Holly stared up at the elevator. It was half a mile across, a thick, semitransparent tube of hardened nanostuff, rising countless miles into the atmosphere to connect with the space platform.
She'd been in space many times, but this was it. She was going on a mission. Terraforming, exploration, the usual stuff. It was what she'd been training for all her 24 years.
Once inside, she stood on the viewing balcony of the pod. Just past the manufactured diamond window, super cooled gasses fell in lazy waves between the pod and the tube. Behind her, several hundred people also going into space were bustling about, getting food, finding seats to sit in for the journey up, chatting. Some were nervous, greenhorns that'd never been in zero-g, but most were as used to going into space as driving a ground car.
There was a slight hum and the pod began to rise. The tube was essentially the barrel of large, low powered rail gun. I mass driver that propelled the passengers upwards on magnetic fields, and, at the halfway point, they'd begin to slow down as they came to a gradual stop at the low orbit platform.
Holly watched the ground falling slowly away beneath her. Patches of green amidst a sea of gray buildings and brown earth. The dry spots were being re-cultivated, trying to return earth's ecosystem to a level of health that hadn't been known since the 1800's. Holly pressed her hand to the window as the land fell away. It wasn't that she'd never see earth again, she was contracted for a two-year mission in the black, but the relative time difference was staggering. Sure, advances in space travel had diminished it, but by the time she got back, 70 years would have passed. More, if they ended up delayed, or traveling somewhere off route. Holly had no family left, which was probably why she joined up, but the thought that Earth would be completely different when she got home was terrifying. She couldn't even guess how it would change. A debate still raged on the mother planet as to whether they'd be able to fix the damage done by countless generations of careless mining, logging, and drilling. The global water table was so depleted that a full third of space-going missions were simply to bring more clean H20 to aid the re-cultivating efforts.
Holly felt the undeniable pang of loss as the view became blurry. She'd never see her home as she knew it again. Suddenly they were through the atmospheric barrier, and the blue sky began fading to black with the bright pinpricks of stars. Holly's view suddenly resolved into her own reflection in the perfect diamondoid window. She was 5'5", fairly lithe, for an earth-born girl. Her skin was flawless, free of moles or freckles, and pale as porcelain, although that was common in these days of space travel. Her bubble-gum pink lips were soft and dry. Her eyes were light green and very clear, perched above her fine, slightly pointed nose. Hair so blonde that it looked bleached, although it wasn't, clung to her head in short, tight curls. Long hair wasn't really a luxury one could afford in zero g, it flowed around to much and mucked up everything.
Holly turned and settled her narrow waist and hips into an unoccupied seat. Her smallish, b-cup breasts rose and fell gently as her breathing slowed. The view of the stars lulled her into a calm sleep.
"Well fuck you too!" Holly screamed. She wrapped her fingers around the bracing bar of the bulkhead and heaved the hatch of quarters closed. It didn't slam as loudly as she would have liked, but with no gravity, the leverage was hard to find.
She caught one last view of Amos on the other side of the glass, grabbing at some of his possessions she'd thrown out the door at after him. Sliding the privacy blind shut, she spun quickly and kicked off the wall, floating to her bunk. She gathered up her pillow in her arms and buried her face in it, sobbing. The sleep netting clung gently to her, preventing her from flying out of her bed as she rotated slowly, quietly crying.
Her romance with Amos had been whirlwind. He was the ships third in command. Dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a strong, athletic build. He had welcomed her onto the ship, and within a week she was sleeping with him. He was funny and charming; smooth as silk when he talked. She heard rumors, that he had a bit of reputation as a lady-killer, but she didn't care. The sex was great, not fantastic, but still pretty good. She'd grown to love him mostly as someone to have next to her. Space had a lonely feel to it, sound didn't seem to travel as well, it was always a little colder than you'd like it to be, and just having someone there next to you became very important very quickly.
Then, all the sudden, he was distant, unavailable more often. It all blew up that morning in her quarters. He said they were too close, and out of the blue started saying that it was inappropriate for them to see each other. He said it was wrong, what with him outranking her so much. This was bullshit and she knew it. She was part of the terraforming tech team. They were practically autonomous from the rest of the ship, and Amos was in a different chain of command than her entirely.
