SciFiQuest 2106

Sitting on the bench, Alwyn clutched the flask in both hands convulsively and watched his ex-classmates spill out the gates of Survey's groundside campus in twos and threes, laughing. Graduation would have just finished. His class– his ex class, now members of Survey in their own right, off to the field to meet up with shuttles up to various Outpoint stations. There to lay on colossal drunks after stowing their gear aboard assigned Survey ships, and to begin their careers Going, Seeing, Surviving and Reporting. And, had he not chosen to begin that drinking a wee bit early, there too would he have gone.

He took a convulsive drink. Fuckers. The jetjuice made him shudder and drew tears. Which was why he was crying.

It took a moment to register that someone had chosen that moment to sit down next to him on the bench. Alywn counted to five in his head, then turned to snarl at the newcomer, but before he could open his mouth, the other spoke. "Alwyn Regerson?"

His anger forgotten in his surprise, Alwyn gaped. "Uh?"

"You are Survey Cadet Regerson, aren't you? Second in your class?"

Bitterness rose in his gorge. "Not any fucking more, whoever you are, and thank you so very much for reminding me." He turned back and drank.

"Oh, I know that, Mr. Regerson. I know. I was sorry to hear about that. Well, not sorry, really. You see, your...running afoul, shall we say, of the more puritanical bent of Survey might be to both our benefit."

Alwyn spat out the mouthful of jetjuice deliberately and turned to face the other. The man was graying, wearing a sleek black topcoat with a discreet sigil on the breast. Looking more closely, he could see a linked trio of letters, M-S-R. Mill-Surat-Roe. That didn't make sense; MSR was one of the largest (and most ruthless) starflight combines in existence, accorded the half-fearful, half-hateful sobriquet of 'The Company.' "How so?"

"My name is Haarlan. Shall we go somewhere and have a drink?" He indicated the flask. "Might as well save that for leaner times, eh?"

The bar was quiet, and that quiet along with the quality of the decor marked it as one of those places Alwyn would never consider drinking unless he'd just won a lottery. Haarlan merely nodded with a smile when he looked challengingly at the company man in response to the (human!) waitress' query, and ordered an (actual!) Scotch. When they had both been served, drinks that represented a week of his Cadet stipend, Haarlan continued. "Mr. Regerson, let me be frank. I'm here because you are - were - an outstanding Survey cadet, and we'd like to hire you. The work is dangerous, but no more dangerous than Survey work, and in fact is quite similar, with one or two small differences."

"You do realize I was kicked out for cause?"

"Of course. You were kicked out for illicit use of resources on your final practical survival exercise, correct?"

"Well, yes."

"To be blunt, you raided your group's stores and built a still, from which you produced an admirably pure ethanol base product. Adulturating it with additional supplies from the emergency survival and decontamination kits, you apparently managed to create a passable imitation of a recently-popular energy drink cocktail, which you then sold to your fellow recruits on a most ingenious credit chit system, redeemed on your return to the Academy grounds."

"You're quite well informed."

"You'd be surprised. What impressed us the most, Mr. Regerson, was that despite this...um...busy extracurricular schedule and entrepreneurial bent, none of your teammates complained about you slacking on your workload; none of your teammates nor any of the units whose stores you raided noticed or complained of missing stores, and no one suffered any privation or even inconvenience."

Alwyn drank reflexively. "I told the Board that, that I'd replaced everything before anything could have happened, I just needed to seed the cycle...but they didn't care. They didn't care. I broke the rules."

Haarlan leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of his dewy glass. His grin was somewhat sharklike. "Mr. Regerson. All I care is that you survived, and so did your teammates, unharmed and without inconvenience - and that despite your own sampling of your work, you were never unfit for duty. Not once."

"I'm not an alcoholic. I just appreciate the stuff."

"I believe that's what I said. Well, Mr. Regerson, here's the meat of it. Mill-Surat-Roe maintains a private Survey division, since, as you know, we open many mining and other resource exploitation planetary claims. Would you like a job?"

* * *

"Drop in five, repeat, drop in five. All I-team personnel man the drop shuttle. All I-team personnel man the drop shuttle."

The Vasco da Gama shuddered slightly. Auxdrive was burning to bend her approach vector away from a terminal drop into the gravity well of S45j/PB986, where Jump had left her. Alwyn stubbed out his cigarette on the frictionplate deck beside his leg and leaned back against the bulkhead for a last moment's peace. Around him, the relaxed activity of the team continued, gear moving into packframes and hands checking cargo pockets with the ease of long practice. Above and beyond them, the vaguely insectile bulk of the drop shuttle waited, slung in its cradle.

