Ocean, Epilogue (F/m-teen, Talk only, SF, Novella)
Epilogue: Five Years Later...
In orbit above HHW-2403.1...
The meeting of two deep space survey vessels outside of dry-dock was a rarity, a once-in-a-decade even in the life of a Starfarer. The convergence of three survey ships in orbit about an un-colonized world was almost unheard of. But, making first contact with a pre-Bronze Age, but undeniably intelligent, tool-using, information trafficking alien civilization was completely unprecedented, so it more than justified the concentration of Starfarer resources in one place. The Sheffield's discovery of intelligent bi-ped race on a previously uncharted world opened an enormous can of ethical, scientific, and simply logistical worms for the Starfarer's Institute to try to untangle. While they waited own a verdict on this end of the hyperlink, the idea was to concentrate all the resources in the sector into a high orbit above the planet, and learn what they could via remote sensing. It also occasioned a chance for the crew of the three vessels to mingle, to congratulate the Sheffield's crew, to celebrate and discuss their incredible find.
Nathaniel finished adjusting his dress blues and looked at himself in the mirror. He couldn't help to wink at the holo of Rebecca in the corner of the mirror. He know what she'd say, "You look smashing," she'd snort, effecting her best high-Earth accent. He turned and left his cabin, making his way to the dining hall, recently expanded to several times its usual size by removing the partitions that separated it from the recreational areas. Such sacrifices where necessary to accommodate a nearly tripling the personnel on board, as the crews of the Thorne and the Wheeler came onboard to join in the celebration. Nathaniel was disappointed that Sheffield had to host; he would have loved to visit Simon on the Thorne. Well, guess that is one of the prices you have to pay for hitting the jackpot, Nathaniel consoled himself. No doubt, the other crews were anxious to stand next to, to actually touch and be holo'ed, the instruments that made the monumental discovery. He knew there would be plenty of time to visit both the Thorne and the Wheeler later. None of the three ships were likely to break orbit for a long time.
The party was already underway when he arrived in the hall. Home-brewed beers from all three ships flowed from an extended manifold of taps hastily installed in the bar. The unparalleled meeting of three survey ships also mandated an unparalleled implementation of the traditional sharing of each ship's home-brewed beverages. It took a minute to overcome the shock of seeing complete strangers mixed with a crew he had shared the same ship with for the last two and a half years. Not all strangers, however. As he scanned the crowd for Simon, he recognized faces he dimly recalled from the Starfarer's School. No doubt, he would be doing a lot of catching up with old acquaintances tonight. But he really wanted to see Simon--they intentionally had not contacted each other in real time since the Thorne showed up in-system. They both were savoring the moment they would see each other in person.
As he moved through the crowd, he heard snippets of conversation:
"Sure, we want to play it conservative, but why such a damn high orbit? We can't do science from up here!"
"But we don't know how good their astronomers are..."
"If they have astronomers down there..."
"These issues should have been worked out years ago, nay, decades, before we ever started sending ships out here. I remember in graduate school writing a review paper on First Contact protocols, and that was more than fifteen years ago..."
"All abstract, until your staring at the real thing..."
Nathaniel licked his lips. These were just the kind of things he loved to argue as he took deep pulls off some other ship's home-brew. He headed to the bar and indiscriminately took the first glass that was served.
"Hey, Snark-fart!" He had only a moment to brace before Simon's backslap nearly splashed half his glass onto his dress blues.
"Watch it, Kraken-crap!" Nathaniel said, barely able to speak though his ear-to-ear grin.
"This is good shit--I don't want to loose a drop before you Thorne-berries drain the Wheeler's tanks dry," he said with a nod to the glass in his hand.
"No worries, mate. We brought our own good shit," Simon said, scanning the bar. His eyes noticeably widened when he saw the array of taps.
"Yeah, were already using it as de-greasing agent--work'n miracles for us," Nathaniel prodded.
"So, have you sold your media rights to the 'Story of the Century' yet? How much'd you get?" Simon shot back.
"Look, if you School boys are done towel-snapping each other, we'd appreciate some introductions here," said a distinguished looking man with a trim, silver beard and crest of gray hair, probably mid-fifties (unmodified) by Nathaniel's best estimate. Another woman and a man, both between the distinguished man and Nathaniel and Simon's age, flanked him.
"Of course, of course. Dr. Schell, this is my friend I was telling you about." The next five minutes were consumed with elaborate introductions. Simon's companions comprised the senior scientific staff from the Thorne. Simon brought them to the party in tow under the guarantee that he had "connections" on the Sheffield.
"Nathaniel, let me congratulate you, on behalf of all of us, on a truly remarkable discovery," Schell said formally.