The worst thing was she knew where he was now. Probably already going down to engineering to hit on Michelle, another newbie to long-haul work. As she curled up into a ball, Holly felt awful. There was a hollow pit in her stomach, that horrible pain that came with knowing you'd been used for your body, and that you'd been wanted for nothing more than sex.
Holly was in the science bay, cataloging the Muir Bombs. Each one of them had the stuff of life wrapped up inside. A single pod could be dropped on an undeveloped world, provided it had the right mixture of minerals and gasses already present, and, in about a hundred standard years, the concentrated amino acids, genetic material, and accelerators would churn out a healthy, earth-like planet. Not entirely earth-like, of course. This was no space age Noah's Ark, filled with the specific DNA of horses, cats, and dogs. All it would do is get the ball rolling. In a hundred and fifty years, when the first settlement ship touched down, they'd be in a new world, with a breathable atmosphere and full of protein-based life. Anything more than that was up to chaos, chance, and the particular balance of elements preexisting on the world in question.
Seven months in, and they'd already dropped four of the things, and had a store of 16 more, although they weren't planning on dropping all of them.
There wasn't any real need to be counting them and rechecking the serial numbers, but for the terra-techs, there was very little else to do on the long journeys between target planets. Amos came in when she'd finished checking them, and began to bother her.
"C'mon," he was saying, "We should go and eat sometime. Let's have dinner tonight at the commissary." He was saying it in that smooth voice of his, that self-assured tone that dared you to call him on all of his bull.
"Aren't you seeing someone? Michelle?" Holly replied, refusing to look up from the diagnostics she'd started the pods on.
"Not a date, we should just still be friends," he said. She couldn't see it, but she could hear the charming smile in his voice.
"C'mon, don't be like that," Amos said, taking her elbow in his hand.
She shrugged him of viciously and turned the motion into a quick, weightless spin to look him in the eye. "Is there anything I can help with in terraforming, Commander?" She enunciated his rank harshly, throwing his excuse for dumping her a month earlier in his face.
He blanched visibly and tried to regain his composure. "No, no thank you."
"Then please leave," Holly said. "I'm very busy."
Amos turned stiffly and floated out the door. Holly breathed a sigh of relief. He just wanted her to like him so he could make her his fuck buddy, and damn if she was gonna let him do that. She felt more contempt for him now than anything else.
"Attention, all hands," came the captain's voice over the intercom. "We have received a distress signal from a Delnori shuttle, and will be changing course to rendezvous and assist. There will be an increased time-debt because of our course change, and all pay will be adjusted accordingly."
Holly sighed and began floating back to her quarters. Although the extra pay was a plus, she honestly didn't care about not getting back to earth for a few extra relative years. She had no one. No one there, no one here, no one. All in all, since losing Amos, she'd begun to fell quite depressed. Joining up had seemed such a great idea, but now, as much as she loved space, she just found herself feeling more and more alone, with too much time in her own thoughts.
As she reached her quarters, she started thinking about the Delnori. She'd met a few, in her time. The Delnori were a space-faring race, the only intelligent extraterrestrial life known to exist. They come upon earth just as we were beginning our first steps out of the solar system and offered us their aid. They were strikingly similar to humans in appearance. They were taller, true, lithe bodies from a slow adaptation to space travel over countless thousands of years. Their skin was typically blue, running through a spectrum between purple and a sea-blue green so light they could almost pass for human. They had flexible bodies, bones weakened by space travel but strengthened through genetic engineering until they were flexible and pliant, capable of bending when it was desired but also growing rigid when the cords of ropy muscle was tightened around them. They had also adapted a sort of sticky pad on their hands and feet, allowing them to move about their ships on the walls with an ease that made humans floating around their bulkheads look like a comical ballet.
