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Earth Prime: The Earth Girl Aftermath Stories, #1

Earth Prime: The Earth Girl Aftermath Stories, #1

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Earth Prime: The Earth Girl Aftermath Stories, #1

ratings:
2/5 (1 rating)
Length:
599 pages
10 hours
Released:
Aug 26, 2020
ISBN:
9781393714569
Format:
Book

Description

Earth Prime is the first of two collections of aftermath stories set in the distant future of the Earth Girl trilogy (Earth Girl, Earth Star, and Earth Flight).

This collection is set immediately after Earth Flight, and focuses on Jarra, Fian, and the other archaeologists before they head to excavate the alien ruins on Fortuna.

 

Full Contents List:-

The End, and the New Beginning – Jarra Tell Morrath (Revised collected edition of the serial previously published on the author's website.)

I Will Be Right Here Waiting – Fian Eklund (Novelette)

Twenty Seconds in Ark – Dalmora Rostha (Short story)

Full Circle – Lecturer Dannel Playdon (Novelette)

Raw Material – Krath Karman (Short story)

Balance of Power – Amalie Roche (Novelette)

The Real Jerez Rivera – Jerez Rivera (Novelette)

Year End 2788 – Lecturer Dannel Playdon (A related short story set eleven months earlier.)

Released:
Aug 26, 2020
ISBN:
9781393714569
Format:
Book

About the author

Janet Edwards lives in England. As a child, she read everything she could get her hands on, including a huge amount of science fiction and fantasy. She studied Maths at Oxford, and went on to suffer years of writing unbearably complicated technical documents before deciding to write something that was fun for a change. She has a husband, a son, a lot of books, and an aversion to housework. Janet is the author of the EARTH GIRL trilogy - EARTH GIRL, EARTH STAR, and EARTH FLIGHT - as well as EARTH 2788: The Earth Girl Short Stories and EARTH AND FIRE: An Earth Girl Novella. EARTH GIRL was voted an American Library Association YALSA Teens' Top Ten title for 2014, and awarded starred reviews by both Kirkus and Booklist. You can find out more at Janet's website. www.janetedwards.com Make sure you don't miss the next book by signing up to get newsletter updates at http://janetedwards.com/newsletter/


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Earth Prime - Janet Edwards

Edwards

The End, and the New Beginning - Jarra Tell Morrath

––––––––

The End, and the New Beginning starts two days after the end of Earth Flight. Please note that there are some references to events from 2788 that are described in more detail in the prequel novellas Earth and Fire, Earth and Air, and the planned but as yet unpublished Earth and Water.

––––––––

Berlin Dig Site, Earth Europe, Alpha sector.

17 November 2789 Interstellar Standard Green Time.

Chapter One

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It was two days after I’d accepted the symbolic torch of Alpha sector from Aadi Quilla Amarion on behalf of the citizens of Earth. The ceremonies, firework displays, and celebrations to mark Earth officially joining Alpha sector were over, and the Asgard 6 Pre-history Foundation course was finally returning to the regular routine of dig site life. When Fian, Raven, and I went into the dome accommodation hall to eat breakfast, we found half of our classmates were already sitting around tables, eating, and chattering loudly.

Raven stopped in the doorway to follow his usual ritual of studying everyone present, and then using a scanner to check the hall for threats. Fian led the way on to the food dispensers, glanced at the available menu, and groaned.

Oh chaos! The food dispensers have run out of orange flavoured Fizzup.

I was abruptly overwhelmed by emotion, made a choking sound, and buried my face in my hands.

Is something wrong, Jarra? asked Fian anxiously.

I lifted my head again. No. Everything is perfect. All the dramatic events are over. We’re back to being ordinary archaeology students. We’re going to spend the day excavating ruins on Berlin Main Dig Site.

I gave a sigh of satisfaction. We’re living a normal life again, where the food dispensers running out of the most popular flavour of Fizzup is a major crisis. That’s not just amaz. It’s totally zan.

Fian gave me an indulgent look. There was never anything ordinary about you, Jarra. There’s nothing normal about our lives now either. A Foundation class wouldn’t normally be allowed near a high hazard dig site like Berlin, and we’ve still got a Military Security bodyguard trailing around after us.

I didn’t want to think about the fact we needed to hide on an inaccessible dig site, and have Military Security protection, because there were still people trying to kill us. I stared down at my hands, saw the flickering lights under my skin, and hastily looked up again. I absolutely didn’t want to think about my life depending on the implanted artificial web I’d been given to override my faulty immune system.

And on Year Day 2790, Fian continued, we’ll be joining one of the first-ever xenoarchaeological research teams, and going to Fortuna in Zeta sector to help excavate the ruins of an alien civilization. Nobody could possibly describe that as a normal life.

