If you are like me and have almost completely forgotten what happened in Part I (I know, I know, I am the one that wrote it), check it out here!
Ankhora had fallen asleep, her head resting uncomfortably against the shuttle wall. For the first half of the journey, her waking moments were spent with her face pressed against the glass of the too-small window, desperate for a glimpse of Earth. Of course, they were still in the middle of the junk field, and the planet below was still shrouded in ash and smoke, so she wouldn’t have seen anything anyway. But she was moving toward the planet, toward something she had always longed for, so even though her vision was clouded, it felt momentous nonetheless.
The recruitment process was easier than she had dared hope. Expeditions to the planet’s surface were rare, and oftentimes fatal. Short journeys fared better, ones that had a singular purpose, that landed, got what they wanted, and came back before anyone could incur serious injuries or succumb to radiation poisoning. But Ankhora could count on one hand the number of successful recovery missions in her lifetime. She was determined to be on the next.
The recruitment officer looked bored. Likely she wasn’t coming on the mission, and only in charge of weeding out the less suitable candidates for the more vigorous interviews.
“Riz Ankhora,” Ankhora replied, her voice quivering.
The officer didn’t even look at her as she questioned Ankhora about her work, her personality, her sex life. Ankhora was a nurse, a position vital to any long-term mission off-station. She was calm in emergencies, underwent regular psychological screenings, which she always passed. She was single, only seeking companionship when she felt like it. No children. In short, the perfect candidate.
The final interviews were more difficult, only in that they were more vague. The panel of interviewers included the medical officer and several members of the leadership team, although the captain was absent. Ankhora answered all their questions with a calm indifference, despite the excitement and nervousness buzzing inside her. Here, her skill was more important than her passion.
The two weeks before she received her acceptance letter were insufferable, particularly to Palamane and the other medical staff, who couldn’t understand Ankhora’s desire to leave. Her boss was reluctant to let her go, but she gave Ankhora a small smile of encouragement on her last day.
Ankhora smiled, feeling none of the sadness and regret the acceptance letter warned her about.
She shifted in her sleep, her arm slipping between the wall and the chair.
She jerked awake, shaking out the needles in her arm as a tall woman plopped down into the seat next to her. Ankhora lifted her hand to her mouth and, embarrassed, wiped away a remnant of drool. The woman didn’t seem to notice, only beamed at her.
“First time off-station?”
The woman’s voice was big, like her, deep and jolly, as though she was about to laugh. Ankhora nodded.
“Me too. I was raised on station twenty-six. You?”
“Station nine,” Ankhora replied, sitting up and blinking away the sleepiness that lingered in her eyes.
“Oh cool. I’ve been to some of the older ones. Real vintage.” The woman grinned, but Ankhora didn’t get the joke. Sure, some of the older stations’ layouts were outdated, but they all had the same tech. It was just a little harder to integrate into some of the original equipment.
“I’m Telissa Greene. You can call me Tee.”
She reached out her hand and Ankhora shook it.
“I’m in engineering. Mechanist,” she continued. “But I looked at the roster. Trying to get to know everyone before we land, right? Before we all go crazy.”
She laughed as Ankhora gave her a horrified look.
“I’m just kidding,” she said, standing abruptly. “Only some of us will go crazy.”
She winked down at Ankhora, who still stared silently up at her.
“Anyway, I just came to tell you grub’s on. I heard the cook’s pretty good. You’d have to be, with the rations they’ve sent us with. Come on.”
Ankhora stood and stretched, following Tee toward the galley, for the first time feeling a twinge of uncertainty. As they approached the galley, Ankhora noted with interest that the craft they were in seemed to be made of a new type of building material she didn’t recognize. She tapped the wall lightly, and was surprised to feel the surface give way. It trembled and then settled back into place. Ankhora shuddered. It felt more like a membrane than a wall, and she found she wasn’t interested in finding out exactly what it was made of. She was glad she was walking behind Tee. She imagined the other woman would know what the substance was and be more than happy to tell her all about it.
Indeed, Tee was talking about something, but Ankhora hadn’t been listening. She quickened her pace sheepishly, catching the tail end of Tee’s sentence just as they reached the entrance to the galley.
“So really you shouldn’t be too worried,” Tee was saying. “They’ll only rib you a little bit, and even then not too bad, because you know, you could let them die if you didn’t feel like doing your job.”
Ankhora stared at Tee’s back, almost grateful she had missed the previous statements.
“And anyway, I’ve only met some of them. Here we are!”
Ankhora peered around Tee’s substantial shoulder into the galley, which was almost a perfect square situated in the exact center of the ship. Five circular tables were anchored into the floor throughout the room. About half were occupied. Ankhora quickly counted eight people, about two-thirds of their entire crew. Ankhora had glanced at the roster too, more out of curiosity than from any desire to get to know her crewmates.
Tee waved and strode over to a table with three people, who smiled broadly and welcomed her as she joined them. There was another table of three, serious-looking people who weren’t speaking with one another, and at the last table, two people arguing quietly but intently.
Ankhora tried to match their faces with those on the roster, but she only remembered two: North Ingall was seated eating silently with two others she only vaguely recognized, and Juniper Rosencourt, who was laughing as Tee spouted off some joke at their lively table.