"Up and at it, little man." Kesh offered an arm, and Alwyn reached up to clasp it. Kesh swung him to his feet effortlessly. Alwyn wasn't large, but Kesh was — black as night and about the size of a house, Kesh was Survival on the I-Team. He was already festooned with equipment, and his packframe was settled beneath his shoulderblades. Ensuring Alwyn was standing on his own, Kesh moved on to rouse the others.

Alwyn shook his head, grabbed his pack from the deck, and jogged towards the waiting shuttle.

"I-team, this is da Gama, separation in thirty seconds, confirm please." da Gama's voice was calm and even as only an AI Monitor's could be. Kesh was buckling in; Pharris was actually already asleep in his shock couch, and Winra was looking out the port while tapping a nervous tattoo on her knees to some forgotten popular music piped over her headset. Sebastian was doing isometrics in his own couch at the back. Alwyn kicked his headset over to command mode, watching the flight controls before him come alive in a splash of holographics and simple backlighting.

"da Gama, this is Alwyn Regerson confirming separation at thirty from mark." Alwyn watched the shuttle's simple AI coming up as he spoke with da Gama, watched it checking the entry plot and nodding its electronic head, satisfied. He checked it too, as best he could in the seconds he had available, before switching back over to intercom. "Kesh, are you in?"

"Yeh, man, I'm in."

"Rock and roll." That was Winra, still drumming.

da Gama broke in at the five second mark, offering a countdown, then slapped them with a sledgehammer and tossed them out into the black.

* * *

"Team, this is Survival, Day two check-in." Kesh's voice was just as bassy as he looked, even through a headset link. Alwyn sat back on his haunches and wiped his brow, dropping the armfuls of fronded stalks he was busy scraping clean.

Pharris' voice responded first, coupled with a violet locater icon on Alwyn's HUD. "Team, this is Rations, checking in, clear."

"Team, Substance, checking in, clear." Winra's voice, this early in the insertion, was thoughtful and absentminded as she worked.

"Team, Rec, checking in, clear." Sebastian sounded as if he was running a marathon, which was somewhat appropriate.

Alwyn kicked his beacon. "Team, Shine, checking in, clear." All five locater icons flashed twice to confirm their status, and he returned his attention to the bundle of stalked plants. The sample was almost entirely clear of its budded stems and outer hard layers, leaving a pale bluish rod of material perhaps a meter and a half in length. It was damp with sap. The chemalyzer was still sniffing at it, but so far everything looked good - it was composed of dextrorotaries, and the pith of the stem looked like it was almost pure longchain starches. He left the armload of stems on the ground and moved to the next pile in his small clearing.

It had taken him a day to collect his various sample loads, but it was worth it. This was why he was here. Unlike some planetary bodies the I-team had worked, this one had a multitude of possibilities within easy range of the dropsite. The second pile was a sampling of a whitish lichen that he'd found covering the north faces of nearly all the rocky outcroppings he'd passed, to a depth of perhaps three inches. It was spongy but dry despite the damp air. The chemalyzer he'd dropped on top of this pile had already finished, indicating a relatively simple composition. Alwyn accessed the dump from his helmet HUD and frowned. There was a load of sugars, but there were also some strange looking alkaloids in there and a load of basic minerals no doubt leached out of the stone - calcium, some iron, a host of other metal traces. Not suitable, although he tagged an image of the stuff for Winra.

"Hey, Alwyn."

"Yeah, Pharris, how goes it."

"Not too bad. Hey, can I ask you to test something for me?"

Alwyn looked around. His final three sample piles had chemalyzers still winking amber, indicating they hadn't finished their runs. "Sure. I'll be there in five minutes."

"Thanks."

Pharris' 'tests' were not only the least likely to kill him, but the most likely to improve his day. Alwyn trudged across the few hundred meters of low vegetation separating him from the team camp, carrying his sidearm drawn. They hadn't seen any creatures larger than a Terran rabbit since arriving, but caution had kept them all alive this long - and seventeen worlds was longer than any other survey team without a casualty. Their credit balances reflected that experience. Twice, motion in the ankle-high blue leafy plants caused him to stop, but both times the disturbance turned out to be caused by one of the hand-sized hoppers that Kesh had named 'panfrogs' on first look.