Alien civilizations were also on the list of things I didn’t want to think about, so I gave an urgent shake of my head. I want to forget all about the future for a while. After everything we’ve been through this year, facing one crisis after another, I desperately need a break where life is quiet and uneventful. I know that I’ve got a lot of goodbyes to say, arrangements to make, and an important obligation to fulfil before I leave Earth, but I’ll start thinking about those things later. I can’t cope with them right now.

Fian’s face twisted in pain. I can understand you feeling this year was just one crisis after another, and wanting life to be uneventful. I’ve got a completely different view of things though. After the first attempt to get your implanted web working failed, I had to endure three agonizingly uneventful months while you were unconscious in a full body regrowth tank.

His voice was harsh now. Three months of waiting in suspense to discover if you’d live or die, and picturing two contrasting futures. The joyful one where you lived, and you dragged me into more dramatic events. The bleak and lonely one where you died.

I reached out to take his hand. I’m fine, Fian. We’re both fine. You can forget all about those months of waiting. You can forget about dramatic events too. Things are going to be different from now on. The two of us are going to be xenoarchaeologists, and once we’ve made the adjustment to working on alien ruins rather than the ruins of Earth’s cities, we’ll be living peaceful lives.

Things will never be different when I’m with you. We’re never going to live peaceful lives. You’re always going to get drawn into the heart of every dramatic event in human history, and quite probably be the catalyst that triggered them.

I frowned. What’s a catalyst?

It’s a scientific term for a substance that speeds up the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed by it.

I’ve still no idea what you’re talking about. I wrinkled my nose. You should know by now that there’s no point in going all scientific at me. The mere mention of the science word makes me think about the bullying science teacher I had at school, and my brain shuts down in protest.

Fian sighed. Forget about the catalyst thing. I’m just saying that I know there’ll never be any peace when you’re around. You’ll always be charging from one crisis to the next.

I felt a sick feeling in my stomach. Are you saying that you don’t want to be with me any longer?

No! Fian gave a violent shake of his head, which sent his long blond hair flying around his shoulders. I’m saying the opposite. I’m saying that I spent three months picturing my possible futures, and I made a decision. Wherever you go, whatever disaster you get caught up in next, I’ll be sprinting in your wake.

He smiled. I’ve learned that being with you, even if we’re being chased by someone brandishing a laser cutter, is infinitely better than being without you. When you were in that tank, I swore that if you came out of it alive, then I’d never complain about anything again. I had a long conversation with General Torrek about it.

I blinked. You did?

Yes. He said that he knew exactly how I felt, because he’d been in the same situation himself. Your grandmother had dragged him on a wild ride through every trouble spot in humanity’s space for four decades. He told me he’d vowed a dozen times that if they survived the current situation, then he’d never complain about anything again. Of course, he always did complain, and constantly wondered how he’d ever become part of a life like that, while knowing he wouldn’t change it for all the wealth of Adonis. I’m going to be just the same.

Fian hesitated for a second. General Torrek also said that he regretted not telling you more about his relationship with your grandmother. He thought you weren’t ready to have the conversation before your three months in the regrowth tank, and didn’t want to use his position to pressure you into anything, but I think he’d deeply appreciate you raising the subject with him now.

General Torrek was right. I hadn’t been ready to have that conversation before my months in the tank. After I was decanted, Fian and I had gone to the Fortuna star system to shut down the alien defence shield blocking access to their world, and then spent a couple of days at my clan hall on Zeus. I’d seen the record of my grandmother’s marriage on the Tell clan family tree, which hadn’t made things better but indescribably worse. There’d been a cruelly jubilant moment when I saw Riak Torrek’s name next to hers, before I realized there was a third name on the same line and instinctively closed my eyes in denial.

I was chaos bad at discussing my emotions with anyone else. I often couldn’t make sense of them myself, but this time I understood my feelings perfectly. I’d been raised in the impersonal residences of Hospital Earth, both hating the birth family that had abandoned me because of the faulty immune system that meant I could only survive on Earth, and longing to know them. That mixture of hate and longing had made me delay contacting my birth parents until early this year, and I’d only had the briefest of contacts with them before they were killed in action.

Now I desperately wanted General Torrek to be my long-lost birth grandfather, but he wasn’t. The fact that my wish had come tantalizingly close to being true made the situation even more difficult for me. If I’d never seen an image of my father’s face or learned his surname, I could have carried on hoping and dreaming that General Torrek was my birth grandfather.

I had to accept the truth though. My birth grandfather was the other partner in that triad marriage, a man that I’d never have the chance to know because the colour of his name on the family tree showed he was dead. I guessed that he’d died in the same incident as my grandmother, but I’d closed my eyes so fast that I didn’t see his date of death, or anything beyond the fact that his first name was Bard. One day, I might be able to cope with finding out more about him, but for now I was just struggling with how his existence affected my relationship to General Torrek.