North was an established historian, whose work centered on speculating about the years just after the Final War by piecing together information from records of the Final Evacuation. Most recordings and memories were corrupted or scattered, and North had spent years piecing together tiny bits of information to form a coherent chronicle. Ankhora had read some of his work, and although it was a little too stiff for her taste, it nicely watered her thirst for all things Earth-related.
Juniper Rosencourt was notable because she was the youngest member of this expedition at only 23. Raised on the newly built Station 046, she won an engineering prize at the age of 11 and contributed to the building plans for the next scheduled Station. It was likely she had a hand in the design of the very ship they were in. Ankhora made a mental note to steer any conversation with her away from the building materials used.
The only other person Ankhora knew on the ship was the doctor, Bryce Thurman-Santiago. Ankhora had met the multi-disciplinarian when she first arrived so they could become familiar with their work space. Ankhora found the doctor/surgeon/anthropologist, a tall, stately woman in her late fifties, to be firm but kind. Ankhora hoped that their place on the mission would remain more expeditionary and less functional.
But Ankhora didn’t see the doctor in the galley, and lingered in the doorway feeling unsure. If it was up to her, she would get her meal and eat at a table on her own, or even better in her quarters. But Tee had sought her out and invited her, so she supposed she ought to at least make an effort to mingle.
Before she could decide, however, Tee straightened and came toward her.
“Come on, let’s get some food and I’ll introduce you!”
Ankhora put on a smile and followed Tee to the counter at the edge of the room, where a variety of meals were prepared. She chose one at random and walked back to the lively table with Tee. She sat down, Tee on her left, the other three crowded on the other side of the table.
“I’m sure she needs no introduction, but that’s June. The genius of the group.” Tee pointed to each person as she introduced them. Juniper winked, grinning broadly.
“I don’t even know why Wyatt is here, he’s just a hacker,” Tee laughed as she pointed, and Wyatt batted her hand away with a grin. He was the oldest of the group, Ankhora guessed, in his mid to late forties.
“Not a hacker, a programmer,” he clarified, and held out his hand for Ankhora to shake. She did so and he gave her a nod of solidarity, as though to indicate they were the only real adults at the table.
“And that is Everly,” Tee completed her introductions with what Ankhora interpreted as a rather cooler tone.
Everly was perhaps a few years younger than Ankhora herself, and very beautiful. She was picking at her food quietly, but there was a gleam to her eyes that made Ankhora felt she was more than capable of handling herself in this raucous group.
Wyatt leaned toward Ankhora.
“Everly is the biologist,” Wyatt said, with a pointed look at Tee, who just shrugged. “She’s here to make sure we don’t die of some mutant virus.”
“I thought it was my job to make sure you don’t die,” Ankhora said lightly, and was rewarded with a hearty laugh from the table. She smiled a little, feeling a little more comfortable. She supposed it would make the trip more enjoyable if she had people she could talk to on the way.
As they ate, they shared stories about their previous work or speculations about the expedition. During a lull, while Everly was engaging Wyatt and Juniper in a conversation about the benefits of molecular evolution, Tee leaned in toward Ankhora.
“Those three over there?” Ankhora glanced over to the table where North and the other two were still silently completing their meals. She nodded.
“That’s North Ingall, the historian. I’ve never read any of his stuff…too dense for me. The tall one is the pilot, Briton Kelleshevarian. Don’t really know anything about them. And the other one at that table is Veran Gilbrin, head of security. She’s tough, which is good for us, and also bad for us, if any of us ever gets out of line.”
Ankhora studied them closely. North was fairly nondescript, with brown skin and kind but weary eyes. The pilot was tall and terribly thin, with light hair. The way he was tucked around the table, his hands before him holding his food, reminded Ankhora of a praying mantis.
Veran, on the other hand, was as hard as Kelleshevarian was delicate. Ankhora suddenly remembered she had been at her final interview. Her grey hair was cropped close, and there were substantial wrinkles around her severe eyes. Her mouth at rest was grim. No wonder there wasn’t any talking going on at that table. Ankhora was surprised she hadn’t recognized her cutting gaze.
“The one arguing is Alder Barata. She’s in charge of Operations, and judging by her looks, a complete badass.”
Tee interrupted Ankhora’s thoughts and she turned her attention to the last table. She could see what Telissa meant; Alder’s hair was dyed a bright purple and it looked as though she had piercings in most of her facial features.
“And you of course know our noble captain. Apparently they’ve never really gotten along. God help the poor bastard who assigned them on this mission together.”
With a start Ankhora realized she did recognize the captain. She had seen his image in her orientation materials, but hadn’t studied it in any great detail. And anyway, she had a feeling the picture didn’t do him justice. In person, Quill Solari radiated presence, even when his attention was directed so pointedly elsewhere. He was listening to Alder, shaking his head, but suddenly lifted his head and glanced over at Ankhora, as though he sensed her eyes on him.
Ankhora blushed and looked away, and Tee chuckled and slapped her hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah, we all get like that around him. Except for Alder, apparently. But that’s why he’s the captain, I guess.”
Tee turned back to the table’s conversation, which appeared to be wrapping up. Ankhora stole another glance at Solari. It was true he seemed to embody the word “command.” She realized she knew next to nothing about their leader and made a note to read up on his background later. She only half-listened to the group around her as they finished up their meals and went their separate ways. Lost in thought, she made her way to the infirmary to work.