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  1. Capt. Muhammad Sarr blinked groggily, trying to bring the blur in front of his face into focus. He knew that the blue and white smear was Hector but convincing his eyes to work was a struggle. Fortunately, his first attempt at speaking went better than his first attempt at seeing. “What is it, Hector?” “We have arrived, Captain.” Hector’s pleasant voice confirmed his suspicions despite his eyes unwillingness to discern for themselves. “We are on the primary approach to Tara’s orbit.” “Good.” Sarr rubbed his eyes and sat up, pleased that his abdominals and fingers were working better than his opticals. You always have the most trouble with your eyesight, he reminded himself as he held out his hands. A warm mug of coffee was placed in it, Hector’s cool, smooth fingers curling over his own until the personal robot was sure he had a secure grip. “What is the status of the Melbourne?” “The ship is in good repair. I have a list of minor services that should be made to the parts that will be used once we make planetfall.” Hector helped him out of the white cryotube, stabilizing him when he slipped on the water that had melted off the outside of the module. “Additionally, Commanders Yuan and Bellamy are waking well. I am uncertain as to Mr. Ferro’s status as his personal assistant is tending to him.” The coffee was an assault on his tongue, a symphony of heat and taste on an empty stomach. “And the third Jeeves?” “Lex is assisting Cmds Yuan and Bellamy.” His eyes were finally working and Sarr took a good look at the room he had slept in for most of the last decade. The long area held a triple row of cryobeds which stretched to the back of the room. He was in one of the men’s areas; the only woman in sight wasn’t really a woman. Sakura bent over another tube, her rosebud lips turned up in a smile as she helped Ferro sit. The engineer wasn’t entirely upright yet as he hunched forward over his knees. Sarr glanced at Hector against, taking another sip before asking, “What of our guest?” Hector’s facial matrix allowed for minimal expression but Sarr caught a definite sense of disapproval. The robot didn’t have emotions so he was merely mirroring Sarr’s own irritation. “Sleeping well, sir.” “Keep her that way.” Sarr turned and headed to change out of the shorts and t-shirt he’d slept in. He had work to do. * * * Leonardo Ferro took a cautious sip of his hot tea, pleased when it stayed down. Waking from cryosleep always left him a little nauseous. Next to him, Sakura waited patiently with fresh clothing. “Oh, I love traveling but I hate cryosleep so much.” “The hangover is better than Temporal Distortion Jumping Sickness.” Sakura spoke with a wry smile, her programming aware that he preferred a flippant remark over somber ones. Leo tsked softly. “Too true.” He smiled fondly at her as he tugged at his boxers. “Let’s get me presentable. I wouldn’t want to scandalize people by showing up in my underwear.” “It’s too bad. You do your best work when inappropriately dressed.” Despite her playful tone, his personal robot shook out his clothing, preparing it for him to wear. Leo chuckled as he traded his damp boxers for clean, unabashed about being naked in front of Sakura. “Do we have a list of repairs to do?” “Hector has provided one and I uploaded it to your PD.” The robot smiled demurely. “I look forward to working with you again, Leo. Astrophysics is dull stuff.” “Don’t let Bellamy hear you say that.” Leonardo chuckled as he stepped into his pants and reached for the slim device she held toward him. He turned it on and opened the list from Hector, scanning it quickly. Despite the distraction, he told her, “You’ll get a lecture. I’ll switch out your programming as soon as we’re planetside, okay?” The robot made a face, her faux-skin allowing for a wide range of expression. “I’m sure she’ll want your help taking readings as we descend. After all,” he laughed, affecting an accent like the UE woman, “we’ll never get a chance like this again.” His personal bot rolled her agate-brown eyes. “The other ships could take readings as well as I could. And I notice Hector and Lex didn’t have to help her.” “Lex is an older model and Bellamy didn’t want it working on her equipment. Hector’s duties to the Melbourne took priority.” Leo looked up at Sakura’s soft sound of irritation. “Saku-chan, it’s the agreement we made so you can be here.” “I’m aware. I don’t have to like it.” Sakura pouted cutely. She was silent until he pulled on his shirt. “You haven’t asked about the girl.” “I assumed she was still safely in cryo and you’d tell me otherwise.” Someone might have thought that she was chastising him but Leo had programmed her; he