I was a member of my birth clan now, which gave me Betan citizenship. According to the culture and laws of Beta sector, General Torrek was my grandfather and the genetic details of our relationship shouldn’t matter to me, but they did. They mattered in a way that only others raised as wards of Hospital Earth could truly understand.

We all grew up with a host of substitute relatives. We were assigned a ProMum and ProDad at birth to be substitute parents for two hours a week. Groups of us were kept together all through Nursery, Home, and Next Step, so we could become substitute brothers and sisters. Sometimes an especially dedicated staff member or teacher became a substitute family member as well. We knew that substitutes weren’t the same as the real thing though, and had a hunger for true genetic family members.

I still hadn’t met my sister, Gemelle, in person, and my relationship with my brother, Jaxon, was complicated by his guilt over the part he’d played in me being left to be raised by Hospital Earth. I’d built up a good relationship with my cousin, Drago, but he wasn’t old enough to fill the gap left by the death of my birth parents. I’d wanted General Torrek to do that, but he couldn’t. General Torrek would always be an important influence in my life, but he was still just another substitute for the real thing.

I didn’t want to discuss this with either Fian or General Torrek. There was no point having a conversation that would be both impossibly painful and utterly pointless. I was bound to make a mess of the explanation, and they’d try to persuade me to feel differently when I couldn’t. What was right, what was fair, what was the Betan custom, and even how others with my background felt about these things didn’t matter. My ProMum, Candace, had been as good a substitute parent as possible, but she still hadn’t been able to satisfy the burning need ingrained deep within me, so I knew no substitute grandfather could do it either.

I tried to keep my emotions out of my voice as I spoke. General Torrek is the commanding officer of the Alien Contact programme. He must be incredibly busy organizing the expedition to Fortuna in Zeta sector, and I can’t possibly demand he wastes his time chatting to me about my grandmother.

Fian’s face took on a familiar stubborn expression. I don’t think General Torrek would feel that talking to you was a waste of time. You should at least consider ...

There was a pointed cough, and the quiet female voice of Kai interrupted Fian. Do you realize there’s a queue of people waiting to get to the food dispensers?

The distinctively cynical tones of Hinata joined in. Yes. You two should either get your meals now, or go somewhere else to finish this discussion about your love life. The rest of us would like to get our breakfasts before we starve to death, and I’m dreading the inevitable moment when Jarra starts giggling.

Fian and I exchanged appalled glances, and turned to face a line of six people. Sorry, we chorused in unison.

You shouldn’t have interrupted them, Kai, complained Steen. I was enjoying listening.

I groaned, and hastily turned back to the food dispenser to order some strawberry flavoured Fizzup, and a plate of Karanth jelly and toasted wafers. The second they appeared, I grabbed them and moved aside to wait for Fian. A moment later, he had his meal too, and came to join me.

I hope Steen doesn’t sell details of our conversation to the newzies, I muttered. I’ll never forget that ghastly interview he did for Gamma Sector News.

Fian shook his head. Steen knows that if he breaches security by talking to the newzies again, then he’ll be blocked from going to Fortuna, and probably sent to prison too.

I’d forgotten that Steen had signed up for the research team that Lecturer Playdon was taking to Fortuna. Given the way Steen had behaved to me in the past, and the interview he’d done, I wasn’t entirely happy about the idea of working with him in future. There wasn’t much point in worrying about that now though.

At the moment, only a tiny number of people knew that the alien race hadn’t been wiped out in an accident or natural disaster, but had deliberately unleashed an extinction event on their world. The General Marshal was due to announce that information, and the reason the alien race had killed themselves, to the whole of humanity on Year Day.

I guessed that the people who’d volunteered to join the Zeta Expedition would be told that information in advance. Once Steen found out the reason the alien race had wiped out themselves and every other living creature on their world, I thought he’d change his mind about going. A lot of other people would change their minds about going too.

Fian, Raven, and I had known what we’d be getting into for long enough that we weren’t going to drop out of the Zeta Expedition. I had the uneasy thought that I couldn’t be sure how the rest of our class dig team 1, or even Lecturer Playdon, would react when they learned the truth though. If one or all of them decided not to go to Fortuna ...

No! I’d promised myself that I’d enjoy the next few weeks of normal life without even thinking about the future, and I was going to do exactly that. Fian was already heading across the room to where Dalmora, Amalie, and Krath were sitting at our regular table, so I chased after him.

When we sat down, I frowned at the sight of three cups lined up in front of Krath. One of the cups was already empty, while the other two held a dark-brown drink that was popular in Gamma sector. Krath gulped the second cupful down at high speed before sitting back in his chair and giving a sigh of satisfaction.

I needed that.

Amalie gave him a disapproving look. You seem to be drinking more of that bitter, muddy stuff every day. It’s served too hot for you to gulp it down that way, and I don’t think it’s good for you anyway.

