Duran rested peacefully on his back in the darkness. His abdomen ebbing and flowing beneath the sheets as he harmoniously wheezed, almost inaudible. His beautiful wife, Evonne, lay asleep beside him as she always did. They had been married long enough that a little snoring would never ruin a good night’s rest.
His wife’s long blonde hair resided mere inches from his mouth, nearly landing inside it. He never understood why she refused to coil her hair before bed. That was probably her way of showing him just how much she didn’t appreciate his nightly ritual.
Without warning, the faint sounds of mother nature meticulously enveloped the space around them. Duran rolled onto his side, turning away from Evonne. His left eye lid began to open slowly, a smidgen above a squint.
“Kato, sérieusement. S’il vous plaît pour l’amour de Dieu, ferme cette merde.” Duran released an elongated moan, nestling his head deeper into his pillow in an attempt to resume his slumber.
The music dissipated as the Buoy One’s on-board artificial intelligence, Kato, immediately moved on to its second attempt at giving Duran a wake-up call. Within moments, the ambient light coming from the cosmos quietly trickled into the room as the evening shades used to deflect them rose in a crescent moon shape. The shades continued to rise until the light landed upon Duran’s upper left cheek.
He sighed, opening his eye once more. “I just want to state for the record, that I think you're a pain in the ass.”
“I'm sorry, Dr. Le Roux, but you have a mandatory briefing with Major Shimizu and Major Thayer in less than thirty minutes. I have been ordered to make sure you are awake and available.” Kato responded.
“All right, fine. I’m up.”
Duran lifted his head, turning back towards Evonne. She was still asleep, intelligently resting on her stomach. Her face buried deep within the pillow away from Kato’s cosmic parlour tricks.
He sat up in bed. “Hey, wake up. We’ve got a briefing.”
He nudged her gently with his forearm. Evonne groaned in frustration.
“You don’t need me to talk to them. I might as well stay here.” Her words muffled somewhat by the pillow. She had barely moved an inch if she had moved at all. “You can fill me in when you’re done.”
Duran scoffed as he lingered on her for a moment. She really was striking even when she was being a lazy waste of space. How did he ever get so lucky?
“Between you and Kato, I swear. It’s like I’m the only one who actually does any work around here.”
Evonne remained silent and motionless as he shook his head. She must have been more tired than normal.
“Nothing, really? All right, I’ll see you in a bit.”
He leaned over top of her, kissing on her cheek as she groaned once more, immediately turning her head away from him. Undeterred, Duran leaned over her again, kissing her other cheek.
“Pour pleurer à chaudes larmes. Allez-vous en!”
“Thanks. I love you too.” Duran chuckled as he slipped out of bed. He walked to the adjacent bathroom, passing a digital photo frame that displayed a photograph of him, Evonne and their four-year-old son, Andrew. This was the kind of frame that would dissolve into another photo of their family every seven seconds or so. He always made it a point to look at it for five minutes before bed every night.
Duran flicked the light switch on revealing his shirtless, chiseled frame, dark brown eyes and short brown hair. He bared his teeth. On this particular morning, they were looking mighty yellow. He searched for his mouthguard so he could clean them.
“Kato, close those shades. That’s an order.”
The shades began to close as Duran poked his head back inside the room, staring at his wife, who remained in the same position he had left her in a moment ago.
Why do I even bother?
Thayer sat stoically on a stool facing a blank computer screen.
“Major, is everything all right?”
Thayer snapped out of her daze. She turned to see Fern Guimaraes, her chief engineer, across the laboratory working in front of a computer of her own.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Thayer said.
“I asked if everything’s all right. You seem distracted this morning.”
“Who me? No, not at all.”
Thayer swiveled herself around on the stool and hopped off. She approached Fern with a big smile on her face.
“That’s because today’s a very important day.” Thayer went on.
Fern raised her eyebrows, remembering. “Oh right, Sonain. I was wondering when we were going to receive a report on that.”
“You and me both. The Le Roux’s are being incredibly secretive and you know how I feel about secrets.”
“I do indeed.”
Thayer sidled up next to her. “Which is exactly why I am glad that we’ve began working on this.”
She tapped Fern’s computer screen which displayed the blueprints to a Mini-Rover prototype equipped with artificial intelligence that the two of them had been developing called the “Trailblazer”.
“When the Trailblazer is finally up and running, we’ll no longer have to worry about human error or cowardice in the face of duty.” Thayer said.
