Expendableby James Alan Gardner
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In Expendable, the first volume of the League of Peoples, Festina Ramos is assigned to escort an unstable admiral to planet Melaquin. Little is known about Melaquin, for every explorer who’s landed there has disappeared. It’s come to be known as the “planet of no return,” and the High Council has made a habit of sending troublesome admirals there in an attempt to get rid of them. It’s clear that this is intended to be Ramos’s last mission, but she doesn’t plan on dying, no matter how expendable she may be.
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A League Of Peoples Book: 1
By James Alan Gardner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 James Alan Gardner
All rights reserved.
Part I NIGHT
"My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance."
"My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance."
"My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance."
My name is Festina Ramos and once upon a time, no one in the Technocracy took greater pride in her personal appearance.
I showered, shampooed, depilated, and deodorized every morning without fail. Nothing stood in the way of my morning ritual: not the fuzz of a hangover, nor the arms of a beckoning bed-partner. My discipline was absolute.
I exercised more than forty hours a week, and always complete workouts: martial arts, running, gymnastics, tai chi ... even mountaineering when the opportunity presented itself.
My body fat ranked at the lowest percentile considered healthy. People said they envied my figure. For all I know, they might have been telling the truth.
I chose my civilian clothes with the care of an entertainer dressing for the chips. Even when I was in uniform, fellow officers said that black fatigues suited me.
Their very words: "Festina, that outfit suits you." They did not say, "Festina, you look good."
My name is Festina Ramos and even before I was given that name, I was given a lurid port-wine birthmark covering the right half of my face from cheekbone to chin. Years of operant conditioning gave me great pride in my disfigurement.
Each doctor began by saying my condition could be corrected. How would they cure me? Let me count the ways. They would cure me with electrolysis, with lasers, with cryogenics, with plastic planing, with "sophisticated bio-active agents conscientiously applied in a program of restoration therapy." Some even set a date when I would be booked in for treatment.
Then the appointments were canceled. Sometimes the doctor apologized in person. Sometimes the doctor invented excuses. Sometimes it was just a note from a secretary.
Here is the reason my birthmark endured with purple defiance in the face of twenty-fifth century medicine:
It had military value.
My Calling in Life
My calling in life was to land on hostile planets.
I made first contacts with alien cultures.
I went anyplace the Admiralty didn't know what the hell to expect.
Officially, I belonged to the Explorer Corps. Unofficially, we Explorers called ourselves ECMs—short for Expendable Crew Members.
Listen. Here is what all ECMs knew.
Violent death is rare in the Technocracy. We have no wars. The crime level is low, and few incidents involve lethal weapons. When accidents happen, victims can almost always be saved by sophisticated local medical centers.
There are no medical centers on unexplored planets. Death may come with savage abruptness or the stealthy creep of alien disease. In a society where people expect to ease comfortably out of this world at a ripe old age, the thought of anyone being killed in the prime of life is deeply disturbing. If it happens to someone you know, the effect is devastating.
Unless ... the person who dies is different. Not like everyone else.
Two centuries ago, the Admiralty High Council secretly acknowledged that some deaths hurt Fleet morale more than others. If the victim was popular, well-liked, and above all, physically attractive, fellow crewmates took the death hard. Performance ratings dropped by as much as thirty percent. Friends of the deceased required lengthy psychological counseling. Those who had ordered the fatal mission sometimes felt a permanently impairing guilt.
But if the victim was not so popular, not so well-liked, and above all, ugly ... well, bad things happen, but we all have to carry on.
No one knows exactly when the High Council solidified this fact of human behavior into definite policy. In time, however, the Explorer Corps evolved from a group of healthy, bright-eyed volunteers into ... something less photogenic.
Potential recruits were flagged at birth. The flawed. The ugly. The strange. If a child's physical problems were truly disabling, or if the child didn't have the intelligence or strength of will to make a good Explorer, the full power of modern medicine would be unleashed to correct every impediment to normality. But if the child combined ability and expendability in a single package—if the child was smart and fit enough to handle the demands of Exploration, but different enough to be less real than a normal person ...
... there was an Explorer's black uniform in that child's future.
