Again, just looking for any kind of feedback
Almira hummed tunelessly as she crossed the complex. She read the scant information on her hard copy several times and ran her hand through her short, auburn hair, causing it to stand on end.
"Now, why don't they tell us anything?" she muttered aloud. A young, green-clad student stopped to stare at her. He was obviously a first-year who had never seen a real “red-suit,” as she had heard Crafters called by some students. She glared at him, knowing the effect of her oddly colored eyes, and he scurried away. She sighed; he would learn better and his fear would turn into hate or, worse, a patronizing respect.
As she strolled along indoor walks lined with potted flora and decorated benches in tiny gardens, she glanced at the display glasses of the stores and businesses she passed. She paused in front of a Travel Firm. The window display was for Turkey, a neighborhood in the Eastern Alliance capitol. Of course, since the EA was the greatest and only adversary of the Association of Americas, the only safe places for AA residents to visit within the borders of the EA were the holy sites. The Holy Temples of Jerusalem and Mecca were very popular, of course.
The Tibetan monastery buildings were most commonly visited by to those of eco-religions. It was said that, with enough credits, you could sometimes visit the touching balconies where the sides of the mountains brushed the sides of the buildings and you could touch the very planet itself. With the vast majority of the earth’s non-water surface covered with buildings, sidewalks and dead earth, such an event was a treat indeed. The uncontained, unhampered dirt, the raw surface of the planet, was called wild earth.
A group of students walked past, laughing loudly. Almira blinked as she returned from her thoughts. She looked away from the three-dimensional pictures. It was useless for her to daydream in such a way. She sighed and moved on down the sidewalk. She was a Crafter. She did not go anywhere unless she was ordered to. There was virtually no chance of her ever touching wild earth.
She passed a sidewalk café with several students snatching a bite or two. Most of the people lounging at the tables were MCs, Military-Colonists, in their sharp black jumpsuits. Many had the green band on their upper right arms, which indicated their status of Instructor. Some of the MCs glanced up at Almira, but no one except a blue-suited Trainer would tell her what to do.
As she continued along the sidewalk, she glimpsed a rich purple jumpsuit moving through the crowd and strained to see who the clergyman was. The stranger did not notice her and she dismissed him from her mind. The only clergy she dared to speak to anyways were Druids and Earth-monks of Tibet.
Almira walked along the busy indoor street until she had made her way to the designated conference hall and entered the room indicated on her hard copy. A nervous-looking young woman sitting alone at the table glanced up at her.
"Hi," the young woman said hesitantly.
Almira studied the young woman intently. The woman's round face was framed with a curly, strawberry-blonde bob cut. Her moss-green eyes were wide and uncertain, but she had a pretty, honest face. A quick surface-scan confirmed that assessment.
Almira gave the woman her best smile. "Hi. I am Crafter Almira."
The woman relaxed visibly. "I am Seren Conner, Biology and Chemistry." She indicated the chair next to her. Almira hesitated a moment, then took it.
"Did you just get out of the greens?" Almira asked, feeling presumptuous. Apparently, Seren didn’t noticed.
"Yes, I graduated two months ago. Top of my class. But I hear that each of us is fairly young on this mission, especially you."
Almira nodded solemnly. "I have to be, since it's a Sleeper mission."
Seren laughed. "You use MC-jargon so casually, you must be very experienced."
Almira grinned hugely. "This will be my fourth mission."
"Only four?" Seren's smile faltered, her eyebrows drawing together. She seemed suddenly very worried.
"Only four what?" a smooth voice interjected. Seren and Almira turned to see who had spoken. Almira jumped up from her chair.
A handsome man in his mid-twenties stood just inside the door. His olive skin, black hair and dark eyes under thick brows gave him a distinctly rakish look. His teeth flashed as he smiled in a friendly manner. "I am Lieutenant Commander Aquilino Aznar, the pilot." He moved into the seat next to Seren, and gestured for Almira to take her seat again.