Krath took a sip from his third cup. I’ve been drinking coffee ever since my Dad stopped dragging me from star system to star system, and we settled down on Asgard. Coffee is one of the main Earth crops grown there, it’s best drunk very hot, and it’s definitely good for me.

Amalie made a dubious noise. I don’t see how drinking hot mud can be good for anyone, and I’m worried that coffee may be addictive as well.

Coffee isn’t addictive, said Krath indignantly. Our course is run under the stuffy Gamma sector moral code. That would never allow addictive substances in the food dispensers, would it?

The Gamma sector moral code only covers behaviour, not food and drink, said Dalmora.

Raven had finally finished making his security checks, and got his own breakfast from the food dispensers. He came to sit at the table with us, and Krath turned to face him.

Coffee isn’t addictive, is it?

Raven gave him a wary look. It depends what you mean by addictive. Coffee isn’t on the list of addictive substances forbidden under interstellar law.

Coffee is illegal on several of the Deltan worlds though, said Fian.

Krath gave a contemptuous sniff. It would be. Everything fun is illegal in Delta sector. A couple can’t even hold hands in public without getting arrested. I’m surprised that you’re even allowed to breathe.

It’s not true that everything fun is illegal in Delta sector, said Fian. Anyone that’s over eighteen can buy alcohol or smoke Hercules bullrushes.

What happens if you smoke Hercules bullrushes? asked Krath nosily.

You’re ecstatic for about three minutes, then the world spins round and round, and you’re disgustingly sick. Fian shrugged. At least, that’s what happened when I was fourteen and tried smoking one.

I frowned at him. I thought you said that you had to be eighteen to smoke Hercules bullrushes.

Fian grinned. I keep telling you that I’m a very badly-behaved Deltan.

Amalie returned to the subject of coffee. You should try drinking something else, Krath.

Tea is a popular drink on many planets of Alpha sector, said Dalmora. Especially my home world of Danae.

My dad says tea tastes dreadful, and drinking it damages your brain cells, said Krath.

Your dad also says there aren’t any children on Miranda, said Amalie acidly. When we visited him on Asgard, I told him that I and my ten brothers and sisters were all born on Miranda, and he accused me of lying to help a Military coverup.

I couldn’t help laughing.

I admit my dad is a nardle about most things, said Krath, but he’s right about tea tasting dreadful. At least, the tea from our food dispensers tastes dreadful.

It’s true that the taste of tea suffers badly from the reconstitution process, said Dalmora sadly.

Coffee tastes fine though. Krath took another defiant sip of coffee.

We concentrated on eating breakfast for the next few minutes. I’d just popped my last morsel of Karanth jelly on toasted wafer into my mouth, when I noticed Lecturer Playdon was walking up to our table.

There are a couple of arrangements I need to mention to you, he said. Firstly, Amalie was tag leader for dig team 1 while Jarra and Fian were away. Krath was acting as her tag support, and Akram and Sudi were substitute heavy lift operators. We’ll now be going back to the old arrangements for dig team 1.

I hurriedly swallowed my food. Are you happy with going back to working on a heavy lift sled, Amalie? I asked anxiously.

Going back to working on a heavy lift sled will be blizz, said Amalie. Pure blizz. I found it hideously stressful being a tag leader.

Secondly, there’s the issue of the class farewell party, said Playdon. There’s a dig site tradition that dig team 1 organizes the farewell party. Please remember to check your plans with me at least a week in advance.

As he walked away, Dalmora gave me a horrified look. Dig team 1 is supposed to organize the class farewell party! Did you know that, Jarra?

I nodded.

So why didn’t you tell the rest of us about it? demanded Dalmora.

You can’t blame Jarra for not telling us about party traditions when she was unconscious in a tank, said Fian.

Yes, but you two came back to the class days ago, said Dalmora, in something startlingly close to a wail. Jarra could have told us about the party then. We have social responsibilities to fulfil, and dangerously little time to do it!

I was bewildered by Dalmora’s behaviour. She’d never acted like this before, so ... No, I was wrong about that. I remembered how upset she’d been when interstellar portal network delays meant she’d been a few minutes late returning to the course after a visit home. Everything suddenly made far more sense to me.

On Danae, it’s shockingly bad manners to be late, I said. Would it be just as shocking to fail to carry out a social responsibility like organizing this party?

It wouldn’t be just as shocking, said Dalmora. It would be far worse. Failing to organize this party properly would show appalling disrespect to our classmates, Lecturer Playdon, and Earth’s social conventions, and I don’t even know what we’re expected to do.

I made soothing gestures. There’s absolutely no need to worry, Dalmora. Farewell parties are simple things that only last an hour or two. All that’s expected is for dig team 1 to donate a few snacks of real food, and arrange for a gift to be presented to Lecturer Playdon.

A gift, repeated Dalmora. What sort of gift?

A souvenir to remind him of his time teaching our class, I said. Something like a framed image of everyone.

