EXPENDABLE

by James Alan Gardner

From Eos books

Copyright © 1997, by James Alan Gardner

This excerpt comes from the very beginning of the book.


PART I: NIGHT

Flashback

"My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance."

(Again.)

"My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance."

(Again.)

"My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance."

(Again...)

My Appearance

My name is Festina Ramos and once upon a time, no one in the Technocracy took greater pride in her personal appearance.

I showered and shampooed, depilated and deodorized, every morning without fail. Nothing stood in the way of my morning ritual: not the fuzz of a hangover, nor the arms of a beckoning bed-partner. My discipline was absolute.

I exercised more than forty hours a week, and always complete workouts: martial arts, running, gymnastics, tai chi...even mountaineering when the opportunity presented itself.

My body fat ranked at the lowest percentile considered healthy. People said they envied my figure. For all I know, they might have been telling the truth.

I chose my civilian clothes with the care of an entertainer dressing for the chips. Even when I was in uniform, fellow officers said that black fatigues suited me.

Their very words: "Festina, that outfit suits you." They did not say, "Festina, you look good."

My name is Festina Ramos and even before I was given that name, I was given a lurid port-wine birthmark covering the right half of my face from cheekbone to chin. Years of operant conditioning gave me great pride in my disfigurement.

The Doctors

Each doctor began by saying my condition could be corrected. How would they cure me? Let me count the ways. They would cure me with electrolysis, with lasers, with cryogenics, with plastic planing, with "sophisticated bio- active agents conscientiously applied in a program of restoration therapy." Some even set a date when I would be booked in for treatment.

Then the appointments were cancelled. Sometimes the doctor apologized in person. Sometimes the doctor invented excuses. Sometimes it was just a note from a secretary.

Here is the reason my birthmark endured with purple defiance in the face of twenty-fifth century medicine:

It had military value.

My Calling in Life

My calling in life was to land on hostile planets.

I made first contacts with alien cultures.

I went any place the Admiralty didn't know what the hell to expect.

Officially, I belonged to the Explorer Corps. Unofficially, we Explorers called ourselves ECMs--short for Expendable Crew Members.

Why

Listen. Here is what all ECMs knew.

Violent death is rare in the Technocracy. We have no wars. The crime level is low, and few incidents involve lethal weapons. When accidents happen, victims can almost always be saved by sophisticated local medical centers.

But.

There are no medical centers on unexplored planets. Death may come with savage abruptness or the stealthy creep of alien disease. In a society where people expect to ease comfortably out of this world at a ripe old age, the thought of anyone killed in the prime of life is deeply disturbing. If it happens to someone you know, the effect is devastating.

Unless...the person who dies is different. Not like everyone else.

Two centuries ago, the Admiralty High Council secretly acknowledged that some deaths hurt Fleet morale more than others. If the victim was popular, well-liked, and above all, physically attractive, fellow crewmates took the death hard. Performance ratings dropped by as much as 30 per cent. Friends of the deceased required lengthy psychological counseling. Those who had ordered the fatal mission sometimes felt a permanently impairing guilt.

But if the victim was not so popular, not so well- liked, and above all, ugly...well, bad things happen, but we all have to carry on.

No one knows exactly when the High Council solidified this fact of human behavior into definite policy. In time, however, the Explorer Corps evolved from a group of healthy, bright-eyed volunteers into...something less photogenic.

Potential recruits were flagged at birth. The flawed. The ugly. The strange. If a child's physical problems were truly disabling, or if the child didn't have the intelligence or strength of will to make a good Explorer, the full power of modern medicine would be unleashed to correct every impediment to normalcy. But if the child combined ability and expendability in a single package--if the child was smart and fit enough to handle the demands of Exploration, but different enough to be less real than a normal person...

...there was an Explorer's black uniform in that child's future.

My Class

As I record this, I have in front of me a picture of my class at the Academy. In the first row are the ones with problems the camera does not reveal: Thomas, the stammerer; Ferragamo, the man whose voice did not change at puberty; my roommate, Ullis Naar, who usually blinked convulsively every two seconds but managed to keep her eyes open for this photo; Ghent, loudly flatulent...yes, what a joke, who could take Ghent seriously? Not his crewmates when Ghent was flayed alive by savages during a first contact. A few days of superficial mourning, and then his shipmates forgot him.

The system worked.

Back to the photo. One row of visually acceptable Explorers, and behind them the rest of us: pop-eyed, three- fingered, obese, deformed. No one in the back rows smiled for this picture. Most tried to hide behind the heads of those in front.

