Updated: Nov 11
Three days into the first term of their second year at the Academy, the young Florivan known as Ocean Merlani sits alone at a booth in the far corner of the campus mess hall. They’ve set up their pocket-com to display a trio of holoscreens in front of them above the table, each one showing one set of their homework assignments. The keyboard projection takes up the space directly below the center holoscreen, aligned so they can type on it with their lower set of hands while their upper pair are busy with moving things around on the holoscreens themselves. A pot of tea, a mug, and a plate with a half-nibbled blueberry muffin sit beside them.
Outside in the walled courtyard between the mess hall and the campus library, very little is going on aside from the nightly show of the local bats hunting moths in the glow of the lights which illuminate the courtyard and paths between buildings. Merlani isn’t watching the bats tonight, but their keen catlike ears can still pick up the sound of them. It’s a pleasing sound, in their opinion, if one they’d never expected to encounter when they first moved here.
As much as Merlani does enjoy watching the aerial dances of the bats, their focus at the moment is solely on their homework. Their self-imposed task for the evening: trying to sort out their notes for one of the six different assignments they’ve already been given. Merlani knew from the beginning they were going to have a lot to juggle between all of their classes this term, but a day one research paper on hydrodynamics and geomorphology was not something they’d taken into account. The way they see it, though, anything is manageable as long as they start on it well before the deadline.
It’s past midnight now—by several hours, even. The mess is practically empty, save for a few human cadets at one of the tables on the other end of the room who are playing cards, another pair closer to the automat service line who seem to have come in for a late night snack, and what sounds like a group of four or five up on the mezzanine level holding some form of extracurricular club meeting. The window-encircled space of the campus mess hall holds hundreds during its busiest hours, but outside of standard diurnal mealtimes, it tends to be a bit of a ghost town. That’s somewhat Merlani’spoint of studying here this time of night, though; no one ever bothers them, but they don’t have to feel completely alone.
Or rather, until now, no one has ever bothered them.
“Hello! Mind if I sit with you?”
The unexpected brightly accented voice interrupts Merlani’s train of thought. They turn their third eye up from the notes they were arranging on their right-hands holoscreen.
The young human standing over them is tall and deeply tan, with dark brown eyes and a long wavy mess of black hair pulled up into a high ponytail. She has to be a cadet of some kind, but she’s out of uniform, so there’s no way of telling what department she belongs to. She looks like she’s just come from the athletic center, though: loose red tank top with wide armholes, grey sports bra underneath, grey cropped leggings. A set of delicate black line-work tattoos traces halfway up her right arm from her wrist, all in a pattern of stars and Earth-based constellations.
Before Merlani can say anything, the human is already in the process of scooting herself into the red-upholstered bench seat across the table from them and settling in with her back in the corner between the wall and the bench.
“You do know there are other tables, right?” Merlani is more confused by the human’s insistent manifestation than they are annoyed, although both emotions make their way into their tone. They flick an ear in the direction of those many empty tables, just for good measure.
“Oh, I know—but you looked like you could use bit of company!” The human has now started to remove her plates and mug from the tray she’s set down directly behind Merlani’s main holoscreen. Once the tray is clear, she stashes it somewhere underneath the table and then stretches out her long legs across the rest of the bench, crossing them at the ankles.
“You aren’t going to leave, are you?” Merlani asks, fixing the rest of their eyes on her pointedly.
The human picks up her mug in both hands. She lets out a contented sigh before blowing away some of the steam rising from it and taking a long sip.
Merlani catches a whiff of strong coffee smells from the steam wafting across the table—it’s a familiar smell, one that stirs up a lot of old memories in the back of their mind. Coffee is the smell of family, even though for Florivans like them it’s poisonous to ingest. Merlani’s always thought it a pleasant smell, ever since they were a small kitten snuggling in the pockets of their coffee-loving human parents.
“You sit in here practically every night,” says the human between sips. “I’ve seen you, you know? Ever since the beginning of last year: same table, pot of tea, holoscreens—never any company—it’s interesting.”
“So why bother me now?” Merlani turns their eyes back to their homework and tries to keep the majority of their attention on the document in front of them instead of the perplexing human sitting behind it. It isn’t easy. “If I’m so ‘interesting’, why wait a whole year?”
