The End, and the New Beginning

SPOILER WARNING!!!

This story is set after the Earth Girl Trilogy and includes spoilers for all three books. Please read AFTER Earth Flight.

 

WORK IN PROGRESS WARNING!!!

This is a long story, and currently incomplete. I expect to post the rest of the story in several parts over the next few weeks.

 CURRENT STATUS :- Parts 1 to 3 have been posted.

The End, and the New Beginning

 A Portal Future Short Story featuring Jarra Tell Morrath.

The End, and the New Beginning is set on Earth. It begins two days after the end of Earth Flight.

Part 1

Earth Europe, 17 November 2789

It was two days after I’d accepted the symbolic torch of Alpha sector from Aadi Quilla Amarion on behalf of the citizens of Earth. The ceremonies, firework displays, and celebrations to mark Earth officially joining Alpha sector were over, and the Asgard 6 Pre-history Foundation course was finally returning to the regular routine of dig site life. When Fian, Raven, and I went into the dome accommodation hall to eat breakfast, we found half of our classmates were already sitting around tables, eating and chattering loudly.

Raven stopped in the doorway to follow his usual ritual of studying everyone present, and then using a scanner to check the hall for threats. Fian led the way on to the food dispensers, glanced at the available menu, and groaned.

“Oh, chaos! The food processors have run out of orange flavoured Fizzup.”

I was abruptly overwhelmed by emotion, made a choking sound, and buried my face in my hands.

“Is something wrong, Jarra?” asked Fian anxiously.

I lifted my head again. “No. Everything is perfect. All the dramatic events are over. We’re back to being ordinary archaeology students. We’re going to spend the day excavating ruins on Berlin Main Dig Site.”

I gave a sigh of satisfaction. “We’re living a normal life again, where the food processors running out of the most popular flavour of Fizzup is a major crisis. That’s not just amaz. It’s totally zan.”

Fian gave me an indulgent smile. “There was never anything ordinary about you, Jarra. There’s nothing normal about our lives now either. A Foundation class wouldn’t usually be allowed near a high hazard dig site like Berlin, and we’ve still got a Military Security bodyguard trailing around after us.”

I didn’t want to think about the fact we needed to hide on an inaccessible dig site, and have Military Security protection, because there were still people trying to kill us. I stared down at my hands, saw the flickering lights under my skin, and hastily looked up again. I didn’t want to think about the fact my life depended on an implanted artificial web controlling my immune system either.

“Far more importantly,” Fian continued, “on Year Day 2790 we’re going to join one of the first-ever xenoarchaeological research teams, and go to Fortuna in Zeta sector to help excavate the ruins of an alien civilization.”

Alien civilizations were also on the list of things I didn’t want to think about, so I gave an urgent shake of my head. “I want to forget all about the future, and concentrate on the fact life is going to be relatively normal and uneventful for a while. After everything we’ve been through this year, facing one crisis after another, I desperately need a break where things are normal and uneventful.”

Fian’s face abruptly twisted in pain. “I can understand you feeling this year was just one crisis after another, and wanting life to be uneventful. I’ve got a completely different view of things, because I had to endure three agonizingly uneventful months while you were unconscious in a full body regrowth tank. Three months of waiting in suspense to discover if you’d live or die, and picturing two contrasting futures. The jubilant one where you lived and dragged me into more dramatic events, and the bleak and lonely one where you died.”

I reached out to take his hand. “I’m fine, Fian. We’re both fine. You can forget all about those months of waiting. You can forget about dramatic events too. Things are going to be different from now on. The two of us are going to be archaeologists and live peaceful lives.”

He shook his head. “Things are never going to be different when I’m with you. We’re never going to live peaceful lives. You’re always going to get drawn into the heart of every dramatic event in human history, and quite probably be the catalyst that triggered them.”

I frowned. “What’s a catalyst?”

“It’s a scientific term for a substance that speeds up the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed by it.”

“I’ve still no idea what you’re talking about.” I wrinkled my nose. “You should know by now that there’s no point in going all scientific at me. The mere mention of the science word makes me think about the bullying science teacher I had at school, and my brain shuts down in protest.”

Fian sighed. “Forget about the catalyst thing. I’m just saying that I know there’ll never be any peace when you’re around. You’ll always be charging from one crisis to the next.”

I felt a sick feeling in my stomach. “Are you saying that you don’t want to be with me any longer?”

“No!” Fian gave a violent shake of his head, that sent his long blond hair flying around his shoulders. “I’m saying the opposite. I’m saying that I spent three months picturing my possible futures, and I made a decision. Wherever you go, whatever disaster you get caught up in next, I’ll be sprinting in your wake.”

He smiled. “I’ve learned that being with you, even if we’re being chased by someone brandishing a laser cutter, is infinitely better than being without you. When you were in that tank, I swore that if you came out of it alive, then I’d never complain about anything again. I had a long conversation with General Torrek about it.”

I blinked. “You did?”

“Yes. He said that he knew exactly how I felt, because he’d been in the same situation himself. Your grandmother had dragged him on a wild ride through every trouble spot in humanity’s space for four decades. He told me he’d vowed a dozen times that if they survived the current situation then he’d never complain about anything again. Of course, he always did complain, and constantly wondered how he’d ever become part of a life like that, while knowing he wouldn’t change it for all the wealth of Adonis. I’m going to be exactly the same.”

Fian hesitated for a second. “General Torrek also said that he regretted not telling you more about his relationship with your grandmother. He thought you weren’t ready to have the conversation before you were in that tank, and didn’t want to use his position to pressure you into anything, but I think he’d deeply appreciate you raising the subject with him now.”

General Torrek was right. I hadn’t been ready to have that conversation before my months in the tank. I still wasn’t ready to have it now. In fact, I would never be ready to have a discussion that would be both impossibly painful and utterly pointless. I’d already learned everything I needed to know about Riak Torrek’s relationship with my grandmother.

I’d always been chaos bad at discussing my emotions with anyone else. I often couldn’t make sense of them myself, but this time I understood my feelings perfectly. I’d been raised in the impersonal residences of Hospital Earth, both hating the family that had abandoned me and longing to know them. I’d only had the briefest of contacts with my parents before they were killed in action, and I desperately wanted General Torrek to be my long lost grandfather, but he wasn’t.

If I’d never seen an image of my father’s face or learned his surname, I could have carried on hoping and dreaming, but I had to accept the true facts. Seeing the record of my grandmother’s marriage on the Tell clan family tree had made things even worse. Now I knew exactly how close my dream had come to being reality.

I was a member of my birth clan now, with Betan citizenship, and according to the culture and laws of Beta sector genetic details shouldn’t matter to me. I’d been raised on Earth though, so they did matter. They mattered a lot. So much that I couldn’t bear to discuss them with either Fian or General Torrek.

I tried to keep my emotions out of my voice as I spoke. “General Torrek is the commanding officer of the Alien Contact programme. He must be incredibly busy organizing the expedition to Fortuna, and I can’t possibly demand he wastes his time chatting to me about my grandmother.”

Fian’s face took on a familiar stubborn expression. “I don’t think General Torrek would feel that talking to you was a waste of time. You should at least consider …”

There was a pointed cough, and the quiet female voice of Kai interrupted Fian. “Do you realize there’s a queue of people waiting to get to the food dispensers?”

