Chapter Two

"Are you alright, Conrad?"

I jolted awake, panicked. My heart was racing, and I was panting heavily. Whatever I had been dreaming about disappeared from my memory almost instantly . Instead, I saw my dimly-lit quarters, alongside Marine looking at me, concerned. I quickly wiped away the tears I could feel around my eyes. "What?" I exclaimed, still getting a bearing on my surroundings. I pushed away the pillow I had been squeezing. "I… yeah, I'm good." I wasn't under the covers, and my laptop had somehow found its way back on my bunk, which I had a vague memory of.

"I don't mean to pry, but it really didn't seem that way to me. Hasn't, really. You've been pretty restless all night," she said, leaning on the ladder up. For whatever reason, I noticed that she was wearing pretty much the same thing as me, a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants.

"Just nightmares." I knew that I completely failed to make that seem convincing. I pulled my laptop up and opened the lid, hoping she'd just drop it. I saw that the time was 3:57, so I had at least gotten some sleep. Already on my screen was a picture of the two towers that Falco had mentioned earlier today, set against the sunset, which was an odd orangish color on this planet.

"Listen, you weren't sleeping for most of the night," she sighed. "And I'm sure you know that as well. If you don't mind me asking, have you spoken to the counselor recently? Or at all?"

I sighed as well. "I… well… no, I haven't." I moved my laptop back to the side so I could see her better. "I mean, they don't have any spaces for appointments, do they? I wouldn't want to take that away from someone who actually needs it."

"Eh… yeah. She's pretty booked, but it's also her job. If you'd like, I could schedule for you. If you don't want to talk about it with me, that's also entirely okay, but I do really suggest talking to Chief Anfisa." Marine stood up and nodded at me.

"Well… alright. I'm…" I sighed again. "Sorry, I just… completely forgot how to speak, I guess."

She laughed a bit. "It's okay. But… I am gonna head back to bed. Actually, quick question- are you sure nobody else had these quarters before? I keep smelling someone else in here other than you. Well, not like, actively in here, but them having been here, sorta- if you get what I mean."

"Nope, they were completely vacant. I might need to take a shower or something myself, then, if it's that bad." That was a lie… at least, in a way. I didn't really want to keep thinking about it, though.

"Nah, don't worry," she laughed again. "It's very minor. Goodnight, Conrad. Or… good morning, I guess."

"Yeah, one of those two." She turned back around and climbed back into her own bunk across the room, pulling the curtain and turning off her reading lamp. In the ambient light provided I leaned over the side of mine and put my laptop back on my desk - hopefully for real this time - and drew my own curtain.

I laid down on my favorite side and closed my eyes, hoping that sleep would come to me quicker this time, especially seeing how I likely got very little in the hours preceding whatever I had dreamt about.

Thankfully, I seemed to fall asleep pretty quickly. This time, I was woken up by the sound of my alarm clock beeping. As jarring as the sound of my alarm clock was, I did feel pretty rejuvenated, like I'd woken up from a power nap or something. Really, that wasn't too far from the truth. I typically set my alarm to go off at 0540, meaning that I had probably gotten about three hours of sleep. I laid in bed for a couple seconds, letting myself wake up further, when I realized I now had a roommate who probably wouldn't take kindly to the interruption.

Pulling back the curtain, I saw that Marine's was still closed, but I still hopped down, stumbling as I landed on the floor, and shut off my alarm with a firm slap. As I did so, I could hear groaning from her bunk, making me feel a bit self conscious, as I'd obviously woken her up, for the second time in the past few hours.

"Ugh…" I heard, as she turned on her light, then pulling back the curtain. Her head peered out and looked at me. "Doing better?" She asked, while stifling a yawn.

"Yeah. Sorry for waking you up… again." I sat down in the chair at my desk. "Guess I've been on a roll."

"No worries. I typically wake up…" She leaned forwards, looking like she was going to fall out of her bunk, obviously trying to get a view of my alarm clock. I slid away on the chair somewhat so she could get a better view. "...about five minutes from now, so there's no trouble there."

"Alright." I moved back to my desk, then adjusted my alarm clock so the alarm would happen five minutes after what I had it at. "I think I'm gonna change real quick." I stood up and opened up my cabinet where all my clothes were, pulling out the fresh-er pair of fatigues I had been saving, since it was declared that the humans would be arriving around a week ago.