The human grins at Merlani through the translucence of their holoscreen. “Well! Now I know who you are, and it’s not nearly as weird to sit down and say hello to a classmate as to a total stranger, is it?”
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced?” They turn all three of their eyes back to her curiously. Merlani is certain they would have remembered this human if they’d met her before. Her voice is too distinctive for them to have forgotten. It has a bright, warm citrus-and-spice sort of quality to it that would be quite pleasant, really, if only she wasn’t using it to pester them in the middle of their studies.
“We haven’t—well, not formally, at least,” the human says, letting out a small laugh. “I can’t remember your name, but I know you’re the same Florivan that managed to pull an ippon gachi out of their opponent inside of two minutes during the practice spars in Colonel Albright’s advanced judo class yesterday. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone manage that so quickly before, you know? Especially not anyone who just switched in from the recreational class. Made a bit of an impression on all of us—but since you scurried off so fast after we were dismissed, no one had a chance to properly welcome you.”
“Ah!” Merlani slides their pocket-com and holoscreens over towards the window enough to give their classmate a bit more room at the table. “You’re one of the Sec/Tac folks! I should have recognized you sooner. Nice to meet you, then.”
“I’m Teresa Vasquez. Reese, if you like.” She extends a hand across the table to them through the space between the holoscreens, still holding her coffee in the other.
“Ocean.” Merlani takes the hand just long enough to shake it. Somewhere in the back of their mind, it registers that Reese’s hand is warm—probably because of the coffee in the mug she’s been holding.
“Nice to meet you, Ocean!” Reese takes another sip from her coffee, then tilts her head curiously towards their holoscreens. “So, what is all this nonsense, anyway?”
“Homework.” Merlani gestures at the holoscreens in turn. “Geophysics, crystallography, and gravimetry on that one, Nav/Quan methodology and jump protocols in the middle… and this is environmental geology, for which I’m supposed to have a research paper outline ready to turn in next week.”
“Already?” Her eyes widen. “And I thought my professors were intense.”
“As I was warned last year, Dr. Olsen takes no prisoners.” Merlani shakes their head ruefully, then glances back to their notes and list of references. “That’s why I’m trying to get a head start on it tonight—I have two more classes with her that start tomorrow, and I have no doubt she’ll be assigning things like this during both of them.”
“Oof. That’s what, two-thirds of a planet you’re working on tonight, then?” Reese smiles teasingly at them over the edge of her coffee mug.
“Something like that, yes.” Merlani stifles a laugh.
“So, why study here, then, if you have all of that to get done?”
Merlani shrugs. “They have tea and muffins here, mainly. Plus the library closes at ten, and it’s annoying to have to stop in the middle of what I’m doing and set everything back up somewhere else… and it’s too quiet in my quarters.”
‘Too quiet’ is something of an understatement. Merlani had thought it was quiet last year, when they’d first started coming to the mess hall to study. Now that their housemates have all graduated, even the common area of the flat they once shared is empty all the time. Theoretically they’ll be receiving new housemates by the end of the week, but the folks from the Campus Accommodation lottery haven’t told them yet who or how many to expect.
“It’s pretty quiet in here this time of night, though, isn’t it?”
“Oh, there’s enough activity going on to make it interesting.” Merlani is the one to smirk teasingly now. “Although usually the activity is polite enough not to come over and interrupt me.”
“Hey, you’ve been here since what… dinner service? You looked like you could use a good interruption!” Reese nudges the smaller of her plates over to them under the holoscreen display. “Concha?”
“Vanilla and cinnamon.”
Merlani looks between their new acquaintance and the plate of sweet bread buns decorated with white crackled sugar shells. They smile at her. “All right, Reese, you can stay.”
“Excellent!” Reese takes another long sip from her coffee. “I had a feeling you’d like pan dulce. It’s a good middle-of-the-night-going-into-morning sort of thing, I think—and don’t worry, I checked that they had the little ‘won’t poison your new Florivan friend’ symbol on the tag.”
“Thank you.” Merlani stifles a giggle. “I do appreciate not being poisoned in the middle of my homework.”