The panfrogs, which did in fact look like small buttered pancake stacks with two pairs of back froglegs, were more interested in getting out of his way than causing him any grief. As he drew close to the camp, he could see Pharris puttering around the outdoor work area he'd staked out as soon as they had finished expanding the domehuts and setting up the layered survey fencing. Three worktables were cluttered with implements and offal; two variable pads held pots, and five of them steamed gently. Pharris waved genially as Alwyn drew up and holstered his maser.

"Hello there, my esteemed colleague. Try a bit of this." Pharris offered a ladle, handle first, full of a purplish concoction. Since Alwyn had heard this greeting from him more times than he could count, and hadn't died yet from accepting it (and had only become really incapacitated less than a handful of times he could remember) he shrugged and took the ladle. Testing the heat, he sipped the stuff in it.

It was a ragout of some form. Pharris was still in the early phases of exploration, and there wasn't much subtlety; he was apparently still attempting to determine both the mechanical and colloidal properties of the local fare. As a result, the ragout (in addition to being purple) was slightly slimy, as well as containing a powdery substance that apparently was resisting water - almost like pockets of corn starch.

As usual, however, it was damn tasty.

"Shit, P, that's good. What is it?" The old joke.

"Ah, that would be telling."

"Aw, come on, man, what's in it?"

"My dear fellow, you haven't paid to see those cards!" Pharris beamed at him, reclaimed the ladle and sipped himself. Letting his eyes defocus a bit, he muttered "More simmering..." and returned the ladle to one of the pots. Alwyn poked his nose into a couple of the other pots, managing to sneak looks into two of them before Pharris slapped at him and growled menacingly. "No! One more look and I bill you!"

"Okay, okay! I just work here, I can't pay a Survey bill, Christ." Laughing, Alwyn desisted. He ran his tongue around his mouth. "You know, there's a little bit of an aftertaste to that one..."

"Really? What sort?"

"Hm...not great, kind of bitter."

Pharris whipped out a notepad and stylus and scribbled in it for a moment. "Thanks. Wouldn't have noticed that."

"No problem."

"How's it going on your end?"

"Oh, several promising avenues. I meant to ask you if you saw anything I should look at, by the way."

"Yes, in fact. Here, try these." This ladle contained a gruel of sorts. Alwyn looked carefully at it; since he was being offered a referral, this couldn't be considered insulting. The gruel appeared to be made up of small regular shapes. Grain? No...he picked one out and looked at it closely. It looked familiar, but had been softened by boiling. He tasted the gruel, and found it bland but with the characteristic slight sweetness of starch breaking down into sugars.

"Hey, that's perfect! What are these?"

"Beetles of some kind."

"Damn. How hard to collect?"

"If you find one of those large green domes around the field, break it open. It's a chitin habitat. There's thousands of beetles under each one. You have to be quick, though, they run when light hits 'em. Bring a sampling vac."

"Ah, okay. Specialty item. Where's the starch?"

"I'm not sure of the mechanism." Pharris reached over to the bench and pulled a sample case off it, handed it to Alwyn who took it and peered through the magnifying lid. "It looks like they sequester starchy food base underneath their shells for lean times. If you boil 'em, the legs fall off, and there doesn't appear to be anything toxic in them anyway. They don't taste very good for a few hours - you have to break down some nasty-tasting aromatics, but after that, it's just like having parched corn, sorta."

"Can I keep this one?"

"Sure."

"Thanks. When's dinner?"

"Couple of days. You bringing anything?"

"Maybe." Alwyn grinned at him and moved back off across the plain.

* * *

Even the domehuts looked welcoming in reflected firelight. Kesh had built a large firepit, with a ramp next to it for Pharris to work in, and slabbed several boulders to rough benches with his variable maser. The stones were warm by now. Alwyn wasn't sure precisely what was burning in the firepit, but it wasn't wood. There was a stack of what looked like pieces of enormous broken eggshell next to the pit. The fire was extremely hot, with an orange-red cast to it. The bottom was whitish.

Kesh came back into the circle of light, dropping a final load of shell before sitting down to join the rest of the team. Alwyn nodded at the fire. "Calcium?"

"Seems to be. Calcium and polysaccharides, straight calories. It reduces to calcium carbonate, and that's the white at the bottom. Don't get close, it's fucking hot. I have accelerant down there."

"What is it?"

"The shells of Pharris' beetle habitats. They abandon them sometimes, for whatever reason, and the older ones are dry. I tried the living shells; they burn as well, but there's a waxy coating on the inside that smokes badly and has all kinds of nasty crap in it. You wouldn't want to cook directly with it."