What unthinking Director of Protocol demanded that we pose for such a photo? I'd always been told (in smug, self-congratulatory tones) that our society had progressed beyond the days of the freak show.

The majority of my graduating class could have been cured by modern medicine. We all knew it. Which of us hadn't jacked into a medical library and pored through the texts describing our conditions? Which of us didn't know the names of at least five techniques to make us into more- normal human beings? Yet those remedies did not exist for us. The Admiralty had a vested interest in keeping us repugnant. As long as we stayed as we were, no one lost sleep over sending us on dangerous missions.

Admirals need their sleep in order to make enlightened judgments.

My Duties

My most time-consuming duty was to review reports from other Explorers. The latest files were transmitted to our shipboard computer every day and stored on bubble till I went over them. Most of the time, the reports were simply copies of the running commentaries all Explorers gave when landing on an unfamiliar planet.

(Upon graduation, Explorers were fitted with permanent throat transceivers that transmitted continuously on planet-down missions. The transceivers were quite visible if you looked closely; but no one worried about a lump on the neck ruining an Explorer's appearance.)

Some of the transcripts I listened to ended abruptly. We called those transcripts "Oh Shits" because the Explorers often said, "Oh shit," just before their throat mikes went dead. You always wondered what they saw just before they stopped transmitting. You seldom found out.

"Oh Shit" reports weren't marked in any special way. Whenever I audited the log of someone I knew from the Academy, I wondered if it would end in "Oh Shit". An absent voice spoke in the quiet of my quarters and I never knew if the next word would be the last. Sometimes I listened to blank silence for half an hour, not wanting to believe that the report had ended.

The Admiralty never listed Explorers as dead. We were simply "Lost"...like old shoes that might turn up in spring housecleaning. In private, Explorers used a different expression: we talked about our friends Going Oh Shit.

My Lifestyle

I kept my distance from others on board our ship. I expect they were glad of it. I know I was.

There was once a time when I would eat in the public cafeteria to prove I wasn't afraid. As I carried my tray into the dining room, conversation would dwindle while the crew waited to see which table I chose. Some days I sat by myself. Other days I was invited to eat at this table or that. Now and then I purposefully joined the group that seemed most likely to lose their appetites looking at me; but I grew out of that after a few months in the service.

It took longer to see through those who welcomed me. Some were obvious, of course, like the ones with religious leanings. For obscure reasons, bright-smiling proselytizers with God in their hearts were drawn to me like beetles to carrion. They may have considered me desperate for acceptance of any kind--an easy convert. Perhaps too, those eager believers thought that associating with a pariah would purify their souls...like flagellation. Whatever the reason, I spent many mealtimes listening to guarantees of spiritual fulfillment, if only I would come out to regular Fellowship meetings.

Different crew members chose to strike up conversation for the purpose of seduction. After all, a woman like me had to be an easy sexual conquest; desperate and lonely, I would roll over like a dog at the first sign of attention.

And with the lights out, they wouldn't see my face, would they?

I took a number of those calculating seducers to my bed anyway, just for the hell of it--I felt like I was tricking them, exploiting them. In time, however, I wondered who was fooling whom. Ultimately, I decided that celibacy was simpler.

Some people cultivated my friendship in the belief I could help with their careers--as Explorer First Class, I ranked second only to the captain and was sometimes thought to be important. In fact, my rank was merely a ploy to hide the reality of my situation. I would never get a position of command on a starship; I knew nothing about ship operation. My only expertise lay in personal survival.

Was I ever invited to eat with anyone who had no ulterior motive? I can't say.

Did I ever eat with someone who was interested in me... not my soul, not my body, not the things I might do for them, but for me? No. Never. Not one of them knew me.

After a few months of trying to mingle with the regular crew, I switched to eating alone in my quarters. Rank has its privileges.

My Quarters

I spent much of the day in my quarters. I had little reason to go elsewhere. I was comfortable there.

My cabin had no traditional decorations. When I was assigned to this ship, the quartermaster offered me a number of standard wall-hangings "to brighten the place up"...but I refused. I also refused to take any of his glass figurines that could be attached with magnets to any flat surface. Half the figurines were abstracts that meant nothing to me; the other half were little better than kittens, mice, and children with large eyes.

My quarters had a practical desk, a practical cartography table, three relatively practical chairs, and a fairly impractical bed. It was a double-sized bed with many active features, called The Luxuriator. I requisitioned it in a moment of folly, thinking if I found the right man or woman, a good bed might give me confidence.

Might make me feel prepared.

Might make me feel I had something to contribute.

No, I can't find the right words. It humiliates me to think about it.