The human-led space operations were always a sore spot for Thayer. Every time she requested for more consideration to be given to their advanced exploration requests, she would be rebuffed by Aresco and the leadership council. The fact that her superiors—along with those even below her rank—were becoming so comfortable in a star system that didn’t allow them to set up a colony on any of the nearby planets—was complete lunacy.
Yes, using the solar energy from Galicia to power the Rover Base Alpha, was an integral part of their daily lives. However, the need for survival was also beginning to supersede the need for advancement. Their space community was effectively destroying themselves just to endure each and every day—rather than working to find a solution that would inspire them all.
There was definitely going to come a time when all of their complacency would come back to bite them in the tuchus. For Thayer, it wasn’t simply a matter of if, but when.
In the interim, all she could do was hope that the current Rover Base field technicians like Duran Le Roux and his wife, Evonne, would be able to complete the tasks set forth by the council. Innovation could only happen so quickly when resources were never allocated to it in the first place.
Thayer lingered on Fern’s face for a moment. Something was different about her. “Did you do something to your hair?”
“Yeah, I straightened it. You like?”
Thayer looked at the monitor once more. A photograph of Fern, her husband Nelson and their four-year-old daughter, Callista, was taped to the monitor on the upper right hand side. Fern and her daughter had matching afro’s, while her husband was bald.
Nelson was a large man and always clean shaven, most likely hiding the fact that he was graying prematurely. He always seemed intimidated by his wife’s expertise, status and rank. Many would consider Fern to be the prize in their relationship, considering she was a stunning beauty, with the smoothest bronze skin. In a different life, people would have worshipped her like a goddess.
On the occasional weekends when Nelson was home from Prisca, Thayer never saw her. Why Fern had chosen him over so many other potential suitors on the Rover Base, she never understood. Nelson was so possessive of her, it was uncomfortable. When he wasn’t around, Fern was like a totally different person in a good way. She laughed regularly and brought more ingenuity to their time-consuming, often frustrating work. Alas, she was still devoted to her husband and yet he returned her devotion by acting like a jealous madman.
Which was just another reason why their community needed to leave this star system as soon as possible. The lower-class men working in the mines were spending way too much time away from their loved ones. No one could be surprised to discover that animosity was building within them for having to work as much as they did for the good of everyone else.
These men missed practically every important moment of their children’s lives as they grew up and surely were dealing with varying degrees of sexual frustration on a day to day basis.
While no one on the Rover Base dared to use that terminology, it was obvious that these men were slaves to the community. They had been trained since birth to do what they were told and any time someone bucked back against their conditioning, they were summarily dealt with. That still didn’t excuse Nelson’s behavior with Fern, but perhaps gave Thayer some perspective as to the why.
Thayer gestured for Fern to turn her head, giving her a better look at her thick dark locks. When straightened, Fern’s hair was halfway down her back.
“Has it always been this long?”
“Well I usually wear an afro, Major. I haven’t gotten a haircut in years.”
Fern playfully ran her hand through her hair, showing Thayer.
“I know. I guess I—just didn’t realize it had grown so much.”
“It’s not that difficult to lose track of time out here, unfortunately.”
“Hmph, bite your tongue. We’re working on changing that, remember?” Suddenly, Thayer’s eyes widened. “Oh shoot, speaking of which. I got a meeting with Shimizu and his cronies. Wish me luck.”
Fern clicked her teeth and winked as Thayer dashed out of the lab.
The coffee machine hummed like someone typing against a keyboard as the hot brown liquid flowed into Shimizu’s cup just below the spigot.
The conference room door slid open as Thayer entered a moment later. He spied her from the corner of his eye as she walked to a chair just in front of the room’s hologram communicator.
“I can make a cup for you if you’d like.” He turned to her, flashing a toothless grin.
“Is there any sweetener over there?”
“Don’t worry, I got you covered.”
Shimizu flipped over a second coffee mug, placing it on the dais. He searched for a sweetener while the cup filled. The aroma was intoxicating. It needed to be. No one ever enjoyed these early morning meetings. Except for maybe Aresco, which was ironic because he never actually attended any of them.
Shimizu brought the two mugs over to Thayer. He set hers down in front of her, before pulling out a chair beside her. He sat down as she examined her coffee. The way she did it almost made it seem like she didn’t trust him.
“We can switch cups if you like.”
