— — THIS IS A WIDE-BAND PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE ADALIAN STANDARDS & HISTORY CORPS — —
CREW FORMING AREAS ARE NOW OPEN ON LEVEL 3 AND LEVEL 7, ARVAD-SIDE. ENGINEERS, MINERS, MERCHANTS, SCIENTISTS, AND OTHER SPECIALISTS MAY NOT PROCEED TO THE LOUNGES ON THE FABRICATED SIDE OF LEVELS 3 AND 7 WITHOUT CERTIFIED CREW CREDENTIALS OR A PILOT ESCORT.
PLEASE SEE AN ATTENDANT AT ONE OF THE MAIN ENTRANCES IF YOU HAVE NOT YET REGISTERED FOR CREW SELECTION.
— — END ASH CORPS TRANSMISSION — —
Charlie snorted contemptuously as the service announcement scrolled across his screen. Everyone who needed to know where crew selection was taking place already knew. The information ASH Corps pushed out across their Muses had been pretty much useless since their arrival in Adalia. There were notices of probes launching from the Arvad, opinion pieces regarding the naming conventions of currency, and even some kind of new calendar that no sane person would need to follow. Now the Arvad was being dismantled, and they had been living in crowded fabricated structures on Adalia Prime for months, rendering the declarations from ASH Corps even more frustrating.
Judging by the crowded halls outside the Level 3 entrance, Charlie’s assessment of the service announcement’s necessity was accurate. There must have been over one thousand people pressing into the crew selection area. The air was thick with the heat and smell of too many bodies. Charlie missed the Arvad, which, while not much more spacious, at least had taller ceilings and working air recirculation.
Droplets of something warm fell onto the bridge of Charlie’s nose as he examined the herd before him. Condensation, he realized, as he dried his face on his sleeve. The atmosphere scrubbers in this section struggled to keep up as the number of people surged. And by the style of clothing and the desperate way so many so-called “pioneers” were pushing forward, Charlie guessed that pilots were in short supply today. Again.
Like many aboard the Arvad, Charlie’s family had prepared for a habitable planet. Despite the Arvad’s sudden course change upon exiting the Solar System, most people continued to hope for and expect a magnetosphere, atmosphere, water, and other planetary niceties needed to create an existence as closely resembling old Earth as possible. The distribution of necessary skillsets among those aboard heavily favored terraforming efforts, not flying light transports that amounted to little more than air-tight coffins bolted to torch drives and shipping containers.
However, the reality of their situation suddenly elevated pilots and spacecraft engineers to near-celebrity status. Adalia Prime had nothing of their original destination, including air or water. As a result, manufacturing light transports to harvest ice and frozen gasses became the third-highest priority after establishing a colony on Adalia Prime and shipbreaking the Arvad. Within months the first transport crews had been formed and were flying off to begin mining the volatile and organic resources necessary to keep the life support running.
Charlie found what looked to be the end of the line and began pressing forward with the rest of the crowd. Despite the chaos and noise, the line moved pretty quickly. At least everyone here moved with purpose, unlike many of the other passengers who had fallen into depression or despair upon arrival. Some poor bastards were drinking themselves to death on engine coolant or other questionably distilled substances. Others were content to take up some of the severely limited space, sucking down rations and complaining about everything.
Those people were infuriating. Charlie was as disappointed as anyone else that Adalia had not been the utopia they had envisioned. He had dreamed of a tiny homestead and garden outside under the Adalian sky, free from the oppressive steel walls and narrow, double-layer plastic viewports through which humanity aboard the Arvad had viewed nothing but infinite darkness their entire lives. Instead, life would be more of the same metal panels and small windows with nothing for an atmospheric moisture collection engineering specialist to do.
At least, it would be the same unless he could learn to work on other equipment. He had heard that much of the cooling system designs were partly modular, sharing parts and blueprints with irrigation, plumbing, filtration, and moisture collection machines across many aspects of the Arvad mission. With some luck and a little ingenuity, Charlie was optimistic there would be something for him to do with the right crew. Now he just needed to find one in need of a man with his skills.
“Identification,” croaked a bored attendant. Charlie started; while his mind was wandering, the line had automatically propelled him forward until he was at the front. The man in front of him had greasy black hair dripping in sweat. He smelled as if he had not taken a bath in weeks, but then, so did everyone. He held out a grimy PDA to receive Charlie’s credentials.
“Right, ah, here you go,” Charlie mumbled as he fumbled to present his documentation. It took him a moment longer than he would have liked, and he became acutely aware that he was holding up the line behind him. Finally, he pulled his PDA from its sleeve and tapped one corner against the least disgusting part of the attendant’s PDA, sending the necessary data.
After a brief moment, a small chime indicated Charlie’s information had transferred. “Charlie Miggens, Engineer Second Class, Hydraulics Specialist?”
“Well, actually, it’s moisture collection-”
“Plumbing, then,” the attendant interrupted as he typed and swiped his finger across his screen. “Put this on.”
Charlie reached out and took a slip from the attendant’s outstretched hand. This paper was new, a name badge of some kind printed on a thin sheet of digital holograph paper. The back had an adhesive that stuck securely to the left breast of Charlie’s beige jacket. It read:
Engineer Second Class
Other than the fact “Liquid Systems” made no sense, Charlie felt a brief surge of optimism. Engineers with life support experience were in demand these days. If this formal-looking nametag encouraged the impression that his skills were valuable, the chances of finding a crew were higher.
He nodded his thanks, but the attendant was no longer paying him any attention. Charlie took one last look at his nametag and stepped forward through the door.
The Level 3 crew forming area was massive by the standards of the nascent Adalia colony. It must have been thirty feet on each side with a ceiling of ten feet, or at least, Charlie could not touch it when stretching on his tiptoes, and he was on the taller side. Compared to his current minuscule living quarters, it felt airy like a cathedral on Earth might have been.