My Collection

My quarters contained no ornamentation; but hidden in a closed metal locker was my collection. Most Explorers had collections. We were paid well, and had few vices that could absorb our salaries.

I collected eggs. Many people found that amusing: Festina Ramos collected eggs. They pictured a cabin filled with white hens' eggs, racks of them, bins of them, heaped hodgepodge wherever I had space. Not one of them ever saw my collection. They laughed behind my back about something I would never show them.

In my early days on the ship, I talked about my collection one day at the lunch table. I forget how the subject came up. I was just so glad to find myself in a conversation that wasn't shop-talk, I ignored my usual caution.

Of course the others laughed...and wanting them to understand, I tried to explain how beautiful some eggs can be. Every color of the rainbow, pale blues and soft oranges and golden yellows. All sizes, all shapes. Some with shells as fragile as tissue paper, some so hard you can squeeze with all your might and not harm them. Insect eggs, small and black like pepper. Amphibian eggs, chains of jellied eyes suspended in water. Eggs from extraterrestrial lifeforms, unique as snowflakes, perfumed, cylindrical, clear as glass, red-hot to the touch...

The other crew members didn't understand. Most of them didn't try. One or two put on intelligent expressions and said, "That's interesting." They were the ones who most made me feel like a fool.

After that, I never discussed my collection in public. I didn't try to describe it, because I knew I couldn't. I refused to show it to the crew because I would only be infuriated by their politely unappreciative attention. Why should I watch them feign interest?

Eggs are self-contained worlds, perfect and internally sufficient. On every planet that supports life, there are eggs. Whatever alien paths life may take, there are always eggs somewhere along the trail. My fellow Explorers found this time and time again.

If I heard an Explorer's report state that eggs had been found on this or that planet, I transmitted a personal request asking for a specimen. I almost always got what I wanted--Explorers help each other.

When I received an egg, I spent several days deciding how to display it. Some I mounted on wooden stands; some I set in china dishes; some I swathed in cotton.

Receiving a new egg was cause for celebration. I took it out of its packing case and cradled it in my hands, cherishing its fragility or its toughness or its warmth. Sometimes I could hold an egg for a full hour, dreaming I was in touch with the mother who laid the egg or the child who called it home.

But all the eggs in my collection were sterile. They never hatched. Some were never fertilized. The others had been irradiated by the Admiralty to kill whatever was inside them--transport of alien organisms is dangerous.

On nights when I couldn't sleep, I sat amidst them and listened to their silence.

The Call

It was on a night like that, a silent night, that I sat in my quarters, staring at a list of reports I ought to study. It was late at night, as time was reckoned on the ship. I took great pride in working late hours. Admittedly, time is an arbitrary convention in space; but I still enjoyed knowing I was awake while the rest of the ship slept.

The message buzzer hummed softly in the quiet of my cabin. I turned a dial on my desk-top. "Ramos here."

The face of Lieutenant Harque, the captain's aide, sprang to life on the screen. Harque had an easy smile and curly good looks, a boy-next-door handsomeness that let him win over people without having a speck of true charm in his self-important body. "The captain would like to see you, Explorer."

"Yes?"

"In the conference room. As soon as possible."

"Does she want me to bring Yarrun?"

"I've already contacted Yarrun. Harque out." The picture went blank.

Typical. I had come to expect that sort of thing from Harque. If I confronted him about it, he would claim he was saving me trouble by calling my subordinate for me. I slid back my chair and sighed as I headed for the door.

The light over my desk turned off behind me. It did that automatically. The quick return to darkness always made me think the lamp was eager to see me go.

My Subordinate

Yarrun was waiting for me outside the door. His eyes were bleary--he must have been asleep when Harque buzzed him. Yarrun preferred an early bedtime. To compensate, he got up hours before anyone else was awake. He said he enjoyed the quiet of the ship in the early morning.

I don't know what he did with the time he had to himself. Perhaps he just tended his own collection--he collected dyed silk.

Explorer Second Class Yarrun Derigha was officially my subordinate because he graduated from the Academy three years after I did. Unofficially, we were equal partners. We worked as a team, the only two Expendable Crew Members among eighty-seven Vacuum crew members too valuable to be wasted.

Yarrun was missing the left side of his face. To be precise, the left half of his jaw never formed and the right hadn't grown since he was six. The result looked like half a head, with the skin stretched taut from his left cheekbone to his partial right jaw.

There was nothing else wrong with Yarrun. His brain was intact. His Intelligence Profile ranked higher than 99 per cent of the population. He had some trouble eating solids, but the Admiralty graciously accommodated that--the cafeteria stocked a large supply of nutritious fluids.