Thayer stopped examining the cup, turning to him. “No, this is fine. Thank you.”
Shimizu raised his cup to her before taking a sip. He rolled his eyes. Even when he was trying to be nice, she couldn’t help but throw him a cold shoulder.
“What’s taking so long?”
Thayer’s hands somewhat jumpy as she set the coffee mug down on the table. It was hard to tell if this is how she always behaved or just when Shimizu was in the same room as her.
“Do you have somewhere else you need to be?” Shimizu sarcastically asked before taking another sip.
Thayer turned to him, folding her arms. “You and I both know why I’m here, so I’d appreciate it if you cut the crap and just be quiet.”
Shimizu recoiled. A part of him wanted to smirk at her as he did tend to enjoy getting under her skin. He thought better of doing that, however, knowing full well that it would only further infuriate her. Although they were both majors on the Rover Base—Thayer was technically his superior officer—as she ranked higher in the succession plan behind Aresco.
Suddenly, the hologram communicator pinged as both turned their attention to it. Thayer clicked on the hologram, revealing an image of Duran before them. He looked like he had just woken up and was still in his pajamas. The fact that he couldn’t be bothered to wear his uniform was a pretty good indicator of how much he enjoyed these briefings as well.
“Morning Dr. Le Roux. Well don’t you look too happy to see us.” Shimizu said.
“It’s seven thirty in the morning. I’m obviously tickled.” Duran put his fist to his mouth, hiding a yawn.
“Fair enough. Pleasantries aside, how are we doing?”
“So far so good. The scouts have completed their missions of all five moons.”
“And—” Thayer interrupted.
“And none of the moons have atmospheres or access to freshwater from the surface.”
Shimizu noticed Thayer’s look of disappointment. Not that she had done a good job of hiding it. This situation had become frustrating for him as well. A lot of resources were provided to this operation and they had nothing to show for it. Something had to change.
“Now that doesn’t mean that fresh-water isn’t hidden within the bowels of the moons, but from a geological perspective, the possibilities are remote. Not to mention, you’d need to set up a base camp, send an excavation team and the whole nine yards—”
“What about Sonain?” Thayer interjected, cutting him off.
“What about it?” Duran answered.
“We still don’t know what’s beyond its atmosphere.”
“We don’t even know that—and that’s because the atmosphere is a death sentence. We’ve already lost two scouts and you want us to send more?” Duran shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like a good idea.”
“I believe that is a decision above your rank doctor. That is for the council to decide, not you.”
Duran looked as if he could tear Thayer’s head off. He and Evonne were the ones risking their lives in these harsh conditions while she was safe and comfortable on the Rover Base. Shimizu slyly lowered his eyes, gesturing for Duran to keep his cool. Yelling at Thayer would only get him reprimanded.
“Ma’am.” Duran calmly responded, thankfully heeding Shimizu’s non-verbal warning.
“That being said, in your expert opinion, is it possible that the density of the atmosphere is creating a situation where we can't communicate with the scouts, similar to our situation on Prisca?” Thayer asked, softening her tone.
“I mean I suppose—that could be a possibility.”
“Okay. Thank you doctor. Be safe out there.”
Thayer abruptly pushed her chair back and rose to her feet. She walked to the exit saying nothing to Shimizu as he watched her exit the room.
Shimizu put his hand to his mouth, hiding his grin. He turned back to the hologram to see Duran smirking at him. At last they could speak freely.
“Yeah, Dream Crusher’s an acquired taste. Like poison in your morning coffee.” He raised his mug to Duran, before taking another sip. “She’s brilliant for sure, but about those people skills.”
Shimizu sucked his teeth as he shook his head.
“Yeah, no shit. Sounds to me like she needs to get laid. There’s no one available on the Rover Base to take one for the team?”
“Unfortunately, I doubt she would even accept it regardless of who was offering. I think that woman loves robots a lot more than she does human beings.”
Duran laughed as Shimizu struggled to contain his. He wiped a few tears away. That was a good one.
“How’s my kid?”
He looked at the hologram, noticing that Duran’s facial expression had changed. He was dead serious now. Shimizu set down his mug.
“He’s good. He misses you and Evonne, but he’s doing really good.” Shimizu sported the proudest grin. “You should see him and June. They’re inseparable. It’s really cute.”
Shimizu always knew how to bring Duran’s state of mind back to where the leadership needed it to be. All he had to do was mention Andrew’s name and give him a few nuggets of information on his son’s daily routine. Duran would then calm down and re-focus his energy on the tasks he had been ordered to complete.
