Chapter Three


The ensuing silence left me gazing out the windows at Earth. Currently, we were over what I believed to be the continent of Africa, and not too far out of view was another continent, Asia, where the sun was either setting or rising. Some faint city lights could be made out before it dipped into space.

I had certainly seen my fair share of beautiful planets in my time with the Navy, however short it has been so far. Out of all of them, my favorite was the blue gas giant Lasla. When I was younger, I'd often spend the winters looking at it with binoculars, which I'm still surprised was even something you could do. At least, it was my favorite until I had gone into orbit for the first time and saw Valdera- which quickly took Lasla's place, though it still holds a special place in my heart.

Both seemed to pale in comparison to Earth. Valdera had its own special kind of mysterious beauty - oftentimes, the thick cloud cover would leave you guessing what was going on underneath, and watching the flashes of lightning when over the night side never got old. It seemed that Earth, however, barely had any clouds, making the brilliant surface visible at practically all times. That's not to say that it didn't have weather, though. It was, of course, more than likely that my brain was trying to find some sort of good to the fact that we'd all be spending the rest of our lives, totally cut off from home, on an alien planet. I did find some genuine solace in that it'd be with my brother and Falco.

Seeing Africa and Asia reminded me of the fact that the Valiant had to be visible from the surface, considering its size andhull reflectivity. Hell, it was entirely possible that we could be seen from the surface with the naked eye, even if it was a simple bright dot streaking across the sky at night. I had to wonder how many Humans on the surface had spotted us accidentally with their backyard telescopes and were spreading rumors about the 'alien spacecraft' in orbit. To be fair, though, to them, the Valiant quite literally was an alien spacecraft. The Humans we had been in contact with were quick to assure us that our existence was being kept confidential, but surely by this point some tabloid or something had to have published an article about us.

I was thankfully brought out of my train of thought when Falco began to talk, with a mouthful of noodles.

"Alright, so, get this. I was reading last night, right?" he began.

"Wait, I thought you were playing About Face?" I interjected.

"Nah, Yura couldn't make it. Anyways, though… Conrad, you remember New York, right? That city I told you about?" He asked, after swallowing his food. "And those two towers?"

"Oh, yeah," I nodded.

"So, I found out that about a week ago we got a bunch of these, like… tourism books, I guess, scanned into the library and translated. Almanacs, essentially. So, naturally, I had to check out the one on New York, and I've found out way more about those two towers."

"Hm? Such as?" I questioned, after he paused, seemingly for emphasis.

"It's awesome, dude. The towers… or, twin towers, rather, are part of this whole complex called the World Trade Center. The complex has, like… a hotel, mall, this cool plaza, all sorts of stuff. Coolest thing, though, is that you can go all the way to the top of one of the towers, where there's a restaurant, and just… eat up there. It's the craziest thing. I think it's called… windows of the world? Something like that."

"So how tall are the towers?" Eric asked, seeming pretty impressed. I was as well.

"Oh, dude," Falco responded, stifling a laugh. "Like, five hundred meters, if not more."

"Damn," Eric and I both responded. "The Terchová Tower's only, like… well, it's a baby in comparison, isn't it? How do they deal with storms and stuff?" I asked, flabbergasted.

"Hell if I know. There weren't structural specifics in the 'visit our city' book. I did find out that most of the space in the twin towers is office space, so, hypothetically… say we end up with a best case scenario. Presume the Navy back home hasn't halted construction of the other Nomad classes, and that, on a whim, they decide to come here and find out that there's alien life and all that, which we've managed to peacefully greet and all that. Proper diplomatic relations are established, but we need somewhere to build an embassy or consulate, something of the sort. Some words slip up the chain of command about a potential space at the world trade center, and bam. Next thing you know, it's the turn of the Human century, and we're all chilling in these two giant skyscrapers, eating Human food over a giant city. How's that sound?"

I smiled and nodded. It went without saying that his "best case scenario" was partly a joke and partly serious. I had little doubt that the Interstellar Navy was currently in hot water for another one of their starships disappearing, and that construction on the other Nomad-class ships was likely to be cancelled entirely. "Sounds to me like a pipe dream. I think that, for the time being, getting a room at that hotel you mentioned will suffice."

He laughed. "Yeah, fair enough. You know, New York's got a lot more to see as well. The towers are just a tiny part in south Man's Hatter, er… no, Manhattan. There's the rest of the borough, as well as Queens and Brooklyn, which I remembered the names of this time."