When he talked, his enunciation was unfailingly precise. Since it cost him a great deal of effort, he preferred not to speak if he could help it.

I had known Yarrun six years, first in the Academy, then on the ship. We had saved each other's lives so often we no longer kept count. We could talk to each other about anything, and we could be quiet together without feeling uncomfortable. I was as close to Yarrun as I have ever wanted to be with anyone.

And yet.

There were still times when the sight of his face made my skin crawl.

In the Halls (Part 1)

The halls were deserted at that hour. The ship only needed a twenty-person running crew at night, and they usually stayed close to their posts. I loved to walk the empty corridors when the lights had been dimmed and every door was closed. Neither Yarrun nor I spoke. The soft clopping of our footsteps echoed lightly in the stillness of the sleeping ship.

Our ship was called the Jacaranda, named after a family of flowering trees native to Old Earth. The previous captain actually owned a jacaranda tree and kept it in his quarters. When it was in bloom, he would pin a blossom to his lapel every morning. The deep blue of the flower went well with khaki.

When our current captain took command, she said, "Get that damned thing out of my room. It's shedding." The tree was moved to the cafeteria where it got in everyone's way and frequently dropped petals onto plates of food.

A few months later, the tree suddenly died. Someone probably poisoned it. The crew held a party to celebrate the tree being reduced to proto-nute, and even I attended. It was the first time I tasted Divian champagne.

Now the only jacarandas on ship were stylized ones stenciled on walls and doors. The colors of these trees indicated the authorization needed to enter a given area. I was allowed into areas marked with red jacarandas and black. I was not permitted to enter rooms marked with orange, blue, green, yellow, purple, pink, or brown.

Red areas were public ones like the cafeteria. Black areas were reserved for Explorers and their equipment. The Admiralty denied that black had any special significance.

Our Captain

The jacaranda on the door of the conference room was red. The door opened as it heard our footsteps approach. Yarrun let me enter first--in public, we made a point of observing rank protocol.

Captain Prope stood at the room's Star Window, apparently lost in thought. She stared out on the star- filled blackness like the captain of a clipper ship inhaling sea air from the foredeck: spine straight as iron, hands on hips, head tilted back slightly so her chestnut-red hair hung free of her shoulders. If she had been facing us, we would have likely seen her nostrils flared to the wind.

No doubt she had assumed this heroic pose several minutes ago, and had been waiting impatiently for us to walk in. For some reason, she desperately wanted to impress us.

The door closed behind us with a hiss. Prope took this as her cue to turn and notice us. "Oh, come in, sit down, yes." She laughed lightly, a frothy little laugh guaranteed by Outward Fleet Psych-techs to make subordinates feel like equals. Prope was an ardent student of the Mechanics of Charisma.

"Sorry," she said. "My mind was somewhere else." She turned back for one more wistful peek at the night. "I can never get over how beautiful the stars are."

I did not point out that the view was a color- enhanced computer simulation. A real window would have jeopardized the integrity of the ship's hull.

The News

We sat in our usual chairs (me on the captain's right, Yarrun on her left), and rolled up to the conference table.

"Would either of you like coffee?" the captain asked. We shook our heads in unison. "You're sure? Some fruit juice maybe? No? Well, I hope you don't mind if I have a little something. I always enjoy a midnight snack."

She smiled in our general direction, but her eyes were too low to meet ours. Like most people, she could not look at our faces for any length of time. She talked to our chests or our hair or our ears...never to our faces, except for a quick glance now and then to confirm her squeamishness.

For some reason, she thought Yarrun and I didn't notice.

We watched as she poured herself coffee. In public, she drank it black. When she thought no one was watching, she used double loads of cream and sugar.

For a few moments, she stirred her coffee, even though there was nothing in it. I couldn't tell if this was reflex or affectation. Finally she said, "I suppose you're wondering what this is all about."

She paused, so we nodded.

"Twenty minutes ago," Prope continued, "I received a coded message from the Golden Cedar. You know the ship?"

"Admiral Chee's flagship," I replied. Everyone in the Fleet knew the ship. Half the children in the Technocracy had heard of it. Learning the names of the admirals and their flagships was a Common Curriculum memory exercise for seven-year-olds.

"In three hours, the Golden Cedar will pass within ten thousand kilometers of us." Prope was watching us out of the corner of her eye, so I knew she was about to drop a surprise in our laps. "At that time, Admiral Chee will secretly transfer aboard the Jacaranda. Very secretly--we three and Harque will be the only ones to know he's here. You two will see to the admiral's comfort." She looked at us with narrowed eyes, as if she doubted we could handle the job. "Any problems?"

