Pendulum Ch. 2: Ad Astra

The man at the podium droned on and on, and Deirdre tried not to fall asleep.
“You are aware of the importance of your mission, and you are aware of your specific role. You are aware of the pressure the needs of humanity puts on you, and of the needs of our partners from the Otherworld.”
She had heard all of this before, countless times.
“Ad Astra” was a huge space station.
The ring rotated at high enough speed to produce fifty percent of Earth’s gravity.
Deirdre MacBreen was pale. Whether this was because of the low gravity environment, the ceremony, or because of the endless talk that wouldn’t stop, who could tell? If this went on for much longer, she’d sneak out and take a break. The air was too thick, too hot, and the mix of excitement and boredom made her restless.
“You are the first to explore our neighbouring star systems and discover unknown places for us to settle. You are at the very heart of space exploration. Without you, humanity won’t survive the decline of our home planet. We here on Earth depend on you to get to your destination, and to come back and report.”
The man had deep wrinkles and snow white hair that formed a sharp contrast to his dark brown skin. Commander Armstrong was the man in charge of the station, and luckily, the last speaker of the day. This was the first wave of exploration vessels, and she’d be on one of them, the Tir Na nOg, the Mag Mell or the Tuatha De Danann. Thinking about it made her heart beat faster and put a silly smile on her face. Of course it was silly. It was her smile, after all. She took a deep breath and listened on.
“You know how dire the situation is, and that there is no time to waste. You have been provided with anything you will need to do your job, and you have the trust of humanity, the fair folk, and especially your peers. Show your worth, that we were right to invest in you. You are the ones to go on this first, important mission that will pave the way for the survival of our children.”
Deirdre narrowly suppressed a yawn. She balanced on her toes and looked around at the others in the room.
There were the captains standing left of the podium, behind Commander Armstrong, the mentors to his right, one each per ship. No idea who the captains were, and it didn’t matter, anyway. She was way more interested in the mentors. There was Sidheag O’Brien, the famous arch druid who first opened the permanent gate to the Otherworld of Luna City, with the help of the two courts. Rumours had it she was not very talkative. She sure looked that part. She had long, white hair in a long braid that fell over her shoulder, matching the flowing white robe and the pale face perfectly. A fellow redhead turned white over the centuries. She was over two hundred years old now.
“Be focused. I don’t have to tell you this, you already know what can happen if you don’t work well as a team. Remember the flight of the Icarus around Mercury? If even a veteran like Esme Connor could fail, then you rookies can, too. Always keep this in the back of your heads. There is no perfect human.”
The short man next to Sidheag was Noah Ward, the famous arch druid of American heritage who had made the test flight to Alpha Centauri and back. His bald head dripped with sweat. Whether that was caused by the stage lighting, or his stature, she didn’t care to guess. Word was he was self-important and had a tendency to go on long-winded rants. If she’d end up under his tutelage, she’d throw herself out of the airlock. No way she’d survive a long mission with a superior who couldn’t shut up. Life was too short to put up with that stuff, and she wasn’t even in her late twenties yet.
Several points itched. Her head, the notorious spot between her shoulder blades, her forearm. The humidity in the room seemed to have gone up, or if it hadn’t, it at least felt as if the air would turn into liquid at any moment.
The tall figure to the right was the legendary Brilann O Fionnaini. Nobody knew his age. He was the stuff of legends — some said he could not die. A spell by The Morrigan herself held him upright until… yeah, until when? Hopefully not until they were underway, somewhere in the reaches of outer space. Then again, this was Brilann, a pillar of strength, no matter how fragile he might look. His long hair hung free over his slender shoulders, his blind, white eyes stared into a distance nobody could grasp. Little was known about his personality among students, but that didn’t hamper the creation of rumours. Some said he was scary, as anyone would be after hundreds of years walking the earth. Bullshit, of course.
A sigh next to her expressed her own feeling perfectly. Deirdre turned her head and looked at Maya. Their eyes met, and both grinned. This was how it had always been, since they first met so many years ago. It felt like an eternity. It hadn’t, before this ceremony, but years must have passed during these — how long had it been? Deirdre called up the main menu of her system and checked. Only an hour! They had been sitting for most of it, and her butt hurt, and only got up for this last speech.
“Hope the old fart gets it over with before I fall asleep,” Maya whispered.
“How can he stand for this long without taking root?”
Both bit their lips. Laughing now was a surefire way to get them into trouble.
