CHAPTER FORTY-NINE: BELIEVE
Dr. Daraja Isa pressed her nose to the plasti-glas of the drop ship’s window as the spacecraft rose up and up and up into the sky leaving the desert town of Sunrise, Arizona far beneath her. She wondered if she could truly say she’d been in Arizona or if the hour in the hot desert really counted. At her home, she’d had a map of the world with pushpins in green stuck where she had visited and ones in red for those places she wanted to. Now that she was going to be leaving Earth altogether, she’d need a map that represented the worlds she had been to and the ones she especially wanted to visit.
A smile bloomed on her face. She found she could hardly stop grinning whenever she thought about what was happening to her. Her heart was beating as fast as a beetle’s wings. She stroked her throat to relieve some of the pressure there that her excitement caused.
I am going into space. I will be a doctor to astronauts and aliens. I will be part of the fight against an invidious species. Oh, the things I will learn and see and feel and experience!
A squeal of delight--one a little girl, not a mature woman should give--wanted to escape her and that need to cry out in sheer joy was growing by the second. She imagined what her companions would do if she suddenly yelled. She’d heard dozens of languages from the people who filed into the dropship with her. Some might speak English as well, but she imagined a scream would be hard to explain even if they could understand her. She bit her inner cheek to stop the urge or, at least, hold the scream back.
She felt her seat row companion shift, too, as he turned to look outside as well. She moved over a little so that he could see out the window with her, but she knew she was hogging the view. The truth was that she couldn’t drag her gaze away, couldn’t bear to give up the inches necessary to let him see equally as her.
She supposed that he was another person that would be part of the Osiris’ crew like herself. She wondered briefly what he did and why he was chosen. The people in the dropship were a myriad of races, from different countries and all ages. Though she was just guessing from their outward appearances, they were professors, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, scientists and more. She’d flown only with military personnel--or that was what they appeared to be in their black uniforms--from Gombe to Sunrise so this was the first time she’d met the people she would be serving with. She would get to know them. But not right then. She had to see the sunlight skittering across the Osiris’ surface.
She wasn’t sure she’d be altogether sociable in any case. She’d hardly slept since receiving the original email and it wasn’t just because of the excitement--and suspicion--that she’d been feeling. Once she had met up with the stern-faced woman all in black, she’d been given a tablet that was loaded with information she needed to know about the Khul, the Osiris, the Alliance and more. She’d devoured the information, her head swirling with the possibilities of what she was reading. And all the while she had been flying in the military plane, she’d oscillated between believing all of it and thinking it was an elaborate hoax.
But what would be the point of such a hoax? Some experiment to see how civilians from all walks of life would react to the existence of alien life? Perhaps. The money that was behind this exercise was clearly vast. She supposed that governments could wrangle such funds for an experiment, but this was such a distinct scenario. There was too much detail, too much singularity, that it didn’t seem general enough to get true reactions to a general alien incident.
Then they’d landed in Sunrise and she’d seen the Osiris in the sky and her doubts had skittered away. She’d landed in the early morning and the sun blazed down from a peerless blue sky. There was no darkness that could hide a human craft and make it appear otherworldly with strategically placed lights. The sunlight exposed everything. It showed the shimmering metal skin and the graceful, massive lines of the spaceship. The ship cast a shadow that encompassed the whole city. Not that there was much to see in the city, because it appeared deserted and, like too many cities she’d traveled to, it appeared that great violence had happened there.
As terrible as the things humans did to one another, the Khul’s actions were monstrous on another level. She knew that some would caution her to not judge an alien species by human mores. The people in this dropship would likely have different ideas of what was right and wrong as compared to her, but she knew in her bones that if what was reported about the Khul was true--and she would investigate this--it meant that destroying humanity was a goal--a feature rather than a bug--of their society.
And that meant they must be stopped.
Her wonder--and that squeal--at the Osiris floating above them was only increased by the dropship. She’d run her hands along the almost-silky metallic covering that was like nothing on Earth. She’d walked up the gangway and smelled the ozone-tinted air. She’d sat in this seat where the harness snicked around her of its own accord. And now she was seeing the Earth below them and they were moving into the Osiris. She no longer doubted. She believed.
“It’s real,” the man beside her breathed. He had a quick, staccato like delivery of English words in what she thought might be a Spanish accent, but that might not be right as she’d only heard that accent in films. “I didn’t think… I mean… I thought because I got on that plane and left my whole life behind--except for Chili--but to see is to believe.”
She turned her head briefly to glance at him, but she didn’t want to miss a second of the ride. He had dark hair that waved down to his shoulders, a broad nose, and expressive lips. His sculpted jaw and chin was covered in a light beard. He scratched at it absently as he stared out the window with stunning blue-green eyes. He had on khakis and an olive green, loose-cut shirt. A rawhigh cord was tied around his neck with a simple green stone pressing against his throat. He likely was in his late 20s or early 30s, as old her son. A son she’d sent cryptic email to before she, too, left everything behind.