Seren giggled and introduced herself. Almira silently vowed she would not giggle, introduced herself and promptly giggled. She was still mentally chastising herself for it when two very large men entered. She jumped up again.
They saluted Lt. Aznar and introduced themselves. Sergeant Maverick “Mav” Telekski was a blond, tan, blue-eyed giant. Almira could scarcely believe he was a man and not carved from stone or molded from liquid steel as he appeared. He declared himself to be the Brawn for the mission, the raw muscle and fighting expert.
Sergeant Angor St. James, "Boomer", was their Munitions and Demolition specialist. He seemed to be a twin to Mav, though a slightly more compact black man. He removed his streamlined sunglasses and the two took a pair of chairs across the table from the pilot. Mav explained that he and Boomer had worked together on dozens of operations over the course of ten years. They were career military and had volunteered for their positions on the Gaia Mission. They both were eager to get “off-planet” for a while.
The explanation was barely complete when another pair of men walked in. One was a balding little man in his mid-thirties who looked like he would break if he moved too quickly. His Arabic coloring was unusual in the AA, and, though he spoke with no accent, his wording was too precise to be native. He smiled easily and made a tiny, elegant bow. "I am Qadir ibn'Zaki. You may call me Crawler, for that is how I do my job most of the time. I am the wonderful mechanical engineer who will keep the flying junk-heap we will travel on running despite ineptitude on all sides..."
"...and his perpetual speech-making." The other man finished for him. He was slightly taller then his companion, lighter in complexion, and less formal of speech. "I am Jarvis Hirsch, Electronics. Call me Jack. I recommend you ignore Crawler most of the time; I do.”
Everyone laughed and began another round of introductions. They were interrupted when three more people showed up. Almira began to feel uncomfortable in the close quarters with so many new faces. She struggled to focus on trying to remember the slew of names and identities.
Dunstan Pearce immediately caught Almira’s attention. With dark blond hair and a tanned complexion, the geologist appeared bronzed. His overall physique reminded her of a Roman statue, and his cautious demeanor gave her a distinct impression of fierce independence.
On his right hand side stood the MedTech, Dr. Yosu Toussaint. Her slightly yellowish coloring and almond eyes betrayed her Asian roots. She was very lithe and Almira noticed she moved with a subtle grace. Though she was somewhat hesitant in front of everyone, she appeared to be quick with a smile. She had a habit of tossing her long black hair over her shoulder when her attention was drawn to a different point of focus.
On Dunstan’s left, Dr. Liluye Uzumati was the doctor of Psychology and specialist in communications. She was tall and had the high cheekbones and sharp nose of the Native American tribes. Her scornful black-eyed gaze covered everyone in the room before settling on Almira. She shrunk from Liluye’s hateful look, feeling waves of animosity as names were offered around once more.
Conversations started amongst the various parties as each person within the group began to feel the others out. Almira kept to herself at the side of the room, still mentally reviewing the many introductions. She realized that the mass of information was going to take some time to get used to and decided to focus on Seren, the most friendly of the group.
Seren, however, had begun a casual conversation with the pilot, though Seren did most of the talking. The pilot seemed intent on flirting with the pretty young woman in return.
“So why don’t you have a nickname, Lt. Aznar?” Seren leaned in towards the dark man. He appeared to enjoy the attention and turned his bright smile on her.
“What? Do I need one?”
“Well, all the men seem to have one, except for you.”
The pilot glanced at Seren and nodded. “True. But I’ve never had a nickname, so why don’t you pick one for me, Seren.” He grinned. “Just not ‘Ace’.”
Seren appeared to take her mission seriously, thinking for a long moment. “Well, what about ‘Lino’? I know it’s just your name, shortened, but it’s simple and… strong.” She blushed suddenly.
“Strong? I don’t know about that.”
Seren put her hand on his arm. Almira mentally edged away from the strength of the emotions that the touch had created. Seren smiled at the young pilot and nodded firmly. “Strong.”
At that point, Boomer broached the subject of the absent major to the room. "So where is our fearless leader?"
