The secrets we hold are infinitely more valuable than any measure of human life currently held in space, including of course my own.
The crew of the Atlantis project knew a secret. That secret is now safe. It's as simple as that, my friend. However, the secret they held is different than the one you seek. You wish to know the aim of the project, correct? I'll glady share that.
I've built a ship, James. Humanity's first ship, and humanity's last ship. If you're religious, you may think of it as a veritable Noah's ark.
I have named it the Surrogate. It houses three things: life, knowledge and an environment, everything humanity needs to start over.
At this very moment, it travels through space, ready for the first full-scale transformation of a planet in human history, fully automated and performed in just over half a millennium.
Settling in orbit and terraforming a planet, it will sit and wait for our saviors to arrive and rebirth humanity.
And then humanity can live once more, avoiding these gruesome wars of yours, guided by the careful hand of the Higher Ones.
Jeffrey's assigned room stretched just above his head, with a narrow path down the middle unsuitable for any but the thinnest soldier. Worse yet, the designers of the ship had somehow fit four beds into the room. A thin, stained mattress adorned the top bunk to Jeffrey's left. He piled his gear into the lower bunk opposite the unfavorable bedding.
A row of shallow shelves underneath the bed proved just enough space to stash the few items they had given him as he boarded the ship. His medical equipment, however, left him in a predicament. He found that, if he put his medical duffel at the foot of his bed, he had just enough room to sleep-if he kept his legs bent.
He lay down, twisting the stiff pillow to support his head and back. Drowsiness washed over his body for the first time in weeks, replacing the constant exhaustion and strain provided by his training.
Fire training, they had called it-- a brief, torturous course on how to be a soldier. He still felt the same, with perhaps a better idea of how to fire a gun or follow an order. The hallways of this ship were filled with soldiers like him-inexperienced, angry young men looking for a generalized revenge.
Jeffrey stared at the grated steel of the bunk above him. Earlier, he had marveled at the size of the behemoth ship. The crew of the Corona took pride in the vessel; it was one of the largest in the fleet. Its reputation came not from its size, however, but from the way it was utilized, deployed on its own at the forefront of an attack, risking everything to rain down destruction on an unsuspecting enemy. Onboard were the Dragonflies, an elite group of soldiers who were notorious for disabling an enemy ship from within.
He sighed. He was a Dragonfly.
His predecessor died early in the last attack, leaving the Dragonflies without a medic. The subsequent lack of life-saving abilities led to even more open positions on the roster.
He glanced around the empty bunk. Were all three of his bunkmates late? Perhaps they were making better use of their free time. He grew uneasy and checked the time; he had two hours left, and no reason yet to panic.
Metal scraped against metal as a man appeared in the doorway.
"Hello there!" said the man, shifting sideways and wedging himself through the door, a large weapon attached to his back grinding against the doorway.
Jeffrey noticed a large gut on the man and wondered if he was a grunt or an officer.
The small room filled with the noise created by the newcomer. Every movement of his body brought a new sound to the room. Jeffrey was pulled further and further from his slumber at every thud, dent and curse.
Finally, the man came to an arrangement similar to Jeffrey's, but with less space to sleep.
"You'd think we were cargo," said the man, turning around.
The recognition was simultaneous, both men pausing, mouths agape.
"From the transit center," said Jan, his mouth curving into a smile.
Jan hadn't changed. He looked a bit less afraid now, though.
Jeffrey laughed. "I never expected to see you again."
"Hell," said Jan, "I'm glad to see you conscious."
They both chuckled. It was the first time Jeffrey remembered the day in a favorable light.
Jan paused, "Russell, was it? The last two weeks have shot my memory to Hell."
"You remember it right, but 'Jeffrey' is what I prefer."
"Jeffrey, Jeffrey," said Jan, as if trying to code it into memory, "not shortened to Jeff?"
Jeffrey said, "No, I hate it that way."
"Of course you do. Makes you sound too young, right? By the time you get to my age, you'll be making everyone call you Jeff."
"Well now, that won't be for a very, very long time."
A deep laugh erupted from Jan's diaphragm. The man certainly had a unique sense of humor.
He settled. "I'm glad they assigned me here. Quite the coincidence."
Jeffrey wished that he was glad. He couldn't shake a deep-rooted combat anxiety. He wondered if other greens were the same.
"I think they go by the sign-up lists," said Jeffrey. "We were pretty close together."
Jan looked up in thought, "You're probably right. Still, it's fortunate for us."
"Yes, since we're so good with teamwork and all."
Again, Jan laughed, bringing a warm red to his cheeks. "Teamwork? Sure. I'll attract the trouble; you rush in and save the day."
"To be honest," said Jeffrey, "I don't remember much of it. I just know I had a terrible headache afterwards."