"Don't let me stop you," she commented, as I picked up those clothes and carried them into the bathroom. The light flickered somewhat as I turned it on, but it thankfully stopped pretty quickly. Closing the door behind myself, I could hear water flowing overhead, likely meaning that someone around was taking a shower. Had it not been for the fact that water was in rather short supply, I'd take one as well, but as it stood, I didn't smell too bad. The thought did occur that one thing we hadn't learnt about in the briefings about humans were their hygienic standards.

Nonetheless, before changing, I checked myself out in the mirror, to make sure I still looked presentable. At least, by Valderan standards. I figured that since there would indeed be new people laying their eyes on me, I may as well try and style my fur into somewhat of a mohawk. It wasn't long enough for anything too pronounced, but it certainly wouldn't hurt.

I sighed when I rolled up my sleeves and saw that my spots seemed just slightly duller than they did yesterday. I knew that this was something you would expect with age and stress and whatever, but still, I just didn't like seeing it.

Nonetheless, I quickly stripped down and changed, not wanting to keep Marine out in case she needed to do something. I combed the fur on the top of my head into the best mohawk I could muster, and then quickly brushed my teeth. I walked back into my quarters to see that Marine had also changed into fatigues. She was sitting at her desk, and turned the chair to face me as I walked back in.

"So, what's on your agenda for today?" She asked. "After the humans arrive, that is."

"Well… nothing much, really." I sat down at my desk as well, similarly turning my chair to face her. "That's a lie, actually. At around 1400 today I'll be working with one of the humans to get the new radio equipment working. Once it is, we shouldn't have to fly a shuttle out to talk to either of the N organizations anymore. After that, though… not much, as it stands."

"Ooh, really?" She asked, nodding. "Which one of the humans is it?"

"Their name is, uh... David Vega." I struggled to pronounce the foreign-sounding name. "I don't even know what they look like, so it should be interesting. Really, that's a given, seeing as they are... aliens, and all that," I sighed. The fact that we really were hours away from coming into direct contact with actual, real-life aliens was astounding no matter how I put it. Even if we had been in their system for pretty much a month now, it was still incredible. Adding in the additional fact of this planet's wildlife, and...

"No kidding. It's quite a planet," she said. With that, the conversation came to an end. I opened up my laptop, and closed the same image of those two towers which I had been looking at last night. I opened up the chat program, and looked at my friend list, which was just my brother and Falco, to see if either were awake. Falco was indeed, and I also had an unread message from my brother. Opening it, I saw that he had sent me an image, with an additional message saying "courtesy of lt sozonov".

It was a drawing, presumably of Sozonov, who was a caracal, meeting an earth caracal. They both looked confused about it all. It made me smile, and I replied with "nice." With that, I opened my DMs with Falco and sent a message reading "you awake?" and leaned back in my chair, waiting for a response.

As I sat there, waiting for a response, I became lost in my thoughts. In addition to a wide range of things about Dyson and our friendship, I had also lately been stressing out about the fact that there were indeed going to be aliens coming aboard, and I'd have to work with one of them. I'd been going through the things I should say and how I should say them, but nothing ever seemed right. Needless to say, social interaction was something I had always struggled with, especially in situations where I had to work with someone, since I tend to just stick to myself and leave it at that. Obviously, I managed to get along well with Marine and Falco, and especially Dyson, but with the additional context of the person I was to meet being an actual member of an actual alien race made it that much harder.

There were bound to be plenty of conversational barriers, seeing as we knew more about their pathogens than we did about their culture or standards for pretty much anything. Of course, it was more than likely that some sort of guidebook had been passed around and it had gone right over my head, making it all the more stressful. There was no telling what the humans could find rude. Some slang term in our language might translate to English or German or whatever as something inappropriate. Some gesture which we think is friendly could mean quite the opposite to them. And it went the same in return. It was entirely possible that, from their perspective, baring their teeth was a friendly move, or something like that. The list of potential problems went on.

I shook my head, and looked back at the screen. Still no response from Falco. Thinking more about my potential encounters with the aliens, I assured myself that, at the very least, it was going to be pretty goddamn cool. Without a doubt, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - one which Dyson would not be around for.