Winra wandered into the firelight and sat down, dropping her sample bag at her feet. She rummaged in it, came up with a chemalyzer and a handful of twig-shaped objects. Checking them, she threw one to each of the others and grinned. Alwyn looked down at his, unsurprised to feel shipfiber and see the small logo stamped onto the covering. Despite the stubborn coarseness of the basic fiber sheet used by the da Gama's laundry and paper synthesizer, the cylinder was neatly rolled with Winra's typical finicky care. He stuck one end in his mouth and fished a lighter out of a cargo pocket, ignited the other end, and took a cautious drag.

The blunt was startlingly smooth. There was a prickly pepper taste, but very little of the normal harshness of uncured weed. "Hey, this is nice."

"Yeah. I found it in a gully about three klicks that way." Winra waved vaguely to the southeast. "It looks like it likes damp and shade. If we believe Snorter here- " she patted the chemalyzer- "it should offer no toxic effects, but several unknown trace longchains which will produce unpredictable effects on the CNS and visual cortex."

There was a general laugh from the team. The chemalyzers were extremely good at detecting toxins, and famously terrible at predicting non-lethal effects of substances on humans. Sebastian raised his eyebrows at Winra, still holding his. "I presume...?"

"Yeah. It's nice."

That was a high recommendation. Winra had used her metabolism and gray matter to filter and sample more exotic chemical compounds than most organic chemistry textbooks had index entries. Alwyn sucked in a less tentative lungful of smoke, coughed once at the unfamiliar tingle, and slid forward off the stone bench to put his back against the warm shape as Pharris began serving various stews and two different roast creatures on smarttrays.

"Can you believe we get paid for this shit?" The daily prayer drew the daily laugh, which unlike most regular jokes never really lost its luster.

Alwyn's wristcomp beeped after a few minutes. He stood up, put his tray on the bench, and jogged back behind his hut. Grabbing the jerrycan whose ready light was glowing green, he returned. Everyone perked up, including Kesh, who had stuck his blunt in a shirt pocket. Survival duties outranked Winra's skullwhack of the week, but Alwyn usually got to be his favorite person around dinnertime.

Handing cups around, Alwyn unsealed the jerrycan and sloshed a few ounces of fluid into each cup before resealing the can and retaking his seat. He raised his own cup in a toast, then sipped. Everyone watched, only half jokingly.

The fluid went down easily, but a moment later the back of his skull lifted three inches, turned completely around, and dropped back roughly onto his head. He felt his eyes water as a greenish, herbal but not overly cloying taste filled his mouth, and he lowered the cup. "Wow."

That was all the others needed. A few minutes later, they were all sitting around the fire, grinning at each other. Even Kesh.

"Sebastian, you find the chieftain's daughter yet?"

Laughter.

"Nah. Nothing. Zip. Zero. Even those things Phar's cooking aren't any fun. Really. I dunno how they reproduce at all, man, but it sure isn't any way I know."

"You mean, no way you can jimmy yourself into the middle of, you sick fuck." Alwyn nudged the jerrican towards Sebastian to take the sting out, and the other grinned dazzlingly through perfect teeth.

"Damn right. I mean, okay, I'm a guy tonight, and there's rocks...flat surfaces, you know. And I'd have a right hand, if it wasn't for Win's wonderweed. But if I flip tomorrow, I'm in real trouble, damn it, nothing on this rock even grows in cucumber shape!"

"Yeh, that sorta sucks. They'll have to ship it all in for the grunts, then."

Kesh snorted and threw another few shells on the fire. "Big deal. So they lose the perv tourist trade."

Sebastian leaned back lazily and grinned at Kesh. "Big deal, indeed. You know how much those fuckers pay? You know what the local concession on the Cteithon Vacmouth booths is on -378w?"

More laughter.

Alwyn finished his cup and cleared his throat. "Okay, okay. So are we cool with reporting, then?" Nods answered him. "All right. I'll call it in. We have a Four, then - Rations, Shine, Substance and Survival all concur, and Rec is just bored."

Sebastian waved a hand. "Not a total loss. I did a quick terrain survey. There's some really, really impressive mountain faces, but they're all concentrated around a single faultline on the other main continent. Still, there's a few multi-klick straight faces. Scenery, climbing, yadda. Dunno about snow, but straight base you should be OK. Might be worth a location survey over there."

Alwyn nodded. "Okay. So there you have it. I'll call it in. Now if only we could rig Personnel and get commissions on the bribes people are gonna pay to get posted to the mines here."

Laughter indicated agreement, and the Mill-Surat-Roe Staff Canteen Survey Insertion Team went to bed.

SciFiQuest 2106!

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