“So you thought it might be a scam as well?” she asked as the hanger bay slid open to the Osiris and her stomach quivered in excitement. She was pleased she could speak as her throat continued to be tight with emotion.
“How could I not? I run a veterinarian clinic in Mendoza, Argentina,” he said and she checked in her mind that he had an Argentinian accent, not Spanish from Spain. “What would they want with me on a spaceship?”
Her lips curled into another smile. “What’s your name?”
“Matias Torres. And you?”
“Beautiful name and accent! African? I’m not sure where...” His eyes sparkled at her.
“Like me, you’ve come a long way,” he said.
“And we are going a lot farther still.”
“Are you with anyone? A husband or--”
She smiled even though there was still a brief press of pain at the thought of her lost husband. But it was fainter today than it had ever been. She would never forget Adebiyi. He was her heart. But he would want only joy for her. Especially now.
“I am, too.” A near flutter of those thick, dark eyelashes from Matias.
Was he flirting with her? A woman old enough to be his mother? But, then again, her daughter told her that she looked a lot younger than her contemporaries. But Daraja had never chased youth or sought to preserve it when she had it. Age wrote one’s experience across the book of life that was one’s body. Age wasn’t something to be feared, but embraced.
“I thought you said you had left everything behind except Chili? Is that a wife or husband or--”
“What? Oh, no! Chili is a pot belly pig! She’s right here. Sleeping.” He pulled up a soft arched container that was between his feet.
She peered inside the bars on the front and saw a pink pig about the size of her hand curled into a soft, blue blanket. Chili snorted softly and her little sproingy tail quivered as if she was dreaming about something exciting.
“She is not for food, I take it?” Daraja asked. “She would hardly make a mouthful.”
“What? No! She is my sweet Chili!” He looked horrified. “My boon companion!”
She shouldn’t have found that funny, but she did. Especially when he cradled the container against his broad chest.
“You asked to bring Chili with you?” She lifted an eyebrow at him.
“Of course! It was a requirement for me to accept the offer!” Matias eyed her suspiciously. “Didn’t you ask to bring anyone?”
She paused as she considered that fact. She hadn’t even considered it. Part of her hadn’t believed it would be allowed, but another part of her did not wish to take them with her. Both her children were parents themselves. The thought of asking them to leave their families, or even bring their children with them, to come with her into space seemed absurd. And that was before she’d read about the Khul. After finding out about them, she wanted neither her children nor her grandchildren anywhere near the Osiris.
“It is interesting to me that you would condition accepting this opportunity on being allowed to bring a pet with you,” she said carefully.
“You don’t think my interest in this mission is serious?” He guessed, but didn’t look offended by that. “I think they allowed me to bring her as a… challenge? Plus, the human crew will need familiar creatures to offer them comfort and Chili is a great comfort.”
She smiled. “I will take your word for that. Pigs are very smart. But I am surprised you did not ask to bring a dog and cat as well. They are more familiar pets.”
“Yes, but not as good as Chili. But I’ve already been informed that there will be some of them on the ship!” He beamed. “And just think of the animals we will discover on new worlds! I imagine we will come into a Tribble situation.”
Daraja chuckled, realizing he was referring to the Trouble With Tribbles episode of the original Star Trek. If they did encounter purring balls of fur that multiplied like mad, that might be the least of their worries.
“We’re in.” Matias pointed to the window.
The dropship had entered the hanger. She quickly turned back to watch as they passed by dozens of ships--Paladin class, she recalled from her reading--that were set up and ready for pilots. Some of those pilots would be human, but there would be other species. There hadn’t been anything yet on those other species that she was to help. She would need to learn their biology, their chemistry, so much. She pressed her fingers against the window as the dropship landed.
“We’re here, Chili! Our new home away from home,” Matias cooed to the pig.
She let out a snort, which was echoed by Chili. The pig was awake and looking out at her from a sweet face and friendly eyes. She stuck a finger through the bars, which Chili sniffed and let out a happy snort.
“I think Chili is going to be a grand addition to the crew.” Daraja grinned at the pig who eagerly oinked.
The gangway in the back of the ship opened up and the people eagerly turned and rose from their seats, filing out one at a time even as Daraja guessed they all wanted to run out. She held herself in place by gripping the seats. Matias offered to let her go first, to squirm around him and Chili, but she shook her head and gestured for the two of them to precede her. She almost let the next row go as well, because as excited as she was to be here, she was suddenly unable to move.
“Coming?” Matias offered her his pig-free hand.