Their faces were undeniably human in appearance. Genetically, they also had a lot in common. Some radicals theorized that humans had not evolved from apes, but were in fact evolved from a downed Delnori spacecraft that had landed on earth eons ago. They backed this claim up using pictures of blue-skinned Indian gods. This theory was widely ridiculed by both cultures, but it was largely accepted that somewhere, somehow in the distant past, Delnori DNA had gotten mixed up with earth, and had some small contribution to the evolution of man. In some circles, the Delnori were nicknamed "The Fathers of Man." In other, less refined circles, they were called Twisters, for their flexible bodies.
Holly did not watch the rescue, though it wasn't much of a rescue, really. They pulled alongside the graceful Delnori shuttle in their bulky, earth-designed craft, and used their guidance thrusters to nudge over, pulling the powerless pod into an open, empty storage bay.
Holly first met the Delnori when she was on shift in the terraforming lab. Her CO, Lieutenant Naidu, came in with the alien. Naidu was a dark skinned woman with long, braided hair which she kept under control by weaving wire into it, an innovation she'd once hoped to patent, before discovering that she was not the first to think of it.
The alien was tall, nearly seven feet, though he was so thin and willowy you wouldn't think it. Also, since he was shoeless and sticking to the floor with his bare feet, while everyone else was hovering a few feet off of it, the height difference was largely offset. He had blue skin the color of a clear summer sky deepening into night. His hair was black, about three inches long , and hung in the air about his head in a way that seemed to float even more than zero-gravity warranted. He was wearing a shimmering skin tight, sleeveless uniform from neck to ankle. It was a dark black, but with a sea green highlight to it. His insignia was marked on his bare shoulder in a nano-pigment that could be reprogrammed by his commanding officer in the event of a promotion. His eyes were a crystal clear blue, sharper and more piercing than any human gaze could be. The truly offsetting thing was how human his face was. He had blue skin, he was unnaturally tall, and his eyes were so fierce they were unmistakably alien, but his face, the features, the distance between and placement of eyes, nose and mouth, was very human.
"Holly," Naidu said, "This is Delnori Raftik."
Holly stuck out her hand in greeting, and slight smile played across the aliens lips. "We do not shake," he said in a crisply perfect english. "Our hands stick. Humans often find it... disconcerting." He then bowed, turning his head slightly to the left as he did so. Holly tried to reciprocate, but found it difficult to do in zero gravity. In the end, she had to settle for brief, almost Japanese head nod. Delnori Raftik did not seem to mind her halfway bow.
"Raftik is a member of the Delnori shaping guild," Holly nodded. She'd heard of the guild. They were Delnori equivalent of terraformers. Their job was to find low-gravity worlds that the Delnori could stand without being crushed by the weight, and see to it that the atmosphere was adapted to breathable air. The Delnori had no intention of settling these worlds, but it was beneficial to them to have supplies of minerals and building material other than that which was mined off of asteroids and water which was more plentiful than that scavenged from meteors. The work was largely done by robots, but there was always a small crew of dedicated overseers. Those among the Delnori who were willing to put up with the discomfort of gravity in order to serve their people were highly revered.
"Raftik is interested in seeing our terraforming operation. He hopes to learn from our technology," Naidu continued.
For a moment Holly couldn't speak. This was not her first time meeting an alien, but it was her first time speaking to one, and it took her a second to get over the knowledge that she speaking to something other than a human. "I can't see how we could have anything to teach him," she eventually stammered out. "Your people have been doing this much longer than we have, and your devices work much quicker than our own."
"You are very kind," Raftik said. "But ours do little more than alter the atmosphere. Your Muir bombs are capable of creating a whole ecosystem. Though it is not technology we are likely to use, as a scientist I find it fascinating."
"Holly," Naidu said. "I'd like you to help Delnori Raftik. Show him around, answer his questions, you know."
Holly was stunned. "Lieutenant, may I speak to you in private?" Holly asked.
Naidu raised an eyebrow but complied. The Delnori went to inspect the rack of Muir bombs, leaning over to get a closer look. Holly noticed that he didn't so much bend at the waist as he did form a gentle, even curve from his feet to his neck. It was an intriguing motion to watch.
"What's the problem, Holly?" Naidu asked.
