User:Jetfire/Slow Boat

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Works by Jetfire on Shifti

Slow Boat to Zharus

Author: Jetfire , Jon Buck

Slow Boat to Zharus

Leaving Earth

University of Calgary, September 2320

Adam Teal crawled under the bed, carefully plugging cords into the lone outlet of the room, located behind the bed. He slid back out and wiped the sweaty dirty blond hair from his eyes. He was in his middle teens, helping his sister move into her university room. The window of the third floor dormitory was open with a fan propped against it, trying to offset the hot dry late summer weather.

"There, done Trace. How old is this place? One outlet for an entire dorm room?"

"Supposedly it dates from the TwentyFirst," his older sister said. "I think they divided the room to make two, and the other half got all the power."

Adam studied the room layout and the wall to the next room. "Yeah that makes sense. Not sure it's legal but it makes sense."

They both looked over as their parents came in with more boxes.

"These are the last of them. Where do you want this one?" their father, Colin, asked.

"That one says kitchen, so put it with the rest, Dad," Tracy said.

Colin placed it in the rest of the small pile in the single room dorm and slumped against the wall, wiping his forehead. Adam offered a bottle of water that he took gratefully.

"Are you sure you want to stay? After Boston and Atlanta...." Darlene asked. The mother started half heartedly sorting the boxes and loading up the desk.

"The government is saying we have to stay normal. Don't give in to the rebels. This is all part of normalcy," Colin tried to reassure his wife. "Besides, all the nuts are out east. No one would dare do anything out here."

"Still, it's so far away. We've never been separated like this."

"Except all those summers Adam and I have been to camp," Tracy pointed out. She closed a drawer and hugged her mother. "I'll be fine... we'll be fine. It's not even an hour by rail between here and Edmonton."

"A lot can happen in an hour," Darlene noted. She hugged back, then turned away, opening another box. "Adam, this is all wires. Can you sort this out?"

"More wires? Where do they all come from?" He got up and started rummaging. "We might need another power bar...."

The family went through the motions hundreds of other families were going through across the campus, moving sons and daughters into new homes. Later year students were on hand, ready to help and to give advice. Everyone tried to act normal, but the underlying strain was obvious. Security was extra alert, checking every vehicle, and spot checking every room.

A few hours of unpacking and organizing later, Colin threw in the towel. "Right, we're all starving, and we have to give Walmart their pound of flesh. Let's go. Is there a place you want to eat at Tracy?"

"I've heard there's a good grill place a few blocks away, in the Western Centre's parking lot. There's a Walmart there too so we can handle it all there."

"Great, Adam, shut it down, we'll finish when we get back. Let's go."

Dinner was a tense affair. By unspoken agreement, talk of the rebellion out east, and the lost cities was forbidden. The remaining subjects could do little to hide the strain the family was going through. The table was silent by the end of dinner. Colin paid the bill and they escaped to the van and a quick trip across the parking lot to the department store.

"Remember, we're just here for Tracy," Darlene reminded the family as they grabbed a cart. "Anything you need or think you'll need, let us know, dear."

"I know mom," Tracy said. "We made the list and checked it twice."

"Gonna find out if you're naughty or nice?" Adam asked, smirking and getting an arm punch from his sister. "I'm gonna hang out in electronics. Ping me if you need me," he said, making his escape.

A half hour later, he was one of the first to see the breaking news. He was boredly checking out some of the tablets, when the air was filled with urgent chirping. Everyone's phone was ringing urgently with a message. Some people took their devices out, but most noticed the screens on the back wall were updating. The streaming media was interrupted, showing the raised fist of the Rebellion.

This is not a drill! The Corporate overlords have grown fat for far too long off the backs of the working class. Rise up! Take control. You have more power than you know!

Power to the People! The Rebellion has come to the West! Edmonton, Calgary, Boise, Helena, Salt Lake City. Your time of reckoning has come.Join us! Overthrow the oppressors! Or join them as the light of the new world. It's your choice.

The screen flickered again, and switched to the police emergency symbol. A voice came on the air, trying to encourage calmness, but no one was listening. Adam gulped and started running back to the school supplies section where he'd last seen his family.

"Where is he?" Darlene asked, standing on her tiptoes and scanning the crowd. "We should never have let him go alone."

"He'll find us. He wouldn't leave the store," Colin reassured his wife. He was hiding his own nervousness and trying to decide what to do. About half the people were already streaming to the exit, alarms beeping as they left without paying. The other half were starting to grab supplies.

"Everyone stay close and keep your eyes open. We need to get to the grocery section and load up. Water, canned food, things that will endure and are sealed," he decided at last. "We're going to get out of here, but we'll be smart about it."

"But what about Adam? He's alone..."

"He's in the store, he'll find us. Guard the cart and grab a second if you can find one. We have the space in the car and we'll want supplies. Hopefully it's just a fake alarm...."

Everyone knew what the rebel's message meant; Atlanta had received a similar warning, listing a number of cities in the region. Only Atlanta had mushroomed, but nukes were discovered in some of the others. This warning, hitting so close to home, was not one to be ignored.

"Which way will we go?" Tracy asked as they threaded the crowd to the grocery section. "Edmonton was listed too."

"West, into the mountains," Colin said without hesitation. "It's the only way we can go. The city will be a madhouse so we can't go south or east. And Edmonton is listed, so north is out. West is the only way to go. Maybe if we stay on the old roads, it won't be as bad."

"Mom! Dad!" Adam shouted from the other end of the aisle. He ran down and hugged his mother as the family reunited. "The comms are locked down. I couldn't find you. I began to worry you might have left...."

"We'd never leave without you," Darlene comforted him, returning the hug.

Colin looked relieved himself to see his son, but kept pushing down the aisle, grabbing bundles of bottled water. The cart registered the new items automatically, building a total.

"This is too slow," he admitted to himself, trying to gently push past another near-panicked family. "We need to split up."

"What? No! We need to stay together!" Darlene resisted.

"It's taking too long. Tracy and I will grab another cart, and we'll head to sports and get some camping gear, just in case. You and Adam finish stocking food, then hit the pharmacy area, get some of the generic stuff and first aid kits. Guard the cart, don't let anyone take anything out, and we'll meet over there when we're done."

"Are you sure, Dad? It's getting crazy in here," Tracy noted. They could hear arguments starting the next aisle over.

"Not sure, but it's all we can do. Don't worry about costs, just load up and we can get out of here. Thank goodness I topped the car off while we were unpacking."

It took the family an hour to finish stocking up for the apocalypse. After the first wave of people made their escape, the store got increasingly crowded as more people rushed in for supplies of their own. The workers for the most part could only stand by and watch as the store was stripped. Many of them were caching their own supplies and seemed on the verge of escaping as soon as they could find an opening. More than a few times, the family had to guard their carts to keep their own supplies from being looted. Due to their early start they managed to get most of what they needed and snuck out a ringing fire door instead of the main entrance. Out of habit, Colin tried to pay via the cart network, but the screen remained blank.

They loaded up the van as fast as they could, and left the carts in the empty spot next to the vehicle. A few minutes later, they joined the mob of vehicles inching along the streets of western Calgary.

"We shouldn't have done the shopping," Darlene lamented, glancing around as they crawled through the streets. "We should have left right away."

"We didn't lose that much time. And this way we're ready. Kids, dig a blanket out and cover up as much as you can back there. No sense in advertising what we have."

Colin kept his eyes on the TraCon system and the road ahead. Traffic Control was clearly straining trying to cope with the volume of traffic as the city tried to evacuate. The smaller streets were left to manual control while the automated system tried to keep the main arteries flowing.

"Dad, shouldn't we be trying to cross the river? The highways are all on the other side," Tracy asked.

"I know, I know. But the highways are too crammed right now. I'm trying to stay on the older roads. Maybe once we get out of the city we can cross," Colin said. He spotted an opening and pulled out onto a slightly bigger road, slamming on the brakes right after. Behind them, horns honked angrily.

Adam looked up through the moonroof. "That's a lot of planes," he noted.

"Probably helping evacuate. The old airport is just over there," Tracy said. "It doesn't do commercial flights, but it's still busy for private and corporate use."

Adam nodded, looking around worriedly as they joined the millions of people trying to leave the city.

Canmore was normally about an hours drive away from the city. For the Teals, they didn't get there until after midnight. Traffic was heavy, but it was still crawling. Colin worried their luck was about to run out. Past Canmore, the tertiary route they were following joined with the ancient Trans Canada Highway. While not the main route through the mountains anymore, it was still a major route, and he could already see the long line of nearly motionless headlights ahead. Colin decided it would be wise to top up before merging into that mess.

Colin pulled into Mike's Charge Bar, and joined the line waiting for a charge station. "Why don't you guys get out, stretch your legs and use the washroom. I'll stay with the car," he suggested.

"Sure dad," Adam said, climbing out with the rest of the family. "You want anything inside?"

"I'll be good. Stay together, it looks busy."

As noted, the restaurant and store were packed with people. The store shelves were stripped bare, and a worker was trying to move them to the side to make more room. The line to the women's washroom snaked all around the store between aisles, and even the men's room had a moderate line.

"Looks like the shortest line in the place is for the restaurant," Tracy noted.

"Take out only," a worker said, overhearing her. "We're trying to serve everyone as fast as we can."

Adam eyed the various lines and pointed to the takeout line. "Why don't I get us something to eat? I don't really have to go right now, and I can just as easily go on the side of the road later."

"It'll probably be the last time we'll have a chance for a hot major meal for a long time," Tracy noted agreeing with Adam. She and their mother told Adam what they wanted and what they thought Colin would want, and the family split to join the various lines.

While waiting, everyone was keeping an eye on the news streams being shown on screens around the building. The news stations in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer were offline, as their reporters were evacuated. Instead, stations from Fort Mac and Lethbridge were covering as best they could. Despite the evacuation efforts, many reporters from the shut down stations were stuck in traffic still in the city, so they were able to call in and give personal updates on the evacuation they were in the middle of.

To the south west, the ten lane Rocky Mountain Highway was completely clogged. The military had turned nine of the lanes west bound, and was trying to keep a lane and shoulder clear for east bound traffic towards Calgary; but it was a losing battle. Breakdowns and crashes were causing further issues, making it impossible for anyone to make progress.

Regularly, between traffic reports and evacuation reports, the streams switched to a station view. The anchors would solemnly describe ringed diagrams centred on the two large cities, explaining the expected damage zones based on Boston and Atlanta, and what to do if you were in a zone when the nuke went off. Canmore was theoretically in the safe zone, but it was little solace.

Adam reached the head of the line and placed his order. "You going to try to get away?" he asked the cashier.

"Nope. No point. If Cowtown goes up, I should be safe here. No point in joining the mobs on the road," she said. "We'll keep you guys fed and powered as long as we can; do our parts to help out."

"Thank you," he replied. "We just got out; we're from Leduc, but we were dropping my sister off. She's still with us."

"That's good. Stay together. You going to try and swing back up there?"

"Hard to say. We might just keep pushing to BC till the clear is given." He stopped, hearing a cheer go up. The news was interrupting itself, with news from Salt Lake City; a nuclear device had been found and disarmed. The mood lifted a bit, though not by much. Nukes had been disarmed in Nashville and Charlotte before Atlanta went off. One found now didn't mean the other cities were safe.

"Good luck," Adam said. "Hopefully we find the rest."

"Same to you. Be safe out there."

Colin got his family back on the road as soon as he could. They merged onto the ancient Trans-Canada highway, and joined the massive amount of traffic crawling along, thankful that it was actually crawling. Colin watched the wall of darkness ahead, willing the mountains closer to protect them. Adam and Tracy were tracking the news in the backseat.

"Helena was a dud," Adam announced. "They're reasonably confident there's nothing there."

"Of course there's nothing there. Who the hell even knows where it is, let alone would want to nuke it?" Tracy said.

"Maybe Salt Lake was the only one. They've tightened up border controls since the fighting started out east; getting devices out here would be difficult," Darlene noted. She twisted in her seat to look back at her kids. She gasped, being the first to see a new dawn light up the eastern horizon.

"Shit!" Colin cursed, swerving the car to the side of the road. "Everyone get down!" he shouted, slamming the car into park and turning it off.

Around them, some drivers tried to speed up. Others did like Colin and pulled off. Many simply froze in shock. The sounds of car crashes filled the air even as the sky brightened to the east. Colin waited long enough to make sure the kids were ducked down before he too crouched lower, not sure if it was needed, but not taking any chances. He was thankful to see a few more cars pull in and stop behind him, giving him that much more protection from wild drivers.

The family waited for an eternity. Occasionally a head would peek out to check on the situation, but few people wanted to speak. The glow peaked, then faded away, but still they waited. Canmore was dark behind them, its own power gone.

"I... I was watching a Cowtown reporter, and it just stopped," Adam said quietly, the events still sinking in. "One minute he was reporting on the evacuation from near the stampede grounds, the next, nothing...."

"Are we safe, dad?" Tracy asked, hugging her brother.

Colin peeked, looking around. "I don't know. It depends on the winds and how big it was. The foothills and distance should protect us I think. Looks like Canmore is dark."

""The reports were saying the winds were blowing to the north. So we are probably safe?" Adam guessed. "But we may not want to go that way yet."

"So where are we going to go?" Darlene asked.

Colin decided it was safe enough. He sat up and put his belt back on. "Same way we've been going. West. We'll get into BC, find some place we can rest, and try to get home once things calm down." Assuming we still have a home, he thought but didn't say.

He pushed the starter, willing all of his willpower into the engine. To his relief, the motor started. The displays flashed a lot of red and yellow warnings, but the vehicle seemed drivable.

"Hopefully this will last. Keep trying to find some streams, we should be in range of Banff soon, ... I hope."

He drove slowly, ignoring the warnings and errors screaming for attention on the display and focusing on the road ahead. He wove around stopped cars, car crashes, and groups of stunned people. He squeezed the vehicle through any opening that looked big enough. Some weren't quite big enough, but he shoved through anyway.

"Got a signal dad. Coming from Banff," Adam called out from the back. "News is sparse. Military is mobilizing. The Rocky Highway is gridlocked, all lanes all directions. The old TCH... that's this one right?... is moving slowly but moving."

"Thank goodness for small miracles," Darlene mumbled.

"Agreed, we'll keep going as far as we can. Maybe we can hit the 93 north and swing back to Ed," Colin mused.

"No good dad. There was a third bomb but it wasn't in the city. It went off somewhere between Red Deer and Edmonton. It was dirty and the winds are blowing to the north. South Ed and Red Deer are being evacuated." Adam passed his tablet to the front, showing the map displays and evacuation areas."

"Damn, that means they'll be heading this way. We need to get into BC before that wave reaches here." Colin gripped the wheel tighter and squinted past his headlights, mentally plotting a path through the stopped traffic.

True dawn was lighting up the peaks of the Rockies behind them. They'd entered British Columbia an hour before and were just going with traffic. Colin could feel his body shaking, running off of adrenaline and caffeinated beverages. He knew he couldn't last much longer, but he couldn't stop until they were safe. There was very little traffic going the other way, letting everyone use the full highway to progress.

Outside Golden, they encountered their first response to the Calgary blast. A checkpoint was set up across the highway, manned mostly by the local police and a few military folk. A cop waved him to the side as he got to the head of the line.

"Good morning, folks. Is everyone okay in there? Anyone need medical attention?" he asked, sounding sincere. He looked in through the windows with a flashlight.

"We're fine. Exhausted but fine. No injuries," Colin confirmed.

"Good good. May I have your names and IDs please? We want to try and keep track of where everyone is ending up."

Darlene scrounged up the cards while Colin took a moment to relax.

"How bad is it?" he asked as he handed them over.

"I won't lie to you, sir. It's bad. Most of our forces are trying to clear the Rocky Mountain Highway so we can use it to get aid in; but it's clogged up tight. We're assembling a caravan to clear the old TCH here and use it instead."

"And the city? How bad is Calgary?" Tracy asked.

The officer shook his head sadly. "Too soon to tell. It was a big one; no one expected them to be able to field something that big. And the other one may not have done much direct damage, but it's screwing up our response."

He handed the cards back and looked their car over. "How roadworthy is this?"

"Lots of yellow messages, but it's holding up. We could use a charge. And some rest."

"A charge we can get you. There's a station 5 klicks down the road that you can use. A rest however is out of the question. Anyone mobile and able bodied we're pushing further in. We want to keep Golden for the injured and those that can't move anymore. Otherwise, things will clog up here and it won't do anyone good.

"I would suggest you swap drivers, sir. You look exhausted. And with the automatics failing, you're a danger to yourself and your family."

Colin couldn't stop himself from yawning. The simple stop had given him a chance to relax a bit, and now his body was demanding more rest."We'll do that. How are the roads ahead?"

"Busy, occasionally blocked, but we're keeping the routes open. Make sure you get to the side of the road if you can't keep up. And remember it is two way traffic." The officer nodded to the family and stepped back. "Good luck. And stay safe."

Darlene took over driving once they charged up the car again. Colin tried to keep himself awake, but ten klicks down the road, he was out like a light. As the officer had said, traffic was thick leaving the town. It occasionally ground to a halt, but eventually started crawling again. By mid afternoon, there was a fork in the highways, and traffic split, some heading south to Vernon, the rest heading west to Kamloops. Darlene kept them heading west.

By nightfall, they were at the outskirts of the city, being directed to a refugee camp set up in some fields that were being subdivided for a new subdivision. The family ate from their personal supplies, and fell into an exhausted slumber.

Vancouver Shipyards Refugee Camp, One month later

Colin and Adam waited in line to speak to the refugee relocation agents. Colin spent the time in line mentally preparing himself. He mostly kept his eyes closed, focusing on his breathing and trying to stay calm. Adam spent the time looking around, studying the others in line and the people outside the line. Everyone had a worn down exhausted look. Every day or two, they would visit the relocation agents, hoping for good news. Every visit so far, the response was the same. They weren't hopeful that this visit would be any different.

The family had spent a couple of days in Kamloops after the nukes, before authorities pushed them westward. They had intended to keep going right through the Vancouver; but the car gave up outside of Hope. With just the supplies they could carry, they managed to hitch a ride the rest of the way into the city. There, they were directed to the old shipping yards. Rising sea levels and toxic ground kept the land from being redeveloped since the age of mass consumption in the 21st. For decades, the towers of rusting metal shipping containers had become homes for the homeless. Now, they were homes for some of the millions displaced from Alberta.

Adam looked to the temporary office, hearing angry shouting. A woman stormed out, slamming the door behind her. The guard/secretary outside barely gave her a second glance, and motionned for Colin and Adam to step in.

The agent was new to them, but they knew that didn't mean anything. Colin handed over the family's paperwork and waited for her to scan it and skim over the records.

"Colin Teal, father of two, husband of one. Family is intact and living in the Pier 41 stacks?" she asked for confirmation.

"That is correct," he confirmed. "This is my son Adam."

She nodded to Adam and put the paperwork down. "Good morning then. I am Gloria Mallory, your agent for today. How can I help you?"

Colin took a breath to settle himself before speaking. "We just want to know when we can go home."

Gloria glanced down, then tapped on her tablet. "Home being Leduc?" she confirmed.

He nodded, feeling a faint stirring of hope that he quickly squashed when he saw her body language.

"I'm so sorry, Leduc is still under a mandatory evacuation. We still don't have any estimates for when that region will be opened up again."

Colin clenched his fists, then closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths and forcing himself to relax. "Is there... Is there anything that we can do? Maybe moved somewhere with actual beds? Someplace that isn't a strong gust away from becoming a pile of rust?"

She checked her systems but they knew the answer already. It was the same answer they'd been told for weeks.

"You're already settled in a camp. We're still processing newly displaced folk, so we can't move you to a different place until all the new folk are processed. I'm sorry."

"I know you are. Thank you for your time," Colin said, forcing himself to be civil. "Come on Adam, we need to get to the food lines."

Adam could tell his father was restraining himself from slamming the door or stamping as he left. He followed, concern clear on his face but wisely staying silent. They walked past a few stacks of empty shipping containers before Colin stopped, ducking beside one. He snarled in frustration and banged his fist on the side of the container kicking up a cloud of dust. He punched a few more times then slumped down against the next container, shoulders shaking with exhausted silent crying.

"I don't know what to do, Adam."

"I know dad, we'll work it out. We're alive, and we're together. That's the important thing, right?" Adam reassured his father, sitting next to him.

"You'd think that, but you're still young. We don't even have the clothes on our backs. We've got nothing. Even if we went home, everything we have is untouchable, covered in radioactive dust. What are we going to do? We can't keep living like this."

"Sure we can, Dad. We take it one day at a time. Even now things are starting to improve; eventually we can go home and rebuild, right?"

Colin smiled weakly, "Right. We can rebuild. Eventually. We just need to survive. Stick together and all that." He sighed heavily and tried to recompose himself. "Why don't you go to the food lines and get a spot for us. I'll catch up in a bit."

Adam studied his father warily, then stood up again. He took a few steps, only to jump back in surprise as an asian man stepped around the corner. Colin scrambled to his feet and rushed to his son's side; they'd spent enough time in the stacks to be wary of newcomers.

"My apologies for the surprise. I did not mean to startle you," the man said, spreading his arms wide and bowing.

"It's okay, you just startled us," Adam said, glancing around to make sure no one else was around. You learned quickly in the stacks to always be aware of your surroundings.

"I would also like to apologize for eavesdropping. I could not help overhearing your plight, and I decided to come out and talk with you." the man indicated the container Colin had pounded on. "Besides, you did knock first."

Colin looked at the container, then back at the man. "I thought these stacks were uninhabited. That's why I picked them."

"Uninhabited, yes. But not unofficed. I picked this one so I could be closer to the displaced. My name is John Chu. I work for SangriCorp. Would you like to come in? I have some coffee."

He lead them into the container that was set up like a small office. A coffee machine was set up on a table to one side. Posters of spaceships and planets covered the walls. A glow strip lit the container up brightly. John cleaned up some mugs and lifted the coffee pot. "How do you take it?"

"Black's fine. For both of us," Adam said, stepping forward to retrieve the offered mugs. "That's the Homestead Fleet right? And that's Zharus itself?"

"Good eye, Adam was it?"

"Adam's right. Adam Teal. That's my dad, Colin."

John shook the offered hands and motioned to have a seat. "First of all, I want to say I'm sorry for your situation. I know you've probably heard this a lot, and from a stranger it is basically meaningless, but I truly am sorry for the situation you are all in. It is something no one wants to see others go through."

"Thank you," Colin said, taking the seat and holding the warm mug.

"Do you have any family elsewhere that could take you in? I know the refugee services are a bit overwhelmed right now."

"I'm afraid not. My parents are gone and I was an only child. My wife has some cousins back east, but they don't get along. Trying to crash with them would create an explosion bigger than Calgary."

"They're strong, independent types. Even before Boston, they were supporting the Resistance. We haven't spoken to them in years; they've gone offline and out of sight," Adam added.

"I see. Always sad to see a family torn apart by war. Still it is good you're keeping your humour in this situation," John said, waiting a moment to make sure Colin smiled before smiling back.

"Humour is about the only thing we can keep right now."

John sat back in his seat and observed the two men, "So judging by your reaction, I take it you haven't had any luck getting home?"

"Or getting anywhere," Adam corrected.

"We're from Leduc. It's still evacuated and glowing apparently. No ETA on when we get home, and I'm not sure we want to go home now," Colin explained.

"Yes, that is a rough situation. Fallout is not something you want to mess with. It is a shame we have to keep dealing with it."

John sat forward and put his mug down, carefully letting a moment of silence pass. "I'll be straight with you, my coffee invitation is not entirely altruistic. I do have a proposal to make to you, one that might be ideal for a family in your situation."

"You're recruiting for a colony ship?" Adam guessed.

John chuckled and motionned to the posters on the wall. "It is rather obvious, is it not? SangriCorp is one of the main backers of the ECS Lodgepole. Construction is almost complete, and the colonists are loading up. We still have room for a few thousand folk."

"And refugee camps from the nuked cities are an ideal recruiting ground," Colin finished. He wasn't sure if he was interested in the pitch, or annoyed that this man was taking advantage of the situation.

"That they are. I don't want to be recruiting from such a tragedy, but sometimes you need to make the best of a bad situation. There are millions of people displaced from those cities, of all skill sets and strengths. Many no longer have a home to return to, or a home they want to return to. The colony ships offer a chance for a fresh start, without the bullshit going on here on Earth."

"And you would want to recruit us? You don't even know us," Adam pointed out. He was clearly interested though trying not to show it.

"Why not? You are both young and healthy, and I'm sure the rest of your family are too. You yourself said you have no ties left here. And we would prefer to recruit entire families when we can; families support each other which is important for building a new world."

Adam looked at his father. To him it seemed like an easy decision, but his father would have to make the call. His dad finished his drink with a pensive look on his face and put the mug down, "Thank you for the coffee," he said, deciding to cut and run before they got tied into anything they couldn't get out of. "We will consider your offer carefully."

Jason stood with them and offered his hand, "Of course. Come back any time. I'll be here for the rest of the month at least. With coffee and no other obligations."

Colin ignored the hand and turned to the entrance. "Right, no obligations. Come on Adam, we have to get into the food lines."

"Zharus? What the hell is Zharus?" Tracy asked. She and Adam were in their sleeping bags on air mattresses at the back of the container their family had claimed. Curtains gave some privacy, and vents were cut in the top to provide air circulation and an emergency escape route.

"It's a planet, about twenty light years away. A super Earth, bigger than earth but green. The most habitable planet we've found yet," Adam described. He'd known a bit about the planet before, and after the agent from SangriCorp made the pitch, he'd been researching more.

"And people are going there?"

"Yeah. They left a few years ago and are still en route, but millions have already gone. We wouldn't be alone."

"It's a long way to go...." Tracy frowned in the darkness.

"The first ships aren't even there yet, and they're sending new fleets at five year intervals. If they're that confident that planet is habitable, it might be worth the risk."

"Is it dangerous?" Darlene asked. She and Colin were outside the entrance of their container, listening to the refugee community settling down for the night.

"Depends on what you mean. It's a huge planet, with its own life forms. The air is breathable, and it seems good; but we won't know until we get there," Colin said.

Darlene looked up at the sky. Most of the night sky was washed out, but the brighter stars and stations were visible. "What about the journey? Being frozen?"

"It's safe enough I guess. Millions have been frozen and woken. The Centauri colonies are going well too."

"We just don't know what will be waiting for us out there. I don't know, it's a big step. I don't like Shane and his family, but they are still family. We'd never speak to them again."

"We don't speak to them now. The entire clan has been offline since Boston; I'm not even sure he realizes if we escaped Calgary or not."

"But he's still family. I can't just leave."

Colin hugged her and rubbed her shoulders. "I know, I know. I'm not sure I want to go either. But it is tempting. What do we have back home? A glowing house on the edge of a glowing crater. We'll never sell it, we'd be lucky to make it livable again."

He kissed the top of her head. "We don't have to decide now. If we don't get on this one, we can apply on the next ones, if we decide to go. Or we stay here, look to rebuild. Whatever we do, we do it together."

Separator k.png

"I don't believe it. He didn't even care. He never realized we were at ground zero of a damn nuke," Darlene grumbled.

Colin hugged her while they waited outside the container. "Shane's always been dense like that. But it makes this decision easier right? We can do our thing and not feel bad about leaving him behind."

After two weeks of trying, Darlene had finally managed to get ahold of her cousin on a gray network and let him know she was alive. The news had not triggered the reaction she had hoped for.

"Exactly. A new world, a new start, a new life." Darlene sniffed and straightened up. "Is that him?"

"It is." Colin waved to the man in a well worn suit. "Hi John! We're back."

John looked surprised to see the family waiting outside his office. He obviously took a moment to remember who was waving at him. "Colin! Adam! Welcome back. What can I do for you?"

"This is my wife Darlene, and my daughter Tracy. We're here to sign up. We're ready to go to Zharus."

John's face lit up and he unlocked the container. "Excellent. They just opened up another block of sleeper cells for recruitment. Come on in, we'll get things going, and you'll be upstairs before you know it."

SangriCorp Colonist Cryosleep Station East

In the late 21st century a Kessler cascade had filled Earth's orbit with so much space junk that sending people there was considered insane, and even unmanned satellites needed thick armor to keep functional. It had taken a century for the orbit to clear again, which happened to coincide with Earth emerging from the Post Peak Oil Dark Age.

The 23rd Century was considered the second renaissance of spaceflight; with the invention of the Inertia Displacement Drive, colonies on the Moon and Mars and in the asteroid belt were feasible, and probes could be sent to several potentially habitable planets at high fractions of c, the speed of light, for a tiny energy cost. Only a decade away, colonies had been set up at Alpha and Proxima Centauri, with rumors of some kind of major mineral discovery there. Borderline habitable planets had been had been found in other systems and colony companies formed to go claim them. Recruitment drives tried to lure people to the new worlds both around Sol and beyond, but there were not enough takers to ease the population pressure of Earth's billions.

And then Zharus was found. A huge, one-gravity world with a breathable atmosphere and liquid oceans. Earth's entire population of seven billion several times over could fit on a single supercontinent. When the first probe reports came in about Zharus, everyone could see the opportunity. The mesh was flooded with artists impressions of what the world looked like. Interest spiked off the chart, demand for colony slots to the new Eden outweighing demand. Dozens of megacorps began building colony ships, intending to tap into the demand and stake their claim on the Eden in the stars even as their hold on the old Earth was becoming more tenuous.

Three Spacer colonies, a group that was used to living on the edge of danger, had been hired to lead humanity's push to the system. While they would not settle on the planet itself, they would use the new Neumonformer technology to prepare areas of the planet for a new civilization. The first true colony ships, 2.5 kilometer-long monstrosities carrying millions of colonists left a decade later and were en-route to arrive soon. Dozens more ships followed those first colonists, with more ships under construction. The colonization effort was theoretically organized and funded by the Zharus Diaspora Consortium (which SangriCorp was a junior member of) and the Steader Colonization Corporation.

Zharus colonists were being recruited from all around the world, especially the wartorn Union of North American Nations. After signing up, SangriCorp colonists were flown to China, and trained in the Gobi for a months in colonial skills. Most of the colonists were North American, recruited from the refugee camps surrounding the ruins of Boston, Atlanta and Calgary. Some gave up as the implications of leaving Earth forever sunk in; most made it through, having nothing more to tie them to the homeworld.

A hundred colonists, including the Teal family, mingled in the waiting room enjoying their last night awake in the Sol system. They would be going to sleep in their cryopods that night, and waking up at a new world. The room was decorated with all the information known about Zharus, maps of the world, artist impressions of the territory and the cities that would be waiting for them upon arrival. Their ship, the ECS Lodgepole, floated outside the windows of the room, letting everyone see their vehicle to the stars.

The Lodgepole was a Pinecone-class ship, about 1500 metres long. It's exterior was covered in overlapping diamond shaped layers of heavy metal shield panels up to a peak containing the main instrument cluster, giving it its namesake appearance. The top few levels near the peak were devoted for the living quarters of the crew that would tend to the ship on the years of its fifty year journey to Zharus. In the middle, were two levels for cargo, and twenty eight levels of cryopods, each level holding about forty thousand sleepers in isolated pie shaped chambers to minimize the risk if a level was damaged. Below the cargo levels was the loading deck with four large airlocks to fill the ship up with. The decks also had access to the larger cargo elevators built just under the hull with access to each level. Racks of sleepers would arrive on the loading decks, then be sent up to their appropriate deck for the journey. At the bottom were the engineering levels, containing the fuel tanks, generators and engines that would power the ship among the stars. The entire ship was shiny with newness, its name written in large letters down one side.

Four tubes equally spaced around the ship connected it to the cryosleep stations; the sleepers would be loaded through the tubes onto a loading dock near the bottom of the ship, then bundled into blocks to be lifted up to the storage levels for the journey.

"That's it. That's going to be our home for the next few decades," Adam noted, studying the ship through the window.

"We'll be asleep so it won't really be our home. It's just our bus, or bed I guess," Colin corrected.

"It's not as big as I expected," Tracy said. "I looked at the Homestead fleet and all those ships were a lot bigger."

"They carried a lot more. The Lodgepole is mainly just people. The first fleet brought a lot more material for their new home," Adam said.

"I suppose, I guess it's just getting us there. Looks nice."

"Brand spanking new. Latest and greatest I think," Adam said. "At least until they start loading up the next one."

Tracy shook her head, "Hopefully they've got the bugs worked out. We're a bit far from technical support."

Darlene took her daughter's hand and squeezed it. "Are you having second thoughts? We can still back up. We promised, all or nothing."

"I know mom. I've got some doubts.... But not enough to back out. We decided to do this, to make the new start, and we're going to do it."

"I've got my doubts too. Fifty years in those pods. Hard to believe they'll last that long," Darlene admitted.

"They'll be fine. They're rated for a full century. And the crew will be watching them. A trip like this will barely break them in," Adam said confidently. He'd been researching much of the tech and science behind the trip since they decided to go.

Colin smiled at his family. "Well then, Adam's confirmed it, so it's settled. We're leaving tonight. In the meantime, why don't we get to know the neighbours a bit. Just go easy on the drink; you don't want to have to get up to use the bathroom thirty years in."

Enroute to Zharus

ECS Lodgepole

5 Years After Departure

Captain Julie Birdwell repressed an urge to punch her Chief Engineer in the face. He was only the messenger, not the cause, of the current SNAFU. "Please repeat what you just said for the Ship's Log, Chief McLane."

Chief Engineer Hassan McLane sighed. "Okay, once more for posterity, for whoever finds us. Now that we're in clear space, yesterday at 1800 hours we began the final step-up procedure for the last mass displacement that would enable full acceleration to Pharos. The Engineering mainframe reported success, but only an hour later I began having suspicions. So we used some independent sensors that one of my junior engineers had brought aboard before we left. Why he brought them he won't say. But we used them to confirm my suspicions. The Lodgepole is not at full mass displacement factor. We can't reach near our specced coasting speed with the fuel we have on board."

"So what's the cause, Hassan?" Birdwell said.

"It's a bunch of things all at once. SangriCorp stuffed in three more levels of pods that weren't in the design spec, increasing the power draw on the reactors. Even without them, the ion engines are underpowered. By the specifications, they should have been enough even with the extra mass of the pods, but only just. There was no wiggle room, and these engines wiggled. Finally, someone cheaped out on the Holtzman Mass Displacers then had the mainframe lie about it. Now that we can see the actual performance numbers, I've calculated what we can do. At best, we can reach a quarter of our rated speed." Hassan forced himself to keep his eyes on the Captain, unwilling to flinch from the news he was giving. He'd had suspicions earlier on, but the numbers added up, until now, when they had real numbers for the engine performance and displacement values, and the numbers now didn't add up..

"Putting it all that together, this means that unless we do something now, we won't have enough juice left to make it to Zharus. If we try to get our top speed, we won't have enough left in the tank to slow down once we get to Zharus, which won't matter because we'll be dark and frozen solid long before we get there."

The graphs made their dire situation obvious. Fuel would run out in twenty five years, leaving them coasting at whatever speed they were at, unable to stop in the Pharos system. Power would peter out three years after that, leaving them drifting in the darkness without a way to signal ahead for help, assuming anyone in Pharos would answer the call.

"What are our options? Can we retune the displacement engines, get them up to their specifications? Or do something about the displacers?" Birdwell asked.

"No sir. They are all black boxes, built and delivered as complete object with no user serviceable parts inside. Even if we had the tools and the supplies to mess with them, we don't have the knowledge. I know the theory behind how they work, but the nitty gritty details are locked up in the factories back on Earth."

Doctor Maurice O'Brien rubbed a hand through his red hair. "I hate to propose this, but it is an extraordinary predicament. The needs of the many versus the needs of the few and all that. What if we cut off power to some of the decks? The three new decks of pods seem to be the straw that broke the camel's back; maybe if we remove the straw we can start mending it?"

The others in the room gasped and stared at the Doctor. Hassan simply shook his head. "The back was broken before those pods were put in; they just made the situation more dire. They're probably a blessing in disguise at this point. The engines and the displacers were off spec from the get-go, and this ship was built assuming everything was perfect with no tolerances for failure. Without that extra load, we probably would not have discovered we were short until turnaround. By discovering this early, we might be able to come up with a solution."

He sighed and shrugged. "Not that we have any solutions yet. Just thinking of what they put us out with makes me want to turn around and personally shoot the pennypinchers and engineers who signed off on this."

"Is that an option? Going back to Earth?" Captain Julie Birdwell asked, trying to find options.

Hassan shook his head once again. "It's technically possible, but I wouldn't want to do it. You can thank the pennypinchers again. The turnaround engines have their own fuel supply and we have exactly enough to do one flip. To go back to Earth, we would need two flips, one to start back now, and one to flip again a few years later so we don't overshoot. We were designed for a one-way trip to Zharus, so that's the bare minimum they gave us."

"But we could call ahead and they could meet us and refuel us," one of Maurice's doctors proposed.

"That assumes anyone is left to answer, or even cares to bother coming up. The Megacorps are pushing out ships as fast as they can build them, hoping to ensure their legacy even as the world burns down around them. If a ship fails, it's just a write-off; hell we were a write-off once we left the system. Trying to save us would be an extra cost that they likely won't eat. Anyone who hears us calling for help would be bought off or silenced," Julie said, stating the obvious. She sighed and stared at Hassan's diagrams. "So what are our options? If we go forward, we die. If we turn around, we die. Is there any out? Or should we just blow the locks and put us all out of our misery?" The captain studied the room, assessing their reaction to her grim proposal. Immediate death would be preferable to a slow death in a dark freezing ship with no air left.