"Good job," I laughed. "You know, it's too bad we don't have any books about how to talk to humans."

"Well, the resident expert in speaking to aliens transferred to your quarters last night, didn't she?" Eric commented. "You could probably ask her a thing or two about that. I'd wager that the person who was instrumental in decoding their language and establishing a basis for communication w-"

"Alright, you've made your point," I interjected, shaking my head.

"Sorry," he said. "Really, though. I'm sure it wouldn't hurt to ask. You're going to be working with one of the humans, after all, and… woah, check out Commander Ibrahimov." He motioned behind me. Interested, Falco and I both turned to see what he was talking about.

Commander Ibrahimov, a puma, and his first officer, Lieutenant-Commander Kató, a Satpayev fox, had both walked in, wearing their formal uniforms.

"Figured some of the officers would be dressing up," Falco mumbled, once more over a mouthful of pasta. Neither of us turned back to our foods, though, as Ibrahimiv seemed to conduct a brief headcount before concluding that everyone was accounted for - including the night shift crew, who were currently staying up as to be present when the Humans arrived.

I had been expecting that Ibrahimov would show up and give some sort of speech this morning, and my suspicions gained a whole lot more credibility when he stood straight and cleared his throat.

"Your attention, please," he said, loudly. He already had most people's attention, but there were a couple who were wrapped up in conversation who finally turned. "Thank you." He drew in a deep breath before continuing. "The past several weeks have been… tumultuous, to say the least. I really feel the need to thank you all for consistently performing at the best of your ability, despite all the adversities we've recently faced. Our… misadventures here in Susiid - or, Sol, as we'll be calling it from now on, are now coming to a head. In a matter of hours, two Human spacecraft will be docked to the Valiant, and their crew will come aboard for social and cultural exchange. I cannot place enough emphasis on the fact that the imminent first impressions here are critical. Currently, those at home have no idea what happened to us or what we're doing here, but I have little doubt that in the future they'll know full well. Because of this, I ask of you all not to falter now - and instead, to carry on being some of the best goddamn astronauts I've ever worked with. Thank you."

At the conclusion of his speech, he quickly saluted. There was applause throughout the mess hall, which I took part in. Without a doubt, he was right - up to this point, the only means for cultural exchange was via stilted meetings with specific shuttlecraft crews. There was an old saying that particularly applied here. "You learn more about a man in casual conversation than you do otherwise."

However, I could feel my subconscious saying something like "Hey, buddy! Hey! He just gave a good speech! Last time someone gave a good speech, some disaster killed half the crew and stranded you in an alien star system!"

I figured that if we had come this far without so much as a minor emergency regarding the fact that we were handling alien viruses a week prior, any major cataclysm had already missed its chance. Although… a good motivational speech and applause certainly have a way of making things seem better than they really are.

In any case, Commander Ibrahimov stepped back and allowed Lieutenant-Commander Kató to step forward.

"The Humans will be arriving in two hours. Rest assured, announcements will be given on the intercom prior to their arrival. Make sure to report to C-Deck, Port, by 0845. And, to the few of you still in casuals, please make sure to put on your work uniforms. You're meeting representatives of an alien civilization, not your friends for game night. See you then." She briskly turned around and began walking out of the mess hall, while Ibrahimov walked forwards, presumably to sit with someone he knew. Falco and I both turned back around towards the table.

"Today's gonna be interesting," Eric commented, with a cautious tone. "Man, there's only so many times you can say that before it starts becoming repetitive. Though… I've probably already crossed that line." He leaned back, laughing.

"Definitely," I said. "You know, you haven't given us today's ship's gossip yet. I don't think we've got much time left here, so… get to it," I said, in a prodding, and joking, tone.

"Oh, right!" He exclaimed. "Well, uh… nothing too notable has happened since yesterday. Actually, no. I heard from a friend that they heard that someone had seen Ensign Pearce and Lieutenant Kovalev kissing on D-Deck."

I felt sudden heat on my neck. For some reason, I felt like the worst possible time for the topic of interspecies relationships to come up was when Marine was… well, around, I guess, and potentially figuring out what was up with my pillows and such. Still, I tried to keep cool and seem mildly interested.

"Wolf and a lynx, huh?" Falco asked, nodding.

