Voyages: 2548-2552

Senior Crew of the Ahmad ibn Fadlan

Elwys Schrader, Captain

Diomedes Armadu, First Officer

Elias ben Aaronson, Second Officer

Shakila Kwei, Doctor

Marquita Jackson-Pierce, Chief Science Officer

Farouk Ahmad, Assistant Science Officer

Julian Pjindik, Chief Planetologist

Aja Ahmad, Chief XenoBotanist

Patricia Guilford, Chief Engineer

Michael Nowak, Chemist

Adara Connoley, Chief Medical Officer

Serette Sandoval, First Astrogator/Pilot

Prak Veata, Science Officer

Steven Guilford, Head Nurse

Ennis Powell, Physical Scientist

Jamal Sauter, Biologist

Gladys McFadden, Ship's Psychologist

Justin Margolis, lab technician

Jennifer Oguna, Mission Planner (and Political Officer)

Pandu Singh, Anthropologist-Sociologist

Azra el-Jala, Physicist

Other Characters

Andrea Cellucci, Commodore, Federal Navy Contact and Survey Directorate

Halbern Pierce, Captain of FNS Lewis & Clark

Una Lattimore, Director, Mercylight Foundation's Jobus office

Ashanti Wells, Chief Administrator, Cassius Colony

Grel Pthaktor, one of only 5,000 survivors of the Scorpion Republic's genocide of Neo-Neanderthals on Mawu

Marcus Nejada, Petty Officer, Engineering

Ibizi al-Morsi ibn Saud, Commodore, Hyades Command

Prologue

Hyades Major Station-

September 2, 2548 Standard Reckoning

Julian Pjindik shouldered his pack and watched the man walk away along the concourse through the crowds.

Julian had spent the last six months traveling. From Earth, after graduation from the Naval Academy to Aldebaran, and from Aldebaran to Hyades Major Station aboard a liner.

On the second night out from Aldebaran, just before the ship jumped into Leap-space, he met Grel.

Grel Pthaktor stood out in the Second Class lounge. Short, stocky and muscular, bright red-headed, and pale. Legs like tree-trunks and arms just as thick hanging from a broad, broad back and chest. When he turned around from the bar Julian saw instantly he wasn't human. Neo-Neanderthal.

He was instantly intrigued and attracted. Other than a visit to the N'Djamena Pleasure Rooms after graduation, he'd gone without…for a year.

So was Grel. Neo-Neanderthals were known bisexuals….and Julian was beyond curious. He'd only ever been with humans—actual humans, not modified or artificial ones.

The two spent the next 36 days subjective…rather engrossed.

One morning, the day after the ship had left Leap-space in the Hyades Major star system, he asked Grel where he was going, this far out, this far out on the Frontier in the newly opened Hyades Reach.

"I am headed to the new colony on Collinder. The survivors are there waiting for me."

"Survivors?"

"Didn't you know?"

Julian shook his head in confusion. He knew the Neo-Neanderthal had long ago migrated from Earth to a planet now annexed by the Scorpion Republic—Mawu. But news rarely traveled out of the Scorpion worlds. The Federated Nations and the Scorpion Republic had long had icy, almost non-existent relations.

"The Scorpions hate humods. On Mawu we lived on the southern steppes. It was wonderful." Grel had left the bed and plodded over to a chair, the night-light illuminating his magnificent, red-furred covered body. He sat and picked up the wine bottle the two had abandoned hours before and drank.

"The colony on Mawu was a different sort, sort of medium tech. 20th century without the pollution or horror is the look they wanted when they settled. But they accepted us when we left Earth. Not a lot of places would.

"Some of us settled in towns we built in the region they left for us. The rest formed bands and roamed the steppes, wandering with the klepper herds. Kleppers are kind of like bison. Heard of either?"

Julian nodded, Exo-xenobiology had been a chore at the Academy.