Jan cracked his knuckles and leaned back-or tried to, at least, finding his head a few inches too high to clear the upper bunk.
"It was all unbelievable-though, I guess, fitting with the day. I can't say you did much to the guys who attacked me, but you sure did motivate the crowd. Mere seconds after you went down, a mob rushed over us. It turned into a brawl."
"I thought you said I saved the day," said Jeffrey.
"Hold on; I'm getting to it. After a few punches were exchanged, this woman suddenly starts screaming. All of the men stop fighting and stare at her. We notice she's rather pregnant and, surely enough, the baby was on the way."
Jeffrey pulled back in disbelief, "You have to be kidding."
Jan leaned forward enthusiastically. "No, ask your friend! He delivered the baby."
His friends from school. They had lost touch after Aethra.
"In the cafeteria? With the blast doors closed?" asked Jeffrey.
"Yes! Well, no. The blast doors finally came up about halfway through. It was all rather funny, looking back. You, slumped over in the corner, with a baby on the way in the other."
They laughed. It felt good to have bonded with someone so quickly in this new environment.
Jeffrey looked towards the door. "I wonder when the other two will show up."
"Maybe they're your friends from the station," said Jan.
"That would be nice," said Jeffrey. "But I think medics are spread pretty thin throughout the militia right now."
"Whoever they are, I hope they don't have as much junk as we do," said Jan, looking at the mountain of equipment dammed up on his bed.
Jeffrey eyed the large, intricate weapon that Jan had carried across his shoulders. As a combat medic, he only received training for light arms. Jan's equipment, however, seemed to have a theme of firepower.
"It's an ion cannon," said Jan, answering the stare. "Actually, it's a broken ion cannon. I think the trigger wiring is faulty."
Jeffrey grimaced. The NGM was just so wonderfully equipped.
"They gave you a broken weapon?" asked Russell.
Jan scratched his bald head. "I guess, given my experience, they figured I could fix it."
"Can you? What experience do you have?"
"I used to work on the weapons systems of tactical ships. The technology is similar to guns like this," said Jan, patting the ion cannon. "Why the hell they would have such a complicated trigger setup in a weapon as small as this, I can't figure out, though."
"For the UTF, you mean?" asked Jeffrey.
Jan stared at him blankly. "Well, no. The UTF's ion cannon was a lot simpler."
"No, no," said Jeffrey, "You used to work on tacticals for the UTF, right?"
Jan grew visibly uncomfortable. "Yes, way back when-I had come to Aethra to get away from all that, you know."
"To get away from the fighting?" asked Jeffrey.
"No, to escape the UTF. I wanted to leave in the middle of a term; they generally don't let soldiers do that, especially in war time. After my request was denied, a buddy and I, erm, 'borrowed' a corvette and made our way to Aethra."
Jeffrey's eyes opened wide. "You stole a UTF ship? And you're alive?"
Jan's face swelled with pride. "It's simple really. All I had to do was pull a few wires on all the tactical ship weapons. I'd just love to see the looks on the pilots' faces when they pulled the trigger and nothing came out-the jerks deserve it for how they treated the hangar grunts. Meanwhile, my friend had uploaded a customized bug to the communications array, so they couldn't follow our first jump. After that, we were home free."
"And after that?" asked Jeffrey.
"After the first jump, we just had to wait it out. We snacked on the ship's reserve of food for a couple weeks and then came to Aethra."
"Amazing," said Jeffrey. "And the ship?"
Jan leaned back against the wall, his bald head just barely clearing the upper bunk this time. "The militia was happy to take it off our hands, after a rather tense initial meeting. In exchange for the ship, they arranged to see us safely off. I always wonder if they'll use it for some exciting recon mission."
"You did all of that to avoid working in a hangar?" asked Jeffrey.
Jan frowned. "I didn't leave because of the danger. My ex-wife had taken my kids to Aethra. I couldn't afford to just miss two years of their lives. Hell, I had already missed enough due to serving."
Pacified with realization, Jeffrey opened his mouth, but failed to reply. Jan looked up from the ion cannon at Jeffrey's pause.
"No, no," said Jan, his voice quick and steady, "It was nothing like that. My family is just fine."
Jeffrey sighed. "That's good to hear."
"Most certainly. After I contacted them on the transit station, I decided to enlist. Being planetside and all, they understood completely."
"So you still haven't seen them?" asked Jeffrey, realizing the other man obviously h
"Unfortunately, no. I guess it's just more incentive to end this damn war and get home."
End the war. Would it end? While the UTF seemed infinite in influence and resources, the NGM seemed to gain three recruits for every casualty. Now, it seemed, they were even getting deserters from the other side.