"I've got another solution to consider first. If it works, we may wish we had blown the locks. We'll be mighty uncomfortable by the end. But it might work; we're right on the edge and trusting things won't get much worse than they are now." Hassan tapped on his tablet and the graphs began to move.

"Power and fuel are our main limiters. If we turn off the engines now, we can coast to Pharos with minimal fuel costs to make sure we stay lined up. A few years out, we flip over and do the big burn so we can slow down and enter the system."

"And we will have enough power to do that?" Julie asked, sorting out the graphs. The important lines all converged near the Pharos point of the travel line.

"Barely. We'll want to conserve all we can, all nonessential uses trimmed back starting now. All the lifts need to be parked, for example. The engineers are going to be master ladder climbers in a few years; But we should be able to make it with all of the Sleepers intact."

"How long would it take?" she asked.

Hassan paused and looked her in the eye. "Travel time will increase significantly. We'll know better in a few years, but total travel time would be between one eighty and two ten, give or take a decade."

The room exploded as people started pointing out the dangers.

"Do we have enough air?"

"The food, we'll need to grow a lot more food."

"Pods only have a hundred year lifetime. They won't make it."

Julie let the initial wave of questions pass over her, then banged on the table for attention.

"There are no other options?" She asked the Engineer. "Ways to sacrifice a few to increase our changes?" she asked, acknowledging the option Maurice had proposed.

"No other options I can think of. Nothing that would significantly, or even minimally increase our chances. If we start down this route we might be able to do some things; but as it stands, this is our only way forward. Zharus or bust."

"What about another star system? We find somewhere closer, with resources and go Spacer?"

"There's nowhere we can reasonably reach in time with the resources we have on hand. To reach the closer systems will require too much fuel to turn towards. Pharos is our best chance."

"We can afford to keep all the pods active, but we can't keep the lifts running?"

Hassan gave a weak chuckle, "It's not the power to the lifts that we need. It's what they contain. The lifts are basically our largest supply of extra nonessential material. We can keep using them for a bit, but eventually we'll have to shut them down."

"Not having to climb a fifteen hundred meter ladder seems pretty essential to me," someone grumbled, causing a few chuckles.

Captain Birdwell sighed and sat back. The decision was obvious, but it wasn't easy. A quick death for everyone, or decades of tortured minimal existence with a slight hope they would make it. She had the lives of more than a million people hanging on her choice. No matter how remote the chance was, she had to take it against certain death.

"Kill the engines," she ordered. "We are going Generational. All our plans were just shot out the airlock. We're adding another century and change to our journey and we need to do everything we can now to make sure we can make it." She looked around the room, sorting out assignments, then started doling out the orders.

"Malcolm, your gardens are the stomach and lungs of the ship. Anything and everything you need that we can provide, we'll get for you. Start figuring out how to make our food and air last for two centuries."

Malcolm Vaughan the head of hydroponics, nodded. "We'll have to preserve what we can, and grow what we didn't expect. I'll need direct access to the night soil and we'll want to start working out how to replenish volatiles, and raiding the cargo bay of course."

"We'll figure it out, get me a list of what needs to be done."

Malcolm snapped his fingers, remembering another element. "We can crack open the Watney stash, get the taters growing. If any situation warrants it, this is one."

Julie nodded and looked at the rest of the officers. "In the meantime, I want a full inventory of everything down to the last bolt and bubblegum wrapper, by the end of the week. From here on, every little bit counts. Nothing is garbage, everything can be used and reused."

"Doctor, I want you to wake the full crew. They need to be briefed on what is going on, and we'll need to rework the sleep schedules. We need a full list of everyone's skills, no matter how irrelevant. We're going to need chemists and gardeners and programmers and who knows what else to make sure we stretch everything beyond the max. We'll awaken passengers if we have to. And we have to plan for pregnancies and children.

"One way or another, we are going to make it to Zharus. Pharos will light our way. Now let's get to work."

ECS Lodgepole,

187 After Departure

Fragments of memories flickered by. A spaceship floating in space, rusty containers on the shore of a city, a terrified drive through the mountains on a crowded highway, an unnatural dawn on the eastern horizon.

"-pulse increasing... core temperature rising..."

"-damage to extremities...."

"-brain activity increasing...."

"-ut him back down..."

Darkness engulfed him again.

Light returned an eternity later; the faint light of a dimly lit room seen through closed eyelids. This time, his thoughts were more coherent. He could tell he was in a bed. He felt lighter, like he could float away. His body began to tingle all over as nerves woke up. He took a breath and almost gagged; the air stank of humanity. It was thin, dry and not refreshing at all.

"Welcome back, Mister Teal. Take it easy, you've been out a long time," a voice said.

He felt a straw pressed to his lips and a thick warm liquid was pushed into his mouth. It sat there a moment before he could figure out how to swallow.

"Fuh-" he croaked. He swallowed again and tried again. "Fah-"

"Your family is fine. They're still frozen. Please, relax and try to get some sleep, some real sleep. We'll talk when you recover more."

Before he could figure out how to open his eyes, he felt warmth spread from his arm, and he fell asleep again.

The next time he found consciousness, he felt more in control. His body ached and tingled all over. He cracked his eyes open and squinted, the lights, dim as they were, blinded him momentarily. He sensed movement nearby, seeing a shadow stand up and move towards him. He blinked and gradually managed to get it into focus.

"Good day, how are you feeling?" she asked.

"Thurdy," he mumbled, lips refusing to move right.

The figure put a straw to his lips and carefully squirted a chilled liquid into his mouth. He swallowed a few mouthfuls before he felt confident enough to suck on the straw and finish the cup.

"Who are you?" he asked, finally seeing the red haired woman in a well stained worn-out lab coat.

"Linda O'Brian. I'm what passes as a doctor here."

He squinted around, the dim light more tolerable. He was obviously in a hospital or a sick bay of some sort. A half dozen beds surrounded him, only a couple with sheets. The mattresses were thin, patched and stained. Most of the equipment was powered down, but had a well worn look to it, often with patches and cracked casings.

"Here? Where's here?"

"The Lodgepole. We're still in transit, about three years to go."

His mind froze, not sure he heard correctly. He shied away from the realization and focused on the woman. The woman was in her thirties with red hair, but he couldn't remember her from the crew lists he'd read before leaving. He did recall a Maurice O'Brien on the medical staff with similar red hair.

"Three years?" he mumbled, stumbling back to the first issue.

She nodded sadly, and helped him sit up, propping him up with well used pillows. "Yes, Three years to go, Adam. Your cryo pod was beginning to malfunction. We need more hands so you got the lucky straw to be woken up. Even if your hands aren't complete."

Adam looked down and realized his hands were bandaged into mittens. Mittens that were too small. Both pinkies and an index finger were missing. They shook uncontrollably as he looked at them.

"There was freezer damage, nerve and circulatory damage. Some of your fingers and toes were beginning to rot, so we had no choice but to chop them off. You'll probably have those tremors for the rest of your life."

Adam groaned and slumped back down. Linda patted his head and helped tuck him in. "I know it's strange, but cryosleep is exhausting, and I just dropped a lot of shocks on you. Get some rest, and I'll explain more when you wake up again."

"Maurice... Maurice O'Brien...." Adam mumbled.

"He was my great-times-four-grandfather. Dead now. I'll explain more later, now rest."

It took three more rests before Adam felt like he was awake. Each time he woke up, Linda was there. She explained the situation in small pieces that his groggy mind could cope with as it thawed out. She'd obviously been through many thawings and knew the routine. The third time, she gave him a drink and let him nibble a bland biscuit.

Internally, Adam was spinning in confusion and anger. "What the hell happened? How can you be a granddaughter? Why did my pod start failing? Couldn't you fix it?"

"It was failing due to old age. It's almost seventy years out of warranty. We don't have the resources to fix it. You're lucky we decided to wake you instead of letting you perish in that tube."

"Seventy years? What?" Adam felt like he'd been punched multiple times, awareness of the brush with death taking the fight out of him.

"SangriCorp," She looked like she wanted to spit after the name, but managed to refrain. "The bastards cheaped out on the Lodgepole. We couldn't reach the speeds we needed to, so we've been coasting for decades. You're lucky, you're waking near the end. You'll probably get to see Zharus."

"Why didn't we go back to Earth?"

"We don't have the fuel for it. After flipping over, the flip engines are empty. The First Crew figured no one would bother catching us on the way back in, so we kept going."

Adam sighed, starting to come to grips with the situation. "Well, I'm up now. What happens now?"

"Everyone works, no matter what their age or where they come from. We're a closed very tight ecosystem here, with no room for layabouts. A Revenant like you will be put on light duty until you heal up a bit; probably garbage sorting and similar. Then we'll see how your skills fit in. Probably you'll be a processor or a miner, we always need those."

"Processor? Miner?"

She nodded, checking his vitals. "There are thousands of dead people still in pods that failed, buried deep in the blocks. That's 30 litres of water and lots of other biological matter we desperately need to keep the hydroponics farm going to feed us. Processors pull the dead pods out, and prime them for harvesting. It's not pleasant, but someone needs to do it.

"Miners do a similar job. They've been working through the blocks, popping open the personal effects lockers. We need anything and everything we can find. It's hot, solitary work on the lower decks where the air is even worse. Drier, thinner, hotter and even less oxygenated."

"So that's my future?" Adam asked.

"Probably. I mean, if you have the right skills, you could join Hakim's engineers. Or if you have a green thumb you can go into the gardens. But most people end up processors and miners. It's a job that always needs doing and doesn't require much skill or dexterity."

"And if I don't do anything, you'll what? Throw me out an airlock?"

"And waste all those ressources? Besides, the airlocks are all sealed. We'll just put you back in your old pod, and let nature take its course. We can spare you that much as a Passenger after all."

"A pod that was failing and would probably kill me." He sighed and shook his head. "I'll help. My family's still asleep after all."

She smiled, and pet his hand. "That they are. That's part of the reason you were picked. Just rest a bit more, we can spare you another day before putting you to work. The Light of Pharos guides us to our destination."

First Contact

Zharus Orbital Traffic Control, Alohavator

October 159 AL

Traffic Controller Second Class Chelsea Swinburne tried to relax and get into her book. The Steady Hand colony ship had barrelled through months ago, and the planet was still dealing with the fallout from that. Things had gotten busy for her and Polestar, dealing with a spike in traffic that caused. Thankfully, things were finally settling into a new normal. Way out in the boonies, she knew the Rangers and Scouts had their hands full, trying to sort out the new rules Zharus and Colossus were imposing. Around Zharus itself, it was back to business as unusual.

"Hmm, that's strange," Polestar noted. The bronze-skinned avatar dressed in an administration uniform appeared by a console and leaned forward to study the screen, even though he received the data directly.

Chelsea looked at him, then back at her book. She sighed and closed it. "No, no, no, no, No. NOT again..... What is it?" she asked, conceding the fight that was already lost.

"In light of recent events, they have been upgrading the Deep Space Network. New data is coming in and it is picking up a very minor minor gravity wave anomaly. I don't believe anyone has noticed it before. Feels like an old IDD drive at very low power."

"Probably because they've got it so amped up, they're too busy chasing other Earth ghosts to notice. You sure it's not just noise?"

"It is very weak, it could just be noise, but multiple sensors are picking it up in the same place. It is also coming from the direction of Sol and at the extreme edge of the system, approximately thirty light hours away; practically in interstellar space."

She got up and wandered over to take a look, seeing just a slight blip on the scanner, barely noticable. "Well, put in a request, see if you can get some eyes looking that way."

"I already have. I'm also looking into historical records to see if anyone looked that way in the past. I'm compositing the data now. It will take a few hours."

"Knock yourself out Polecat. Just don't forget your day job." Chelsea dropped back into her seat and opened the book, hoping she might be able to finish it before the world was flipped again.

She was on the final pages, when Polestar came to her again.

"Does this look like something to you?" Polestar asked. The enhanced intelligence brought up a blurry image. It was heavily pixelated, showing an ovoid shape.

"Maybe. It's not an artifact? A gravied star image maybe?" Chelsea asked, putting the nearly complete book down.

"It is not. Knowing where to look, I found more signs of it. It is certainly a nearby object." Polestar spread his arms and an image of the Pharos system appeared. The view shrunk down until Colossus hugged the parent star and a line appeared, solid with dots marking confirmed sightings, and a dotted line showing its projected trajectory. It came close to Pharos on the interstellar scale, just slipping inside Xolotlan's orbit.

"They are slowing, but not enough to be captured. Unless they do maneuvers or slow faster than they are now, they will skip out of the system in about a year."

"Any clue where it came from?" Chelsea asked, muttering, 'Please not Earth. Please not Earth' under her breath.

"Inconclusive. But Earth is along its route and the most likely place it originated from.

She groaned at the implications. "I don't suppose we can keep this under our hats and let someone else find it?"

Polestar ignored her request. "We're getting some images from the telescopes. Processing now."

"Already? Those are booked solid for weeks. How did you jump the queue unless.... Did you already tell someone?"

"I asked some friends to check my math. They confirmed what we are seeing and helped bump our priority for telescope time."

Polestar shrunk the image of the system down and expanded the view of the object. With the telescope data, it expanded, still ovoid, fatter on the bottom with the engines, pointier towards the top. Dull gray diamond shaped plates covered the hull in an overlapping pattern.

"It's a pinecone. It's a goddamn pinecone. What the hell is Earth doing now?"

"Shall I..?" Polestar asked.

"Yeah yeah. Punt it down to Zharustead before your friends spill the beans. It's their problem now.

Zharustead, Prime Councilor's office

Well, this is becoming a habit. Prime Councilor Michelle Yu read over the report presented by the Head of the System Security Agency, Zhi Rho. Ranger Master Zordon, appearing as a translucent bluish gray floating head, and Zharus Interstellar Scout Commander Jane Lee, appearing as herself sitting in a chair, also attended the meeting, reviewing the same data.

"We have got to find that EI a different hobby," Yu noted. "He can't keep flipping Zharus civilization every few months with his discoveries."

"To be fair, if Polestar didn't notice them, someone else would have just as quickly," Zordon noted.

"Maybe. But he's Zharus space traffic control. He shouldn't be poking his nose beyond the moons, let alone into the depths of outer space." Yu sighed and shook his head. "But I'm stalling. What are we going to do?"

"For the moment, nothing. Until we know more about it, there is little we can do," Zhi said. "On its current trajectory, it is not a threat. We're turning more eyes to it, to try and tell more. Locally, people have picked up that something is up, but no one is sure quite what yet. We're keeping mum for the moment."

Yu nodded and looked at the Ranger and Scout masters. "How about you guys? Can you get some boots on the deck to figure out what Earth's up to now?"

"Technically, the ship is outside of the Ranger jurisdiction; but there are no Scout resources handy to intercept. I've already scrambled a trio of Rangers. They should get there by morning, Z-time," Zordon said.

"That long? I thought you guys prided on being able to be anywhere in system within hours," Zhi asked.

Lee shrugged. "That was before we sent a quarter of both our resources to Totalia. And devoted most of the rest to border patrol on the major arrival points. We never thought anyone would still be coming in via the slow routes."

"Technically, the ship is still just outside the system limits too," Zordon added. "They haven't even reached the Pharos heliosphere."

Zhi put the report down. "Well then, gut feels. What are we dealing with here? I mean a Pinecone? Those things were death traps when they were new. What the hell is one doing out there now?"

"We received eight Pinecone-class ships during the height of the early 24th century Earth exodus. All limped into the system with significant failures that required immediate evacuation of the passengers. Since we were never told how many colony ships were sent out, we don't know how many more are missing," Rhi reported.

"So is it for real? Are we getting another population bump? Or is it another Earth trick?"

"It is impossible to say at the moment. There are two equally improbable possibilities," Zordon said. "The first, this is an Earth trick, a misdirection maybe. They hauled an old Pinecone out to the edge of our system and launched it this way, possibly manned, more likely empty. Once we notice and start exploring, they do something else. I can't imagine what that something might be."

"The second," Lee said, picking up from the Ranger. "Is that it is for real. It's a lost colony ship that's been crawling here from Earth for up to two centuries. The wear and damage we are seeing on the hull from afar do seem indicative of a long journey. Sadly, they are not answering hails to confirm anything."

"A colony ship with another million folk. Great. Never thought I'd say this about Zharus, but where the hell are we going to put them?" Yu asked.

"We're not that cramped, ma'am. Some people might need to double up, but we can still take millions with ease," Rhi noted. "There are a few city sites on both settled supercontinents that haven't been used yet. Plus the city now at the Steady Hand landing site has room to grow and construction equipment already in place."

"Now don't you be giving the Earth spies ideas."

"In any case, I doubt you would need to house millions. If it left Earth at the height of the slower than light colonization, those cryopods only had an effective life of a century. They've been en route for almost two. I doubt there would be many left alive," Lee said.

"Ain't that a pleasant thought. I'll let you all get to your work then. Let me know as soon as you hear anything. I need to polish up my welcome speech and my memorial speech. Thank you, gentlebeings."

ECS Lodgepole

190 After Departure

"Wake up Rev! You don't want to be spilling that goop all over you!" Adam roared, startling the others on his squad. There were seven of them, working on the lower decks among the blocks of sleepers. They were carefully guiding three dead pods off the racks for emptying. The pods had been 'processing' for months, and now it was time to harvest the biological goop that used to be a living person, and add it to the farms.

Adam was in charge of six other revenants, six people who had gone to sleep in Earth orbit like he had, and woken up far too late and way too early. Until they proved themselves, they were stuck doing the grunt work while the Descendants kept the ship running. He'd joined the processor teams soon after waking up himself, and found he didn't mind the gruesome task too much. The first year, he often had nightmares, imagining having to 'plant' his parents or his sister. Now, he was basically in charge of the processors and only rarely had nightmares.

"Sorry sir! It won't happen again!" the one armed woman called out, lifting her end of the pod more carefully and sliding it off the end of the rack with her partner.The pods were heavy, and after two centuries of dust and grime, almost impossible to slide along the tracks.

"It better not. If you spill anything, it's off to the mines with you."

She shuddered and moved even more carefully. The 'mines' were the lowest levels of the ship, where the last unstripped cryopods were. The miners worked alone, prying open the personal effects lockers of the cryopods. They would collect everything inside and haul it up the ladders to the top of the ship to be sorted and used. Everything was useful; clothings, toys, tools, even electronics with long expired batteries. The work was solitary and physical, and made worse by the location; the air down in the depths of the ship was hot, stale, and dry with even lower oxygen levels than the living levels.

A few hours later, the ripe cryokits were stacked in the open area near the central core lift shaft. The last part of their job would be to transfer the thick dark goop into buckets and ferry the liquid up the ladders in the elevator shaft to the garden. But first, they had to 'plant' the next crop. Adam consulted his list, and assigned twelve to three pairs of revenants. Each pair was a relatively new revenant and a more experienced one whom he trusted could do the job, not that the job was particularly difficult. The last three he kept for himself.

"You have your bags of primer and your maps. You're working in pairs, make sure you and your partner triple check the pod numbers and verify you're at the right pod. Verify the pod says the passenger is dead too; there have been cases where a pod misreported the status to the central computer. If the pod says they're dead, crack the pod and each person verifies again. Move the pods as close to an edge as you can, but don't waste too much time trying to do it. Strip the corpse if it isn't already stripped, apply the primer, seal it up again and bring the bags back. If the person is alive, signal me and we'll go from there. Any questions?"

His team shook their heads and they set off to work. The Lodgepole had held over a million sleepers when it left Earth almost two centuries ago. The sleepers were divided into over eleven hundred blocks containing just under a thousand sleepers each. The block held most of the equipment needed to keep them in the ageless slumber. Each block in turn had ten layers, made up of ten rows of ten sleepers each, less one so they could be slid around like a slide puzzle to access any sleeper. Most blocks had frozen in place decades ago, meaning the processors and miners had to climb among the pods and carefully work in the narrow space between pods.If they were lucky, they might be able to move a few pods enough to get some elbow room. Actually extracting a pod, like they had done earlier, usually required a full team and a lot of elbow grease.

The twelve Adam had assigned to his teammates, were easily accessible by the inexperienced processors. He didn't anticipate any problems. The three he kept for himself were harder to access, close together spatially, but deep in a block with sticky tracks. He knew he wouldn't be able to move the pods to an edge. Extracting the pods later would be a challenge, but at least the process would be started.

He squirmed between the hot pods, careful not to burn himself on the scorching radiators. The air was stale, barely a breeze wafting between the layers and pods. Around 7, 5, 4, he popped out into an open space where a pair of pods had been removed ages ago. He was able to stretch and plan his next few moves; his targets were close and the empty space gave him room to stretch and take some deep breaths. After taking a sip from a water bottle, he started unlatching the pods around him and shoving them around.

"Natalie Haden, Springfield Mass," he confirmed, reaching the first target. The pod looked little different from the others, beside the red lights at the bottom and top. He triple checked the pod identity and status, then looked in the personal effects locker. It was stripped bare as he expected. They were working on level eight today, close to the living levels. Miners had stripped every level clean down to level twenty. This high up, the miners had even popped open most of the pods and stripped the people inside. Adam privately thought that was part of the reason why they were seeing more and more failures now, aside from the pods reaching twice their expected lifetimes.

He finished his inspection and flipped the latches holding the pod closed. It hissed and lifted slightly, enough for him to get his fingers in and lift the hatch open. The woman inside looked healthier than he did. She was plump in all the right places, her body still showing a natural tan despite not seeing the sun in two hundred years. She looked like she would open her eyes and smile at him at any moment. He checked her vitals manually, confirming that despite appearances, she was not going to wake up.

Adam reached into his pack and pulled out a bag filled with a black goo. He held his breath and turned away as he opened the bag, and gagged immediately from the smell assaulting his nose. The goo was a special combination of bacteria and fungus cooked up by the gardeners long ago. Over the course of a few years, it could eat a dead sleeper, neutralizing the cryo chemicals and leaving behind a pod filled with a sludge full of nutrients. A pod filled with sludge and the big bones that the goo didn't have time to finish consuming.

Breathing shallowly and being careful not to get any on his hands, he squeezed the goop out over the body, trying to get a relatively even coverage while not actually touching it. Finally, he put the bag away, and looked at Natalie's face, the one part he hadn't covered.

"Thank you for your sacrifice. It will not be in vain," he blessed her, kissing his fingers before pressing them on her temple. He sealed the pod up and moved on to the next.

Xolotlan station

Ranger Colonel Alexi Rumen, the local ranger leader for Xolotlan, had his feet up on his desk, staring at his roster, trying to make sure he had enough experienced coverage. Since the ZEN proclamation gave Zharus and its system independence, the Rangers had officially become the border and customs agents for the Pharos system. Every ship now needed to be met and checked upon arrival. ZEN and Wednesday ships could pass through with minimal issues, but ships from the other colonies had a lot more red tape to process. Considering a substantial number of Rangers had joined the Totalia fleets, it was a perfect storm of stress he was dealing with. At least most of the ships now arriving had left after word of the ZEN Treaty had reached the other colonies, so they were no longer arguing that the new regulations didn't apply to them. Most of the ships found other things to argue about instead.

He sighed, seeing a small gap in scheduled arrivals approaching; he would finally be able to pull some of the Rangers back in, give them some downtime while refreshing their ships. He took a half dozen ships off duty for long overdue maintenance, and started working through the list of Rangers returning from the border.

His comm pinged, giving him just enough warning to drop his feet to the floor and sit up before Zordon's floating head appeared.

"Good day, Alexi. I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"Not at all, Zordon. I'm just taking advantage of a small lull in the arrival and departures schedule to plan some much needed recovery. The ESN Silverleaf just arrived with a load of raw celerite and experts to share in the brain exchange."

Zordon's floating head looked away, hesitating a moment. Alexi internally groaned. "My lull just disappeared, didn't it? What happened?"

"I can see you are busy, but I'm sorry to say I'm tossing a bomb into your plans. We need to get a team out to an anomaly deep in the outer system."

"How deep and what sort of anomaly?" Alexi asked, already resigned to what fate was dealing.

Zordon sent a data packet that automatically expanded out, showing the system map and the detected ship. Alexis whistled, "The scattered disc? Damn, that is out there. That's technically Scout territory."

"They'll be out there soon enough, but I want us to handle it. Friendly rivalry and all that. Can you handle it?"

Alexi continued reviewing the anomaly while Zordon talked. "A Pinecone? From Earth? What the hell are they doing? Yeah, I think I can get someone out there. The Varyag is on final approach; Petra keeps her ship shipshape. A quick refresher and she can go right back out." Alexi paused and looked the roster and ship list over. "Let's see, figure we need a trio for the first check? Looks like the Aerialbots are waiting to do something. I'll send Slingshot and Silverbolt with her, and hope she forgives me after."

Zordon's head nodded. "Good. Plan for the worst, if that is a real Pinecone, they're going to need help."

"And if it isn't a real Pinecone, they're going to need a different type of help. I'll send word down to the techs to get everything ready to launch, one way or another."

"Excellent. I'll leave it in your capable hands. Zordon out."

Ranger Commander Petra relaxed in the cockpit, letting the automated systems guide her ship, the Ranger Patrol Ship Varyag, onto the station. The griffon integrate had been out on the border for a month and was looking forward to some time off ship. As the Varyag flew into the hanger, she noticed a larger than normal number of technicians waiting at her slot. An uneasy feeling formed in the pit of her stomach. She zoomed in and realized they were loaded down with containers of volatiles and other material needed to prepare a ship to go back out. Ranger Colonel Rumen was waiting near the front of the crowd.

The ship landed and clamps grabbed hold of the landing gear to hold it in place. She finished the shutdowns and handoffs, and stood up to head for the exit. The mob of technicians had already spread out, connecting hoses and power cables.

"Welcome home, Ranger," Alexi greeted her outside the ship. He was a spacer who traced his line back to some of the original Xolotlan Spacers. Unlike most spacers, he still looked human, though his body was actually a full human shell, similar to what EIs were wearing.

"Thank you, Sir," Petra returned the greeting. "I have the sneaking suspicion that I won't be here long."

"Those suspicions would be correct," Alexi said, looking sad to have to admit that. "If I had other options, I'd take it, but you're about our only choice."

Petra sighed and spread her wings, shaking them out while she had the chance. "I understand. What's the mission?"

"An anomaly spot check. The new Deep Space Sensors picked up an IDD trace on the edge of the system. We turned some eyes that way, and it looks like a Pinecone is coming home along one of the old Earth routes."

Petra widened her eyes in surprise, "A Pinecone sir? Are you certain?"

"If we were certain, we wouldn't be sending you. It certainly looks like a Pinecone, but they aren't talking yet. They aren't emitting anything that we can tell. So you're taking a team out to look in person."

Petra's DIN flickered at the back of her neck as she received more details of the mission. "That's pretty far out. The Scout-Ranger neutral zone."

"We know. But it's coming in system and the Big Head wants to beat Lee to the punch; hence why we are scrambling."

The griffon smirked and nodded. "Understood. Who else is on the team?"

Alexi turned and looked like he was about to deliver more unpleasant news. "You understand we're very strained for resources at the moment. I scheduled most of the ships for long overdue inspections and overhauling. The techs are speeding that up as much as they can, but we need to be out there as soon as possible."

Petra tapped her foot, waiting for her master to get to the point. "The Aerialbots are the only other two ships ready to go. They're being loaded up as we speak."

She barely resisted groaning out loud. She looked across the hanger, and noticed two other ships being prepared. One was another Milano class like her own. It had a primarily white body with a red undercarriage and blue marks on its wings. The other was a Milano variant, its body stretched out and narrowed down to look more like a TwenCen airplane than a spaceship. The Milano's hook nose matched the Concorde derived style of the ship.

"If they're the only ones available, they'll have to do," she said charitably.

The Aerialbots were two Rangers who had recently completed their training. They were still doing their initial rounds through the system before they would settle on their first permanent station. Neither were integrates, but they'd both decided to try and form a themed subgroup based on the Aerialbot Transformers. They were still trying to recruit the remaining members.

"It'll take an hour for them to refresh your ship. I can give you that long to try and relax before you head out again if you want," Alexis said.

"Thank you, I appreciate it. But first, I think I better meet my teammates."

"Of course. Go right ahead. And good luck with those greenhorns."

The Aerialbots were not difficult to find in the crowd. Silverbolt was an EI, recently graduated from the Nujose greenhouse. Like a number of other EIs, he had decided to follow the minor EI celebrity Skyfire into space. He'd invested most of his seed money and Ranger signup bonuses into customizing his spaceship. Because of that, he had little left over for his actual DE. He was a three metre tall silver humanoid robot. He had red shoulders and hips, and black highlights. His shell could neither transform, nor could it link as fully to his ship as Skyfire's system had; two flaws he intended to resolve once his first tour was done.

Slingshot stood next to Silverbolt. At first glance, he looked like another humanoid robot; around two metres tall with white arms and legs, with a red chest and face. Petra knew the robot was a lie. Slingshot was really a young spacer from Rhodes who still had most of his biological body, not that many outside the medical staff ever saw it. He lived most of his life in his suit, based off of the EIDE fuse shells. Like Silverbolt, he was saving up for the day he could get what he considered his true form; to transfer to an RI core and get a proper transformable shell.

"Good day, gentlemen," Petra greeted them as she walked up.

The two broke off their conversation and looked her way. As soon as she was recognized, they faced her and snapped to attention. "Hello, ma'am," they said in unison; their voices having robotic undertones.

"At ease," she ordered. "I trust you've been briefed on the mission?" She waited for their nods before continuing. "We have a long journey ahead of us, to an unknown target. It could be a legit colony ship very late to the party and needing our help. It could be a trojan horse, masking pirates or some other surprise from Earth. It could be a ghost ship, coming in on automatics, the crew long gone. At this point, we have no idea what it is. So be ready for everything and anything."

"Aye ma'am," Silverbolt said.

"We're ready for it all," Slingshot added.

She eyed the two young rangers, then peeked behind them at their ships. Silverbolt's ship was spotless and being loaded up quickly. Slingshot's ship, despite having been docked for weeks, was noticeably less spotless. The technicians seemed reluctant to go in and finish the loadout. She sighed, making a note about the young spacer for later, and refocused on them.

"Right. Check with the quartermaster and review what's on your ships. We'll approach this as a rescue mission until we know otherwise. Load out appropriately. We launch on the hour."

The griffin nodded as they acknowledge the orders, and turned away. She knew she only had forty minutes before launching, and she intended to make the most of them.

ECS Lodgepole

"We can't keep letting them die! Not when we're so close!"

"If we wake everyone who is dying up, we're all going to die. We don't have the resources to feed and breathe everyone."

"We're months away from the Colony, if we stretch and tighten our belts a bit more-"

"If I tighten my belt any more, I'll be cut in half. We don't have enough to feed everyone now. A few hundred, a few thousand more people will break us."

Adam sighed and sipped the thin broth that was his dinner. Around him an old argument was roaring. It was mainly between Revenants who hated the idea that their fellow sleepers were dying in their sleep, and the Descendants who had lived with the harsh realities of the ship's closed environment. It was mainly the more recent Revenants that made that argument. Adam was part of an older group of Revenants, who tried to stay out of it. They'd been awake long enough to know the Descendants were mostly right; their environment was forever on the verge of catastrophic collapse. But they also knew that if it was one of their friends or especially if one of their family was in a failing pod, they'd be arguing hard to wake them up. Adam suspected the Descendants realized that, and purposefully kept the population level lower so if a Revenant needed to make a strong case for a family member, there would be enough slack to wake them.

"Is this spot taken?"

Adam looked up, recognizing the one armed revenant he had yelled at earlier that day. "Not at all; have a seat Claire."

Claire McDonough set her tray down and sat on the bench. She sipped at her own broth and sighed softly. They were both on the same meal schedule, still days away from their share of solid vegetables.

"Would you have really sent me to the mines?" she asked after a moment.

He shook his head. "Nah, not for a dropped pod. It's a toothless threat. I'd just have made you make sure you cleaned up every drop that spilled."

She grimaced and smiled. "I think I'd prefer the mines."

"So would I sometimes. But it's a job that has to be done."

They stayed silent for a moment, sipping the broth and listening to the chatter around them. Adam decided to speak first, with the most common ice breaker on the ship. "So how long have you been up?"

She put her bowl down and smiled back, "Just a year. Lucky me I guess?"

"A year? Wow, And you're only just now starting to work the pods? I don't think I've seen you around much."

"I was in the gardens for most of the time. Doing what I could to keep them growing. But... well..." She paused and lowered her voice. "There just isn't much work left for the gardeners any more. Hard to garden what isn't growing. It was getting depressing, so I transferred."

Adam glanced around as well, but no one was paying them any attention. They both knew that sort of talk was dangerous to do in the open; keeping morale high was imperative. "Well, you'll do fine with the processors, once you get the hang of it."

"Doing it one handed is tricky, but yeah, I'll sort it out eventually."

They paused, hearing the room grow silent around them. Captain Jewel Birdwell climbed out of the central shaft, followed by a navigator and the rest of the senior staff. They reverently moved to the left side of the room where a mural of Sol and Earth had been painted at the start of the journey. They began to walk slowly around the room, following a line marked on the wall. On the right side of the room, a similar mural showed Pharos and Zharus. The line stopped centimeters away from Zharus.

"Attention please," Captain Birdwell called out. Birdwell, like the rest of the Descendants, was shorter than the Revenants. She wore the faded overly patched uniform worn by the first Captain Birdwell. The room immediately fell silent. The navigator took out a ruler and carefully extended the line a few centimeters closer to the star.

"Another month has passed, and our journey is that much closer to the end. We are a mere thirty-one light-hours away from our destination. Even with our foggy eyes, Pharos grows brighter every day as the great engines drop us into the system. We are mere months away from our new homes."

She paused, letting the crew cheer. "With our destination so close, it is tempting to relax our vigilance, to slack off, knowing the end is near. We cannot do that. There is a dangerous time coming. We need to wake up systems that have slept for centuries. We need to prepare our current home for travelling in a crowded unknown solar system instead of the empty depths of interstellar space. And we need to make sure our environment remains secure, keeping us alive until the very end. Every duty is important, every job must be done. And the light of Pharos will shine on us all, guiding us home."

She smiled to reassure everyone and the senior staff moved to mingle with the Crew as chatter started up again.

"Thirty-one light-hours," Claire muttered. She looked up at the ceiling, doing some math in her head. "A hundred-and-sixty-some AUs from Pharos. That puts us in the Scattered Disc. Lots of comets and small rocks out here. I'm surprised we made it through the Oort Cloud safely."

"There's a lot on this ship that's had to go right to put us on Zharus's doorstep," Adam said. "And we're almost there."

"If there's anyone there to meet us," Claire said even more quietly.

"I guess we'll find out one way or another soon." Adam shook his head to shake the morbid thought away. "So where are you from? You sound like you're from out east."

"You got that right, I'm a Bostan gal," she said, drawing out her r's and vowels. "We were out of the city when it went up, and ended up in the Portland refugee camp."

"Portland? Wow! I didn't think they set up a refugee camp for Boston on the west coast."

She laughed, harder than the misunderstanding warranted, but it was a true laugh, something that was rare on the ship. "No silly, Portland Maine, not Washington. I guess you're from the West?"

He chuckled as well, "Yeah, I guess that is obvious. From a place just outside Edmonton. I never knew there was a Portland Maine."

"Most don't, there's not much there but the old Interstate and the ferry to Nova Scotia. So Edmonton was it? I guess you couldn't go home after the bombs?"

"Home was in the south of the city, in the fallout zone of the misfire. Leduc was glowing when we left. Hopefully it's good now."

"I should hope so. Not that we could find out." She thought hard for a moment. "You must have run east then, into the prairies? How close were you when it went off?"

"We were west actually. Running from Calgary. My sister was about to start university down there when the warning came in. We ran for the hills and just got out of range when it went up."

"Wow, lucky."

"Incredibly lucky. A day later, and we would have lost Tracy. A day earlier, and we'd probably have been home and caught in the misfire."

She nodded in agreement. "Lucky indeed. So your family made it through; Are they here?"

Adam nodded. "Mom, Dad and my sister. All still sleeping. How about you?"

"Just me and my two moms. They're still sleeping on deck twelve south."

"Sleeping for just a bit longer," Doctor Linda O'Brian said, slipping into the conversation. The doctor smiled at the pair, "Another year or so and they can be woken up and you'll be reunited."

Claire smiled and nodded back. "Yeah, I can't wait. It's been so long." She paused and glanced at Adam apologetically. "While I have your ear, can I talk to you a moment? Girl stuff?"

Adam stood up quickly with his tray and grabbed Claire's empty tray. "That's my cue to go. I'll see you later. Don't be late, we're going down to deck fifteen tomorrow."

He left the trays and dishes in the pile to be cleaned and headed to the central shaft. He climbed down, following a route he could travel in his sleep, climbing down to level five. He crossed around to the east quadrant and used the dim glow of status lights to guide him to the last row of blocks. He climbed into the second block, working his way in deeper until he found a trio of pods he knew well. One status light was yellow as it'd been for the past year, but everything else was stable. His decision was put off for another day. He patted Tracy's pod, then climbed up between Colin and Darlene's pods and dozed off.