"The Scorpions came. They loathe worlds that resist when they come, and Mawu resisted. They were punished for resisting. They nuked the capital city from orbit. And then they discovered us. Almost 3 million of us. And they murdered every single Neandermods on the planet. About 5,000 of us were off world, me included. It's taken us years to finally get together and find a new world far from harm." Grel sounded sad. "I had wives and husbands, and we all had many children. They are gone now." But he returned to bed and said, "Well, the past is the past. How about I take care of that present?"

In the present, Julian considered running after him. But Grel had stated as they left the liner "You are already running. Your path is separate from mine. You cannot run with me."

He watched him go, some lust rising, some sadness beginning, and some longing intensifying and thought "I should chase after him. I should go be with him." But in the end he turned and walked in the opposite direction toward the Naval Docks. He had a path. And he was running.

Querying the station computer he located the berths he was to be at. Julian's orders read:

MEMO

TO: PJINDIK, JULIAN

FROM: CELLUCCI, ANDREA COMMODORE

ORDERS:

You are to report to Hyades Station Major by Earth standard date September 3, 2548. There you have been assigned as chief planetologist aboard the FNS Ahmad ibn Fadlan for its three year charting and surveying mission of a selected chain of stars in the Hyades Reach. The Hyades Reach is the Federated Nation's newest colonial region and a deep survey is required of its many stars. This is a great honor and you will do well.

Commodore Andrea Cellucci, Federated Navy, Contact and Survey Directorate Earth Central Command, Nairobi

He'd been overjoyed. Ever since he was a small child, he wanted to leave his world and go out there into the depths of deep space.

"Why out there," said his mother, Marilyn. "You have everything you possibly want here. And then some!" His father, Austin, was nowhere to be seen. Austin Pjindik owned Pjindik Heavy Industry, Ltd, and his mother was a St. Ian, one of the oldest and most powerful economic First Families on Persephone. He'd been 16 standard years old when this conversation took place.

St. Ian Hall sat on Westminster Mesa and that evening he resolved, as he walked to the edge of the mesa and stared to the southeast at the towers and lights and sprawl of the city of Port St. Ian, a city his family had built, to get off of Persephone. He stared up at the great splash of the galaxy. Arcturus throbbed red in the northern sky. He wanted to be out there. The foppish Seasons bored him to tears, dressing up in archaic clothing, going to archaic dances, listening to boring old rich people talk about archaic things. He half suspected his parents had a marriage arranged for him, twisting and binding the already twisted family trees of Persephone's First Families together even more. It didn't matter that he wasn't hetero—there were exowombs for that. The wealthy loved them.

He'd pushed himself hard. Math, science. He took college classes in addition to secondary school. Private tutors. He had few friends. Most of his social class were other First Families. Snobby, privileged pricks.

The day he received his acceptance to the Academy was the happiest day of his life.

Earth was a different experience. Persephone had four colonies with a combined population of just over 400 million. 12 billion people lived on Earth. People on top of people on top of people everywhere. It was a little overwhelming, but Julian managed to pull through. He pushed himself to join the Exploration track at the Academy. Contact and Survey Service was where he wanted to be-and he gained notice. His thesis on the continental breakup of Grellland Massif on the world of St. Dominic was described as brilliant. Before long, he had his commission and assignment.

Neither of his parents acknowledged his achievement. His father was busy flitting around the Federated Nations on business. His mother busied herself with her other children and other social obligations. "Fuck 'em" was a phrase he learned doing field work on St. Dominic. That's what he thought of his parents.

This part of the station was Naval country. Across from the berth stood a bar and Julian ducked in.

There wasn't a big crowd in. At the bar, a stocky reddish-brown-haired man in the forest green tunic and black pants of the Contact and Survey Service sat nursing a drink and grumbling to the bar tender. The pants were ill-fitting; a set of bulbous and round buttocks strained the fabric. Julian got a glimpse of a tuft of hair and butt-crack.

At a table a tall and lithe dark woman sat with a shorter older woman with long brown hair tied up in the. The two were laughing. Both were dressed in the same livery of the Contact and Survey Directorate. The tall woman spotted him and waved him over with a smile.

"You must be Lt. Julian Pjindik," she said. "I'm Commander Marquita Jackson-Pierce and this is Doctor Gladys McFadden. You're the last one we've been waiting for. Welcome, have a seat." She gestured.