As I record this, I have in front of me a picture of my class at the Academy. In the first row are the ones with problems the camera does not reveal: Thomas, the stammerer; Ferragamo, the man whose voice did not change at puberty; my roommate, Ullis Naar, who usually blinked convulsively every two seconds but managed to keep her eyes open for this photo; Ghent, loudly flatulent ...yes, what a joke, who could take Ghent seriously? Not his crew-mates when Ghent was flayed alive by savages during a first contact. A few days of superficial mourning, and then his shipmates forgot him.
The system worked.
Back to the photo. One row of visually acceptable Explorers, and behind them the rest of us: pop-eyed, three-fingered, obese, deformed. No one in the back rows smiled for this picture. Most tried to hide behind the heads of those in front.
What unthinking Director of Protocol demanded that we pose for such a photo? I'd always been told (in smug, self-congratulatory tones) that our society had progressed beyond the days of the freak show.
The majority of my graduating class could have been cured by modern medicine. We all knew it. Which of us hadn't jacked into a medical library and pored through the texts describing our conditions? Which of us didn't know the names of at least five techniques to make us into more-normal human beings? Yet those remedies did not exist for us. The Admiralty had a vested interest in keeping us repugnant. As long as we stayed as we were, no one lost sleep over sending us on dangerous missions.
Admirals need their sleep in order to make enlightened judgments.
My most time-consuming duty was to review reports from other Explorers. The latest files were transmitted to our shipboard computer every day and stored on bubble till I went over them. Most of the time, the reports were simply copies of the running commentaries all Explorers gave when landing on an unfamiliar planet.
(Upon graduation, Explorers were fitted with permanent throat transceivers that transmitted continuously on planet-down missions. The transceivers were quite visible if you looked closely; but no one worried about a lump on the neck ruining an Explorer's appearance.)
Some of the transcripts I listened to ended abruptly. We called those transcripts "Oh Shits" because the Explorers often said, "Oh shit," just before their throat mikes went dead. You always wondered what they saw just before they stopped transmitting. You seldom found out.
"Oh Shit" reports weren't marked in any special way. Whenever I audited the log of someone I knew from the Academy, I wondered if it would end in "Oh Shit." An absent voice spoke in the quiet of my quarters and I never knew if the next word would be the last. Sometimes I listened to blank silence for half an hour, not wanting to believe that the report had ended.
The Admiralty never listed Explorers as dead. We were simply Lost ... like old shoes that might turn up in spring housecleaning. In private, Explorers used a different expression: we talked about our friends Going Oh Shit.
I kept my distance from others on board our ship. I expect they were glad of it. I know I was.
There was once a time when I would eat in the public cafeteria to prove I wasn't afraid. As I carried my tray into the dining room, conversation would dwindle while the crew waited to see which table I chose. Some days I sat by myself. Other days I was invited to eat at this table or that. Now and then I purposefully joined the group that seemed most likely to lose their appetites looking at me; but I grew out of that after a few months in the service.
It took longer to see through those who welcomed me. Some were obvious, of course, like the ones with religious leanings. For obscure reasons, bright-smiling proselytizers with God in their hearts were drawn to me like beetles to carrion. They may have considered me desperate for acceptance of any kind—an easy convert. Perhaps too, those eager believers thought that associating with a pariah would purify their souls ...like flagellation. Whatever the reason, I spent many mealtimes listening to guarantees of spiritual fulfillment, if only I would come out to regular Fellowship meetings.
Different crew members chose to strike up conversations for the purpose of seduction. After all, a woman like me had to be an easy sexual conquest; desperate and lonely, I would roll over like a dog at the first sign of attention.
And with the lights out, they wouldn't see my face, would they?
I took a number of those calculating seducers to my bed anyway, just for the hell of it—I felt like I was tricking them, exploiting them. In time, however, I wondered who was fooling whom. Ultimately, I decided that celibacy was simpler.
Some people cultivated my friendship in the belief I could help with their careers—as Explorer First Class, I ranked second only to the captain and was sometimes thought to be important. In fact, my rank was merely a ploy to hide the reality of my situation. I would never get a position of command on a starship; I knew nothing about ship operation. My only expertise lay in personal survival.