Pharos Scattered Disc, 30 light hours out

"Pharos is down... Pharos is down... Pharos is down..." The refrain had been repeated constantly on the local com channel as the trio of rangers left Xolotlan to meet the unknown spacecraft. Two Milano-class ships and a space-rated Concorde jet plane, all kitted out for deep space travel, crawled away from the star towards the anomaly.

"Hey 'Bolt, when's your next therapy session?" Slingshot asked, interrupting the mantra.

"Next month, when I rotate back to Colossus," Silverbolt said from the space-Concorde.

"Not a month too soon. Whose bright idea was it to send an EI with deep space phobia out to Xolotlan base?" Slingshot said.

"I'm sorry. I thought it was under control, and my therapists thought it would be a good experience. I wasn't as prepared as I thought."

"And we're all paying the price. Why couldn't we have gotten the griffin Silverbolt instead?"

"Because this team already has a griffin on it. And from what I heard, this Aerialbots team was your idea, Slingshot. So you only have yourself to blame. Now, settle down boys. We're here. Time to put our game faces on," Petra interrupted the banter. The griffin integrate ranger had been studying the ancient ship they were approaching, trying to make sense of it.

"Slingshot, launch probes on the North-South plane and go north. I'll take East-west, going west. We'll meet up at the peak. 'Bolt, you hang back on overwatch and keep the DINComs warm. They stuffed our comms full of 'em for a reason. Keep everyone back home informed about everything we're seeing."

"Aye aye ma'am." the greenhorn Rangers said, getting serious now that the mission was live.

The ancient ship superficially looked like something out of the history books. Layered in diamond-shaped armored panels gave it a pinecone shape, wider at the stern where the ion-thrust IDD engines roared, trying to slow it down enough to reach Zharus. A goal they would miss if nothing was done. Everything they could see indicated it was what it appeared to be; but they all knew pirates had been getting more and more creative. Considering Earth's recent stunt with the Steady Hand, they also couldn't ignore the risk it was a repeat performance; the possibility this ship was a trojan horse was impossible to ignore.

"Look at the shielding, it's almost worn completely away," Slingshot noted as they started their flyby. "Any markings were lost long ago."

"Yeah, they certainly aged it appropriately," Petra agreed. "It's also completely silent. Not broadcasting anything. In fact, I don't think it's even looking out; all the sensor pods seem dead. I can't do any intie tricks from out here."

"I see an airlock... and wow... It's welded shut from the inside. You're not going to open that up."

"I see a second airlock. Looks like it's sealed up too," Petra noted. "More and more suspicious. The third is sealed and the fourth... ouch, that's a lot of damage. There's a big chunk of the ship missing here. It's amazing they didn't blow out the entire pressure hull."

"Are you seeing these life sign scans? About two-fifty warm bodies I think, and another million corpsicles."

Petra nodded, confirming with her own readings. "From the outside it is looking legit. Let's move to the next phase."

The pair of rangers met up at the peak of the pinecone to compare notes. Petra drummed her talons on the control panel of her ship, waffling. "And still no reaction, despite us hanging out right in front of them. We could reach out and tap them on the nose, but they don't seem to see us. Still it might be a trap. That's a lot of people to have awake for those old pinecones."

"Well, looks like something already tapped them in the nose. They may not have much left to see with. It's not as bad as that airlock blowout, but it's not good either,," Slingshot noted. The nose of the ship had taken a hard glancing blow at some point a long time ago. Very few of the sensors, if any, had survived the hit.

"That does make it tricky. It's a miracle they haven't hit something else yet. They must be navigating purely by math and engine thrust."

Silverbolt let out an amazed whistle from his position as he reviewed and compressed the sensor data. "Look at all these age signs. This thing's been out here for a long time. Generations even."

"Impossible," Slingshot countered. "The Pinecones aren't set up for generation ship use. Not enough room, not enough power. Not enough, well everything."

"Yeah but it looks like they pulled it off anyway. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that. Or they're all sensor ghosts and there's a fleet of pirate ships lurking in there ready to blast us out of sky," Petra said.

"I think I'd almost rather the pirates," Slingshot said. "Two hundred years in that tight tincan? I can't imagine what it must be like in there."

"No need to imagine. We're going in. 'Bolt, let HQ know what we've found so far. I'm going to make my own airlock, Slingshot you follow me in."

"Better you guys than me. Don't think I'd fit in there anyway," Silverbolt said. "Alexi has greenlit your plan. He says to make sure you're live streaming, Zordon's watching."

"I always am."

Petra moved the Varyag in closer, randomly picking a spot on the hull about a third of the way down from the peak. Internally she could tell she was midway between the wall that divided sectors and the large cargo elevator shaft that had been used to fill the quadrant with sleepers. It was on one of the upper level of sleepers. The first block of sleepers were a few meters from the hull at that point, leaving enough room for her.

The integrate left her own cockpit and floated over to the ancient ship, landing lightly on the hull shield. Her wings, extended for the flight, flickered and melted away to give her more maneuverability in tight quarters. She flexed her paw and scratched, the metal flaking away easily.

"Damn, there's nothing left of this shielding. They're lucky they haven't been holed yet," she noted as she guided an equipment pod to her position.

"I doubt their luck would hold much longer. The closer they come in, the more debris there is; on this trajectory they're bound to hit something," Slingshot noted.

"Then let's introduce ourselves and see what we need to do to make sure they don't smash into anything."

Petra spread out a shield ring big enough for three people and set it on the hull of the ship. It clung tight and lit up with a hardlight dome. While the dome filled with air, she carefully scanned the hull under her, sketching her new entrance to make sure it would be between support struts and in line with the floor of the ship. The hull had multiple layers of insulation and radiation protection but no apparent surprises.

"Any reaction yet?" she asked, after setting up the cutter.

"Negative," Slingshot and Silverbolt both replied.

"Piercing the hull and taking an air sample," she said, using a hollow punch to hole the ship in the middle of her planned door. A balloon filled with a bit of air and started sampling it.

"Wow, people are breathing this?" Petra said as the readings came in. "Air pressure is about point six atmos, oxygen levels are down to sixteen percent, humidity is minimal. It's technically survivable, if you happen to find the air on Everest too thick; but I wouldn't want to breath it. It also stinks to high heaven."

"If you can smell it, you know it's bad... sir," Slingshot said.

Petra let the comment pass, focusing on the next stage. "Cutting the door now," she said after adjusting her own dome's pressure to be slightly above the ship's pressure; she didn't want a blowout in either direction due to a pressure imbalance.

The cutter lit up and easily burned into the hull. It spun in a quick circle, the higher pressure pushing any debris into the ship. Petra held onto the chunk of plating when it started to bend in, feeling the dome's pressure changing around her. The cutter finished, leaving her holding a two metre thick chunk of hull plating over a hole big enough for her to enter. She pulled the hull section out, and inspected the opening. Below the remains of the heavy shielding, it was made of multiple layers of insulation, radiation protection, and a self sealing foam that had dried to dust ages ago. Close to the inside surface, some of the layers had wiring for power and fibre optic cables. The wiring obviously hadn't been live for years.

"I've got an entrance guys. I can sense the ship's networks, but there isn't really anything out here I can tap into yet. I'm going in. Slingshot, give me five then follow me." she said, describing her actions for the record.

"Yes ma'am," Slingshot confirmed, moving his ship into position.

Petra trusted her teammates. Without waiting any longer, she floated into the ship, feeling its own gravity tug at her. She turned slowly before dropping the last few centis to the floor.

"I'm in a large quarter circle room, roughly fifty metres tall. It's filled with blocks of cryopods. The nearest block is about five metres from me. I can see the doors to a lift on the edge of the hull here. They look like they are sealed shut. Man, these things are huge. Can you imagine doing this without cavorite? Hauling the frozen folk up and wheeling them into position before locking them in?"

Petra shook her head and followed the hull until she reached the edge of a cryopod block. Looking down, she could see another block of cryopods. "Normal layout for Pinecones was to divide each level into quadrants; ten blocks per quadrant in a one-two-three-four pattern. Looks like this one matches that. Must've been a bitch to get the last two blocks into place. I'm not picking up anyone."

"Alexi says they can see all that. They want to know if you can do any intie tricks," Silverbolt relayed.

"I'm getting to that. Give me a minute; the blocks are wired into the ship, but it's an ancient network protocol. If this is a trojan, they've really paid attention to every detail."

Midway down the block was a control panel for checking the status of the pods and to rearrange them. She placed her talons on the screen and extended her senses, her DIN flickering into activity at the base of her neck.

"I'm in...." she said slowly. "Very simple network in the block, but it is linked to the main ship.... Wow, these protocols are ancient. I think it's actually using IPv6."

She followed the signal paths through a router, and traced it into the core of the ship. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she froze, not wanting to touch anything.

"I... I'm in guys... But I don't know what I'm in," she said, her virtual self not moving. She was used to diving into modern systems, where everything was orderly and well defined. Even if someone tried to obfuscate the system, the underlying order was impossible to hide and easy to understand and exploit by inties. In this case, the system was so obfuscated, she wasn't sure if there was any underlying order left.

In virtual space, she was on a vast plain of data. Ancient ziggurats of databases towered over her, most dimly lit in low power standby modes. The more active areas were threaded between the ziggurats, thick with activity, but not moving much either; the entire system felt sluggish, minimally powered but still alive. Hacks crisscrossed everywhere, glowing threads linking random systems for unknown purposes in a fragile web that pulsed with the life of the ship.

"What's wrong?" Silverbolt asked.

"This system, it's a mess. I can't make heads or tails of it. I'm scared to touch anything in case I end up crashing it. It's a Heisenberg system; just looking at the damn thing risks changing it."

"Really? Damn. Is it intentional?"

Petra looked around carefully, keeping her presence as light as possible, nudging a few threads to peek at their connections and to try and guess their purpose. "You know what? I don't think so. This looks... natural. Someone didn't deliberately try to make it this way, it's just what you get when you have two centuries of hacks and patches and workarounds built on the original system."

"Impressive," Silverbolt noted. "The wardens wants to know if you can find a ship ID in there anywhere, without crashing it all."

"I'm looking. I think I see something...." She shifted her focus and stepped through the virtual muck and around the vines of the ship's systems. She found a spot where the virtual gunk was thinner, and was able to brush it to the side. "I've found a file date.... May 12th 2307. e-Sangri Inc."

"e-Sangri was a tech company associated with SangriCorp. That was one of the minor East Asian corporations of the 24th, known for cutting corners to cut costs. They were bought up by one of the conglomerates responsible for the Kepler colony in the 2320's," Silverbolt reported, relaying information from headquarters. "There are no records of any colony ships to Zharus at that time, but they were involved in the first fleets in a minor role."

"Not surprised there aren't any records," Slingshot added. "I remember the history courses I took. There were a lot of nukes flying around in those days. Pretty chaotic. Between the nukes and ecological disruptions, it's like one in three people were a refugee. It wasn't hard to recruit colonists."

Petra nodded and continued her virtual inspection. She stepped over to a ziggurat, and fed it a bit of power. The ancient database began to glow, shadowy letters forming on its surface. She squinted, making out words on a virtual wall, mostly covered by gunk. "I think I see something, it's written on a one of their databases... O... D... G... E... P... O... the rest is all covered."

She sensed movement in the Real, an unexpected change in the air, but before she could react, something slammed into the base of her neck. Her DIN shattered, sending a wave of pain through her body and knocking her out of the ship's systems. The lack of DIN also knocked her out of communication with the other Rangers.

ECS Lodgepole

A steady beeping jerked Adam back to consciousness. He sat up, banging his head on the cryotube. Ignoring the pain from his temple, he checked the tubes around him, and was relieved to see their status was unchanged. He tracked down the beeping to the pink phone he carried with him.

"Hello?" he growled, rubbing the growing bump on his head.

"Hi Adam, sorry to wake you. I know it's your sleep period. It's Hakim down in Engineering."

"It's okay, almost time to wake up anyway," he said, glancing at the time. He frowned and groaned, seeing there was still two hours before he was due back on duty. "What's up?"

"Got a glitchy pressure sensor near you. It's reading an increase in air pressure. You're the only one in the area, so we need you to check it out."

"An increase in pressure?" Adam confirmed, waking up more. "With no decreases anywhere else?"

"Nowhere else that would make sense. The other sensors around it are also showing upticks.... And now an O2 sensor is reading higher. Can you check it out?"

Every molecule counted in their sealed world. Everyone on the ship knew that and lived by it. Pressure decreases of any sort meant a loss somewhere that had to be tracked down. Pressure increases were unheard of. That meant something had entered their sealed system, which was impossible.

"I'll check it out. Give me the location."

"It's in your quad, out near the hull. North east corner."

"On it."

Adam crawled to the edge of the block and paused a few rows from the end. He could already tell something was wrong. There was a light at the edge that wasn't normally there. On top of that, the air smelled and tasted different; it was fresher somehow. He looked around and found a pry bar left behind to help move jammed pods. He grabbed the weapon and moved closer to the edge of the block.

He came out near the top of the block and froze. The deck was seven layers below him, and the dark hull of the ship faced him. Near the level of the deck, there was a glow, brighter than the Lodgepole had seen in a long time. A glow coming from outside the hull. Adam squished a momentary panic from seeing the opening, realizing air wasn't gushing out into the vast emptiness. In fact, from the way a piece of insulation fluttered in the opening, it seemed like air was rushing into the ship. The glow or something related to the glow was keeping the air contained. He took a deep breath and felt surprisingly energized; the air was cleaner than he'd tasted since Earth.

Movement caught his attention, drawing his eyes towards the middle of the block. A humanoid figure, over two meters tall, was standing at the controls, touching them but doing nothing else. Her back was mostly turned to him, but the curves were unmistakably feminine, assuming feminine applied to whatever she was. Her head was covered in white feathers that turned brown on her back. The feathers themselves seemed to glow slightly, and there were three brighter glowing spots at her shoulders and the base of her neck. The neck glow came from a gem that was flickering brightly. Around her hips, somewhat hidden by her shorts, the feathers softened and turned to tawny fur, complete with a tufted tail that twitched in the air behind her. Her hands resembled golden talons, while her feet more resembled large cat paws. He watched her for a few seconds, but she didn't move, not even to activate the console she was touching.

He carefully and silently moved another row down so he was almost right above the strange creature. From that angle, he could see the golden beak and feathered breasts. She didn't seem to be wearing anything but a pair of shorts. He adjusted his grip on the pry bar and silently jumped off the side of the block.

He didn't shout or give any other warning. He brought the bar down on the figure, aiming for the glowing panels on the back, figuring those would be important. The figure moved slightly, and the bar came down on the back of her neck, shattering the crystal there.

Adam heard her squawk in pain as she fell forward. He also heard someone shout behind him, just before his body ignited in pain.

Slingshot jetted over to the colony ship and slipped into Petra's hardlight dome. A countdown showed he was only at four minutes. "Close enough," he mumbled, and crossed over into the ship.

He spotted Petra at a control panel a short distance away. At the same time, he spotted a figure dropping down onto her. Before he could give a warning, the man slammed a bar into the back of the Ranger's neck. The Ranger sprawled forward, her squawk cut off in mid-transmission.

"Petra!" Slingshot shouted, raising his arm. He fired his stunner, knocking the man to the floor in a twitching mess.

"What happened? Petra's offline!" Silverbolt shouted on the comm.

"A crewman got the drop on her," Slingshot said, scrambling the rest of the way into the ship. He made sure he looked up and all around watching for any movement. The only movement was the twitching assailant and the slowly moving integrate. Her loss of focus had made her wings reappear. He launched a series of microdrones from his armor to expand his eyes, and rushed to her side. He paused just long enough to make sure the native wasn't recovering too quickly, and to claim the blunt weapon.

He crouched near her head, looking her over, seeing the silvery blood staining the back of her neck. "Petra, are you okay?" he asked out loud, hearing her groaning. The griffin's taloned hand rubbed the back of her neck, getting sticky with the intie blood.

"I think so. Give me a sec... Damn he got me good." She kept rubbing a moment then plucked a few gem shards from among her wet feathers. "Dammit! He got my DIN!"

"You've got spares right?" Slingshot asked, glancing over at the native. The man was still twitching and showed no signs of getting up.

"Not on me. I haven't popped a DIN in years," Petra grumbled. She started to sit up, only to feel a wing catch on a pod. She snarled and flicked it back. "I've got spares on my ship.... Somewhere. I can't remember where. I'll have to go back to get another."

"Too bad we don't have time for you to do that," Slingshot noted. "We need to finish first contact. Silverbolt, tell Alexi that Petra is fine, with a bad neckache and a broken DIN. We don't have time to get her back online just yet."

"Roger. Do you need me to come in?" Silverbolt asked. Slingshot put him on speaker so Petra could hear as well.

"Negative. Despite the goose egg on my neck, this doesn't seem to be a threat. This situation feels genuine. If it is a fake, we deserve to be punked. Stay out there on overwatch; you'd have a hard time getting in here anyway."

Slingshot looked over the block of cryopods. "Damn, this place is full. And most these things are still active. If the rest of the ship is like this, we're about to have a Rip Van Winkle population boom."

"Alexi says thanks for the hot potato, and wants to know if they should scramble yet?" Bolt asked.

Petra shook her head and moved to the native. "Not yet. The ship is in bad shape, but it's not on fire at least. Let's talk to the native first, get the lay of the land, and then call for a scramble so we know we're bringing the right things."

"Whoops! Here comes the Big Head. Zordon says its not your call. They're issuing a Colony Ship in Distress All Ships call. Xolo is already emptying out and en route."

Petra sighed and rubbed her neck once more. "Fine fine. Well, why don't you go to my ship and get a spare DIN for me. I think there are some left in the drawer next to the fabber. Our pet native seems to be about to recover."

The two rangers watched the shocked man, amazed he was actually alive in this environment. He was pale as a ghost, and emaciated. His threadbare clothes were clean, but stained and seemed to contain more patches than original fabric. He was bald, with dark spots staining his skin.

"You missed his phone," Petra noted, nodding to the pink device laying just out of reach.

Slingshot stared at it, then started to reach for it. "That's a phone? I thought it was a medicine container or something."

The phone lifted up and floated into Slingshot's hands. He turned it over carefully in his hands. "Damn, this thing should be in a museum. Nokia? Isn't that one of the brands the Steaders brought back?"

"Supposed to be indestructible or something. One of those lines that kept getting restarted through the years. He seems to be waking up. Maybe you should take your helmet off, show a human face."

"Take my helmet off? In this atmosphere?"

"Turn your fans up and you'll be fine. I've been smelling this mess since I came in; you can endure it for a few minutes."

Slingshot grumbled and retracted his helmet, revealing his bald head. Petra started waving her hand in front of her beak. "Woo-ee! When was the last time you were out of your suit?"

"Oh come on, it isn't that bad. And you might want to pull your wings in."

Petra glanced to the side. "Oh right, forgot about that."

She concentrated a moment, and the wings retreated, melting back into the pods on her shoulders.

"What are you?" a heavily accented voice asked.

The Rangers turned back and saw the young man was sitting up, rubbing his arms. Both knew what he was feeling as the stunner wore off.

Petra knelt down in front of him, out of either of their reaches. "My name is Petra, this is Slingshot. We're Pharos System Rangers. We're here to help."

Adam laid on the deck plate, the pain of the shot fading away, leaving immobile limbs that tingled almost as painfully. He saw an armored humanoid step over him and take the pry bar before checking on the strange woman. Somehow she had grown huge brown glowing wings that stretched across the corridor.

The armored figure helped the winged woman up. She was obviously pissed, tossing fragments of the gem he'd broken onto the decking. They started speaking out loud, and Adam was surprised he could understand them. The accent was heavy, and he had no idea what many of the words were; but they spoke English.

He laid there, experimentally moving his arms and legs as the tingling started to fade. When they turned their attention to him, he froze. Somehow, the phone that had landed just out of reach lifted up and floated into the armored one's hands.They turned away and started talking again.

Adam managed to fight through the itchy feeling and sit up. He saw the armored one retract his helmet, revealing a bald human head, skin glittering strangely. He couldn't see the face clearly, but what he saw looked human. The bird woman seemed to concentrate and her wings melted away, pulled back into her somehow.

"What are you?" Adam asked, deciding he'd seen enough and wanting answers..

The pair turned back to him, and he almost lost the confidence he'd been building up. The furry bird woman, griffon a memory dredged up from childhood legends told him, crouched near him, out of reach.

"My name is Petra, this is Slingshot. We're Pharos System Rangers. We're here to help," the bird woman said.

Adam's world spun. Most of the words didn't make sense to him, save one. The one that had guided them since Earth. Pharos.

"We... We made it," he said, not believing it.

The griffin... Petra... smiled. He couldn't quite understand how a beak could smile, but she managed it somehow. "Not quite. You still have a little ways to go, but we'll take you the rest of the way. We'll make sure you get there."

Adam didn't believe what he was hearing. After so long, he couldn't let himself believe it. He had to be hallucinating somehow, it was the only explanation that made sense; he fell out of the stacks and hit his head. Hell, he'd attacked them with no warning, and now they were offering to help; it was too good to be true.

The armored man crouched down. "Sorry about the stunner, but you were attacking my commander. We're all good now, just a simple misunderstanding," he said, offering his armored hand.

Adam shook it slowly, "Right...." he said, internally swinging from hope to despair and back. "My name is Adam. Adam Teal, from Leduc."

"Nice to meet you Adam. What ship is this? When did you leave Earth?" Petra asked.

"It's the ECS Lodgepole. Launched from Earth in 2321."

"What? Damn, that's what? About two centuries?" Slingshot asked, glancing at Petra.

"Close enough. What happened? A Pinecone should have been able to make that trip in a quarter of the time."

Adam groaned. "What didn't happen? It looked so good on paper at the start, but looks can be deceiving. This ship is built cheap, from the cheapest contractors. Didn't have enough power to go anywhere really. But we made do, we knuckled down, and... and... and we made it." Adam almost whispered the last sentence, not believing it yet..

"Damn... Damn damn damn!" Petra cursed. "Bolt! Where's my DIN? Get a message to Zordon, we need everyone out here yesterday."

A shadow appeared in the opening Adam had almost forgotten about. A robot climbed in, taller than Petra. He had silvery arms and a black chest and head. Adam figured it must be another armor like Slingshot, though he couldn't figure out why someone would need an armor that big.

"They're already coming, Boss. Here you go," the larger man said, tossing a gem to the lady. "The big heads are waiting for you to get back online."

Petra caught the gem, and felt around the back of her neck somehow pushing it into place. She smiled at Adam, a smile that mixed reassurance and the confidence of someone looking forward to tackling a new challenge. "And now things are going to get interesting. Adam, this is Silverbolt, the third member of my team. What he and I are will come later. For now, we need to get going. 'Bolt, bring the three ships in, we're going to start giving these guys some fresh air. Slingshot, work with Adam here, call whoever's in charge and say help's here. I've gotta burn up the tachyons and sort out what's going on."

Separator k.png

Petra popped into an already crowded meeting. To save the DINComs, everyone was just listed as names which she translated to personal avatars.

"Woah... Full house," she said as the list of attendees resolved. There were people at the meeting from Zharus to Rhodes to Xolotlan, and everywhere in between.

"Welcome back, Ranger Petra," Zordon greeted her. "What do you have to report?"

"Thank you, I'm sorry for the sudden drop off. Just goes to show that sometimes someone with a stick can take out a battleship." She took a moment to compose herself.

"In any case, I do believe this ship is legitimate. It's a colony ship from Earth that is very overdue. And it needs all the help we can offer it."

"Are you positive? You've barely seen any of the inside of the ship. It could have been a setup," Alexi asked.

"Very positive. Our entrance location was effectively picked at random. There would not have been time to establish a blind without us noticing it. And frankly, everything is just too old and worn out. If I wasn't seeing it and standing in it myself, I'd never believe this could be spaceworthy." She paused, "Correction, it is NOT spaceworthy by any sane criteria. Those first Apollo rockets were safer than the Lodgepole is now."

"How are they still alive?" Commander Lee asked. "The Pinecone-class had a seventy year lifespan at best, and most would fail well before that. Getting to Zharus was a stretch for the good ones."

"No idea. That's high on our list once we speak to more of the crew. Their dataspace is too jury-rigged and MacGuyver'd together. I don't dare dive back in there until everyone is off and we can search without risk of crashing the ship. It's going to be quite the story I'm sure."

"We've already got the legal team online, setting up firewalls to make sure no one scoops them. They don't have to accept our help, but we'll make sure no snake oil salesmen take advantage of them," Zordon said.

"In any case, an All Ships call has gone out across the system and via DINCom. You're still far enough out that it will take some time for help to get there, but it is coming," Lee added.

Petra was silent for a moment, realizing the weight of the news. The last All Ships call had been the Wednesday Disaster seventy years ago, when every FTL-capable ship had set off to save the foundering colony. This time, the disaster was closer to home, and home was a lot bigger, even with the resources tied up at Totalia.

"I'm stunned. Thank you. I'm sure they will appreciate the help, once I figure out who they are."

"They're getting it whether they appreciate it or not. For now, you're in charge out there, so we won't keep you much longer. Keep us informed of any new developments."

"Of course. Thank you sir," Petra said, a bit humbled with the weight being assigned to her.

Petra signed out of the chat and paused, taking a look at the traffic map. FTL communications was changing the face of disaster response. The All Ships call essentially reached all of the populated areas of the Pharos system at once; Zharus, Colossus and Xolotlan. Ships took off at once from all the locations, mainly Rangers at first as they were ready to go at a moment's notice, followed by the Scouts who were similarly always prepared. Other ships that needed more time to prepare would come at their own speed, bringing more resources that the first responders couldn't bring. As the signal propagated at lightspeed through the rest of the system, more and more ships caught it and signalled their intention to offer help. The response was humbling.

Separator k.png

After the orders were given, the griffin woman became distracted. The robot retreated from the hole in the ship, effectively leaving Adam alone with the armored man. Slingshot wasted no time putting his helmet on, leaving Adam looking at a strange robotic face. It was weird that of the three he had met, the strange griffin was the most human of them at first glance.

"What is she doing?" Adam asked.

"Talking to our leaders and probably some other important people, bringing them up to speed," Slingshot said. He offered the phone back.

"Talking to your leaders? Just how close are we? Are we beside something and never realised it?" Adam asked, ignoring the phone.

"You're still basically in deep space, about thirty light-hours out. The people she's talking to are probably at our headquarters on Rhodes, that's around Colossus, the biggest planet. Though she's probably also linked in with our home base on Xolotlan and to folk on Zharus too. I'm sure you guys have triggered a lot of interest. You want this back?"

Adam took the phone back. All colonists knew the layout of the Pharos system, and knew roughly where they were calculated to be, though their position in relation to the bigger planets was purely guestimated. "So she's making a report and we should hear a response from the closer people tomorrow right?" he asked, giving up on the math and deciding light-hours was a safe estimate.

"Oh no, she's talking to them realtime." Slingshot grinned, seeing Adam's expression. "Yes, lightspeed is no longer a barrier. We broke it physically a few decades after you left, but it's only really good for travelling from star to star. More recently, we just cracked it for in-system communication. Good for cross system talk, not so good for talking between stars yet."

The griffin shook her head, her focus returning to the other men. "Well, that was interesting. Things are going to get very busy out here."

"Busy? Why?" Adam asked.

"An All Ships call just officially went out. I thought 'bolt was kidding earlier, but it's for real. This is about to become the most happening middle of nowhere across the universe. Or at least across human space."

"But you're not human!" Adam shouted, finally getting a point across he'd been struggling with since he saw her.

"You finally noticed," she said with the strange beak grin. "You're right, I'm not human, not any longer. Part of me was one once, long ago, but the hows and the whys are a much longer story then you have time to listen to right now."

She stepped past him, going to the hole in the hull. She looked out, looking pensive. "We're about to get a lot of visitors, probably tomorrow when the first Rangers and scouts get here, and more all the time after that. We need to get you guys ready so you won't be future-shocked into uselessness."

For the first time, Adam approached the hole. The first thing he saw was the stars. Huge balls of fusion light-years away that he hadn't seen in three years, or two hundred years depending on how he counted it. Two vaguely bird-like ships were floating nearby, too small to be this far into space. The view was partly marred by a hazy glowing dome emitted from the ring around the hole. Equipment was stuck to the hull, including the thick multilayered chunk of hull that had been cut out. As he watched a third ship came into view, looking more like an ancient aeroplane than an actual spaceship.

"How?" Adam asked again.

"See? Future-shocked. Just trust us, it's real, it works, and we'll explain it as we can. But first, we'd better get your command crew involved. Can you call them and ask them to come down here? Try not to make too much of a stir. You might want to get whoever your chief engineer is and your head doctor too; we'll need their help to figure out all that's needed."

"You want to meet them here?" Slingshot asked.

"Close. I want to meet them on my ship." She pointed to one of the ships that was starting to get bigger. "That's the Varyag, my ship. Meeting there will give us a chance to wine and dine them... or maybe water and vitamin them would be more appropriate, and help them get used to what's coming," Petra explained. The approaching ship began to twist around to orient a hatch in its rear to the opening.

"Not my ship, sir?" Slingshot asked.

"Gods no! I wouldn't inflict your ship on Shahrazad. You can't even keep your armor clean, your ship should be condemned as uninhabitable."

Slingshot looked chastised, but still smiled. "It isn't quite that bad, sir."

"Sure it isn't. Soon as we get back to base, I'm going to do an inspection to see just how bad it is." Slingshot paled inside his armor and fell silent while Petra refocused on Adam. "Shouldn't you be dialing or texting or something?"

"Right! Sorry! Sorry..." he mumbled, not sure what he was going to say. He knew who to call, but he also knew the phone network had more ears than a corn field.

He thought a moment, then started tapping on the phone, sending a text to Linda O'Brien.

Something important is up. Need to see you and Captain ASAP at my family's block. Do not show to anyone but Captain.

He sent the message and hoped no one else would see the message come in before she got it. He didn't know Captain Birdwell well enough to contact them directly, especially when trying to be subtle, but Linda could arrange it. For the engineering, he realized he had an easier way; the call that woke him up seemed so long ago.

"Hakim here, what did you find Adam?" the engineer answered immediately.

"I found the source of the pressure increase," he said carefully. "But I could use a second opinion on how to handle it. Could you come down here as soon as possible?"

"Sure, I'll grab a team and a toolbox and be right down."

"NO!" Adam shouted and quickly regretted it. "No team, just you," he said in a quieter voice. "It's important that it's just you."

"Riiiiiight, just me. I'll be right there," Hakim said and hung up. Adam's heart fell; he could hear the suspicions and knew that he'd blown it.

"Not the smoothest delivery, but it'll do, kid," Slingshot said.

"I tried, but everyone's going to know something is up before they get here now."

"No worries, we'll handle it one way or another. The main reason we wanted your leaders was to give them a chance to get ahead of this. Secrets don't stay secret for long on places like this," Petra said.

Behind her the light from the hole darkened and changed. A pulse of cool fresh air shot into the ship from the hole. Looking through the hole, Adam could see the rear of the ship was practically touching the colony ship. A glowing tube extended out from the hatch at the end. It sealed around the opening and darkened, seemingly turning to a metal corridor with no hint that there was space outside. The floors were mostly lined up so it would be easy to walk from one ship to the other.

"You're welcome to come aboard if you wish," Petra invited.

"Not yet," Adam said, suddenly skittish. The nagging voice at the back of his head was still saying it wasn't real, it was a hallucination, that he was steps away from stepping into darkness. "But... but you might want to wait out of sight. They are all Descendants, they may not react well to aliens."

"And you're not a Descendant?" Petra asked.

He shook his head, "I'm a Revenant; I was thawed out three years ago when my cryopod started failing.. Lucky me I guess."

"Well Descendant or Revenant or whatever, you'll all be welcomed home. I'll go warm the fabber while Slingshot keeps you company out here. Is there anything I could get for you?"

"Get for me? Like what?" Adam asked, confused again.

"Anything at all, for the most part. Any food you've been yearning to have since you woke up? I understand your diet options are probably extremely limited here, so I won't make you anything big, but a sampler is doable."

He didn't believe that anything could be made, so he limited his thoughts to what he felt would be normal for space people to have on board a small ship like that. "How about a chocolate bar? I haven't had one in forever."

"I don't even need to warm up the fabber for that," she said stepping out of the ship and heading to the other ship. "Just wait a minute."

While he waited, his phone buzzed with a message from Linda. On our way down.

It was copied to Hakim and a number he vaguely recognized as Captain Birdwell's. It was confirmation that they knew something was up.

"Here, catch," Petra called out. He turned and saw a foiled wrapped block flying towards him, followed by a bottle of water. He raised his hands and was surprised when they stopped in midair like his phone had floated away earlier. They hovered in the air, waiting for him to take them. He looked at Petra who just smiled and waved. "Enjoy!"

He cautiously took the objects, feeling their weight land in his hands. He gave Slingshot a confused look.

"Yeah, inties like to show off a bit when they feel they can," Slingshot confirmed. He leaned against the hull next to the entrance, looking relaxed but obviously on guard.

Adam wanted to ask more questions, but the smell from the foil wrapped bar was getting to him. He hadn't smelled it in years, and it smelled glorious. He unwrapped it, and saw the glistening milk chocolate bar, a colour he'd almost forgotten existed. Barely restraining himself, he snapped a pair of squares off the end, then broke the squares in half. He popped it into his mouth and nearly died, the creamy sweetness hitting him like a velvet wrecking ball. It brought tears to his eyes. "Oh, Lord…"

"Don't eat it all at once; you'll make yourself sick," Slingshot advised. "Hey Petra! You should've made a snack size bar."

"I know, but I had the full one on hand, so I made do. I've got the fabber working overtime to make sure we give them a proper welcome."

Adam finished the second square and forced himself to rewrap the rest of the bar. He stared at the bottle of water, not recognizing it; the water was clearer than anything he'd seen in years. Finally he uncapped the bottle and sniffed it. The water did not smell like it had been badly filtered after a million cycles through the ship's mechanical and biological plumbing. It was tasteless, gloriously tasteless.

He finished the bottle before he realized it, and looked longingly at the foil bar in his hands. Before he could decide to take another square, he saw Slingshot twitch, looking more alert and studying the stacks. Listening carefully, Adam heard a slight change in the ship noises, the sounds of people silently moving through the stacks, getting into position.

"They're here aren't they?" he asked. The ranger nodded.

"Adam! Where are you? What's that smell?" Hakim shouted from a side corridor.

Adam moved to the entrance of the corridor and waved, the smell of the slightly staler air made him gag; he was surprised at how fast he was getting used to fresh clean air. Hakim, he realized, had never not smelled the ship they were flying in; this was completely new to him, and novelty was a dangerous thing on the Lodgepole. "Down here, Hakim! You've got to see this!"

The engineer came down a couple more rows before stopping again. He was clearly confused. He'd been training on the Lodgepole's systems since he was a toddler; he knew them backwards and forwards, and he'd never sensed them do anything like he was feeling now.

"Adam, what the hell is going on? What's gotten into you?" Hakim asked.

"Something wonderful, but I don't know how to explain it." He looked at the foil bar in his hand and reluctantly threw it towards Hakim.

The engineer jumped back, and there was a clatter as the watchers in the racks reacted. Adam waited as Hakim cautiously approached the bar, the crinkled wrapper shining like a spotlight in the dim light. After all the years, nothing on the ship had a shine like that. He picked it up, not even noticing what it contained.

"Did you raid a pod? Are you hoarding?" Hakim accused. There was another rattle in the stacks; hoarding was a capital offense. Hoarding accusations, especially from senior crew, was a heavy charge.

"Nope, come on, you've gotta see this. I can't explain it, I'm not sure I believe it myself." Adam could feel the rush of sugar flooding his system, making him giddy. He forced Hakim's hand by stepping back around the corner.

Hakim raced to the corner and stopped short. His mouth fell open, seeing the new additions. Slingshot raised his hand and waved. "Ahoy there. Permission to come aboard?" he asked, looking at Hakim. He shifted his gaze up, solid blue 'eyes' focusing on two other spots. Adam didn't follow the gaze, but heard more movement above as the watchers moved.

"What the Void did you do?" Hakim asked. "Did you damage the hull? Who is that? Did you wake someone up for some twisted prank?"

"He did no such thing," Slingshot said. "It was my commander who damaged the ship. Since you welded the docking ports shut, we had to make our own own entrance. Don't worry, the seal is solid and we are replacing anything you may have lost, and then some. We only intend to help you."

Slingshot bowed, sweeping his arm forward. "But please, excuse my manners, I am Slingshot, of the Pharos Rangers. And I welcome you to the Zharus system."

Hakim's mouth opened and closed multiple times, and Adam saw his own reactions reflected in the engineer. "It is real. It's all real," Adam said, reassuring his friend and himself, finally quelling the lingering doubts that had been lurking since he first met the rangers.

Slingshot was doing his level best to keep his composure. The spy drones had reached inhabited areas of the ship, showing a population as thin as the people in front of him. If the leadership warranted perks, dibs on the food was clearly not one of them. His first impulse was to ignore diplomacy and to toss every single one of them into a medpod post haste.

"Perhaps we should bring your companions here, so everyone can listen and ask questions at once. There are two people in the blocks in front of us, and two more people one block back. I assume the ones in the back are your doctor and Captain?"

Hakim struggled to decide what to do, finally waving to the stacks. "I can't handle this by myself. Get Jewel and Linda," he called out.