"Pleased to meet you both," Julian said, shaking their hands as he placed his pack on the floor and sat down. "Wait…the Commander Jackson-Pierce? I read your research on mantle plumes of tide-locked Earth sized worlds. Excellent. I really found it brilliant."

The two women exchanged a glance and smiled at each other. Dr. McFadden started, "Eager to please. I like you. Waiter, get him a drink…surprise him."

"Gladys…" started Jackson-Pierce.

"Oh, let me have my fun." She took another swig of her drink. "Damn that's good. Gonna miss that. Gonna have to build a still in the hydro."

Julian stared at both of them. Dr. McFadden busted out laughing.

"Ok, I'm sorry, I'll begin again" she said. "Why don't you tell us about yourself and we'll tell you about ourselves."

Julian told them the story of the starry-eyed kid wanting to leave his world. His push through the academy, getting through a year faster than most. He decided to omit that he was First Family, and the raunchy details of his liner trip from Aldebaran.

"I guess it's my turn," said Marquita,and she told them her story. She had lived in a refugee camp in Mojave colony, on St. Dominic. Her culture preferred to stay together; she would have rather been away from them. She had a brother who also left home to parts unknown. Marquita wanted to be a scientist, and that's what she became. Marquita Jackson-Pierce was the ship's chief science officer.

McFadden was much more circumspect and was interrupted by the stocky man at the bar yelling and then stomping out, headed to the ship. "That's Justin Margolis. He rode out with us from Starhaven Yards. You see, he's a little mad because you took the job he felt he was going to get. He ran the Planetology lab but not very well, you see. You're his boss, as it were." McFadden drank down the rest of her drink. "Let's be off now, ship awaits!"

The Fadlan was a Hanno-Class Exploration Cruiser. Brand new and almost four hundred meters long. It was designed and constructed at Starhaven Yards by Lockheed-Palyvos Spaceworks. Julian remembered his father's disappointment when Pjindik Industries lost out to them when the Hannos were first proposed in 2540. In reality, the designers chose an older design from the Samson-class Destroyers and gutted it, and in the end, a great deal of the interior design of the ship's scientific systems came from Pjindik. Julian didn't want anyone finding this out, lest they think he received preferential treatment in getting assigned to the Fadlan. He worked hard for this appointment!

Hannos were vaguely bullet-shaped, sleek and almost aerodynamic, with protrubances aft and along its ventral flanks that housed the powerful gravity-warping drive that both propelled the starship into Leap-space and generated the internal gravitational field, set at just under a standard g. Stubby radiators trailed aft, to dissipate the ship's waste heat. The trio walked through the main docking port through the Fadlan onto a long, windowed gangway. Through the gangway Julian could see no window portholes-starships tended not to have any for safety reasons, and many ports for weaponry—particle guns, missiles, and laser arrays supplied by Isher and Daughters, the Federated Nation's premier starship weapons manufacturer.

The Navy wasn't going to let its explorations vessels go unarmed into the Hyades Reach. While the region was not exactly unexplored it had only been surveyed in the most cursory of manners. And hostile Trader Clans operated within these stars.

The ship gleamed in its gray white livery, a forest-green stripe indicating its assignment to the Contact and Survey Service. There was nary any evidence that it'd spent six months traveling through deep space and Leap-space from Starhaven at Wolf 424 to Aldebaran, and then from Aldebaran to Hyades Station Major. Toward the fore of the starship, the words "FNS AHMAD IBN FADLAN" could be read, in bright red. This was going to be home for the next three and a half years, objective time reckoning.

"This is where we'll leave you," said Commander Jackson-Pierce once they boarded the ship and were through the lock. "We both have some things to attend to, don't we Gladys? Besides, I'm sure Lt. Pjindik wants to settle into his cabin and explore on his own. There's a briefing for senior staff in the Executive Command Lounge at 1900"—four hours from present-"and then a luncheon. You'll find all of that in your welcome packet in your cabin." Julian must have looked confused because she added "the ship will tell you where your cabin is. Just tell it who you are," she gestured toward the bulkhead and touched it at about shoulder level. The bulkhead lit up with a screen.

