Rookie frowned over the hologram.
"Okay," he said to himself. "This is weird."
Everyone turned and looked at him.
"How so? I thought that you'd all be good with it, and wot!" Kanga boomed, disappointment making his voice soar.
“Look, I get it,” Rookie muttered self-consciously, “But I thought this was a scientific mission. I didn’t come here for a fairy tale.”
“Oh but it’s so much more, young man. The majority of the scientific community believes that after the Big Bang occurred, the universe expanded from the centre out, rushing in all directions and forming planets and stars and galaxies as it went. Two years ago, I sent a small team on a mission to the edge of space itself. I wanted answers. I wanted to see if what we had been told was true. After all, a theory is just a theory until it has been proven.”
Christopher took a long, shuddering breath; the first time Rookie had ever seen that wide smile crack.
“That team never returned. What happened to them, I can not say. However, a few months ago, a transmission came through that changed everything. My team had been doing research, you see. Testing the soil of the planets, calculating the ages of the stars, all that sort of pish-posh.
"As you can see by the data,” Christopher pointed at the hologram, which had changed into a line graph, “the planets they discovered there were ancient. Older than ancient. Fourteen billion years old, as a matter of fact.”
“That’s as old as the universe.” Sharlotte murmured. Rookie sent her a sharp look.
"You don't say," he muttered sarcastically.
Everyone in the room turned to look at the two, who were glaring at each other, giving of an air of deep disgust. The lead explorer cleared his throat, obviously not expecting this from his carefully picked team.
“Exactly.” Christopher beamed, shifting everyone's focus. Sharlotte gave Rookie a superior look. “Based on the evidence, these planets were the first created in the whole universe! Think of all the things we'd discover!" His mustache wobbled alarmingly. "Scientists, do you understand how groundbreaking this could be? Marines, you could be the first military company to ever go as far away from Earth as that!"
The assembled people started to murmur among themselves, each thinking of the benefits it would have on themselves. Rookie had to agree, it did sound tempting. Rookie noticed Sharlotte and Mafia talking quietly, eyes bright with anticipation.
“But,” Christopher said, and everyone fell silent, “there will be risks. We will be diving into the unknown, not everything there will be friendly. Why else would our dear friends the ex-Space Marines becoming with us?” He turned to small group, all looking hostile except for Mafia, who lounged in her chair like a sloth.
“Are you saying that this isn’t safe?” A tall black woman with long black curls stood up, glaring challengingly at the explorer.
“Martha Dent, we all knew joining this mission had a cost. But, for science, I am willing to take that risk.” Christopher met Martha’s hazel eyes evenly. “The question is, are you?”
Martha lifted her chin, saying nothing.
“I am.” Rookie was surprised at how readily the words dropped from his lips.
"I thought you said it was weird," Sharlotte pointed out.
"I did," he agreed with a growl. "But I know that this is important, not just for me or anyone else in this room, but for the growth of the worlds that we collionsede.
Christopher gave a gentle smile. “Couldn’t have put it better, m’boy. Now, anybody who does not feel comfortable with this mission, you can leave now - provided you do not breathe a word to anyone.”
There was a tense moment; a silent clash of wills to see who would leave first. But nobody did.
“So,” Mafia cocked her head, “Will we be taking a tour of the facilities?”
“Of course, of course.” Christopher replied jovially.
“You sir!” He pointed at Phill, who jumped to his feet in an awkward salute. A low snicker sped around the room. Rookie and Sharlotte both rolled their eyes.
“Press my head!” Christopher ordered.
Phill slowly began moving towards the old explorer, one hand stretched out tentatively.
“No, not my head, my other head.”
Phill glanced around the room, deer in the headlights, his eyes widened helplessly.
“He means this head.” Martha whispered helpfully, indicating a bronze bust of Christopher that sat on a plinth next to her.
“Thank you.” Phill croaked, and went to touch the metal forehead.
His sweaty hand passed straight through, and slammed onto the base. There was a low click, a gentle whirr, and the floor disappeared.
Phill let out a high-pitched yelp and leapt backwards. Apart from the table and the ground underneath it, the entire floor had retracted into thin slits in the wall. Rookie shot out an arm and hooked Phill by the collar. He let out an even more piercing scream, as he slid out of his ill-fitting lab-coat and landed on the cold concrete floor below.
The rumpled man peered up at the shocked faces of those above. Phill gazed as the platform gently descended, unsupported.
“Ah,” he said, dazed. “Hover technology.”
“Dreadfully sorry, wot wot.” Christopher stepped smoothly to the ground. “Probably should’ve asked the boys to install railing.”
