I was wondering. You were speaking when I entered this, uh, office."
She studied him and he in turn studied her.
She was tall, dark-skinned, with straight black hair that he suspected curled for the last dozen centimeters of its considerable length—although that was all bound up in clips and whatnot, in keeping with regulations. Full-bodied and absurdly beautiful, she held herself stoically, her expression reserved and rigidly impersonal. As was the case with Hadrian, this was her first posting off-planet. Fresh, young, and innocent.
While he, of course, weathered her careful examination with the usual aplomb. Hadrian was as tall as she was, fit, handsome, fair-haired, artificially tanned but not to excess, with a winning smile that held barely a hint of lasciviousness.
"Was it a quote, sir?"
"More or less. Remember television?"
Another moment of silent regard passed, perhaps somewhat more strained than the previous one, and then she swung round and faced the portal. It opened.
"Captain on the bridge!" she announced in a deep, full-throated voice that rolled out, came back, and landed in Hadrian's groin. He paused, drew a deep breath, and then stepped onto the bridge. Screens, blinking lights, monitors, toggles, more blinking lights. Swivel seats at various stations and dead center, on a raised platform, the captain's chair, facing the main screen.
His ranking bridge officers were arrayed before him in a line facing him. Hands behind his back, Hadrian moved to the beginning of the line to his right.
The officer before him was about a meter and a half in height—which in itself was unusual in this day of optimization—wide-shouldered and slightly bowlegged. His crew cut revealed a skull that was mostly flat above a low, bony forehead. His small, slit eyes, dark brown or perhaps even black, were set deep and fixed straight ahead. The face surrounding them was honey-colored, high-cheeked, and wide. His very thin mustache and spiked beard were both black and perfectly trimmed.
The man spoke. "Lieutenant DeFrank, Buck. Chief engineer and science officer, Guild Number 23167-26, first class, in good standing with the Church of Science."
"Welcome aboard, Lieutenant," Hadrian said, nodding. "I understand that you served aboard the AFS Undeniably Exculpable."
"That is a Contact-class ship, yes?"
"Yes, sir, it is. Or rather, was. Lost during the Misanthari Debate, Year Eleven, in the White Zone."
"The risk of ignoring the rules," Hadrian said.
"Never park in the White Zone."
The chief engineer's brow made a gnarled fist, evincing confusion. Then he said, "I was one of twenty-two survivors, sir."
Hadrian nodded. "It would have been unusual, don't you think, had you numbered among the crew members lost."
"So, you were lucky, Lieutenant, which I count to be a good thing, especially when it comes to my chief engineer."
"I prefer survivors. As I'm sure you do, as well." He smiled and then added, "What do you know? We already have something in common. Very good."
Hadrian moved on to the next officer.
The man before him was Varekan. Back in the twentieth century—long before the Pulse and the Gift of the Benefactors—there had been a spate of extraterrestrial kidnappings, conducted by an as-yet-unidentified alien species, in which humans had been transplanted to a number of suitable planets in some kind of seeding program gone awry. The aliens' strategy had been flawed from the start, as their human-sampling methods inadvertently selected for loners, misfits, the psychologically imbalanced, and a disproportionate number of long-distance truck drivers. The seeding of one planet, Varek-6, had created a quasi-functional human civilization with only modest genetic tweaks to accommodate higher gravity (1.21), frigid climate, and month-long nights. The psychological profile of the resulting culture was just within acceptable guidelines for the Affiliation.
Physically, the man standing before him was short and wide. He was dressed in standard Varekan garb: tanned hide shirt from some native caribou-like ungulate, a collar of horn teeth, baggy hide leggings, felted boots, and a faded black baseball cap. His Space Fleet bars were marked by beadwork, rather nicely done.
He bore the usual Varekan expression on his broad, flat features: existential angst. Varekans viewed all animation as shameful and embarrassing; considered any displays of emotion as weakness; and held that anything but utter nihilism was a waste of time.
"Lieutenant Galk, combat specialist," the man said around something in his mouth that bulged one cheek.
Hadrian nodded. "I trust you have already examined the combat command cupola, Lieutenant."
