The shipwide meeting took place just after third meal was offered in the dining area. Charge Seren, along with the men who had accompanied him onto Neveah, stood in front of the hundred-plus Travelers and detailed out their days on the new planet.
With help from the men who had been with him, Seren explained the landscape, the foliage, the wildlife, and the dangers. All six men answered questions, and more than once the Charge Pilot had to order the excited crew to calm down so everyone could hear. Almost three hours passed before Seren felt they’d answered all questions they were able to and decided to lay out the final plan for disembarking before dismissing everyone.
“I know that every one of you is curious as to the day we’ll disembark and the manner in which we’ll do so. I want you to know that everyone’s safety is my first priority, and I hope it is yours as well. If we’re all watching out for each other, the likelihood of things going wrong is greatly lessened.
“Now, this is subject to be changed if I find it necessary, but as of now I am making arrangements for the entire crew to disembark three mornings from now.”
He was interrupted by cheers that went on for several minutes. It took effort to bring the roar down to levels where he could be heard, but he understood their happiness.
“I believe three days will give you time to gather what supplies you’ll need for seven days’ worth of travel.”
The earlier noise was replaced with a quiet murmuring of voices that revealed confusion. Seren offered a mild smile and nodded his head.
“To answer the question I know is in your minds, we will not initially be staying in the area around the ship, although we will be returning to it. Our first days on Neveah will be spent walking the area that the team and I explored. We’ll be placing markers as we go. The markers will be color-coded for specific reasons and areas, and I will be sending out a transmission within the next day or so explaining them in detail. However, just so you know up front, there will be places that are initially off-limits. We have much more to learn about this land and we will take the time to learn it, both for ourselves and for our fellow Arlytians who hope to join us here sooner rather than later. But, that doesn’t mean that the initial boundaries we set cannot be expanded. I thoroughly expect them to enlarge as we grow and learn, but I do ask you to be patient. If you have questions or concerns over the course of time, I hope you’ll approach me or another Charge and share them.”
He paused a moment to let his words sink in and take root before continuing.
“Also in the next day, I’ll be sending out a transmission that will inform you of group assignments. To keep confusion at a minimum, we’ll be leaving the ship in six groups of twenty. The order of disembarking will be listed as well. I’ll have leaders appointed within the groups, and each of you will have specific assignments, either given by me or by your group leaders. You are to stay connected with your group throughout our trek. Is that understood?”
A chorus of “Yes Sir” and “Yes, Charge Seren” rumbled around the room.
The Charge Pilot stood tall, looking proud and pleased. “Thank you for your cooperation and patience. You are dismissed.”
The dismissal didn’t happen right away. The Travelers were too excited and wound up to just leave, and many still had questions. Seren did his best to assure and answer what he could, but more questions kept coming and he began to wonder if he’d ever make it to his bed that evening when he unexpectedly found himself being helped through the crowd by Charges Ozias and Cayson. Cayson made general comments to the Travelers about the medical crew needing Seren’s attention for a while, and Ozias walked close by his side, silently acting as a barricade between the Charge Pilot and overexcited crew.
When they were free of the crowd, Seren gave proper attention to Charge Cayson. “What need is there from your medics, Charge Cayson? Is it something to do with being on Neveah?”
“No sir,” Cayson answered immediately. “I hope you’ll forgive us if we’ve stepped out of line, but my medics don’t need you…at least not right this minute. We all do have some questions for a better time. But it’s been more than two hours since the meeting ended and Oz and I just thought you might like to return to your quarters. Amrynn believed that the bulk of the crew would forego their beds tonight so long as they were able to question you. It seemed that it might be best for everyone’s sake if you were able to leave.”
While Seren didn’t quite like having given off the impression that he needed “rescued” from his own people, he could admit to himself that he was grateful for the two men’s aid.
“Thank you both. I hate to leave everyone with unanswered questions, but some things the crew will have to discover on their own.”
The men nodded and Cayson flashed a smile that Seren suspected could bring Oz and Amrynn to their knees. “Discovering things for ourselves is more fun anyway,” he stated.
Seren noticed Ozias’s fingers threading through Cayson’s after the remark, and the action was something the Charge Pilot was pleased to see. It also reminded him of a thought he’d had earlier that day, and he decided to follow through with it.
“I agree with you, Charge Cayson, and I’d like to ask both of you as well as Charge Amrynn to meet with me tomorrow morning. I’d like to discuss something with you. Would the eighth hour work?”
The men looked at each other a moment before nodding in unison. “Yes sir, we can do that. Where shall we meet you?” Oz asked.
“My stateroom would be easiest. I have some things there I’d like to show you. Tomorrow then?”
“Yes sir,” they answered together, and then with respectful nods, the three men parted ways.