Slingshot straightened up and watched the cube. "Your runners going back to fetch the others. They should be here shortly." He reached into a panel in his side and pulled out a clear plastic bottle. "Water?"

Hakim stayed back like it was radioactive. Adam was tempted to take it, but stayed back.

"How are you doing that?" Adam asked. "Know where everyone is that is."

"Simple heat detection, echolocation and a few other tricks. The suit is doing all the work and keeping me informed. Helps cut down on the fog of- err cuts down on confusion," Slingshot explained, avoiding mention of the autonomous micro drones that were spreading through the ship to give the Rangers a better view of the situation. "Ah-ha! Here they come now."

Four people came around the corridor, one Revenant like Adam and three Descendants. They all had the thin, emaciated bodies Adam had, wearing the worn out well patched clothing. Captain Jewel Birdwell had slightly newer clothing as befitted her rank, but was otherwise as thin as the rest. The Descendants were about a head shorter than the Revenants.

Slingshot gave the Captain a salute. "Captain, ma'am. Welcome to the outskirts of the Pharos system. We just detected your ship and scrambled a welcoming committee."

They stared at him, unable to process what they were seeing.

:Your helmet, stupid. Don't make me lock it open,: Petra sent from inside.

Slingshot mentally grumbled and triggered his helmet open. Seeing a human face seemed to help them recover.

"Welcome...uhm...Slingshot? I apologize for the lack of proper greeting; we were not expecting visitors well, we weren't ever expecting visitors," the Captain said, finding her tongue.

"Especially way out here," Adam pointed out.

"Unfortunately your comms are out, and you welded your docking ports shut, so we had to make our own entrance without alerting you ahead of time. My apologies for the mess we made of your hull," Slingshot explained.

"Please let me be the first to welcome you. And to assure you that you are not alone. As we speak, thousands of people and dozens of ships are rushing out to join us. They will be here in the days to come, ready to offer any and all help they can." Without a prompt from Petra, he revealed his hand and offered it to the Captain.

Everyone waited for the Captain to respond, not believing what they were hearing. She looked at the armored man, then at the opening in the hull. She sniffed the air, cleaner than she'd ever experienced in her life. Tears welled in her eyes that she blinked away rapidly. She shook the offered hand, to buy herself more time to recover. Finally, she started to speak, coughed and spoke again. "Thank you for your warm greeting. I honestly am at a loss for words. To finally see our destination after such a long journey. Don't worry about the damage, we've had worse, and it was for a good cause. I'm so sorry we weren't able to greet you properly."

"My grandpappy ordered the airlocks sealed decades ago because they were leaking too much atmo," Hakim said, shaking a little. "After the last space suits failed, there didn't seem to be a point to go outside anymore."

"You did what you needed to do, and you're here now so it was a success," Slingshot said. "Luckily, we are very experienced in space rescues, so it was a minor hindrance at best." He reoffered the bottle of water, this time to the captain.

She took it, and seemed unsure what to do with it. "We can appreciate all the help you can give. We're still months out of system, I never thought anyone could meet us out here."

"Pharos is a booming system, in a good way, as you'll see soon. The most populated world in human space, both on and off planet. About four billion people--a shade more than Earth herself! We Rangers keep an eye on our outskirts, in case anyone needs help. Of course, you were a bit of a surprise. A lost colony ship, we thought we got the last of them ages ago. The descendants of the Glorious Thunder are going to be annoyed; they had the record for the most delayed ship until now."

Slingshot reached back through the opening and retrieved more bottles of water, passing them out. Adam was sure the bottles hadn't been there earlier, but hadn't seen anyone bring them out. He assumed Petra had gotten them there with her magic floating ability.

"As I said, as we speak, there is a rescue fleet on the way. One of the largest in Pharos history. Practically every ship that can make it out here, and that is a lot of them, are coming. Considering the age and known limitations of the Pinecone-class, it seemed prudent. Even on the best of runs, they weren't the most reliable. No offense intended."

"We know, Mr. Slingshot. We know the limits very well," Hakim said. "All those cut corners, trying to jury-rig something just to make it work and keep us alive..." he sighed, and a weight seemed to lift off his shoulders. "But it worked, we made it."

"Not yet, Hakim, we are still in space," Jewel corrected him.

"True, and we'll need your expertise to make sure you make it the rest of the way in. But the days of limited resources jury-rigging are ending," Slingshot confirmed.

The two guards had taken the offered water and sipped it cautiously before guzzling it down, bliss showing on their faces. One looked mournfully at the empty bottle and offered it back to Slingshot, "If you don't mind me asking, are you human in there? Is that just a suit?"

"It's mostly a suit," Slingshot confirmed. He crushed the plastic bottle and put it in a compartment in his thigh. "Inside, I'm mostly human, though I do have many enhancements that you may not be used to. A lot of improvements to make me resistant to vacuum and hard rads. A legacy of my spacer heritage. If I wanted to, I could go outside completely naked for fifteen minutes without suffering any ill effects. With a battery pack and an oxygen mask, I could probably last an hour. Not that I make a habit of going into space naked. At least, not since I graduated from school."

"I can't begin to count the number of times that sort of ability could have come in handy," Hakim lamented.

"Is that normal for people on Zharus? I thought it was a big Eden world."

"It is, but not everyone lives there. The first spacers that terraformed the world stuck around. We have quite the spacer civilization out there, and an extra couple of centuries of space experience. For myself, I've only been to Zharus a couple of times after I joined the Rangers. I'm a fifth generation Spacer on both sides."

Slingshot pondered a moment. "As for the planet, those people have their own quirks. Lots of regular humans, but a lot more folk too as you'll see soon. Not aliens, but..., well I'm getting ahead of myself."

"This is a lot to take in," Jewel said. "And I have a feeling it has barely started. We knew a lot would happen, that we're basically a time capsule. But this is incredible."

:Well, that's as good as an entry line as any. Bring them in Slingshot. I'm ready,: Petra sent.

"I hate to sound like I'm making a threat, but you ain't seen nothing yet. My commander is ready to meet you now. If you thought I was strange, wait until you see her. Don't worry, she doesn't bite, and she is friendly." Slingshot stood away from the opening and made a sweeping arm gesture, inviting them to step inside.

"That is putting it mildly," Adam commented.

Slingshot grinned at Adam. "Ranger Petra has been preparing for you and she is ready now. If you would step this way, the Varyag awaits you."

No one moved for a moment, realizing what was being offered. No one had stepped outside the ship in decades. It was a step into the unknown. Adam, most familiar with the Rangers (if only by a few minutes) broke the deadlock, stepping over the lip and into the strange metal tube that was linking the ships. The gravity field was steadier than he was used to, almost making him stumble. The strange bridge held his weight between the hulls, a tunnel of clean, clear air blowing past him. He took a few more steps, going outside the Lodgepole for the first time. Petra's ship and the tube blocked the stars, but he knew the hull was behind him. Somehow he was walking away from it gravity pulling downward even on the bridge between the two ships. He didn't know how it worked but he rolled with it, keeping his footsteps steady all the way into the waiting ship.

Hakim followed next, followed by Linda and the captain. Birdwell motioned to the two others, "Stay here, keep everyone away. Rumours are already spreading, but we've gotta keep this quiet until I figure out what is going on."

They nodded and spread out along the corridor, taking up position to make sure no one would be able to come close.

"We'll send out some food for you guys shortly," Slingshot offered. "Don't worry, we have plenty to spare; an absolute embarrassment of riches coming."

Separator k.png

Adam forced himself not to look as he entered the strange ship, the first Lodgepole person to step on another ship since they left Earth. He knew if he looked too closely he'd freeze up and block the rest of them. He'd glimpsed the ship as it was coming in, seeing an empty room with lockers on the sides of a space big enough for a dozen people. That alone was incredible; he had no idea how a ship that small could have that much space inside and operate this far from anything.

Once he was inside and past the hatch, he let himself look at what he was seeing. In the few minutes Petra had been away, she'd transformed the room. Thick aquatic blue curtains covered the walls, covering the metal lockers. One table was set up with fruit and veggie trays, a coffee urn, water and juice pitchers. A smaller table was in the middle of the room, a solid-looking hologram of Zharus floated over it, in greater detail than he had ever seen. His heart clenched, conflicted by the familiarity of the situation. It reminded him of the setup for parent-teacher conferences and other general meetings he'd attended with his parents back on Earth. Four years ago for him, a few months before the world fell apart, he had attended a get-together for incoming UCal students and their families that had a lot of similarities to this. Two hundredish years later, he was able to sample from familiar snack trays on a strange ship on the outskirts of a new solar system. He wondered if all of these ranger ships regularly stocked party supplies when they went to the outskirts of a system. Behind the curtains on the other end of the room, he could hear a strange humming and sensed a large figure moving around.

The three Descendants followed him onto the ship and stopped at the threshold, barely giving the next room enough to get in. Slingshot was forced to wait in the tunnel that linked the ships, unphased to be standing in a tunnel between ships. They looked around blankly, obviously having a difficult time figuring out what they were seeing.

"I'm curious," Slingshot said from behind them, breaking the ice. "What did you expect from us as you arrived? The first Pharos spacers were arriving when you left. The Colonists would've had a few years to prepare before you arrived. But a lot more time has passed; did your expectations change?"

Jewel found her voice, looking back and realizing she was blocking the threshold. She took a few more steps in before answering. "We hoped we'd find a thriving colony. We feared Zharus might have failed, or worse, ended up like Earth was going when we left. Nuked to hell and high water. But no matter what, we had no choice but to keep going, letting the Light of Pharos guide us and lead us to our fates one way or another."

"Well, fate has lead you true," Petra said, stepping out from behind the curtain at the end. She set down another tray of cheese and crackers and moved to the table with the planet display. She now wore dress slacks and a vest with her Ranger shield. There was no hint of her wings.

Adam gave the Descendants time to come to terms with the griffin ranger, and took a moment to more carefully examine the planet. All of the colonists and descendants knew it well from the probe data; it was the Goal, their Destination. It deserved every capital letter they threw at it. Their own mess hall had a painting of it, centred on the Gondwana continent. The shapes of the supercontinents and the islands scattered in the oceans were familiar to them all. Built off of local knowledge instead of probe data, the hologram was much more detailed. Laurasia and Gondwana were covered (or fringed in Gondwana's case) in Earth-green, while Rodinia was still the bluish-green the probes had shown. Chains of islands and isolated island groups spotted the vast oceans. Some were larger than Australia, but on the megaworld, they seemed tiny.

On the first two continents, spots of grey were scattered in the greenery, labelled with names. Landing City, Zharustead, Nujose, Neo Francisco, Aloha, Uplift, Cape Nord, Nextus; he read the names of the cities as he walked around the globe, amazed at how many there were. He was surprised to see a number of location markers deep in the desert of Gondwana; Cave of Wonders, Wonderland, Camelot, Alpha Camp and more. The central desert looked as habitable as the Sahara or the Gobi or the Outback did back home, but there were apparently thriving communities there.

Two cables lifted off the surface, reaching into space, near markers naming Omphalos and Aloha. Without thinking, he reached up to the hologram and his hand bumped into the cable over Aloha. His hand jerked back, surprised to have actually bumped into something, even as the globe began to spin like a top. All eyes were suddenly focused on him and the spinning planet.

"As Adam just drew your attention to, that is Zharus, your Destination. And he just gave people on the Alohavator the ride of their lives," Petra said.

"What? I did what? It was an accident!" Adam sputtered.

Petra laughed and grabbed the spinning globe by the other elevator cable, stopping the spin. "It's just a hardlight model. No sophants or cargo were actually harmed," she said.

"So...just what are you?" Linda found her voice and asked.

"As you can imagine, there's been quite a few advances over the past few centuries, including a number unique to Zharus. I'm what is called an Integrate; a techno-organic 'evolution' of humanity that happens to resemble a mythological beast. Part of me began life as human as you are, and some nasty events lead to the me you see before you," Petra said. "The other part of me was 'born' as a 'Reticulated Intelligence'. Basically, it is a true, conscious AI based off of animal instinct templates. Being an Integrate means being a blending of the two minds via nanotechnology.

To fully understand what an Integrate is, you'll all need a bit more background. I'll get to it as I can, but don't worry if it is meaningless babble to you. Eventually it will start to make sense."

She studied the face of the crew and realized they were getting fearful. "Don't worry, plain vanilla humans are still around, and we all get along. You were unlucky to get an Integrate, a Spacer and an EI as your welcoming committee. EIs being the cousins to RIs, basically grown AIs without the animal templates. All gibberish to you, but it will come. In any case, the ships coming will have more normal folk, or what counts as a normal person on Zharus."

Around the room, the walls lit up, pictures of strange cities filled with towers reaching for the sky. There were people shots as well, showing people eating at restaurants, enjoying themselves on the beach, having fun in an amusement park. Occasionally there were strange robots, and many of the cars had strange animal traits. There were even large earth-animals in some of the pictures. Nature scenes, and shots of the elevators and distant city shots were also mixed in.

The slideshow managed to distract the Lodgepole people, showing them what their new home would have. Adam watched for a bit, but other smells were wakening fresh memories; things he hadn't tasted in years. He made his way to the snack table and tried to decide what he wanted.

"I've checked with the medics and they advised me not to go whole hog on the food options. I doubt you've had much variety since you were woken, so we're keeping it simple until you grow used to real food again," Petra said quietly, slipping over to him. "Still, unlike them you've had these before, or something like them. So I'm sure you'll appreciate the variety."

Adam nodded eagerly, his hand hovering over the options. "I've had these before. I remember them all... Peppers, carrots, tomatoes.... I remember I hated broccoli." He picked up the offensive vegetable and dipped it in the ranch dressing. He chewed it thoughtfully and swallowed. "Still hate it," he concluded, grinning foolishly, "But loving that I can taste it again."

"So what have you been eating over there?" she asked.

"Not much, and less every month it seemed. When the Lodgepole left Earth, it basically had a hold full of people and some housewarming gifts for a new colony. We expected the bigger colony ships to handle setting up everything. Luckily there was a small hydroponics garden and a meat vat for the crew on the journey. And we had a small seedbank in the house warming hold. When the First Crew realized they were on the slow route, they robbed the bank and expanded the hydroponics to make it stretch as far as possible and beyond. There were a lot of failures, and our options have been shrinking. We're down to enhanced broths basically, with some solids every week." Adam grabbed a plate and loaded up on baby carrots, pepper strips and other fresh food. "The gardens are in bad shape.We've been losing plant lines steadily, and were down to just some basics, tomatoes, cukes, and so forth. The last of the vat-meat died five years ago. If it weren't for mushrooms, we'd probably be out of protein."

He looked at the plate and realized just how much variety he was looking at. "How the hell can you have this much fresh food all the way out here? Your greenhouses must be huge."

"Out here, it's mainly fabricated food. Everything here was printed molecule-by-molecule," Petra said. "But you can still get everything fresh as you like on Zharus. Natural food is popular out there. Make sure to try the kraken when you get there, it's a local native delicacy."

Adam gave her a strange look and moved to the side. Now that he had proven the food was safe, the others were beginning to sample. Each piece of fruit, each berry, each vegetable slice was examined carefully and tasted with utter amazement. Petra made sure to identify each one as needed. Slingshot loaded another tray with similar options and took it outside for the watchers.

Petra manually pulled some chairs over near the planet display. She sat down and motioned for the others to sit.

"Now that you're fed, and a little more on the level with us, it's time to outline what will be happening. But first, we could use some information from you. Ballpark numbers will do for now, outlining how many souls you have on board, awake and asleep. As well as the most urgent things you need handled right now. Focus on things you need to keep living for right this minute. If an engine is about to die and it isn't going to explode or isn't needed for power generation or something, then it can die. Same goes for people; if someone is on their deathbed, get them over here now. Otherwise, we'll start getting you fresh food, water and air, and taking care of your injured as best we can."

"Hakim and Linda can start preparing that for you," Jewel said. "Off the top of my head, we have two hundred and fifty-five awake, split roughly fifty-fifty between Descendents and Revenants, and we're all in similar physical condition. All told, we've lost close to eighty thousand passengers to failing cryopods or other damage since we left. So we still have over a million sleeping."

"For what it's worth, no one is on death's door, at least no closer than anyone else. Lots of broken bones, strained muscles, nerve damage from freezer burn and so forth but no illnesses, and no one dying soon,," Linda confirmed. "The ship itself was sterile when we left, and luckily the Revenants didn't have anything that affected us. We've managed to keep the pharmacy machine working. Well, mostly working."

"Same for the ship in general; everything is 'mostly' working. No pressing emergencies--the really bad stuff happened about fifty years after we left--but I can make a list for you of what would make things better. We're in a precarious state. The Lodgepole is just very, very old."

"Good enough for now," Petra assured them. "We can work details out later. Now, I'll describe what's going to happen in the next few hours and days. We have a few hours before the first wave gets here from Xolotlan."

Before anyone could ask, the planet view shrunk down, more planets and Pharos appearing. Labels appeared, showing other habitats. Zharus, as big as it was, was a tiny dot by the time a You are here marker appeared. More dots appeared showing all the known ships on the way out. There were dozens of them, some of them surprisingly close to the You are here marker.

"Xolotlan? Wasn't that one of the Habs the Spacers originally brought with them?" Adam said between mouthfuls. "You're still using it?"

"Off and on. It was mothballed for a few decades until space got active again. We're still using Rhodes as well, though you'd never recognize it. It's the heart of Spacer civilization here. Ashoka's around too, even more mothballed than Xolotlan."

"And all those dots, all those ships will be here soon?" Hakim asked, not believing it.

"Pretty much. Engines are a lot better now, especially with cavorite and other tricks. Zharus to here is a day's trip for most ships, faster for some types. Since we probably don't want to be crawling home with you, we'll figure out some way to get you some new engines to get home faster."

There was a beep and a line appeared at the bottom of the display. Call from Zordon. Ranger Headquarters.

Petra grinned, "I suppose I should take that. It's the big head himself; my boss's boss."

The space display shrunk down and moved to float over the food table, and a glowing blue bald head appeared.

"Commander Petra here, you're on with the command crew of the ECS Lodgepole, sir," Petra greeted the head. She pointed and introduced them, the head following and nodding.

"Greetings. Welcome to Pharos system," Zordon said, his voice having a slight boom to it even at the lower volume Petra kept the comm at.

:I wonder if he'll be disappointed we only found one teenager with attitude.: Slingshot asked privately.

:Shush you,:

"Thank you. It's been a long journey that I'm happy to be around to see the end of," Jewel responded.

"And we are happy to receive you," Zordon said.

"That is a fast response. Were we lucky and came in next to your station or something?" Linda asked.

Zordon laughed, along with Petra. "That would have made things too easy," he said. "I'm at the Ranger Headquarters, in a station near Rhodes around Colossus."

"So this is what? An automated agent or something?" Hakim asked.

"Nope, it's real time communication. The light speed communication barrier was broken just a few years ago, but it has some hiccups they're working out. Interstellar Faster-Than-Light travel was invented about ninety years after you left," Petra explained.

The room fell silent as yet another shock went through them. Adam had already gotten through it, so he was able to see the descendants come to terms with the revelation. The big floating head turned to look at each of them, then back at Petra.

"This thing still on?" he asked.

"It's good, sir. Just another shock."

"Faster than light travel..." Hakim mumbled.

Petra nodded. "When it was discovered, it wasn't much faster than light speed. So Earth to Zharus was still twenty years. We've been improving it a lot since then. Now, it's down to about eight Earth months. We regularly get cruise ships from the other colonies and Earth."

"Eight months," Linda squeaked. "We took two hundred years to crawl here, and people were zooming past us all along the way..."

"As you might suspect, FTL travel isn't in real space. So they weren't exactly zooming past you. Still, you are basically right."

"You said Earth? Earth is still around?" Adam asked.

Petra nodded, "Still around, still going strong. A bit... actually a lot politically coo-coo, but the planet's still spinning and people are living the good life there."

"When we left, it didn't look that way," Adam said quietly. "Everyone was threatening to push The Button and some of them were even doing it."

Petra reached across to take his hand and squeeze it. He was started at the texture of her talons, but accepted the reassurance. "I'm sorry, I didn't think of that. For us, that's ancient history, but it's still new to you, isn't it?"

Adam took a deep breath, "Very new. My family was in Calgary at the time the Rebels made their threat. Dad got us on the road, and we were in the mountains when it lit up. That was just four years ago for me. Even less for them when they wake up."

There was a moment of respectful silence. "Don't worry, we'll help you handle everything," Petra said quietly.

Zordon's head nodded as well. "That is the problem with cold sleep, it isn't healing."

After another moment, Zordon spoke again, "Right, my apologies for rushing, but time keeps on slipping. The first Rangers from Xolotlan should be arriving any time now, followed soon after by the first scouts. They'll coordinate with Petra and Silverbolt on how best to help."

"Have them be fabbing food and clothing and blankets, even simple toiletries. Help these people feel like people again will help," Petra said.

"The bigger ships will be a few hours behind. They're responding to the calls, but they take more time to load up and get ready. And most of them are coming from Zharus and Rhodes, so they have further to go."

"A few hours behind. They're coming from across the star system, and you're apologizing for them being a few hours late," Jewel said incredulously. "A distance this ship is still months from crossing by itself."

Zordon smiled at her, "As we said, things move a lot quicker now. I don't know if anyone there remembers it, but the Star Circus is in town and heard the call. The Great Eastern core ship just finished its preparations and is lifting out from Zharus orbit. They should be there early tomorrow morning, Z-Space time of course."

"The Great Eastern? That sounds familiar," Adam mused.

"The Great Eastern was one of the Proxima colony ships. Is it the same one?" Captain Birdwell said. "What's this about a Star Circus?"

"It is the same one," Petra said, "Updated and refitted through the years. It's now the heart of a circus and exhibition that cycles between the colonies. It helps keep everyone linked together."

"In any case, we all have much to do, so I'll leave you to it. It was good to meet you," Zordon said, the head nodding to Jewel.

"Thank you," she said, not sure what else to say. The head flickered out.

On a side channel while Zordon met with the crew, Silverbolt called Petra. The integrate barely reacted, splitting her attention.

:Commander, I'm trying to figure out how to connect to the Lodgepole but I don't like the hull stress readings. If we try to pressurize any more than she is, she might pop like a balloon:

:Ugh, I was worried about that. But these people need air. They need everything, and help is still hours away.:

:We can keep the pressure mostly constant and run their air through our filters. We just need to know where to punch in.:

:Yeah, pushing a hose through the hull in the middle of their cafeteria may not be a good first impression.: She sighed and considered her options. :Give me a few minutes to figure something out.:

After Zordon left and the Lodgepole people were getting refills, Petra caught Hakim's eye and gestured him to come over. "Sorry to interrupt your meal, but we have a challenge. The third member of my squad is trying to help with your air problem. We can't pressurize any more until we get help, but we can start cleaning up what you still have. We just need to know where to punch into your air system."

"Punch in? Through the hull?"

"If necessary. We need a spot we can make sure our good air can reach the most people. We'll probably be making more holes before all is said and done, but we'll minimize the damage and keep it as cosmetic as possible."

Hakim rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Because you wouldn't want to damage a beauty like this. Well, there are a few spots that might be good, depending on your flow rates and tube lengths."

"Pick your top five, and we'll handle the rest."

Hakim thought for a long moment, licking dip off his fingers. "I can think of a few spots, but they're hard to describe if you don't know the layout.."

Petra lifted her hand and projected a live view of the Lodgepole. "Well then, maybe you can show me where you have in mind?"

The Engineer had only seen the surface of his ship through fuzzy external cameras. A dozen of the diamond shielding segments were gone, the largest area coinciding with the loss of forty thousand Passengers and an entire lower quadrant about fifty years after launch. He reconsidered his options, seeing the ancient damage. "I didn't even think of that, it's been sealed off for so long but it might be easier for you. Down there, though the damaged zone. We lost an entire quadrant due to a hull break along with way too much air. We had to seal it off from the inside. You can easily reach the main life support lines from there, just behind the temporary bulkheads. That would be the best place to access those systems from outside now, I think."

Petra closed her hand, making the image disappear. She sent the highlighted section to Silverbolt to check out. "Thanks, we'll give it a good look and see if it will work."

Hakim nodded, "Sure. If that doesn't work, there are a few other places that might be more accessible."

She studied him and smiled. "How would you like to take a look outside? See things with your own eyes?"

"Really? Uhm... I don't think I have time...."

"Sure you do." Petra waved and spoke louder, "I have one more thing to show you, if you'll come with me."

She pulled down one of the curtains, showing the rest of the room. The fabber was humming, pushing out fresh clothes. Stacks of water bottles, ration bars and fresh fruit were stacked next to it. Petra indicated a ladder upward and climbed up.

Hakim followed first, and stopped at the top. He was pushed forward by the rest as they came up and saw the stars for the first time.

Petra sat in a chair to one side to give them the most room in the cockpit. She began to point out the stars in the sky, highlighting them as needed. "Earth is that way. The Centauris, Kepler, Eridani, and Wednesday, are there, there and there. Those are more colonies some of them founded after you left.

"Totalia is hidden by the nebula over there, and NeoRus and the rest aren't visible from this angle. Finally, Pharos is down that way." They followed her finger only to look at the opaque floor. "Of course you can't see Pharos easily from here because you're coming in butt-first," Petra grinned. "I could have projected a view, but I want you to see everything au natural."

Linda spun slowly, looking all around. "There are so many of them. The cameras could never do them justice. The Revenants would talk about starry nights, but I never imagined they were like this."

Hakim lowered his gaze from the stars and looked at the hull the ship was docked with. He'd seen images with the cameras, but this view was clear, making the age and decay all the more obvious. "It's worse than I expected," he said. "We had ten centimeters of the hard diamond plate shielding when we left. Now, just a puff of solar wind and it's gone."

"It's done its job, better than expected," Petra assured him. "Two hundred years of interstellar atom blasting; I'm sure people back home will be eager to examine it. In any case, it got you here, where it mattered in the end."

Captain Birdwell sighed and turned back to the ladder. "Thank you for your hospitality, and everything. I don't know where to begin to thank you for this."

"None needed. Anyone brave enough to cross the gulf between stars deserves respect. To make it work despite all the odds makes it all the more incredible. You and all your passengers deserve a rest now, a chance to meet your new home and get settled."

"True. Still, I need to get ahead of the news somehow, and get everyone prepared for what is coming. I take it those piles down there are for us?"

"You got it, and more as it is made. I've already got Slingshot and Silverbolt's fabbers making more, but we'll have to ferry those across."

"Thank you again. It's too much. I don't know what to say... I don't know what I'm going to say? How am I going to tell everyone what happened?"

"Captain, just tell them we've Arrived," Hakim said. "And the colony sent help to bring us in. That's the truth. That's all we need."

Slingshot waited for them as they left the cockpit. He held a stack of clothes in his hands. "It occured to me, if you are bringing a new world to your crew and passengers, you should look the part," he said. "There is a full change of clothes here for each of you in 24th century Colonial Corps colors. I've already given sets to your friends outside. For everyone else, we're making more as fast as possible, but it may take a bit of time to get done."

"What? Already? But how? Nevermind," Jewel shook her head in disbelief. "Too much," she repeated.

"Nah, this is trivial. If there is one thing Zharus is known for, is for having a change of clothes ready at a moments notice. Well one of the many things Zharus is known for." Petra chuckled over an inside joke the others didn't get. "My bath area is just over here. Only room for one or two I'm afraid. If you really want to shower, feel free, but I doubt you want to take the time."

Adam closed his eyes and felt guilty for many reasons. The grey cotton shirt and pants felt far too luxurious. The pants even had a elastic waistband to keep it snug, as did the fresh underwear he now wore. Elastics were too precious to be wasted on clothes; when the miners returned with new clothes, any elastic bands were carefully pulled free for more important uses. Part of him reminded him it wasn't real cotton; it had come out of the magic box somehow; but it felt just like he remembered. He felt guilty for putting his dirty body into the clean fabric.

"It itches," Hakim grumbled, tugging at his own shirt. Like Adam's, it had Lodgepole across the chest. Unlike Adam, Hakim also warranted a vest, black with yellow shoulders and a Chief Engineer insignia on the left sleeve. "But I think they got the uniforms right. They look just like they do in the First Crew pics."

"We pulled up some historical records for the uniforms. When we have more time, we can make a bigger wardrobe for you," Slingshot said.

"Wardrobe?" Hakim asked.

"More clothes, clothes for specific occasions. Things to wear while your other stuff is being washed," Adam explained.

"But that's so wasteful...."

Slingshot chuckled and offered two badges, with a stylized pine cone rocket on a starscape, and ECS Lodgepole circling around it. "Here, keep these on you. They will let you call Petra or me, or anyone else who shows up here. Just tap it twice and say your name so the system recognizes who you are. Then tap once and say who you want to call, including anyone who has a badge. The attendant will ask if it can't figure out who you are trying to reach. If someone's calling you, it will chirp and vibrate. Tap once to answer. Remember, the calls aren't private, anyone around you can hear what you say and what they say. My ship is making more of these as we speak; we should have enough for everyone that's awake by the time our friends get here."

They followed the instructions and tested calling each other, then pulled the curtain to the side. Jewel and Linda were already dressed with their own badges. Both had vests as well, red shoulders for the captain, blue for the doctor. Captain Birdwell was putting her phone back in the pocket of her own vest.

"Everyone has been woken up and gathered in the cafeteria for an all hands. It's a tight fit, but it won't be long," she reported. "Lots of confusion, lots of rumours, everything from aliens to another failure. Apparently someone started a story about needing to do a cull; we'd better get going before that one gains any traction."

"Everything is packed in boxes on the carts out in the corridor. We'll follow you with the gifts, let you break the ice and play it from there," Petra said, pointing back to the ship.

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Stepping back onto the Lodgepole made them all stumble and gag. The air stank, was too thin and didn't seem to sustain, no matter how deeply they breathed. Fans and ductwork were stretched between the two ships, letting Petra's life support chip away at the Lodgepole's oxygen deficit.

"I'm tempted to tell 'Bolt to just purge it all and refill it from our ships, but we don't have near enough air," Slingshot said.

"What do you care? You're breathing your own air," Petra taunted back.

"I think we're good. Never realized just how bad this was," Jewel said, her gasping slowing down a bit.

"Not for much longer. Shall we go?"

The Rangers followed behind the crew through the twisting path that lead between blocks of frozen Terrans to the central core of the pinecone. Adam reached the empty elevator shaft and swung in, climbing up the ladder without hesitation. He paused, realizing no one else was following.

"Something wrong?" he called back, dropping down a few rungs to check.

"I'm trying to figure out how we're going to get all this stuff up there," Jewel said. "That's a lot of stuff and the lifts haven't worked in a long long time."

Petra chuckled, "You didn't notice? The boxes are on antigravity lifters. They are their own lift. Just start climbing and Slingshot and I will get them up."

The Crew seemed doubtful, but started climbing. Petra and Slingshot pushed the gifts in after the last Crew, and let them float in mid air. The Rangers further surprised the Crew by ignoring the ladders, floating just below the gifts under their own power.

"How is that possible?" Hakim asked.

"Cavorite, discovered soon after you left. A real life version of upsidaisium. Grants fine gravity control and can be made artificially," Slingshot explained. "If you want, you can hitch a ride on top of the gifts, that load is nowhere near the limits of the lifters."

"I'll pass," Hakim said, climbing faster to catch up with the others.

The cafeteria was built into the level just above the last Sleeper level. It was the largest open space on the entire ship, and now it was full with the entire Crew. Petra and Slingshot hovered out of sight in an elevator shaft built alongside the central core. The shaft dropped for half a klick before the remains of the lift clogged it. Through their microdrones, they watched the crowd of crew mingle and gossip. While it was easy to tell Revenant from Descendant, none of them looked healthy.

"Those starving folk in TwenCen Africa would be feeding these guys," Slingshot noted. "How are they even moving?"

"Pure willpower and gumption, I think," Petra said, equally amazed. "Did you know that they basically live on broth? Once a week they get a few vegetables."

"Damn, we need to fatten them up Petra."

"Baby steps. We've all reviewed the advice from the docs. Stuffing them too much will just make them sick."

When the Captain and others climbed into view, there were gasps of surprise. Silence spread through the crowd, obviously confused about what was happening.

Captain Birdwell climbed onto a table near the open lift, smiling at the wide eyed people staring at her new clothes. Some of the closer ones reached out and touched the legs of her pants before pulling back their hands like they had been shocked.

She stood there, looking around and letting everyone take in what they were seeing. Linda and Hakim stood behind the table, equally visible. Adam and the two guards stayed around the lift, occasionally glancing down at the patiently waiting Rangers who were floating in midair with their gifts. Jewel was obviously having a hard time deciding what to say. Ultimately, she decided to keep it simple.

"Everyone, thank you for coming. As you can see and may have guessed, I have fabulous news. We have Arrived in the Pharos system, and Zharus has reached out to us."

Cheering drowned out anything she might have said, the sense of relief palatable. Despite the dire situation everyone was in, an end was in sight. Doubts were gone, and hope had returned.

Jewel waited a long moment, letting people cheer themselves out before raising her hands for silence. She still had to wait until the noise died down. "Three Pharos Rangers have arrived. The Rangers are a group of peacekeepers that watch space in the system. So when they spotted us on the way in, they came right out to see what we were doing. Once they discovered our situation, they offered us all they can provide. Food, clothing, water, air, everything we could need. And more are coming as we speak. For the first time ever for many of us, we'll have more than we could ever dream we could have."

Cheers erupted again, with most eyes turning expectedly towards the guarded lift. Jewel waited before speaking again.

"I do need to warn you, these Rangers may look very strange, but their hearts are in the right places. I'd like to invite them to come forward and to start distributing their gifts. Please, do not mob them, be patient, everyone will get something, and more is coming."

At the captain's cue, the Ranger's honor guard started moving forward, the two uniformed guards and Adam gently pushing the crowd back. Like the captain, their new clothes were tugged at, but the crowd knew the importance of following orders, and gave the required space.

Slingshot lifted into view first, towering over the crowd. He waved and smiled, trying to seem friendly even with his helmet up. Many backed up further in shock, most were too stunned to move at all. He turned his back to the crowd and pulled the first floating cart off the lift, a cart filled with ration bars and bottles of water.

A half dozen carts followed it out, each loaded with more food, water, and boxes of clothes for men and women. After the last cart, Petra waited, giving Slingshot time to arrange the carts behind the protective honour guard.

:We're all set,: Slingshot signalled.

Petra lifted herself out of the shaft. At the last moment she had decided to let her wings out and let her hard light show. Her body practically glowed as she stepped down on the deck, looking around at the stunned crew. She waved a hand and a wing and slowly walked to the captain's table, staying just behind the honour guard. Hands reached out to touch her, and she heard some whispers of angel. She touched the reaching hands with her own talons and wings when she could reach, trying to be reassuring.

She hopped onto the table next to the captain and shook the captain's offered hand. "You didn't mention you had wings," Jewel whispered.

"I didn't mention a lot of things. There's no time to cover more than the most basic of basics. Just roll with it."

They turned and waved to the crowd. The cheering level rose, drowning all attempts to quiet it down. Jewel whistled and waved, trying to get the crowd's attention to no avail.

"They aren't normally like this," she said, getting more frustrated.

"Allow me," Petra said. She coughed and let out a piercing screech that silenced the room instantly. She started speaking, her voice amplified enough to easily fill the room. "Thank you Captain Birdwell. As your first encounter with the Pharos civilization, I greet you and welcome you home. My name is Petra, and this is Slingshot. I know you have many questions, and we have many answers. But first, we offer these gifts, no strings attached for all of you. I'm not sure we have quite enough yet, but as your captain said, more is coming."

The room erupted into cheers that they let go on for a minute, until Petra raised her hand. The room fell silent again, watching the pair expectedly.

"Thank you Ranger Petra. I know everyone has questions, especially me. But this isn't really a good environment to ask and answer them. FAQs and other information on what to expect will be put on the mesh shortly. Now, everyone, form up in your teams. Team leaders, come forward to receive supplies for your teams. If your team is greater than ten, you may bring a helper for every ten. On-duty teams first, off-duty after. Once you receive your supplies, you have fifteen minutes to eat, drink and get dressed, and then you go back to work.

"Miners and Processors, your duties are going to change. You're all on duty now, unless you just came off. We need a complete visual inspection on the status of all the pods. Identify which ones are closest to failing and where they are, along with the most recently failed ones. If you can, rotate them to the front so we can pick them up. Adam Teal will assign levels and quadrants for each team to check.

"Engineers, stand by for orders from Hakim. Your jobs are about to get really interesting. The Rangers and their friends are going to need changes made on the ship to help them get us home. Hakim will coordinate those plans.

"Everyone else, continue as you were until further notice."

Habits borne and ingrained from decades of necessity took hold. The crowd quickly broke apart into smaller groups. Team leaders did a headcount, making sure everyone was accounted for, then approached the centre.

"Very impressive," Petra said.

"Lives depend on it. In emergencies, you don't have time to second guess orders. Things have to be done, and you have to trust others are doing what they need to do. We've been in emergency mode for two hundred years," Jewel said. The pair stepped down off the table and took up position behind the first cart of supplies.

Petra turned to face the first team leader to approach her. She opened the two boxes. "How many men and how many women?"