The distinctively cynical tones of Hinata joined in. “Yes. You two should either get your meals now, or go somewhere else to finish this discussion about your love life. The rest of us would like to get our breakfasts before we starve to death, and I’m dreading the inevitable moment when Jarra starts giggling.”

Fian and I exchanged appalled glances, and swung round to face what turned out to be a line of six people. “Sorry,” we chorused in unison.

“You shouldn’t have interrupted them, Kai,” complained Steen. “I was enjoying listening.”

I groaned, and hastily turned back to the food dispenser to order some strawberry flavoured Fizzup, and a plate of Karanth jelly and toasted wafer. The second they appeared, I grabbed them and moved aside to wait for Fian. A moment later, he had his meal too, and came to join me.

“I hope Steen doesn’t sell details of our conversation to the newzies,” I muttered. “I haven’t forgotten that dreadful interview he did for Gamma Sector News.”

“Don’t worry,” said Fian. “Steen knows that if he goes anywhere near the newzies again, then he’ll be blocked from going to Fortuna, and probably sent to prison too.”

I’d forgotten that Steen had signed up to go to Fortuna. Given the way he’d behaved to me in the past, and the interview he’d done, I wasn’t entirely happy about the idea of working with him in future. There wasn’t much point in worrying about it now though.

At the moment, only a tiny number of people knew that the alien race hadn’t been wiped out in an accident or natural disaster, but had deliberately unleashed an extinction event on their world. The General Marshal was due to announce that information, and the reason the alien race had killed themselves, to the whole of humanity on Year Day.

I guessed that the people who’d volunteered to go to Fortuna would be told that information in advance. Once Steen found out the reason the alien race had wiped out themselves and every other living creature on their world, then I thought he’d probably change his mind about going to Fortuna. A lot of other people would change their minds about going too.

Fian, Raven, and I had known what we’d be getting into for long enough that we weren’t going to drop out of the expedition. I had the uneasy thought that I couldn’t be sure how the rest of our class dig team 1, or even Lecturer Playdon, would react when they learned the truth though. If one or all of them decided not to go to Fortuna …

No! I’d promised myself that I’d enjoy these last weeks of normal life without even thinking about the future, and I was going to do exactly that. Fian was already heading across the room to where Dalmora, Amalie, and Krath were sitting at our regular table, so I hurried after him, and was immediately distracted by the sight of three cups lined up in front of Krath.

One of the cups was already empty, while the other two held a dark-brown drink that was popular in Gamma sector. Krath gulped the second cupful down at high speed before sitting back in his chair and giving a sigh of satisfaction.

“I needed that.”

Amalie gave him a disapproving look. “You seem to be drinking more of that bitter, muddy stuff every day. It’s served too hot for you to gulp it down that way, and I don’t think it’s good for you anyway.”

Krath took a sip from his third cup. “I’ve been drinking coffee ever since my Dad stopped dragging me from star system to star system, and we settled down on Asgard. Coffee is one of the main Earth crops grown there, it’s best drunk very hot, and it’s definitely good for me.”

Amalie made a dubious noise. “I don’t see how drinking hot mud can be good for anyone, and I’m starting to wonder if coffee is addictive as well.”

“Coffee isn’t addictive,” said Krath indignantly. “Our course is run under the stuffy Gamma sector moral code. That would never allow addictive substances in the food dispensers, would it?”

“The Gamma sector moral code only covers behaviour, not food and drink,” said Dalmora.

Raven had finally finished making his security checks, and got his own breakfast from the food dispensers. He now came to sit at the table with us, and Krath turned to face him.

“Coffee isn’t addictive, is it?”

Raven gave him a wary look. “It depends what you mean by addictive. Coffee isn’t on the list of addictive substances forbidden under interstellar law.”

“Coffee is illegal on several of the Deltan worlds though,” said Fian.

Krath gave a contemptuous sniff. “It would be. Everything fun is illegal in Delta sector. A couple can’t even hold hands in public without getting arrested. I’m surprised that you’re even allowed to breathe.”

“It’s not true that everything fun is illegal in Delta sector,” said Fian. “Anyone that’s over eighteen can buy alcohol or smoke Hercules bullrushes.”

“What happens if you smoke Hercules bullrushes?” asked Krath nosily.

“You’re very happy for about three minutes, then the world starts spinning round and round, and you’re horribly sick.” Fian shrugged. “At least, that’s what happened when I was fourteen and tried smoking one.”

I frowned at him. “I thought you said that you had to be eighteen to smoke Hercules bullrushes.”

Fian grinned. “I keep telling you that I’m a very badly behaved Deltan.”

Amalie returned to the subject of coffee. “You should try drinking something else for a while, Krath.”

“Tea is a popular drink on many planets of Alpha sector,” said Dalmora. “Especially my home world of Danae.”

“My Dad says tea tastes dreadful, and drinking it damages your brain cells,” said Krath.

“Your Dad also says there aren’t any children on Miranda,” said Amalie acidly. “When you told him that I’d grown up there, and had ten brothers and sisters, he said that I must be lying about it.”

“I admit my Dad is a nardle about most things,” said Krath, “but he’s right about tea tasting dreadful. At least, the tea from our food dispensers tastes dreadful.”

“It’s true that the taste of tea suffers badly from the reconstitution process,” said Dalmora sadly.

“Coffee tastes fine though.” Krath took another defiant sip of coffee.

We concentrated on eating breakfast for the next couple of minutes. I’d just popped my last morsel of Karanth jelly on toasted wafer into my mouth, when I noticed Lecturer Playdon was walking up to our table.

“I just need to cover a couple of details with you all,” he said. “Firstly, Amalie was tag leader for our dig team 1 while Jarra and Fian were away. Krath was acting as her tag support, while we’ve had several substitute heavy lift operators. We’ll now be going back to the old arrangements for dig team 1.”

I hastily swallowed my food. “Are you happy with going back to working on a heavy lift sled, Amalie?” I asked anxiously.

“Going back to working on a heavy lift sled will be blizz,” said Amalie. “Pure blizz. I found it horribly stressful being a tag leader.”

“Secondly, there’s the issue of the class farewell party,” said Playdon. “There’s a dig site tradition that dig team 1 organize the farewell party. Please remember to check your arrangements with me at least a week in advance.”

As he walked away, Dalmora turned to look at me in horror. “Dig team 1 is supposed to organize the class farewell party! Did you know that, Jarra?”

I nodded.

“So why didn’t you tell the rest of us about it?” demanded Dalmora.

“You can’t blame Jarra for not telling us about party traditions when she was unconscious in a tank,” said Fian.

“Yes, but you two came back to the class days ago,” said Dalmora, in something startlingly close to a wail. “Jarra could have told us about the party then. We have social responsibilities to fulfil, and dangerously little time to do it!”

I was bewildered by Dalmora’s odd behaviour. She’d never acted like this before, so … No, I was wrong about that. I remembered how upset she’d been when portal network delays meant she’d been a few minutes late returning to the course after a visit home. Everything suddenly made far more sense to me.

“On Danae, it’s shockingly bad manners to be late,” I said. “Would it be just as shocking to fail to carry out a social responsibility like organizing this party?”

“It wouldn’t be just as shocking,” said Dalmora urgently. “It would be far worse. Failing to organize this party properly would show appalling disrespect to our classmates, Lecturer Playdon, and society itself, and I don’t even know what we’re expected to do.”