"Dr. Schell, really, it is ours, the discovery is all of ours," Nathaniel replied, resisting the temptation to take a sip of his beer. "When we loose someone on a survey, we don't eulogize by saying we lost him while measuring the opacity of the ionosphere of NHHW-2234.1. We say we lost someone as part of our expansion into the Universe, and celebrate his life, and death, as such. We should show the same magnanimity in our discoveries, our triumphs, as well."
"Hmm...bright young man this is," Schell said to his colleagues, with a nod toward Nathaniel. Nathaniel was thinking how fortunate he was to get a chance to use the Captain-proscribed "victory for all of us" shtick before it became the tired clich that it was sure to become before the night was out.
Schell continued: "Not to cast a pall on the moment, but I suspect you are going to spend the rest of you life lamenting that you made such a find so young. The capstone of a career is best made at the end, not the beginning."
"Well, don't feel sorry for ol' Nat here. He has been making breakthroughs since before getting his seat Outbound."
The woman, Dr. Lehrner, who had been silently staring at Nathaniel intently, too intently, for the last five minutes, finally spoke, "I knew it! I just knew I had seen you before. Well, not in person, but your holo appeared at the end of the article. The article where you reported finding the Kaa on Ocean...the electro-snakes. You looked so impossibly young!"
"That was you?" the other scientist, Dr. Bloche, asked incredulously. "I thought it was apocryphal that Kaa was discovered by a kid during his Year Out. Some myth they tell the cadets back in School, just to get them fired up."
"Indeed, it was Nathaniel," Simon was manifestly beaming with pride now. "Found the top the of Ocean food chain: the Snark-slayer....electric eels that generated their own incredibly high voltage field to manipulate the metal-salt-ionized water around them."
"Well, then," Dr. Schell said, again exuding the sense of the moment, "it is a doubly great honor to meet you. And I apologize for my earlier, now obviously patronizing, comments. And I'll even forgive mixing the Kipling and the Carroll allusions. You are clearly no stranger to navigating through momentous discoveries."
Nathaniel caught Simon roll his eyes, conveying: "Yes, he really is a pompous ass!"
"Nathaniel, if you don't mind my asking," Dr. Lehrner was pressing toward him. "Well, how did you do it? I mean, everyone had given up on finding another major species on Ocean, much less a new phylum."
"Well, as it happened," Nathaniel gave a knowing glace to Simon, "as part of my Year Out, I had to complete a term of study on local ecology. For my term project, I decided to look one more time at the Snarks: why were they so big, so fast, so damn smart? Tired questions that had been chewed on for years. My only contribution was just decoupling those question. They were fast, because they had to get away from something. They were big because, whatever they were trying to get away from was small, so if they did get caught, they had sheer mass on their side. They had to be smart, to know which strategy to pursue, to survive. Natural selection was pushing them in three, seemingly contrary directions at once. So, just from the available data on Snarks, I constructed a model for what must have been hunting them, killing them, selecting them. When I joined the Oceanographers for the second half of my Year Out, it was easy to tune the sensor arrays on the subs and scaphs to look for what I had in mind: something only a meter or so long, but fast, ultafast, almost as fast as the supercavitating submarines."
"Fascinating," Drs. Lehrner and Bloche said, almost simultaneously. Nathaniel glanced to Simon, grateful for that fact that his friend let him tell the story, which he had probably sat through dozens of times by now, without interrupting. Simon's return look was just to acknowledge that the venerated doctors were not the most exciting companions for the bash.
For a moment, the doctors just nodded in appreciation for Nathaniel's work.
"Funny thing was, ol' Nat got a B- on that original term paper!" Simon chimed in.
Nathaniel felt his cheeks burn. Simon really had not changed a bit, he concluded. Dr. Schell dismissed Simon's infantile behavior with a snort.
"But a discovery not without some danger, I recall," she pressed on for more details.
"Well, yes, the Kaa's could almost penetrate a supersub's hull," Simon explained quickly, trying to re-establish his participation on a sober note. "Which does make for some interesting stories, but ones best told over a full glass, and I see Nat's is empty. If you'll excuse me a moment, I'll rectify the situation."
As Simon left for the bar, Dr. Bloche pressed in closer to Nathaniel; the commotion of the party was really starting to pick up.
"Ocean," Bloche said, clearly savoring the word. "I seem to recall some unusual local customs. Something about still believing in corporal punishment of children, if I'm not mistaken. A real outcast on the Universal Charter of Children's Rights with that one, I can tell you, yes?"
Dr. Lehrner came to Nathaniel's reprieve: "Oh, Gerald, please! No politics tonight!" Nathaniel scanned the bar for Simon, thankful to see he was still waiting far back in the queue. Hopefully, Nathaniel could steer the conversation to, well, anywhere away from here before Simon got back and started recounting their shared experiences.