"We'll take care of him." I kept my voice expressionless, despite the insult. I had been capably dealing with visiting dignitaries for six full years on the Jacaranda--it was one of my standing duties. As high- ranking officers with no shipboard responsibility, Explorers were ideal for babysitting VIPs.

"Fine." Prope obviously felt she ought to say something more, but couldn't think of anything. She remembered her coffee and took a deep grateful swallow. Judging by the resulting expression on her face, the coffee was too hot.

Yarrun asked, "Do you know why the admiral is coming?"

"He'll tell us when he arrives. All I know is that it's not an inspection." She gave another standardized laugh, but this time it was strained with nervousness. "My orders say that if I give the slightest hint I'm waiting for inspection--if I sharpen up discipline, hold drills, even swab the decks--I'll be put on report."

She drummed her fingers on the table. None of us said anything for a count of ten.

"It certainly sounds like an inspection," I finally said.

Prope nodded. "Damned right."

My First Admiral

Back in my cabin, I debated staying awake for three more hours (in which case I would be tired when the admiral arrived) or going to sleep for a while (in which case I would be groggy). I decided to lie on my Luxuriator bed and see what happened.

Staring at the asbestos white of my ceiling, I thought about the first admiral I had met, Admiral Seele. She was not the first admiral I had seen in person--more than a dozen admirals attended graduation exercises for my class at the Academy. The Admiralty always made a show of being interested in Explorers. The school administrators even said the admirals would be available afterwards to shake hands and make small talk.

I don't know if any of the class took advantage of the opportunity. I didn't.

Admiral Seele arrived on the Jacaranda in my first year with the ship. No one could say why she had come. She inspected the engine room, but made no comments or suggestions. She spent an hour alone with every officer, but reportedly spoke only of trivialities and glanced frequently at her watch. She passed one entire day secluded in her cabin, supposedly examining our ship's log on the computer...but when I walked by her door late in the afternoon, I heard her singing a bawdy song I recognized from Academy days. I hurried on, though I had intended to knock.

The admiral spent most of her time with me. It made me uncomfortable, even as I told myself I had nothing to fear. Mostly, we talked about the Academy and my missions. I had made only two Landings at the time, neither one eventful, but she seemed interested. Her questions showed she knew what was important to an Explorer...unlike most Vacuum-oriented officers, who had no idea what to pay attention to when they had solid ground under their feet. I guessed that part of being an admiral was knowing more than the rest of the pack.

On the last night of her stay, she asked how well I got on with the crew. Were they co-operative? I said I had no complaints. Did I have many friends? No. Any lovers? No. Was I lonely? No, I filled my time. Did I never want to reach out to another human being? No, I was fine.

She started to cry then. She tried to take hold of my hand, but I drew back quickly. She said I mustn't close myself to the world; I would be miserable if I didn't let other people into my life.

I walked out of the room without waiting to be dismissed.

The next morning, Admiral Seele left us at Starbase Iris. As she left, she saluted the captain and first officer, but shook my hand. She looked like she wanted to kiss me. Perhaps she couldn't decide where: on my lips, on my good cheek, or on my bad one.

I concluded then that my first admiral was a maladjusted woman who yearned for me. The Academy had taught us about people who are drawn to Explorers by our ugliness. The attraction has something to do with self- hatred.

Self-Care

The message buzzer hummed and I found I had been sleeping. My neck was stiff and my clothing rumpled. I rolled gracelessly to my feet and thudded over to the desk. "Ramos here."

Harque's face appeared on the screen. Wearing his dress gold uniform, he looked annoyingly fresh and knew it. "Admiral Chee is arriving."

"Thank you. I'm on my way."

"If I were you, I'd do something with my hair first." The screen went blank too quickly for me to reply. Clever retorts seldom come easily to me. I stomped angrily to the bathroom and fumbled a while with a comb. Stupid people flustered me so effortlessly. I wished I had a quick mind.

Years of conditioning would not let me leave my room until my part was straight. That irked me too. What fastidious programmer forced this obsession on me?

To smooth my feathers, I thought of childish ways to get even with Harque. Some scandalous story about him passed to the admiral? No, I was too smart to lie to an admiral, and too ill-informed to know any dirt that was really true. Some night Harque would pull down the sheets of his bed and find a smashed egg there. The Sevro lizards of Malabar IV laid eggs whose yolks were more corrosive than industrial acids.

Wearing a smile and taking great pride in my personal appearance, I stepped confidently out my door.


For more, pick up Expendable, available at book stores throughout North America.