Monday, 30 September 2013

Chapter 4. Of the Team

I woke in a hotel room. At least, that was my first impression. I was nude and alone in a comfortable bed, and the layout of the room seemed familiar.

But, I soon saw, this was no Earthly hotel. The bed was much longer than I would have expected, and higher off the floor as well. There wasn’t any literature on the desk telling me why I should embrace the latest enviro fad. Nor even telling me when and where breakfast was. And it was warm, several degrees warmer than you’d expect in a hotel room on Earth if the air conditioning was working.

When I padded into the bathroom, I found a tub almost big enough to drown me. I’m in a hotel, yes, I thought. But the room I’m in is made for Seraphim.

I used the tub, which was pleasantly cleansing. Then, I looked around for my clothes, and they weren’t there. Instead, there was a white gown-like robe, about my size, draped over a large brown armchair. With it were a lightweight, plain white T-shirt and shorts. And next to the armchair was a pair of stout brown shoes, with socks laid on top of them.

I swore several times, then I put the clothes on.

There was no phone in the room. But there was a metallic grille about where you’d expect a phone to be. I heard a sudden clack, and then Michael’s voice coming from it. “Good morning, Neil,” he said. “Are you ready to join us for breakfast?”

I spluttered. “Am I ready to join who?”

“The Team, of course,” he said.

“What Team?”

“The Team, that’s our party of fourteen humans on this ship. And if you remember, you’re the Team Leader.” I did remember, now.

The mention of breakfast had made me hungry. So, “How do I get to you?” I asked.

“We are at hotel co-ordinates 0B404,” said Michael. “See the big brown armchair in your room, with a foot-rest? It is a transport chair. Do you see a pad of buttons on the right arm-rest? And next to it, a card in English, telling you which button is which?”


“Then sit in the chair, and press 0, B, 4, 0, 4 on the buttons. Then press Confirm. Your chair will take you to us. It will take a few minutes to get here.”

I obeyed. The armchair lifted slightly off the floor, then made for the door. The door opened, and we went through. The corridor wasn’t much different from a corridor in an Earthly hotel – just bigger. And the lifts or elevators, at first glance, didn’t look much different either. Except… all the doors were open.

The armchair made for one of the shafts, though I could see there wasn’t a lift there. I tensed, but suddenly relaxed again. At least, I was glad I hadn’t tried to walk.

The armchair took me backwards into the shaft, then dropped gently. A little time passed. Then, it exited through another opening into a public area. The guests, I saw, were of many different species. Some like lizards, some like monkeys or humans, some like snakes, a few like horses, pigs or cattle, some like plants or trees, and some like nothing I had ever seen before. Many were on moving platforms or climbing-frames, or in chairs like mine, or on larger transport sofas. And about half of them wore robes, or frills, of various colours.

The armchair took me to a door where Michael, again dressed in a yellow robe, met me. “Welcome, Neil,” he said. I got out of the chair, and it parked itself against the wall at the end of a row of similar chairs.

I went through the door. There were thirteen people already in the room, some eating, some drinking coffee. All wore white robes like mine. And there was another Seraph. He looked exactly like Michael, except he had a mole on his left cheek. His name, I knew without having to ask, was Gabriel.

There was a breakfast buffet. Some things in it looked and tasted how you’d expect in an Earthly breakfast – the bacon, for example. Others were recognizable, but had slightly different flavours. Yet others were – well, weird. Not nasty at all, but weird. That included the “coffee.” I stuck with the tea, which was a bit weird too, but grew on me.

“This is Seraphim food,” said Michael to me. “But do not worry, our metabolisms are close. You need have no fear of poison, and you will find our food most nourishing.”

I took the hint, and didn’t take that extra rasher (or two) of bacon.

* * *

When we had finished breakfast, Michael invited us all to move to the conference area.

Imagine the scene. Fourteen people of most ages, sizes and races, all in white robes, in the audience in a conference room. At the podium, two yellow-robed Seraphim, human in design, but bigger and blockier.

“Welcome, Team,” said Michael. “All of you already know something of why you are here. And all of you have met either me, or Gabriel, before.” Gabriel smiled.