I made soothing gestures. “There’s absolutely no need to worry, Dalmora. Farewell parties are simple things that only last a couple of hours. All that’s expected is for dig team 1 to donate a few snacks of real food, and arrange for a gift to be presented to Lecturer Playdon.”

“A gift,” repeated Dalmora. “What sort of gift?”

“A souvenir to remind him of his time teaching our class,” I said. “Something like a framed image of everyone, or a vid.”

Krath laughed. “Playdon doesn’t need a souvenir to remind him of teaching our class. He’s hardly going to forget things like excavating the alien device or having a bomb explode. He’s taking ten of our class to excavate Fortuna next year as well. Eleven of us if you count Raven as a class member rather than just Military Security.”

“I think I’m at least an honorary class member,” said Raven. “Lecturer Playdon keeps sending me predicted grades and nagging me about work I should cover before Year End.”

I laughed, but Dalmora was still looking worried. “We need to think of a better souvenir than a framed image.”

“We’ve got over five weeks before the farewell party,” I said. “That’s plenty of time to think of a perfect gift for … Why are you all staring at me?”

“We haven’t got five weeks before the farewell party,” said Fian, his voice rising in panic. “We’ve only got three weeks. I’d better call your medical support number, Jarra, and tell them you’re developing memory issues. It could mean your implanted web is failing.”

“I’m not developing memory issues,” I said, starting to panic myself. “I can’t be. I remember everything perfectly. It’s November 17 today, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Fian.

I relaxed again. “Then I’m right about us having over five weeks before the farewell party. All university courses end a week before Year Day.”

“No, they don’t,” said Amalie. “Our course will end three weeks before Year Day.”

I blinked. “It will? I assumed off-world courses would end at the same time as University Earth courses. I suppose it makes sense for off-world students to get a longer Year End holiday to let them make the complicated cross-sector portal trips to visit their families though. University Earth students virtually all have the immune system problem that I have … that I used to have … so can’t go portalling off to other worlds.”

Fian made an odd sobbing sound of relief. “So you haven’t got memory problems, Jarra. You just forgot to check the end date of our course when you joined it.”

I thought back to the girl I’d been when I joined this course. Someone that seemed much younger, and had been filled with righteous anger. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten to check the Asgard 6 course end date. It was that it hadn’t seemed relevant.

I’d been filled with fury at the norms who considered people with my immune system problem to be subhuman because we couldn’t survive anywhere other than Earth. I’d hated the way they called us cruel names, and made jokes about us being ugly, stupid, and smelly, so I’d decided to join an off-world class on a crusade for revenge.

My plan was that I’d fool the Asgard 6 class into believing I was normal born like them, and stun them with my expertise on a dig site for a few weeks. Once I’d proved I wasn’t just as good as them, but vastly better, then I’d scream abuse at them before leaving.

I didn’t regret making that plan – I couldn’t regret the decision that had led to me meeting Fian – but it was rather embarrassing to think about it now. “Yes, I forgot to check the dates,” I said.

“So, we only have three weeks before the farewell party,” said Dalmora. “Arranging food and drink will be relatively simple, so the most urgent problem is deciding on the perfect souvenir for Lecturer Playdon. In fact, after all this class has been through together, we should give a souvenir to every class member as well, and it can’t be a simple framed image. It has to be something that evokes special memories of our time on Earth. Does anyone have any ideas?”

There was a long silence before Krath spoke. “You’ll probably call me a nardle for suggesting this, but there was all that fuss about Jarra joining her clan, and getting betrothed to Fian. The Betan clan banners were totally amaz, so could we give everyone some sort of Asgard 6 class banner?”

We all stared at him. “That’s actually a good idea, Krath,” said Amalie. “I’m impressed.”

Krath flushed with pleasure.

“Jarra, do you know how we’d get these banners made?” asked Dalmora.

“No, but my cousin Drago told me there was a Military alliance information and support number that I should call if I needed help with anything. I’m sure they’ll know all about ordering banners.”

As part of my attempt to forget all the complications in my life, I was wearing civilian clothes rather than my Military uniform, and had my Military lookup in my pocket. I took it out now and tapped at it. An image of the Betan Military alliance banner promptly appeared on the screen, and an obviously pre-recorded voice started speaking.

“This is the Military alliance information and support service in Alpha sector. In case of life-threatening emergencies, please press 9 now. Otherwise, wait for assistance.”

I put my lookup on the table in front of me, and projected the image of the banner in mid air, so it hovered just above the row of Krath’s empty coffee cups. A couple of seconds later, the banner was replaced by the head and shoulders of a young man in a formal Betan toga.

“Please state your clan, your name, and …” At this point, the man obviously recognised me, because he broke off his standard speech and gasped. “Commander Jarra Tell Morrath. How can we assist you?”

“My cousin, Commander Drago Tell Dramis, told me to call this number if …”

The young man shook his head urgently. “Please don’t tell me that Drago’s been buying ice cream again.”

I frowned in bewilderment. “No. Drago just told me to call this number if I wanted help with anything, and I need to find out how to order some special souvenir banners for my class.”

The young man smiled. “I’ll send you details of the regular banner supply service for our alliance, Commander. You just need to send them your banner image and details of the number and sizes required.”

I saw Dalmora was urgently mouthing words at me, frowned for a second as I worked out what she was saying, and then repeated it. “How long will it take for them to make and deliver the banners to Earth?”

“Your banners should arrive within four days of you placing the order, Commander. Can I assist you with anything else?”

“That’s all for now. Thank you for your help.” I ended the call, and smiled at Dalmora. “It will only take four days to get the banners, so you see there’s nothing to worry about.”

Dalmora didn’t seem convinced. “We’ve only got three weeks before our course ends, and that isn’t much time.”

Her words hit me ridiculously hard. I’d thought we had five weeks of our course left. Five weeks where Fian and I would be living normal lives as archaeology students. We didn’t. We only had three weeks left, and Dalmora was perfectly right. That wasn’t much time.

“We’ll have to meet up this evening to make decisions on the banners and the other party arrangements,” continued Dalmora. “We have to have everything prepared well in advance in case of last-minute problems.”

“We can meet up this evening,” said Fian, “but there’s really no need for you to worry about anything going wrong, Dalmora.”

“That’s right,” I said. “This is just going to be a simple farewell party, so nothing can possibly go wrong.”

 

Part 2

Earth Europe, 20 November 2789

It was my fourth morning working on Berlin Main Dig Site. To be more accurate, it was my fourth morning watching other people work on Berlin Main Dig Site, and I was close to exploding from frustration.

At the beginning of this year, Lecturer Playdon had organised the Asgard 6 class into five teams. Four of them were proper dig teams, while team 5 contained all the students who were planning to specialize in theoretical history, and wanted to do as little excavation work as possible.

The standard arrangement was that the class ran two parallel excavations. Dig team 1 would work on the more dangerous one, and have team 4 taking over for a while when we needed rest breaks. Dig teams 2 and 3 would work on the other.

Today, dig teams 1 and 4 were excavating a burnt-out and partially-collapsed building. Everything about our excavation site reminded me of the start of our course, when our class had been working on New York Main. Sometime around the end of Exodus century, the abandoned city of New York had been hit by a devastating fire that had burned for two months, so its ruins were all as fire-blackened as this one. The state of the building was virtually identical to a dozen that I’d excavated in New York as well. The three walls that were still standing were half-covered in ivy, and surrounded by rubble from the fallen fourth wall, interior floors, and roof.