"Four and four.... Please," the man said nervous at the proximity of the stranger. Petra grabbed the sets of clothes and passed them over.

Within half an hour, everything they had was distributed. As Petra had feared, they were short on the clothes; about twenty people left empty handed with the promise that they would be first in line for the next batch. She was glad there were more than enough fruit, rations and water for all at least.

"Should've made more pants than shirts," Petra noted, kicking herself. "The guys don't really need the shirts. Hell, even the women don't really need shirts."

"Maybe not, but it keeps things fair, and helps everyone feel human again. Everything will be sorted out eventually," Slingshot said. The Rangers, their jobs done for the moment, stood to one side and observed the crew. "Luckily this seems to be one of the few times 'One size fits all' will be true."

"When you have nothing, it tends to make everyone be the same size. Hopefully it doesn't become a fashion trend."

Despite the fifteen minute break they'd been allocated, few had left yet. Many hadn't even dressed yet, hugging the cotton shirt and pants as if they didn't believe what they were holding. The fresh water and food bars had been wolfed down in the first few minutes.

:Commander, we've got company,: Silverbolt sent. :Nine more Rangers and the first half dozen Scouts are almost here. Things are going to start hopping.:

:Understood. Tap into the spirit of your locii brethren and start coordinating up there. If any of them can swing a wrench, pass the life support tasks to them.: Petra ordered.

:Ugh, yes sir. They say they've got holds full of fresh supplies. How will they get them on board?:

:Ferry through my ship. It's basically the only functional entrance at the moment. And have someone start making potable water hoses. We need to get fresh water in here that doesn't come from their taps. We'll probably punch another hole for that when its ready, but check with the specialists coming in from the big ships first.:

:Yes, ma'am. On it.:

Petra refocused on the Real. "More friends have just arrived. Silverbolt is coordinating them. Slingshot, could you and some of our local friends return to my ship? It will be the airlock they will use to bring things in, plus my fabber should have another load ready by now."

"I hope to meet this Silverbolt soon, along with the rest of you rangers," Birdwell said as the others left.

"You'll meet them before long; many will want to come aboard just to look. We just don't have a good entrance for them yet. By tomorrow, I'm sure you'll be sick of us."

Birdwell looked around, noting that most of the people had finally drifted away, back to their jobs. Adam and Hakim were using tablets Petra provided to organize their duties. Petra didn't mention the assistants helping them on the tablets were really portions of her own mind devoted to their tasks.

"Shall we continue our conversation then? Out in the open here where others can listen in? It will help spread the word of what to expect," Birdwell asked. She lead the ranger to a table in front of the Zharus mural. Off duty people scooted in closer, hearing the captain's implied invitation.

"Certainly. What would you like to start with?"

Jewel pondered and looked at the audience. She mentally shifted gears, realizing she had to address something first. "Before we begin, I want to repeat again. We have Arrived. The Great Work of our parents, our grandparents and more has paid off. We lost so many along the way, all of who will be mourned at the appropriate time. But we can take solace in the hundreds of thousands who have survived. The majority of the Passengers, and everyone here now, will see the Light of Pharos from Zharus itself. The people of Zharus know we are coming, and while they did not know we were coming, they are welcoming us with open arms."

"Hopefully," Petra mumbled too quietly to be heard. All the multitasking she was doing was beginning to strain even her integrate resources.

"Now," Jewel said, looking back at the integrate, "You showed me pictures of Zharus earlier. I admit I was overwhelmed at the time and didn't really look as closely as I should. Could you show them again, for all to see?" Jewel asked, looking back at Petra. "What can you tell us about our new home?"

"Certainly," Petra said. Her wings glowed and pictures appeared in the air, facing the biggest section of the audience. "As for Zharus itself, and Humanity in general, you're in luck. A new colony of man was recently discovered. They left Earth just before you did, and lived in isolation until recently. So because of them, we actually have many primers available to teach you of the current state of the galaxy. Of course most of the authors of those primers left to visit the colony, so I'm winging it on my own at the moment."

Petra took a moment to gather her thoughts and to skim over the primers. She cancelled the slideshow and started a video, showing Zharus untouched by man as the first Spacers arrived. "Feel free to stop me and ask questions, I'll answer as best I can. Now, it all started with the spacers, and the NeumonFormers they brought..."

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Petra was exhausted. All she wanted to do was to curl up in her bed and sleep for a hundred years, like the thousands around her. Slingshot had brought her a generator to charge up with, and she'd eaten, but she knew she was in desperate need of downtime to defrag and find her sense of self.

So far she'd gone through the Zharus primer twice now, and the human civilization primer once, and she was still answering questions. The colonists seemed to have a hard time coming to grip with just what they were coming in to and just how strange Zharus could be. She'd held nothing back, revealing RIDEs and the origin of Integrates, though by the time she got there, even Captain Birdwell was too future-shocked to absorb more.

As she was teaching history and social studies, part of her was helping Silverbolt. Dozens of Rangers and some of the faster scouts were around now, all trying to help. Most were bog standard Spacers, not a RIDE or Intie among them. Supplies were pouring in through her ship and being spread among the crew. Half the spacers were working on one of the Lodgepole's sealed airlocks, getting ready to cut the entire complex away. When the larger ships arrived, they would plug in a modern airlock to speed up transfers between ships.

At the same time as all that, she was chewing through a travelling salesman problem, figuring out an efficient way to guide Adam's teams of miners and processors in checking a thousand cubes of a thousand cryopods.

Also at the same time, she was working with Hakim acting as translator between the homegrown engineering speak he and his crew used, and the Zharusian engineers who were trying to figure out how best to save the ship and get it and its contents to safety.

And beyond all that, she still devoted cycles to studying the Lodgepole's mesh network, teasing out how it fit together. Tracking the messages the audience shared with friends, and how Hakim worked gave her insight in the setup, but there were depths she didn't dare dive into.

A comm signal came in. She answered automatically before identifying it. "Now what?" she snapped.

"Am I disturbing you, Commander?" Zordon asked.

Petra paled, and was suddenly wide awake. "No sir, not at all. Things are going smoothingly."

"Is that even a word? Sounds like you need to take a break,"

She sighed. "I could use one sir, but there is so much to do. I'm the only intie out here, the most senior Ranger. It all rests on my shoulders."

"Well, I hate to add more weight to those shoulders, but I'm passing along a request from the System Congress. They've been in an emergency meeting since news broke, and now they want to welcome the colonists personally."

"Well, that's not that big of a weight. Give me a moment to prepare them. Do they want privacy?"

"Not this time. It's a general message. It'll be sent across Zharus and beyond. We even have Earth represented here."

"Earth? Not officially I assume."

"RIght. Xenia's unofficially officially handling Solar matters until the politics settles out. So in other words, she's the Solar rep for the indefinite future."

"Understood. Well, she's probably a better pick than the old dude they had that kicked off ZEN. Thanks for the heads up."

"You're welcome. Get them ready, and handle the meeting. And immediately after it is over, I'm ordering you to go take a nap."

"Yes sir, I will sir." Petra interrupted the descendant in mid question. "I'm sorry, I'll get back to your question in a moment, but I have an announcement to make. News of your arrival has reached Zharus, and the System Congress has been meeting ever since. They, and some special guests, wish to speak to you publicly. Do you wish to speak to them?"

Captain Birdwell was beginning to look as frayed as Petra felt. She thought about the the invitation and seemed to seriously consider rejecting it. "We'll speak to them. Is it real time?"

"It is. We've got more than enough DINcoms to handle it. We could probably stream the entire Steader media library and still have comms to spare."

"If you say so. I have no idea if that's a lot but I guess it is. Where do I look?" Jewel asked. "Should I call Hakim and Linda back?"

Petra looked around and motioned to the middle of the room, directing a camera drone into position. She centered the captain in front of the mural and motioned for the rest of the crew to gather behind their captain. She generated a communication window in mid air in front of the drone, with an X between the window and the drone. "Talk to the X, that would match the camera point of view. Your distance should be good. Do you want to call them?"

"No, I'll handle this myself. They're busy with their own tasks and I shouldn't keep our hosts waiting."

Petra sent the signal, and surprisingly quickly received a response. The window flickered, and solidified into a view of the Congressional chambers. It was a full house and then some. She had no idea who all the people were, until Zordon sent a helpful lookup list. All of the Laurasian provinces and Gondwanan Polities were represented, along with a number of Integrate Enclaves and the four major space colonies. Ambassadors (or acting ambassadors) of the other colonies were also present. She was a little surprised to see Xenia deGaulle, representing Earth, sitting next to the Prime Councilor.

"You've got a few seconds before we start broadcasting back," Petra said. Behind them, the crowd of Crew began to mutter, taking in the variety of folk looking back at them.

"As you can see, it's a full house, showing all Zharus and beyond have to offer. I'm sure they'll introduce the important folk, the rest are just there for points. You ready?"

"It's not as if I have a choice. Let's do this," Jewel affirmed.

The X turned into a green circle and the return signal went out, relayed out across the system. A second later, the Prime Councilor smiled, the view from the Lodgepole appearing in the Assembly chambers.

The woman sitting in the Prime Councilor's chair appeared to be middle-aged with East Asian features. She regarded Captain Birdwell with a cultivated calmness. "Captain Birdwell, I'm Prime Councilor Michelle Yu. I would like to formally welcome you and your fellow colonists to Zharus. We've all been briefed by the Rangers on your story. Every city on the planet is preparing for the arrival of you and your passengers.We will spare no resource to get you home and to revive your Sleepers and get you all back to full health,"

"Thank you, ma'am. It's...been a long way," Jewel said. "A long slow way, for everyone aboard. But the Light of Pharos has always guided us."

"A very proper name for our star, then," Yu said. "Pharos, the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria, guiding ships safely into port."

"If you say so. I'm afraid my education is woefully lacking. All I have ever known is the walls of this ship. We are eager to learn of the worlds beyond that the Revenants and the stories have told us."

"And we are eager to teach you, to welcome you into our fold." Yu nodded to the woman next to him. "I would like to introduce you to Xenia deGaulle. You may have heard that our situation with Earth is strained at the moment. Ms deGaulle is a former Earth representative who is now a liaison between Solar citizens and anyone else. While official representation is still being worked out, she serves Earth and the Solar System's interests in an unofficial capacity."

The dark skinned untagged woman nodded her head in greeting. "Captain Birdwell, welcome to Zharus. Your situation puts you and us is a bit of a gray area given current circumstances. While I don't have the full authority of my government, I offer all the help I can provide personally and with local resources I can get to help you, your crew and your passengers out."

"Thank you. We appreciate all the help we are getting. This is all so unexpected and overwhelming."

"It was unexpected for us as well. We're just better prepared to handle it," Yu said.

"As I said, my resources are not as great as they used to be; but if anyone wants to research into their families, both for people left behind and those who went ahead, I will help as much as I can, as will all of us," Xenia said. "You have come a long way, both in distance and in time; we want to make your transition to your new lives as easy as possible."

"It's a goddamn miracle they made it at all," Wednesday Ambassador Emil Dahl said. Petra lit up a name tag for him to help the Crew watching. "The ECS Luchu was a pinecone. It was retrofitted for FTL and included as one of the ships in our Colonization Fleet. It never arrived. A million people dead."

Xenia nodded in agreement. "The Pinecone class is just another of the embarrassments of Earth from that era. The knowledge to identify and correct its flaws was available, but in the rush to take advantage of the new planets, and to leave the battered Earth, unfortunate shortcuts were taken, and oversight was skipped. In hindsight, the entire class of ship should never have left the drawing board."

"That doesn't explain the Luchu. The Pinecone limitations were well known by then. Converting it to handle FTL only made it worst."

Xenia sighed. "I agree, the Luchu should never have been sent out. That was inexcusable."

Yu gently interrupted them, "While I'm sure they are fascinated with the history lesson, they still have a lot of work to do and to prepare for. There will be plenty of time to beg forgiveness and assign blame when they and their passengers are safely on the ground."

Xenia bowed to the Councilor. "Of course, you are correct. If anyone needs anything of Earth, I promise to do my best to make it happen."

"Thank you," Jewel stammered.

"Now, I know you have better things to do than to say repeatedly say 'thank you' to a bunch of grandstanding politicians, so I'll leave you to your work. Once things are resolved we look forward to meeting you in person," the Prime Councilor said.

"Until then," Jewel said, nodding at Petra.

The circle turned into an X and the screen faded away. Petra rubbed the base of her beak, groaning. "Well, that wasn't too bad. Could've gone worse, but could've been better. On behalf of the locals, I apologize."

"No need to apologize. It was interesting, though there were a lot of subtleties I'm sure I missed. I'm not used to dealing with strangers as you might expect, but I have been moderating arguments for a long time, and I could sense some of that happening."

"Just a little bit. As you may have noticed, there's just a bit of bad blood between the Colonies and Earth. Xenia is well liked, but not officially an Earth representative at the moment. The actual ambassador got the boot when Earth decided to drop another colony ship on us a few months ago."

Jewel blinked in surprise. "A what?"

"A colony ship. A Dandelion. Literally dropped on the planet, popped open and started building a city for the half million people it brought with it."

"So what... were they travelling a long time like us?"

Petra shook her head. "New colonists, voted off the planet so to speak. Only took them eight months to get here. So when you guys showed up, we were just a bit suspicious about your own arrival."

The captain sat for a moment, "Wow.... Just wow..."

"As the ancient proverb goes, you've returned in Interesting Times. Lucky for you guys, we're not the type to shoot first. You piqued our curiosity so we came knocking instead."

"Than- Damn I've gotta stop doing that," Jewel laughed and stifled a yawn.

Petra groaned as well and stretched her wings. "In any case, while I would love to chat more, even Integrates have limits. And this one reached hers hours ago. You look like you could use a break as well. The big ships will arrive in about four hours. I'd suggest getting a nap, let things settle, and be prepared for your world to be turned upside down again."


ECS Lodgepole

Hakim tossed and turned on his sleeping pad. He knew every sound the Lodgepole could make. On the good days, the familiarity helped him sleep. On the bad days, he didn't have time to sleep; he would be too busy tracking down the dissonance. Now, he found himself in a strange position. The Lodgepole was making strange noises, there were strange voices calling through its corridors, and it wasn't an emergency. Even the air was smelling better. He knew he could and should sleep easily, but the strangeness made finding dreamland difficult. He groaned and rolled over, squinting at the screen on his phone. A couple of hours had passed since Slingshot, backed by Jewel, had ordered him off duty and to bed. He sighed and rolled back over, closing his eyes again.

A strange chirping made him open them again. It was a new noise he couldn't identify, and that was worrying. A glance at the phone showed another hour had passed though he didn't remember sleeping. Next to it, the strange badge was shaking and chirping.

He tapped it to silence the annoying device. "Hak-" he started to say before his body decided he needed to yawn. He shook his head and tried again. "Hakim here."

"Good day, sir. My name is Cindy, from Celestial Weyr. It's a colony orbiting Zharus near the Alohavator," a strange woman said.

The names were meaningless to him. So many new places, people and things had been thrown his way in the past day, they were just a meaningless blur.

"How can I help you.... Cindy?" he asked, struggling to pick out the person name in the word salad she had given him.

"As you probably don't know, Celestial Weyr specializes in ship construction. When the call came out, a number of our build teams hitched a ride on the Great Eastern; we actually took one of our incomplete ships and hitched it up before she left. Anyway, long story short, we won the bid for the airlock replacement. I'm in charge from the Zharus side, and I was wondering if we could meet up and go over the plans."

Hakim yawned again and sat up. "Sure, sure. Just give me a few minutes. Where are you?"

"I'm setup on the Loading deck, west airlock area. I'll have the coffee ready."

He reached for his pants and paused, seeing a second pair of grey pants, along with another pair of underwear and a shirt. He remembered someone shoving the bundle into his arms before he'd left, along with making him drink some strange liquid that made his stomach tingle and hadn't helped his sleep. He actually had a change of clothes; the surplus was blasphemous. In the end, he couldn't bear to put on the clean clothes, not when the first new ones were still perfectly serviceable and only slightly stained.

The Lodgepole had four major airlock docks when it launched, equally spaced around the ship a few levels above the engineering block. Midway through the journey, something had happened. No one knew if it was a rock, or an airlock malfunction or even sabotage, but the East dock had blown out, taking a chunk of the ship's armor plating and an entire quadrant's worth of Passengers. A dozen descendants and revenants had died sealing off the hole before the entire ship had bled out. It was the only time in the ship's history that the crew had to wake people on purpose, just to make sure they had enough hands and heads to carry on the mission. As all the spacesuits were damaged or lost in the repairs, the captain of the time had ordered all the locks emptied and sealed. The cargo lifts had similarly been sealed off as well, all to minimize air loss and risks.

With the arrival of the Zharus rescue fleet, the airlocks had to be opened again. Creating a way to easily move in and out of the ship was imperative; the little opening Petra had created was a huge chokepoint. Engineers much more experienced than he had carefully examined the remaining airlocks, along with the gap where East was lost, assessing their options for putting a new system in place. They unanimously decided that West was the ideal lock to replace; it was furthest from the damage and seemed to have the most solid support structure. The decision had been made just before he went to bed.

Hakim made his way down to the loading deck. It was a path he knew well, having to go through it to reach engineering, but few non-engineers ever came that low. He was used to the lower decks being quiet, just him, his heartbeat, and the harmonic thrumming of the ship's engines. Now, they were filled with noise. The shafts around the central core were busy with Crew and strangers moving between levels. The mood of the ship was strange, filled with cautious optimism. Food and water was coming in, everyone had clean clothes, even the air was better. There was a tension as well, people worried that there was a catch despite all the assurances they were being given. The number of strangers on board was staggering; most were in sealed suits and were using strange devices to examine everything. For the Crew, they were quickly reaching their limits for newness, and it was all just starting.

The loading deck seemed like a foreign land to him. With the airlocks sealed, it had become the ship's garbage dump. Everything that was completely worn out and couldn't be reused in any way, ended up there. Now, most of the debris was shoved towards the panels sealing the damaged east quadrant and a few people were shovelling the garbage into the hoppers of more strange humming machines.

The west end of the deck was a hive of activity. More devices were set up all around, cables leading to battery packs, monitored by men and women and robots. Glowing walls separated the actual airlock from the rest of the deck. A couple of Crew Engineers were watching, seemingly as lost as Hakim felt.

In front of the translucent wall separating the airlock from the rest of the deck, he saw a half dozen people in deep discussion. A trio of small robots shaped like dragons but not much bigger than his head, flew over the others and seemed to be contributing to the discussion. Of the people, three were Spacers, two had furry tails and ears indicative of humans who had fused with the RIDE robots (though he had yet to actually meet a RIDE; he had been told that the corridors of the Lodgepole were too small for most styles of RIDEs.) The third he concluded had to be an Integrate similar to Petra. She had strikingly bright red hair that seemed to glow, and a pair of short horns rising from her temples. Her skin had a reddish blush, marked with scales that ran around her face. Her ears twitched and seemed to have a fin-shape to them. The scales went down her neck and under her short sleeved shirt. Her arms were covered in the scales, her fingers tipped with golden claws. Red membraned wings hung off her back, a wing claw hooked over her shoulder to keep them close to her back. A similarly scaled tail went from her pants, twitching as she discussed something with the others. She wore a blouse with openings for her wings, though he had no idea how she could put it on or take it off. There was a company logo on her blouse breast; a bronze dragon holding onto a ship similar to Petra's in the blackness of space. The dragon's wings were flapping, making it look like it was lifting the ship.

Hakim paused near the group out of earshot and waited until the dragon woman spotted him. She waved him forward and dismissed the others, the smaller dragons and the others heading off to do their duties.

"Hello Hakim," she called out, her voice matching what he had heard earlier. "I'm Cindy, in charge of this job."

Hakim shook the offered hand, smelling an unfamiliar but not unpleasant scent from her. "Good morning, I hope I can help out; this is moving rather fast."

She motioned with a wing to a table set up beside the wall. A coffee urn and a couple of trays of fruit, bagels and donuts were set up. "You've had your booster right? Help yourself, you look like you just got up. I'm not sure what time it is on ship, but back home it's mid afternoon for me. If there's anything else you want, just ask."

"I got my booster before I went to sleep," he confirmed. Hakim poured himself a mug of the bitter liquid and selected an apple. He hadn't liked coffee the first time he'd had it, but he found he was developing a taste for it; it was close to the shipboard water he'd grown up with.

"So what's going on?" he asked, deciding to get down to business.

She smiled approvingly, and started tapping on a tablet. "Getting the important stuff handled first, I like that. What's going on is we're getting ready to get you a proper airlock and docking ring. The triplets have finished inspecting the supports and deemed them sound enough to support the loads. Barely sound enough, but good enough for us.

"The hull, on the other hand, is tissue paper. Decades of interstellar dust has sandblasted it down to nothing. You're about five years overdue from an unrecoverable explosive blowout."

Hakim winched, and nodded in agreement. "We know, but it's not as if there was anything we could do about it. We're a pragmatic people; we accepted that if anything happened, it was meant to happen."

"Well, there are things we can do now at least. While you were sleeping, we have been setting up hardlight shields to isolate the old West docking complex."

As she spoke, a model of the Lodgepole appeared over her tablet, focused on the sealed airlock. An internal view showed the area around the airlock sealed off with glowing walls.

"On the outside, we've set up a dome big enough to contain the airlock, just in case something decides to pop early. We'll evacuate the air from inside the fields, making sure pressure is equal on both side of the airlock." The diagram updated, animation showing what she was saying.

"Then, we blow it. We'll cut it out from both sides, burning through supports and hull and everything else. Once it's cut free, we'll pull it loose. Then construction teams will come in. They'll shore up the girders and build a ring to hold the new airlock. We'll also reinforce the hull around it to make sure it can handle the stresses. We push the new lock in, seal it up tight, repressurise it, and we're ready to go."

Hakim shook his head at the amount of work she was glossing over. "How long will it take?" he asked, expecting to hear an estimate in days.

"Not long at all, an hour or two at most, with Murphy factored in." She saw his incredulous look and smiled. "Many hands make light work. Plus, the new lock is completely independent, so we don't need to tie into the Lodgepole systems."

Hakim blinked and stared at her. "So uhm, what do you need me for?"

"Confirmation for one thing. Make sure we're not going to cut through anything important. Our own checks seem to show it's mostly dead around the airlock, but you know it best."

"All the important stuff routes through the core, not near the skin. The only thing around the airlock would be dead stuff that wasn't worth trying to recycle or repurpose."

She made a few more notes, and held out the tablet. "Then all we need now is your authorization. Just press your thumb in the square and say I authorize the outlined work."

Hakim stared at the tablet, not reaching for it.

"We're just a construction company. We need permission from the owner, captain or chief engineer of a ship to do the work. Keeps the Legal Eagles happy," Cindy explained.

"If you say so." He pushed his thumb on the indicated spot. "I authorize the outlined work. I, Hakim McLane of the ECS Lodgepole."

"Excellent. We're all set to go."

Things moved quickly once he authorized the work. Energy fields snapped into being, further isolating the airlock complex from the rest of the ship. Hakim could hear the Lodgepole creek and shudder as the air was drawn out, leaving a vacuum on both sides of the sealed doors.

The deck plates had been removed from the front of the airlock exposing the entire structure.The trio of dragons had smeared something on the beams it was welded to and gotten out of the area.

"Everything checks out. We're ready to cut. You want to count us down?" Cindy offered holding out the tablet again.

"What do I do?"

"Shout 'Fire in the hole', count down, out loud, from ten, and if no one is shouting back at you, push the button."

Hakim took the tablet. A large covered red button was on top of it, looking as real as the floor beneath his feet. He touched the side of it, careful not to push it, and determined it was as solid as it looked. Cindy nodded encouragingly to him as he flipped the cover open.

"FIRE IN THE HOLE!" he shouted, hearing it echoed from others in the corridors around him. He assumed it was also sent to the people working on the space side somehow too. "Ten... Nine... Eight..." He paused a moment longer at three, listening for any objections. "... Two... One... " Without hesitation he pushed the button, feeling it depress under his hand.

The force field they were behind went opaque, barely dimming the white light that flared up along the supports holding the airlock in place. A view from outside showed similar bright lights cutting through the outside supports. The Lodgepole groaned, temporary supports picking up the strain as the girders were released from the airlock.

The forcefield cleared, and at first it looked like nothing had changed. Then Hakim realized the airlock itself was tilted at a strange angle. All the supports around it had been burned through, the cut edges still glowing with residual heat. The trio of dragons flew through the forcefield into the vacuum and began inspecting the results.

"Clean cuts through and through!" the red dragon reported. "We missed a few cables, but it's clear otherwise. Dewey and Louie are going to clip them now."

"Thanks Huey. Be careful. It's loose now, don't want you to get your wings clipped."

"So are they RIDEs?" Hakim asked, finally feeling there was a moment of downtime to ask.

"They are. The first hatched from Celestial Weyr's creche."

"But I thought RIDEs were huge armored vehicles and armors and stuff."

"They are for the most part. But Laurasia--that's the more populous continent that doesn't have a giant desert--made smaller ones to be used as personal assistants. The triplets are in what would be considered L-RIDE shells now. When they grow up, they'll probably buy new shells in more normal sizes. Or they may not; the fire lizard size is handy too."

"It's clear!" Huey called out. The three dragons fluttered away from the airlock, staying on the vacuum side of the shield.

"Take it away Cinnamon," Cindy ordered.

Hakim could have looked at the outside views, but his attention was focused on the view in front of him. Huge talons appeared around the edges of the airlock, and it shook as something began to tug on it. The welded door shuddered a few more times, then began to pull away, revealing the blackness of space. Hakim's first instinct was to rush forward, to start grabbing panels to seal the hole in the hull, but he restrained himself, forcing himself to watch. He caught a glimpse of a red tail and wings as the airlock was carried somewhere out of sight.

Workers flooded into the opening from the space side; spacers, and armored figures looking like animal-men. It was the first time Hakim had really seen the fused RIDErs. The Lodgepole archives had videos of armored suits used in the Earth wars and for other purposes, but these were different. The fused RIDErs moved naturally, fluidly, like the controller and the armor were one. There was none of the jerky movements that he had seen in the old videos. The workers were busy welding a new framework into the hull, to make it strong enough to handle the new equipment.

"Cinnamon just dropped off the hatch and is coming back to say hi. She wants to know if you want to take a look outside?" Cindy said.

"What? Who's Cinnamon?"

"My RIDE partner. Sorry, I should have introduced her before. She's been my eyes outside to help keep track of things."

A shadow appeared in the opening, and a larger red dragon appeared, folding her wings in to make it in without interrupting the work going on around the edge of the hole. The fields shimmered, syncing up with her own field and Hakim found himself standing next to a man-sized dragon head.

"Hello Hakim, I'm Cinnamon. Good to meet you," the dragon greeted him, her voice similar to Cindy's, but deeper.

"Hello Cinnamon," Hakim stammered out, not sure what else to do. "I thought you were an Integrate!" he accused Cindy.

She laughed, the laugh mirrored by Cinnamon. "Sorry to fool you, it was not intentional. But I'm still just a plain old homo sapiens sapiens RIDErius markitus. Mythic fuses like dragons and gryffs, they tend to leave bigger traces on their human partners. Even the non-mammalian fuses like birds, reptiles and dinos tend towards the extreme signs. For those who fuse outside the class mammalia, we tend to embrace the differences and go a bit further."

"I have no idea what you just said," Hakim groaned.

"Don't worry, it's a lot of new to take in. It'll sink in eventually and make sense. In the meantime, would you like a trip outside? A chance to see your home from a new perspective?" Cinnamon offered.

"Is it safe?" Hakim asked.

"Safer than this place," Cindy said. "Sorry! I didn't mean it like that."

"No you're right. I've been hearing the comments. Compared to what you guys have, this ship is a death trap."

"Right, in any case, Cinnamon makes her own environment shield. It could protect us all the way down to near Pharos itself and barely let in enough to give you a tan. I prefer to ride dragonback, but if the openness gets to you, she can shift to plane mode."

Hakim looked at the dragon, then looked at the workers. Some seemed to be waiting politely for the large dragon to get out of the way.

"Won't they need us?"

Cindy climbed onto Cinnamon's snout and turned around, the dragon seeming to go crosseyed to look at her partner. "Nah, we're literally in the way right now. And we're not going far. Anything comes up, we can be back in a jiffy."

Hakim took the offered hand and stepped up onto the dragon's muzzle. "Sorry," he said.

Cinnamon snorted. "If a pair of slippers irritated me, I'd have to hang up my wings. Wow, are you ever light; I'm glad we're flying in space, if we were in the air I'd be scared a gust of wind would blow you off."

"Be nice Cinn," Cindy chastised her partner. Cindy carefully led Hakim back along the dragon's ridged neck to the neckbase, just in front of the wing muscles. The ridges were set up there to give a pseudosaddle for people to sit. He focused on the scaley textured flesh as they walked back, taking careful steps and definitely not looking around as he left the ship behind him.

As they settled, the dragon backed out of the opening and spread her wings. She suddenly tilted sideways and Hakim grabbed the ridge to keep from falling, even though he felt he was still firmly on the neck. The warm ridge in his hands twitched and he looked down, realizing he had Cindy's tail.

"Sorry!" he squeaked, letting go.

Cindy laughed. "No worries. Take a look. There it is."

The openness and exposure should have gotten to him, but the view of the Lodgepole was too much. Cinnamon was lifting further away from the ship, tilted sideways so they could easily look it over, distance giving him a better view than the glimpse from the Varyag. To the eye, the plates looked fine, but he knew their appearance lied, their apparent protection a farce. Midway up and between the West and North locks, Petra's ship was perched, looking tiny on the hull, with dozens of similar ships hanging near it, waiting for a chance to use it to enter the colony ship. The ship slowly rotated under them, bringing the damaged East section into view. He winced, but forced himself to look over the ancient damage. It too was swarming with spacers now, and had a couple more ranger ships snuggled up close. Repairs were in progress, patching up the structural damage, while the gap itself was used to directly access the core systems.

"We'll probably repair the hole before we're done, just to give you some more structural integrity, but for now, it's handy to access your systems," Cindy explained.

Hakim nodded, staying quiet as he took in the state of his ship. The Lodgepole reminded him of a very elderly person, decrepit, barely holding on to life. But the end of her task was in sight at last.

An hour later, they returned to the Lodgepole. Cinnamon had taken them on a quick tour around the growing fleet once they finished the first flyby. Cindy pointed out the various types of ships and their purpose, not having time to go in any of them, the flood of new information overwhelming Hakim once again. By the time they got back, he was yearning for the simple days of yesterday.

"Tests on the new dock are green, and it's pressurised inside again, all ready for use," Cindy said. "Do you want to be the first?"

Below, the new dock was shiny and futuristic compared to the rest of the ship. More durable hull pieces covered the area around it, providing extra reinforcement on the important connection.

"I guess I can do that. Will we fly in again?"

"Nah, I'm too big. But they have a dome around the entrance now. I can drop you off in that and you can walk in. Better be quick, the Endeavor is impatient to dock and get to work," Cinnamon said.

"Those new hull plates are infused with cavorite, so they will provide a gravity field to keep you from floating away," Cindy added.

Cinnamon landed on the hull and stuck her head into the dome. Cindy helped Hakim walk up her neck and into the air bubble. Dozens of spacers and workers surrounded them, waiting expectedly. Hakim waved nervously and looked down at the shiny door. Cindy pointed to a panel at his feet. He knelt and tapped it, seeing a screen light up, an indicator saying the airlock was empty and ready for use. He pushed the big green button, and felt the airlock begin to rumble. Seconds later, the hatch slid open, showing a brightly lit hole with another hatch at the bottom.

"Watch your step, gravity will throw you off," Cindy warned him. "Once the Endeavor docks, it'll be level all around, but out here you've got a square bend to walk around."

He reached into the hole and felt his hand pulled to the side. With Cindy's help he dropped in and stood up on the wall, the hole suddenly becoming a tunnel. He leaned against the wall, struggling to sort out his balance from the sudden shifts. Cindy dropped in after him, seemingly having no problem with the changing gravity fields. She didn't wait for him to hit the button this time, tapping it with her tail on the way in. The outside door rolled shut, and the air pressure began to change, the smell of the ancient ship filling the chamber, mixing with the cleaner air from the outside dome. Within seconds, the light on the other door lit up, indicating it was safe to open.

Keeping one hand on the wall for balance, he shuffled to the lit up button and slapped it. The door rumbled open, and applause greeted him.

"Congratulations, the Lodgepole now has a functional airlock," Cindy said, joining in the applause. She leaned closer and whispered, "You might want to let your captain know."

Separator k.png

:Petra! Help!:

The griffin groaned, waking enough to acknowledge the signal but not understanding it. Outside of her sleeping nook, there was a constant stream of people using her ship as an airlock to get in and out of the Lodgepole.


She woke and realized the time; she had overslept for the first time in a long time. Her avatars were still helping Adam and Hakim, but her core personality had been offline for longer than she'd planned.

:What is it, Bolt?:

:IT is everything! There's more traffic here than around Aloha. I'm not a damn locus. I can't multitask this much!: Silverbolt shouted.

Petra muted him and took a look around. As Silverbolt reported, a fleet had arrived overnight. The space around the Lodgepole was a lot more crowded. The running lights of several large ships floating a few just kilometers away, were visible from Petra's flight deck. The largest was a triangular candlestick in space, bigger than the decrepit colony ship herself. The 1,855-meter ECS Great Eastern had arrived with the three 450-meter rescue ships the Zharus-based Scouts still had in-system. There were dozens of smaller in-system transports who had responded to the All Ships call and now awaited orders.

:Hang tight, 'Bolt. Give me a minute to figure out who to hand this mess off to. Then take some downtime. We all need it.:

While she freshened up, she sorted out the chain of command. Silverbolt got the break he needed, but she was still stuck as the liaison with the colony ship. She called Captain Birdwell and invited her down to get an update.

Captain Birdwell watched the whole thing from Petra's flight deck with a sense of both awe and more than a little fear. It was all happening so quickly now. A steady stream of people, spacers mainly, showed up with their ships and unloaded crates into space. They would float over to an opening in Petra's ship and transfer into the Lodgepole with their cargo. The Arrival was what the Crew had prepared for for almost two centuries. Now here it was, and it was almost entirely out of the Crew's hands. The remains of breakfast was still on a table, toast and actual eggs. She'd never had either before, and wasn't sure she liked them. She was getting tired of all the newness; and the day to come only guaranteed more novelty.

"Hakim has been working with the Rangers to get ready. We've already cut out your old western cargo airlock and they're putting the new one in now. Hardlight shields will keep things contained until you're sealed up again. Once that is done, we'll be ready to start taking the tubes and take care of your people."

"Right, thank you. What do you need me to do?"

"You're Captain, so we don't act without your say-so, and we'll take it from there," Petra said. "But really there isn't much to do until the airlock is ready. In the meantime, would you like to speak to some of the other Captains? There is a long list of people wanting to greet you."

Birdwell chuckled. "I suppose so. More names to blur together I guess."

Petra smirked, and opened the command channel. "That's the spirit! Channel open!"

"Okay. Uh, hello rescue fleet. This is Captain Birdwell. Who am I speaking to?"

A human face appeared on the screen, the view pulled back enough to show them sitting on a chair on a bridge. "Captain Birdwell, this is Scout Captain James Libowitz of SRS Endeavor, with my colleagues on the Challenger and Beagle. We'll be taking Commander Petra's place to handle the rescue operation."

"Thank goodness," Petra mumbled.

"As soon as your new dock is complete, we'll be linking up. The Great Eastern is on site and will dock with our starboard tube once we're in place. We're the go-between for triage of your crew and damage control of your ship. Please have the Lodgepole's engineering crew at the ready because we're going to need their help so we don't accidentally break something important."

"Thank you. We look forward to your help," Jewel said diplomatically.

"We can start as soon as the dock is ready."

As if it was timed, Jewel's badge chirped.

"Hakim here. Are you awake, Jewel?"

"Been awake, what's going on?"

"I just wanted to let you know, the new dock is in place and works like a charm. We are ready to receive guests."

"Thank you Hakim, I'll be right down."

The badge chirped again and went silent. Jewel saw Petra watching her expectantly. "Am I missing something?"

Petra nodded. "You're the Captain, it's your show. They won't dock without your permission."

"Oh right, Endeavor, you have permission to dock."

"Thank you Captain, see you shortly."

There was a pause long enough for Jewel to turn and start to leave, before another reassuringly human face came on-screen, this one in an office setting. "Captain Birdwell, I'm glad I caught you before you left, I'm Commander Jane Lee of the Zharus-based Scouts. I just wanted to say how we're honored to assist on your voyage's arrival at Zharus and that we're at your command."

Birdwell's voice quavered. "Commander, the only humans I've ever known are on my ship, beneath me. At this point I don't know what to think. So please, I'll leave coordinating this effort to the more experienced. But thank you."

"Our pleasure, Captain," Lee said. "We'll meet in person soon. Endeavor out." The transmission ended.

"You'd better get going if you want to meet them. They want me to seal up the holes I made and get out of the way as well, but I won't be far. I'll meet you inside as soon as I can find a berth and get back."

"Thanks again for everything," Birdwell said. "Maybe they're trying not to flood us too much, but I'm surprised the Great Eastern's captain didn't extend any greetings."