They disengage the keyboard projection and nudge the pocket-com and holoscreen displays over a bit further out of the way, then take a concha from the plate. The mess always features a variety of traditional regional foods as part of the standard menu, but somehow they missed seeing these when they went through the line earlier. It is a good time to stop for a break, anyway. Merlani takes the opportunity to pour more tea into their cup to go with it. They’ll have to get up and refill the pot soon; what little remains in it has gone cold.
“Speaking of the middle of the night…” Merlani begins, looking to Reese with a curious twitch of their ears. “Why are you here, anyway? I thought most humans were diurnal when they’re planetside and did the whole seven-or-eight-hours-sleeping thing?”
Reese tears off a portion of her own concha and gestures back and forth with it as she talks. “Oh, you know, couldn’t sleep; needed to get some workouts in anyway; first class tomorrow—well, this morning, now—is an early one… that sort of thing.”
“Ah. So now you’re topping up on caffeine and sugar instead of actually trying to sleep tonight?”
“Got it in one.” She pops the bit of sweet bread into her mouth and washes it down with more of her coffee.
“Ah. Okay, then.” Merlani twitches an ear. Reese has succeeded in piquing their curiosity now. “What’s the morning class?”
“The ever-delightful ‘Senior Seminar in Personnel Management and Effective Communication’ with Professor Bloom.” Reese rolls her eyes dramatically.
“That’s one of those ‘boring and redundant but required to graduate’ sort of things, I take it?”
“Yeah.” Reese chuckles brightly. “I’d probably like it better if it weren’t at eight in the morning, but at least I have ‘Ship-based Combat Tactics and Maneuvers’ right afterwards to wake me back up. I’m doubling between Tactical Piloting and Command—makes for some odd mixes of subjects.”
“Fellow sleepless overachiever, then?” Merlani chuckles lightly, wondering what Entile Wyndi would think of this human’s schedule compared to theirs.
Reese raises her coffee mug to them in a mock toast. “Seems like it.”
Merlani raises their teacup silently to match the gesture.
Grinning, Reese tears another piece off her concha and dips the end of it in her coffee before taking a bite. “Granted, I should probably be reading up some more on the first battle of the Teegarden Expanse right now, since we’re running through simulations based on it after the lecture on Friday… but I can do that later, you know?”
Merlani nods, although they’re not sure that in her place they’d put off the reading themself. “Which class is that for?”
“Mm…” Reese pauses to take another sip of her coffee. “‘Advanced Interstellar Combat Theory and Historical Parallels’. It mostly boils down to the play-by-plays of the battles in the Novan war, you know? The idea is to look at those against all the other significant conflicts in human history and see what could’ve been done differently. Commander Saleh said we’ll be running a lot of sims and they’ll be bringing in people who were there and making decisions to talk during some of the lecture sessions.”
“That sounds…” Merlani can’t find the word that would fully describe what they’re thinking, so they settle on one that at least comes close. “Intense.”
“It can be. That’s kind of the point? The Commander served under Admiral Setiawan back when she was Captain of SCVStrix. They were there at the Expanse and at Procyon both—their whole goal with the class is to make sure we all know the reality behind the stats.” Reese gestures vaguely with another torn-off bit of concha. “Make us better leaders if the Defense Fleet ever has to get called out of mothballs again and all that.”
Merlani takes a slow sip of their lukewarm tea.
It’s an odd collection of mixed emotions that her description of the class draws up for them. The Defense Fleet is far smaller now than it was at the height of the Novan War, but there’s still a good number of ships patrolling around the eight star systems that make up the little slice of the galaxy Merlani’s people share with humanity—particularly in the deep space border regions near the old Novan claims. Their own parent had volunteered as one of the Fleet’s Quantum Space Drive Engineers towards the end of the War, too, and had stayed with the Fleet for a long time after it was over.
Merlani themself is decades removed from the War, of course, but they were raised by people who lived through it. More than that, they’re Florivan. Their people are instinctive pacifists and were officially neutral and theoretically protected during the War, but that didn’t mean anything to the Novans in the end. Their entire species was almost wiped out of existence when Procyon fell and the Florivan Sanctuary planet was destroyed. Even now, there are barely enough Florivans left scattered across humanity’s seven systems to stand a chance of ever recovering their numbers. If it weren’t for their role jumping starships across space with their human friends, none of Merlani’s people would have survived at all.