“I will tell you more. We are now in the Galactic Far Transport Vessel 18162-V, on a major stage of our journey to a planet called Perinent. That is a good place for you to perform the tasks you have agreed to do, to secure the admission of the human species into the Galaxy.”

So Galactics don’t name their ships as floridly as some Earthly science fiction writers imagine, I thought.

Gabriel looked at me uneasily, but Michael continued. “Our journey on this ship will be about eight of your Earth weeks. You have free use of the ship’s hotel facilities and parks, and freedom to meet other species.

“But I must say to you, that since you are not yet admitted to Junior Galactic status, I and Gabriel will be held personally responsible for your behaviour. Please don’t make trouble for us.”

There was a pause, then a South African voice to my right, “Where’s the bar?” Laughter, then I said, “Great idea, but shouldn’t we get to know each other first?”

Michael smiled and blanched at the same time. “I forgot to tell you,” he said, pointing to me, “that we have already selected Neil as Team Leader. He is the one who has to resolve any disputes between you. He will also have the responsibility to interface with the project managers when we get to Perinent.”

Project managers, plural? I thought. Recipe for disaster. Gabriel looked even uneasier than before.

“Right,” I said. “Let’s introduce ourselves. I’ll go first. I’m Neil, I’m from England, and by most people’s standards I’m gently mad. And, for my sins, I’m your Team Leader. Now it’s your turn – clockwise, please.”

I had already met Cees from Holland, young Elise from Sweden and fifty-ish Galina from Russia. I rapidly met: Ray and Jenna, a couple from Australia. Ben, two metres tall, mid fifties, from South Africa. Lily, slim and thirties, from Sierra Leone. Shami, a teacher from India. Dede from Indonesia. Sabrina, young and fit, from Hong Kong. Hoong an electrical engineer from Beijing. John – the oldest of us at 73 – from Minneapolis. And Marie, an artist from New Orleans. Fairly well spread across the globe, but no South Americans, for some reason.

After Marie introduced herself, I said, “Michael, can you please tell us again, so all of us have it quite clear, why we’re here?”

“Yes,” said Michael. “This is the first Team meeting of the Human Birth Project, Galactic No. DSE/11619/BV. The purpose of this project is to bring your human race to the level where you can be admitted to Junior Galactic status.”

“And why were we fourteen chosen for the Team?”

Gabriel looked apoplectic, but remained silent. Michael replied, “You were, in the opinion of our project consultant, Bart Vorsprong of the Tefla, the best equipped individuals on Earth for the job.

“But there should have been sixteen of you. Two pick-ups were missed. This is why Gabriel is silent. According to the Code of the Seraphim, any Seraph pilot who misses a pick-up may not speak until he has been pardoned for his failure.”

“I can add to that,” said John. “When Gabriel had picked up me and Marie, he turned south to make more pick-ups. But, as we flew towards South America, missiles were fired at us. He didn’t want to shoot down the missiles; that would have caused panic below. So he evaded them, but that meant he couldn’t make the pick-ups in time.”

I had a sudden feeling of power, and said, “Let Gabriel speak.”

Gabriel relaxed, and said, “John tells the truth. I failed in part of my assignment, so there are only fourteen humans in the Team, instead of the sixteen planned. I am sorry.”

“Understood and forgiven,” I said. “Thank you,” said Gabriel.

Then I said, “I think I’ll exert my authority as Team Leader. That’s enough of business for now. Let’s take Ben’s suggestion, and all repair to the bar. Where you, Michael and Gabriel, will tell us how we are to live on this ship.

“Tell us how to get back to our rooms, how to get transport around the ship, where everything is – including the food and drink. Tell us how we get the daily things done, like having our robes laundered. Tell us what there is to do on the ship, and what we must, and mustn’t, do to avoid offence. Tell us how we should ask for services, how we know what they cost, how we charge the project for them. Tell us how we talk to species who don’t know English.”

“We don’t need to go to the bar,” replied Michael. “We already have everything we need right here in this room.” He pointed to what had replaced the breakfast buffet. “Including alcoholic refreshments for later, of course.”

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