Was I ever invited to eat with anyone who had no ulterior motive? I can't say.
Did I ever eat with someone who was interested in me ... not my soul, not my body, not the things I might do for them, but for me? No. Never. Not one of them knew me.
After a few months of trying to mingle with the regular crew, I switched to eating alone in my quarters. Rank hath its privileges.
I spent much of the day in my quarters. I had little reason to go elsewhere. I was comfortable there.
My cabin had no traditional decorations. When I was assigned to this ship, the quartermaster offered me a number of standard wall-hangings "to brighten the place up," but I refused. I also refused to take any of his glass figurines that could be attached with magnets to any flat surface. Half the figurines were abstracts that meant nothing to me; the other half were little better than kittens, mice, and children with large eyes.
My quarters had a practical desk, a practical cartography table, three relatively practical chairs, and a fairly impractical bed. It was a double-sized bed with many active features, called The Luxuriator. I requisitioned it in a moment of folly, thinking if I found the right man or woman, a good bed might give me confidence.
Might make me feel prepared.
Might make me feel I had something to contribute.
No, I can't find the right words. It humiliates me to think about it.
My quarters contained no ornamentation, but hidden in a closed metal locker was my collection. Most Explorers had collections. We were paid well, and had few vices that could absorb our salaries.
I collected eggs. Many people found that amusing: Festina Ramos collected eggs. They pictured a cabin filled with white hens' eggs, racks of them, bins of them, heaped hodgepodge wherever I had space. Not one of them ever saw my collection. They laughed behind my back about something I would never show them.
In my early days on the ship, I talked about my collection one day at the lunch table. I forget how the subject came up. I was just so glad to find myself in a conversation that wasn't shop-talk, I ignored my usual caution.
Of course the others laughed ... and wanting them to understand, I tried to explain how beautiful some eggs can be. Every color of the rainbow, pale blues and soft oranges and golden yellows. All sizes, all shapes. Some with shells as fragile as tissue paper, some so hard you can squeeze with all your might and not harm them. Insect eggs, small and black like pepper. Amphibian eggs, chains of jellied eyes suspended in water. Eggs from extraterrestrial life-forms, unique as snowflakes, perfumed, cylindrical, clear as glass, red-hot to the touch....
The other crew members didn't understand. Most of them didn't try. One or two put on intelligent expressions and said, "That's interesting." They were the ones who most made me feel like a fool.
After that, I never discussed my collection in public. I didn't try to describe it, because I knew I couldn't. I refused to show it to the crew because I would only be infuriated by their politely unappreciative attention. Why should I watch them feign interest?
Eggs are self-contained worlds, perfect and internally sufficient. On every planet that supports life, there are eggs. Whatever alien paths life may take, there are always eggs somewhere along the trail. My fellow Explorers found this time and time again.
If I heard an Explorer's report state that eggs had been found on this or that planet, I transmitted a personal request asking for a specimen. I almost always got what I wanted— Explorers help each other.
When I received an egg, I spent several days deciding how to display it. Some I mounted on wooden stands; some I set in china dishes; some I swathed in cotton.
Receiving a new egg was cause for celebration. I took it out of its packing case and, cradled it in my hands, cherishing its fragility or its toughness or its warmth. Sometimes I could hold an egg for a full hour, dreaming I was in touch with the mother who laid the egg or the child who called it home.
But all the eggs in my collection were sterile. They never hatched. Some were never fertilized. The others had been irradiated by the Admiralty to kill whatever was inside them—transport of alien organisms is dangerous.
On nights when I couldn't sleep, I sat amidst them and listened to their silence.
It was on a night like that, a silent night, that I sat in my quarters, staring at a list of reports I ought to study. It was late at night, as time was reckoned on the ship. I took great pride in working late hours. Admittedly, time is an arbitrary convention in space; but I still enjoyed knowing I was awake while the rest of the ship slept.
The message buzzer hummed softly in the quiet of my cabin. I turned a dial on my desktop. "Ramos here."
The face of Lieutenant Harque, the captain's aide, sprang to life on the screen. Harque had an easy smile and curly good looks, a boy-next-door handsomeness that let him win over people without having a speck of true charm in his self-important body. "The captain would like to see you, Explorer."