I had spent the immediate aftermath of the disaster in the impromptu triage center which was set up in one of the rec rooms, fearing that Dyson had been killed. No matter how many times I asked the people coming in and out if they had seen him. Much to my own dismay, a Novayan leopard, part of the scientific division, came in and gave updated casualty counts - a list which Dyson was on.

I spent pretty much the rest of the day, laying on the floor, just staring at the ceiling. I did remember being across from a wolf, who I believe was actually Ensign Pearce, the guy who ended up getting stranded on Earth for a little less than a week. Other than his presence, though, nothing much more notable happened. Once I somewhat regained my bearings, I made my way to our quarters, which were in pretty bad shape, and ended up just… breaking down and crying.

The only thing I had for comfort there was a pillow that still had Dyson's scent. Once I had new quarters, I brought over my stuff, as well as his, including that pillow. I knew it was weird, but there was really nothing I could do about it. I figured that nobody would really notice since I wasn't sharing my quarters with anyone, and there were very few people who would drop by, and they wouldn't stay for long. Of course, now Marine was sleeping in here as well, and she had obviously picked up on the scent.

Suddenly, a beep notified me that I had gotten a message back from Falco. I quickly focused on the computer and began reading. "hell yeah i am," the message read. It said under it that he was typing another, so I waited. "wouldnt want to miss today for the world".

"fair enough," I responded. After that, we chatted about the possible reactions the Humans might have to us, our culture, and whatever else. We both found it especially odd that, from their perspective, we seemed to be supersized Earth animals, walking around on two legs and with civilization. That's not to say that it wasn't odd for us as well, just that they were more alien to us than we probably were to them. At some point, music came on over the PA system, meant to wake anyone who hadn't up. It was one aspect of normalcy which the crew decided to carry on, something we certainly needed at this time. I didn't recognize the song, though. He eventually messaged me saying that it was time to head up to the mess hall, which a quick glance at my computer's clock confirmed to be true. Falco also mentioned that he'd probably be a bit late. I let Marine know, who was already aware, and stepped out into the corridor.

I quietly sighed as I closed the door behind myself, knowing that Marine would probably figure out what was with the pillow and extra dufflebag I had in there.

A gray hyena in casual clothes nodded to me as they were already making their way to the stairs. As I was expecting, I could see that my brother was standing not too far down the corridor holding a tablet in his paws. He was also in casual clothes - some sweatpants and a novelty shirt with "The Truth is in Ayala" written on it. He noticed me come out, waved, and started walking towards me. I did the same.

"Two hours and thirty minutes to go, baby," He said, jokingly, once close enough. I was a bit confused at first, but realized he was talking about the time when the Humans would arrive and dock with the Valiant.

"Good morning to you too, Eric," I laughed, as we began making our way up the stairs, close behind the gray hyena.

"So, who's your new roommate? Someone nice, I'm hoping?" He asked.

"Quite nice," I nodded. "Ensign Vance. She's one of the guys who got stuck on Earth." I shook my head after quickly realizing that there wasn't a single person on this ship who wasn't aware of that, but continued. "Also worked with her on that translation thing."

"Nice indeed!" he exclaimed. "Did she tell you anything secret about their time on Earth? Anything we need to be prepared for when it comes to their… rules of the road, maybe?"

"Nothing yet. I'll let you know if I get any secret information, though." After that, we were both quiet for the rest of the trip to the mess hall.

Normally, our eating periods would be divided into two blocks to lessen the strain on the ship's cooks as well as keep the mess hall from being too crowded. However, because of the disaster, overcrowding wasn't exactly a concern any more, and all the survivors being together in the mornings seemed to help with morale. For the few short weeks where the ship was operating normally, I had typically opted for the first shift, so nothing much changed in my schedule - well, at least when it came time to eat. As we walked in, I quickly picked up on the smell of pasta and sausage. Though it certainly wasn't a traditional breakfast food, what we actually ate also got mixed up, out of necessity. We had been eating in order of perishability left in our reserves, and had finally recently arrived at pastas. Regardless, this was also something I was fine with. Food was food, and there wasn't much that could be done to change that. Hopefully.

We both got in separate lines, pretty soon picking up bowls and serving ourselves some pasta, with up to three slices of sausage. This was because meats were in short supply, since only one protein synthesizer out of the many we had was currently functional. Trying to get the others working had been a favorite side project of me and a couple other engineers, but to no avail.