This was an excavation that offered me exactly what I wanted. The chance to blot out all the dramatic events of this year, and indulge myself in the fantasy that it was January again, and I was an ordinary student working on New York Main. I desperately wanted to spend the whole morning losing myself in my dream world while I excavated that building, but Playdon had refused to let me do any work at all for the previous three days, and had only allowed me to spend a miserly half-an-hour working today.

My job as tag leader was to enter the danger zone, decide how best to clear the rubble, then start tagging rocks for removal and giving instructions to the people working on the heavy lift sleds. I’d started the morning by setting up a sensor net around our ruined building, which had shown what looked like a stasis box buried under the rubble next to the tallest of the remaining walls. After that, I’d barely had time to fire electronic tags at a dozen rocks, and get Amalie and Krath to use their heavy lift sleds to move them into a neat heap over near sensor spike 3, before Playdon ordered dig team 4 to take over.

Dig team 1 had retreated to join Raven on a transport sled. Now Dalmora, Fian, and I were sitting on one bench seat, with Raven, Krath, and Amalie sitting facing us on another. It was a sunny day, but the winter wind was bitterly cold, so we hadn’t pulled our suit hoods all the way down, just unsealed the front of them to let us enjoy the fresh air as we watched team 4 work.

“The excavation is going well,” said Amalie. “I think team 4 should have time to reach the stasis box before we stop work at the end of the morning.”

In my opinion, team 4 had plenty of time to reach the stasis box this morning, but they wouldn’t manage it because something was going to go wrong that would delay their work. Steen was the tag leader of dig team 4, and I’d learned all his strengths and weaknesses from working with him in the past. He had the endurance needed for gruelling hours working in a heavy, restrictive impact suit. He had the courage to keep working as a tag leader after getting buried by a collapsing wall. His weakness was managing his excavation site.

There’d been several times when I’d temporarily handed over an excavation site to Steen so my team could take a break, and he’d annoyed me by not following my lead on where to pile rubble, shifting rocks to somewhere either inconvenient or potentially dangerous. On one especially nardle occasion, he’d started reburying the stasis box that I’d just excavated.

This time, Steen was making the opposite mistake of following my lead too closely. When I’d handed over the excavation site to him, he’d ordered his heavy lift operators to carry on adding rubble to the heap I’d started. He’d let them carry on doing that for well over an hour now, so the mound of rocks had grown far too high and was likely to slip sideways at any moment.

I wanted to set my suit comms to speak on our team circuit, and tell Steen to start a second rubble heap. Dig site conventions forbade me from giving him instructions though. Steen hadn’t taken over the excavation work while I took a brief break, but for the whole rest of the morning. This was Steen’s excavation site now, and he was entitled to run it however he chose, without another tag leader giving him uninvited suggestions and criticism.

Dig site conventions forbade me from giving Steen instructions, but Lecturer Playdon was our team leader, in overall charge of our work. It was his job to warn Steen of a developing hazard, and I was puzzled by him letting this situation continue. I couldn’t believe Playdon hadn’t noticed that increasingly dangerous heap of rubble. I could understand him being reluctant to embarrass Steen by pointing out his mistake on the team circuit, but he could easily open a private circuit to talk to him.

If there’d been any chance of a person being injured, then I’d have felt justified in ignoring dig site conventions and intervening. The only danger was to sensor spike 3 though, so I just had to sit and wait for the inevitable landslide. I vented my feelings in a long, despairing sigh, and the rest of dig team 1 laughed at me.

“I know you’d like to be in Steen’s place right now, Jarra,” said Fian, “but Lecturer Playdon is right to limit your working time for a while. You can’t spend three months floating in a tank and then go straight back to working full mornings on a dig site.”

I glowered at him. “You can be really irritating sometimes. I’ve no idea why I went to so much trouble to get betrothed to you.”

Fian pulled a wounded face at me. “I’m just repeating what Lecturer Playdon said.”

“That’s exactly what I’m complaining about,” I said bitterly. “Repeating what Playdon said isn’t just annoying, but totally unnecessary as well. I accept he was right about me needing to gradually build up my working hours, but I can’t help being frustrated by the situation. I hate lazing around and watching other people work, and I especially hate the fact I’m stopping all the rest of you from working as well.”

“Krath, Dalmora, and I have been doing excavation work for months while you and Fian were away,” said Amalie. “I found being a tag leader horribly stressful, so it’s a huge relief to have a rest.”

“And I enjoy lazing around and watching other people work,” said Krath happily. “I think that Steen is letting that rubble heap get too high, and if he keeps going then he’ll have a landslide within the next fifteen minutes. He should start a second heap of rubble somewhere else.”

I was stunned. “That’s exactly what I was thinking, Krath. How did you suddenly become so sensible?”

“Krath hasn’t suddenly become sensible,” said Amalie. “Remember that he was acting as my tag support while you were away. Playdon and I have been training him to watch out for developing hazards on the dig site, so you’re seeing the result of three months’ hard work on our part.”

“I wasn’t that bad a tag support to start with,” said Krath plaintively. “Playdon said he was impressed by how fast I used the lifeline beam to snatch you out of trouble, and I just needed to learn to anticipate problems better to be an excellent tag support.”

I wasn’t just stunned but totally grazzed to hear that. “Did Playdon really say that?”

“Playdon did say that, and he was perfectly right about it,” said Amalie, with the air of a judge giving her verdict. “Krath may say some nardle things, but he’s always been good at anything practical. It wasn’t entirely his fault that he arrived on this course without any social skills either. His father moved world so often that Krath didn’t go to school at all except for a few months when he was sixteen.”

Raven shook his head. “Given all the obstacles in his way, I’m amazed Krath got good enough grades to get a place on a University Asgard course.”

“I only managed it because my Aunt Galina helped me,” said Krath. “She came to visit my dad one day, and gave him a frosty lecture about how he’d taken me out of school to use me as unpaid labour. Then she took me to live with her. She’s a history teacher, and made me study for what felt like every waking hour, so I could get a place on this course.”

“That was nice of her,” said Raven.

“I’m not sure Aunt Galina did it to be nice,” said Krath doubtfully. “She kept saying it was her duty to salvage me and turn me into a proper human being.”

Those words reminded me of the off-world vids I’d watched as a child, and the things the norms had said about people like me being less than human. “Your Aunt Galina sounds horrible.”

“She had her good moments,” said Krath. “When I got a top grade in history, she said I might be more intelligent than the average rabbit after all.”

Krath seemed genuinely proud that his aunt had compared him favourably to a rabbit. None of us could work out anything to say in reply, so there was a short silence before Dalmora took the safe option of changing the subject entirely.

“Can we have a quick meeting to discuss the class party plans now? We need to decide on the banner design.”

Fian and I exchanged resigned glances. I felt it should only take one or two meetings to organize a simple farewell party, and we’d already had three, but we couldn’t claim that we were busy with something else when we were just sitting here.

“Go ahead,” said Fian.

Dalmora took out her lookup and tapped at it. “As we agreed, I asked the graphics designer for my father’s vid series, History of Humanity, to create some possible banner designs. I’ll send them to your lookups now.”

I checked my lookup, and saw Dalmora’s message had been added to the queue of messages from Military Command Support. They’d been sending me a message every day for the last three days, and they all said exactly the same thing. General Torrek would like to call me for a chat about my health and other personal issues. I should contact them to book a slot in his schedule that was convenient for my time zone and course work.