"In the conference room. As soon as possible."
"Does she want me to bring Yarrun?"
"I've already contacted Yarrun. Harque out." The picture went blank.
Typical. I had come to expect that sort of thing from Harque. If I confronted him about it, he would claim he was saving me trouble by calling my subordinate for me. I slid back my chair and sighed as I headed for the door.
The light over my desk turned off behind me. It did that automatically. The quick return to darkness always made me think the lamp was eager to see me go.
Yarrun was waiting for me outside the door. His eyes were bleary—he must have been asleep when Harque buzzed him. Yarrun preferred an early bedtime. To compensate, he got up hours before anyone else was awake. He said he enjoyed the quiet of the ship in the early morning.
I don't know what he did with the time he had to himself. Perhaps he just tended his own collection—he collected dyed silk.
Explorer Second Class Yarrun Derigha was officially my subordinate because he graduated from the Academy three years after I did. Unofficially, we were equal partners. We worked as a team, the only two Expendable Crew Members among eighty-seven Vacuum crew members too valuable to be wasted.
Yarrun was missing the left side of his face. To be precise, the left half of his jaw never formed and the right hadn't grown since he was six. The result looked like half a head, with the skin stretched taut from his left cheekbone to his partial right jaw.
Excerpted from Expendable by James Alan Gardner. Copyright © 1997 James Alan Gardner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
James A. Gardner is the author of seven science fiction novels and one collection of short stories. Gardner lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
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I'd read a couple of chapters, and didn't really find it engaging. I set it down, and intended on just returning it. I picked it back up because I'd run out of other books, and decided to stick it out in hopes it'd get better. The premise of the story is good and intriguing, but I found the actual content boring. I felt the main character Festina was very flat and 2-D. It was hard to want to keep hearing from her and thought it wouldn't have been better told from another character¿s perspective. Also, while I know the language of Oar was to set the tone of how she learned English, it was overdone. The repetitive cussing dulled its purpose and just made it annoying. Rating - Idea premise: B+, Content: C-; Overall: C.
The League of Peoples keeps an eye on all species. There is no war, little crime, and life is sacred ... unless you are an Explorer. Humans' morale takes a sharp nose dive if someone beautiful and loved dies. Therefore, the Human race takes those among themselves who are considered to be the misfits, the deformed, the ugly, the flawed, and trains them to be ECMs (Expendable Crew Members). .............................. Festina Ramos has a red birthmark that covers one side of her face. She belongs to the well-trained, always-dwindling ranks of the ECMs. Her partner is Yarrun Derigha. They are ordered by the High Council to escort the mentally unstable Admiral Chee to Melaquin. All information about Melaquin is classified. The only thing publically known is that it seems to be a duplicate planet of Old Earth. Everyone who has ever went to Melaquin has disappeared. No one seems to know why. But once or twice a year, a small party of ECMs is sent to investigate. ............................ Of course, this is meant to be the LAST mission for Festina and Yarrun. But Festina has other ideas. ........................... ***** Excellent! James Alan Gardner brought all the characters to life, especially Festina! This is one of the best sci-fi books I have read this year. This novel came out in 1997. It was the author's debut novel. However, it is so hard for me to believe this was his first! ..................... This story was written to stand alone. A second novel of this type was not even considered by the author (per his short interview with SFBC). Indeed, James Alan Gardner went on to write other books. But so many readers cried out to him and his publisher for more about the ECMs that the author finally broke down. Therefore, this year (2004) a second ECM novel came out titled 'Radiant' (Review forthcoming.) Sci-Fi fans should not miss out on this fabulous story! *****
Interesting and easy to read. Author does a good job with the main character. Decent SiFi.
This book is a bright gold star on the lapel of Gardner. an amazing book which follows Explorer Festina Ramos into a journey of horror and beauty on the planet of unknown deaths: Melaquin. Expendable shows the conflicts and thoughts of an amazing character as well as the results and secrets of an attempt at utopia. Gardner portrays Festina in a way no author can, and delves into her character. Festina is easily related to by some readers and admired by others but the character, Festina Ramos, will continue to be the amazingly portrayed character Gardner meant her to be.