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Saturday, August 7, 2021

Extremus: Year 4

The reigning theory is that Old Man was attempting to send Captain Yenant to his death when he modified the recall device to transport two people off the ship, instead of the ship as a whole. Halan made contact with Team Keshida on Gatewood to find out if the three people who ended up taking the device had shown up at any point in time, but it was a negative. Best guess is that Halan was meant to be sent to somewhere in the vacuum of space, while Omega and Airlock Karen were just going to be collateral damage. The reason Old Man and Rita were sent instead was because both of them touched the device with their bare skin prior to activation. Since the former was screaming about not being able to wash his hands well enough, the device probably gave off some kind of residue, which adhered to their hands, and linked them to it. When the button was finally pushed, it took them all away.
The Captain ordered a full head count of the entire ship; crew and passengers, to find out whether anyone else was missing. One other young man was, but the other passengers couldn’t place him, so it’s unclear whether he had touched the device as well, or if something else had happened to him before that. He may have never been on the ship at all. This was a terrible oversight that Halan knew he needed to rectify. Nothing like that could ever happen again. Even without a transportation device of some kind, better safeguards need to be put in place. If someone gets lost in the lower deck engineering section, for instance, there needs to be some way to know that they’re missing in the first place. This was an eye-opening experience.
Eckhart Mercer continued to prove himself an invaluable member of the team. His popularity with the passengers made him the obvious choice to replace Rita Suárez as the Lieutenant. They would miss him on evening announcements, but Mercer was already training someone to fill in for him, and she was more than prepared to take the baton. She too has a fun personality, and her own interesting spin on things.
Despite the tragic mystery that would likely never be solved, things went pretty smoothly over the course of the next year. Omega was released from hock, and joined the engineering team. His claim that he had learned his lesson was more than just an excuse to be free. He was being positive, helpful, and obedient. With Airlock Karen out of the way, the general population felt a lot more at ease. With Old Man out of the way, Halan personally felt more at ease. It was a fitting end to a potentially disastrous situation. As useful as he could be, he was the kind of guy who would ultimately do more harm than good.
Right now, Halan is sitting at his desk, looking over the micrometeoroid report. They’ve been getting worse every day, and while the teleporter field has been able to dismiss every object thus far, the experts still don’t know why the numbers are increasing. Mercer walks in. “It’s happened. It’s finally happened.”
Halan smiles. “You’ve all finally decided to stop celebrating my birthday? What a relief.”
“Actually, that may be true. It might be best if we cancel it for the sake of morale, and optics. What I mean is that the first death has happened.”
Halan falls into a frown. “I see. Report.”
Mercer consults his tablet. “A Kaiora Sambra. She was seventy-three years old, terminal. She refused advanced treatment, and boarded Extremus in order to spend her last few years with her family. She evidently died peacefully in her bed, monitored by hospice, and after some long goodbyes. Word is already spreading. Still, I think you should make an announcement.”
“Of course,” Halan agrees. “Please have Andara write something up for me. I’ll be doing the evening announcements in her stead today. Until then, I would like to speak with the family, if they’re up for it.”
“I’ll ask the counselor to coordinate.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
Halan quietly walks down the hallway, and gently knocks on Dr. Itri Meziani’s door. Though this is the first death on the ship, it’s not like the grief counselor has had no work until now. Many left loved ones behind on Gatewood, and will almost certainly never see them again, which is a form of grief, so she’s had plenty of patients. One of them could be in there with her right now. She opens quickly, and Halan can see that she’s alone.
“Come in, Captain. I think it’s a nice idea for you to meet with the family of the deceased, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”
“How do you mean?” Halan asks.
“Have a seat,” she offers. She sits down as well, and smiles with her lips closed. “There are thousands of people on this ship, which is why I’m training—not just a replacement—but extra help. People are going to start dying. You will one day die. Setting this precedent could have dangerous consequences for the safety of this vessel, and all those still living on it. It might seem fine to do it this once, but what happens when the second person dies? Will people expect you to go speak with them as well? What about the third, or fourth?”
“I can count, Doctor.”
“Quite. The point is that my job is to help the survivors through this kind of thing. It is not yours. Trying to take on everyone else’s responsibilities will cause all such responsibilities to suffer, whether you were always obligated to them, or not. Again, seems fine now, but eventually, we’ll start measuring the death rate in months, weeks, days, even hours. I’m not questioning whether you can handle that. You would probably be fine. Throughout your entire twenty-four year shift, you probably wouldn’t notice any scheduling strain. But remember that you’re only the first of nine. You don’t want later captains to feel this burden, do you? They will not be able to handle it.”
Halan laughs, and holds his forehead against his thumb while he scratches his eyebrow with his ring finger. “Quit makin’ sense.”
Dr. Meziani nods. “It’ll be okay. I can report to you that the family is in high spirits. Mrs. Sambra died happy, and it was her time, according to her, and everyone who knew her. She got to see one last beautiful thing before she died. The survivors are not expecting to see you. I didn’t tell them you wanted to, and no one suggested you should.”
He nods back. “Good.”
After a pause, Dr. Meziani goes on, “I don’t have any more patients today, if you would like to talk. Losing someone under your care can be tough. I know you were so far removed from her to not have even heard of her—”
“I’ve heard of her.”
“You have? Before today?”
“I know everyone on this ship.”