Diversity lent them a renewed strength. Initially, the militia recruitment officers only found success in Cerbera Minor, which had seen the most of the war, and Vehera, the center of the ideologies that drove the border worlds to war. Traditionally, Aethra had been neutral; now the planet supplied over half of the NGM's troops, as well as ships and weapons.
Vehera had always been Jeffrey's dream-setting up a practice in some small settlement, owning a house and living a simple life. He had been attracted to the planet since he was a boy, hearing tales of a pristine, mysterious planet, breathable and brimming with Earth-descended life upon discovery. Hours upon hours he spent studying the planet and it sun, a brilliant star that radiated with the same vitality and clemency as Sol.
Vehera drove him. He would die before seeing the planet and its ideals ruined by the Terrans, although he had never set foot on it himself.
"All Veheran tech is like that," said Jeffrey, snapping himself from his reverie.
Jan looked up again, confused. "What?"
"The ion cannon. You said it was too complex. Everything on the rogue worlds is like that."
"How do you figure?" asked Jan.
"I guess it's just a tendency we have. After learning about so much new technology," he paused here, thinking to correct himself with old technology, but went on, "We want to use it. Even if it's no real use."
Jan popped a small panel off the gun. He put it in one side of his mouth and spoke out the other, "I wonder if that's how Earth technology was 500 years ago. I almost feel sorry for the gunsmiths back in the Origin War."
"To an extent, maybe. But I'm sure their sprinklers weren't as complicated as the ones we have back home," said Jeffrey.
"Yeah," said Jeffrey. "I was raised on a farm with a hopelessly complicated irrigation system. Top-of-the-line Veheran technology. I probably devoted a day out of every week to keeping it maintained."
"Oh, so you're handy with machines then," said Jan.
"Only the ones found in farms and hospitals," said Jeffrey.
A woman adorned with higher rank appeared in the doorway. Jeffrey and Jan rose in salute. They held the position in silence as she examined a piece of paper, one of many in the stapled, wrinkled packet in her hands.
"Jeffrey Russell," she said, looking up from the papers.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, straightening.
"Graduated from Darnelli Medical School with honors?"
She scribbled with the pen. "And Jan Goldberg," she said, eyeing Jan.
"It says here you were with the UTF."
Jan swallowed, "Yes, ma'am."
"And you commandeered a corvette, escaping to Aethra?"
Jeffrey could hear the pride in the other man's voice even before Jan replied to the affirmative.
She grinned. "You'll fit right in here."
Shuffling the papers into a neatly folded packet, she slipped them into a ring on her belt.
"I'm Lieutenant Gibson. I'll be serving as your training coordinator," she said, looking from Jan to Jeffrey. "At ease, both of you. Are there any questions?"
Jeffrey relaxed while Jan took a seat. He glanced at the top two bunks.
"Where are our bunkmates?" he asked, resting one hand on his medical duffel.
Gibson looked at the crowded mess on the two lower beds. "You two only have each other as bunkmates. The extra room is for your equipment." Her solid gaze fell on Jan, hunched over awkwardly on a bag of equipment, the back of his neck pressed once again against the upper bunk. "You'll find the bunks are retractable. Cargo netting is available in the armory-it's what most others use to stash their gear."
Jan rose, searching for some lever or switch to create more space.
The lieutenant stiffened. "Boarding routine training is in forty minutes. We meet right outside the barracks."
With a short shuffle of footsteps, she was gone. Jeffrey pulled a latch on the top bunk, causing it to spring upwards, slamming flush against the wall. Jan, either dumbfounded or enlightened, did the same.
Jeffrey sighed. Forty minutes until training. Already, the woman was eating into their free time. He hoped her calm nature would carry over into the training exercise.
Meanwhile, Jan was trying to latch his ion cannon onto a hook in the ceiling. Jeffrey noticed the barrel was oriented directly at his face. He shifted slightly to his left.
"She referred to you as a gunsmith," he said.
Jan, realizing the cumbersome weapon would not cooperate, dropped the cannon back on the bed. "Yes, well, that's what they call us. Gunsmiths. Or, well, I guess some say 'Gunners'-that's the more official term anyway."
"It sounds a bit archaic to me."
"I suppose so. We do fix guns, though. If your weapon breaks, I could fix it for you," he said, gesturing towards Jeffrey's submachine gun.
"They taught us basic maintenance in training," said Jeffrey. "I'm sure I'll be just fine."
Jan furrowed his brow, studying some inner panel on his weapon. "I'm sure you're right. It's a fairly simple gun, unlike this piece--"
He pulled his arm back in pain after a small, buzzing sound. He let out a stream of curses while shaking a numbing sensation from his hand.
Jeffrey suddenly realized why they always put medics and gunsmiths in the same bunk.
* * *
"Hey, Jim, how are you today?" asked Jeffrey.