She smiled and took it. He helped her into the aisle and they walked forward, out of the dropship and down the gangway. The hangar was larger than a football field, American football or otherwise. The ceiling arched far above their heads. Daraja felt dwarfed in this space. The other ships it held intrigued her, but she was more interested in getting to the Med Bay. She wanted to see the alien tech that was there. She wanted to start to understand it. To make it hers so that she could serve her patients right away.
They formed a half moon cluster around three figures. One was a very handsome young man with a rather winning smile who she remembered was Jace Parker, the Pilot, not a Pilot, but the leader of the entire endeavor. He seemed terribly young to have such responsibility on his shoulders, but wisdom didn’t only come with age.
The second was Commander Khoth Voor, a Thaf’ell, who was Jace’s second on the Osiris. Unlike Jace, he did not smile. His expression seemed neutral, perhaps a little cool as he surveyed all of them from his very tall form. He had the stance of a warrior. She wondered if he approved of so many civilians aboard.
And their pigs.
She bit back a snort. But her amusement was quickly replaced by awe as she stared at the Thaf’ell. He was not human. He was humanoid, but quite a bit bigger than them. He was graceful and sleek, reminding her of a big cat in some ways. As different as he looked from them with his blue skin and pointed ears, she felt a kinship, too. The Thaf’ell, like humanity, was one of the Seeded Species of the Altaeth.
We are not cousins exactly, but we are somewhere on the same tree.
The final person though had her drawing up a bit short. It was the Terminator. From the film. The steel chassis. The glowing red eyes. The seeming grinning skull demeanor. She had no idea what this was about, but she was sure there was a story here.
“Hi, everyone!” the Terminator said in a chirpy feminine voice.
She was glad she wasn’t the only one staring.
At that moment, a section of the floor separated and a rectangular cabinet rose up. It was glass and steel. Inside were what looked like futuristic syringes in glittering metal. The glass lid retracted so that the syringes could be accessed.
“Good morning, everyone. My name is Jace Parker as you may recall and I am the Pilot,” Jace said, bringing his hands together. He repeated that phrase in a dozen languages so that everyone understood. He would continue this for the next few lines he spoke. “Before we begin, I must ask that you submit to an injection of a universal translator chip… well, it’s really not a chip, but… needless to say it will ensure that we can all understand one another a lot better and communicate with other people. Dr. Isa?”
Jace’s eyes were upon her. She stood up straighter and smiled uncertainly at him.
“You’re our first physician on the crew to arrive. I’m hoping that you will take the shot first and assist us in giving it to the others,” Jace asked.
Matias lifted his expressive eyebrows. “A doctor, Chili. Daraja is a doctor. We will be in good hands, I think.”
“I would be happy to,” Daraja said. “Perhaps Matias can assist me? He is a veterinarian. He’s given a few shots before, I would think.”
“Of course. Oh, and there’s Chili!” Jace’s eyes lit up at the sight of the carrier. “Can I hold her? Does she like being held? Petted?”
“Oh, ho, ho!” Matias grinned as he carried the pig’s carrier in front of them almost like a battering ram to get them through the crush of people to Jace. “Chili loves both. I can tell we are going to get along famously, Pilot.”
They made it to the front where Jace, Khoth and the Terminator stood. The Terminator loomed over the pig carrier.
“I’ve never seen a pig before! Well, I’ve seen them in videos, but--oh, my goodness, she’s so cute!” Seeing a Terminator squee like a teen girl was something Daraja would never forget.
Matias held her with one hand under her pink belly. The fine white hair on her body didn’t disguise her delicate skin. Her little hooves moved back and forth as if she were walking through the air to Jace’s hands. Jace cuddled the pig, who oinked excitedly, especially when he kissed her head.
“This is a pig?” Khoth asked in English as he observed Jace’s affection for the little animal. “You use these for food, yes?”
“Not Chili!” Matias cried.
“Not all of them, Khoth, but yes, they do make some yummy food. But Chili is a pet,” Jace said.
“A boon companion!” Matias corrected.
“A boon companion.” Jace flashed one of those winning smiles of his. “You never had a pet?”
Khoth shook his head. His long hair slid across his broad shoulders. He grimaced for some reason and lifted one hand towards his head, but then stopped himself.
“Here, why don’t you hold Chili while I demonstrate how to use the syringes,” Jace said as he handed over the delicate pink animal into Khoth’s large hands.
The Thaf’ell’s large hands cradled Chili tenderly. She oinked, snorted and then cuddled right down and fell asleep. Matias’ eyes widened.
“I have never seen Chili take to someone so quickly. Maybe you are a pig whisperer,” Matias suggested.
Matias playfully slapped Khoth’s arm without any thought that a Thaf’ell might not welcome that kind of touch. Yet Daraja was impressed by how easily Matias accepted someone so very different from him. The Thaf’ell merely lifted an eyebrow.
“Maybe I’ll add pig whisperer to your official title.” Jace’s eyes sparked with mischievousness.