Kel, the Charge Nutritionist among the Travelers, groaned as the kitchen’s specialized data unit beeped, alerting him to an order being received. It had been a busy day, busier than others because of the extensive meeting Charge Seren had held in the dining area, which meant that people ordered food they didn’t particularly want because they were there and it was appealing. The crew had finally dispersed and Kel had sent his Backers and helpers to their quarters, promising that he’d do the last of the clean-up for the evening. It was two minutes to the time he locked the doors when the beep sounded, which meant that any Traveler was still within their right to order something. Tired and wanting his bed, he hoped the order was for a morning meal and not a late-night snack. To his unfortunate luck, it wasn’t. In fact, it was more than a snack. The order was for a third-meal.
Grumbling, Kel sent a reply with an estimated arrival time, then set to work making the food. However, in a few minutes his grumbles ceased. Kel enjoyed the ease and creativity that making a meal, particularly a healthy meal, gave him. He could cook for one or for a hundred. He spent his spare times creating recipes, learning from farming and nutrition textbooks, and studying the plants in the Ag unit—Ozias had even allowed him a small patch to tend for himself. He considered himself and his interests simple, even though he’d been told his whole life that he had a brilliant mind when it came to anything food related.
It didn’t take long to make the meal, and Kel wrapped the plate and made sure the ship’s kitchen was neat and clean before heading out to deliver the food. He double-checked the order origin. He wasn’t typically the one who delivered meals, but he had no intention of disturbing one of his Backers to do a task he could easily handle himself. In short order he was at the Traveler’s door and he rapped briskly.
It took a moment for an answer and Kel was about to knock a second time when the door opened. His heart turned over at the sight of the highly attractive but tear-stained face that appeared before him. The lad…and he really didn’t appear much older than a lad…was shirtless with a lithe but toned upper body, and the chest was rising and falling with the effort it was putting forth to breath and not look like its owner had been crying.
Kel forgot about his job and the food in his hand at the sight. “Hey, what’s wrong? Are you ok?”
“I’m fine,” the boy told him both insolently and unconvincingly. He wiped roughly at his eyes. “I’m just hungry. Sure took you long enough.”
The tone caused irritation to flare briefly in Kel’s chest, but it quickly dissipated as he recognized the young Traveler’s attempt to distract from his distress.
“I’m sorry for the wait. I was about to lock up when your order came in, so it took a little longer.”
The lad seemed troubled by his answer, his face falling further. “I didn’t know you were locking up. Sorry if I caused you extra work.”
Kel smiled at him, hoping the young man would smile back. “It’s ok…”
His unspoken request was answered when the Traveler almost shyly said, “Corbin. I’m Corbin.”
“I’m Kel, and I’m sorry I haven’t met you before. Looks like you could use a friend right now.”
Corbin shrugged. “I’m ok.”
“You sure? Who’s your roommate? Can you talk to him?”
Corbin wrinkled his nose, a gesture Kel found sweet, although he didn’t know a man on Arlytia who would appreciate that choice of word.
“Marc is with his friends somewhere.”
Kel took that to mean that Corbin and Marc weren’t overly close. “Would you like some company?” he found himself asking. “Eating alone isn’t usually much fun, and you can unload on me if you want.”
Corbin snorted…or sniffed…it was hard to tell for sure, but he nodded once and let Kel follow him into the small stateroom. Kel still held the wrapped plate in his hands, and he moved automatically to set in on the room’s small table while Corbin shouldered into a shirt.
“Eat it while it’s hot, Corbin. It’s always better that way.”
Corbin managed a small smile. “I will. I just want a drink. Um, you want something?”
“Sure. Whatever you’re having.”
Corbin nodded and retrieved two waters from the icing box, handing one to Kel as they sat at the table. The young man looked uncomfortable at first. Kel’s presence seemed to be making him squirm. Hoping to make him feel better, Kel watched him eat a couple bites before trying to get the young man to talk to him.
“Want to share what has you so upset? I’d think, like the rest of the Travelers, you’d be thrilled with the news that we’ll be heading onto Neveah soon, not looking so sad.”
The comment seemed to upset Corbin more. “Who cares about Neveah,” he grumbled, although Kel saw fresh wetness in the young man’s eyes.
“Who cares? Why do you say that? Most of the crew has been dreaming about the day they get to leave the ship and touch down on Neveah’s soil.”
Corbin’s voice was choked when he spoke again. “Yeah well, Charge Seren is making me be the last one off the ship.”
Kel was confused. “He’s making you be the last? Why? I don’t understand.”
Corbin wiped at his face again as a tear slipped out. “It’s my fault. I fought with Pilot Sabik when she denied a request to leave the ship a few days ago, and when Charge Seren found out, he said he was putting me in the last group to leave.”