"That ship is mostly crewed by Eridanites. I think their first colony ships were off around when you left. They've gone their own way since then, though you probably won't find them stranger than us," Petra said. "In any case, they just tend to keep to themselves. I suspect they want to keep this as Zharus focused as possible, since this is your home, your new home."

Captain Birdwell gave the strange-looking Ranger a salute. "I'm happy to have met you, Petra. Even if you do look like you stepped out of a mythology book from my childhood."

"Thank you, Captain. And don't worry, you haven't seen the last of me yet. You can be sure I'll be back."

Jewel returned to her ship, then headed for the lift shafts in the central core. She could have found her way in the pitch dark, and frequently had during times when their spare parts printer couldn't replace the LED lighting units. Now, the routes were increasingly brightly lit as new battery powered lights were installed to help guide everyone. The bright light made the worn look of everything even more obvious.

She swung into a shaft and grabbed a ladder rung worn smooth from decades of use. Crew--Descendants like herself, and the awakened Revenants--saluted as she climbed past, swinging to the side on the ladders or waiting in doorways to let her by. The Crew was abuzz with excitement. Even more than the increased rations, the new uniforms provided by the rescuers had made them feel more human. Some complained that the fabric was too heavy, or that it just felt strange, but there seemed to be a dignity in work now. The end of their task was in sight.

The loading bay level looked nothing like she remembered it. All her life, the landing dock had been the garbage level; the place where stuff that had no more uses went, just in case another use could be found. Dozens of strangers were now cleaning it up, shovelling two centuries of garbage into hoppers of boxy devices that hummed and beeped. Every so often they would stop and the strange machines would push out a block sealed in plastic. She watched it all through a clear wall that separated the central core from the rest of the deck.

Jewel had taken the north shaft down. She walked around to the west, and her eyes widened. A new foreign object took up a huge chunk of the west hull. It was a shiny metal doorway that was already open, providing a tunnel to a new world. Men and women sealed in isolation suits, as well as smaller humanoid robots and some animal robots were all gathered around the doorway, breaking up into groups and receiving orders. Hakim was talking to a red dragon-woman, his face flushed with excitement.

Hakim spotted her through the clear wall and waved towards a revolving door she hadn't noticed. She walked through it carefully and stepped into a new world. It was still her ship, but it was also the staging ground of a foreign invasion force. The air was clean and refreshing. Strange voices in accents she didn't recognize using equally new terms echoed around the loading dock.

Before she could reach her engineer, her doctor intercepted her. "Good morning, Jewel," Linda greeted her. "Before you go further, they want you to drink this, and I have a shot to give you. Don't worry, it's safe."

"What is it?" Jewel asked before gulping down the too-sweet liquid. She held out her arm and Linda pressed a device to her skin. It hissed and a coolness spread from the site.

"Immunoboosters and some other things to help us out. We've been in isolation for two centuries, while Zharus is a live world. They want to make sure the flu doesn't kill us before we get home."

"I see. Does that also explain the new glass walls?" Jewel asked.

"That it does," Hakim said, joining them. "It's not actually a real wall. It's something they call 'hardlight'. Solid energy or something. Petra's wings are basically that, which is how she can hide them. I have no idea how it works."

"In any case, we're basically under quarantine until everyone gets their shots. It's not perfect since Petra and the other Rangers weren't clean, but it's all about minimizing the risks going forward," Linda said.

"Right, that all makes sense. Spread the word, Linda, make sure everyone gets that booster as soon as possible."

"Already working on it. Excuse me, ma'am."

Jewel watched her doctor leave, then addressed Hakim. "I see you've been making friends. How are things looking?"

Hakim pointed to the airlock. "That looks great. The rest of the ship, not so great. But I'm beginning to understand what they're planning, just gotta iron out the details. We'll brief you later once we have some ways forward."

They noticed movement coming through the airlock. A dozen people, mostly in isolation suits were escorting three man-sized devices through. They all had the time-honored twisted-snakes of medical staff on their blues. The devices looked like futuristic versions of the cryopods they all knew well. Most of the team headed directly to the lifts, the clear wall opening for them. Their leader approached Jewel and Hakim. She was as human as Commander Lee had appeared to be.

"Captain Birdwell, Engineer McLane, I'm Doctor Karen Reese, Chief Medical Officer of the Endeavor. The rest of my staff are from the other Scout rescue ships. We're at your service."

"Welcome aboard, Doctor," Jewel said, shaking the offered hand."My own doctor just left to make sure the boosters are distributed."

"Excellent. We've been talking, outlining the details. I'm glad to see you cleared it so quickly."

"It makes sense, no point in waiting, especially if it will make things easier for you. If I may ask, what are those?"

"Scout autodocs. Similar in some ways to the cryopods your sleepers are in, but a lot more advanced. They will help tend to a variety of your issues, including injuries, freezer burn, malnutrition and anything else that might be wrong with you. It's how we do most of our medical care now."

"Intriguing. I look forward to seeing them in action. How long will a treatment take?" Jewel asked.

"Given your crew's general physical condition, we estimate a few hours each to get you bring you up to baseline health. We'll probably need to do multiple treatments to give your body time to adjust to the changes. Not that it has come up, but we've spread the word around the fleet, no RIDE fusing unless it is a no other choice dire emergency," Doctor Reese explained.

"No fusing? Not that I want to but why?" Hakim asked.

"To put it very simply, fusing is another variant of the med pods, among a lot of other things. It might be safe, but you are so far off the norm, we don't want to risk system shock."

"Well, while it is tempting, I'm afraid I don't have the downtime to take a session with you guys. Maybe when things calm down. Feel free to coordinate with Linda to treat those that need it or have time for it," Jewel said.

Doctor Reese nodded, "Of course. Lots of moving pieces at the moment; we'll try to fit in as unobtrusively as possible."

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"I'm sorry our sick bay didn't meet your needs; space is such a premium, we just don't have room for them," Linda said, climbing up a level from her domain.

"No worries, as you said, space is a premium, and we don't want to block your own services yet. I'm sure we can find a spot to set up."

"Well, hydroponics does have a lot of space, and if you guys are providing the air and food, they won't be under as much pressure. And it's close to the medbay. We'll see if Angus can find room for you."

Doctor Reese floated up with her team, ignoring the ladders. "We wanted to take a look at your food production anyway, to get an idea of what nutrients your diet is lacking. Our science guys are anxious to examine... well everything, to see what you did to survive."

Hydroponics took up an entire level of the Lodgepole. Through the years doors and other access routes had been cut through the dividing walls. At its peak about seventy years earlier, the entire level had been filled with greenery, supplying air and food for the entire crew. Crop failures, plant diseases and other equipment failures had repeatedly decimated the greenery to their current situation of carefully isolated sickly plants and vats of oxygen producing algae.

The group stepped out of the shaft and looked around to orient themselves. A man in his sixties was already swinging towards them on crutches. Both of his legs ended at the knees with simple handmade prosthetics.

"Hello Angus," Linda greeted him and introduced the doctors and nurses. "Angus Vaughn was woken up about forty years ago. Before that, he worked in High Seattle's greenhouses, helping feed the space station, though we didn't realize that until after his pod went yellow."

"Yeah, had I woken earlier, I might've caught some bad mistakes we're still paying for. But what's done is done. What can I do youse for?"

"We are looking for a spot to set up these." Doctor Reese said, indicating the large medical pods they'd lifted up. "They are mostly self contained, but if we can get a supply of water it would help them last longer. A supply of biomatter with the right properties would help too; it would be that much less we'd need to keep bringing in to treat people."

"And what might those be? Look like a new type of sleeper pods," Angus asked, squinting over to the new devices.

"The tech has some similarities with the sleeper pods; but they are for medical uses. They can scan your body and use nanotech to start repairing you. Given enough time, they could repair your legs. Or more quickly, they can repair nerve damage and malnutrition issues, and get you to the point we can fit you out with some proper prosthetics, as good as real."

"And all I have to do is get back in a pod." Angus looked doubtful.

"Exactly, a few hours and you'll feel just like when you left Earth," Nurse Hector Coffey piped in.

Angus shook his head. "Well, as you can see, we have plenty of room. Pick a spot and do what you have to do. But you ain't getting me in one of those contraptions."

The nurse looked confused. "We won't? Why not? All those aches, all those tingling nerves, everything, would be gone in a night...."

"At the cost of getting back into a pod I spent a hundred and fifty years in. Another day in one will be a day too many."

"No one will be forced unless there's a medical emergency," Linda said, stepping in to defuse the situation. "I'm sure we'll have enough curious volunteers to keep these doctors busy. In the meantime, why don't you show them around? I heard they were surprised we actually made use of the Watney stash."

"That they did, and it worked better than expected. It's messy but it's provided a steady supply of spuds. It also provides a good spot to grow the fungi we need to process corpses."

Doctor Reese nodded. "That method you have to release biomatter, we are especially curious about how that developed. Hopefully it won't be needed on other ships, but I'm sure other uses can be found."

"Right, I can go over it when we get there. Let's start in here. This was the original hydroponics for the crew. It was designed for seventy five years supporting a crew of a few dozen awake at a time, mainly on a supply of vat meat, and genegineered fruit and veggies like the snozcumber. When we realized we had to expand, we raided the cargo and found more classic stuff like tomatoes, lettuce, kale, and so forth. We used all we could."

Dr. Reese nodded. "Snozcumbers, 23rd century Spacer hydroponic wonderfoods. Like a potato crossed with a cucumber crossed with an orange. High in starches, Vitamin C, and most essential vegetable-based nutrients. Literally grows in any old shit. But like most genegineered stuff from that era, hard as hell to reproduce reliably. The Agricorps wanted the spacers to keep buying new seeds. And they're also low in protein and B-complex."

"Doctor, in a closed environment like this, everything is hard to reproduce. We all became experts at pollinating by hand. But yeah, my predecessor's records are filled with their attempts to stretch the Spacer food as long as possible. Most of those plant lines finally died out about fifty years ago." Agnus said. "Thankfully, we had enough original stock to continue, but it's been rough. Subsistence rations and nothing more."

He lead them among the vats as they spoke. Most of the water tanks had yellowing plants under lights that were only slightly brighter than the ambient lighting. There were few flowers or fruit on the plants, ripe or otherwise. Even the few leafy vegetables were picked to the bare minimum and barely growing.

"Early on, we knew that we couldn't limit on the gardens. Plants need energy to grow, in the form of the full-spectrum grow lights. So we've always had first dibs on replacements. But we lost the ability to repair and make new sun lights a few decades ago. We've been rotating the plants under the remaining good lights and using normal lights as we can, but the last sun lamp died last year. That's when things really got tough."

Angus lifted the yellow end of a tomato vine. "This is Big Bertha, our last tomato vine. We've been growing her for decades, carefully picking off the spurs to continue her lineage and planting seeds. But she isn't spuring anymore, and the last flowers didn't fruit. We've had a lot of lasts over the past few years."

Doctor Reese patted him on the shoulders. "Well, now it's time to start a bunch of firsts. We'll be keeping you busy even if you aren't trying to keep the gardens alive. Your knowledge alone will be invaluable."

"Thanks, I appreciate it. Now, you wanted to see our night soil garden? It's through here, in the west quad."


Commander Lee studied the report from her engineers in her office. A schematic view of the Lodgepole floated over her desk, problem areas highlighted in yellow and red. The little bits of green on the diagram were basically irrelevant.

The chime to her office rang, and she signaled the guest to enter. The griffin walked in, nodding politely and waiting for Lee to speak first.

"Thanks for coming Petra, I wanted to get your opinion on this situation."

"No problem, Commander. But I'm sure your engineers are up to snuff."

"The engineering isn't what I need your opinion on. I need your feel on the people."

Petra walked over to the desk and started looking at the model. "I think I see what you mean. It's worse than I thought."

"Not helped by our own tinkering. We needed that airlock, but punching it in caused a ripple effect, creating more damage elsewhere. The engineers don't dare try to replace the other ones, or even to unweld them."

"So what are you thinking of?" Petra asked.

"This garbage scow of a ship is being held together by the sheer willpower of her crew. Never seen anything like it. But what needs to happen now is evacuation. I'm already getting bunks fabbed for barracks in the recovery docking bays on the Scout rescue ships. They have five pre-teen kids as part of families, and two pregnant women; we'll provide private quarters for those families. But we can't allow those people to stay on that ship."

Petra shook her head. "Jewel won't go for it. At least she won't force everyone to go for it. They're prideful despite recognizing the wreck they're arriving in. Especially if we can't offload the passengers."

"Believe me, I'd love to get those pods off too, but they aren't vac-rated. They need air for cooling, not to mention the bodies are technically still breathing. But that's a secondary problem right now."

Petra silently studied the state of the Lodgepole and sighed. Far too much red. "Well, start like we're doing the med pods, by asking them for volunteers. Give them a bit of time to realize they don't have to punish themselves so much. Maybe after word spreads about new beds, we can convince the rest to leave."

"I was afraid you'd advise that. I have a similar feeling. We can't force them to leave, not yet. We need their expertise and cooperation. But I will insist the kids and the pregnant ones are off ship and off duty. That is not negotiable."

"That's fair. We need to issue them with emergency vac belts," Petra said. "Just in case things, well, pop."

"That's a given. So you will back my suggestions to Captain Birdwell? They seem to get along with you, so that might help."

"I'll back you. It makes sense. We need to start reducing the stress load on that poor ship. The fewer on it full time, the better."

"Good. She's already on her way."

Captain Jewel Birdwell walked slowly through the corridor of the Endeavor following a Scout Corporal. The ship didn't even feel like a ship, though her personal experience was lacking on what a ship should feel like. The gravity was rock steady; on the Lodgepole, the field was unstable. It rippled, liable to trip you when you least expect it. Similarly, the air was thick, odorless, but not hard to breathe; every breath refreshed her and didn't leave her wanting to gasp for more. Everywhere she looked seemed new and clean; without the wear and tear of decades of use and dirt so ingrained it couldn't be washed away. The lights were almost blindingly bright, with no burnt out elements to create shadows. The silence unnerved her a little as well; the air system hummed along too quietly to hear. There were no clanks of pipes, no hums of mistuned engines and generators, no noise of the hundreds of people in close proximity.

"We're here, Captain," the scout said, giving her a salute. They were in a small office with no one else in it. The desk was empty, but a door lead to a bigger room. "They're waiting for you in Commander Lee's office, through the door there."

"Thank you for the escort; I'd never have found my way here otherwise." Jewel smiled at the scout and stepped into the next room.

Commander Lee and Petra were standing in front of a desk. To one side, a large window gave a view of space, the Lodgepole dominating the view. A model of the Lodgepole floated between the Scout and Ranger. Jewel couldn't read all the markings, but she knew red and yellow were never good signs.

"Welcome aboard the Endeavor, Captain Birdwell. It's good to finally meet you in person; our duties just haven't given us a chance to do more than speak on the comms before now," Lee greeted her, offering a hand.

"Same to you. There's a lot to do for all of us. Which is why I take it this is not a social call?"

"Correct. It is rather refreshing to encounter someone who has no time for the social bee- err social niceties." Lee motioned to the model of the Lodgepole. "Our teams have finished their analysis of your ship. It's bad, Captain.Very bad. We can't in good conscience let you keep living on it. We want you to order an evacuation."

The news hit the captain hard; in her heart she knew that day would be coming, she didn't expect it to happen this quickly. "So soon? I had hoped we might have more time."

"We had hoped that as well, but all the work we're doing to stabilize the ship is further weakening things. We want to minimize the risks and get everyone off that we can get off. We still need your crew to guide our own work, so they will still be going on board. But off duty, they will have to be off the ship," Lee explained.

"Barracks are being set up here on the Endeavor for your people, along with some common areas isolated from the rest of the ship while they are quarantined. That should only last another day or so until the medics clear you," Petra added.

"We have slots available on the other ships if you have some brave souls ready to jump right into the Zharusian life. Or just want a bit more privacy than the bunks offer."

"Privacy was left behind a few light-years from Sol. Still, leaving the ship; it's asking a lot of us," Birdwell said. "We just met, and for the Descendants, the Lodgepole is all we know. Leaving home will be difficult, even for the Revenants."

"It is still your ship, we will respect your decision, but we strongly suggest you order everyone off," Lee said.

Jewel shook her head, "I can't do that. Not yet. I'll let everyone know the option is available, but I can't order everyone off. It would cause a mutiny."

Lee sighed sadly, "We thought you might say that. Still, there are two things that we are requesting that are not negotiable."

"Not negotiable?" Jewel frowned, bracing herself for a fight.

"One, all the kids must be taken off. Ditto for the pregnant women. The safety of the minors trumps everything."

Jewel nodded. "That... That is acceptable. It'll still be a fight, especially with the older kids, but I can agree with that."

"The other is that everyone on board needs to wear shield belts. If an emergency happens, it should protect them long enough for rescue. They deploy automatically if the air quality drops or other criteria are met."

Petra chuckled. "We have to reprogram them a bit, the air quality on the ship when I got on would have triggered the belts right away. Luckily Slingshot and I have our own protections and don't use them."

"Those are your only requirements?" Jewel asked, looking at the other two. "You have enough of these belts for everyone?"

"More than enough."

"Thank I accept the conditions. One step at a time, right?"

"Thank you Captain, every little bit helps," Commander Lee said.

"What about the Passengers? Will you be taking them off?" Captain Birdwell said.

Lee shook her head. "We'll take was many of the failing units as we can, but there's too much damage all around. The central shafts are too narrow to safely take those ancient pods out, and we don't dare open the cargo shafts. We need to get you to Zharus first, and then we'll figure out how to get them out."

"I assume you have a plan for us?" Jewel asked.

Petra nodded. "We're going to reinforce what we can, and basically build a bubble of air around the Lodgepole and turn off her engines. She'll be attached to the Eastern, which will bring you safely to Zharus. With the resources locally available, we'll be able to extract the pods and wake everyone up."

"You can do this? Out here in the middle of nowhere?" The other two nodded. Jewel shook her head in disbelief. "Right then, I've got to go let everyone know their new options. Thank you for keeping me in the loop. And for not forcing the matter."

"I'll accompany you," Petra said. "We need your cooperation, forcing would be counterproductive. Hopefully most of your crew will see reason."

"And I've gotta start telling that mob outside thanks for your help but you aren't needed any more, and please go home before we have to rescue you," Lee said with a sigh. "I almost want to trade places with you, Captain."

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Adam unpacked what few belongings he wanted to keep into a storage locker at the base of the bunk. There were eight bunks in the room, but only four were occupied. About half of the crew, mostly revenants, had taken up the offer to get off the Lodgepole and into more humane quarters. He was moving after finishing his day duties on the other ship, and the soft bed, with clean sheets and actual pillows, was very tempting, but he decided to explore a little. He didn't have much experience with ships, but the Endeavor didn't feel like one. It felt more like a hostel back on Earth, except everything was scaled bigger than he expected it, to make room for the RIDEs.

The locker beeped, locking itself to his biostats. He left the room and headed to the dining room. A half dozen Lodgepole people were eating meals. Their diet was still restricted but no longer limited in how much they could eat. Two of them had actually braved the medical pods and were practically glowing with health compared to the others. It was almost enough to make him brave the pods himself, but he couldn't bring himself to do it yet.

A two metre tall robotic cheetah stood by the machine, ready to help with the fabber or any other questions the crew might have. The RIDE was thin and looked fast; and didn't look like it could hold a person inside it. Adam had seen RIDEs from a distance since the rescue fleet arrived, but never had a chance to see any close up. The Lodgepole was too cramped for most of the robotic animals, forcing them to stay outside, though this one would have relatively few problems on the ship.

"Hello, Adam. What can we get for you?" the cheetah asked.

Adam paused, "You know who I am? Of course you do."

The cheetah snickered, "Blue here knows you all and let me know. I'm still learning myself."

He squinted at the fused RIDE, "There actually is someone in there?"

"Certainly, my name is Christin- Chris just Chris and this is Blue. Why don't we get your order cooking. What do you want?"

The abilities of the fabbers was still unbelievable to him, despite what he had seen them do. He had been cleared for most food, so he decided to test them. "A hamburger and poutine, and a coke."

The fused feline barely hesitated and the screen lit up. "Right, you're cleared for that. Please pick your burger and poutine style, and toppings. If you want any flavour shots in your coke, you can pick that too," Chris said.

"If you want a different menu style, we have a number of classic restaurant pickers, including McDonalds, Wendys, Harveys, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Five Guys, and more." 'Chris' also said, the feline's tone changing.

"This is fine," Adam said, quickly making his choices. The screen switched to a processing progress bar once he confirmed the choices. "So there actually is someone in there? I thought RIDEs were bigger and bulkier.... May I touch?"

The RIDE pair offered their arm. Adam reached out to touch the metal, and discovered it was warm to the touch, with more flexibility than he expected.

"Normally they are. Blue's new, fresh from the creche and fresh paired with me. We're both new actually. In a way, I'm similar to you, fresh off the boat from Earth. I didn't want to get involved in city building, so I signed up for the scouts, and we were paired up."

"I'm in a starter shell until I get used to the Real and decide what addins I want to grow into. Very barebones, minimal abilities. I've got the fuse mode, cat mode and a simple cycle mode."

"Do you do that often? Both be speaking? Because it's very confusing."

The cheetah straightened up and began to split open, revealing a man inside the tight fitting armor. The man stepped out, tugging a tail free, while the cheetah folded back down into a quadrupedal stance. The metal skin flickered and grew into a fur coat. The man had short hair with spots, furry ears and tail, and an upturned nose with whiskers. His body was almost as thin as the Lodgepole people, having a lean sprinter's build.

"I admit it is still new for me. Two people talking at once is surprisingly normal from what I've seen," Chris said. He unabashedly tugged at his shorts and squirmed a bit, tail twitching in the air. "My apologies, lots to get used to. Not as much as you have to adapt to I'm sure."

The fabber dinged and two plates and cup were revealed with steaming hot food. He hesitated before going to a table. "So you said you were from Earth?"

"I am, just arrived more or less. Only took me eight months of course."

"And you've already partnered with one of those?"

"I have a name, you know," Blue growled.

"Three names so far," Chris corrected him. "He was Chester when I met him in the creche and they were testing our compatibility. Then he went with Prospero when he first got his shell. Now he's going by Blue for some reason."

"Blue is a fine name for a predator. And much better for me than for those raptors. Not as if you haven't changed your name too."

Chris glared at his partner a moment. "Despite his lack of tact, our compatibility tested high, and we both wanted to join the Scouts, so we were paired up a few weeks ago. We were literally on the Endeavor on a tour when you guys showed up, and we got dragged along."

Adam had the feeling he was missing a lot of signals and implications, but the smells from the plates on his tray were impossible to ignore. It was more than three years since he'd had a meal like this, and he wanted to get into it before it congealed.

"I'd love to talk more, but this smells divine and I want to enjoy it while it is perfect. If you'll excuse me."

"Of course! Go. Enjoy your meal. I'm sure we'll meet again; they don't have much for us to do, so we're on fabber duty, helping you guys out. Anything you need or want or have questions about, we'll try to answer."

The food wasn't quite as he remembered it. The spices and textures were different, giving it a different taste from what he recalled. He wasn't sure if it was just differences that had developed through the years, or if because it was from the fabber, and he didn't care. Compared to what he was living on for the past few years, it was ambrosia.

Midway through the meal, Chris wandered over and set down another full glass. "You looked like you could use a refill."

"Thanks," he said. He motioned to the seat across from him. "Have a seat, take a load off. So what's Earth like now? Things weren't looking good when we left."

Chris sat down and crossed his legs, wincing a moment and adjusting his stance. "Earth? Well, it's still around. I'm probably not the best to talk of it."

"Why's that?"

"I was basically forced off the planet, literally, due to my personal interests. It's probably best to leave it at that, but it was rough. I had to leave everything behind. Well everything but my family who were less than pleased when they discovered I was the reason they were yoinked."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Family is important, but sounds like a rough situation. Give it time, I'm sure they will come around."

"Yeah, maybe. I'm not holding my breath." Chris looked away for a moment, then back to Adam "How about you, are you alone?"

Adam sighed and stirred the thickening gravy with a thick cut french fry. "Technically yes, but not really. I left with my family; they're still frozen and stable. My pod was breaking down but theirs are fine."

"That's horrible! But they're still alive, still waiting for you, right?"

"More like I'm waiting on them. No point in waking them until they're safe." Adam paused, "Damn, I just realized it. I'm older than my sister now. They woke me up three years ago, she was just over three years older than me."

Chris squeezed his hand. "Cryo pods do strange things to family age divisions. The colonies are full of stories where people finally show up, only to discover their grandchildren are older than they are. If you need or want someone to talk to, let me know. I'll do what I can, whether it is just listening or finding someone with more training to help."

"Thanks. I might take you up on that when I have more time."

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"So what did it feel like?" Adam asked. He and three other revenants were in one of the bunk rooms. One of them had just reluctantly done a stint in the med-pod after breaking his leg in a fall. The doctors had insisted on using the pods at that point instead of using a cast.

"It was strange," Lou said. "I was nervous going in, but I didn't have much choice. It is comfortable, and there's a window you can see out. They closed it up, it started humming and I started tingling."

He flexed his hand, he'd lost it due to freezer burn, and now it was entirely back, with clean spotless, and very pink skin.

"I itched all over, and my leg and arm went numb. That was scary, but they said it would happen to let the magic dust do its work. I may have dozed off around then, and next thing I knew, the pod was opening."

"What was the first thing you noticed?" Claire asked. She had lost a foot, an ear and an arm to freezer burn. She was about Adam's age, having been woken up a year after him.

"I didn't hurt. All those aches I'd had since I woke up, all the hunger, it was all gone. I forgot what it was like not to hurt, but now I remember it."

"The second thing I noticed was my hand. I could feel it again, it could feel me."

"They told me hands and feet and ears are easy. Arms and legs would take longer but could be done too. But I don't know if I could do it," Claire mused.

"It seems too good to be true. Regrowing fingers and hands that fast?" Adam said.

"I know, I know. It happened to me and it still feels too good to be true." Lou lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers, showing unmarred flesh. "But I've got my hand back. I'm complete again. I'm a believer now. You don't realize how bad we're off until it's all fixed."

Adam pushed himself off the lower bunk and started towards the door. "Well, I've got duties in a few hours, I'm going to hit the sack if I can get some sleep. An actual bed, we've got beds again..." He shook his head in disbelief.

Lou stood up as well, flexing his new hand. "I'm too wired to sleep. Did you know they've got a rec room set up for us? It's got pool tables. I'm going to go practice, see if I've still got my shot."

"Don't miss duty call," Adam reminded him. "The Sleepers are still depending on us."

Adam tossed and turned in his bed, unable to find sleep. The rich dinner sat in a stomach unused to being so full of such variety. The bed itself was too comfortable, smelling too clean. His body itself rebelled, all the twitchy nerves, the aches and phantom pains clamouring for attention. An hour of tossing and turning, he finally rolled out of the bed and made his way to the clinic.

Nurse Coffey greeted him as he came in. "Hi Adam, what can I help you with?"

"I'm-" he started to say and stopped. The clinic had a half dozen medical pods. Three were occupied, including to his surprise, one by Claire.

"I'm tired," he said. "Tired of the shakes. Tired of hurting so much, of aching, tired of twitching, tired of being hungry."

"Well, we can try to help you with that. Anything in particular you are looking for?"

"From what I understand, you'd just be treating the symptoms. To really cure the problem, I need to get in your magic box right?"

"The box would be the best way to treat you all. We don't treat everything with it, but you guys have so many things wrong with you, it builds you back to a normal level so our other treatments work better."

Adam could feel his nerves beginning to fail, so he spoke quickly, heading for the nearest empty pod. "Put me in, before I change my mind."

Nurse Coffey didn't hesitate, making his way to the pod as well and powering it up. "Would you like a mild sedative while it works? Given your mindset, I would advise it."

"Sure, sure, whatever is needed. Do I need to strip?"

"Nope, just climb in and relax. Close your eyes if it helps. Do you want your freezer burn repaired? It would take a little longer but not significantly, you'll still be done well before your next work period."

"Do it all."

Adam climbed in and forced himself to relax, feeling the padding sculpt lightly around him. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths, sensing the pod close up around him. It hissed faintly, his skin began to itch, and he fell asleep.

"Adam. Wake up Adam."

He rolled over, away from the voice. "No school. Lemme sleep in."

The voice persisted. "Wish I could Adam, but you've got work to do. Gotta get up if you want to be ready in time."

He groaned and unwillingly woke up. His body still itched all over, but the feeling faded quickly. He reached out and felt the edge of the medical pod, four fingers and a thumb gripping. He levered himself up and stepped out, all five toes on each foot touching the cool floor. He finished waking up, lifting his hands to his face and seeing clear pale skin on new fingers.

"Welcome back, sleepy head. I would have let you sleep in longer, but you probably want to get breakfast before you head back to the Lodgepole. How do you feel?" the nurse asked.

He struggled to figure out how to describe the feelings. Like Lou had said, the aches were gone, and he felt energized; famished, but energized.

"Complete. I'm complete again."

"That's a common reaction. You should be all good now, just take it easy until you get used to having five piggies on each limb again. Don't want to see you back because you forgot you have a pinky and jammed it in a track."

Adam touched the new digits, wiggling them, not believing what he saw. "Thanks. I can't believe I waited. I shouldn't have waited."

"Well convince your friends to come in and get away from Death's Door and we're even. Seeing all you guys like that is painful to me; I want to help you but you aren't taking it."

"I'll see what I can do, but no promises. Still, thank you. Thank you so very much."

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Hakim sat at the conference table with the Great Eastern's Eridanite OverEngineer, Lina Paredes, and a handful of other experts from the Scouts and Rangers, all on hand to discuss the future of the Lodgepole. Most of the talk had gone over his head, though he understood the gist of it from watching the animated diagrams. The Lodgepole would dock with the only ship around big enough to carry it; the Great Eastern herself. The great ship would then take over, using its powerful engines to bring the colony ship the remaining distance to Zharus. From what he gathered, the ship would be able to take the Lodgepole all the way back to Earth in less than a year if the Captain wanted to, and it wouldn't be much of a strain to its engines. The abilities of this new civilization kept catching him by surprise.

There was a lot of work to be done to prepare for the docking and the final leg of the trip. A secondary hull would be built around the Lodgepole to further protect and contain the ship. The cryo-blocks would be attached to independent power cells to lighten the load on the ship's power system and to make sure they had an uninterruptible power supply. New hard points would be carefully installed on the strongest parts of the ship's frame that could be found, so the colony ship could dock safely to the Eastern. And one of the final steps, the great engines that had propelled them across twenty light years and two centuries, would be shut down for the final time.

Shutting down the engines. That was the point Hakim was having a hard time wrapping his mind around. He knew it had to be done at some point. Every engineer knew exactly the steps that needed to be taken. But they also had devoted entire lifetimes to making sure the engines wouldn't shut down again. The First Engineer, Hassan, had shut them down for the Long Coast, carefully tending them so they would be ready to fire again when the time was right. After flip over, they'd fired up again and had been firing ever since.

Shutting down the engines. It was a huge step to take. When that happened, the Lodgepole would no longer be a ship. She would be a fifteen hundred metre cargo pod, at the mercy of strangers. It was the beginning of the end, the final steps of their long journey. He planned to party as heartily as everyone else when the last passenger was offloaded and the ship was finally empty; but the shadow of doubt lingered; he knew he would miss his home. The fear of what would happen next loomed over everything they did.


He shook his head, realizing he'd drifted off. Every face at the table was focused on him. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid my mind wandered. I'm just blown away by what you are proposing, the capabilities you take for granted. Our records say it took a year for them to build and install the hull plating originally; Now, in the middle of nowhere, you're claiming you can build a second hull within days."

"Well, originally, your armor had to endure the entire journey. This hull simply needs to keep the air in. The Eastern will provide not just the engines, but also all the protection you will need," the Eridani engineer said.

"Yeah, that makes sense, but it's still boggling. I'm sorry, did you ask me something?"

"We were wondering if you anticipate any issues when the engines are shut down."

Hakim forced himself to consider the question, tracing the connections through the various systems.

"Connection wise, no, that should be fine; we've been careful to keep the engines as isolated as possible. I don't foresee a problem shutting them down."

"What about the thrust vector?" a Ranger asked. "All that power has been pushing against the ship since you flipped over. When the engines are off, that pressure is going to relax."

"That is why we are building the secondary hull. It will help contain any failures from the engine shut off," the Eridani engineer said.

"I hadn't thought of that," Hakim mumbled, humbled at his oversight. "I don't think it will be a problem, but, well you know more about that than I do." He shook his head and refocused on the room. "Right, we have a lot to do. What can I and my teams do?"

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With a clearly defined goal and the Crew's physical condition steadily improving, work on the Lodgepole sped up. From across the Great Eastern plating was removed and sent to its own internal fabber to be reshaped. Fabbers from across the rescue fleet not only pumped out the necessities of life, but also the support structures needed to keep the plates in place around the colony ship as well as the gear needed to keep the cryo-blocks working. Most of the non-Ranger and Scout ships were sent back in system, after dropping off whatever they could spare.

By the end of the first day, multiple rings were almost complete, spaced evenly along the length of the colony ship. Some of the plating was already in place, mainly to test the fit and make sure the calculations and sims matched up. On the northern side of the ship, three evenly spaced spars sprung out, fused deep to the skeleton of the ship, ready to link up and keep the ship tight to the side of the Great Eastern.

Inside the ship was even busier. One of the first priorities was to repair the lifts. The cargo lifts that were set up around the perimeter of the ship were deemed lost causes. The lifts around the central core weren't as bad off; with new material and a lot of elbow grease, two were made mostly functional again. The trip from bridge to engineering only required one transfer now, multiple antigravity platforms moving between the levels so the Crew didn't have to use the ladders as much.

Adam and his teams of miners and processors were now mules, helping transport gear through the ship, dropping off equipment on each level for the sleepers so the techies could come in later and do the wiring they needed to do. Word about the effects of the med pods was spreading, to the point there was a short waiting list for those who wanted a session. More people had moved off, but there were still about fifty Crew still living on board.

He flashed his light over the large cargo elevator door, inspecting the welds sealing it shut out of habit. The perimeter lifts were designed to carry an entire block of sleepers down to the loading deck. Adam didn't know how they intended to remove the sleepers now, but that was a problem for later. In the meantime, the space in front of the doors was perfect as a staging area to leave the gear at.

"Level Fourteen South. Light'er up and let's start unpacking," he ordered, facing the other five who had accompanied him, all pushing heavily loaded floating carts.

Two of them immediately started climbing a block with coils of rope. Like Adam, both had been through the pods, and now had more energy than they knew what to do with. The gear that the Rangers insisted they wear on the ship did include anti-gravity devices, but the Crew preferred to do things the way they were familiar with. Within minutes, floodlights were lashed to the scaffolding holding the pods in place, and the area was lit up, bright as day. The team began unloading the gear, stacking rolls of wire and boxes of strange devices neatly along the hull.

"I can't believe we're just going to leave this here. All this stuff, and it's just going to be left here."

"Left here for another team. They'll come through and hook it up to the blocks. It's not like it's going to be wasting."

Adam listened to the banter, making sure everything went in the right piles and was accounted for. Before long, the carts were emptied, and everyone could pause for a quick break. Claire offered him a bottle of water; she was still missing an arm, but was a picture of health otherwise. When there was more time, she planned to get a new one grown.

"Hush! Did you hear that?" someone shouted from the back of the group.

Everyone froze and started listening. With everything going on, the Lodgepole was making a lot of strange and unfamiliar noises. Adam was about to dismiss it as a false alarm, when they all heard it; a deep grumble from below them. They felt it as well, the floor beginning to vibrate. A breeze started, pulling towards the outer hull.

"Link up everyone!" Adam ordered, fear growing in the pit of his stomach. He grabbed the end of a rope and tied it around his belt.

He tapped his badge as the team started towards the breeze. They knew they should be running away from space, but duty obligated them to assess first. "Adam to the Bridge. I'm in 14-South and we have a hole! Assessing now!" he shouted over the increasing wind.

"-egative! Geh-... -t now!" the voice at the other end shouted, words lost in the gale around them.

The damage was in a corner, where South and East met. It was also around the ceiling, almost impossible to see in the darkness away from the flood lights. Adam hooked his arm around a block support and flashed his light up. These corners were where the skeleton of the Lodgepole was closest to the hull. As they watched, they could see layers of insulation and plating shake, shards blowing off from the escaping air pressure.

Adam raised his hand and pointed back, but it was too late. Before anyone could retreat, a section of the wall shook and peeled back. The gale turned into a hurricane, the blocks rattling but held in place by their bolts. The humans had no chance. One by one they were lifted away from their perches and pulled into the darkness. The safety belts, detecting the moment they were away from any major debris, activated, engulfing them in ovoid bubbles of hardlight, snapping the lines they'd strung between each other. The belts hissed, releasing enough air to keep the pressure stable, and status bars lit up, indicating power levels, air quality and an estimate on how long it would last.

Before he could properly orient himself, he was thrown to one side of the bubble and the outside world started spinning. He spotted a chunk of ship that he had basically flipped over. It took him a number of spins to piece together the state of the ship. Two of the petals had lifted and blown out. Precious air and debris was venting out from four quadrants across two levels.

His badge chirped and a voice came on. "Please stay calm. Help is on the way. We need to deal with the ship first, but we're tracking you."

"Thank you. There were six of us. Do you have us all? I don't know if there was anyone in the other quadrants or levels."

