Sarah White looked at her tablet and scratched her head with some confusion. A banner splashed across the top of the screen informed her that there was a priority message for her. In all the time she’d spent on board C-pill, Sarah had never been sent a priority message. She was a technical backroom worker, a nerd. Nerds don’t get priority messages. Messages, sure. Plenty of them. Mostly from her boss asking her to complete a task in an unreasonably short period of time; sometimes from another nerd – usually an IT or robotics one, although the physicists and maths geeks are as bad – sharing a joke that the vast majority of the population wouldn’t understand or, if they did, wouldn’t find at all amusing. Gifs and memes, a lot of them. Hilariously funny, too. But only if you’re a nerd.
Nerds never get priority messages. Priority messages come from higher-ups and are almost invariably military things of no interest to civilian technicians. They talk about briefings and debriefings. Debriefings – that itself was something that gave rise to a great deal of hilarity amongst Sarah’s peers. Gifs showing trousers unexpectedly dropping to the ground to the utter bewilderment of their erstwhile wearers. No. Nerds don’t have briefings or their opposites.
And yet there it was. A priority message. Sarah wasn’t immediately sure what she should do about it. She had the feeling that a parent has when awakened in the middle of the night by a policeman at the door; one of impending doom. She ran through her mind everything she had said and done, everyone she had met, every interaction both verbal and written over the preceding days. She could think of nothing that could possibly precipitate a priority message. In a way, that was even more worrying. It must have been something she’d done without realising it, perhaps in one of those unguarded moments when she allowed her mind to go off on a jolly all by itself and take her moral compass with it, leaving her behind, defenceless.
She needed to talk to someone. She thought about it for a while. She couldn’t talk to Lara, her boss, because the professor would toe the party line and probably tell her nothing, certainly nothing to her advantage. She couldn’t talk to Dr Banerji. He was among the worst for that kind of thing. A brilliant archaeologist and an absolute stickler for the rules, for propriety, for doing things by the book. If she had a question about his specialist area, she’d go to him before anyone else. But this was a moral issue, wasn’t it? In her mind, it had become a monster, a nest full of killer hornets having a bad day. Certainly not the sort of thing she’d talk to JP about.
She called Boney Temple.
“Dr Temple?” she said.
“Hello, Sarah. How’s my favourite working archaeologist today?”
“Worried, Doctor. Beyond worried. Scared.”
Boney could sense the fear in her voice. “Whatever’s the matter, child?” he asked.
“I’ve got this priority message,” she said, “and I don’t know what it’s about. I’ve never had a priority message before. People like me don’t get priority messages. What should I do? I’m afraid it may be something terrible.”
“Let’s look at this calmly, shall we?”
“Just try, will you? Clear your mind. You remember that exercise we talked about?”
“Give it a try, okay?”
“Okay.” A few deep breaths and thoughts of home, of puppies, of… she calmed a little.
“Now. You say people like you don’t get priority messages…”
“Let’s throw away the last four words of that, shall we? And let’s just concentrate on the first three.”
“I’m not sure what you mean…”
“People like you, Sarah. People like you. I know of no-one who doesn’t like you.”
“But this message…”
“Will be something good. Open it. I’ll stay here whilst you do, if you wish.”
“Have you opened it?”
“Now read it out loud.”
“It says … oh, wow!”
“What does it say?”
“It says, ‘The contact team has requested and I have agreed that you should join the planet-side mission tomorrow. Your unique understanding of the language will be a great asset to the group. You are to report to the pod bay at zero nine hours for MTS transit. This is a great opportunity, Sarah. Don’t let me or the department down. Message ends.’ And it’s signed Rear Admiral Andrea Smithson, Commanding Officer. I don’t even know where the pod bay is!”
“Then it’s a good job the ship’s internal transport does, isn’t it? Congratulations, Sarah. You have been chosen to join the mission, not as an archaeologist but as an Egyptologist. Your work in the field is being recognised at the highest level. Well deserved. Enjoy it. Do you want to break the news to Professor Kenyon, or would you like me to do it?”
“I think I have to, Boney, but I’m too excited. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the words out right.”
Sarah threw herself onto her bed in excitement, her arms and legs flying in all directions. Once she had calmed down, she dictated an entry into her personal log, expressing her excitement, her delight and her fear that she wouldn’t be up to the job. Then she started to cry, and for ten full minutes abandoned herself to the fears and insecurities that seemed to her to be the foundations of her life.