from Chapter One

Ganak stood waiting for the others, gazing into the pale violet sky of Totrana. He was still new to this, only fifteen months as Commissioner of Space Exploration for the Concordance. He had already made considerable progress improving the efficiency of its administrative center here. Yet the Concordance Assembly and the Co-Presidents had loftier goals, and if he was to achieve them, then he and his staff needed to learn from this settlement.

Other voices touched his ears, and he turned around. Sure enough, three of the junior Commission staffers were now approaching, going over their itineraries as they did. A young woman, her yellow plumage reflecting her Kiitra heritage, exchanged glances with him and gave a respectful ovetna – right hand in the center of her chest as she bowed slightly at the waist. He responded in kind, and also greeted the two men who came with her, one Baija red, the other black with reddish brown on the tip of his crest and around his eyes and beak.

“Six more,” the woman noted. She was fidgeting as she walked over to the window, looking at the Zaikhuum-class shuttle that would take them to Rekar Three. It was brown with black wings and a horizontal white stripe, a relatively subdued pattern. The two young men continued to compare one another’s notes as Ganak went over to her.

“Nervous, Telkurej?”

“Somewhat,” she stammered. “It’s my first trip to Rekar.”

“And which causes more apprehension for you? Is it this flight, or our destination?”

She hesitated. “I’ve flown to Alplaa before, twice. But Rekar! I’ve heard many stories about how cold it is, cramped living space, struggling to keep things going.”

“All from those early days of colonization,” he explained. “Decades ago. There has been much progress now, especially on this settlement.”

“And from what I hear,” a familiar voice chimed in, “something surprising is waiting for us!” They both turned to see a jovial fellow, his plumage mostly brown with spots of yellow, orange and red. Ganak introduced him to the others: Marok vaar Tonavon, the new Director of Scientific Programs for the Commission.

The rest of the party arrived soon after, staff members from the various Commission departments. The shuttle’s pilot and operations officer then asked for them to be seated, as they explained the protocol for takeoff, flight and landing; the briefing was obligatory, even though all ten passengers had flown in space before.

The passenger compartment had twelve seats, three rows of four, and a rear section for securing their luggage. Marok sat in front by a window, and Ganak in the aisle seat next to him. One of the young staffers, sitting behind them, leaned forward and asked: “What is this surprise you mentioned, Director?”

Marok turned his head, beak open with delight. “Astronomical discovery.”

“New moon?” a green-plumaged woman posed.

“Comet?” another staffer guessed.

“Strange,” Ganak commented, “I read no report of this.”

“Because I just heard of it myself. Their observatory supervisor messaged me directly, which I just received this morning. I don’t think even he’s sure what they’ve found!”

Just then, they heard the sound of the shuttle’s plasma engines begin to power up. Everyone sat back in their seats, preparing for the vertical takeoff.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” the Commissioner remarked.

The shuttle rose quickly from the spaceport, and headed over the planet’s ocean, climbing and accelerating steadily. Everyone could feel the increase in speed; the Zaikhuum class could reach three times the speed of sound while in atmosphere, and of course much faster in space. Marok was watching out of his window much of the time, excitement in his eyes. Ganak, meanwhile, sat still with his eyes closed, always preferring to relax while flying. He had already deactivated his neural implant for the slipstream jump.

A little less than a zamei after takeoff, the pilot’s voice came over the speaker: “Attention, all passengers. We are approaching our peak cruising altitude, and if you look out your windows, you will be able to see Totrana’s curvature with black space above. Take a look while you can, as our windows will be blocked shortly before we enter slipstream.”

Ganak took a quick peek over his shoulder, while Marok and the younger staffers looked on with wonder. Then, as announced, the liquid crystal diodes installed in the windows clouded over, and everyone quickly checked their harnesses and braced themselves. It was necessary to block the windows, as the shuttle’s slipstream field produced a blinding blue-white flash. Now the lights in the cabin went out, and they all felt the sudden acceleration as they jumped to their destination.

from Chapter Six

It was the fifteenth zamei, and Gii’ak was still awake. He sat in the Fire Pit, nursing a bowl of uuro and a loaf of plain bread – his second this evening. All he could do was worry, soaking bits of bread and taking them to his mouth, and worry even more.

“Mind if this old rock-runner joins you?”

He lifted his head. It was Toralok. “As you choose,” he muttered, and the pilot took a seat.

“Any progress with Lamikorda?”

“Linguist there now, trying to teach them Kiitra.”

“Sounds promising,” he replied. One of the servers came by, and Toralok ordered a bowl of spiced Meshdor deprole with dark bread.

“That stuff will burn through your beak.”

“Not Baija beaks, friend.”

Gii’ak gave an exhausted trill. “It’s times like these I envy you. I envy how easy pilots have it. Even rescue pilots. You have lives depending on you, but only in small numbers. Do you know how many people are on Totrana?”

“Hundred million, right?”