Jack shrugged and came back with "Who is our fearless leader?"
"I heard it's Kurtis," Lino offered.
Mav laughed. "Kristopher Kurtis? No way it is! He's been reprimanded twice in as many years!"
"That would be three times, thank you, Maverick." Mav jumped at the sudden, strong voice and everyone quickly stood and saluted the Major as he approached the table.
Almira shifted nervously at the sudden tension in the air earning a quick glance from Kurtis’ sharp blue eyes. She sensed a momentary confusion from him before he turned back to address the entire group.
"We are now in isolation. We do not speak to anyone except each other." He paused, meeting each person's eye. "That is how important this mission is."
The lights went down suddenly and a video screen lit up, showing a planet.
"Is it Earth?" Boomer asked, squinting at the screen.
"Too blue," said Dunstan.
"Too clean," echoed Seren.
"Close," said Major Kurtis. "It's Gaia, an Earth-twin, of a sort.”
“What a creative name. What government peon came up with that one?” Dunstan leaned back in his chair, sarcasm dripping from his body language as well as his voice.
Kurtis ignored him, continuing the lecture. “It has a similar atmospheric composition to Earth and about 90% of the surface is underwater. The rest of the area is forests, swamps, and some temperate areas. Lots of mountains and islands. Double the atmospheric humidity, but only five-sixths the gravity.”
“Just enough to make it interesting,” Mav said, grinning hugely.
“Exactly. It has similar rainfall, significant cloud-, fog- and mist-cover at all times. No discernable sentient habitation.” The picture on the screen changed. "This is the star-cluster Beta-5-6 in the constellation Pisces. That is the location of Gaia, where we are going."
The lights came on again. "The trip will take about 10 years; actually, nine years, 11 months and 3 days, by our calculations. Each year all but one of us will Sleep, excepting our Crafter." He nodded at Almira, who straightened up at the brief attention. "She will not, of course, go into stasis. After each year, the next person will be wakened along with me. I will oversee every changeover.
"All of you were chosen because, first of all, you are fairly young and physically fit and, second, you are all very highly recommended in each of your fields as highly intelligent and mentally flexible, able to deal with unusual circumstances. These traits will serve both you and the AA very well."
A door opened in the far wall. "Each of you has a room with all of your equipment. Most of you have specially modified tools-of-trade; you will be able to take them with you. We want you to be as well-equipped as possible. The computers are not networked and have only information about this mission. You will have minimal communication ability with anyone outside this group after this point. Few people outside this room even know that this mission exists. Sharing details or information in general about this is strictly forbidden. This operation will be kept secret."
"Who would even care about all of this?" Almira muttered. She blinked, startled to realize she had spoken aloud.
Major Kurtis rounded on her. "If the Eastern Alliance beats us to Gaia, the Association of Americas will lose the Dominion War. It’s as simple as that. The resources on Gaia are of the utmost importance. Period. Now, I suggest you catch up on your modern political history, since I am assuming you must be out of Seclusion-training, if not out of basic greens!"
Almira tried not to shrink back from the Major's livid face and bared teeth, but failed. His swift anger startled her; she hadn’t sensed it coming. She swallowed audibly and nodded. Her face was flushed from the insults, making it nearly as red as the Major’s was from anger.
"We leave tomorrow afternoon. You are dismissed." He strode from the room without a backwards glance.
"What a jerk!" Seren said when he was out of earshot. She reached up to pat Almira’s arm reassuringly.
Mav nodded in agreement, then grinned. "But if what he says is true, this is a very important mission. We are gonna make history."
Almira cheered up a little, caught up in the excitement that suddenly filled the room. Her recent humiliation was quickly forgotten. As conversations resumed among the crew, a stray thought brought the Crafter up short. A quick glance at each uniform in the room gave her no answer. No one was wearing the red armband of a mission Link. She excused herself to her quarters and brought up a detailed mission statement on her computer. She looked up the name of the crewmember who was to be her Link.
"Oh. The Major."
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