I hung around in the officer’s mess with Jody for a while, and had just gotten to the point where I was getting ready to go and report for duty in navigation/cartography again when Gary showed up. “Walker! And Miss Jody Quinton as well, cool. Big news – there’s a landing party going down to the surface of Achernar Four, and we’re all going to be on the Gaia’s Hope!”
“Huh?” I muttered. “Are you being serious here, Gary? Because if not, I really need to go report to Lieutenant X.”
“As serious as the shit-uation that we’re all stuck in, buddy, and don’t worry about X – he’s heard about this stuff already. Well, maybe not that you’re on the roster, yet, he wasn’t there. But he’ll hear soon.”
“Okay, why don’t you back up and tell us from the beginning?” Jody asked him. I could tell from looking at her that she was trying to keep the star-struck expression off her face when she looked at Gary, but it wasn’t working one hundred percent.
“Gotcha,” Gary said, pulling up another chair at the table. “When they called me away from sick bay, Brett, I found myself in Captain Stevens’ officer, along with the exec, Lieutenant Archer, and… well, I think that was everybody at the time. They had the ship’s doctor on the intercom, though, and apparently the prognosis isn’t good.”
“Vic’s really sick?” I asked.
“We’re all getting sick,” Gary told us in a whisper.
“Yeah, I feel like it,” Jody muttered.
Gary shot her a moment’s look. “I believe it. You and I, Brett, we might not feel like we’ve got anything serious, like a hangover or so, but it’ll get worse. The tests that they’ve done so far don’t look good – some kind of microcellular tearing, especially in nerves and muscle tissue, with bleeding into the spaces between the cells.”
“They don’t know how to treat it?” Jody asked.
“The doctor knows one way – full-body nanosurgery. Unfortunately, we don’t have the gear for it here, and not enough time to get back to Sol system where they do – even assuming that we can make the trip back home without making it worse.” Gary took a deep breath. “So, as slim as it seems, sounds like making contact with the natives and asking them for medical assistance may be our only hope. And even if they can’t cure us, communicating with them is something that we can accomplish before we all croak.”
“Come on, Gary!” I exclaimed, realizing that Jody was getting really pale. “A little bit of delicacy would seem to be called for.”
“What? Oh.” He looked over at Jody and realized how upset she was. “Okay, but only a little, because we don’t have time to be completely delicate. So – landing party, to the fourth planet, the one with the atmosphere that we can all breathe. Seems the easiest way of talking to these guys if they won’t or don’t use a radio.”
“Do we know that the planet is inhabited?”
“Oh, yeah, they talked to Lieutenant X about that. He’s spotted fires in the night, not big forest fires but smaller lights, and roads on the day side – not high technology really, but at least civilization of a sort. And the shadows of a few big buildings or monuments. So – the executive officer is coming because the situation is important enough for her to be in command, I’m the pilot with the best reflexes and the natural choice to fly Gaia’s Hope, and Archer is the designated external mission officer, so of course he’s going to be there. The captain says that he wants to round the landing party out with a linguist, a communications tech, and somebody with some relevant xeno-sociology experience, and opens the floor to nominations.”
“I see where this is going,” Jody put in. She’d gotten some color back by this point and was nursing her water again. “I’m a little surprised that I wasn’t taken for granted as the linguist.”
“Well, the exec picked you right away,” Gary told her. “Colin nominated Melissa as the communications specialist, no big surprise, and so everybody was looking at me and wondering if I had anything to say. And – well, I remembered that you handed in a paper back in the Academy about the theoretical psychology of aliens, Brett.”
“Oh, great, so that’s my recommendation for the landing party?” I asked, groaning.
To be continued…