"Yep. Just a rumor, of course." He sat up and looked around the mess hall, presumably trying to find Kovalev and Pearce." I just kept my head forwards, doing my best to seem nonchalant. I was also suppressing the urge to do the pseudo-laughing that many hyenas, definitely including myself, had when nervous.

"Good for them. Jack and Max, right? What'd their dating name be?" Falco thought for a second before continuing. "Uh… Mack. Actually, no, Jax…"

I interjected before he could continue, before I fell into a nervous laughter fit. "It's not really our business. And a rumor. Anything else interesting happen, Eric?" Halfway through, I got choked up, and pretended that it was just some food.

"Alright, uh…" I was relieved that he didn't seem to notice anything, even if it was highly likely I was making it a bigger deal than it really was. "Chico did the math and found out that at least 812 total hours have been spent playing About Face amongst the entire crew over the past two weeks, so… take that as you will."

"Not all too surprising, honestly," I said. "If we ever do get back home, the rest of the crew would probably qualify for big league tournaments."

"No kidding. And… oh, during one of our recent orbital passes, we got some high resolution scans of a city in that big peninsula in Africa… or, Asia, I think? Either way, it turns out there's this giant, like… black cube in the middle of a city there. Nobody knows what it's for, and we can't find any reference for it in the books we've been given by the Humans. Other than that, nothing else particularly notable has happened."

"Valdera's got it's own fair share of weird crap," Falco laughed. "I can't imagine how a Human in our position would react when looking at, like… the Duskograd Bean sculpture or something."

"Definitely," I said. "Eric, you remember how in Korosten-" I was interrupted by the sound of beeping over the intercom, signalling that the breakfast period was over. "Guess I'll finish that later." I shrugged and stood up, picking up my now-empty bowl, and nodded as a way of saying goodbye to Eric and Falco, even though we were all going to the same place to put our dishes away.

As Eric was staying behind to talk with a friend of his, I was left alone with my thoughts as I walked back to my quarters.

Typically, I'd be heading to the engine room for the morning engineering briefing, so we could get task assignments and so on. The same went for many others - those who oversaw the FTL engine would definitely have to be doing so, bridge crews would be transitioning, stellar and planetary cartography would be cartographing, if that's a word, and so on. Because of the disaster, many of us were now without jobs, even including those who were typically always busy, such as those FTL technicians. The same went for the rest of the crew, but with tasks replaced appropriately. Because of this all, we were being allowed to just head back to our quarters to freshen up and whatnot until the humans arrived.

As I walked I was, for some reason, taking careful notes of the way the corridors and stairwell looked. Most of the damage thanks to the disaster had been repaired, to the best of our abilities, by this point. Things like the hull, interior floor, wall, and ceiling panels, and so on, would require us docking at Visoko Luka or some other shipyard and getting a new fabricator, alongside much else. Since replacement panels were in short supply, repair crews opted instead to cover holes and such with blue tarp, and the corridor outside of the mess hall leading to the stairwell was certainly no exception. Thankfully, replacing blown-out lights hadn't been too much of a problem, in the cases where such a thing was plausible without major repairs.

Trying to distract myself with the way the ship looked wasn't helping. I was still dreading returning to my quarters, having little doubt that Marine had sniffed out Dyson's old stuff on my bed and in the bag. At the very least, I had taken special note of their respective positions before I left, and would be able to tell immediately upon entering if either were disturbed.

I got back to the quarters before Marine. Upon opening the door, I felt a wave of relief seeing that neither had been touched. I pushed back any worries I had about her sniffing it out regardless, and instead decided to take advantage of the fact that she wasn't here currently. I quickly stuffed the pillow under a bunch of blankets, and put the dufflebag of Dyson's belongings in my wardrobe, on top of my empty dufflebag.

Once done, I looked around to make sure things weren't too amiss. It didn't seem so, thankfully. I sat down at my desk, and opened up my laptop once more. Before doing anything with it, I took the time to also adjust my alarm clock, so that it'd go off about twenty or so minutes later, instead of at 0540.

I didn't have much time to do anything with my computer, though. Marine promptly opened the door to our quarters, catching me off guard. I drew in a sharp breath and jumped slightly, which she absolutely noticed.

"Oh, sorry about that," she commented, as she closed the door behind herself.

