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by Bruce Durham

The spaceport lay at the far end of the bay, a collection of steel and concrete buildings, rusted antenna arrays and metal towers linked by loosely strung communication wires.

Charcoal-grey clouds obscured the mid-day sun while a stiff breeze swept across the rippling blue water. Fishing sloops rocked gently in the distance; gulls circled lazily overhead.

A well-worn shuttle sat like a crouched insect, its dull ceramic shell scorched from a lengthy history of surface to space hops, routine trips to a myriad assortment of starships waiting patiently in orbit, ships that voyaged to the far reaches of the Terran Commonwealth.

Two ramps sloped gently to the shuttle doors. Both lay open, providing a glimpse into a sterile interior. Power cables and fuelling hoses sprouted from the hull to lie like thick vines across the concrete platform, vanishing into whitewashed buildings humming with machinery. The ground crew worked with well-practised, unhurried purpose.

Passengers waited in a rundown departure lounge. Families chatted casually while passing the time, others read wivi-books, or accessed the days’ news via neuro-link.

The boy asked, “Will this be much longer, Dad?”

“No, son. Those maintenance guys need to make the shuttle safe for travel. We don’t want anything to ruin our trip, do we?”

“No. You nervous, Dad?”

“Not at all, you?”

“Nope! Sis is, and I bet Mom is, too.”

“Bet she isn’t. Don’t get too close to the edge, son. It’s dangerous. We don’t want an accident, do we?”

“No sir! I’ll be careful. Promise.”

“Attaboy! Now why don’t you keep your sister company while your mother and I talk?”

The boy left to bother his sister and waved as he passed his mom.

The mother joined her husband and snuggled close, taking comfort in the contact. Silently they watched the preparations. Eventually, she craned her head skyward. “I still can’t believe we’re doing this.”

“Wish to back out?”

“Back out? Very funny! Not after what we’ve been through. Applications, screenings, tests, medical exams, poking and prodding. No, we’re definitely committed, love. It’s too late to second-guess, anyway. And why give our neighbors that satisfaction? They’ve provided enough guilt as it is.”

“Ah, they’re just jealous. Here we are, on the verge of a new frontier, a voyage to a planet capable of sustaining life. We have the training and the skill sets vital to this expedition. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have been accepted. And, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation.”

“Are you preaching?”

“Of course not, dear. I’m merely lecturing.”

“Speaking of lectures, it’s important the children understand the dangers of this new world. The preliminary reports are sketchy, but we mustn’t assume an alien environment will be hazard-free.”

“Agreed. Still, wouldn’t it be exciting to make first contact with an indigenous species?”

A thin voice carried across the port speaker, announcing the all-clear to board. Slowly the passengers gathered their walk-on baggage and shuffled out of the lounge and through the gate to the entry ramp.

The son approached. “Hey Dad, does that mean us?”

“Not yet. We’ll have to wait for the dock foreman.” He winked at the boy. “We get special treatment.”

“Is that because Mom and you are scientists?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Great! Miranda Three, here we come!” The boy whooped and returned to his sister.

The mother said, “You know, your son watches way too many wivi-shows.”

My son now, is it? Let him have his fun, love. We’ll be roughing it in a few months. I only hope the planet-side accommodations are appropriate to our needs.”

“I’m sure they will be. We’re specialists, and pioneers. The Foundation will treat us well. And it’s not like we’ll be lonely. Other families will follow. Eventually.”

A middle-aged man approached, dressed in faded blue coveralls with a company logo stitched over the left breast. His wisp of greying hair lifted gently in the breeze. He paused at the lip of the dock to glance at his vidpad. After a moment he looked down, a bemused expression on his tired, thin features. “Mister and Missus, ah, Triillani and family, is it?”

Mrs. Triillani blasted water through her blow-hole. “At least he didn’t call us Mister and Missus Delphinapterus Leucas and pod.”

To the man, the answer came as a series of clicks and rapid-fire, high pitched chatter. He waited patiently, his bemused look still evident.

“Behave yourself, dear.” Mr. Triillani replied before sending an impulse to his speech synthesiser. The vocal response was mechanically human. “Clossse enough, sssir.”

The dock foreman’s smile passed quickly, a slight upward movement of the lips. “And these are your children?”

“Yesss, sssir.”

The foreman scanned the vidpad again before raising an eyebrow. “Marine biologists, are you?”

If a joke was coming, the man kept it to himself.

“Your quarters are ready and your gear’s been stored. We had a bit of a problem pressurising the holding tank, but it’s no cause for concern.”

“Thhhank you. May we board nowww?”

“By all means. Use the ramp at the dock. You shouldn’t have trouble with the entry.”

“Just likkke ssswiming up-ssstream, right?”

The foreman had the good grace to look embarrassed.

“Donnn’t worry, weee’ve heard all the jokesss.”

The man smiled. “Well, to be honest, we don’t get many Belugas going off-world.” He looked out at the younger pair. “Let alone an entire family. If you don’t mind, what generation are you?”

The whale rolled in the water so that one large eye met the foreman’s inquisitive gaze. “Thirrrd, enhanced. Annnd you?”

The man smiled quickly and shrugged. “You got me there. No idea. Have a pleasant journey, sir.”

Mr. Triillani used his strong tail fin to rise from the water. He bobbed his white, blunt-snouted head. “Thhhank you.”

The Beluga flipped and sliced the water with little splash, rejoining his family. They shot powerfully toward the ramp, foamy water spreading in their wake. At the entrance the young, male Beluga paused and raised a fluke in farewell.

The dock foreman, still watching, waved back.

“What’s he staring at, Pop?”

“Could be that Florida Marlin baseball hat strapped to your head, son. Now up you go. We have a long journey ahead of us.”

Copyright © 2009 by Bruce Durham

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