“The years have been good to you. You look great, man!” says the person in charge of all the gun-toting new arrivals with a giant smile.
Cleve’s face bursts out into a matching grin. “Tech Sergeant Roze!” So this is Cleve’s friend who left him that message about Morgan. They are of slight build, but with some weight around the middle. Their light brown skin is more a cool taupe than my warm gold. Most of their graying black hair is worn in short twists, and even though we’re on a planet with supposedly no wifi, one ear bears a headset with a mouthpiece and a small one-eye HUD.
“Whoa, whoa! We don’t use ranks ‘round here anymore,” Roze replies with a laugh.
“Well, what do you use?” Cleve asks.
“How’s it going, Roze?!” Cleve starts again. “You all right?”
Roze lets out a long breath. “Whew! Yeah, I’m okay, but you just set off our security system. I thought you were dead, man!” Then they spare a glance for me and Corazon. “Who are these two?” they ask, tone less friendly.
“Tech Sergeant Roze, this is Em,” Cleve says, indicating me, “and this is Corazon Santiago.” I throw him a confused look. Formal introductions, and he just calls me by my first initial for some reason? What is that about?
I introduce myself properly. “Mariah Thorne,” I say, offering Roze my hand in greeting.
They look down at my hand with knit brows and instead offer a small wave. “Uh, pleased to meet you, Mariah? Mr. Thorne? Em?” They do not sound pleased to my ears.
“Mariah will do,” I tell them. “Perhaps that large pile of… briar beast?” I look to Corazon for confirmation that I’ve identified it correctly, and she nods. “—might also have tripped some alarms?”
“Yeah, no! That’s part of the alarm system.” With a distinct lack of enthusiasm, they add, “Thanks for testing it, I guess.”
“Wait, you controlled it?” I blurt out, fascinated by the possibility. I’ve hit it off poorly with Cleve’s old friend, though.
“Is he good? Is he clear? What’s his deal?” Roze asks Cleve bluntly.
“Yeah, Mariah’s all right,” he vouches for me. Then, with concern, he backs up the conversation, “Wait, that thing wasn’t a person, was it?” he asks, looking over at the collapsing mound of vegetation with alarm.
“No, it’s not a person! Gosh no, that would be awful. We wouldn’t do that!”
“We just woke up,” Cleve says, in our defense.
“That explains why you look so good,” Roze tells him. They look middle-aged to me; they could have been younger than Cleve when last those two saw each other.
Cleve smiles again, clearly happy to be back with his old friend. Or maybe just to encounter something familiar. “How the hell you doing?” he asks again.
Roze shakes their head, unsure of where even to start. “It’s been a long time, Cleve.”
Hopefully they still trust him. They haven’t told their ten armed underlings to stand down yet, though. Guns are not pointing directly at us, but nor are they holstered. “Corazon did have a pass phrase,” I volunteer. “We did try to enter it properly.”
Roze steps over to the terminal, which still has crazy symbols streaming down it. Their fingers fly across the keyboard. “Well, you started it properly, but you didn’t even try to deal with the low-level encryption,” they admonish us.
“Seemed like your handiwork,” Cleve says. This level of prank, this sort of literal gate-keeping, must be very much in Roze’s style.
“What can I say?” Roze replies grandly. “It’s not just about knowing the pass phrase, it’s knowing how to use it.”
“Yeah, I don’t think we knew enough,” Cleve tells them. “We just knew Data Haven sounded like a place to find you, Roze.”
“Guilty as charged,” they say with a smile, throwing their arm out and giving a small bow. “Now why don’t we get you inside—”
“But what’s this business with you being in trouble?” Cleve interrupts. The question throws Roze. “Oh, I guess it was thirty years ago. I got your message.”
“That’s good. I didn’t think it made it. But, really, let’s get everybody inside here. Y’all pretty clean? Did anything happen to you, aside from this briar beast?” Under their breath, Roze grumbles, “We’ll have to get a new one of those.”
“Like what?” Cleve asks. “We’ve been through the miasma.”
Much like Yushi did, Roze takes exception to my boutonniere. “We should get rid of that xenofungus there,” they say. I look down at it, and maybe my disappointment shows. “Did you just wake up, too? That stuff’s dangerous!” Reluctantly—partly because it is beautiful and partly because my blazer once was, too—I yank off the cutting, cringing a bit as it tears more of the fabric with its tiny thorns.
“We’ve only been awake three days,” Cleve tells Roze. “And we fought a nest of those wolf beetles—maybe bear beetles—apparently.”
“Yeah, if there’s some sort of medic or clinic here, it would probably be good for us to get checked over,” I agree.
“I guess what I’m saying, Roze, is I’m not sure if we’re clean.”
“And we were in pods for thirty years longer than we were supposed to be,” I add, thinking of the flashing yellow light on mine.
“Yeah, and I don’t trust that those things were rated to what they should have been,” Roze says. They frown as they look me up and down. I know I look a mess, but I’m surprised at the alarm I see in their eyes when they meet mine. “Aw no, you cannot come inside. You need a full-on detox. We’re going to send someone out here, but you need to wait outside.” The words are clearly directed just at me.
Corazon offers a reassuring, “Detox is… eh… Different places are more or less serious about it, even in Morgan domes.”
“Detox from what?” Cleve asks.
“He’s covered in spores and fungus, and he had an actual branch on him! We can’t have that getting into our clean system,” Roze protests. I groan internally. Tripping as we ran through the miasma—that’s what’s responsible for making me stand out from my companions. The briar beast also flailed at me quite a bit. Maybe it has toxic qualities, too.
I can’t contain my disappointed sigh, but I keep my tone agreeable as I reply, “All right, that sounds reasonable.” I do not mention that my cryopod might have been compromised. Civilization is so close—just beneath my feet—and I don’t want to risk being completely refused entry. Roze has the potential to play that up too much. They’re a bit dramatic, this one.
As the group prepares to enter the elevator, Roze asks about weapons. They don’t seem to care that Cleve has any, but Corazon is another matter. “Information wants to be free!” she protests with the pass phrase.
“Yeah, I know, we get it. It’s not that simple,” Roze says.
“I saw your poster. I talked with Morris!”
“Stop giving away information!” Roze admonishes her, growing more stern as Cleve and Corazon are ushered into the elevator. “I understand the information wants to be free. But you can’t just go blabbing it.”
Corazon turns to me and calls out a reassuring, “I’ll make sure they send someone up! I won’t let you be lost out here!” Cleve doesn’t say anything. He’s not the sentimental type.
The elevator door closes, and I am left alone on an alien world.