Jack was firmly in the habit of dining with his passengers once the first jump was underway. It provided a natural break for the pilots, and a chance to relax and meet the motley bunch of people who made interstellar journeys. The Beluga though, an S4 class vessel, was not ideal for this purpose. The dining area on the middle deck was small, behind it a minimal kitchen which was designed only for prepacked meals, and forward, in uncivilized proximity, was the washroom.
Jack and Hugo sat alone at the table for a while, relieved that they and the ship had performed adequately, and the tensions of the past few days melted away. Despite spending the time in close quarters, they hardly knew each other.
“Monty was telling me how smart you are”, Jack said with a mischievous smile. “But sometimes he lies, to make us all feel better and build up confidence in the mission.”
Jack looked at Hugo expecting a rejoinder, but the co-pilot just laughed. Hugo looked a little older than his twenty-five years, only perhaps because a few grey follicles stood out in contrast against his thick black hair, which sprouted strongly in all directions as if he had recently received an electric shock.
“We’ll have no messages from earth for a few weeks”, Jack said. “You gonna be missing anyone ?”
“No, I’m a single man, Jack.”
“Come on, Hugo, a young pilot like you in uniform, you must be popular with women. There’s gotta be someone on your mind ?”
Jack was flattering his co-pilot a little, for Hugo was not really a handsome figure. His features were somehow squashed together, and his wide mouth drooped at the corners, giving him a fishy appearance. He was small in stature, but fit and wiry, and there was an eagerness and athleticism in his movements that suggested a highly motivated, highly strung individual.
“Did Monty tell you anything else about me, other than claiming I was a genius ?”, Hugo asked.
“No, he just talked about your qualifications.”
“I’ve known Monty for a few years, so he might have given you some background”, Hugo said.
Jack was surprised to hear of this acquaintance. He had assumed that, as a newly qualified flyer, Hugo would have been supplied to Monty for mission training only a month or two earlier. Hugo offered some more explanation.
“There’s a sort of family connection. When my father died, my mother became close to Monty for a while. He got me interested in the Fleet. But I hadn’t seen him all year. I mean, mom and Monty aren’t close any more.”
Monty had kept that quiet, Jack thought.
Jack started to wonder about the two passengers, Irwin and Daff, who had been lightly sedated in their cabins for most of the flight. He used his communicator to sound their buzzers, and they stirred and emerged blinking onto the deck. Meanwhile Hugo heated the meals, a routine that took only a minute and required little preparation.
“Smells good”, Daff said cheerily. From the background information Jack had read in mission planning, Daffodil Washington was a student of political theory, straight out of college, and just twenty-two years old. She was tall but shapely, in fact statuesque, broad in the hip and the shoulder. It was rare that Jack met a woman who stood eye-to-eye with him, but Daff came close. She was blonde too, and with a beaming white smile, she would draw attention in any company. However, she was not quite a beauty - although her features were fine and regular, her eyes were small and piercing, and her gaze hard, even predatory. It was as if the paternal genes had expressed themselves a little too far. “What do we have here, Hugo ?”, she asked, looking down at the brown, steaming food that sat in mean-looking plastic containers.
“I think it’s some sort of meat substitute”, Hugo said in a disinterested way that showed he was neither the cook nor the waiter on this ship. Daff seemed disappointed by his reply.
“Demand your calories and vitamins Daff, and nothing else”, Irwin suggested.
The four arranged themselves around the intimate little square table.
“Is the ship up to speed yet, Jack ?”, Irwin asked casually, toying with his food. But when Jack, whose mouth was full, failed to reply, Irwin fixed him with an impatient stare. Jack offered a nod and a grunt.
“I chose this ship because it’s the fastest in the fleet”, Irwin said. “This is a psychological tactic as well as a practical measure. I want to show the colonists what we can do. They invited us for a meeting and we cover eight hundred light years in twenty days. That’s going to impress them - and it makes them feel that Earth is not so far away. They’re in our neighbourhood - and well within our sphere of influence.”
Irwin was in his sixties but he spoke with a youthful vigor, a sense of urgency. When he said something he was emphatic, and people listened. Like many who grew up in the contaminated years following the war, Irwin was short of stature, but he carried himself well. His clothes were smart - dark velvet and buttoned to the neck. His short grey hair was immaculate and framed a round flattish face with neat, unobtrusive features. Irwin always seemed alert, aware of those around him, sensitive to them, watching them from the corner of his eye. He seemed to dominate the table, and the others waited for him to say something else.
“I will keep pressing you Jack on the timescales for this mission, I may even make myself unpopular, but I have good reason.” Irwin smiled at Jack as if anticipating lively banter.
“Do you often make yourself unpopular ?”, Jack asked between mouthfuls of meaty porridge.
“I am a diplomat”, Irwin replied with gravitas. “I make it my business to be popular with those who are important to us.”
“That’s good”, Jack said. “Now I know we’ll all get along fine on this ship.”
“This isn’t a pleasure trip, Jack”, Daff said haughtily. “There are a lot of people waiting for that antiviral. Their lives depend on it. Let‘s not forget about them.”
By now everyone had stopped eating and the tone was sounding more serious.
“How could we forget about the suffering of the forty billion people on earth ?”, Hugo wondered. “But some say the lucky ones die young.”