“No, you will not,” Khoth said coolly, but there was a twitch of a smile.
“Damn. Well, I did try to promote you. Don’t say I didn’t,” Jace grinned. “Now. Let’s start with the shots so everyone can appreciate what we’re saying. I haven’t used my best material yet. And you, Matias, seem like a good wingman.”
Matias saluted. “At your service.”
“He’s going to wash those hands before giving us shots, right?” someone asked from the crowd.
“Pigs are very clean, but yes, of course,” Matias said. “Where is a sink?”
He asked the latter to Jace who waved a hand over the edge of the case that had risen. A section rose from that where their hands could be placed and a blue light appeared inside.
“Merely put your hands in here and they’ll be clean,” Jace said.
Both Matias and Daraja did so. The light felt cold over her skin as if she’d dunked her hands in icy water, but, of course, they were clean. Jace followed suit before he lifted one of the syringes from the table. The case looked to be silver. There was no needle, but instead just an opening at the end.
“You won’t need to worry about contamination on their skin either with these.” Jace explained. “I’ll demonstrate it on Matias so then you can show him, Dr. Isa.”
She nodded. She curled her fingers against her palms. They were putting alien technology into their bodies. This would let them communicate with most anyone. What would it be like? Would her brain feel different? Would it change her in some profound way? If it was going to affect her then it would do so. Because, unlike many things that they could choose not to do, getting the universal translator was not one of them. This was a requirement. Failing to do this meant she, or anyone else who refused, would be sent back to Earth. And she was staying.
Jace brought the syringe’s end up against the side of Matias' neck. The veterinarian swallowed, but did not hesitate.
“You okay, Matias?” Jace asked kindly.
“Oh, I will be. I’m sure,” Matias answered, his voice slightly strained.
“You’re brave to go first. But, believe me, you’ll be fine,” Jace told him.
“Fire away.” Matias flashed a small smile.
“And… done.” Jace pressed the trigger. There was a slight hiss and Jace was pulling the syringe away. “And that’s it. Not too bad, yeah?”
“Did it hurt, Matias?” Daraja asked.
Matias reached up and ran his fingers over the spot of the injection, but there was only a faint bruise. He shook his head. “I barely felt anything!”
“That’s good. So who’s next?” Jace asked.
Daraja then picked up one of the syringes herself and gestured for the nearest woman to come up. She demonstrated what she had seen to Matias. He gave her the shot in return. And he had been right. It did not hurt in the least. She didn’t even think it had done anything until she realized that she could understand the woman speaking Italian and the man speaking German and the other man speaking in Mandarin. But they all now seemed to be speaking Hausa, her native tongue. She imagined that for others it would seem she was speaking in Italian or German or Portuguese!
Or perhaps we are all speaking the Altaeth mother-tongue and we just think we are speaking and hearing in something else.
As more people got the shot and behaved excitedly, instead of afraid, after it, her fellow crew members lined up eagerly. Soon, they all had been injected. Jace thanked her and Matias. The veterinarian made to take the sleeping pig from Khoth’s hands, but the Thaf’ell frowned.
“She is sleeping. You will disturb her,” Khoth said, that frown deepening.
“Oh, well, I will leave you two alone then.” Matias lifted his hands in mock surrender even as he smiled.
“You’re going to have to fight to get your boon companion back,” Daraja chuckled.
“Ah, that is all right. We get to see who the Commander really is. A pig whisperer and big softie despite looking fierce,” Matias said with a shrug and a wink.
“I thought it was crazy to bring the pig, but I now see I was wrong.” She shook her head as the two of them settled back into the crowd again.
Jace started speaking again, but now all could understand him. “Thank you for accepting the call to join this crew. What we are going to do has never been done before by our species. You are paving the way for every other human to go into the stars and become citizens of the universe.”
Daraja saw faces filled with excitement and joy. They all glowed, knowing that they were playing a role in history. It was rare when one knew that history was being made but it was. They’d taken their phones and tablets earlier or otherwise people would be filming this, but she guessed that this magnificent ship likely already was. It felt alive to her.
“From the materials you were given, I am certain you also know what a dire threat the Khul are to humans and every other species,” Jace continued more somberly. “You are not soldiers. I do not expect you to fight on the front lines in that sense. But everything you do will be assisting us in that fight and helping to find ways to understand the universe.”
Jace’s gaze swept over them and each person seemed to meet his eyes. Daraja certainly did. It seemed like he was looking inside of her and taking her worth. She didn’t shy away, but opened herself to him. He smiled.
Jace continued, “This will be challenging. The most challenging thing you’ve ever done in your lives. But, like most challenging things, it will be the most rewarding too. We’re taking humanity into the stars. We’re going to make an alliance with other species. And then… then we will defeat the Khul. This is just the beginning.”