Duran’s agitation was becoming more frequent since they had commissioned the Sonain operation. This was amplified by the disappearance of the two Buoy Scouts in the planet’s atmosphere several weeks later. Aresco had shifted this operation from Thayer solely to the both of them, primarily because of Shimizu’s history with Duran.
Duran was his best friend and former classmate. Both men grew a fondness for geological studies that led to their respective careers on the Rover Base. Shimizu would become an officer like his mother, Eiko before him, and he was the second-in-command of the Prisca mining company under his father, Teru.
Duran on the other hand preferred to get his hands dirty. His father had died of a heart attack when he was barely ten years old and his mother was a nurse who worked long hours, so Duran spent the majority of his free time in the library studying geology. Upon turning eighteen, he was finally free to pursue his passions with impunity. Whenever a mission arose that needed a team, he could always be counted on to volunteer. He was one of a handful of people in their community who had physically visited several of the planets in the Galicia star system.
That all changed once Evonne had Andrew. Now Duran wanted to be home. The problem with that of course was that the Rover Base still needed his expertise. And there was no way he was ever going to allow them to send Evonne without him, so involving Shimizu as a go-between was a necessity, even if it did make him feel like a bad friend on more than one occasion. This one being no exception.
“Well, hopefully, this mission will be over soon and we’ll be on our way home.” Duran said.
He was unable to hide his facial disappointment. He knew the decision was out of Shimizu’s hands and the only thing they could do now was wait.
“I’ll keep you posted.”
“Okay. You’ll give my boy a kiss and a hug from his parents.”
“Every night.” Shimizu smiled.
“Good man. I’ll see ya.” The hologram dissolved as Duran was gone.
Shimizu leaned back in his chair, rubbing his forehead. His loyalties were being tested and no matter who he decided to align himself with, he just knew he would be letting someone down. It was an unenviable position.
“Why don’t they ever listen?”
Duran sat in the tiny windowless room with his head in his hands. His conversation with Shimizu having ended a good ten minutes ago.
A deep sigh emanated from his lips as he lifted his head. Although a decision had yet to be reached by the leadership regarding his and Evonne’s current assignment, he knew better than to get his hopes up. That would be a fool’s errand.
Duran rose to his feet. He turned his body, banging his elbow against the wall. He grimaced as he rubbed the underside of it. Every single time. It was no wonder Evonne let him do the briefings alone. He tucked his arms tighter to his body as he pushed the door behind him open.
He was on the lowest level of the Buoy One, which was the first of many data-collecting research vehicles that were built to explore the nearby planets in the Galicia star system.
Duran looked outside of a plexiglass window nearby. At the present moment, he and Evonne were working within the orbit of a navy blue planet they had named Sonain. The planet was a sight to behold up close. Even if they were able to combine all five of its moons, the combination still would not make up half the size of the planet in diameter.
He could also see the three remaining Buoy Scouts, which remained attached via powerful magnetic brackets to the Buoy One. The Scouts were remote controlled by the starboard on the top floor. They were primarily used to take thousands of pictures while also measuring temperature, wind velocity, atmosphere, gravity and oxygen on any previously unexplored worlds.
Once their work was completed, the information would then be provided to Duran and Evonne—who would put together recommendation reports for the leadership council. Theirs was an exercise in futility. To date, they had created exactly five reports and each one had come back with the same results. Conditions unsuitable for human-life.
None of the surrounding planets were blessed with oxygen based atmospheres and with the exception of Prisca, none possessed any raw materials that could be used for the good of the Rover Base.
The next planet scheduled for geological discovery would be Cnaeus, which presented its own challenges considering the asteroid ring that protected it. There was hope that when this mission was complete, the leadership council would give Duran and Evonne some much needed time-off to spend with Andrew and let some other group take a crack at the job.
He would definitely lean on Shimizu for his assistance in that regard. While they definitely loved their careers, enough was enough. They, like anyone else, needed some time to decompress. The claustrophobic dimensions of the Buoy One did not make this situation any easier.
Duran looked back to the ladder leading to the mid-level of the vessel. At some point he would have to wake up Evonne and get the day started. She would say something angry to him in French no doubt once he gave her the lowdown on the morning meeting.
Duran sighed. Dieu aide moi.
He climbed the ladder, one excruciatingly slow step at a time.