"Just fine, Russell," said the medical bay guard. He was a popular guy. Of course, any guy named "Jim" was popular-it was the derogatory name the UTF had invented for the rebels. "You're a little later than usual today."
Jeffrey groaned and handed his identification card over. "Lt. Gibson kept us a little longer than I would've liked. I might be checking myself in shortly if she keeps up this pace."
"I heard she's tough," said Jim, swiping the card and handing it back. "She's ex-UTF I believe. You know how the bastards are."
"Some of them aren't so bad," said Russell, smiling and walking into the medical bay.
The NGM had spared no expense in its medical facilities here on the Corona. With three medical bays, the ship could handle all kinds of assaults and emergency situations, as well as hosting a large number of wounded during more peaceful times. Medical Bay C, which Russell currently stood in, was the least busy. Typically the hangars and engineering sections saw the most injuries even between battles; bays A and B were set up to handle those. Bay C, tucked comfortably away into the ship, was reserved for patients well on their way to recovery. It was quiet and sparsely populated enough to be manned by a single medic at a time, given of course that the medic had the right qualifications. Jeffrey had those qualifications.
At times Jeffrey resented the quiet work in the solemn bay, but mostly because he felt his skills were not being utilized. He was one of the most qualified doctors on the ship, burdened with taking care of the minor medical situations of the ship, from in-grown toenails to motion sickness. Of course, there were very few soldiers on the ship who had just the title of soldier; many of them had much more mundane jobs. He could have been serving food in the cafeteria.
He walked down the row of beds, reading charts, drawing back curtains, chatting with sleepy patients and making sure everything was in order. The lighting dimmed slightly, a ship-wide phenomenon designed to mimic nighttime. After checking on his last patient, Russell decided he would do some work at the front desk.
As soon as he sat down, Jim buzzed in from outside the door. Russell depressed a switch, letting the guard know he was there.
"You've got a visitor," said the guard, the speaker crackling as he let his finger off the button.
"Send him in."
The door slid open. It was a her.
"Lt. Gibson," said Russell, standing up and attempting to straighten out his coat.
"At ease, private," she said. "I'm here to see the prisoner."
To Jeffrey, the prisoner was just another patient, although not as talkative; he had been in a coma for over two weeks.
"Certainly. Right this way," said Jeffrey. His desk work could wait.
The bed was like any other in the bay, although located on the far wall away from the others.
Lt. Gibson stopped at the end of the bed. "Not much security."
"There doesn't need to be," said Jeffrey. "He's not going anywhere for a while. When he does wake up, he'll be as weak as a kitten."
The comatose man had stern features and a face that seemed frozen in concentrated thought.
"So his condition hasn't changed?" she asked, looking sullenly at the man.
"He seems to be continually improving. I wasn't here when he arrived, but according to the sheets he was in pretty bad shape."
Jeffrey remembered Jim's comment about Lt. Gibson being ex-UTF. He wondered if she had known the man, but didn't dare to ask. He understood that the man had been somewhat famous on the other side of the war. William Gunther held no familiarity for him, however.
"No gunshots or anything of the sort, but some severe respiratory issues. He was stranded in a UTF fighter while his cockpit filled with a nasty concoction of gases. More or less, he was poisoned by the gases and slipped into a coma. We barely found him in time to save him," he said.
Lt. Gibson frowned. "Any permanent damage?"
"Not that we can tell. His lungs are in good shape, but the rest of his body is going to take some time to recover from the overall effects of the gas," he said. "He's scheduled to be transferred soon to a planetside POW hospital."
"I know," said Gibson, "That's why I came."
Jeffrey nodded. They obviously had some sort of history.
"Would you like some time alone?" he asked.
"No," she said. "I've heard enough. That's all I wanted to know."
She turned to leave.
"One moment, ma'am," said Jeffrey, "I need you to sign this visitor slip."
He flipped to the last page of the man's documents, an empty sheet of lines. Curtly, Lt. Gibson signed on the first line, nodded to him, and walked out of the bay.
Russell stood at the end of the man's bed, wondering just what chain of events had led him to this bed in a foreign ship. He walked over to check the man's vitals. Referencing the last recording, Russell was surprised to find them a bit higher than usual. He recorded the changes, smugly smiling. UTF or not, he was always happy to have a patient recovering well in his medical bay.
At the top of the page sat the usual notice of prisoner-of-war status. It reminded Jeffrey, or whoever else was staffing Bay C, to report any unusual changes in condition immediately. Russell would report it, of course, reminding his superiors of the great job he was doing.
On his way back to the desk, he stopped, remembering that Lt. Gibson had signed the last sheet. Curious, he flipped through the pages to find it.
"Mari," he said. "Mari Gibson. Not a bad first name at all."
A strong arm wrapped around his neck, pulling his head backwards into a solid blow.