I hadn’t responded to those messages yet because of the ominous mention of ‘other personal issues’. I suspected that meant General Torrek wanted to discuss my grandmother with me. I obviously couldn’t keep ignoring messages from a General forever, but …

I brushed that problem aside to deal with later, and concentrated on studying the banner designs. The first one showed the massed faces of our class members, Raven, and Lecturer Playdon, arranged around a central picture of a crashing spaceship. As I skimmed on through more banner designs, the arrangement of faces remained unchanged, their hairstyle details showing the images of class members had been taken during the meet and greet at the beginning of the course, while the ones of Raven and Playdon were more recent. The central picture kept varying though, including things like the alien sphere, an explosion, and the planet Fortuna.

The centre of the last design was a candle burning next to a picture of our dead classmate, Joth. I couldn’t work out exactly when that picture of Joth had been taken, but he was holding a glass of Fizzup and laughing as if he’d just heard a joke. I grimaced, lifted my head, and found Dalmora was looking expectantly at us.

“Which event picture do you prefer?” she asked.

“The crashing spaceship is the most spectacular,” said Krath.

“The arrival of the alien sphere was a more important moment in history,” said Amalie.

“That doesn’t make it the most important moment for our class though,” I said. “I vote for Joth.”

Fian nodded. “Jarra’s right. The centre of the banner should show something important for the whole class, not an event that only involved a few of us.”

“Everyone was in the dome when the bomb went off,” said Dalmora, “so we could have the explosion. Whether the whole class was present for the other events or not though, their lives were still deeply affected by them.”

“We could include all the events,” said Raven. “If Lecturer Playdon was in the middle, with the class clustered closely around him, there’d be space around the edge of the banner for smaller versions of all the event pictures.”

“That’s a good suggestion,” said Amalie.

The rest of us nodded.

“I’ll message the graphics designer, and ask her to do that,” said Dalmora.

“Before you send that message, I’d like to suggest another change,” said Fian. “I noticed that Petra’s face has been included among the class members. After the way she treated Jarra, I think we should ask the graphics designer to get rid of her.”

“Jarra said she wanted Petra to be on the banner,” said Dalmora.

Fian turned to frown at me. “Why would you want that spiteful creature included on our banner? She tried to bully you into leaving the class.”

I sighed. “When Petra found out about my immune system problem, she was a bit unfriendly to me, but once she explained her family situation … Well, I understand why Petra behaved the way she did, she was a member of our class for months, and I don’t want her excluded from the banner because she called me a few rude names.”

“Petra did a lot more than call you a few rude names,” said Fian bitterly. “She kept trying to split us up because she wanted to get her claws into me. I’ll never forget how Petra contacted my parents to tell them poisonous stories about you, or the way she called you an animal when she left our class.”

My mind automatically conjured up the memory of that moment, and the defiance in Petra’s face and voice as she spoke. “I don’t believe in cruelty to animals, I just don’t think humans should marry them!”

Fian turned back to Dalmora. “Jarra may be willing to have Petra on our banner, but I strongly object.”

Dalmora glanced nervously at me before replying. “After all we’ve been through together, I don’t think we should argue over something so unimportant as whether Petra is on the banner or not.”

“I don’t think this is unimportant,” said Fian.

“Fian’s right,” said Krath fiercely. “I don’t want Petra on our banner either. It wasn’t just how she treated Jarra, or the way she walked out on us when things got dangerous. It was Petra’s fault that Joth died.”

“But that’s exactly why I want Petra to be on our banner,” said Amalie. “She should be there to make sure we never forget how destructive she was, or the part she played in causing Joth’s death.”

Dalmora gave a despairing look at Raven. “What do you think?”

“Me?” asked Raven nervously. “I can’t comment on whether Petra should be on the banner or not. Military Security had flagged her as a potential threat to Jarra and Fian before I even arrived in the class, so I was always aware of her as a danger rather than a person. In fact, I’m still aware of Petra as a danger right now. Military Security is keeping her under surveillance, and Colonel Leveque is sending me regular updates about her.”

I stared at Raven. “Military Security is keeping Petra under surveillance? But it’s been …”

I hesitated for a moment, trying to work out exactly how long it had been since Petra left, but my sense of time was still hopelessly confused by the three months I’d spent in a tank. “It’s been months since Petra left the class.”

“Petra didn’t stop being a danger to you and Fian when she left the class,” said Raven grimly. “It’s only ten days since the Isolationist Party sent an old survey spaceship packed with missiles to try and stop you and Fian from reaching the Fortuna star system and shutting down the alien defence grid.”

He shrugged. “The Isolationist Party lost a lot of supporters because of that attempt on your lives, but its core members are still willing to take extreme measures to stop humanity exploring the alien home world. Reliable sources have informed Colonel Leveque that you and Fian are still at the top of the Isolationist Party kill list.”

I groaned. We’d somehow gone from discussing arrangements for the class party to a stark reminder that the Isolationist Party wanted to kill Fian and me.

Fian threw an anxious glance at me before facing Raven again. “Are you saying that Petra has got involved with the Isolationist Party and may try to physically attack us? Petra’s good at using spiteful words, but I’m finding it hard to imagine her as an assassin.”

“If Petra attempts to portal to any star system in Alpha sector, she’ll be arrested and interrogated by Military Security,” said Raven. “Colonel Leveque’s concern isn’t that she’ll physically attack you herself, but that she’ll supply information to the Isolationist Party that helps them attack you.”

Fian frowned. “What sort of information? Colonel Leveque has so many security measures in place that Petra won’t even know that our class is working on Berlin Main.”

“Petra will have learned personal details about you when she was a member of the class,” said Raven. “She could tell the Isolationist Party all the people and places you’re most likely to want to visit before you leave for Fortuna, so they can set up an ambush to kill you.”

“Is there any evidence that Petra has done that?” asked Fian sharply.

Raven sighed. “There’s no evidence that Petra has contacted the Isolationist Party, but she’s been acting extremely suspiciously. When she left the class, she returned home to Asgard to live with her father, but now she’s moved to Winter and is working in one of the hotels there.”

“What’s so suspicious about leaving home and getting a job on Winter?” asked Krath. “Everyone in Gamma sector wants to holiday on Winter to admire the ice and snow, but they don’t want to live somewhere that cold permanently, so it’s easy to get highly paid jobs in the hotels. If I hadn’t managed to get a place on this course, I’d probably have gone to work on Winter myself.”

“What’s suspicious is that Petra is using a false name on Winter,” said Raven.

“A false name,” repeated Fian. “Why is Colonel Leveque letting Petra hide under a false name? He should have immediately ordered her arrest.”

Raven waved his hands in a gesture of ignorance. “Colonel Leveque just sends me information on potential threats. He doesn’t tell me details of his tactics for dealing with them, but sometimes you can learn more by leaving a suspect free.”

Fian’s frown deepened. “You mean that Colonel Leveque is hoping Petra will lead him to the Isolationist Party assassins?”

Today was 20 November, and our last day working on Berlin Main Dig Site would be 10 December. Including today, I had precisely twenty-one days left where I could forget about world-shattering events and focus on ordinary student life. This conversation was destroying my attempt to do that, so I buried my face in my hands and made a soft whimpering noise.

“Can everyone please stop talking about assassins? If there’s a problem, then Colonel Leveque and Raven will deal with it. We should focus on making a decision on our class banner design.”

“Yes, well, Raven’s made a good point about Petra still being a threat,” said Fian.