The pair left Julian and continued up the corridor. Gladys McFadden was giggling.

Julian, like most Naval personnel, had been fitted with an ocular implant. After determining where in the ship his cabin was located a path appeared in his vision. He followed it, down the corridor and up a lift to level 2, and down another corridor. It took him directly to his cabin hatch.

His cabin was huge. It was at least eighty square meters. Julian was astounded and grateful that he wouldn't have to spend three plus years, and possibly longer, in a tiny room. It was nicely decorated, although a bit Spartan. No porthole—no starship had windows to the exterior-, but every bulkhead had a soft glow. "They must be image walls," he surmised and quickly determined that they were. He could set the bulkheads to whatever images he wanted. This was a nice touch. Not even the passenger liner had image-walls.

Two panel hatches in the far wall led to what he assumed were sleeping quarters and a bathroom. He tried not to think about where the water from the shower came from—every Naval personnel knew it was their reprocessed waste, used over and over again until resupply at a space station dock. He entered one—it was the bedroom, complete with a bed big enough for two. In the closet area were duty uniforms. He decided to change into one—it was already sized perfectly for him. A lot of work had gone into setting this up for him, and he appreciated it.

As it turned out large and spacious crew-quarters were standard for all of the Fadlan's two hundred fifty crew members. If they were going to be in space for over three years, they might as well be comfortable. The ship was already large, it could accommodate large quarters for its crew.

His other baggage had already been transferred ahead of him but he decided not to unpack as he dropped his pack in the middle of the room's floor. He could do that once the ship got underway. Instead, he spied the Welcome Packet on a table. It contained an actual paper letter, and a tablet. He decided to read the letter later. He picked up the tablet and left to go exploring.

Following the schematics he called up on the tablet, he discovered Level 2 appeared to be crew quarters. He found a large recreation area as he moved aft, including a large lounge (which was empty at the moment), dining area, swimming pool and gymnasium, full of people exercising. The large crew lounge was most impressive. Circular, its bulkheads and ceiling were covered with image-walls. Currently they gave an almost disconcerting 3d real-time view of the space within the Docking Bay.

Off the crew lounge he found another circular room with a series of chairs lining the sides. The Recreational Holotank. Totally experimental, it allowed augmented reality to be beamed directly into the brains of the users, via the implants every Naval personnel had. It appeared to be confined to this room, although there were always rumors that sooner rather than later, one would be able to have virtual reality experiences as real as real life anywhere on board, or anywhere in general, if a planet or station had an adequate cloudmind and datanet.

His tablet told him that people could reserve the room for a set period of time, and could write their own programs if they wished.

He figured people generally used it for less than prurient purposes. It was probably why the Holotank was not recreationally available for the civilian population.

Wandering down to Level 3 he found laboratories, some of them populated, briefing rooms, and the bridge. A tall and powerfully built dark-red skinned man with brilliant green eyes was giving directions to a blonde woman at the pilot's station. He turned, "Hello, you must be Lt. Pjindik. I'm Commander Diomedes Armandu. Welcome aboard." The young woman introduced herself as Chief Pilot Serette Sandoval.

Julian left them after some brief small talk and wandered up to Level 1, where he found the landing bays. They were pressurized. Fadlan carried six space planes and two auxiliary spacecraft.

Level 4 was set aside for hydroponics and life support. Level 5 was cargo, engineering and the ship's fabrication departments. Levels six and seven were equipment, such as the leap-space drive generators, artificial gravity controls, and were not-habitable, and were off limits without an environmental suit.

Captain Elwys Schrader stood at the dais in the ship's main amphitheater and watched the crew file in. She'd been waiting for this day for months; when the Fadlan's crew finally arrived. In the morning, they'd depart on a three and a half year exploration mission, surveying several worlds inferred from data the Federated Nations had captured during an espionage operation.