“Last census, almost one hundred ten million.” The server now came back with Toralok’s supper. “One … hundred … ten … million. And if I can’t get those mammal-people to change course, many of those lives could end. Many more could lose their homes, their families. You know there are already reports of panic on Totrana? People trying to move north, or even back to Alplaa? And if this linguist they’ve brought there can’t communicate with those aliens, if no one can – ”

“You know what we Baija would say?” Toralok cut him off. “Ezotje zuur oplimosh vorglone.”

“And what does that mean?”

“‘Only the gods can regret the future.’ All you can do is your best. That’s all I can do when I’m seated behind my rescue shuttle’s controls. No second sitting next to me, very little time to make my decision. You, with Lamikorda, have got days to do that, perhaps as many as two months, and lots of good people on your team. Do what you can, right now. But don’t regret what hasn’t happened yet.”

Gii’ak looked at him. He wasn’t sure there were any gods. But yes, that saying made sense. And yes, he had the best working with them. He had done all he could, and there was still time to do more if necessary. Yes, it made sense. Only the gods can regret the future.

He sat up straight, ripped off a big piece of his soft pale bread, held it up. Toralok tore a chunk of thick dark bread, holding it up. And together they dunked into their drinks and popped them into their beaks. Then Toralok asked him what he did as a pilot, and he opened up about his various assignments, especially passenger runs between Alplaa and Rekar, before settling here and taking a Spaceport Control position, marrying and starting a family.

Their conversation was interrupted by a chime. Gii’ak took out his portable telescreen. “It’s Gorjenok.” He turned it on.

“Message from Fajrok, that linguist.”

“Can you play it?”

He routed it through for Gii’ak to hear: “Fajrok on Lamikorda, time recording here is fifteen zamei zero nine. I’ve just finished first stage of communication program with two aliens. They have left their laboratory, adjacent to my quarters, and I believe they understand how important it is to change their vessel’s trajectory. I’m going to rest now. Ending message.”

“Did you play this for our observatory?”

“Yes,” he replied, “they’re continuing to track Lamikorda. I’ve sent acknowledgement message in response.”

“Good. Continue to monitor, and keep me apprised.” He ended the call and turned to Toralok.

“Sounds promising.”

“But something that massive,” Gii’ak pointed out, “will take time to redirect. We may not see definitive results until tomorrow.”

“So, what do you intend to do?”

“Go home,” he said, “and get some sleep.”

from Chapter Eighteen

Totrana’s governing cabinet convened in emergency session, at the request of Health Minister Treshgarek. Lead Minister Krajenreg called the meeting to order, and asked him to explain the situation:

“In these past two days, medical centers on Totrana have reported five people sick with some new virus. Three have already died, and one has required surgery to remove their infected kadraginra. All of these individuals either lived or worked in our Eastern Sector.”

All the officials looked about, eyes wide with worry. And then came the questions.

“What is causing this new disease?”

“Some previously unknown virus, just recently isolated by our medical researchers.”

“Terai in origin?”

“Presently, we do not yet know. It could have originated on this planet, or be some mutation. Research continues.”

“What are this disease’s symptoms?”

“High fever, lung congestion, peripheral neuropathy in some cases. Infection often spreads to kadraginra, requiring either surgical drainage or removal. We are trying to ascertain how it is spread, how contagious it is, incubation period, and so on.”

“What about antiviral medications?”

“We are trying numerous drugs, including combinations of drugs. Every effort is being done to treat all infected individuals, in both our Capital City and Eastern Sector municipalities.” Just then, the doors of the conference room burst open, and one of Treshgarek’s assistants rushed up to him. He whispered something into his right ear, then left as quickly as he’d come in. The minister trilled in aggravation, head hung down, then looked up once more and announced to the room: “Colleagues, I have now been informed that four new cases have been reported to our ministry.”

Trills and words of anguish and frustration swept the room. “Lead Minister,” one woman cried out, “we must do something to prevent this disease from spreading further!”

“What do you propose, Fiirkeshram?”

“I would propose that we restrict all travel to and from our Eastern Sector. All of these cases can be traced there, so it is logical to assume that this virus originated there. Until we can cure it, we should at least isolate it.”

Some of the other ministers were indicating agreement. But Treshgarek raised a question: “Shall we also isolate this city? Three cases were reported here, which means this virus has already spread here.”

Now the ministers talked among themselves, until another was recognized: “Lead Minister, we are obliged by oath and honor to assure safety for this planet’s inhabitants. But panic can be as dangerous as any virus. Also, we must consider our obligation to other members of Alplaa’s Concordance. I propose one day restriction of travel in and out of our Capital City and Eastern Sector, to be reviewed and renewed by this body each day. Further, we should consult with Space Exploration Commission leadership about restricting space travel to prevent possible spread of this disease to other locations in our solar system.”