However, nobody was listening anymore. The group looked on with slack-jawed amazement, as they took in the sight in front of them. Under the museum, there was a vast space of concrete and metal, stretching at least three city blocks in all directions. And taking up this space - a great metal whale beached in the sands - was a ship.
It was colossal, massively wide at the back and tapering to a deadly spear-head. The entire thing was a glossy silver, smooth and stream-lined. Rookie could see the thrusters, sleek and curved, and above all, powerful.
“Impressive, is she not?” Christopher chuckled. “My team of experts have been working overtime for years. We’ve taken the mechanical know-how from all over the galaxy, and even further, pushing the barriers of science and technology.”
“How fast?” Rookie asked.
A cold voice rang out behind them.
“30 kiloparsecs per second.”
Rookie spun around to see a tall alien with pale grey skin and slitted yellow eyes.
“Did you say 30 kiloparsecs? That’s… that’s like a galaxy per second.”
“Exactly.” The alien stuck out a skeletal hand. His skin was scarred by harsh tribal markings, that spidered down his arms and cut into one side of his face. Despite all this, his eyes glittered golden with a cold kind of intelligence.
“I am named Artxe Lairtserret. I am the head engineer of this ship.”
“And a jolly good one, too!” Christopher chimed in, slapping him amiably in the back.
Artxe tilted his head in curiosity. “Why would you hit me? Am I not part of your crew?”
“Ah yes, just an Earth custom.” Christopher muttered distractedly.
“Oh.” The alien frowned.
“On with the tour, then?” The mustachioed Englishman asked.
After being escorted up a futuristic flight of stairs and into the stomach of the great ship, they were free to explore the spacious interior. Mafia and the ex-Space Marines disappeared immediately to the weapons room, weighing up the guns with appreciative smiles slanting across their faces. A cluster of people wearing pristine white lab-coats strode decisively towards the laboratory, Phill McCrackin tripping over behind them as he rushed to catch up. Rookie stalked through the corridors, and paused in the threshold of a bunk room. Sharlotte was draped across the clean linen of the bed, hair splayed charcoal against the down of her wings.
“You’re going to mess up the sheets.” Rookie smirked.
Sharlotte rolled off the bed, and took a step towards him, lips pouted. “See, not a crinkle.”
An arched eyebrow curved above the rim of her sunglasses. “What is your problem?”
“My problem is that you’re acting like a spoilt child! And what’s with those glasses. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re inside.”
Sharlotte stiffened, and walked past with a blank expression on her face. She paused next to Rookie, and looked up at him viciously.
“I don’t tell you how to live your life. Don’t tell me how to live mine.”
Rookie stared into the room, refusing to watch her walk away. Something about her just grated on him; he wasn’t sure if it was her highly-strung attitude, or the aura of smugness that surrounded her, or even just the fact she acted like a selfish princess.
“Thank the stars I won’t have anything to do with her,” he muttered.
There was an awkward cough from behind him, and Rookie turned to see Christopher Kanga sheepishly wringing his old cowboy-style hat in his hands.
“I’m afraid that’s not strictly true, old chap. Although the way I chose this crew of mine may have seemed random, truth be told I had hand-picked you months ago. That whole song and dance back there was just to throw any sinister parties off the scent. Why go chasing after a mad-man, wot wot?”
Rookie inclined his head. It made some sense. Not much, but some.
“Anywho, when I caught wind of you two, I knew exactly what I wanted you to be for this crew. You and Sharlotte are new recruits for the Marines”
Rookie’s eyes widened. “W-what? I thought I’d just be an apprentice engineer or something!”
“I needed young people. Smart people. People who could lead us in future. People like you.”
“People like Sharlotte?” he said skeptically.
Christopher gave a low chuckle. “I understand she can come across as a bit of a drama queen, but for good reason. She’s a Sama'el, a powerful and old race from a planet far out in the Solis quadrant. Apparently there are a few governmental issues going on out there, but on any other planet, they’re practically royalty.”
“Figures,” Rookie muttered.
Christopher shot him a stern look, but continued. “I had been hoping you two would be able to work together. For the good of the mission.”
He sighed. “I will if she does.”
“Quite so, m’boy! I’ll just go and have a word with her now, eh? Pip, pip, old chap.”
And disappeared as quickly as he had come. Rookie walked into the bedroom, heart pounding harder the more he thought about it. Second-in-command was not a job to take lightly. What if he messed up? Or the rest of the crew - how would they feel about this? And that Sharlotte. That fight may have been their first, but he could tell it wouldn’t be their last; or worst.
Rookie reached down and smoothed down the sheets.
“Not a crinkle, huh?”
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