"You want me to do this?" Holly asked.
"That's what I said, isn't it?"
"But, I'm just an ensign, this is my first mission!"
"Holly," Naidu said, "I like you. You're very smart and great at your job. I've been eyeing you for a field promotion. Now, this is the perfect opportunity to see if you're good at anything other than just the science. I can't think of a better test of your people skills than shepherding an alien around the ship. And maybe you'll learn something about their technology too. Any way you look at it, this is a great opportunity." Naidu leaned forward and put her hands on Holly's shoulders. "Besides," she said in a warm, almost maternal tone, "You've seemed a little mopey since everything with that Amos jerk ended. I thought this might be a nice chance for you to get your mind off of that for a while. Okay?"
Holly nodded her head. "Thank you, ma'am."
When she came over to where Raftik was standing, he was eyeing the plasma display set into each of the Muir bombs.
"This is a diagnostic?" he asked.
"Yes," Holly said. "I just ran a check this morning, so this screen is showing the latest full scan information."
"And this, here?" he asked, pointing at a smaller window within the live display.
"That's just basic information. Whether the payload is intact, current external temperature, and power supply."
"I am sorry for the questions," Raftik said, "But I cannot read your language."
"No apology is necessary, you speak it well enough," Holly answered.
"My father was a diplomat to your people."
Holly was surprised. There were only a few diplomats to between the two races, some at earth, and few others in major traffic areas throughout the neighboring systems. "Where was he posted?" she asked.
Raftik cocked his head. "Earth. I was raised in the high-orbit embassy station."
Holly was impressed. "No wonder you speak english so well."
"I am fluent in several other earth languages as well," he said. There was a pause. "I'm sorry," he said again. "That may have sounded like boasting."
"No," Holly said, it wasn't.
"There was a certain level of enforced politeness as I was growing, and the etiquette has stayed with me."
"It's fine," Holly said, smiling. "You just don't have to apologize for everything, okay?"
"Okay," Raftik replied. "I am sorry for apologizing too often." He smiled, his teeth incongruously bright and white against his blue skin.
Holly realized he'd made a joke, and laughed.
They were velcroed in the commissary at an unoccupied table. The com was divided into velcro and stick-stuff lined tables and chairs, so that people could stick themselves, and their food, somewhere relatively stable. Holly was eating an unidentifiable food out of a package, and Raftik had a squeeze-bulb of some semi-liquid Delnori foodstuff that he occasionally sucked on.
There were many others in the com, but no one disturbed them. There a few odd looks, people who did not know much about aliens, but most were content to ignore him. They talked quietly and happily, until Amos showed up.
He was posturing the second he was in the door. He saw Holly and the Delnori, and made a beeline for their spot.
"Holly!" he said more cheerfully than he had any right to, "Who's your friend?"
"This is Delnori Raftik," she replied. She could already tell that Amos was just there to get in the good graces of their well-bred alien visitor. Among his character faults other than womanizing, Amos could be a terrible sycophant and disgustingly ambitious.
She could tell from the expression on Raftik's face that he did not appreciate the sudden intrusion of this gregarious and loud human.
Amos extended his open hand.
"They don't shake, Amos," Holly said.
Amos looked between them and then back at his hand, which Raftik was eyeing with considerable distaste.
Amos retracted his hand guiltily. Holly noticed he wiped it on his suit-leg uncomfortably, and it pleased her to think that he was already flop-sweating with nervous tension.
"Well," Amos said, trying to recover. "What brings you to our ship?"
Raftik's eyes seemed annoyed. "Mine is broken."
"Oh, oh, of course," Amos said. He laughed, then stopped when he realized Raftik was not making a joke.
"Well," he said again, looking for some conversational life-raft. "Well."
Neither Holly nor Raftik said anything. Amos looked to Holly, pleading in his eyes, but she just smiled icily at him and let him twist.
"A pleasure meeting you," Amos said finally, and turned to leave.
Holly put her face in her hands. "I'm sorry for him," she said.
Raftik cocked his head to the side in a very human affectation that Holly now knew was widely popular amongst the Delnori.