And to someone who’d been so looking forward to leaving the ship, Kel could understand how that decision was hard to accept, although he thought the Charge Pilot had made the punishment fit the crime.
“That’s rough,” he sympathized. “But at least you’re still going to get to leave. Charge Seren has a reputation of being fair but pretty firm when it comes down to it. He could have decided on Isolation or Corporal Castigation, so maybe you actually lucked out.” Corbin’s head dropped and Kel saw the redness of a blush burning his ears. “Corbin?”
The young Traveler picked at the food on his plate. “Charge Seren has a heavy hand, you know?”
Kel was confused for a moment, and then Corbin’s uncomfortable squirms suddenly weren’t about having an unfamiliar man in his room. He felt truly bad for the young Traveler, and not a little upset with the Charge Pilot for what seemed like overkill.
“He physically disciplined you as well?”
“Not for the thing with Pilot Sabik,” Corbin explained, his voice coming quietly but without the choking it had a minute ago. It appeared he wanted someone to talk to. “I wasn’t entirely…truthful…with him. He said he couldn’t trust someone who lies to him, and that’s why he…”
He couldn’t finish, but Kel knew what he meant. “He disciplined you for lying to a superior,” he concluded.
Corbin nodded. “I shouldn’t have done that. I know, but it…hurts.” Another tear dripped down his cheek and Kel reached to rub a hand up and down his back.
“He was severe? Is it bruised? Maybe some cream would help.”
Corbin drew in a shuddering breath. “No, that’s not what hurts. I mean…yeah, it does, but…”
“But?” Kel asked, confused once again.
“But that’s not what hurts the most.”
That didn’t clear anything up for Kel. “What are you talking about? Are you injured somewhere?”
Corbin shook his head. “It’s not that. It’s that I let him down. I hate it. The first chance I really get to talk to him, and I mess up so badly. He’ll never think well of me!”
Puzzle pieces clicked together for Kel. “I see. You wanted him to notice you for other reasons.”
Corbin nodded morosely. “It’s stupid. He’s the head of the Travelers and I’m just a Backer who screws up and causes problems.”
Kel didn’t like hearing that. He didn’t know Corbin, but he instinctively liked and him and found him appealing. He also knew that to have been picked as a Traveler, you had to be considered an exceptional individual.
“Don’t talk like that, Corbin,” he ordered, maybe a bit more harshly than he meant to, but he believed what he was about to say. “Everyone screws up. That’s normal, and the best you can do is learn from your mistakes and not repeat them. Even Charge Seren is going to mess up sometimes.”
“No he’s not!” Corbin said immediately, and Kel immediately recognized hero-worship when he saw it.
“Calm down,” Kel soothed. “And listen to me. You don’t do Charge Seren any good by putting him on a pedestal like that. It will hurt you both much more when he falls off it. Look at him and see the good man as well as the real man. He is not perfect, but he is a noble leader to respect.
“And be careful how you think of yourself,” he added. “Less than one percent of the population of Arlytia was chosen to become Travelers, and you were one of them. I don’t know what your specialty is, but I’ve no doubt that you’re exceptional at it. Remember that you were chosen because people believed you capable of handling the mission and were someone who could prepare Neveah for future generations. You are not a screw up.”
Corbin finally looked him in the eyes. “You really think so?”
“I really know so,” Kel stated firmly. “And there might be something else you should remember.”
“Charge Seren was part of the team who picked each Traveler. Maybe the two of you don’t know each other personally, but he knows your background, your talents, and what your professors, friends, and family think of you. All those things made him believe that you were a right pick to be on this mission.”
Corbin’s face brightened. “I didn’t know that. He really helped pick me?”
“That’s my understanding. Chief Win told me how things were done before we left.”
Corbin’s smile slowly got bigger. “Thanks, Kel.”
“You’re welcome, lad. Now eat up and tell me what you are looking forward to about being on Neveah.”
Corbin did eat with more enthusiasm then, and he and Kel enjoyed each other’s pleasant company until Corbin’s roommate returned. Kel introduced himself to Marc, but then made his excuses to leave, not having realized until that moment just how late it had gotten.
“Hey Kel,” Corbin said as he followed him to the door.
“Um, I just thought, if you ever want to talk or go to the lounge with someone, you could call me.”
Kel smiled. “Or I could ask you outright,” he said with a wink that made Corbin grin. “I spend most of my day in the ship’s kitchen, but I can cut out early tomorrow. Will you be here about the fifteenth hour?”
Corbin nodded. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I’ll stop by here then and we can make a plan for the evening. I’ll see you then.”“See you,” Kel agreed, and left with a wave.