knew she was acting in her role as an assistant, reminding him of important events. He peered at her inquisitively. “Is this you telling me otherwise?” “No, Leo.” The fake woman smiled as she reached out and finger combed his damp hair away from his face. “There. Presentable.” “Thank god you didn’t say professional.” Leo squeezed her arm before leaving. Sakura followed, breaking away at the hallway to the astrophysics sensor array. The personal assistant made a final face as Leo waved to her and continued to the bridge. * * * Darya Bellamy checked on Valentina one more time, studying her daughter’s sleeping face. One of her biggest worries about coming here had been the children. Oskar and she had talked about it for hours before deciding to bring it up to the kids. Their reactions had been mixed but she was so proud that in the end, all three of them had seen this move as an adventure and a chance to be part of scientific discovery. With a final smile, she glanced over at Yuan and the other Jeeves. The other woman was having a harder time adjusting to the transition to wakefulness and Bellamy left to give her privacy. Moving through the halls, she went to the men’s bay, pushing open the doors despite the rules on gender segregation. “Commander Bellamy.” Hector straightened from the monitoring screens on a cryo pod, its Euro-Russo flawless. “You cannot be in here.” “Save it.” Her words came out sharp. “I am checking on my family.” Hector’s expression became mildly reproving. “They are well, I assure you.” “I will assure myself.” The scientist brushed past the robot, knowing he wouldn’t physically stop her. With all of security still in stasis or recovering from waking up, no one could stop her. Sarr or Ferro could try but the former was no doubt wrapped up in preparations for landing and the latter didn’t have the balls to deal with her. She stopped first at Oskar’s pod, smiling fondly at her sleeping husband. While glad to see he’d arrived safely, a mother’s worry propelled her to the next two tubes, peering inside them in turn. Dmitri and David slept peacefully, their frozen poses unconsciously mirroring each other. Bellamy felt something ease in her chest as she confirmed that her darling twins were safe. She’d never admit it but if forced to pick a favorite among her children, it would be the twins. Not one of them but the two of them as a unified being. In her mind, they were almost the same: brilliant and charming children who never failed to amaze her. “Commander, Captain Sarr requests your presence on the bridge. You are needed for a pre-landing meeting.” Hector sounded flustered but Bellamy knew she was projecting onto it. It was a complex, mobile computer and nothing more. Instead, she glanced at her sleeping darlings one more time. Let Sarr wait just a moment longer. Nothing he wanted mattered more than her family. * * * Yuan finished her last stretch, straightening gracefully. Waking from cryo was harder for her than others and few things helped her transition faster than yoga. It left her refreshed and warm after her cold sleep. Ready to face Tara, she pulled on her combat gear. Lex stood nearby, its face set in a vague, pleasant smile. “Do you require anything else, Commander?” It’s Standard Chinese was perfect, of course. Yuan didn’t expect anything else but the occasional mistake would make the constructs seem more human and less robotic. “Is my interpreter awake?” She couldn’t quite stop her scowl at her question; had she known that she would need to know other languages when she was in school, she would have made time for them. She’d planned on working for the PRA until retirement. The Zheng flu had altered those plans and forced her to remove her family from the stations. Tara had been the only option but her lack of foresight left her dependant on another person. “No, Commander, he is scheduled to be awakened among the secondary personnel. Captain Sarr believed that Hector and I could serve you as translators until Mr. Zu is revived. The captain is also fluent in Standard Mandarin as well.” The Lexus-model Jeeves stared at her with infinite calm. Yuan stiffened, frowning tightly. Sarr knew she didn’t trust a Jeeves and preferred her human translator. “Shall we, Commander? The captain is waiting for us.” Lex gestured toward the door, the sweep of his arm as demure as any properly-trained servant. Yuan stalked out of the room, ignoring the robot. It followed in her wake, passive and subservient. When they passed the men’s room, Lex broke off to start reviving the security team. By the time they landed, she needed to have her commandos on their feet and ready to go. She didn’t know what waited for them on the surface of the planet but she