“I had a learning chip implanted in my brain, which uploads the history of the ship. It doesn’t...well, it’s complicated how it works. Every day, it reminds me of everything that it has already taught me. I don’t access the information from the chip when I need it. It just keeps teaching me and teaching me, and I keep memorizing and memorizing, until I get it all. It updates once a year, and teaches me every day.”
“You’ve memorized everything that’s ever happened on this ship ever?” she questions.
“No, just general information, like energy consumption, and average daily distance covered, which shouldn’t change, but it sometimes slows down slightly. Basic personal info about everyone on board is the only thing I know to any level of detail.”
“Interesting. So do you feel Mrs. Sambra as a loss?”
“No, not like that. I never did meet her. Most of the passengers are, umm...” He hesitates to continue.
“Doctor-patient confidentiality, obviously.”
Halan sighs. “They’re almost like not real people. I know all of their names, birthdays, and jobs, but I still don’t know them. Since I have to memorize so many, it’s all just data. I think it’s important, though. When I pass someone, I need to be able to greet them by their name, no matter who they are.”
“That is a fascinating stance.”
“I just consider it part of the job,” Halan explains honestly.
She nods, but says nothing more.
“If I could ask you for one more bit of advice?” he requests.
“Of course.”
“I was hoping to mention the death in the evening announcements. Do you think that will be okay, or would it also lead to an untenable precedent?”
“That should be fine, as long as you frame it as a one-time deal, because it is the first death. I won’t tell you what to say, but make sure the people understand that you’re talking about it because this is only the beginning, and that it’s all part of the circle of life, and we’re all here for a purpose, and everyone knows that they will never see planet Extremus.”
“I think I can do that. In fact, I’m not much of a writer, so I better go tell my speechwriter all of this.”
“Very well.” She stands up, and extends an arm.
Halan looks down, and smiles slightly. “The old way?”
“This is our universe now, let’s get used to it.”
It isn’t how the Ansutahan humans, or their descendants, normally greet each other physically, but it’s how their ancient, ancient ancestors did, and it’s how everyone else in this galaxy does it. Which gesture two people choose often depends on which one of them holds out their hands—or hand, as it were—first. Halan cordially grasps her hand with his own, and they shake up and down. He was born here, but this does not feel right. It’s never become common.
He leaves her office, and heads back to the bridge. He steps on deck to make sure everything is okay. The ship runs itself, as all ships do. Building a ship that actually requires a human crew would be like always expecting a mother to give birth to her child completely alone. It’s possible, and it’s been done, but it’s dangerous, and it’s manifestly irresponsible when you have a choice. The bridge crew, therefore, is primarily responsible for monitoring systems, rather than directly controlling them. In the four years they’ve been operational, they’ve not had to interfere once. Most of the time, they’re watching casually and comfortably, but not carelessly. “Report.”
“All systems optimal,” the Bridgemaster says. It’s her job to ask the rest of the crew individually how things are going, so that when the Captain shows up, he doesn’t have to go through it himself.
“Carry on,” he orders. Then he steps into the Passenger Outreach Room.
“Sir.” The current announcer hangs up the phone quickly, and stands up.
“Did you just hang up on a passenger?” Halan questions.
“It was just a friend, sir. We weren’t discussing anything important. But I, uhh...assure you that I keep both eyes on the incomings. I always switch as soon as someone else calls. I’m very sorry, I shouldn’t have been doing it...”
“It’s fine, Andara. Personal calls are fine. I just came in to talk to you about the speech. Did Rita ask you to write something up for me?”
“Yes, she did.” Andara hands Halan her tablet. “I’ve finished it.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to rewrite it. I spoke with Dr. Meziani, and she thinks I should be careful about how I frame it.”
Andara smirks. “Why don’t you read it first?”
Halan complies, not knowing why it matters, but as he looks over the words, he realizes that she picked up on the same things the grief counselor did. By the time he’s done, he’s decided that only a few things need to be altered. “I wasn’t briefed about this,” he says about one piece of news. “They only told me about the death.”
“I’m briefed about everything. Your Lieutenant’s filter is always preceded by my filter. And you were busy.”
“I didn’t even notice..four years.”
She shrugs. “People weren’t overly concerned about it, I guess. I don’t think it was intentional to delay this long. It’s begun now, though, and it won’t stop.”
“This is great, thank you. But it does need to be reworked a little.”
Paranoid, she takes the tablet back. “How so?”
“You need to do it instead.”
“It’s your job. And they’re your words.”
“Same time it always is. For now, I have to go see someone else. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Halan goes out to meet with Omega for one of their weekly check-ins. A couple of hours later, Andara begins her announcements. “Good evening, folks. This is Andara Goodman, coming to you from the Passout Room. The time, as this moment, where we’re all together. Bittersweet news today; as one life ends, another begins. I’m saddened to be the one to inform you that we have experienced our first death. Mrs. Kaiora Sambra left us this morning, surrounded by her family and friends. She came here knowing that she would never see our dreams realized. She came here to help us; to help our descendants. She wanted a real home for the Ansutahan refugees, and her impact on that will live on well beyond her time on the physical plane.
“I’m also happy to announce that we have also experienced our first birth. Last night, Mrs. Sambra’s great granddaughter, Kaiora Leithe opened her eyes to the world, and the first thing she saw was her namesake smiling back at her. The Captain and I believe this to be a perfect example of why we’re doing this. The persistence of life—in a free and open world, of our own making—is vital to the prosperity of our people. Every single one of you has made a conscious decision to board this ship, including the children. There are those who wished to come, but could not, because it would mean leaving behind those who did not wish it. We do not know which choice little Kaiora would have made, but she’s here now, and she will help us flourish either way. Goodbye, Kaiora. And welcome to Extremus...Kaiora.”

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