Captain Garrick watched as his first officer stared into the bowl of chicken soup sitting in front of him. Garrick had known Kyle since their days in the Air Force Academy, but it was obvious that Kyle was a million light-years away. Garrick cleared his throat.
"Commander Wagoner, come in please. This is Captain Garrick."
Kyle looked up at Garrick. "I'm sorry, Captain. I was just thinking."
Garrick smiled. "I know what you're thinking about. You're wondering what Rachel's doing back on Earth. You're wondering if I'll get you back there in time for the wedding."
Kyle nodded. He lifted a spoonful of soup and blew on it before putting it in his mouth.
"You can stop that worrying right now. Rachel, my mom, and your mom would all kill me if I make you even an hour late. I'll fly this ship to pieces to get you back there in time. I promise." He locked his eyes onto Kyle's for the last part.
"I know you will, Paul. But it's not just about being late."
Paul raised an eyebrow. "No? What's on your mind? I can't have my first officer distracted."
"Well," Kyle started, then stared back at his soup. "It's just that I've been aboard the Prospect since she launched."
Paul could see the struggle going on behind Kyle's eyes. "I know. I was glad you stayed on to show me the ropes when I took over. I don't know if I'd have made it through that month without you."
"Thanks. I'm not looking for praise, Paul. With the end of my tour coming up when we get back to Earth, there's something I've always wanted to do. It's never been possible before." His eyes went back to the bowl.
"If you're about to declare your undying love for me--"
"Dammit, Paul," Kyle said, "it's hard enough to talk about this without you poking fun at me. You know how that pisses me off."
Paul faced his palms toward Kyle. "I'm sorry. Please, just ask me whatever it is. We've known each other for twenty years. If you can't ask me as captain, ask me as your friend Paul. If you can't ask either one of us, just pretend I'm not here and you're asking the soup. You're giving it more eye contact than me, anyway."
"Captain Vail ran the Prospect differently than you do. He went on each away mission personally, along with the high-ranking officers in other departments of the crew."
"You've told me that before, I don't--"
"Let me finish. Because he always went, and took so many officers with him, he always ordered me to stay behind. 'Don't worry, Wagoner,' he'd say, 'When I retire you'll be the one going. Don't scratch the ship while I'm gone.' In five years, I never left the ship except to visit Earth or the base on Mars."
"He never sent you down to any of the planets you visited?"
Kyle shook his head, and took another bite of soup.
"Our first mission's not going to be very exciting. Have you read the briefing yet?"
"No. You haven't cleared the lock on it."
"Oops. Let me give you the rundown. About ten years ago, the Alliance sent a scout ship to Gamma Cygni VII to check it out. Long range probes said it had very Earth-like conditions and might make a good colony planet for the Alliance. When the probe got close enough, it found a thriving humanoid civilization there that was just beginning to venture into space. They pulled the probe back and decided to send human visitors in a few years. When the first-contact ship arrived, the sensors indicated no animal life on the planet. Something destroyed the civilization. We've been ordered there to gather detailed sensor scans,photographs, and 3D imagery. If it looks safe enough, we're to go down in hazard suits and take air, water, soil, and plant samples. The Alliance wants to know what killed those people, and whether it's still a threat. If not, they're going to send scientists and scholars to have a look."
"Who are you taking down with you?"
Garrick smiled. "You always were subtle, Kyle. I'm not taking anyone. If you want to lead the away team, the job's yours."
Kyle hooted. "Hell, yeah!" He cleared his throat and composed himself. "I mean.. I'll take it, Captain."
"Did Vail ever take anyone but his officers down to the planet?"
"Rarely. If someone had an absolutely essential skill, he took them. Otherwise, it was kind of an old boys' network."
"That stops on my watch. It's a captain's duty to grow the skills and experience of the entire crew, not just the ones at the top of the ladder. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go have a chat with the duty officer. You've got a lunch to finish. When you pick your away team, come see me."
Kyle couldn't contain the smile as he watched his friend leave the mess hall. He was finally going to set foot on an alien world.