The Structure, Part II (S3E5)
Part I can be found here.
Celestograph by August Strindberg
The Structure, Part 2
A week later, the ship drifting ever closer to the mysterious structure, Tamblyn had assembled her team.
She had gone first to her old friend Liz Shaunders, now an associate professor of linguistics and semiotics at the College of Rear Window. The trip to Rear Window had only taken a few hours, her military status granting her exclusive access to the high-speed elevator that ran the length of the ship, even if the conductor did not know about the Orange-Omega alert that compelled her urgency.
As for recruitment, Tamblyn knew Liz too well — she had barely begun to explain the situation before the stream of questions poured out of Liz’ mouth, her curiosity piqued.
“So we don’t know anything at all?” Liz said, eyes wide, when Tamblyn insisted there were no answers to her questions.
“The Three Magi are analyzing the rest of His output, but, as of right now, what I’ve told you is all we know.”
“Are we sending an exploratory team?”
Tamblyn smiled. “Funny you should ask…”
She visited the Gardens next, the row after row of wheat swaying gently in the artificial wind. Despite being more of a farm than a garden, she had always thought the Gardens had been aptly named — it was the only place on the ship that gave the feeling of outdoors that the ancient Terrans had been so fond of.
She found Razin Zhen right where she had been told he’d be — digging in the dirt, checking on the crops. Despite being the most prominent biologist of his generation, he liked to play at being a simple Terran agriculturist, checking on his crops before heading back to his hut for a night’s rest. She towered over him, shading him from the fluorescent lights far above. He turned and looked at her with a smile.
“They told me you were coming, you know.”
“I figured they would. So what do you think?”
“I think I’m a simple man with simple desires.”
“Like tending to your crops?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“And what if this… structure… threatens your crops? What if it’s some kind of weapon that annihilates all this? What if it’s…” She lowered herself to squat beside him, her voice merely a whisper. “Alien.”
He looked at her, then away, over his field of crops. He finally looked back at her. “Then I suppose I better go with you.”
Next, she went to the rats.
She walked through the glittering city of Starboardside, a favorite of the nouveau riche, who built their towers to look out the massive windows at the stars. As she left the outer wall of the ship and moved towards the belly of the ship, she noticed how quickly the buildings became shabbier. It wasn’t long before she passed the first ratboy, maybe three feet tall, his nose quivering as he sniffed the air at the strange new scent. As soon as he saw her, though, he grabbed his robes and huddled away, not wanting to get wrapped up with the law.
Soon she saw more and more — she was solidly in the underbelly of the ship, where it was night most of the time, and this was rat territory. A few scampered away at her approach; others jeered and called her mocking names. A rat grandma on a rocking chair nodded at her sagely as she passed. She saw a ratfight break out down an alley as she passed, the young teens baring their teeth and going for each others’ throats. She patted her gun to make sure it was still there — she was less speciesist than most of her contemporaries, but she still couldn’t help but feel out of place and unsafe here. That was how Raxton must have felt the whole time, she thought.
She walked to the address she had on file and tried the doorbell; when that did nothing but let out a little buzz, she knocked heavily instead. A rat opened the door, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at this human. “Whatdyou wan?” he squeaked, slurring the sentence together the way young rats often did.
“I’m looking for Raxton,” she said, hoping she sounded authoritative.
“Yes I am!” she heard a surprisingly deep bass voice say from the back. Raxton walked into view, his arms still more muscular than you would expect. “Miss Sazor, is that you?” He had never gotten into the habit of calling her “sir,” which had earned him more than a few citations — though, to tell the truth, Tamblyn had never minded.
“May I come in?”
“Of course, of course. Please excuse my cousin.” He laid a paw on the still-suspicious cousin to direct him away from the door. He turned and headed for the kitchen, Tamblyn following, after stooping to enter the room that was only maybe 5 feet tall.
She sat at a little faux-oak table as Raxton poured lemonade. “Got an uncle that works in the Gardens,” he said by way of explanation — lemons were not exactly cheap. Tamblyn attempted to make small talk, never her strong suit. Raxton had just explained how his dad had been holding up after his mom passed — the sudden illness had caused him to drop from the service — when he suddenly changed topic. “Now, I mean no offense, Miss Sazor, but I know you don’t come here without a reason.”
“Astute as ever, Raxton. But before I tell you, I have to ask — have you kept up your, ah, skillset?”
Raxton laughed, the surprisingly deep, booming laugh missed by everyone in the refectory. “I’ve got a garage full of disassembled elevators and ‘puters, if that’s what you mean.”
“And how about assembled elevators and ‘puters?”
“Yeah, I can still slap some parts together.” He smiled, his nose twitching slightly. “Why?”
“There might be a job for a sufficiently-motivated engineer.”
“Who says I need a job?”
“I didn’t tell you what the job was.”
She turned to the door. “Who else is?”
Raxton rolled his eyes, then got up and walked out the door. “I need some peace and quiet, kids! Get goin’!” She heard the thump of a few younger cousins rushing out the door. “That means you, too, Suze!” A few more thumps.
Raxton came back in and closed the door. “Now it’s just us.”
Tamblyn nodded. “We’re on Orange-Omega status, so, you know… Need to know basis.” Raxton nodded. “He found something. Something floating out there, in space, between us and our goal. Something that might be…”
“Alien,” Raxton said bluntly.
“Exactly. We’re putting together a team to explore it. And that team needs an engineer.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Raxton muttered, staring off into the corner, calculating. “Sounds like I might not come back, and as you can see, I have a lot worth coming back for.”
“It will be dangerous. I’d tell you that it’ll pay well, but the truth is it won’t pay nearly well enough to count. And anyway, I know you don’t care about the money. I already know you’re going to go.”