This proposal seemed to have more widespread agreement, and Krajenreg turned to Fiirkeshram. “Do you accept this compromise?” The junior minister bobbed her head in agreement. “Is there consent to this?” Everyone around the table indicated concurrence. “Then it shall be implemented. Health Minister Treshgarek will issue public alerts regarding this new illness. I shall personally consult with Commissioner Ganak on this matter. Degjaajiit, genshajaijiit.”

from Chapter Twenty

Her alarm sounded right on the first zamei. Slamming down on the button, Keritanej climbed out of bed and headed to her bathroom. And once she was washed up and ready, she went back into her bedroom and picked up her siledraavshna. Holding it up by the neck cord with one hand, she cradled the pendant in the other, and softly recited her regular morning prayer: “Murai, Mother of All Life, please give me strength and guidance to do Thy will. Sorazna.”

Her new roommate was still asleep, so she moved as quietly as she could through the kitchen to prepare a light breakfast. When she was ready, she activated her computer pad and checked for electronic messages. There had been rumors that the Commission’s Director of Spaceflight Control was planning something unusual.

Three messages from other pilots – they all confirmed it.

Keritanej rushed to gobble her food, turning off her pad to bring it with her. She had tried to warn the Base Coordinator of this, but Vitroj kept dismissing it as rumors. Now she couldn’t deny it – and she would have to act.

As soon as she reached Spaceport Control, she approached the Coordinator’s assistant, insisting that she needed to see her right away. “She’s very busy,” the young fellow stammered, “as you can imagine, with Commissioner Ganak due to arrive – ”

“This matter is related to his visit,” she interrupted.

He looked down at his pad. “I can ask her to see you ten megzamei after she arrives.”

She bobbed her head in the affirmative. “Thank you. I’ll wait at my station.” She then headed to the office she shared with other Senior Pilots, and began work on other tasks.

Vitroj was indeed busy. As soon as she appeared, she was asking her assistant about her upcoming meetings with settlement officials, the status of various projects, and updates on the Commissioner’s visit. He also told her about Keritanej’s insistence to see her, and she agreed to meeting her – quickly. As she waited, two more pilots rushed into the control center and into her office. They’d heard the same news from others, and that’s when she recommended that they all see the Coordinator together.

They went into the office, their personal computer pads in hand and displaying messages. Vitroj dispensed with niceties: “I agreed to meet with you, Keritanej. Why are Fertresh and Goluutaan here?”

“This information came to each of us,” she explained, and then handed her the pad. Vitroj took it, read it, and shivered. The other two pilots showed her similar messages from different individuals. The Coordinator fell back into her chair, trilling with anxiety.

“I don’t know what I can do,” she said to them. “This settlement’s government declared by ordinance – ”

“Ordinances can be changed,” Goluutaan cut in. “And this particular ordinance was intended to be temporary.”

“Yes, I understand,” she responded, “but we are not permitted to interfere with this settlement’s elected government.”

“Nor are they allowed to enact laws which unduly conflict with Commission regulations,” Fertresh pointed out. “There is no longer any medical emergency, hence there is no reason for this restriction.”

“But it is not just that,” Vitroj tried to explain. “Many settlers fear these Terai, including many Council members, and nothing I say will convince them to lift this restriction. Can even you three tell me that you would be happy having Terai roam here freely?”

Shasha!” Fertresh asserted. “I have worked with them, flown with them. I consider some to be my friends.”

“Coordinator,” Goluutaan elucidated, “you would have great difficulty finding any Alplai shuttle pilot who would agree to treating our Terai colleagues this way.”

There was a tense silence in the room, until Vitroj rose from her chair. “Keritanej, do you share this attitude?”

She took a deep breath. It was times like this that she needed Murai to strengthen and guide her more than ever. While her faith taught her to respect all life – even alien life – she was also expected to be honest. Somehow, she found the words to answer Vitroj: “I admit that I have not worked closely with Terai. I find their culture strange. But they are surely not dangerous, and I see no reason to impose these restrictions on them.”

Vitroj took in her words, and paced a short distance from her desk. “Honestly, I do not believe I could persuade this Settlement Council to rescind their restriction. Politics is often influenced as much by emotionalism as by reason and evidence.”

“Politics also requires compromise,” Goluutaan replied. “We have temporary quarters for pilots and other Commission staff, directly connected to this spaceport.”

“Terai pilots could stay there overnight,” Keritanej continued, “thus assuring compliance with Commission regulations.”

“And by restricting them to those areas,” Vitroj reasoned, “they would not be interacting with settlers.”

“Still discriminatory,” Fertresh grumbled.

“But perhaps our best available solution,” the Coordinator said. “In time, fears about Terai will diminish. Until then, we do what we can.” By this time, she had walked back to stand in front of her chair. “I will be meeting with Lead Councilor Lezdremadok later today, and will discuss this proposal with him.”

They all exchanged ovetna, and the pilots then turned to exit the office. But Vitroj then called out to Keritanej, and she stopped and turned back to face her again. “Yes, Coordinator?”

“You do not like these Terai.”

The pilot stiffened, then responded: “I do not hate them, nor do I fear them.”

“But,” Vitroj pressed, “you do not like them.”

She lowered her head, still looking straight on. “I need not like someone to work with them.” With that, she gave another ovetna and left, with no further argument.