“No!” I lifted my head and glared at him. “I told you that I don’t want any more talk of nuking assassins.”

Fian made desperate soothing gestures with his hands. “I know. I know. I was just explaining that I’ve changed my mind about having Petra on the class banner. I now agree with Amalie that Petra should be on it, but I suggest she has her back turned to the rest of us to remind us that she’s an enemy. Would you be happy with that, Krath?”

“I suppose so,” said Krath grudgingly. “So long as it’s clear she doesn’t belong to the class any longer.”

“That’s agreed then,” said Dalmora, in a relieved voice. “I’ll talk to the graphics designer and …”

She was interrupted by the voice of Rono Kipkibor speaking on the broadcast channel that could be heard by every team working on Berlin Main Dig Site. “This is Cassandra 2. Requesting clearance to ascend Spire 141.”

There was a crisply efficient response. “This is Dig Site Command. Cassandra 2, you are clear to ascend Spire 141.”

There’d been a lot of exchanges like this on the broadcast channel in the last few days, but this one was especially interesting to our class because we’d spent a lot of time working with the Cassandra 2 research team.

Everyone else turned to look towards the heart of Berlin, but I kept my eyes stubbornly on our excavation site. I wanted to keep looking at a view that could have been New York, rather than turn to face a landmark that didn’t just scream the fact we were in Berlin, but was an unwelcome reminder that there was nothing ordinary about either my class or me any longer. Berlin Main Dig Site was rated a high hazard area, so no ordinary Pre-history Foundation class would be allowed to work here.

“Which one is Spire 141?” asked Krath.

Fian tapped at his Military lookup. “According to the plan of Berlin Main Dig Site, Spire 141 is to the east of us. Over there.”

As he lifted his arm to point, another familiar voice spoke on the broadcast channel. “Cassandra 2 at Spire 141. Keren ascending!”

A second voice followed. “Cassandra 2 at Spire 141. Stephan ascending!”

“I can see Keren and Stephan heading up,” said Krath eagerly. “Am I right that it’s Keren that wears the blue impact suit, and Stephan the gold?”

“Yes,” said Fian.

I fought the urge to turn my head to look at Keren and Stephan, and kept watching Steen. He’d just finished tagging another batch of rocks. I saw him activate his hover belt, lift up into the air, and skim out of the way to let the heavy lift sleds start work.

“This is Cassandra 2 team leader. Reporting two ascended to Spire 141, floor 23.”

“This is Dig Site Command. Confirming Cassandra 2 has two ascended at Spire 141, floor 23.”

I was startled to hear another voice that wasn’t speaking on the comms, but from somewhere close behind me. “Can I have a private word with you, Jarra?”

I hastily stood up and turned to see Lecturer Playdon, the hood of his distinctive turquoise-blue impact suit pulled fully down despite the cold. “Yes, sir.”

He led the way to the back of the transport sled. We’d just sat down when there was the sound of cascading rubble from our excavation site. I turned and saw Steen’s rubble heap had toppled sideways. Steen’s hood was up and sealed of course, so I couldn’t see his expression, but he was standing facing the collapsed rubble heap with a disconsolate air.

I sighed. “We’ve just lost sensor spike 3.”

“There’s only a small risk of sensor spike 3 being damaged,” said Playdon. “Sensor spike cases are designed to survive much worse than a minor landslide.”

There was something suspicious about the way he said that. “You deliberately let that landslide happen!”

Playdon nodded calmly. “Sometimes a student learns more from being allowed to make a mistake.”

I thought back through my time in the Asgard 6 class. “Have you deliberately let me make many mistakes?”

Playdon gave me one of his evil smiles. “Only a couple.”

“Was one of them the time in New York when I backed into an unstable wall?”

Playdon’s smile faded. “Of course not. Fian reacted incredibly quickly to the wall collapsing, snatching you out of danger before you could get buried, but you were still badly bruised. I’d never deliberately allow a student to make a mistake that could endanger them like that.”

He paused and glanced over at the rest of dig team 1. They were well out of earshot, but he still lowered his voice before speaking again.

“That accident wasn’t just caused by your mistake, but mine as well. You’d arrived on the course as such a competent tag leader that I’d got overconfident about your ability. I wasn’t watching what you were doing as closely as I should have been, and was too late to stop you backing into that wall. I felt horribly guilty when Dalmora came to me the next day and said you needed a fluid patch to treat the bruising.”

I remembered sending Dalmora to ask Playdon for that fluid patch. “The bruising wasn’t really that bad,” I confessed. “I …”

Playdon shook his head. “Let’s forget about your old injuries, Jarra, and discuss your current physical health. Spending a long time in a tank leaves you with oversensitive skin. Your Military doctors warned me that getting decanted from the tank and then immediately rushing into an impact suit to go to Fortuna had left you with some sore areas of skin.”

“I told you that my skin had healed up before I rejoined the class, sir.”

“Yes, but long hours wearing an impact suit can sometimes reopen newly-healed sores. You’re not having any problems like that?”

“None at all,” I said eagerly. “My skin has hardened off nicely, so I’m ready to go back to working full mornings on the dig site.”

Playdon studied my face thoughtfully. “The other problem after extended tank time is muscle atrophy. Wearing an impact suit for a full morning is a strain on the body even if you’re sitting still, and working is obviously far worse.”

“My doctors said that I had surprisingly little muscle atrophy for such a long time in a tank, and they gave me some medication to help speed up my recovery.”

“That medication can only speed up your recovery if you actually take it,” said Playdon drily.

I gave a depressed sigh. “I’m taking the tablets, sir. My doctors said something about having special instructions to give my tablets to Fian instead of me. He’s been standing over me to make sure I take them.”

Playdon laughed. “The Military clearly know exactly how to deal with you. Well, you were obviously exhausted after your first morning on the dig site. At least, I hope it was exhaustion rather than boredom that made you fall asleep during my afternoon lecture.”

I blushed with embarrassment.

“You seem to have coped well since then,” he continued, “so I think you’re physically recovered enough to spend two hours working tomorrow morning.”

I grinned in delight, and glanced across at where Steen had temporarily abandoned excavating the stasis box in favour of rescuing the buried sensor spike. “So dig team 1 will be going back to normal excavation work tomorrow?”

“That’s the other point that I need to discuss with you,” said Playdon. “We aren’t necessarily talking about you doing normal excavation work. Colonel Leveque has contacted me to say that the alien ruins on Fortuna include some very high buildings. He suggests that you should get some experience working on skyscrapers before going to Fortuna. Since we’re at Berlin, that means …”

Playdon let the words trail off. I finally turned to look at the glittering mass of interconnected spires that formed the lethal heart of Berlin, and finished the sentence for him.

“That means working on the Berlin Spire Complex.”

 

Part 3

Earth Europe, 20 November 2789

“I want to make it totally clear that you don’t have to agree to work on the Berlin Spire Complex, Jarra,” said Lecturer Playdon. “I have a duty of care to my students. I hope you and Fian understood that I was shocked and deeply worried when the Alien Contact programme was activated, and you were drafted into the Military. I couldn’t do anything to stop it from happening though.”

I’d been staring, mesmerized, at the dazzling network of spires that somehow reminded me of a medieval fortress, but now I faced Playdon. “Of course we understood that, sir. Everyone gets taught about the Alien Contact programme in school. It has absolute authority over everything and everyone, and disobeying its orders is classed as a crime against humanity.”