"I'm tracking six targets. The other areas were deserted. Excuse me, they need me to lend a claw."

The spinning was making Adam dizzy, but he could see people converging on the rent in the side of the ship from the ring construction sites. They moved with confidence and urgency, but no hint of panic. The way they flew around made him wish he'd bothered to learn the gravity controls of the belt. Without warning, a red mass shot past him, heading to the tear. It took him a moment to recognize it as a large red dragon. Between spins, he watched some people dive into the opening, and saw a glowing field form, the stream of debris cutting off. The dragon landed on one of the lifted petals and began to push on it, carefully pushing it mostly back into place. It shifted to the other petals and did the same, mostly closing the opening. More workers swarmed over the site, equipped with panels for the new hull. They began to cover the gaps and seal the ship up again.

"Need a lift?" Petra asked.

Adam shook his head and looked around. "You talking to me?"

"Unless there's another clutch of newly spaced folk, I suppose I am. Coming up from engine-ward north."

With the guidance, he spotted the Ranger's ship coming from around the Lodgepole. Within minutes, the six life pods were collected in her hold. The hatch closed up and the integrate dropped down to meet them.

"The hold is pressurised, tap the green button to release the fields. Make sure you get new belts when you get back on the Endeavor, those ones are spent, toss'em in the-Awk!"

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you," Adam stammered, hugging the anthro griffin tightly.

"Uhm, you're welcome. If this is your reaction to every exotic lady that rescues you, Cindy is going to be extra annoyed for not snagging you first." She gently pulled away from Adam and motioned to the rest. "Come on up and take a look."

The upper level was crowded with seven in it; but it offered a clear view of the Lodgepole. Workers swarmed over the patch, reinforcing it and making sure it was solid. The patched panels spread wide all around to make extra sure it would not give way again. The dragon was helping, pulling plates into position and holding them while they were welded into place.

"What the hell happened?" one of the othered rescued asked.

Petra shrugged. "Murphy's my best guess. The bane of the best laid peacetime plans. A weak spot finally let go, maybe due to a resonance from all the work going on."

Adam shuddered, "It could have happened any time. If you guys weren't here, we would've lost all four quads; I don't think we could have fixed that by ourselves any more. Forty blocks of Passengers would have been lost."

"Don't dwell on might have beens," Petra chastised him. "We're putting a lot of strange stresses on the ship. That weak spot might have held all the way into Zharus if we weren't doing all this work. Or some other weak spot could let go, or a rock hits you going the wrong way in the traffic lane."

"How about the Passengers? How do they look?" Claire asked.

"The quads are being repressurized now. All the pods are green and yellow, no reds that weren't there before." Petra chuckled. "Some of the yellows are green now. Guess they just needed the ultimate vacuum cleaning."

"Thank goodness," Adam said, slumping into a chair.

"This is Captain Birdwell to all Crew of the Lodgepole. As you are aware, a potential disaster was narrowly averted by our new friends. A blow out depressurized four quadrants and sucked six crew members into space. Due to the quick reaction of the people building the new hull, the hole was sealed up within minutes, and the quads re-filled with air before a Passenger could warm up. Furthermore, the six who went on a space walk, were saved by the safety belts provided by our new friends, and they were picked up by our friend Petra.

"A disaster was averted with minimal damage. Repairs are complete and construction continues. My thanks to everyone involved in the emergency."

The captain took a deep breath. Even over the voice channel, it was obviously she was struggling with a difficult decision.

"This incident was a wakeup call to me. Our home, the Lodgepole, is no longer safe. I can no longer in good conscience, let people continue to needlessly put themselves in danger, not when other options exist. We still have a Duty to the Passengers, to the Sleepers. That does not change. But as of now, we are abandoning the ship. Anyone not doing their Duty, will not be allowed on the ship. There are more than enough bunks on the Endeavor and the other scout ships for everyone.

"If you are off duty now, you have one hour to leave the ship. We will be around to wake anyone currently asleep to share the news as needed. If you are on duty, you have within an hour after the end of your duty period to pack and get off. If you forget anything, arrangements can be made to retrieve it.

"The Lodgepole is no longer our home. It is a ship of Sleepers, that we are escorting to their home. We will make sure it reaches its destination as is our Duty. But all unnecessary services will be disabled. No further resources will be spent on hydroponics, sickbay, the kitchen or living quarters. Even the Bridge will be shut down once we dock with our older sister ship,the Great Eastern.

"Thank you everyone for everything that you have done. It's been a long journey, and the end is finally in sight. We have help now, more shoulders to share our burden and to welcome us home. For the first time in many of our lives, we can finally relax, secure in the knowledge that our Passengers are in good hands. Please, move onward. Learn all you can of our new home. Take advantage of the healing options, so when we finally wake the Sleepers, they will see a strong Crew welcoming them home.

That is all. May Pharos light your way."

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It took a Zharusian week to complete the work. The Lodgepole showed her age, averaging a blowout a day, each one quickly dealt with. With the ship effectively evacuated except for essential work, Adam's six were the only ones who actually took an unplanned spacewalk. By the end of the week, the ship was completely hidden, encased in a new shell from the edge of its engines to the tip of its nose, the only other entrance being the expanded airlock still connected to the Endeavor.

Hakim polished a handle with the bottom of his shirt, trying to wipe off grime that had been there for decades. He was in the main engineering control room just below the loading deck. It effectively served as the secondary bridge for the Lodgepole. Now, it was the only bridge. True to her promise, Captain Birdwell had decomissioned the main bridge at the top of the stacks. She and the remaining bridge officers were making their way down to join Hakim and the other dignitaries, waiting for the big moment.

He looked around the room, hoping no one had noticed his attempt at polishing. The Great Eastern's pale-skinned OverEngineer and Commander Lee were in deep conversation with the floating head of Zordon, debating some topic he didn't understand. Apparently they had just crossed some random line in space, and Zordon was claiming they were in his domain now. The argument was more friendly than heated, so he tuned it out.

Petra, Angus, Adam and Linda were watching him, standing to one side, all four glowing with health. Angus had overcome his misgivings and done a quick session in the pods, and now had new prosthetic legs that looked and moved like real legs and feet. Linda smiled at him encouragingly and he smiled back, turning away to check a connection between a display screen and the older controls. The past two days had seen a flurry of activity in the room. Lights and screens were replaced, though the actual controls were left untouched. The garbage and dust was cleaned up and new chairs brought in for the stations.

He walked over to the main control panel and touched the keyboard, feeling the weight of what he was about to do. Unseen by all but his own minds eye, were the spirits of the five Engineers who had served before him. Some weren't actually dead; they were frozen, having earned the right after a long life in service of the Passengers. But frozen or dead, they were watching him. This was the most important moment in the Lodgepole's history since the decision was made to keep going to Zharus.

The door of the recently repaired lift hissed and opened, revealing Captain Birdwell and the last couple of bridge officers.

"Captain on the Bridge," Petra called out, standing straighter. The honored guests smirked and turned to face the Captain. Not sure what was going on, the rest of the room fell silent and stood straighter. Jewel froze like a deer in a spotlight.

Her badge chirped softly, and Petra whispered through it. "Now you have to say 'as you were' or 'at ease'. Your pick."

"At... ease?" Captain Birdwell said.

Petra relaxed and motioned to the other bridge officers, pointing to their stations. The Lodgepole was about to become a cargo pod strapped to a near-naked Great Eastern, but that didn't mean it still didn't need a crew to monitor it and handle any emergencies that would come up.

Commander Lee approached the captain, holding out her hand. "It is a momentous event, worth watching in person."

"I suppose so. It's taken so long to get here. I swear the last five days have felt longer than the last hundred and fifty years."

"Zeno's paradox in the flesh. The closer you are to your destination, the longer it takes to get there," Zordon noted.

"I have no idea what that is, but that is what I'm feeling. Shall we proceed?"

"At your leisure, Captain," the OverEngineer Paredes said politely, bowing slightly and stepping to the side. "The Eastern stands ready to bring her sister ship home."

Jewel moved to the center of the room, well aware of all the eyes and cameras on her. "Please confirm the main bridge is offline and all controls are here."

The other officers finished tapping at the keyboards and looked back.

"Controls are live."

"We have full control here. Or as much control as we had before," the other officer confirmed.

Jewel looked at Commander Lee. "How is the Endeavor?"

"She's disconnected and backed off. We'll reconnect once we're both docked," Lee confirmed.

Captain Jewel Birdwell of the ECS Lodgepole, seventh Captain in a line stretching back to the day they left Earth, looked at her Engineer. "Hakim, shut them down."

"Yes, sir." Hakim sat down at his station and started typing. Shutting the engines down was not a simple task, even though they'd been preparing for it. He stopped at the last step and looked up. "I'm ready. Do you confirm you want the engines shut down?"

"Go for it Hakim."

He hit return and waited. The screens filled with red and yellow text and a smattering of green. The room fell silent, the air still blowing, the lights still on, but the barely sensed thrum was gone.

"Engine shut down complete. We're coasting. Ready for pickup."

"I'm picking up some flexing across the ship. Some of the petals popped again, but the outer shell is holding. No damage internally," the other bridge officer reported.

Jewel nodded, acknowledging the report. She looked at the Great Eastern representative. "We're ready for pick up at your leisure."

"On our way in now," the OverEngineer said, eyes closed as her attention focused on helping guide the other ship in.

They switched the monitors to external view. The Great Eastern, almost four hundred meters longer than the Lodgepole, slowly approached the newly installed docking clamps. The clamps were taken from the Eastern's own spares for their Big Top landers, so there were no compatibility issues. There was only the smallest vibration when they made contact.

"Eastern confirms successful docking," the OverEngineer said. "Gravity and inertial displacement envelopes are nominal. We're going to be crabwalking the rest of the way to Zharus with the thrust offset. But we'll actually be able to get you there faster now. In days instead of months. Endeavor is moving to her position. We are preparing for turnaround and acceleration now."

Jewel nodded, aging a century in minutes, the weight of her job partly lifted off. "Thank you. May I speak with your Captain now?"

"Of course," the OverEngineer said. "Far past time to introduce you, anyway."

The image that appeared on the new monitor was an albino woman wearing a sparkling white gown. She sat in a throne-like chair. A ring of laser transceivers were embedded in her bald scalp like gemstones. "Captain Birdwell, I'm Captain Nina Perez of Eridani. I'm sure my OverEngineer has already told you how honored we are to assist your final arrival at Zharus after so many decades."

"The Great Eastern was known when they left Earth space, one of the great Colony ships that founded humanity's new homes in the stars," Birdwell said. "I never expected it could still exist. But then, it's been hard to remember there was a universe outside our ship. The Lodgepole has been our home for so long; longer than I have been alive. Thank you for being our final lift home."

"Fifty years ago the Eastern was in almost as bad a shape as your ship, so I sympathize. In our case, our situation was mostly self inflicted, but the results were similar," Perez said. "I invite you and your command Crew for a tour of the Eastern. I'm sure your own Engineer would enjoy it in particular."

Hakim looked surprised about the invitation. He shrugged and nodded wordlessly, not sure how to react, but less than thrilled at the offer. Jewel glanced at him and moved on quickly.

"We can make arrangements later, now that we have some proper downtime. Thank you, Captain Perez," Jewel said.

"You're very welcome, Captain Birdwell." Perez closed the call.

"Well, thank you everyone for everything. It's been quite the week, and now we can relax. I suppose now that things are done, we should let the Crew do their jobs," Jewel said, motioning back to the lift. She escorted Lee and the others back up a level to the docking level. There was the slightest thump as the umbilical connected the Lodgepole back to the Endeavor. "Well, this is it. The Lodgepole is no longer a ship. She no longer needs a captain. As non-essential personal, I guess by my own orders, I need to get off."

Lee chuckled, "Well, I don't think anyone would begrudge you taking a little time off. But you are still the leader of your Crew. You can't escape the Captain's table that easily. Think of the Lodgepole as a barge, being pulled into port, not under your power, but still a ship."

"If you say so. I think I'm ready to leave, but I'm scared of what's next. This ship has been my entire life. Now I need to make a new life on a strange, heavily populated planet. Unlike the passengers, I didn't even sign up for this, it's just my duty."

"A duty you have performed admirably," Zordon noted.

"A duty that is finally over. We would never have made it without your help."

"Sure you would-" Zordon started to say before seeing Jewel shaking her head.

"Zordon, the numbers don't lie. We weren't slowing enough. We would have skipped right through the system if you hadn't have caught us. Or if we didn't skip, we would've smashed into something on the way through. Hakim, myself, and a few navigators knew the truth. Once we skipped through, if we survived, we were ready to give people a chance to record their final messages, and we would've blown the hull ourselves."

"That, would have been a difficult choice to make," Lee noted grimly.

"As difficult as my great grandmother did in deciding to continue going. At least her Engineer found an out for her; we had nothing left."

"The records of that period of Earth are spotty; the megacorporations did not want to be too obvious in just how many ships they were launching. We know there are dozens of colony ships that never reached their destinations, and were never heard from again. It is rather scary to think of how many ghost ships are floating out there, filled with the lost souls that never made it home," Zordon noted. "Fitting thoughts for this time of year."

The group fell into an awkward silence before Jewel gave a nervous laugh. "Thankfully, we dodged that bullet, all because of you. That plan can safely be left in the neverwas category and we can focus on a more cheerful future."


The rescue effectively complete, the fleet scattered back to their homes. Most of the Rangers and Scouts headed to Rhodes and Xolotlan to resupply before they were scheduled for border patrol. Some unlucky pilots didn't even get that chance, having to resupply on the Great Eastern and the Endeavor before heading back to deal with the backlog of ships waiting for clearance.

Petra managed to avoid returning to the border; Zordon officially assigned her to Lodgepole duty until they reached Zharus. She was part of the group acclimatizing the Crew to the modern world.

The Great Eastern, carrying the Lodgepole and the Endeavor began a slow dive down to Zharus. Her pilots were taking their time, making sure their fragile cargo was not strained, and giving the Crew extra time to learn and adapt to their new world. Once she was satisfied the Lodgepole was in safe hands, Captain Birdwell officially forbid the Crew from returning to the ship without her express permission. She wanted everyone to be as personally prepared as they could be for the coming Arrival.

By the third day of the trip, most of the Crew had gone through the medical pods at least once. This created a different problem; the Scouts now had a few hundred people with nothing physical to do, and more energy than many had ever had in their lives, or at least in recent years. Various activities were set up to give Crew and Scouts a chance to mingle and burn off the extra energy before it exploded.

Adam watched the fused cheetah scout line up his shot. The striped ball bounced off two of the rails and just caught the edge of the pocket before rebounding back to the middle of the table. Chris growled in frustration and stepped back.

"Are you sure you're not throwing the game on purpose?" Adam asked, stepping up and studying the table. He lined up his own shot on a solid and easily knocked it in. "I mean, you are AI assisted and everything."

A half dozen pool tables and another half dozen dart boards were set up in the room on the Endeavor to provide a more relaxed place for people to burn off energy. Other rooms were set up as gyms or dance halls or other entertainment settings. In the poolhall, most of the tables and dart boards were occupied with groups playing and chatting. A bar was set up in front of the fabber, with a scout 'barkeeper' taking orders and making sure the alcohol didn't flow too freely.

"My AI assistant is next to useless," Chris grumbled.

"Don't blame me!" Blue protested from the same body. "This type of hunting is completely foreign to me. I'm a pounce and grabber, not a batter. Banging things into other things to hit a target is a foreign concept for me."

"You should've spent more time playing with balls of yarn when you were a kitten," Chris countered. "And I'm way out of practice. I used to be much better than this on Earth. But I'm off my game, not used to moving like this."

Adam chuckled and sank another ball. His own skills were rusty, but coming back quickly. He was also getting used to the two personalities in one body aspect of fused people. "Eight ball, side pocket," he announced, easily making the shot. "Well, guess that means I'm up two to one. Rack'em up and I'll go get some refills."

He added his order to the queue and leaned against the bar to wait. He recognized a trio of Crew nearby and nodded to them. They nodded back and glanced over to the pool table he was playing at with a strange expression. Curious, he took a few steps closer.

"Hey guys, what's up?" Adam asked.

"Not much, waiting on a dart board," Mike said.

Adam nodded, and they continued chatting while waiting. The subjects were neutral, but he noticed they kept glancing at his pool partner. Finally, Joan leaned closer to him, whispering almost too quietly for him to hear.

"Your pool partner, how much do you know about them?" she asked hesitantly.

The bartender dropped off his order, and Adam took a sip. "Enough to be friendly with them. Chris and Blue are nice enough."

"I've heard stories, from some of the other Scouts," Mike whispered, glancing over. "He wasn't always a he. What do they call it? He crossrode as soon as he got into the scouts."

"He did? Well that certainly explains a lot," Adam said, keeping his own surprise from showing. It was something he hadn't considered, but it did explain a lot of Chris's habits and slipups. "But it's his life. Well, his and Blue's. They seem to be handling it well enough. Now that you mention it, he does remind me of my sister a lot. In a good way. Probably why I like hanging out with them."

"You don't have a problem with that?" Joan asked, looking shocked. Their third companion, Jimmy, was looking distinctly uncomfortable with the subject and was wisely staying silent.

"Why should I? We're just friends, three people on a trip home. It's his body, what he does with it is up to him. For me, all I've known is Chris, and that's all he is."

Mike and Joan looked shocked and moved away. "I'm sorry for them. They're going to have a rough time on planet, I think," Jimmy whispered. "For what it's worth, I agree with your take on it."

Adam smiled and gathered up his drinks. "You need some flexibility, especially on the modern day Zharus. If you aren't flexible, you're going to snap. See you later."

He walked back to his table and set the drinks down on a side table. "Sorry I'm late, just chatting."

"No worries," Chris said. "Though they didn't seem too happy at the end there."

Adam rolled the racked up balls across the table then set it in position, lifting the rack away. "Their world view is under strain from unexpected directions. They'll either adapt, or they'll snap, but there isn't much I can do either way right now. Your break."

"I suspect that will be the case with many people, especially among the sleepers. Two centuries is a long time to miss socially." Chris lined up the cue and took his shot, sending the balls flying around the table.

"True, and I hate to say it, but it is not my problem. I'll leave that for the experts to sort out. Damn, three balls. Are you letting your inner shark out now?"

Chris grinned predatorially and lined up for his next shot. "I think I'm starting to get the hang of this style of hunting," Blue said.

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The Great Eastern came down ahead of Zharus and slowed down to let the planet catch up with it. As it slowed down, dozens, and then hundreds of planetary shuttles and other ships climbed up to join the Lodgepole escort home. The rec rooms were packed away on the final day and combined together to provide enough room for the crew and guests to gather together to witness the Arrival

. Zharus had been growing steadily as they got closer. Screens now showed the real view outside the planet filling much of the space. A dot that grew into a blue sphere dotted with large land masses. Gondwana and the Dry Ocean rolled into view, the red-brown eye surrounded by mountains and a ring of inviting green vegetation.

"Zharus orbit achieved. Endeavor has separated from the Great Eastern," the pilots announced over the intercom. The view on the screens moved, showing the broad side of the circus ship pulling away, still carrying the Lodgepole. Fireworks-like explosions lit up the space all around the trio of ships, launched from the flotilla that escorted them in. A heavily industrialized moonlet floated behind the Great Eastern; The Celestial Weyr habitat, and Lodgepole's final destination. Smaller tugs were already coming out to guide the colony ship into the habitat's large construction bays.

"All this random traffic; Polestar's going to blow a logic gate," Petra mused, sipping a drink while she observed the party.

"Good, if he's too busy doing his actual job, he won't have time to poke his nose in the outer system. I swear, he's either the luckiest SOB on the planet, or he's cursed. Spotting those Scouts, then that mess with that Earth ship and now this. I swear, that EI is going to be the first to spot ET." Commander Lee finished her drink and smiled at Petra. "Looks like Jewel's ready for her speech."

The former Captain stepped in front of the crowd and waited. Conversations died away quickly, all eyes turning towards her, including the cameras of the few members of the press who had been invited to record the momentous occasion.

"It is done. Our Grand Journey has reached its end. Our Duty has ended. Thank you everyone, for all you have done, all you have sacrificed. It has been worth it. The world we have arrived at is beyond anything any of us expected. For the Revenants, you expected to help lay the foundation of a new world. Instead you find a well established world ready to welcome you, ready to let you thread your own story in its great tapestry.

"For us Descendants, our own worlds have expanded. From knowing nothing but the walls around us, the universe is now open to us. Reach out and grab it."

She paused and looked around the world. "I know it's a scary moment. Our job is done. The driving force that kept us going for hundreds of years, is gone. Your future is what you make of it now. The opportunities are as open as the planet below us. Where you go is up to you, but you don't have to go at it alone.

"We have been offered help, all the help we could need. Details are still being sorted out, but I have been promised we will have all the resources we could ever need to help us adjust to the world below us, and the system around us. Please make use of them; I certainly intend to. We're used to a small tight knit community. Living on the Endeavor and the Great Eastern has given us a taste of what we're about to be dropped into; but even they are just a small sample of the variety we are entering.

"Speaking of the other ships, I would once again like to thank our host, Commander Jane Lee, for housing us and caring for us over these past few days and weeks, and for offering the resources of the Scouts in our time of need."

She paused and waved to the Commander as the room exploded in applause.

"I'd also like to thank Zordon and the rest of the Rangers who answered the call and came to help."

As the big head was not able to attend, not even remotely, Petra stepped forward and waved to accept the applause.

"On a personal note for Ranger Commander Petra, on Adam Teal's behalf I once again apologize for the welcome you received when you came aboard."

Petra laughed, seeing Adam redden and turn away. "No worries, just a minor misunderstanding. Nothing harmed but my DIN and my pride."

Jewel nodded and grinned back. "Of course, I can't ignore Captain Perez and the crew of the Great Eastern. They offered their great ship and all the resources on it, not only helping us complete the journey faster, but making sure we made it here intact."

The OverEngineer and other crew members of the circus ship waved, acknowledging the gratitude.

"And finally, I'd like to thank everyone else. Everyone who answered the call and came to help. Everyone on the planet and beyond who are even now working hard to make sure we integrate into their society as smoothly as possible. Everyone who are busy getting ready to take on our duty for the Passengers, to wake them, to reunite families, and to guide them on their own paths. Our job is complete, but the job they are taking on is just beginning."

Jewel stopped and let the crowd cheer itself out, smiling and waving and encouraging them to continue. Finally, she raised her hands and the room quieted down.

"The Light of Pharos is warming us, and the great pinecone is finally opening up, spreading its seeds wide. We are all family. We've been through an incredible ordeal and nothing will take that away. If anyone needs help coping with the new world, we will be there for each other, ready to offer support and to be there when needed. No matter where you go, your family will have your back. Thank you everyone." On cue, the Lodgepole came free of the Great Eastern. The Star Circus ship gave her sister ship a farewell lightshow as the Celestial Weyr tugs took ahold of the egg shaped colony ship and began pulling it towards the habitat.

Jewel smiled as the room erupted into wild cheering, her eyes glistening as she struggled to keep her emotions in check. Finally she had to turn away and wipe her face.

Commander Lee came up to her and offered a fresh drink. "Incredible speech. Very moving."

Jewel sniffed and dabbed her eyes. She took the drink and almost drained it in one go. "Thanks. I've been thinking about it since I first met Petra. Since I realized the end was nigh, our mission was complete. Until then, I didn't dare believe it would ever happen."

"Well, it has happened. You did it."

Jewel smiled at the Scoutmaster. "Not without a lot of help. In what little spare time I had, especially the past few days, I read everything I could. I was planning on quoting all these old dudes through history. But in the end, it didn't feel right. The Lodgepole made it here due to our own ingenuity, sweat and tears. They deserved a farewell right from me."

"Well it worked. I suspect your own words are going to be appearing in the history books next to many of those speeches you were reading now."

"Now that's a scary thought," Jewel laughed. "I guess we should mingle, right?"

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After the party, the Crew began to disperse. Most of them were officially relieved of duty, and set free to build new lives. Multiple levels of Toptown, the city built in the anchor weight of the space elevator to the polity known as Aloha, had been set aside for the Crew to help them adapt to the civilisation they were entering.

Hakim and his group of engineers were among the few who still had a job to do. They were given quarters in Celestial Weyr, the shipbuilding habitat in the moonlet that the Lodgepole had been berthed. The experts who would extract the blocks of Sleepers wanted the Lodgepole crew on hand to answer any questions. The Lodgepole itself now floated in the middle of a pressurized bubble carved out of the moon. It was surrounded in drydock scaffolding, and swarmed with people trying to figure out the next steps forward.

Hakim paused in the entrance of the apartments that had been rented for him and his crewmates. He gripped the doorjamb and forced himself to look up. The habitat dome was wide open, big enough to lose the Lodgepole in. In the middle of the dome, the sunsphere glowed at a mid-morning brightness, a brightness that was incredibly wasteful in Hakim's opinion, but the normal for this habitat. In the vast, open airspace, hundreds of flyers of all sizes flew, some with the determined straight line approach of people with things to do, most with the freewheeling attitude of people just enjoying the feeling of flying. He still couldn't recognize most of the animal types he saw in the air, other than the normal griffin and dragon types.

"Dragon, dragon, dragon, dra-no wait, wings as arms, that's a wyvern, griffin, peh- uhm... peh pegasus? Bird, bird, bird, uhm...." Hakim started practicing identifying the flyers. Focusing on a task helped him ignore how open and exposed he was. He stared at the last one he could see, trying to tell what it was. It looked vaguely like a wyvern, but it had feathers as well and somehow looked more primitive than birds, with a toothy beak-muzzle.

He heard a fluttering of wings and gave up. "Morning Dewey. I'm stumped, what is that?"

The small dragon assigned to him while on the weyr, lined up with the arm and looked. "Morning Hakim. That's an archaeopteryx. Up from Nuevo San Antonio. It's actually a natural, not a mythic like the dragons. A type of dinosaur from millions of years ago."

The engineer sighed and lowered his arm. "Great, another new type. There's just so much variety; I'll never learn it all."

"Well you don't have a wikipedia in your head like I have. That certainly helps. How are you doing?" Dewey asked.

"I'm coping. This is a lot of open space. Feels so wasteful. But I can see the roof, I know it's enclosed. I just need to break old habits and old expectations."

"Well, once you are ready, we can get going. It's a big day!"

"Yeah, my last day on the job," Hakim smiled nervously. He let go of the door jamb and stepped out, his eyes locked on the path before him.

The path soon entered a tunnel. Despite being tens of metres around, Hakim was able to relax more in it, his agoraphobia satisfied by the walls. Near the end of the tunnel, they entered a side corridor and wandered through a series of halls. The halls felt over large for him, built to accommodate the normal range of RIDE sizes. It made him feel like a kid again, exploring the Lodgepole's passages between lessons.

They walked into a conference room with a view of the pressurized construction chamber. A half dozen partially constructed hulls had been pushed aside to make room for the Lodgepole. The colony ship was berthed in the centre of the chamber. Most of the secondary hull had been stripped off, and its original hull was pokemarked, access holes made all over. The engines and most of the engineering levels had been removed and floated near one wall. One sleeper quadrant had been opened up and the sleepers removed. Hakim took in the new changes with a glance, then noticed a pair of figures in the room; a horse RIDE and Jewel.

"Jewel!" he exclaimed, rushing forward to hug his former captain. She returned the hug just as tightly.

"You didn't think I would miss this moment, did you?" she said, finally stepping back.

"I suppose you wouldn't. Thank you for coming. How have you been?"

"Busy. Very busy. I now know why the old stories warned of the 'debriefing session'. Sunflower's been a great help. I don't know how I'd do it without her."

The horse bowed her head and flicked her ears, accepting the rubbing on the top of her head. "I am honored to do so. And happy we are so compatible. I look forward to showing you around when your duties are complete."

Behind them, the room slowly filled. More Lodgepole crew arrived in ones and twos, the rest of Hakim's engineers, along with some of Linda's doctors. Linda herself was in another area, waiting with the medical experts to accept the sleeper pods. Most of the Crew were accompanied by fire lizard partners, the small RIDEs often sitting on their shoulders. Jewel excused herself to greet them, while Hakim checked with the foreman on the plans.

Hakim stood in front of the window and coughed, trying to quiet the room to no avail. He cleared his throat again, and caught the attention of a couple of engineers, but everyone else was focused on their own conversations. He frowned in frustration, and saw Jewel eyeing him.

"Atten-SHUN!" she shouted, immediately quieting the room. She smiled at her Engineer. "All yours, Hakim."

"Thank you, Captain. One final time for old times sake right?" he smiled back. "As you just saw, I'm not an orator like Jewel is. So I won't spend much time speaking. We all know why we are here. There are still around a million souls sleeping on the Lodgepole. Waking them on site is not feasible; most need medical treatment that is only available down below. Getting them off the ship by the original means is also not feasible; the lifts are so warped and frozen, we would need to build new ones."

Dewey fluttered up, holding a button for him. "What we do have, is a chamber full of air and no gravity, and lots of hands ready to help. So without further ado, let's set them free."

He pressed the button to send the signal, and turned to watch.

In the chamber, hundreds of tugs surrounded the Lodgepole, hooked up to the overlapping plating that had protected the ship through the long journey. Upon the signal, they all began to pull backwards. The sounds of screeching metal filled the air, deafening even within the isolated conference room. It was quickly obvious that the connections to the rest of the ship had been severed beforehand, though some workers had to duck in and slice some spots that didn't come away cleanly. Hakim felt a brief moment of sadness, seeing the peak of the pinecone ship lift away; that had been the only home he'd known and now it was going away.

"Good riddance," Jewel mumbled near him. "They can toss it all into Pharos for all I care."

Hakim nodded. "I agree with you, Jewel. But it's not our call any more. They're going to tuck it away and study it or something. Supposedly there's quite a bidding war for the entertainment media we brought along. Not to mention a few museums looking for chunks. It seems our new home is fascinated with the past. They especially want those engines. Apparently they're the last example of an Inertial Displacement Drive with an ion thruster left in human space."

The remainder of the ship was hidden from view, engulfed in a cloud of two hundred year old stale air, and the debris and dust it carried with it. Workers dived into the cloud, attaching cables to hold the remains of the ship in place, while huge fans activated to clear the air. On a side screen a scale model of the remains of the ship started to turn green. Volunteers had been on board while the ship was peeled, in order to verify the blocks of Sleepers were undisturbed by the process.

"Phew, I'm pretty sure they can smell that cloud all the way out to Colossus," a red dragon-tagged tagged woman said. Cindy spotted Hakim's looking her way and gasped. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize I said that out loud."

"No worries, we know exactly how bad it was. We were breathing it after all. Once we got used to the Endeavor's air, most of us couldn't go back on board without masks of our own," Hakim assured her.

The debris field was carefully blown away, exposing the core of the ship. Twenty eight circular levels, divided into quadrants. Each quadrant held ten blocks of sleepers, each block holding nine hundred and ninety nine sleepers. Already, another swarm was converging on the remains of the ship, freeing up the blocks and letting tugs pull them to a side tunnel where experts would inspect them. Most would be shipped over to the Alohavator, where they would be disassembled enough to fit on a car to the surface. From there, they'd be shipped around the planet to hospitals with the expertise and resources able to revive the sleepers.

"They're moving fast," Jewel noted. "I'd say they'll have the ship emptied by the end of the day."

"Sooner, hopefully," Cindy said, moving closer to join the conversation. "The main choke point is the landing zone. We've got dozens of cold sleep specialists on hand, assessing each pod. The worst cases, we'll try to handle immediately, probably by tossing them into a modern pod until we can properly handle them. Then the rest will be categorized and marked for shipping out. We want to avoid waking anyone up here if we can avoid it."

"The First Crew is in that first category," Hakim said. "We took their pods out yesterday, and they immediately transferred them to new pods. They didn't look good, but the docs said they could probably be revived, and even rejuvenated. More magic I guess."

"Magic indeed," Jewel said. "I don't know who has it worse between all of us, Descendants, Revenants or Sleeper."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we Descendants, our entire world was that ship. We knew there was more outside, but it was unreachable, until now. Now when our purpose is over, our future is hazy. We didn't have time to think of what would happen After, and now we have to handle it.

"Revenants are almost as bad. They were woken early to be told they were years, decades away from the destination, often with family still sleeping. We drafted them to help keep the Sleepers alive, not knowing what shape they would be in when we finally arrived.

"And the Sleepers, you'd think they have it easy; they slept through the whole journey. But they're a century and a half late. Instead of a world looking for more hands to help build it, they arrive at an established world with living robots, faster than light travel, and more. And they're getting dropped into it with nary a warning; at least the Crew has had time to deal with these people in smaller doses. The Sleepers are getting thrown in the deep end."

Hakim shrugged, "When you put it that way, it sounds like we're all equally screwed in our own unique ways. Best not to dwell on it and just keep going one day at a time. One very long day at a time."

"Well, at least they got rid of Mondays," Jewel countered and grinned.

They watched the remains of their home being worked over for a few minutes, a steady stream of cryopod blocks floating out and disappearing down a tunnel. "So what are you going to do next? I mean after this is all wrapped up?" Jewel asked.

"I haven't really thought that far ahead. But I suppose the time is coming. There isn't really a Lodgepole left to give advice on." Hakim sighed and looked out.

"Well you have that invitation for the tour of the Eastern. And I'm sure you could find another grease monkey job somewhere if you wanted to?"

"If I wanted to. That's the big thing. Everyone thinks I want to keep swinging a wrench, but I'm not sure I want to. I did it all my life, but the only thing I knew is in a million pieces in the next room." He nodded to the nearest RIDE. "I don't know where to start to learn how they are put together, or what it takes to tune a cavorite engine or whatever, and I'm not sure I want to learn that. Right now, I just want to be able to go outside and not freak out under the open skies; and I can't even do that reliably."

"Well, we're all going to school once things settle a bit, and they'll help us figure out our aptitudes. By the end, we should have some better ideas of what we can do and where we'll want to go. We've all got long lives ahead of us without the weight of a million souls hanging onto us."

Hakim nodded and gave the remains of the ship one final look. "Maybe. In the meantime, I think we're done here. How bad is that 'debriefing' thing? They said that's what I'll be doing next."

Jewel looked at him sadly, "I'm so sorry for you."

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Adam walked into the classroom he had been assigned with a couple dozen other Revenants. He nodded to Claire and a few others he was friendly with and waited near a wall. He was in the floating city of Toptown, built into the flying rock that was the anchor for the elevator to the surface.

Multiple levels of the city had been rented and isolated for the Crew to help them adjust to the new world. Adam heard the names Steader, Munn, Walton, Skye, and others mentioned in hushed tones as their benefactors for the next stage of transition into Zharusian society. The names were mostly meaningless to him, but apparently huge on the planet below from his cursory searches.

The (as dubbed by the Zharus media) Last Crew of the Lodgepole was also being divided into smaller groups based on their needs and available resources. Revenants had come from Earth; they knew what life on a planet was like and usually had a mostly complete, if outdated education. Descendants had been born on the Lodgepole, and had spent their entire lives to date working to keep the ship running. They basically knew nothing, nothing but the ship; the world beyond was just stories they heard from Revenants and the Archives. They had to start their education from scratch, along with dealing with the psychological issues from being raised in isolation. Agoraphobia and hoarding issues were some of the least of their problems.

The sound of heavy footsteps drew some eyes towards the door, a heavy clipping noise like someone walking in high heels. The door opened, drawing more attention that way. The room fell absolutely silent as a tall women walked in. She was a head taller than everyone in the room, and more massive than everyone. She was muscular but not too much, with enough fat to soften her form and give her proper breasts and curves, something the Revenants hadn't really seen in years, aside from on the rescue fleet. She had a black and white striped mohawk that petered out between her shoulder blades. Furry diamond-shaped ears twitched as she looked around. Her skin seemed to be white with black striped markings on her arms, legs, sides and back. A tufted black and white striped tail flicked between her butt, and she walked on black hooves instead of normal feet. Her appearance was such that it took them all a moment to realize that all she wore was the most minimum of bikinis around her breasts and groin. Half the room looked away embarrassed, the other half openly leered before catching themselves.

"Good morning everyone. My name is Zena, and I will be your guidance counselor for the next phase of your arrival, the last phase of your arrival. When we're done, you will hopefully have your own places somewhere, ready to start living your own life."

She walked to the front of the room, making sure to walk between the biggest groups. "As you might have figured out, I am from Aloha. I dressed up just for you all. Please look, I don't mind, and you'll be seeing a lot more if you stay around here."

Adam forced himself to look, and the three years he had lived on the Lodgepole disappeared. He was once again a hormone-flooded teenager hiding adult meshsites from his parents. He sat down quickly and squirmed a bit.

Zena seemed well aware of the impression she was causing as most of the room found their own seats, male and female faces red from the reactions they were trying to not show.

"Right, as I said, I'll be your guide. As you've probably noticed, you all are Revenants, relatively recent Revenants at that. You have clear memories of Earth, and were old enough to have a good education foundation. Our hopes are that you will form the vanguard; you'll be the first down to the planet. We just need to figure out where to put you, for reasons I'll get into when we get to current events."

She clapped her hands to get attention and sat down on an empty table at the front of the room facing them and hiding nothing. "Later on we'll have more refined lessons and homework and all the nasty school stuff you probably figured you had grown out of. But first, why don't we start with a simple AMA. Ask me anything you want."