Playdon doesn’t need a souvenir to remind him of teaching our class, said Krath. He’s hardly going to forget things like excavating the alien device in Earth Africa, or having a bomb explode in our dome on the California Land Raft. He’s taking ten of our class to excavate Fortuna next year as well. Eleven of us if you count Raven as a class member rather than just Military Security.

I think I’m at least an honorary class member, said Raven. Lecturer Playdon keeps sending me predicted grades and nagging me about work I should cover before the end of the course.

I laughed, but Dalmora was still looking worried. We need to think of a better souvenir than a framed image.

We’ve got over five weeks before the farewell party, I said. That’s plenty of time to think of the ideal gift for ... Why are you all staring at me?

We haven’t got five weeks before the farewell party, said Fian, his voice rising in panic. We’ve only got three weeks. I’d better call your medical support number, Jarra, and tell them you’re developing memory issues.

I’m not developing memory issues, I said, starting to panic myself. I can’t be. I remember everything perfectly. It’s November 17 today, isn’t it?

Yes, said Fian.

I relaxed again. Then I’m right about us having over five weeks before the farewell party. All university courses end a week before Year Day.

No, they don’t, said Amalie. Our course will end on December 11, three weeks before Year Day.

I blinked. It will? I assumed off-world courses would end at the same time as University Earth courses. I suppose it makes sense for off-world students to get a longer Year End holiday to let them make the complex interstellar and cross-sector portal trips to visit their families. University Earth students virtually all have the immune system problem that I have ... that I used to have before I got my implanted web ... so can’t go portalling off to other worlds.

Fian made an odd sobbing sound of relief. So you haven’t got memory problems, Jarra. You just forgot to check the end date of our course when you joined it.

I thought back to the girl I’d been when I joined this course. Someone that seemed much younger, and had been filled with righteous anger. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten to check the Asgard 6 course end date. It was that it hadn’t seemed relevant. I was furious with the norms who considered people with my immune system problem to be subhuman because we couldn’t survive anywhere other than Earth. I’d hated the way they called us cruel names, and made jokes about us being ugly, stupid, and smelly, so I’d decided to join an off-world class to take revenge.

I’d intended to fool the Asgard 6 class into believing I was normal born like them, and stun them with my expertise on a dig site for a few weeks. Once I’d proved I wasn’t just as good as them, but vastly better, then I’d scream abuse at them before leaving.

I didn’t regret my plan to take revenge – I couldn’t regret the decision that had led to me meeting Fian – but it was rather embarrassing to think about it now. Yes, I forgot to check the dates, I said.

So, we only have three weeks before the farewell party, said Dalmora. Arranging food and drink will be easy, so the most pressing problem is deciding on the souvenir for Lecturer Playdon. In fact, after all this class has been through together, we should give a souvenir to every class member as well, and it can’t be a simple framed image. It has to be something that evokes special memories of our time on Earth. Does anyone have any ideas?

There was a long silence before Krath spoke. You’ll probably call me a nardle for suggesting this, but there was all that fuss about Jarra joining her clan and getting betrothed to Fian. The Betan clan banners at the ceremony were totally amaz, so could we give everyone some sort of Asgard 6 class banner?

We all stared at him. That’s actually a good idea, Krath, said Amalie. I’m impressed.

Krath flushed with pleasure.

Jarra, do you know how we’d get these banners made? asked Dalmora.

No, but my cousin Drago told me about a Military alliance information and support number that I could call if I needed help with anything. I’m sure they’ll know all about ordering banners.

As part of my attempt to forget all the complications in my life, I was wearing civilian clothes rather than my Military uniform, and had my Military lookup in my pocket. I took it out now and tapped at it. An image of the Betan Military alliance banner promptly appeared on the screen, and an obviously pre-recorded voice started speaking.

This is the Military alliance information and support service in Alpha sector. In case of life-threatening emergency, please press 9 now. Otherwise, please wait for assistance.

I put my lookup on the table in front of me, and projected the image of the banner in midair, so it hovered just above Krath’s empty coffee cups. A few seconds later, the banner was replaced by the head and shoulders of a young man in a formal Betan toga.

Please state your clan, your name, and ... At this point, the man recognized me, broke off his standard speech, and gasped. Commander Jarra Tell Morrath. How can we assist you?

My cousin, Commander Drago Tell Dramis, told me to call this number if ...

The young man shook his head urgently. Please don’t tell me that Drago’s been buying ice cream again.

I frowned in bewilderment. No. Drago just told me to call this number if I needed help with anything. Could you tell me how to get some souvenir banners made for my class?

The young man smiled. I’ll send you details of the regular banner supply service for our alliance, Commander. You just need to send them your banner image and details of the number and sizes required.

I saw Dalmora was mouthing words at me, took a second to work out what she was saying, and then repeated it. How long will it take for them to make and deliver the banners to Earth?