Exploration was what she'd always wanted to do when she joined the Navy. At the time when she joined, its exploration survey bureau had long been reduced to almost nothing and only a few small survey vessels plied the stars in a haphazard manner. Now, political and environmental pressure, along with a growing expansionist drumbeat from the United Security Council, had reopened the Navy's Contact and Survey Directorate. New colonies planted in the region of the Hyades Star Cluster were designed to cement the Federated Nation's claims over the region, plus it was opposite Scorpion space.

Captain Schrader was slight, quiet, almost shy appearing with sandy hair and bright blue eyes. The eyes though, told Julian that this was not a woman that he should ever underestimate. They showed strength, and intense intelligence. The remaining senior staff filed in and sat down behind her.

"Thank you all for coming," she began. "I want to welcome you all aboard the Ahmad ibn Fadlan. You have all been selected for your expertise in your fields, which will be of extraordinary use as we embark on this historic mission.

I'm going to tell you a bit about myself, and then the senior staff behind me," she gestured, "will introduce themselves. I'm Elwys Schrader, yes, from those Schrader's, so you know I hail from Paradiesheim. My background's in starship engineering, and I hope to learn from all of you during our journey."

So her ancestor was the infamous Konrad Schrader, who survived a military coup as Chancellor of his colony of Paradiesheim, brokered an end to a vicious war between two of his world's other colonies, and became the first non-Terran Secretary General, surviving two terms from 2462 to 2478 before choosing to step down and retire. And he didn't stop there; he continued to work for peace organizations in the Non-Affiliated Worlds until his death in 2519.

Commander Diomedes Armandu introduced himself next. Hailing from the planet Leoporis, he was a Child of Ver, a humod religious group that'd relocated to that world early in its colonization. They were universally noted for their deep red skin tones and bright green eyes, and oddly braided family structures. Children of Ver tended not to leave their homeworld or interact with outsiders so Commander Armandu's presence in the Navy was unusual, but he didn't speak on that.

Commander Marquita Jackson-Pierce grew up in a refugee camp in Mojave, on the planet Saint Dominic, she told the audience. Head of all the ship's science departments, her specialization was in the volcanology of slow-rotating and tidally locked worlds. Her original homeworld was Banneker; settled by North American African ancestry separatists, it had been over-run by the Scorpions.

The ship's second officer, Elias ben Aaronson had a small role. He was in charge of security and the ship's weapons systems. "Many of you may be scientists, but you're going to all learn how to shoot and operate the Fadlan's tactical weapon systems. We're still a Naval vessel, and we have to know how to defend ourselves." Elias hailed from Anat—the Hebrew world—and that world's paranoia about security made them excellent tactical and security officers.

"I guess the Navy found a way to save some money," muttered a dark-skinned man sitting next to Julian. They chuckled together.

The chief engineer, Patricia Guilford, had little to say other than that she hoped people would feel free to stop by her office, and to refrain from making stills in the heatsinks. Everyone got a laugh out of that. Her husband was head of the Nursing Department. She dryly asked people tried not to see him too often. That got another chuckle.

The Ahmads, Farouk and Aja, held the title of Chief Astronomer and Chief Exobiologist, respectively. Farouk went by Commander while Aja preferred Doctor.

The ship's chief medical staff introduced themselves next; Doctor Adara Connoley, the head doctor and Doctor Gladys McFadden, the Fadlan's psychologist both briefly said hello.

The tall black woman with short hair and snake-eyes introduced herself. "I'm Lieutenant Jennifer Ogona. I'm mission planner," she went on briefly about her interests and what she hoped for the mission. Julian had heard of the job class 'Mission Planner.' It basically meant she was from Naval Intelligence, or possibly the Federated Bureau of Internal Security. She was a political officer. They'd grown prevalent in the last ten years. Her snake-eyes made her more menacing, and he stifled the thought that her tongue was also forked. Snake-eye pupils were common among the city dwelling people of the colony of Kapiti, on Emerson.