“I was powerless to prevent you from being drafted, or from being swept up in the events that followed,” continued Playdon. “I could only try to make the class into a safe refuge during the periods you and Fian returned to work with us. I was horrified when I heard you were undergoing a potentially fatal, experimental treatment to override your faulty immune system.”

Playdon shook his head. “Well, you survived and went to Fortuna with Fian to lower the alien defences. When all the ceremonies and celebrations on Wallam-Crane day were over, I went to bed thinking there wouldn’t be any more shocks for a while, only to wake up the next morning, check Gamma Sector News, and find they were showing that live link interview with Steen.”

I groaned at the mention of Steen’s interview. Fian and I had probably been the last of our class to see it. The celebrations to mark Earth joining Alpha sector had carried on late into the night. When Fian, Raven, and I finally portalled back to our class’s dome, my head had been so filled with swirling memories and images of fireworks that I hadn’t been able to get to sleep for hours.

Once we did get to sleep, Fian and I had slept solidly until the next afternoon, and woke up to find Earth Rolling News was showing a recording of Steen’s interview. As we sat watching the first half of it, the only thing bothering me was the way Steen kept complimenting me.

Back when Petra had been trying to drive me into leaving the class, she’d persuaded a group of class members from Asgard, including Steen, to join her campaign against me. Steen genuinely seemed to have changed his mind about me now, but hearing his gushing words of admiration in that interview was still a painful contrast to the way he’d called me a stinking ape in the past.

So I’d kept wincing at every compliment from Steen, and grumbling about them to Fian, until we reached the critical moment when a random question led to Steen making an angry comment about the Military putting me in prison. The interviewer naturally asked him when and why that had happened. Steen said that he didn’t know any details at all. He’d just overheard me saying that I’d been on reduced pay when I was in a Military prison.

After that, the interviewer started making wild guesses about why I’d been in a Military prison, and asking an increasingly anxious-looking Steen if they could be true. Fian and I had exchanged apprehensive glances when the interview ended, checked a selection of other newzie channels, and found all of them from Alpha Spectrum to Epsilon Sector News were busily speculating about exactly when and why the Military had thrown Jarra Tell Morrath in prison.

I still wasn’t sure what had been worse. Watching sympathetic people make angry comments about the Military mistreating me, or listening to Isolationist Party supporters accusing me of being a dangerous criminal. Then came the dreadful moment when my lookup chimed, and I saw Colonel Leveque was calling me.

He’d asked me precisely what Steen had overheard, and I’d nervously admitted to having a chat to the rest of dig team 1, where Krath had asked me what a Military Commander was paid. I’d made a joking reply about the complications of my rapid promotions, where I’d thoughtlessly mentioned being in prison on half-pay. I’d volunteered to say something to the newzies, but Colonel Leveque had hastily shaken his head and told me that he’d handle the situation.

An hour later, the newzies had shown Colonel Leveque making a statement on behalf of the Military. He’d said that attempts to kill Fian and me had led to a range of measures being taken to protect us, and Steen had overheard me making a joking reference to a point where a Military prison had been used as a safe haven. After that, all the fuss had died down, but I was still horrified by the amount of trouble I’d caused by a few thoughtless words and . . .

At this point, I realized that Lecturer Playdon was looking at me enquiringly. “I’m sorry, sir. I got distracted remembering all the problems Steen’s interview caused, and I think I missed you saying something.”

“I said that I was powerless to protect you in the past, but I’m not powerless any longer. Steen’s interview had the accidental benefit of making the newzies ask what risks you and Fian will be expected to take when you do excavation work on Fortuna. That led to questions about the safety of civilian archaeologists as well, and the General Marshal has now made a formal statement in response.”

“I didn’t know that the General Marshal had made a statement.” I waved my hands in despair. “It feels like I can’t so much as blink without missing a major newzie story that involves Fian and me.”

“You haven’t missed anything, Jarra,” said Playdon. “Last night, the General Marshal’s statement was sent to the leaders of the teams heading for Fortuna to check that it satisfied all our concerns. It won’t be released to the newzies until later today.”

He paused. “The General Marshal has stated that the Military has no experience of running specialist archaeological excavations, so will only suggest desirable work to be done. The civilian leaders of the xenoarchaeological research teams will then consider the potential benefits and risks involved in that work, and decide whether it should be carried out or not.”

Playdon shrugged. “Since you and Fian are currently members of my class, and will be members of my team when we go to Fortuna, Colonel Leveque has agreed the same protocol should apply to the dig site work you’re doing now.”

“So that means it’s your decision whether I work on the Berlin Spire Complex or not?”

“Yes, and I’m choosing to delegate that decision to you. I’m satisfied that you’ve physically recovered to the point where you can do at least a couple of hours of excavation work a day. If you wish, then you can spend that time working on the Berlin Spire Complex.”

I gave Playdon an uncertain look. “Will Steen be working on the Berlin Spire Complex too?”

“No. Steen needs to spend more time doing basic excavation work before he goes near a skyscraper. I’m sure you’ve been wondering why I’ve signed up our dig team 4 tag leader to go to Fortuna rather than someone better qualified.”

I chose my words carefully. “I’m not questioning your decisions, sir.”

“In this case, you should be. As my senior tag leader, you’ve a right to know my reason for choosing someone so clearly unable to rescue you if you have a serious accident. In fact, I need you to start questioning any of my decisions that you consider suspect. We’re going to be moving from being in a class and teacher situation to working as a research team in unknown conditions. I need everyone helping to spot errors of judgement or wrong assumptions on my part, and especially you.”

“Yes, sir, but I don’t consider this a suspect decision. I’m sure you had a good reason for choosing Steen.”

Playdon grimaced. “I did. That reason was simply that I had limited options. After the repeated attacks on you and Fian, Colonel Leveque only wants trusted class members on our Fortuna team.”

I guessed that meant Steen had volunteered, while the tag leaders of dig teams 2 and 3 hadn’t. “I understand.”

“I’d be seriously worried about this situation if it wasn’t for the fact that on Fortuna we’ll be working closely with Cassandra 2,” continued Playdon. “That means their tag leaders will be able to assist us if we’re in trouble. There’s also the point that Amalie did an excellent job taking over your dig team 1 tag leader position while you were away. She refused the second tag leader position on our Fortuna team, telling me she found the role too stressful and wanted to return to running a heavy lift sled, but I’m hoping she’ll eventually change her mind.”

He shrugged. “Let’s get back to discussing you working on the Berlin Spire Complex. If you don’t feel ready to try it, then I’ll tell Colonel Leveque that rushing you into it would involve an unacceptable level of risk, and he’ll accept my decision.”

I gave a grazzed shake of my head. “I don’t know how I feel about this, sir. The idea of working on the Berlin Spire Complex is a bit of a shock. I don’t know very much about working methods on ordinary skyscrapers, because only research teams are allowed to go near them, and I’ve heard the conditions in the Berlin Spire Complex are especially difficult. I should have looked up details, but I’ve been busy catching up with some of the theory lectures you recorded for me when I was in the tank.”

“I told you that I understood it was impossible for you to watch all of those theory lectures before the end of the course, or even before we go to Fortuna,” said Playdon. “I just want you to gradually make progress on them. They may seem completely irrelevant to working on alien ruins, but some of the references may turn out to be unexpectedly helpful.”

“I appreciate that, sir.”