Your banners should arrive within four days of you placing the order, Commander. Can I assist you with anything else?

That’s all for now. Thank you for your help. I ended the call, and turned to Dalmora. It will only take four days to get the banners, so you see there’s nothing to worry about.

Dalmora didn’t seem convinced. We’ve only got three weeks before our course ends, and that isn’t much time.

Her words hit me ridiculously hard. I’d thought we had five weeks of our course left. Five weeks where Fian and I would be living normal lives as archaeology students. I’d been wrong. We only had three weeks left, and Dalmora was perfectly right. That wasn’t much time.

We’ll have to meet up this evening to make decisions on the banners and the other party arrangements, continued Dalmora. We have to have everything prepared well in advance in case of last-minute problems.

We can meet up this evening, said Fian, but there’s really no need for you to worry about anything going wrong, Dalmora.

That’s right, I said. This is just going to be a simple farewell party, so nothing can possibly go wrong.

Chapter Two

––––––––

Berlin Dig Site, Earth Europe, Alpha sector.

20 November 2789 Interstellar Standard Green Time.

––––––––

It was my fourth morning working on Berlin Main Dig Site. To be more accurate, it was my fourth morning watching other people work on Berlin Main Dig Site, and I was close to exploding from frustration.

At the beginning of this year, Lecturer Playdon had organized the Asgard 6 class into five teams. Four of them were proper dig teams. The fifth contained all the students who were planning to specialize in theoretical history, and wanted to do as little excavation work as possible.

The standard arrangement was that the class ran two parallel excavations. Dig team 1 would work on the more hazardous one, and have team 4 taking over for a while when we needed rest breaks. Dig teams 2 and 3 would work on the other.

Today, dig teams 1 and 4 were excavating a burnt-out and partially-collapsed building. Everything about our excavation site reminded me of the start of our course, when our class had been working on New York Main. Sometime around the end of Exodus century, the abandoned city of New York had been hit by a devastating fire that had burned for two months, so its ruins were all as fire-blackened as this one. The state of the building was virtually identical to a dozen that I’d excavated in New York as well. The three walls that were still standing were half-covered in ivy, and surrounded by rubble from the fallen fourth wall, interior floors, and roof.

This was an excavation that offered me exactly what I wanted. The chance to blot out all the dramatic events of this year, and indulge myself in the fantasy that it was January again, and I was an ordinary student working on New York Main. I desperately wanted to spend the whole morning losing myself in my dream world while I excavated that building, but Playdon had refused to let me do any work at all for the previous three days, and had only allowed me to spend a miserly half-an-hour working today.

My job as tag leader was to enter the danger zone, decide how best to clear the rubble, then start tagging rocks for removal and giving instructions to the people working on the heavy lift sleds. I’d begun the morning by setting up a sensor net around our ruined building, which had shown what looked like a stasis box buried under the rubble next to the tallest of the remaining walls. After that, I’d barely had time to fire electronic tags at a dozen rocks, and get Amalie and Krath to use their heavy lift sleds to move them into a neat heap over near sensor spike 3, before Playdon ordered dig team 4 to take over.

Dig team 1 had retreated to join Raven on a transport sled. Now Dalmora, Fian, and I were sitting on one bench seat, with Raven, Krath, and Amalie sitting facing us on another. It was a sunny day, but the winter wind had an icy edge to it, so we hadn’t pulled our suit hoods all the way down. We’d just unsealed the front of them enough to let us enjoy the fresh air as we watched team 4 work.

The excavation is going well, said Dalmora. I think team 4 should have time to reach the stasis box before we stop work at the end of the morning.

In my opinion, team 4 had plenty of time to reach the stasis box this morning, but they wouldn’t manage it because something was going to go wrong that would delay their work. Steen was the tag leader of dig team 4, and I’d learned all his strengths and weaknesses from working with him in the past. He had the endurance needed for gruelling hours working in a heavy, restrictive impact suit. He had the courage to keep working as a tag leader after getting buried by a collapsing wall. His weakness was managing his excavation site.

There’d been several times when I’d temporarily handed over an excavation site to Steen so my team could take a break, and he’d annoyed me by not following my lead on where to pile rubble, shifting rocks to somewhere either inconvenient or potentially dangerous. On one particularly annoying occasion, he’d reburied the stasis box that I’d just excavated.

This time, Steen was making the opposite mistake of following my lead too closely. When I’d handed over the excavation site to him, he’d told his heavy lift operators to carry on adding rubble to the heap I’d started. He’d let them carry on doing that for well over an hour now, so the mound of rocks had grown far too high and was likely to slip sideways at any moment.

I wanted to set my suit comms to speak on our team circuit, and tell Steen to start a second rubble heap. Dig site conventions forbade me from giving him instructions though. Steen hadn’t taken over the excavation work while I took a brief break, but for the whole rest of the morning. This was Steen’s excavation site now, and he was entitled to run it however he chose, without another tag leader giving him uninvited suggestions and criticism.