"Thank you, Miss Ogona, and thank you everyone" said Captain Schrader. "Now a bit about our mission." The room darkened and a holographic display appeared before the dais. "We're to survey these stars", holographic mockups of the region appeared, and then zoomed in on a loose chain of six star systems, "and certify their worlds for colonization. We're certain that there are life-bearing or human-habitable worlds in each based on a cache of records recently acquired from a Trader Clan source," she said. "Our job is to chart these worlds, map their resources, and determine if a colony could survive there. Our text data will be sent back over bitwave as we go, and when we reach here for a shore leave," she indicated the new colony planet named Cassius, "we'll hopefully be able to connect with a WormNet connection. Now, I want all of you to introduce yourselves to each other. We're going to be together on this ship from now until March of 2552 standard reckoning, so we might as well be friends. Thank you all again," she said, and yielded the floor.

"I'm Jamal Sauter," said the dark skinned man seated next to Julian. "Biology Lab. Doctor Ahmad tells me I can pretty much run it the way I want to."

"Julian Pjindik," said Julian. "Planetography. Pleased to meet you."

The two chatted amicably and found they'd probably become friends.

Later that evening in the main crew lounge the pair were still chatting. Jamal hailed from Earth, Chicago to be exact. An only child, his parents were sad to see him go to space, after they'd wished for him to go into local politics. He hadn't even attended the Naval Academy, coming from the University of Iowa's junior military corps program and Officer Training School. "I just wanted to see stars again, like up close. We went camping once in northern Canada, when I was nine or ten I think just me and my dad—there are no towns there. I'd never seen stars before-few kids on Earth do since almost everyone is urban."

"I, well, I just wanted to get away from Persephone," said Julian.

"You know, it's okay your dad owns a shipbuilding corporation. Everyone on board knows-Pjindik isn't exactly a common name anywhere. I'm not going to be your friend just because I want your money."

Julian breathed a sigh of relief.

"I am hetero, though," Jamal said cautiously. Julian had briefly mentioned Grel.

"You're not exactly my type," Julian said grinning, his eyes wandering across the lounge to where Lieutenant Margolis was bombastically telling a lewd story to a group of female technicians. They both looked at each other laughed. "Yeah, he's hetero too, and a total jerk."

"I know," Julian said. During the introductions, Justin sulked and all but sneered about Julian's familial background. "I'm his boss too." He was not looking forward to that.

"Yeah, good luck with that. Ennis Powell likes him, I know that, oh, and Jennifer Ogona too, and he was seeing Doctor Kwei on the shakedown cruise out but other than that…no one can stand him. I don't even know how he got here," said Jamal.

"Gentleman," said Gladys McFadden. "May we sit?" With her was Commander Jackson-Pierce.

"Certainly," said Julian. The pair became a group as they delved into conversation, becoming friendlier as the evening wore on.

Later, Julian ran into Justin Margolis again.

He was in the Planetography Lab, inspecting the equipment. The Lab was new, sleek, and modern. Circular, its stations circled around a small holographic screen display. The walls here weren't image walls, but they were a neutral color. Tectonics. Meteorology. Morphology. Oceanography. Hydrology, Climatology, Atmospherics, Geology. Cartography. Each station had a label. There was even a section of the lab set aside for samples returned from the surfaces of worlds, for further analysis. Julian was very excited by this.

So excited he didn't hear the hatch open, or the plodding that came after. A hand grasped his shoulder and spun him around.

Justin Margolis was red-haired. Overweight, he still out massed Julian by several kilos. His tunic and pants were ill-fitting, revealing more than Justin probably realized. He was clearly angry.

"I was supposed to be in charge," he said. He'd been drinking; Julian had seen him in the lounge.

"Well, I'm sorry about that, but I guess Command had other ideas. I do hope that we can work together, we're going to be stuck on this ship for over three years. We might as well be civil. In fact, I hope we can become friends," offered Julian.

Justin stared at him for just a moment before he said, "Yeah, right. Friends. Fuck that. I'm going to see to it that I get this Lab back." And he turned and stalked out. For some reason, Julian thought of two angry melons bouncing out of the room. It made him stifle a laugh.

It was going to be a long three and a half years.

But it'd be rewarding. He couldn't wait. His dream was finally coming true—he was going to be out there among the stars.