The room stayed quiet, until Claire rose her new hand. "Did that hurt?" she asked, waving to indicate Zena's body.

"My tags? Not at all. Granted I didn't go this far right off the bat. Mookah and I have been refining our look for years, tweaking bits here and there. I just got the hooves last year." She thought a moment, and decided to explain more.

"Aloha is a polity full of exhibitionists. Not everyone shows as much as I do of course, but those that want to, are free to flaunt it all they want. We end up using our RIDE partners and other methods to play with our looks to be distinctive. I'm downright tame compared to what you might see on the beaches or in the clubs. So if you decide to settle around there, you now know what to expect."

"I've heard they are going to be getting RIDEs for us, will we have to fuse?" someone asked from the other side of the room.

"Absolutely not. Fusing is something both sides need to decide they want to do; no one will be forcing you to fuse. And in your cases, for everyone from the Lodgepole, sleeper, descendant and revenant alike, we're asking RIDEs to refrain from fusing until a medical waiver has been cleared. There are so many of you, we want to take our time to make sure you are prepared physically and mentally for everything a fuse entails. You're all two centuries out of date, a lot of the assumptions we have for modern people may not be safe for you guys."

Zena looked around and noticed some confused looks. "Ah, it seems some of you weren't informed. Our goal is to pair most of you up with a RIDE partner for a few years, so you have local guides to help you and your families adjust when I'm not available. You do not have to remain with the RIDE you're paired with. While our matching tests are good, they do sometimes fail. If you don't get along with your RIDE, let us know and we'll try to find a better match. Or either you or the RIDE can just break the contract and go alone. You'll have the choice."

The room dissolved into soft mumbling as the revenants discussed the new revelation. Zena answered more questions, holding nothing back. Adam finally found an opening he felt comfortable asking his own question in.

"Were you always a woman?" he asked, forcing himself to keep looking her in the eyes. He could hear a few soft gasps and chuckles from around the room, but didn't look around.

Zena grinned, as if she had been expecting that question. "The number one question newbies to Zharus have. Much of the time it's impolite to ask that, but I did say to ask me anything. And my answer is yes and no. I was born a woman, but when I started University, I decided to go stallion. By the time I graduated, I decided to switch back and haven't looked back. It was a good experience, seeing the other side, but I like this side more."

That particular revelation set off a line of questioning that was not really classroom appropriate. True to her word, Zena answered all the questions without any obvious dodges, and with no hesitation. Eventually the conversation drifted back to more general topics, and they broke for lunch.

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"Okay. Thank you for coming, everyone. Have a seat. I'm Doctor Herschel Nakahara, head of the Cryogenics Department at Benden Hospital. And this is my colleague, Doctor Veranth."

The bronze fire lizard perched on the Doctor's shoulder waved at the humans in a friendly manner. "Happy to meet you all."

Jewel, Hakim, and Linda obligingly took a seat around the conference table. The cool air in the wood-paneled room had a slightly spicy odor, with soft lighting overhead. Veranth flapped his wings and landed on the table. "Shall we get started?"

"Please," Linda said. "I've been waiting for the final word on this for weeks."

Veranth nodded. "The first Captain Birdwell's last wishes were, I quote: 'To awaken one last time, on the beach, to hear the waves crashing on the sand, and feel the Light of Pharos on my face before I die.' The rest of the First Crew had similar sentiments. Beaches, mountains, cities."

"So what can we give them?" Jewel asked.

"The fact of the matter is that all of them are in extremely poor condition. Alive, yes. But they will need at minimum seventy percent nanomed reconstruction. Plus rejuvenation of their remaining tissues and their brains. The first Captain was nearly ninety Earth years old when she was put back in cryo and was in poor health."

Hakim tapped a stylus on the tablet in front of him. "The First Crew had only expected to be awake for the First Shift in the crew rotation. The first of five shifts. Nobody was supposed to be awake more than a decade. Julie Birdwell lasted forty years before they put her in cryo. Longer than anybody else."

"All of the First Crew who survived to that age worked themselves until they dropped," Jewel said. "Putting them in cryo so they could at least see the world they set out for was an honor accorded to few later Crew. So please, anything you can do for them to make that happen, please do it."

"Calm down, Captain," Nakahara said. "I'm not suggesting there's nothing we can do. But, again, they are generally in poorer condition than the passengers on your ship. Here are our options…"

The first was what they called a "Full Body Replacement Frame". The brains of the First Crew would be removed and put into a fully cybernetic prosthesis, along with rejuvenation to remove age-related diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia. Their skins would be hardlight like the RIDEs the Last Crew were now familiar with. They would awaken in a body that felt energetic and youthful. The speech was accompanied by an animation of a frozen stick figure of a person having their skulls popped open, then the brain moved into a robot covered by the hardlight skin.

"But we're concerned about the psychological effects of awakening and finding out they're not really human anymore," Doctor Nakahara said. "They honestly wouldn't feel different at first. But breaking the news in time would still be very risky."

"What about the nanomed reconstruction?" Jewel asked.

"That is actually the better option," Dr. Nakahara said. "They will sleep through the entire process and be fully regenerated upon awakening. This is different from the method being used for your passengers who have only lost limbs. They won't be awakened before the regeneration starts. Their bodies are too far gone for that."

"So why didn't you just go ahead and do this instead of asking us first?" Hakim said.

"Because it's not a hundred-percent-success guarantee. If something does go wrong during the regen, I need your permission to use the first method, or even perform euthanasia, if you feel that's what your forebears would want."

"Do whatever you have to do," Jewel said. Linda and Hakim nodded. "No euthanasia. Bring them back."

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Adam rested on his belly in a clear box stuck out of the side of the anchor station. Below him, he could see the mass of the asteroid that had been brought in to anchor the elevator to the surface. Below that, he could just make out a shiny strand reflecting sunlight all the way down to the massive planet below. A large continent with a huge desert extended on one side. An equally huge ocean dotted with massive clouds, including a cyclone, extended on the other. Between the two was a band of green, broken by the white snow capped mountain peaks. Directly below, almost hidden by the anchor station, a large bay bit into the green, with the grey of a large city hugging one coast.

"Hey Adam, how are you doing?" Chinook asked as he padded into the lookout. The black and white husky RIDE was slightly smaller than a pony, and Adam's official escort.

"Well enough, I think. Believe it or not, I'm starting to go stir crazy. Three years in a space not really much bigger than this room, and not a problem. A few days in a city station bigger than the Lodgepole and I'm anxious to move on."

Chinook flopped onto the clear floor next to him and looked down. "Well, when you have views like this tempting you, it's no wonder you want to move on. It took you so long to get here, and now you're an elevator ride away."

"I guess there is that. There's a whole world to explore, a whole new solar system even, and I'm barely seeing any of it." He sighed and looked back out. "Though that isn't everything. There's my family. I haven't heard anything other than their pods are stable and queued up for going down. They might reach the planet before me at this rate."

The husky shook his head. "Not from what I've heard. There's a backlog in processing, plus difficulty getting cab space down to the planet. Too many people coming up to try and see you, then going back down disappointed."

The pair fell silent, watching the planet below them as the night swept across the desert.

"Knock knock. Can I come in?"

Adam looked up, seeing a zebra tagged woman at the entrance to their lookout. "Hi Zena, it's an open lookout. Come on in."

She took a seat and crossed her legs, looking him over. "I take it you are anxious to get down there; it won't be too open for you, will it? After all your time in the ship?"

"I'm an Albertan. I grew up in Big Sky Country, with the Rockies to my back and a thousand klicks of prairies in front of me. Agoraphobia is not an issue with me."

"The Rockies? Those are the mountains in the... Americas was it? Peru I think?"

Adam facepalmed and sighed. "Not quite. Right hemisphere, but in the north. It's part of North America."

"Right, I'll try to remember that. In any case, down there, we have Really Big Sky country. The horizon is further away than you might expect, especially when you look out over the ocean, Dry or Wet."

"So I've heard. I can't wait to see it."

She smiled, "Well, it'll only be another few days."

It took him a second to process what she was implying. "What? How? Why? When? Who?" he stammered out.

"You left out 'Where'." She started ticking off her fingers. "Who? You and a few other Revenants; most of your class even. What? Moving down to the surface. When? In the next couple of days, as soon as we can sneak you down. Where? The Waikiki Estates. An inland gated community on the edge of Aloha proper. Why? We're hoping it will give you time and peace to adapt to the planet without the full crush of Aloha proper. How? An express car down, followed by a rented limo big enough for you and your escorts." She looked at Chinook. "Well most of your escorts. Some might be on their own once we're ground side again."

"I'm more than capable of flying by myself," Chinook said, tail thumping the clear floor.

"Oh wow... I didn't expect it that fast," Adam said.

"Well, we can't keep you up here forever," Zena said. "Well some of you might stay up here forever, but most of you are anxious to get dirtside. We've been studying you all, making lists and plans. The ones we feel are most ready for the planet, we're sending down as soon as we can arrange it. You're the vanguard, to get things ready for your friends and crewmates.

"We're also fast tracking your family too. We're doing this for all the Revenants. We figure for the first few, we'll wake the ones that have familiar faces to greet them. We can use them to judge reactions and figure out the ones we're waking cold. It's a learning experience for all of us."

She found herself engulfed in a surprise bear hug. "Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you!" Adam exclaimed, tears rolling down his cheeks.

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"Flying cars. They have flying cars..."

Adam looked over at his fellow revenant. George had been awake for a decade, and been in his thirties when he went to sleep. He was an Atlanta survivor, and like all the revenants he was amazed and gawking at the world they had landed on. George had been mumbling practically since they had stepped off the elevator pod.

The first dozen revenants were in a large (non-RIDE) limo, flying over the Bay of Tranquility. It was surrounded by a number of RIDEs who were keeping the paparazzi at bay. It was early morning, with a perfectly clear sky.

"It's so big... where did all these people come from?" Claire asked. She was seated next to Adam, and they were both looking out at the skyline. Huge skyscrapers hundreds of stories tall lined the sandy beach. The buildings literally glowed, drawing the eye to their advertising. Even with the early hour, the beach was busy with people.

"Earth," Adam said. "That's where they came from, just like us."

He studied the beach, drawing a square on the limo windows. The smart glass locked on the beach centred in the square and let him zoom in on it. "Zena wasn't kidding, was she? It's one thing to see pictures, but this is real."

The beach was lightly populated, with people taking advantage of the early morning coolness. Families played in the shallows or built sandcastles. Runners ran along the waterline in packs and alone, others did early morning aerobics, or dances or yoga or martial arts, also in groups or alone. And as Zena had promised, the style of dress for men and women, young and old, varied from conservative shorts and t-shirts, to the skimpiests of bikinis to nothing at all.

"Look at everyone, they look so... so healthy," Claire noted. "And those RIDE tags, there's so much variety."

"The RIDEs and those med tanks seem to really help. We've still got a long ways to go, but we'll be back to their normal soon enough," Adam said. He shook his head. "Still, it's so incredible."

The limo passed over the beach and between two hotel towers. It picked up a police escort, four flyers, each with a distinctive look, but each also flashing the universal red and blue lights. They flew around the edge of the city centre, past a few shopping districts and industrial districts, and some suburban areas. On the edge of the city they crossed a few kilometers of forest and plains, marked only by a single road and a few beacons. They lifted over a hill and saw a large lake with a community built around it, made mostly of single family homes, and a few larger buildings of unknown purposes. A white sand beach surrounded most of the lake.

"Welcome to Waikiki, your home for the next year or so. It was almost complete when you arrived, so the Lodgepole Settlement Consortium decided to rent the entire development just for you and your families," Zena informed them. She was sitting at the front of the limo, ready to answer questions, but mainly letting the revenants take things in.

"It is a private community, and we've set up a security cordon around it, so you don't have to worry about the press anywhere in the valley. Outside it, it'll be up to you and your RIDEs to handle."

"Outside?" Michel asked. He was sitting near Zena.

She smiled and nodded. "You are free people, you can go wherever you want. We would prefer you stay in Waikiki for now, at least until your families are woken; but if you want to get a place in Aloha or anywhere else, you can go do that. If you want to get a job somewhere, you can do that too."

The limo landed in a parking lot of a larger building, along with the escort of RIDEs. The police stayed in the air to give space.

"You've been assigned the homes close to here. They've all been fitted out with basic furnishings, and have a fabber for you to start personalizing for you and your families. Your RIDEs can lead you to the homes and let you know where everyone else is.

"This building is a recreation centre for the community. At twenty hundred, there will be a potluck dinner with some local dignitaries to welcome you. Feel free to skip if you aren't up for it; there will be many more. But if you want to fab up something local from your homes, it would be appreciated. Still, there is no pressure to attend, go at your own speed."

Zena swung the limo's door open and stepped out, standing next to a Zebra RIDE that had followed them. "If you need help, or just want someone to talk to, please ask. We're here for you guys. Now, go check out your new homes."

Chinook flew down a grassy road right of way. He stopped midway down a street about a kilometer from the recreation centre. Single level bungalows lined the street on quarter acre lots. It reminded Adam of the suburbs he grew up in, but these were brand new and not the rundown remains of the Twenty-First that surrounded the Alberta cities.

Adam climbed out and realized another big difference about the house; it was scaled for someone more like three or four metres tall. The reason why was obvious when Chinook folded inward, turning back into his husky walker mode.

"This is too much. Way too much," Adam said, shaking his head.

"Well, it is four bedrooms, two and a half baths. A bit much for a bachelor, but suitable once your family wakes up and moves in. It is similar to what you described as your place in Leduc, isn't it?" Chinook asked.

"Yes, but back there, we were living in a home that had been ours for five generations. It was rundown despite our best efforts to keep it up. This... This is bigger, and brand new and.... I can't even begin to think of how much it would cost."

"Less than what you would expect. Space is cheap here, as are fabricated homes. Don't worry, we'll take care of all of you until you get on your feet."

Adam shook his head again and went to the door. It slid open automatically, revealing an open combined kitchen, dining room and living room space. A short hallway lead to the bedrooms and bathrooms, along with a utility room with a washer, dryer and recycler. As promised, basic furniture was already set up, couches, tables, chairs, beds and dressers. There was even a strange platform in the living room that Adam couldn't figure out. Chinook showed its use by sitting down on it and curling up a bit.

"Go ahead and explore. Just shout if you need anything, and I can start the fabber up."

"Thanks Chinook. I think I just need a bit of time to get used to this first, figure out what we've got here."

Adam looked into the bedrooms, and left the master bedroom alone. He knew he would want to decorate it for his parents but that would be later. He claimed the next bedroom with a view of the backyard filled with flowers and tropical trees. He dropped the bag containing all of his worldly possessions on the dresser, opened the window and flopped onto the bed.

He spent a long time listening and smelling. He could hear leaves rustling in the breeze, insects buzzing in the heat of day, birds chirping in the trees, even the screech of seagulls from the lake. The air smelled fresh and wet, the scent of flowers wafting into the house.

"It's too quiet," he said to himself. "Chinook. Is there a music system somewhere? Something to play music?"

The husky padded down the hall and stuck his head. "Certainly, it's built into each room. Anything in particular you want to hear? Or maybe something you want to watch?"

"I want to hear something from home, from my era."

Chinook closed his eyes for a moment, a control panel lighting up on the bedside table. "The Steader archives focus mainly on the Twentieth and Twenty-First media, but they have a decent selection of North American media from the Twenty-Third and Twenty-Fourth."

"Pick something randomly and let it keep playing. Then leave me alone, please."

The RIDE noded and backed out of the room as familiar music filled it. The two century gap melted away and Adam was back home, listening to the Beach Sweepers while doing his homework. He hugged the pillow and closed his eyes, letting the pillow absorb the wetness on his cheeks.

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The black-and-white two-person skimmer pulled up at the entrance of the five story building well away from the heart of Aloha. "We're here," Chinook announced.

Adam looked at the small sign near the main entrance. "The Nora Fries Memorial Cryoclinic? Why do I have the feeling that's another reference I don't get?"

Chinook folded back into his canine form and grinned. "Of course it is. And it's pronounced freeze, not fries."

"A reference and a pun? Wonderful." Adam made his way to the entrance and walked into a medium sized waiting room. Chinook followed him in, and he mentally adjusted his expectations; on the Zharus scale the room was actually a bit small.

A woman with feline tags came out from behind a desk. She had the perfect form that he was getting used to seeing; but she had the decency to wear a blouse and skirt that hid enough to match his standards of decency.

"Mister Teal? Welcome. I'm Marilyn McCain. Doctor Caldwell will be out shortly to give you an update."

"Thank you Marilyn ," Adam said. He stayed standing, studying the neutral tropical seascape art hanging on the wall, trying not to let his eagerness show. They'd been on the planet for a Zharusian week now, rattling around in the big empty house with just Chinook to keep him company. He was anxious to start waking his family.

Within a few minutes, a door opened and the doctor came out. He was untagged, wearing a labcoat over slacks and a polo shirt. He didn't hesitate, going over to shake Adam's hand while nodding to Chinook. "Good to finally meet you in person. You can call me Mitch. I hope you had a pleasant drive over?"

"It was good to get out for a change. Waikiki is a nice little community, but I keep feeling like I'm trading one confined space for slightly different confined spaces."

"No problems with paparazzi?"

Chinook shook his head, tail thumping the wall slightly. "Nope, we shook them in the traffic around the Golden Nugget."

"Though it looked like you're not shaking them much," Adam noted. "Saw a swarm around the entrance of the driveway."

"Well, with the number of pods coming off the Lodgepole, every cryoclinic on the planet is expecting to get something, and the press know that. Good thing we're a fully licensed medical facility here; the end of the driveway is as close as they can come. Any closer and they run afoul of our lawbots." The doctor motioned for Adam and Chinook to follow him.

He lead them into a lift to the fourth floor, then down a hallway lined with windows and doors. Most of the doors glowed with sterile fields.

"How's my family doing? Any updates?" Adam asked eagerly.

They stopped outside a sterile room and looked in through the window. A pair of medical pods were set up side by side. There was a lot of yellow on the status screens, but the technician inside didn't seem concerned.

"They suffered bad freezer burn in their extremities. Your mom will lose both arms and legs below the elbow and knees, along with other damage. We're repairing what we can before waking her up, but we can't start regrowing the limbs until she is up."

"You can't? Why not?"

"Some experts may disagree, and if you would like to consult others or have someone else take it over, feel free. But for me and the other doctors at this clinic, we believe that the continuity of body is important. You need to know what was lost before you get a new. Fingers, toes, they aren't too bad. They're the end of the nerve network, so regrowing them isn't hard to adjust to. But the arms and legs, they are the trunk lines, they carry all the data from your extremities. So regrowing them, you are laying a new trunk with a new set of hands or feet at the end bringing in new inputs. If we go that quick, the patient will still feel they have their old limbs while trying to learn their new ones. It can lead to coordination problems, ghost limb symptoms and other mental issues. Basically, your mother needs to wake up and realize what she lost before we can regrow it; that prepares her mentally. Once we see how she adapts to the loss, even temporarily, we can grow in the new.

"Now, if you had a modern neural network, we could hook up some prosthetics right away and she'd never know the difference; we could prepare her in virtual before she experiences the real. But you don't have one, and fuseplanting one on a thawing mind is too risky. Once she does wake, we'll get her sorted out before she realizes it."

Adam nodded, not quite understanding most of the issues, but trusting the doctor enough to keep going. "If you think it is important, I'll trust you on it. We've gotten this far and they are alive so that's the important part. I know they'll be back to normal soon. How's dad?"

The doctor checked his tablet before continuing. "Your father is in similar shape. We did manage to save a leg and foot, but all the toes were lost. We can regrow those before he wakes at least. The other limbs were gone, and he's in a similar situation as your mom. Now, because of their ages before freezing, it is taking longer to wake them up. They will be fine once they wake up; we just need to take it slower to not shock them too much. We'll be ready to wake them up in a few more days, or whenever you feel you are ready for them. I understand you have a new house to prepare for them?"

Adam stood at the window, pressing against it and looking in. he could see two familiar faces through the pod's window. Both seemed to be sleeping peacefully. "I do... we do. I don't know if I'll be quite ready in time, but if Tracy helps we can probably get done in time. How's she doing?"

"This way please," Doctor Caldwell said, leading him to the next room

"As I think you know, she's doing wonderfully. Lost her lower left leg and her entire left arm to freezer burn; she managed to twist a bit in the pod and pinched both somehow. We think that's part of the reason it raised the yellow flag. But otherwise, she's recovering quickly. She's out of deep sleep and in a normal sleep now."

The next room had one occupant, sleeping on a normal bed under a light sheet. The sheet was strangely flat on her lower left side. The left sleeve of the shirt she was wearing was sewn shut at the shoulder.

"She looks so peaceful. Just like I remember her," Adam said.

Mitch smiled. "I know it is the brother's duty to wake their sibling when they sleep in, but we would prefer that she wake at her own pace."

Adam chuckled back, "I've had enough duties for now. I'll gladly leave that one behind... for now. Does that mean I can wait here for her to wake?"

"There's a comfortable chair already in there. Be aware, we don't know when exactly she will wake up. It may be minutes, it may be hours. The body knows when it is time.

"We would also prefer that Chinook stays outside. We want to minimize the shocks and surprises when they first wake up as much as possible. That's why I removed my own tags."

Chinook nodded, "That's understandable. Don't worry Adam, I'll be nearby if you need me."

Adam barely noticed. As he approached, the door slid open. A glowing sterile field made his skin itch as he walked through. He stopped at the bed and reached for her hand, pausing just above.

"Touching is fine and so is talking," Doctor Caldwell encouraged him. "Just don't try to shake her awake or anything like that."

He took his sister's remaining hand and squeezed it gently. "We're here, Trace. We're finally here. Just rest now. I'm watching out for you."

He wiped his eyes with a sleeve and nodded to the Doctor, settling down in the chair. He took out a tablet to continue his lessons, giving his sister one last long look.

"The call button is to your right. If you need anything, just push it. Bathroom is outside and on the left. We're monitoring her closely, if there are any problems, we'll come running. If she wakes up and is fine, we'll leave you be to ease her in."

"Thank you, Doctor."

Tracy was in a car, driving down a highway busy with traffic. Her family was in the car with her, but they were faceless and nameless. Behind them, a city was on the horizon. Ahead, mountains rose high in the sky, hiding the setting sun. Just as the last light of the sun disappeared, a new light appeared, a new dawn lighting up the city from behind. She screamed, the light brightening and brightening, engulfing all she could see.

Tracy was in a car, driving down a highway busy with traffic. Her family was in the car with her, but they were faceless and nameless. Behind them, a city was on the horizon. Ahead, mountains rose high in the sky, hiding the setting sun. Just as the last light of the sun disappeared, a new light appeared, a new dawn lighting up the city from behind. She screamed, the light brightening and brightening, engulfing all she could see.

Tracy was in a car, driving down a highway busy with traffic. Her family was in the car with her, but they were faceless and nameless. Behind them, a city was on the horizon. Ahead, mountains rose high in the sky, hiding the setting sun. She felt something take her hand.

"We're here, Trace. We're finally here. Just rest now, I'm watching out for you."

The voice was familiar. It was reassuring. In her dreams, the sun set and the city didn't ignite. The traffic thinned and they reached the mountains. In darkness they drove for an eternity, nothing to see but the road ahead. For the first time in a long time, she was able to relax, to slip into a deeper, more restful sleep.

She woke up slowly, sorting out her last memories. She remembered the cryopod closing, a coolness against her neck, and then blackness. She took a deep breath, smelling fresh warm air that was a bit humid. Through her eyelids she could sense a brightness of a daylit room. She was lying comfortably on a soft bed, a slightly firmer pillow under her head. There was a light sheet on her, though her leg and arm felt strange. There was a faint sound of ventilation fans, and the sound of breathing. She held her breath for a moment, and could hear the breathing continuing from her right somewhere; the even breathing of a sleeper on the verge of snoring.

We're here. We've got to be here, she thought to herself. She wondered where everyone was. Surely a new colony wouldn't have room to wake them alone. Or mostly alone.

She opened her eyes and blinked, adjusting to the light level and focusing on the ceiling. It was a simple ceiling, higher up than she expected, painted white with covered outlets to plug in equipment. Panels embedded in the ceiling glowed, lighting up the room without being blindingly bright.

She turned towards the noise of the sleeper. The walls were further away than expected, painted white. A painting showing a crowded beach and a beautiful bay was the only wall decoration. One wall was an outside wall, the windows covered by closed blinds that let in a hint of daylight.

The man was sitting in a comfortable chair, head rolled back. A tablet in standby mode teetered on his lap. He wore a plain t-shirt, shorts and sandals. He was baldish with a hint of dirty blond hair starting to regrow. He was pale and painfully thin. His appearance was familiar, but she couldn't remember who he was. She figured he was a crew member she'd met in passing, probably sneaking a nap in a quiet room between jobs.

Tracy tried to roll over onto her side to face him. Her shoulder lifted off the bed and fell back with a thump that left her stunned; her arm had failed her, not helping swing her over as she was used to. She looked down at her left side and let out a squeak from a dry throat.

The strange man snorted and twitched, waking up. The tablet clattered to the floor and he realized she was awake. In a flash he was out of the chair and taking her hand. "Easy, easy, easy. It's okay. It's okay. I'm here Trace."

She squeaked again and coughed slightly, more confused. Her leg was telling her something was missing there as well. The man held her hand with one hand and reached for a bottle with a straw. "Here, drink this. Slowly. You're okay. You're alive. Just stay calm. You're alive, we're all alive."

His voice was achingly familiar. She knew she should know who it was, but it was different; older, more mature than she remembered.

He slipped the straw between her lips and squirted a little of the liquid into her mouth. It wasn't quite water, sweet with a tangy aftertaste, like watered down orange juice. She swallowed and felt her throat relax. She managed to suck down another bit of the liquid without choking, eyes studying the man next to her. He was older, and the bald head threw her off, but the eyes were unmistakable. She swallowed again and turned her head so she could speak.


He smiled, a smile that hadn't changed despite the extra years on him. "It's me Trace. It's me. You have no idea how happy I am to see you. It's been a long time."

Recognition unlocked her tongue, the words tumbling out of her as fast as she could think of them. "What happened to you? Where are we? What happened? Where's mom and dad? What happened to my arm?"

He squeezed her hand again and sighed. "Mom and Dad are still asleep but they'll be fine. As for the rest, it's a long story. But the Coles Notes version: we're on Zharus. We made it. But we're just a little bit late. It's almost a hundred and sixty years since the first colonists showed up. We travelled for almost two centuries and we're about a hundred and fifty years late, give or take a bit."

He stayed quiet, putting the bottle back on the table, reluctant to let her hand go.

"Late?... A hundred fifty years? How?" she stammered out, trying to understand what she was told.

"The ship was a cheap piece of crap that barely made it here. We were sold a raw deal. That's what happened to your arm and leg; the cryopods were the best thing on it, but even they have limits."

She slumped back on the pillow. "So I'll be crippled now?"

"Not for long. They can regrow your limbs better than new. I'm getting ahead of myself, but don't worry, you'll be back to your old self before you realize it."

She tried to make sense of what he was implying. He reluctantly let her go and retrieved the tablet. "Here, they're working on a briefing for us, for the Sleepers. To let them know what they're getting into. It can explain better than I can."

He set the tablet on the bed next to her and pressed a button. The screen lit up, and the air over it solidified into a large globe. There was no translucency to it; it looked solid enough to touch. She recognized the shapes of the continents, but the detail was incredible. Two thin threads lifted from the equator. Clouds swirled over the surface, in a pattern she suspected was updated in real time. The western part of Gondwana was still in daylight, but night was crawling across the continent. A flag with a You are here label was lit up on the southwestern edge of the largest continent.

"Welcome to Zharus. A world of laughter. A world of tears. It's a world of hope and a world of fears. And despite its sheer size, and amazing people, it's a small world after all."

As the narrator started singing, the camera zoomed in at the planet. The thread rising from the edge of the continent grew into a strand with small cars zooming up and down it. The camera dived into the atmosphere, and the planet shattered.

The view reformed into a diorama. The surface of an ocean or a bay was closest to her, giving her a clear view of a beach crowded with beachgoers, too far away to see them clearly, but many seemed to be waving. Beyond the beach was an equally crowded boardwalk, and tall hotels, hundreds of stories tall. It took her a moment to realize the air over the beach was crowded with vehicles moving too quick to really focus on.

The view exploded and reformed again, showing a park in a city, busy with people and larger things she couldn't focus easily on. A strange fountain seemed to be shooting energy up. Many people were eating ice cream, and waving to the camera point of view.

"Wait, wait wait," she begged. She reached up to push the image away, and was surprised when her hand hit the edge of the display. The scene floated away from her and froze, the voice falling silent.

"How long?" she asked, looking at her brother, trying to guess.

"We've been on Zharus itself for about a week. We reached orbit a few weeks back. Zharus found us... I don't know, about a month ago?"

"No silly. How long have you been up?"

Adam looked away and sighed. "My pod started failing almost four years ago now. The crew chose to wake me instead of letting me die. I've been awake ever since, working on the Lodgepole to make sure the rest of you would make it."

She reached out and pulled him closer to him. She started to reach around to hug him, only to rediscover her arm was missing. She made due with a firm squeeze. "Tell me about it."

"You really should watch the video. They spent a lot to make it and want all the feed-"

"We can watch it later. I want you to talk to me. Pull up that chair and tell me everything that happened."

He looked into her eyes, then looked away. He hauled the chair closer and sat down. "Where to begin?...."

Epilogue 1: Awakening, Aloha, Waikiki Beach

December 30, 159 AL

The Waikiki community was built in a valley with an artificial lake in the centre. A white sand beach had been built on the shore of the lake for the residents. Most of the revenants and even some of the descendants had moved down, and hundreds of sleepers were awake.

A hut had been built at one end of the beach with a view of the sunrise. Overnight, a medpod had been delivered, along with a bevy of experts. The Last Crew had come down as well, and were waiting in the yacht club nearby.

Dr. Herschel Nakahara had the pod open and was doing the last checks on the person inside. Dr. Veranth, his bronze fire lizard partner was on a console, keeping an eye on the electronic details.

"Captain, everything looks good. She is in normal sleep," Herschel said..

Captain Jewel Birdwell looked at the woman sleeping in the pod; recognizing herself in the youthened face of her great-nth grandmother. She appeared to be about fifty, the age she had taken command of the ship. "Were there any problems?"

"Nothing significant. There was some DNA damage in the body but that was easily handled with the regen. Her brain is in good condition considering her age and her experiences. There was only a little intracellular cleanup needed to clear some pre-Alzheimer's issues."

Jewel looked out the window. The lake glittered in the light of the rising sun. The hut was mostly enclosed in so the openness didn't bother her too much. For the First Captain, she was willing to stand out in the open sand, exposed to everything. "Wake her up please."

Herschel pressed a hypospray to the sleeper's neck and stepped back. The First Captain's breath quickened and her eyes fluttered. Her body twitched and Herschel gripped her hand, stroking it. "Easy ma'am, easy. Just relax please, it will be okay." Jewel quickly moved in to take the other hand.

Finally, Julie Birdwell opened her eyes, blinking rapidly and squinting in the natural light. She gasped and shuddered a bit, taking a few tentative breaths before settling into a more normal rhythm. The window opened, filling the room with the sound of the water lapping on the shore, and the screech of seagulls flying around the yacht dock.

"What? Where?" she mumbled, turning her head slightly to try and focus on the people around her.

"Easy, Captain. Take it easy. You are safe. You are home," Herschel reassured her.

Julie looked blearily at the stranger, then at the other woman, not quite registering what she was being told.

"Captain Birdwell?" Jewel said, waiting to see Julie nod. She chose her words carefully, speaking clearly. "I am Captain Jewel Birdwell, last Captain of the Lodgepole, and your great-something granddaughter. You are on Zharus. We made it; a hundred and fifty years late, but we made it with almost all the passengers. Your gamble paid off, and there are a lot of people waiting to thank you, when you are ready."

Julie looked again at the people around her, not even registering the little fire lizard. She shifted her gaze outside, staring at the lake and the slightly off colour of the sunlight. "We made it?" she mumbled.

Jewel nodded again. "We made it. You're the first of the First Crew we're waking up."

Julie started to lift her arms to push herself up, only for the Doctor and Jewel to gently push her back.

"Take it easy, we've got a lot to show and tell you. Don't worry, you've got all the time in the world now. Just take a few minutes to relax and take this all in."

Julie let herself be pushed back and looked outside. A yacht passed by, followed by a skimmer flying in the other direction. "We made it?" she asked again.

"We have."

"We made it." An expression of beautiful relief on her face. Then, tears. She reached up towards to Jewel, then stopped to look at her hand. No longer wrinkled and liver-spotted by age. "I can smell the salt air. That sun. The light of Pharos. Just like I asked. But I'm not about to die, am I?"

"No, you still have a long life ahead of you, Captain," Jewel said. "Welcome home."

Epilogue 2: The Light of Pharos

The griffin RIDE stepped carefully down the narrow corridor, keeping her wings held tight to her back for room. Rows upon rows of cryopods were lined up on either side of her, the only light coming from their dim status LEDs, mostly green with a concerning number of yellows. "How is this place still functioning?" she mumbled to herself in disbelief.

High above, hidden in the shadows, a young man watched the strange creature, too far away to hear her comments. He clenched a metal rod, building up his courage. Aliens had invaded his ship, getting ready to do whatever aliens did. He had to stop them.

He waited until the creature was below him, her brown feathers thinning to a tawny fur coat midway down her back. He aimed for the base of her neck, ahead of the wings and leaped.

"For the Light of Pharos!" he shouted, bringing the metal rod down on the back of the creature's neck. To his surprise, it was like hitting one of the bolted down cryopods. The creature staggered, but his own arms went numb from the vibrations reverberating through the rod. He dropped it and stumbled back.

The creature's eyes focused on him, then beyond him. It screeched and lept at him. The fur and feathers flickered off like a light, showing a robot that was opening up, creating a man-sized hole ready to swallow him up. He started to scream, only for it to be cut off. The robot closed up around him, just before a blaster struck her in the chest, sending her flying back.

The griffin woman staggered to her feet, focusing on the far end of the corridor. An armored man stood there, about to fire his weapon again. She dodged and felt the blast score over her shoulder.

"Die Pirate scum!" she shouted, flicking a wing. A trio of feathers flew off, blasting towards the man. His eyes widened and he started to dodge, but it was too late. The three feathers struck him and exploded, sending him backwards.

The griffin woman checked to make sure the pirate would not be bothering them any more, before opening up again. A winged figure fell out, human with furry lion ears and tail, a slight beak, feathers on her head, large claws on her fingers, and a very female figure wearing nothing at all.

"I'm so sorry. I had to do that to save you. I'm Petra. Welcome to Zharus," the griffin greeted the new woman.

"Don't look Adam, you're not old enough for this type of movie!" Tracy exclaimed, trying to playfully cover her brother's eyes. The Revenants and their families were giving a private screening of the first movie based on the colony ship.

Adam batted her hands away and groaned. "I'm older than you are now. What the hell did they do!? I can't begin to count the number of things wrong with all that."

"I know. Why would you ever attack a RIDE with a metal bar?" Darlene asked.

Adam blushed, "Actually Mom, that was about the only thing they got right. I konked Petra real good when we met; broke her DIN and everything, not that I knew what that was at the time."

On the screen 'he' was taking an inordinate amount of time inspecting herself. "You sure we can't sue or something to make it more true?"

Zena shook her head, the guidance counselor watching for the first time as well. "They have enough 'inspired by true events' disclaimers to get away with just about anything. As is they are still donating a good chunk to the Sleeper fund; if we raise a stink they'll probably withdraw it."

"Wonderful," Adam groaned, covering his face.

"If it is any consolation, they probably had most of it filmed before you got into orbit," Zena noted.

"Doesn't really help."

"They really should have put a warning on this. I didn't expect to see everything on a PG movie," Colin said, blushing and averting his eyes from the screen where the new woman continued standing in full view while touching herself in amazement.

Chinook chuckled, "It's made by an Alohan studio. Nudity is to be assumed. I'm surprised 'Adam' had clothes on before the cross fuse. I would have expected a loin cloth for the 'primitive spaceman' look."

"But that's nothing at all like it happened. There were no pirates! And Petra is an Integrate. She couldn't fuse even if she wanted to," Adam exclaimed.

Zena was laughing as well. For the occasion and to respect Colin and Darlene's sensibilities, she was actually wearing very brief shorts and an even briefer sports bra. "Welcome to Zharusian movie studios. The 'crossride a stranger who never knew of RIDEs is one of the main tropes they have. You're just lucky that blast didn't integrate the two of you. Knowing how they usually do this, you can expect a male crossride mythic later on, probably with Claire and a dragon during the blowout due to a faulty safety belt."

"Me? Why me?" Claire asked, tilting her chair back to listen more closely.

"Natural pairing of course, and it keeps the movie karmacly balanced," Zena said.

"Anyway, facts tend to only get a passing glance for adaptations like this," Chinook noted. "A cross fuse on an unauged normal with a winged mythic change on top? It would take hours before she could pop her out, not minutes like that. Best to turn off your mind and enjoy the show."

"But it's... Oh come on! We don't have any guns! We don't even have a security team. Where the hell did they come from?" Adam lamented.

Tracy laughed and ruffled her brother's regrowing hair. "Well, in any case, you look good as a bird-cat girl. Maybe you should look into it sometime."

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