Deirdre’s legs tingled, and she had to stretch them out right now. There, better. But it didn’t end with her legs. All throughout her body, the urge to move got stronger and stronger. This was not good.
She turned her head, only to catch Maya fidgeting with something in her hands. She squinted her eyes to see what it was, and it turned out to be her old stress ball. Deirdre was relieved she wasn’t the only one having a hard time standing here, doing nothing.
“I should have got one, too,” she whispered, gesturing at the little toy in her friend’s hands.
“Told you so.”
“Yeah, yeah.”
Maya stuck out her tongue at her. Deirdre pretended not to notice, for all of one second, then burst out laughing. It didn’t take half as long to notice her mistake.
Her laughter died the instant she looked forward at the speaker. He stared right at her. Worse, the arch druids did, too, except for Brilann — maybe. Everyone in her vicinity turned around, looking for the perpetrator.
Blood rushed into her face and made her blush, probably even turn dark red. She couldn’t avert her gaze or look down at her feet, no matter how desperately she wanted right now. Trapped.
Commander Armstrong cleared his throat exaggeratedly and renewed his grip on the sheet with notes in his hands. Only Ward was still staring at her, capturing her with his dark brown eyes, refusing to let her go. Her heart hammered against her throat.
“I sincerely hope my speech doesn’t bore you all too much,” the commander said, and several people in the audience snickered. Not the captains, though, and not the mentors. The captains continued to stare straight forward as if nothing had happened, but they must have known who had caused the commotion. Finally, after what felt like forever, Ward let her flee his gaze and turned his head back to Armstrong, who had continued his speech. Deirdre couldn’t focus on it, though. The iron ring around her chest loosened, and she could breathe again.
Maya next to her chuckled.
“Your fault,” Deirdre hissed.
Maya grinned, then straightened her back and looked at the podium. Deirdre followed her example.
The audience comprised all members of every crew of the three ships. Her fellow druids were a small group right in the middle of the pack, luckily not too close to the podium, but not far enough for her taste, either. Security personnel, quartermasters, clumps of scientists of various fields, bridge crew, marines. The ships were large. Her eyes wandered around the room. The two groups of faeries on opposite sides of the audience caught her attention. Their uniforms differed from hers. Even though they would be on the same ship, being part of the same crew, they were not officially part of the Space Exploration Agency. Rather than forming one organisation to represent the Otherworld, though, they were divided into two separate entities, divided by court affiliation, much as humans had once been divided by nationality. A man with the insignia of a Chief Warrant Officer left the hall, shooting her a quick glance, frowning.
The urge to move returned, and it got harder to keep it under control.
Her stomach growled so loud, everyone must have heard it. In reality, that was rather unlikely. Nobody showed any reaction, except for, of course, Maya. Her giggle was almost inaudible, only almost. Deirdre poked her friend in the ribs, and the giggling continued, masterfully suppressed.
“If we don’t get out of here soon, my stomach will eat itself.”
“No big deal. You could lose a few pounds.” Maya winked and grinned from ear to ear.
“What did you—”
Armstrong fell silent again, and this time, not only he and the arch druids turned towards her. People around her had heard her words, too, and anyone further away quickly identified the reason the commander had interrupted his speech, by following the eyes of the surrounding people.
“Lieutenant MacBreen. I wish to have a chat with you after this speech. I will wait for you in my office.”
The crowd mumbled, but no clear voice reached her. The sound of rushing blood in her ears was louder than the annoyed or pitiful comments she felt more than she could actually hear. Just when she thought she had calmed down, she was back in the spotlight. There was no escape now. She would have to report to the commander, listen to the reprimands, and accept any disciplinary action that might come her way. She grimaced. If only she hadn’t answered Maya, then she wouldn’t have to deal with unneeded trouble on the day that should have been the first day of her glorious new life as an explorer of distant worlds, paving the way for generations to come, carrying humankind to the stars, stepping out of the shadows of her famous parents… and all that.
She took a deep breath. Reminding herself why she was here had helped. She would go to the commander’s office and take responsibility. It wasn’t Maya’s fault, anyway. She wouldn’t even mention her friend — Maya wouldn’t rat her out either. Maybe if she showed remorse, they would let her off the hook without further consequences. All she really wanted was to get on board her new ship anyway, meet her new crew mates, and last but not least, put all those endless hours of training and the long lectures to actual use.
Of all the druids in the program, she was the best. She could hyper-focus on demand and pull off what nobody else could, if only she got the chance. They wouldn’t kick her out just because she had exchanged a few words with Maya, would they?

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