We chose seats at the right side of the room, a couple tables away from the four windows which lined the bulkhead. Neither of us talked as we ate, despite the moderate commotion of the mess hall. It was a learned habit from when we were growing up, as food wasn't something you wanted to waste time talking over. My mind was also occupied, wondering what Marine would say to the counselor she mentioned earlier if she found out about the pillow and all that.

I was somewhat relieved to pick out her voice amongst the many others, as she said good morning to someone else. I didn't want to turn and look, though. After a couple minutes, I heard another voice, this one directly addressing me. It was easily recognizable as Falco's.

"Hey, Conrad!" I turned around to see him walking down the aisle toward our table. "Sorry I'm late." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Marine was sitting at a table next to the windows, with a gray cat, and a gray hyena. I tried not to pay much mind to her, and focused on Falco.

"Nah, you're good," I said, motioning for him to take a seat next to me, which he quickly did.

"So, did you see anything else interesting in that, uh… compilation of cities I told you about?" He asked, as he sat down.

"No. I fell asleep while looking at it," I laughed, somewhat awkwardly. "You?"

"I read more about New York. From what I can tell, it's pretty much their version of Korosten..."

Eric interjected. "No offense, but you probably shouldn't be comparing our stuff to theirs like that. They're not bootleggers or anything, and are a completely distinct alien culture from our own. But… carry on, I'm interested." I nodded in agreement.

"Well, anyways, it's… similar, I guess, to Korosten. Granted, from what I know, it's a port city, and not the freakin… well, crater that Korosten is."

"So, both are along major trade routes?" Eric clarified.

"Yeah," he nodded, before taking a quick bite of his food. "It's about as big as Korosten, too. Five boroughs, called… well, I've forgotten. Though, I do remember a Staten Island and a… Bronx."

"Interesting," Eric said. I hadn't said anything yet mainly because I was still working on my pasta. I was nearly done with it. "I've been reading about their history of space travel. It's weird. Like, they just barely started with this stuff, just about thirty or so years ago. There was this whole rivalry, called the Space Race, between the Russians and the Americans, and… it's a lot. They landed on the moon only ten years ago, can you believe it?"

"Not really," I said. "One has to wonder what effect we'll have on their technological development. I can imagine it'll be pretty jarring to go from making your baby steps on the moon to interstellar faster than light travel."

"Honestly, I don't think we'll be giving them independent access to FTL any time soon. Or any of our technologies, for that matter."

"Yeah," Falco nodded in agreement. "I mean, they are currently in the middle of a cold war. We're centuries ahead of them in weapons technology as well. Adding what we've got to the mix definitely would not end well."

"Hm. Maybe. I mean, that's not considering the same historical circumstances we have. We also went a century without major military research. It's entirely possible that they've got stuff more advanced than we do. Plus, like you said, it's a cold war. There is no actual war going on right now." As I thought about it, that seemed a bit strange. What could be keeping, say, the Americans from just heading into Russia and invading, or vice versa?

"Huh, I hadn't thought about that," Falco said, leaning back. "Something's keeping this war cold. Anyone wanna place bets on what it is? I'm thinking… weapons of mass destruction."

I leaned back as well, pondering further. We had gotten very little information on the Human history of warfare, other than brief pointers one might find in a school history textbook.

"Hmm… chemical weapons, maybe? Both sides with their own Red Sunrise?" Eric postured.

"Maybe. What about… atom bombs? After all, they've had two major wars in a period where it'd be reasonable for them to experiment with atomic weaponry. I sincerely hope not, though."

Nuclear weapons, in our own history, were responsible for breaking a century of unprecedented peace and prosperity and ultimately resulting in a war that killed hundreds of millions. They weren't even used in the war they started, but their destructive potential became very well known.

As an additional result, a concept later arose in theoretical warfare, called mutually assured destruction. In this state, two factions would be at each other's throats, but because they both possessed stockpiles of nuclear weapons which, if used, would destroy and poison everything worth invading for centuries to come, neither side is willing to invade the other.

A cold war.

"What would we do if the Humans actually do have fission weapons?" Falco asked.

"Get the hell out of here, man," Eric said, laughing.