"I really don't think Nathaniel should have to defend some colony world's local color and customs," Dr. Lehrner said, continuing as his champion. "He was just there for his Year Out, after all."
"Precisely. The point of the Year Out is to have to learn to adapt to local culture, develop an appreciation for all those little differences that make our little sector of the Galaxy such a 'rich tapestry,' yes?" Dr. Bloche looked down his long nose at Dr. Lehrner. "Just checking to see that the Institute got its money's worth from his Year Out."
"I think with a new phylum, we definitely go our money's worth," Dr. Schell interjected coolly.
"Well, I can tell you I definite got the full dose, the full treatment, of everything Ocean has to offer," Nathaniel said knowingly as he was vague.
"And? Comments, assessments?" Dr. Bloche was pushing toward him so close Nathaniel was tempted to take a giant step backwards.
Nathaniel took a moment to collect his thoughts. That one glass was already starting to cast a haze over his thinking; he guessed he should have checked the alcohol content before he started pouring back untried home-brew.
"I would have to say..." Nathaniel said, glancing back and forth between Bloche and Lehrner. "The only thing I can say," Nathaniel started again, "is that Ocean is not a bad place to spend your Year Out. In fact, there are probably a lot worse places."
"Hmp," Dr. Lehrner said as punctuation to Nathaniel's assessment. "I'll certainly consider that when my daughter graduates from Starfarer's next spring and has to put in preferences for her Year. She could stand to have her attitude taken down a peg or two. A year on a rough 'n tumble colony world should do that, I'd think."
Nathaniel nodded, and took another pull from his empty glass. "Change the damn topic..." his mind screamed.
Despite Nathaniel's best efforts, Dr. Bloche was hell-bent on Ocean-lore. He leaned in between Nathaniel's and Dr. Lehrner's ears as if to whisper, but instead said loudly, "Do you recall that story about the kid who was on Ocean for his Year Out, and ended up jumping in that damn frigid water after a sub that was dropped overboard off a research vessel or some such damn thing? Apparently, the story goes, even though he saved the sub and a 'grapher's life, he still got so much trouble that..."
A cold glass rubbed against Nathaniel's right hand, which clasp by his left hand behind his back. He turned to see Simon delicately balancing four more glasses in his other hand, gesturing wildly with his eyes.
"What are we talking about?" he asked, passing the glasses out to his colleagues without spilling a drop. Nathaniel gave a quick glance, and thankfully everyone seemed too preoccupied with their drinks to answer.
"Just how good are their astronomers, down there?" Nathaniel said quickly while pointed to the floor, but referring of course to the planet they were orbiting. He knew he had scant moments to preempt all three of his esteemed guests as they chimed glasses into each other as a toast. "I mean, why are we confined to such a damn high orbit, anyway?"
Four hours and eight glasses later, Nathaniel returned to his cabin. He stripped off his dress blues, moist with perspiration and spilled beer, and leaned into his tiny closet-sized bathroom. For a moment, he though about leaning over the toilet and pouring out the entire night's drink, or at least a good portion of it, back out through the same orifice he had ingested it with. He knew he would be thankful he did so in the morning. Instead, he just splashed a little cold water on his face, and looked at himself long and hard in the mirror. Five years since he left Earth, and twenty more to go in the career of a Starfarer. The things he would see...
He leaned out of the bathroom and plopped onto the ottoman at the foot of his bunk and, in the same motion, opened the cabinet below his bunk. He retrieved a bottle of twenty year porto and a small glass. "What the hell," he thought. No matter what time the chronometer said when he woke up the next morning, he new the first word out of his mouth was going to be, "Goddamn!" So, what the hell, indeed!
He poured a glass and returned the bottle to the cabinet. He saw a rectangular box, whose surface was violet in color and a soft, crushed velvet. He seized the box impulsively, balancing it on his lap as carefully as he balanced the glass of port in his hand. The lid had a small inscription: "To My Starfarer..."
He lifted the cover way to reveal tissue paper inside. Although he had opened the box a few times before, the tissue paper was hardly wrinkled. A small card inside, a piece of thick vellum, was written in script. He picked up the card, and carefully pealed back the tissue to reveal a single, oversized, rubber-soled slipper, the kind worn in hospitals and medical centers. A tag attached to one shoelace was printed, in block letters, "BEHAVE !" He took a strong pull of porto, and let the warmth diffuse out, into his mouth, then down his throat and up, into his nasal passages and sinuses.
He returned his attention to the card. He turned it over and read the script: "Go Far, Go Fast, Be Good... Love, Sarah."
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