would be prepared to protect this ship and crew. * * * Sarr nodded to Yuan as she arrived on the bridge last. He’d expected that; her files indicated that she had a hard time waking up from the cryosleep. She returned his greeting with a nod of her own, ignoring the Jeeves hovering over her station. Hector stepped back when she took her seat, relinquishing full control to her. The captain turned back to the screens in front of him, reviewing each one for data about their coming landing. This would be the hard part of the immigration to Tara. Though he was far from a devout man, he still whispered a prayer to Allah as he ran his gaze over the readouts. “Commander Bellamy, what is our status for landing?” The brunette woman twisted her chair around to nod to him. “All our calibrations and vectors have been checked three times, once by me and twice by the computer. SciDiv is ready.” Her cat’s smile smile was smug and assured, and Sarr hoped that she was right in her self-assessment. He knew all these people but they hadn’t had time to truly bond as a crew. That took more than one flight together, and they’d spent this one asleep. In the back of his head, he also knew that this was temporary. They were a crew only long enough to get to the planet and do the initial set up. He suspected they would drift apart once the remaining ships arrived and the permanent government for the settlement became established. Before Sarr could ask, Ferro spoke. “My boards are green, or whatever color they should be. The ship is ready for the landing approach.” “Let’s hope it’s a landing, Mr. Ferro, and not just an approach.” Sarr covertly checked his restraints, making sure the silver straps were snug around his torso. “The Melbourne can make multiple attempts at landing but I want to do this once, if at all possible.” Reminding himself that he was stating the obvious unnecessarily - he had a better crew than that - Sarr turned to Commander Yuan. “Are you prepared to make the landing?” He had learned Chinese many years ago so she was able to speak to him directly. “We are. Lex is currently waking my initial task force. They should be ready by the time you are ready to unseal the doors.” “Very good.” He turned back to the console, noting the twenty tiny windows that monitored the few crew members who were awake. Sarr watched their soft green glows, all the vital stats hidden until he focused on them, drawing them up with a flick of his fingers. “Hector, what is the status of the Melbourne’s computers?” Hector was quiet for a second, the blue LEDs on his shoulder flashing. “The Melbourne’s internal systems are ready.” “Captain, before we go, can we see it?” Ferro’s request was not part of their procedure but after he spoke, Bellamy and Yuan looked at the captain hopefully. Sarr studied the hopeful expressions in front of him. In truth, when it was mentioned, he was just as eager as the other three, and he smiled as he tapped the controls to show a live image of the planet. It appeared on the largest screen in the room, the central bridge screen. The green and blue globe looked like old images of Earth. Sarr felt his breath catch in his throat at the sight. So far from our homeland, yet I feel right. I feel like I am in the right place. I feel like this is Home. Keeping the video feed active and on the main screen, Sarr turned back to his console. In front of him were the controls that would start their descent. Everything was ready; all that was left was to start the process. The moment seemed to require that he say something profound and Sarr had thought about it. He just hadn’t been able to come up with anything good enough. Now though, the words came. “Welcome home, everyone.” The command crew smiled at him, unified completely for one moment. Sarr cleared his throat and said, “Beginning descent.” His fingers almost paused over the controls but he refused to hesitate on the cusp of their homecoming. He was one of the new people qualified to land the Melbourne but was the only one who had run through all of the disaster sequences in the simulator. The entire bridge crew had prepared for landing but not like he had. This was his last action as captain and he wanted it done right. The computer began to relay all pertinent data for their descent, a complex and varied rainbow of information. “We are entering the thermosphere,” Bellamy reported calmly but a current of excitement ran through the room. “I am releasing the weather and communication satellites.” “Thank you, Commander.” Sarr kept his focus on his screens, trusting that his science officer could handle the launches of the various platforms they were leaving in orbit. They lowered in silence for twenty minutes, each person