Dig site conventions forbade me from giving Steen instructions, but Lecturer Playdon was our team leader, in overall charge of our work. It was his job to warn Steen of threats, and I was puzzled by him letting this situation continue. I couldn’t believe Playdon hadn’t noticed that increasingly unstable heap of rubble. I could understand him being reluctant to embarrass Steen by pointing out his mistake on the team circuit, but he could easily open a private channel to talk to him.

If there’d been any chance of a person being injured, then I’d have felt justified in ignoring dig site conventions and intervening. The only danger was to sensor spike 3 though, so I just had to sit and wait for the inevitable landslide. I vented my feelings in a long, despairing sigh, and the rest of dig team 1 laughed at me.

I know you’d like to be in Steen’s place right now, Jarra, said Fian, but Lecturer Playdon is right to limit your working time. You can’t spend three months floating in a tank and then go straight back to working full mornings on a dig site.

I glowered at him. You can be extremely irritating sometimes. I’ve no idea why I went to so much trouble to get betrothed to you.

Fian pulled a wounded face at me. I’m just repeating what Lecturer Playdon said.

That’s what I’m complaining about, I said bitterly. Repeating what Playdon said isn’t just annoying, but totally unnecessary as well. I accept he was right about me needing to build up my strength before working a full morning on a dig site, but I can’t help being frustrated by the situation. I hate lazing around and watching other people work, and I especially hate the fact I’m stopping all the rest of you from working as well.

Krath, Dalmora, and I have been doing excavation work for months while you and Fian were away, said Amalie. I found it chaos stressful being a tag leader, so it’s a huge relief to have a rest.

And I enjoy lazing around and watching other people work. Krath turned to give a critical look at the excavation site. Steen is letting that rubble heap get far too high. If he doesn’t start a second heap of rubble somewhere else, then he’ll have a landslide within the next fifteen minutes.

I was stunned. That’s exactly what I was thinking, Krath. How did you suddenly become so sensible?

Krath hasn’t suddenly become sensible, said Amalie. Remember that he was acting as my tag support while you were away. Playdon and I have been training him to watch out for developing hazards on the dig site, so you’re seeing the result of three months’ hard work on our part.

I wasn’t that bad a tag support to begin with, said Krath plaintively. Playdon said I was very fast using the lifeline beam to snatch you out of danger, and I just needed to learn to anticipate problems better to be an excellent tag support.

I wasn’t just stunned but utterly grazzed to hear that. Did Playdon really say that?

Playdon did say that, and he was perfectly right about it, said Amalie, with the air of a judge giving her verdict. Krath may say some nardle things, but he’s always been good at anything practical. It wasn’t his fault that he arrived on this course without any social skills either. His father moved world so often that Krath barely went to school at all except for a few months when he was sixteen.

Raven shook his head. Given all the obstacles in his way, I’m amazed Krath got good enough grades to get a place on a University Asgard course.

I only managed it because my Aunt Galina helped me, said Krath. She came to visit my dad one day, and gave him a frosty lecture about how he’d taken me out of school to use me as unpaid labour. Then she took me to live with her. She’s a history teacher, and made me study for what felt like every waking hour so I could get a place on this course.

That was nice of her, said Raven.

I’m not sure Aunt Galina did it to be nice, said Krath doubtfully. She kept saying it was her duty to salvage me and turn me into a proper human being.

Those words reminded me of the off-world vids I’d watched as a child, and the things the norms had said about people like me being less than human. Your Aunt Galina sounds horrible.

She had her good moments, said Krath. When I got a top grade in history, she said I might be more intelligent than the average rabbit after all.

Krath seemed genuinely proud that his aunt had compared him favourably to a rabbit. None of us could work out anything to say in reply, so Dalmora took the safe option of changing the subject entirely.

Can we have a quick meeting about the class party plans now? We need to decide on the banner design.

Fian and I exchanged resigned glances. I felt it should only take one or two meetings to organize a simple farewell party, and we’d already had three, but we couldn’t claim that we were busy with something else when we were just sitting here.

Go ahead, said Fian.

Dalmora took out her lookup and tapped at it. "As we agreed, I asked the graphics designer for my father’s vid series, History of Humanity, to create some possible banner designs. I’ll send them to your lookups now."

I checked my lookup, and saw Dalmora’s message had been added to a queue of messages from Military Command Support. They’d been sending me a message every day for the last three days, and they all said exactly the same thing. General Torrek would like to call me for a chat about my health and other personal issues. I should contact them to book a slot in his schedule that was convenient for my time zone and course work.

I hadn’t responded to those messages yet because of the ominous mention of other personal issues. I suspected that meant General Torrek wanted to discuss my grandmother with me. I obviously couldn’t keep ignoring messages from a General forever, but ...

