Chapter 18

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"Who was first?" asked Hernandez.

"What do you mean?" said Caroline.

"Who actually touched the surface first? It was supposed to be this big moment, with quotes and all that. But I can't seem to remember any of it happening."

"Well, if memory serves, the people on the first shuttles were a few technicians and scientists. I could pull up a list of their names, but I still wouldn't know who actually stepped out first."

"You could try asking one of them, maybe they saw."

"You know what? I don't think I will. Every other big first landing in history always began with some pretentious little sound bite and a boatload of significance. It's nice that this one just was."

"That doesn't seem right..."

"I'm the admiral. My word is law." Caroline grinned at the Lieutenant. Hernandez tried to reciprocate, but couldn't help but let some concern leak into his smile.

At first, the sample seemed to be dead. It stopped breathing and James could almost see it deflate. He sighed in relief. Nadya slumped and looked over at him.

"See, I told you. No big deal."

"Fair. But now we'll have to get a new sample and keep testing. This time, without the unscheduled feedings."

Nadya laughed and left the observation room to call in another sample from the starship. James stayed behind and turned up his inner symphony. Feeling in a good mood, he decided to play around with his chip, something he rarely ever allowed himself to do. The observation room turned blue, and fronds of coral grew from the walls to form a veritable city of organic fronds. Not usually to his taste, but he found the shapes pleasing at this happy moment.

He almost didn't notice when Nadya returned. She blended well with the false reality, in her blue hazard suit. When she turned to him and said something, the program fuzzed out the sound into a mash of bubbles. She spoke again, louder this time.

Then she began to approach him, her movements much too fast to fit this slow, liquid world of his, and he snapped out of the program.

"The thing's alive again."

James felt his stomach sinking, his spirits suddenly falling from the giddy heights. He had the chip feed him Shostakovich and asked Nadya what she meant.

"The sample is breathing as normal," she elaborated. "It's actually pulsing a little now. And, uh, the pressure inside the containment vessel is hiking up."

"I don't know," said Hernandez. "This operation has been the largest undertaking in all human history. It should have some reasonable degree of ceremony. At the very least we could try to write down who actually touched the ground first."

"Listen, Hernandez," said Caroline. "Your insistence on this point is starting to wear my patience thin. If you want to go interview every soul on this rock to find out who was the first, be my guest. Just don't make me listen to you talking about it."

"Understood, Admiral," Hernandez sighed.

"There are more important things to be worrying about. Is David still reporting all green?"

"Yes, he's waiting for your permission to deorbit and come back home."

"Tell him to hold up there. We might need boots in the sky if this plan doesn't work."

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