attending to their station. They continued smoothly through the layers of atmosphere, passing through each on schedule. Bellamy broke the silence to announce, “We’re at fourteen kilometers, and just passed into Tara’s troposphere.” A shudder ran through the ship and the captain looked at his science officer. The brunette answered his unasked question. “Minor turbulence, to be expected in the troposphere.” “Stress to the Mel is well within tolerances.” Ferro sounded bored; Sarr shot a quick look at him and saw the man was slumped in his seat, hands on the arm of his chair instead of ready on his controls. “Look sharp, Mr. Ferro.” The captain didn’t bother to hide his irritation. They couldn’t afford any problems due to a lapse in judgment on the engineer’s part. This was exactly why he’d wanted a military engineer rather than a civilian. “I am sharp, Captain.” The engineer turned to give him a quick smirk. “Trust me, the ship is fine.” Sarr spared him a single hard glare before returning to his screen. “Humor me, please. We’ll soon be to the surface and where it is more interesting.” Ferro sighed heavily but did as asked, sitting up and taking a more active interest in the screens. The captain sighed in relief and returned his full focus to their chosen landing site. It was a low, flat plain above an underground aquifer. It was a bit higher above sea level than the area around it, making it ideal for keeping an eye on their surroundings. It was close to mountains and a large inland sea and not too far from the coast. Sarr was looking forward to claiming some beachfront property and building his final home there. Just two more kilometers to home-- “Sir, we have a mass rising from the planet’s surface.” Bellamy’s voice cut through the quiet atmosphere on the bridge. “It’s organic and it’s on an intercept course to us.” “What is it?” Sarr pulled up the feed on the main screen, spotting the black dot instantly. It was growing as the Melbourne approached it. “I think it’s indigenous flora - yes, some of the flying creatures reported in the survey.” She swallowed tightly. “The reports never showed a flock of this size. Sir, I don’t think they’re going to break off.” “Abort the descent.” They were only a kilometer from the landing site; the knowledge was bitter to him. So close yet so far. Sarr knew that the spaceship could take some damage but they knew nothing about these birds. If they flew through a flock, it could do quite a bit of damage. “Coming up fifteen degrees--” “Captain, they’re altering course to follow.” The alarm in Bellamy’s voice spiked Sarr’s heart rate. He didn’t reply, merely adjusted their heading more. The computer offered several suggestions but he took one of his own, turning hard to starboard and increasing their speed. “Sir, they’re still adjusting! Impact in twenty seconds!” Cursing under his breath in his native tongue, Sarr quickly set the computer to pick a spot for emergency landing in their path. We might not need it but-- The first impacts with the flock went unnoticed but the culmulative weight of the animals began to rattle the ship. Sarr ground his teeth as he considered the sheer number of birds hitting them to have that impact. “Hull integrity is dropping!” Ferro called out from his station. Something boomed deep in the ship and the engineer cursed in Spanish. “They’ve penetrated the hull!” Sarr reversed his attempt to ascend. A hull breach meant they couldn’t escape into space again. “Where!” “B-55, it’s communications. But it’s next to the engines and they’re attacking them.” Ferro looked toward him, his brown eyes wide. “We’re going down.” “I know.” Sarr kept his voice soft and calm. Panic wouldn’t help, especially once warnings began to flare on the screen as more and more systems took damage. “We’re going to make a hard landing.” Dread filled the bridge. They’d prepared and practiced for it but had hoped and prayed to avoid that scenario. Turning to his security officer, he ordered, “Cmd. Yuan, please go down to the cryotubes that hold your security team and be ready to brief them.” “Yes, Captain.” Her voice faded at the end as she hurried out of the room. Sarr fell back on every trick he’d learned in the simulations to keep the Melbourne in the air and give her more time to prepare. With hostiles aboard, and more likely to attack once they had landed, she would need all the help he could give her. Despite his best attempts, the screens filled with the image of the new landing site. Sarr hoped it was safe enough, as it had been chosen by physics instead of his intent. That was his last thought as he pulled up the nose and they slammed into the earth of their new home.
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