"Nah, you're good," I said, making sure I didn't stumble over my words. I swiveled the chair around to look at her. "So, uh… got any info on that counseling thing you mentioned?" I was keeping Dyson's pillow in the back of my mind all the while.

"Oh, yeah," she said, as she sat down. "Unfortunately, Anfisa's mostly slotted up for the day. She should've sent you a message by now about getting something scheduled in two days or so, though."

"Alright, thank you," I said, turning back around. I examined the brief exchange in my head, trying to figure out if there were any tells or not. I gave up, though, and opened up the message program on my laptop. Sure enough, I had an unread message from one "Canjemann." Their profile picture seemed to be an emblem for one of the offworld Veta colonies. Looking at the servers I was in also showed that I had a ping in the server that the entire crew of the ship was in. I opened that first, and saw that one of the officers was notifying us there that the humans were indeed arriving today.

As I opened the message from Canjemann, I was having some mixed feelings. I was glad that Marine didn't seem to have found out, but still anxious that she might've told the counselor or just not said anything about it. I decided that there wasn't any point in continuing to be worked up over something so decidedly minor, and instead focused on the message.

"Hello, Officer Nowicki! In case you can't already tell from clicking my username, I'm Chief Anfisa. If you'd like, you can just call me Rock. I've heard that you're looking to schedule a counseling appointment. Unfortunately, I'm busy today and tomorrow, but I do have some open slots on January Fifth, at 0800, 1230, and 1545 hours. Let me know which of these work for you. Hope to hear back from you soon!"

Seeing as how there wasn't exactly any work for me to do at the moment, and there likely wouldn't be later, I replied with "0800 sounds good, see you then."

I leaned back in my chair and sighed. I didn't really know what we'd even be talking about - I had never really attended counseling in my life, much less during my time with the navy. Granted, there was no denying the fact that the past month had been far more tumultuous than any other recent period in my life. Continuing on that thought, one thing led to another, eventually arriving at my memories of Dyson.

I slumped down in my chair and rubbed my eyes, trying to keep from breaking down again over him. Now would definitely not be an opportune time for that, considering that representatives of an entire alien civilization would be arriving in probably less than an hour.

At the very least, it had become clear what those counseling sessions would actually be about.

I sat in my chair and listened for the sounds of the ship for a bit, trying to get my mind off of Dyson. There was some muffled chatter from two people talking right outside our door, water running through some pipes overhead, the hum of the environmental regulation systems, and the sound of Marine typing. People back home might not have considered it tranquil, but on a starship, it certainly was. Really, anything was better than the sounds of whatever the hell it was that brought us to this star system.

Looking at the clock on my computer, I realized that we still had forty five minutes to go. Sighing once more, I sat up, and turned around. "Hey, Marine? Can I ask you something?"

"Shoot."

"Alright, uh… not to understate the massive role you played in first contact, but… well, do you have any tips for talking to humans? I think I already told you this, but I'm gonna be working with one later today, and I don't wanna, like… inadvertently declare war or something like that."

She laughed a bit. "Yeah, that was one thing I was worried about as well. Um… well, I haven't been able to get in much casual conversation. I'm only present on those shuttle missions to Earth as a backup interpreter, and we don't really do much talking there, either. But, eh… well, a good starting point is to not bare your teeth."

"I, uh… wasn't planning on it," I laughed.

"Good. When they smile, they often bare their teeth. Just remember that they're not being aggressive, and rather are enjoying your company and whatnot. Hm… try and refrain from cultural references as well. They're not gonna have a goddamn clue what you mean when you say, like, 'how about them… Katyusha-Jonelle folks, am I right?'"

"Right." That was pretty much a given. I was actually somewhat excited for that aspect of cultural exchange - not just teaching the humans about our pop culture, but us learning from them as well. "Anything else?" I asked.

"Try not to be too outwardly weirded out by their appearance. From my experience, they understand that to us, they are these bizarre alien creatures we've never seen before. From their perspective, we're their planet's animals, just… intelligent, bipedal, and whatnot. Oh, and… just bear in mind that they're going to want to touch your fur and whiskers. I mean, these guys coming aboard probably won't, but if we're ever able to freely move about Earth, there will absolutely be people wanting to see how you feel."

I laughed again. "Guess we've got some interesting times on the surface to look forward to, huh?"

"We certainly do. First thing I'm doing is heading for a zoo. After all, what's one more existential crisis in addition to the ones we're already having?"