"I have utmost confidence in its state-of-the-art mundanity, sir."
"‘Mundanity'? Is that even a word, Lieutenant?"
"Its entry in Dictionary of Common Varek, sir, runs to thirty pages."
"Connotative variations, sir. The Varekan elaborated on Common Terran during their century of isolation, albeit selectively."
"Ah, right. The Dark Side of the Dictionary."
"Are you well?"
"Under the circumstances, sir."
"Excellent. Welcome aboard, Lieutenant."
"If you say so, sir."
Hadrian moved on to the next officer in line, a woman wearing Affiliation attire with appalling precision, not a crease out of place. Her face was heart-shaped, her eyes oversized and intensely blue, posing a nice contrast to her short, dark brown hair, and porcelain skin. "Ah, Adjutant, we meet again."
"This surprises you, sir?"
"I'm not one to invoke the Yeager philosophy of droll understatement, Adjutant." Hadrian raised his voice slightly, to ensure that all on the bridge could hear him. "I am a captain of the Old School. As you will all soon discover. We are about to set out into the infinite vastness of interstellar space. A place of wonder, of risk. A place fraught with the unknown, with potential enemies lurking in every shadow, every gas cloud, every asteroid field or partial accretion of proto-planetary rubble. Hostile planets, hostile aliens. Hostile aliens on hostile planets. And out there, in that unending cavalcade of danger, I intend to enjoy myself. Am I understood, Adjutant?"
The woman's eyes had widened during his speech, a detail that pleased him. "Sir, forgive me. I spoke out of confusion, since you personally interviewed and then selected me from the available adjutant roster on the Ring."
"Indeed I did. Now, for the sake of your fellow crew members, do please identify yourself."
"Adjutant Lorrin Tighe, chief of security, ACP contact liaison in high standing with the Church of Science, rated to serve all Engage-class vessels of the Terran Space Fleet, such as the Willful Child."
"Very good, Adjutant. I look forward to our working together to ensure ongoing cooperation between Terran Space Fleet and the Affiliation. After all, we're in this bed together, sweaty tangled sheets and all, aren't we?"
Those lovely eyes widened even further.
Smiling, Hadrian stepped over to the next officer, and looked down.
The first alien species to join the Affiliation, the Belkri averaged a meter in height during their middle stage—a period of somewhere around fifty years when the Belkri were sociable enough (and small enough) to engage with other species. Round, perched on three legs, and sporting six arms—these arms projecting from the middle and spaced evenly around the torso's circumference, with each arm bearing six joints and hands with six fingers and three thumbs—the creature before him had tilted its eye cluster—atop the spherical body—upward to meet his gaze. Mouth and speech organs could configure as needed and, for the sake of the mostly Terran crew, were now formed just below the eye cluster. In a voice like the squeezing of an overinflated beach ball, the Belkri said, "In Terran tongue, I am named Printlip. Medical doctor, surgeon, rank of commander, chief medical officer rated for the following class of Terran vessels: Contact, Engage, Initiate. Belkri exoassignment Cycle One, Initiate."
In Printlip's file, the gender designation was listed as Indeterminate, which, Hadrian now reflected, was probably a blessing, since the alien wore no clothing beyond footwear that resembled Dutch clogs. Its skin was smooth and looked stretched, mauve in color fading to pink at the poles. The eyes—at least a dozen of them and the color of washed-out blood—wavered on their thin stalks like anemones in a tidal pool.
During the Belkri's speech it had visibly deflated, and upon its conclusion there was the thin, wheezing sound of reinflation.
"Doctor," said Hadrian, "welcome aboard. Are you satisfied with the configuration of sickbay? Are the raised walkways of sufficient height alongside the examination beds, diagnosis feeds, biotracking sensors? Are the analysis pods set to bilingual display? How is the lighting, floor traction, suction drains, decontamination units? Have you met your medics and nurses?"