I brushed that problem aside to deal with later, and examined the banner designs. The first one showed the massed faces of our class members, Raven, and Lecturer Playdon arranged around a central picture of a crashing spaceship. As I skimmed on through more banner designs, the arrangement of faces remained unchanged, the details of hairstyles showing most of the images had been taken during the meet and greet at the beginning of the course, while the ones of Raven and Playdon were more recent. The central picture kept varying though, showing things like the alien sphere, an explosion, and the planet Fortuna.

The centre of the last design was a candle burning next to a picture of our dead classmate, Joth. He was holding a glass of Fizzup, and laughing as if he’d just heard a joke. I grimaced, lifted my head, and found Dalmora was looking expectantly at us.

Which event picture do you prefer? she asked.

The crashing spaceship is the most spectacular, said Krath.

The arrival of the alien sphere was a more important moment in history, said Amalie.

That doesn’t make it the most important moment for our class though, I said. I vote for Joth.

Jarra’s right, said Fian. The centre of the banner should show something important for the whole class, not an event that only involved a few of us.

Everyone was in the dome when the bomb went off, said Dalmora, so we could have the explosion. Whether the whole class was present for the other events or not though, their lives were still deeply affected by them.

You could show all the events, said Raven. If Lecturer Playdon and the class were in the middle, there’d be space around the edge of the banner for smaller versions of all the event pictures.

That’s a good suggestion, said Amalie.

The rest of us nodded.

I’ll message the graphics designer and ask her to do that, said Dalmora.

Before you send that message, I’d like to suggest another change, said Fian. Petra’s face has been included among the class members. After the way she treated Jarra, I think we should ask the graphics designer to get rid of her.

Jarra said she wanted Petra to be on the banner, said Dalmora.

Fian glowered at me. Why would you want that spiteful creature included on our banner? She tried to bully you into leaving the class.

I sighed. When Petra found out about my immune system problem, she was a bit unfriendly to me, but once she explained her family situation ... Well, I understand why Petra behaved the way she did, she was a member of our class for months, and I don’t want her excluded from the banner because she called me a few rude names.

Petra did far more than call you a few rude names, said Fian bitterly. She kept trying to split us up because she wanted to get her claws into me. I’ll never forget how Petra contacted my parents to tell them poisonous stories about you, or the way she called you an animal when she left our class.

My mind automatically conjured up the memory of that moment, and the defiance in Petra’s face and voice as she spoke. I don’t believe in cruelty to animals, I just don’t think humans should marry them!

Fian turned back to Dalmora. Jarra may be willing to have Petra on our banner, but I strongly object.

Dalmora glanced warily at me before replying. After all we’ve been through together, I don’t think we should argue over something so unimportant as whether Petra is on the banner or not.

I don’t think this is unimportant, said Fian.

Fian’s right, said Krath fiercely. I don’t want Petra on our banner either. It wasn’t just how she treated Jarra, or the way she walked out on us when things got dangerous. It was Petra’s fault that Joth died.

But that’s precisely why I want Petra to be on our banner, said Amalie. She should be there to make sure we never forget how destructive she was, or the part she played in causing Joth’s death.

Dalmora gave a despairing look at Raven. What do you think?

What do I think? repeated Raven nervously. I can’t comment on whether Petra should be on the banner or not. Military Security had flagged her as a potential threat to Jarra and Fian before I even arrived in the class. That meant I was always aware of her as a danger rather than a person. In fact, I’m still aware of Petra as a danger right now. Military Security is keeping her under surveillance, and Colonel Leveque is sending me regular updates about her.

I stared at Raven. Military Security is keeping Petra under surveillance? But it’s been ...

I hesitated, trying to work out exactly how long it had been since Petra left, but my sense of time was still hopelessly confused by the three months I’d spent in a tank. It’s been months since Petra left the class.

Petra didn’t stop being a danger to you and Fian when she left the class, said Raven grimly. It’s only ten days since the Isolationist Party sent an old survey spaceship packed with missiles to try to stop you and Fian from reaching the Fortuna star system and shutting down the alien planetary defence shield.

He shrugged. The Isolationist Party lost a lot of supporters because of that attempt on your lives, but its core members are still willing to take extreme measures to stop humanity exploring the alien home world. Reliable sources have informed Colonel Leveque that you and Fian are still at the top of the Isolationist Party kill list.

I groaned. We’d somehow gone from discussing arrangements for the class party to a stark reminder that the Isolationist Party wanted to kill Fian and me.

Fian threw an anxious glance at me before facing Raven again. Are you saying that Petra has got involved with the Isolationist Party and may try to attack us? Petra’s good at using spiteful words, but I’m finding it hard to imagine her as an assassin.

"If Petra attempts to portal to any star system in Alpha sector, she’ll be arrested and

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