“Hopefully,” Merlani says, quietly, pushing all those thoughts away, “the Fleet will never be needed again.”
Reese looks at them for a moment, then seems to realize something and nods slowly. “Hopefully. But we’ll be ready if it ever is.”
Merlani raises an eyebrow as they attempt to subtly redirect the conversation. “You’re aiming to be a Fleet Captain someday, then?”
“Someday!” Reese brightens, gesturing with a bit of her concha again. “That’s my whole family, really. More of us in the Fleet than out, even before the War. Sort of a legacy to build on, you know?”
Merlani nods. “I know what you mean.”
Reese grins at them now, a conspiratorial glint shining in her dark eyes. “Who knows, Ocean? When I do make Captain, maybe you’ll end up being my jumper. Wouldn’t that be stellar?”
“It might at that…” Merlani agrees, hesitantly. “Although I’m not sure the Fleet has much need for QSD engineers with geology degrees. My two littermates are doing engineering and medical secondaries, though. One of them might suit your needs better.”
Reese is the one to raise an eyebrow this time. “Either of them go in for Judo?”
“Oh, no. It’s just me, I’m afraid—they don’t exactly get any of my ‘hobbies’ to begin with.” Merlani shakes their head, stifling a laugh at the memory of Mir and Mel trying to help them practice their fall breaks. Neither of their littermates have ever shown an interest in joining them, even when they were kittens. Now, both regularly ask if they’ve grown out of playing ‘human warrior’ yet when they have a chance to talk—half of it’s teasing, of course, but Merlani gave up on trying to explain the appeal of martial arts to other Florivans years ago.
“Well, then.” Reese sets her mug down on the table with a dramatic clink. “That settles it! I’m keeping you.”
“Naturally! Who needs an extra engineer or medic when I can have a second-Dan geologist around to kick butts with me?”
It could be because it’s late and they’re more tired than they’d be willing to admit, and it could be because of the tone of her voice, but for one reason or another, that statement is enough to send Merlani into a fit of giggles like nothing has in years.
Reese cracks up in return. If any of the handful of other people in the mess happen to be watching the two of them, it must be quite the odd sight: a Florivan and a human, laughing like idiots on either side of a table covered in holoscreens.
“All right, Captain Reese,” Merlani says at last, wiping a laughter-tear out of one of their lower eyes, “you find yourself a ship, I’ll find myself a Navigator… and we can go kick all the butts in the galaxy if that’s what you want. They’ll never see us coming.”
“I’m going to hold you to that, Ocean!” Reese says as her own giggles finally die down.
Merlani shakes their head again and takes a sip of their tea. A stray thought flits through their mind that they wouldn’t be upset at all if this particular human does turn out to be their Captain someday. She’s the first person they’ve met since LSS Starbright dropped them off at Earth last year who’s been so easy to talk to. It’s refreshing, somehow.
Reese finishes off the last of her coffee and then stretches and starts putting her empty dishes back onto the tray.
Merlani finds themself inexplicably disappointed to see their new friend gathering her things. “Leaving so soon?”
“Well, you do have a paper to work on, don’t you? Wouldn’t want to overstay my welcome.” Reese stands and stifles a small yawn before stretching some stiffness or other out of her arms again. “Besides, I need to shower before I get ready for class. Professor Bloom expects us to be presentable regardless of how early it is.”
“It’s not that late already, is it?” Merlani looks back to their holoscreens to check the time. It’s close to four in the morning.
“Mm…” Reese giggles. “Well, late or early or whatever, if you’re still here at breakfast service, I might come back and pester you some more.”
“I’ll probably be off to catch an hour or two of sleep by then, I think. My first class isn’t until ten.”
“Hasta luego, then—good luck on your homework.”
Reese turns to go, then pauses and turns back to them with a grin that makes her dark eyes sparkle. “Just you wait, though, Ocean. I’ll have you for my jumper someday. That’s a promise.”
All Merlani can do is chuckle. “Okay, Captain Reese. I won’t forget.”
As Reese leaves, Merlani turns their full attention back to their main holoscreen to try and find the paragraph they’d been reading when she first appeared. The thought occurs to them, albeit briefly, that they might actually be looking forward to the next time this particular human decides to interrupt them.