“I realize you have a lot of other things to think about at the moment as well,” said Playdon. “You went through some massively stressful events both immediately before and after your tank time. Even the good things, like the celebrations on Wallam-Crane day, must have been an extra strain, and you’re probably working through some relationship issues with Fian as well.”

Playdon hesitated for a moment. “I believe Professor Rono Kipkibor told you that my wife and I worked on his research team until my wife was killed in an accident at the California Rift.”

Playdon never talked about his wife, so I was shocked by him mentioning her now. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just nodded.

“During our first year on that research team, I was badly injured myself,” continued Playdon. “I spent nearly two months in a full body regrowth tank, so I know from personal experience that there aren’t just physical aftereffects from an extended period in a tank, but psychological and relationship ones too.”

His face took on the distant expression of someone thinking back in time. “I had no awareness of anything when I was floating unconscious in the tank. When I was decanted, it felt like I’d only been asleep for a few minutes. I was still in shock from the accident, but the world had jumped forward in time and a lot of things had changed. My wife and I were twenty-three years old back then. We’d got married only a month before my accident. Cadee had had days of painful suspense before the doctors were sure I’d survive, and then over six more weeks of waiting until I was decanted.”

Playdon was silent for a moment. “When I was discharged from the hospital, I found that Cadee had already changed roles from being my tag support to running a heavy lift sled for our dig team 2. We agreed that I should change roles as well, so I gave up tag leading and became Rono’s deputy team leader in charge of dig team 2.”

I hadn’t known that Playdon had originally been a tag leader. The way he described his move to deputy team leader sounded as if it might have been a decision forced on him by Cadee. I daren’t ask how he’d felt about it.

Playdon continued speaking in a harsh, brittle voice. “Three years later, the accident at the California Rift left Cadee and me in the reverse situation. She was the one in the tank, I was the one waiting in suspense, and then the doctors told me she was brain dead.”

His face twisted in pain. “The thing that hit me hardest was that Cadee’s heavy lift sled was crushed in the accident, but the tag support sled wasn’t touched. I couldn’t help thinking that if we hadn’t changed roles to make me safer then she would have lived.”

He gave an angry shake of his head. “It was ridiculous of me to be so obsessed by that thought. So many decisions led to Cadee being in that particular place at that particular time. A change in any of them could have stopped her dying, or made her death happen sooner. We could have joined another research team when we graduated. Rono could have chosen a different dig team assignment that month. We could have accepted an invitation to spend that week at a historical re-enactment instead of refusing it.”

I still didn’t dare to speak, so there was a short silence before Playdon spoke again. “The problem with not talking about something is that when you do start talking then it’s hard to stop. I shouldn’t have gone into so much detail about my own past. I just wanted to explain that I appreciate you’re going through a difficult time.”

He paused. “You may find yourself discussing a lot of things with Fian, and possibly rethinking the decisions you’ve already made. If you and Fian decide you want to move to different dig team roles, or even change your minds about joining the expedition to Zeta sector, then I’ll understand and do everything I can to help. Excavating alien ruins means facing completely unknown dangers, and you may want a safer and more peaceful life on Earth or one of the other worlds of humanity.”

Guilt crushed me. Lecturer Playdon knew that going to Zeta sector meant facing unknown dangers. He didn’t know it meant facing a danger that the human race had met before and understood only too well.

I couldn’t warn Playdon about that. I’d already caused chaos on the newzie channels of every sector with a single careless remark about being in Military prison, so I daren’t say anything about the danger lurking in Zeta sector. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that Playdon would be told the full truth before he went to Zeta sector, and the extinction event on Fortuna meant that world at least should be safe, but I still felt guilty.

“I don’t think Fian and I could change our minds about going to Zeta sector,” I said aloud. “The Alien Contact programme needed us both to go to Fortuna to shut down the alien defences, and Colonel Leveque estimates there’s a 31 per cent probability that we’ll be needed to interact with other alien devices in future as well.”

I sighed. “Fian says that our lives will never be peaceful anyway. He says that I’ll always be charging from one crisis to the next, while he sprints after me.”

“It sounds as if Fian has accepted the current situation,” said Playdon, “but how do you feel about it, Jarra? I’ve got the impression that you’re worried about something specific.”

I turned to stare at where Steen was working. I had a whole list of things worrying me. The unknown dangers to be faced on Fortuna. The question of how Playdon and my teammates would react when they learnt the full truth about what had happened to the alien race. The conversation that I’d eventually have to have with General Torrek.

Playdon was right that there was one very specific issue bothering me though. I’d told Fian that I needed a break where life was normal and uneventful. I’d told myself that my fantasies about being back in New York were because I wanted to be living an ordinary student life for a while. The truth was that I wanted to be my old self again.

If I looked in a mirror right now, then I’d look almost exactly like that old self. I was wearing my Military impact suit with the hood up but unsealed. Only the centre of my face was visible, and my implanted web didn’t extend across that because of the potential impact on my vision, breathing, and speech.

The problem was how I looked when I didn’t have the heavy fabric of an impact suit covering my shimmering body. I was never good at talking about emotional things, but Playdon had just shared some deeply private things with me. He trusted me not to repeat that information to anyone, and I knew he’d never repeat anything personal that I told him in return.

I turned to face Playdon again, and fought to keep my voice calm and untroubled. “There are times when I’m perfectly happy about the flickering lights under my skin, but when I unexpectedly catch sight of my reflection . . .”

I was losing the battle with my voice, and had to break off my sentence to get it back under control. “I have to learn to live with that though. My immune system is totally dependent on my implanted web now, so removing it would kill me.”

Playdon nodded. “Given your feelings about psychologists, I assume that the Military has offered you counselling but you’ve refused it?”

I grimaced. “Yes.”

“Remember that you’re welcome to talk to me about this issue at any time.” Playdon’s voice abruptly changed from sympathetic to briskly practical. “You obviously need to know a lot more about the Berlin Spire Complex before making a decision about whether you want to work on it or not, so I’ll cover some details in my lectures this afternoon. To avoid putting you under any pressure from your classmates, I’ll let everyone think I’m just doing a standard background information session on Berlin.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Playdon turned his head to look at Steen again. “Sensor spike 3 seems to have been successfully salvaged, so I’ll go and check on how dig team 2 is progressing with their excavation.”

We both stood up, and Playdon activated the hover belt he was wearing, lifted up into the air, and skimmed off towards the group of sleds belonging to teams 2 and 3. I watched him go, feeling oddly shaky.

This was the problem I always had with emotional things. I didn’t just find it hard to talk about them. Any discussion left me feeling exposed and vulnerable afterwards. I was already desperately thinking through my conversation with Playdon, and wishing I’d said something different, or preferably said nothing at all.

I sighed, and went back to Raven and the rest of dig team 1. As I sat down next to Fian, he turned to look expectantly at me.

“What did Playdon say?”

“About what?” I asked nervously.

Fian raised his eyebrows. “About you working on the dig site.”

“Oh. Playdon says I can spend two hours working tomorrow.”

Fian frowned. “So why are you looking worried rather than pleased?”

I was still stunned by the idea of working on the Berlin Spire Complex. I wasn’t ready to discuss it with Fian yet, especially not in front of an audience. “I’m not worried.”

He gave me a suspicious look, and said the four ominous words that I’d learned to dread. “We’ll discuss this later.”

I groaned.

To be continued. Part 4 coming shortly.

© 2019 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.

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