“So we have a suicidal … nihilist flying this ship”, Daff said. “That‘s great. That makes me feel a lot better.”
Jack stepped in to defend Hugo on behalf of the fleet.
“You have Hugo all wrong”, Jack said, “he’s working incredibly hard here, he has learned a hell of a lot about the S4, and he finds time to go down to cargo and get up to speed with those instruments for the colony too, and I can assure you that Hugo’s psychological evaluation was clean … and we‘re both one hundred percent committed to your safety on board this vessel.”
“Thankyou, Jack”, Irwin said. “Well … I’m not going to put forward a theory on the meaning of life, and actually, Hugo had made a fair point.” Irwin gave Hugo a respectful nod. “He is questioning the government’s priorities. Should we be investing our time and money prolonging lives, or building desalinators, or fighting the insurgency ? I won’t try to answer that. Everyone has their own priorities and in our democracy they can express their view. But I am close to some of the senior people in our government, and I know what a huge task they have trying to unite those forty billion people. We try to provide everyone with a job and decent place to live but it’s not possible right now, so we have to offer them some sense of progress, a hope for the future. If this antiviral works I believe it will lift everyone’s spirits at a difficult time.”
Irwin’s wise words put an end to the argument, but Hugo and Daff continued to eye each other suspiciously. The mood lifted a little as Jack served pink jelly for dessert.
“What made you two become pilot’s then ?”, Daff said.
“Every little boy wants to fly”, Jack said, “but I think most grow out of it.”
“And you never did, Jack ?”, Daff asked.
“I guess not.”
“How did you end up here, Daff”, Hugo asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I didn‘t really plan it this way. I grew up on a farm and I‘m an only child, so I was quite lonely for a while. I joined the United Nations Youth League when I was fifteen, I just wanted to meet some different people. I had a couple of exchange trips to China, and my Chinese became quite fluent. That obviously helps. Then I started to think about working for the League when I graduated.”
“Hmmn”, Hugo added.
“But it was Daff’s heroics in the Himalayas that brought her to our attention”, Irwin said. Jack and Hugo were moved to look up from their jelly.
Daff explained. “Well, we didn’t feel like heroes at the time. But anyway, because I was a good athlete, the League got me involved in mountaineering. Two summers ago I went on an expedition to the Himalaya, we were aiming to climb Annapurna. But we were pushed back by bad weather. Then on the lower slopes we were caught in an avalanche, and I dug someone out through three metres of snow.”
“Daff was awarded the League’s gold medal”, Irwin said smiling proudly at her.
Hugo broke out laughing and was unable to stop.
“It’s not a funny story”, Daff protested. “Some people almost died.”
“Well, I don’t understand your sense of humour either, Hugo”, Irwin added.
“What I find amazing”, Hugo said stifling his laughter, “is that in your sport someone gets a gold medal for screwing everything up. It sounds like that expedition was a total disaster !”
“Well, have you ever tried climbing an eight thousand meter peak ?”, Daff said.
“You just don’t understand, Hugo. We go to mountains like Annapurna for the sheer challenge of it. The challenge is sometimes the climb, but if we’re unlucky and things go wrong, the challenge is to survive, or to rescue someone in trouble. We met the challenge and we came through. That‘s what’s important.”
“Yeah, sure”, Hugo said sounding unconvinced. “The way I see it, for all that effort you produced nothing, and it’s all just an excuse to pat yourselves on the back.”
The small helpings of jelly were finished, and Jack sat quietly to aid his digestion. Irwin though, who seemed uneasy about the quarrelling, was looking for a good moment to intervene.
“I don’t want you two to fall out over this. Maybe, in a way, you’re both right ?” The others looked expectantly at Irwin, who was considering his words carefully. “One can look at situations from a humanitarian standpoint, or in an objective, scientific way.”
Daff shook her head. “I hope Hugo will keep his cynical thoughts to himself when we get to Greenshoot. We are on a diplomatic mission here …”
Hugo’s high-pitched laughter interrupted her. “Keep your thoughts to yourself ? You’ve not been doing your homework. The Greenshooters are rated level three telepaths !”
“I have read the intelligence briefing, thank you very much”, Daff said indignantly.“ That rating is just speculation and we’ll find out what they can really do. But if they can look into your mind, Hugo, you should be worried.”
Irwin made another attempt to smooth things over. “Hugo is important to us, Daff, because he has studied molecular synthesis. I read your paper Hugo, but I must admit it’s beyond my ability to understand it. I was not trained in physics and chemistry and as soon as the formulae start I am lost. So I will be looking to you for an objective, forensic report on what we find on Greenshoot. They might be able to bluff me. But you know about what is actually involved in making antivirals, and your mind is sharp and critical. Now, we all have our part to play, and we all have to work together. Isn‘t that right Daff ?”
Daff gave Irwin a brief nod to confirm the message was understood. She turned to Hugo and offered him a generous smile. Daff’s smile was perhaps her best feature, for her teeth were perfect and milky white, and as her eyes slanted they became more seductive. Hugo was briefly transfixed by the feminine charm. In the dark loneliness of space, and the grey confines of the Beluga’s crew deck, Daff was a thing of beauty.