“About time,” Cass scoffed under her breath, face twisted into an impatient frown. She sat, cross-legged, somewhere in the middle of a colorful crowd of would-be Derelict delvers both experienced and green. Some had appeared in their most formal suits, all groomed up and prepared to present themselves as their best. There were those who came in their military uniforms, borrowed or real, to show that they meant business. And then there were those who looked like they threw on the first thing they found this morning – or, perhaps, it was the only thing they had. But appearance alone did not make the candidate, Cass judged; those who talked about how excited they were, those who played on their phones, those who looked nervous… they were all standing in line for their turn to walk into a hell they were not prepared for. Derelict wasn’t a museum or a theme park. It was a war zone. It ate men alive and spat out broken bodies and corpses. Normal people, the unbroken and those who had something to lose, had no place in Derelict. They would soon understand this, but by then it might be too late.
Tough luck. Cass unfolded her legs and set her right foot down with a light clank, then straightened herself and sat upright. Taking her eyes off the unfortunates around her, she focused her attention on the officers that had just entered the room. Rigid. Formal. Just like the organization they worked for. She watched introductions go by, but had already guessed the respective roles of the two before they opened their mouths. The scientist, a certain d’Agenais, was easy to tell apart in this case. It wasn’t the unimpressive body stature or the glasses, both confirmed stereotypes in this case, but something in the way he looked at the people before him. Looked at her. A natural air of aloofness, if not necessarily superiority. A distance that that created a gulf between people who lived with their feet on solid ground and those who soared high above in the realm of theory and ideas. It was easy to recognize people like this for Cass; she was allergic to them.
After having introduced themselves and their mission, the pair of officers took their respective seats by a rudimentarily equipped desk and began calling candidates to the fore as they were marked on their checklist. Each given five minutes to present who they are, what they wish to do, and why they would be fit for the job. A simple sales pitch. A standardized, easy to process routine, almost mechanical in nature. Human society and their many social constructs were themselves like a machine, Cass found; chewing through human material as easily as Derelict, if not more so. But in this machine, she was the wrench in the gears.
“Name’s Cass,” she began, finally facing the officers herself after being summoned, “Just Cass. Last names aren’t a luxury we were given on Herakles.”
Meanwhile, in a front-row seat, a young woman wearing a formal blouse and skirt, looked appalled and shook her head. Snow-white locks fell forward as she dipped her head to look at the sizeable stack of papers and notes heaped upon her lap, where she scribbled still. Notes taken during the introduction, notes taken during the presentations. Cass, she wrote. Wound on left shoulder. Gunshot? Abnormal walk, coil whine. Augments?
“I’ve been here since the start,” the black-haired refugee at the front continued, “Came with Mercury and have been doing security for them since the first shuttles arrived. I’ve seen the orbit in flames long before I saw any Origin ships in the system. Earlier this week I ran my fifty-sixth expedition into Derelict.” She pointed at the bandage on her shoulder, all but confirming the note-taker’s suspicions about the nature of the wound.
“I guarantee that nobody else in this room has even half my experience. Some, I feel, have never been to Derelict at all.” She turned around briefly to look over the crowd, some of whom glared at her and some of whom were in awe. “I’ll be honest with you; I’m not the nicest person in this room. But, as a guide, I can get you out of Derelict alive in situations anyone else in here will definitely get you killed in. Your call, sirs.”
With this, she dropped her data slate on the desk where Fuertes snatched it up. White-hairs looked up at Cass as she walked by, the two briefly making eye contact. It was like the moment a tired old hound faces a hot-blooded young pup. No way in hell they’re accepting that hoodlum into their team, she thought as she tore her eyes from the confrontation and let her pass by. Was this the sort of people that came to Derelict? Filthy refugees from Herakles and other good-for-nothing lowlifes? She was close to regretting ever having come here. Was this the life she had sacrificed a bright career for? To dig in the mud alongside the dreck of society?
No. Composure, she told herself. This was exactly what she had given up her career for. To see the universe for what it truly was. To be at the forefront of discovery. To understand the world she lived in fully and definitely not to shut herself away in an ivory tower. That thought alone, the life her parents wanted her to have and the prospects she were given, sickened her enough to make the present seem far more palatable all of a sudden. But people, she found, were a rather acquired taste regardless.
White-hairs straightened her back and flipped the page over, pen in hand, eager to see who was next on the list. Cass, meanwhile, quietly returned to her seat, face dour as ever. She hated every second of standing over there; she’d felt like everybody was looking down on her. They were all attacking her for who she was and, unlike on Herakles, it was not the kind of problem a pair of bloody knuckles could solve. All she could do was swallow her anger. She’d done so before, and it never ended well. She closed her eyes, tilted back her head and let out a deep breath through her nose. It was over. All she had to do was to wait and hope.
And to look forward to visiting Alyx tonight; to report on the job application, of course.