Unfortunately, the condensation was worse than anywhere else on Adalia. People filled every square inch of the space, shoving and cajoling one another in the hopes of finding a pilot or crew in need of their skillset. Everywhere Charlie looked, the metallic surfaces glistened with drops of water coalescing from the breaths and sweat of his fellow Adalians. Arvad-ians? No, Charlie classified them all as Adalians now. How quickly that line of thinking shifted, he thought.
As Charlie became acclimated to the impressive humidity, his attention moved to the crowd. Most people seemed to be wearing basic engineering or mechanic jumpsuits, the beige of their pants and jackets creating a mire of mediocrity. It was sad that so few of them would find meaningful work any time soon, but Charlie had neither the time nor the energy to feel sympathy for this group that suddenly discovered their skills were worthless. Oh, your expertise is in combustion systems? Tough, there is no atmosphere. Grab a shovel and start digging.
Sure enough, almost every nametag he passed said “Mining” or “Mineral Extraction” or, in the case of one startlingly short gentleman with a long, green beard, “Rock Collector.” Charlie stopped counting after the first twenty or so of these name tags. His job was to find a crew, not complete a census of talentless pioneers. He would leave that to ASH Corps.
Charlie let himself drift to the edges of the room, the press of the crowd creating a gentle current that spun him away from the center. He could barely hear himself think as the room became ever more crowded and the number of people shouting increased. He needed to finish what he came here for quickly, or the entire exercise would become futile.
Suddenly there was a flash of color among the beige out of the corner of his eye. Charlie turned to see a gaggle of men and women wearing white, green, and a handful of blue jackets. Crews! Beige jackets swarmed around them like rats on the Arvad would both jealously guard and desperately scrabble to access a slow stream of water leaking from a damaged conduit.
Despite the unflattering comparison, Charlie knew where he had to be. Feeling the faintest hint of shame, Charlie began using his height to his advantage and squeezed through fellow pioneers to get closer to the crews. Annoyed grumbles and protestations almost became music to his ears; every frustrated shout or swear meant he was one person closer to being chosen for a ship.
Then, as if penetrating an invisible barrier, the chorus of the desperate plebs was joined by new voices. “No, we need to speak with Scientists.” “Do you have any experience with communications relays?” “How familiar are you with core drill maintenance?”
“Does anyone here have experience with full-systems cooling?” The question struck Charlie like a bolt of lightning. Who said that?
He thrust his hand in the air and shouted, “Cooling! I have cooling experience!”
The startled crowd in front of him began to open up a bit, allowing him to sidle even closer to the crew. He still could not pinpoint who had asked but continued to call out and wave his hands persistently.
“Someone here has worked on cooling systems?” Now he could see her. She was wearing a bright yellow jacket with white piping and black buttons. Her eyes were bright and intelligent, and her body language made it clear she knew she was important. Why was a merchant asking about an engineer? Where was her pilot? Charlie gestured again, caught her eye, and felt her blessing to approach her wash over him like a cleansing stream. He was no longer a member of the unwashed masses — a crew needed him.
“Yes,” he gasped when he finally reached her. “My nametag says Liquid Systems, but basically that just means I specialize in getting moving water from point A to point B-”
“Great, that’s all I needed to know,” she interrupted. “I’m Kaelie Majors. My pilot, Wes Jenssen, is on Floor 7 looking for a Scientist. Lucky me, I got to sift through all the miners looking for someone to keep our boat flying.” Not once had she offered Charlie her hand or made eye contact since he reached her. He thrust his hand forward awkwardly anyway, not knowing how else to respond.
Kaelie eyeballed his hand for a moment, then took it in hers. Reluctantly, Charlie thought, but she did not need to be excited to meet him, only ready to offer him a job. “I’m Charlie Miggens. Ready to work immediately.”
“Yes, I can see that,” she nodded at his nametag. “Well, Mr. Miggens…” her nose wrinkled as she trailed off. “Can I just call you Charlie? Alliteration makes me crazy. You can call me Kaelie or Majors, either one.”
Charlie nodded, struggling to hide a wry smile. Kaelie did not seem like the type he should antagonize.
“Well, Charlie, send me your credentials and come with me. Wes wants me, or us, I guess, to meet him in the Level 7 crew lounge.” She held out her PDA expectantly. Wanting to avoid a similar embarrassment as he had with the attendant earlier, Charlie pulled out his with a practiced flourish and tried to make eye contact with Kaelie; she looked unimpressed. He pulled up his professional profile with an inward sigh and tapped her device with his. Kaelie took a moment to read over what he sent her, then nodded her approval. “Good enough. Let’s get moving.”
Charlie was whisked away by Kaelie, her yellow jacket radiating immaculately in his eyes. He was part of a crew! Finally, his days of being crammed like a sardine in a can, hoping to be plucked, were over. The room had continued to fill with people, but to Charlie, there was no one else but Kaelie. He glided behind his savior out of the Level 3 area. Together, they walked up the cramped stairs and out onto the Level 7 promenade in a dream-like stupor.
Before he even registered where they were, Kaelie interrupted his reverie. “We’re here. Put this on your jacket.”
Charlie took the pin from Kaelie’s proffered hand. It was round and roughly two inches across. It had a tiny emblem of a stylized old-Earth rocket and a single word underneath: Atreyu.
“It’s the name of our ship,” Kaelie explained. “It comes from an old children’s movie about biting rocks or something. Wes is very nostalgic.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyway, let’s get out of the hall.”
Charlie pinned the Atreyu to his jacket and took one last look at the corridor. So many people were still everywhere, milling about in their beige jackets without purpose. But now Charlie had a purpose, and he followed Kaelie into the crew lounge.