“What do I care about, then?” Raxton said, still distracted. “Why am I going to go?”
Tamblyn smiled. “Because you’ve always had a chip on your shoulder. You’ve always wanted to prove you’re better than everybody else — that you’re just as good as any human. That’s why you joined the service. That’s why you got your commendations for bravery. That’s why you’re the best damn engineer on this entire damn ship. And you’re not going to let me walk out that door without taking you.”
Raxton looked her straight in the eyes, deadly serious, then burst out laughing. “You’re right. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I let a bunch of humans go someplace new without a rat.”
The truth of that statement would be up to the theologians to determine, Tamblyn thought later, as she climbed the steps to the Cathedral of the Holy Light. She stepped quickly through the hushed rows, a few worshippers huddled along the pews. She found her way to the altar, the artificial light coming in through the stained-glass window to brighten it. Father Pedra stood there waiting for her. Though young — maybe 30 — and low in the church hierarchy, he was a popular figure with his flock and, perhaps more importantly, had the kind of adventurous spirit that led one to preach all over the length and breadth of the ship.
“Father,” she said respectfully as she approached, forming the sign of awakening. “Thank you for meeting with me.”
“To the contrary, thank you for considering me.”
“I really must thank you for considering it at all. I know it will be dangerous, but…”
He dismissed the concern with a wave of his hand. “We all have sacrifices to make. Perhaps He intends for this to be mine.”
“Perhaps. Now, if I may ask something that verges on sacrilegious, do you plan to bring a Spark of the Divine?”
“But of course. In fact, it’s already been prepared.” With a flourish, he presented the small, black augury device. “And if it soothes your soul, I would add that that question was not sacrilegious at all. Lacking faith is one thing, lacking preparation is quite another,” he said with a smile. “If I may ask one thing, why did you choose me? I profess I am perhaps not the best suited to such a task. Did you not consider Father Jubal? Or Mother Talla?”
Tamblyn leaned in conspiratorially. “We will have members of a…. rodent persuasion.”
“Ah. Then perhaps the more… conservative members of the church are a poor fit.”
“Exactly. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
She had one last person to recruit. She found her way to the barracks, past the sparring ring, into the gym. She found Alia there, her biceps outlined by the stale fluorescent light as she did arm curl after arm curl. Tamblyn had never met anyone so obsessed with maintaining peak performance.
Alia almost dropped the weight when she noticed Tamblyn standing there, watching her. She clumsily dropped it, then with perfect poise snapped to attention, saluting along the way.
Tamblyn almost laughed, but managed to maintain a serious face. “At ease.” If there was a difference between Alia at attention and Alia at ease, Tamblyn couldn’t tell. She went straight to the point. “We’re on Orange-Omega status, so everything I’m about to tell you is classified.” Alia’s right eyebrow went up a fraction of an inch, but she said nothing. “He found something out there, and we’re to investigate it.”
“Something…” Alia hesitated. “Non-Terran?”
“Possibly. Long-range scans aren’t picking it up, so we can’t rule anything out until we investigate.”
“Six, including the two of us. Raxton is joining as well.”
Alia nodded. Her friendship with Raxton was well-known — in fact, Tamblyn wouldn’t have been surprised if she knew all this already. “How much surface area to cover?”
“Twice the size of our ship, give or take.”
Alia’s left eyebrow now had its turn to raise, but she didn’t question her superior officer. “How were we chosen?”
“My choice. I need a variety of skills.”
“And what’s my skill?” Alia said it with neither malice nor curiosity, only the blunt need-to-know of the soldier.
“The other three are non-combatants. Raxton can build weapons, but he can barely use them, and I haven’t had a reason to fire a weapon since the Rear Admiral called me up to the bridge. So we need a good shot, and you’re the best shot on the ship.”
Alia looked away and nodded, a flicker of satisfaction showing on her face.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Tamblyn said, heading for the door.
Alia shouted after her. “Is this an invitation, or an order?”
“It’s an invitation,” Tamblyn said, turning back to Alia, “but if you say no, it’s an order.” She turned again and headed out as Alia laughed behind her.
Tamblyn stood at attention as Rear Admiral Pannen scrolled through the biodata she had provided for each member. His nose wrinkled up in distaste when he came to Raxton — ironically, in much the same way a rat’s nose would, Tamblyn thought — but he continued without saying anything. He looked up at Tamblyn again, her back straight, her arms held behind her back. “These are all good choices. The ship will be in good hands.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“There is just one adjustment I would have to ask for.”
“Oh?” Tamblyn stiffened, preparing to defend her choices.
“Don’t worry, it’s not about any of your choices. Not even the rat.” He stood from his desk and walked to the window, looking out at the once-in-a-lifetime glare from the star. “The Ship Council has made a formal request that we send a journalist with the exploratory team.”
“They don’t trust us?”
“Perhaps.” Tomis shrugged. “Or perhaps they want images for their own purposes. Who knows. In any case, the request was approved by the Three Magi, so you’ve got no choice now.” He turned back to the table and picked up the tablet. He flipped to a different page before heading it to Tamblyn. It now showed a profile of young, hotshot reporter Thoman Mirri, who had cracked the Engineside Murders a year or two back and was now knee-deep raking the muck surrounding the Church’s coffers and their misuse.
“This is who they want?”
Tomis nodded. “You can veto him if you want, but there will be a journalist on the team.”
Tamblyn put the tablet back on the table. “I’m surprised he agreed. It’ll be dangerous.”
Tomis laughed. “It’s the story of a lifetime — the lifetime of the whole ship. What self-respecting journalist would pass that up?”