"Sir," Printlip whistled, "sickbay is now fully reconfigured. Raised mobile walkways function as expected and are of sufficient height alongside examination beds, diagnosis feeds, biotracking sensors. Analysis pods are properly set to bilingual displays. Lighting commands responsive. Floor traction optimal. Suction drains functional. Decontamination units within spec range. Medics and nurses are hrrrlelluloop…"
Hadrian studied the deflated, misshapen sack lying on the floor at his feet. "Excellent," he said, nodding as he moved on.
"Lieutenant Jocelyn Sticks, sir. Navigation, helm, screens."
"That is a lovely perfume you are wearing, Lieutenant. Do I detect patchouli and frankincense?"
"Uhm, maybe, sir. I'm like, I don't know."
He smiled at her, studying her round, pretty face and expressive eyes. "Is the Willful Child your first off-planet assignment, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir. Like, it's all very exciting. You know? Exciting!"
"Indeed it is, Helm, indeed it is." He wondered, briefly as he stepped to the last officer on deck, if his selecting certain bridge officers on the basis of their file photos was perhaps somewhat careless. But then, the task of ship pilots was hardly taxing. Besides, from his position in the command chair, she would have to twist her upper body round to address him. He was looking forward to that.
The last man snapped a perfect salute and said, "Lieutenant James ‘Jimmy' Eden, communications. First off-planet posting. Honored to be serving under you, Captain."
"I'm sure you are. Thank you, Lieutenant. If I recall from your file, you were in the last Terran Olympics, is that correct?"
"Yes, sir! High-g beach volleyball, sir. We came in fourth."
"Well, I can see that kept you in shape."
"Indeed sir. I have volunteered for all surface assignments, sir."
"So I noted. But as I am sure you understand, we are about to receive combat marines, marking the debut of interservice cooperation in Terran Space Fleet. Also, the role of ship-to-surface communications is essential when we have people on the ground, on a potentially hostile planet. Accordingly, I expect you to be planted in your seat at comms during such excursions. And, in keeping with my desire to assure myself of your readiness in such circumstances, I am double-shifting you on the duty roster for the next seventy-two hours."
"Of course, sir!"
"Now then, best man the phones, eh? We are about to de-lock and get under way."
Comms was always a problematic specialty, as no cadet in their right mind would ever want to end up on a starship as little more than a teleoperator. From Eden's file, Hadrian knew the man had barely scraped into the Academy on intelligence and aptitude tests. But then, an athlete out of the medals didn't have much to look forward to in the way of future prospects, much less a career. Jimmy Eden counted himself lucky, no doubt. But the likelihood of assigning the overmuscled, gung-ho, bright-eyed, all-too-handsome-in-that-square-jawed-manly-way officer to the glamour of surface missions—and potentially upstaging Hadrian (who intended to lead every one of those missions and to hell with fleet regulations, brick-brained marines, and all the rest) was as remote as finding an advanced civilization of spacefaring insects in a ship's bilge dump.
Striding to his command chair, Hadrian swung round to face his officers and said, "Welcome to the inaugural voyage of the AFS Willful Child. Our ongoing mission is going to be hairy, fraught, and on occasion insanely dangerous, and when it comes to all of that, I'm your man. I mean to get you through it all—no one dies on my watch. Now, to your stations. Sin-Dour, take the science station. Comms, inform Ring Command we're ready to de-lock."
"Helm, prime thrusters. Prepare for decoupling. We'll smoke later."
Buck DeFrank spoke from the engineer station. "Antimatter containment optimal. Surge engines ready, Captain."
Hadrian sat down in the command chair and faced the forward viewer. "If anything but optimal, Buck, we'd be spacedust, but thank you."
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
"No problem," Hadrian replied. "It's all very exciting, isn't it? Don't worry, we'll shake things out soon enough, and I look forward to your panicked cries from engineering level."
"Panicked cries, sir?"
Jimmy Eden swung round in his seat at comms. "Ring Command acknowledges, Captain. Good to go."
"De-locking complete," Helm reported.
Hadrian studied the forward viewer, which presented a colorful wallpaper of a Hawaiian sunset. "Someone turn on the hull cameras, please, Ahead View. Helm, maneuvering thrusters. Take us out."
Copyright © 2014 by Steven Erikson