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Martians aren't green," Ensign Hoshi Sato said, her delicate features twisted into a frown. "Actually, there is no life on Mars except a human colony."
The mess hall of the Enterprise fell silent, only the background drumming of the engines keeping it from feeling completely tomblike. The room was slightly cold, the faint smell of dinner hung in the air, and outside the windows the now familiar streaking of the stars during warp drive painted a picture of a ship in smooth flight.
Everything was going well except in here.
Ensign Elizabeth Cutler sighed and looked at the other two players. They were watching her expectantly. Ensign Travis Mayweather crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, his expressive chocolate brown eyes filled with amusement. Crewman James Anderson, looking frail next to Mayweather, leaned forward as if the fate of the galaxy rested on Cutler's answer.
Cutler shook her head in amazement and stared down at her notes. She'd spent a week's worth of her off-duty hours designing this science-fiction role-playing game, trying to come up with good scenarios -- and trying to remember the rules. None of the other three crew members had ever played an RPG before, but they wanted to give it a try if she acted as game master. And like a fool, she had agreed.
When she was a kid, Cutler and her friends had played role-playing games, one right after another, their computers linked into a network of make-believe, eating up hours, days, entire weekends with the flights of adventure and fantasy. But now she was dealing with three adults who had only heard of RPGs -- and with only her memory for help. The ship's computers just couldn't be used for this kind of recreational activity.
So she had worked out details of a science-fiction role-playing game. She had even gone so far as to convince Chief Engineer Charles "Trip" Tucker to give her a small cupful of square-shaped, very short bolts. Since there were no dice on board, she had to come up with something to let the players of her game move their characters and make decisions. She had painted the bolts red on one side, white on the other. Red was always positive. White meant nothing.
But with all her preparation, she had never expected to run into players who just couldn't seem to let their minds make things up. And that was critical to a role-playing game. Everything that went on in a game happened in the mind and through the imagination. She was going to have to get that across quickly, or this entire idea was going to be a giant bust.
"For this game," Cutler said, looking up into the attractive face of Hoshi, then glancing at Ensign Travis Mayweather, "Martians are green. And little, and have big ears and very sharp teeth."
"Can't we call them something else?" Hoshi asked. "Perhaps they came to Mars on a transport or -- "
"We said we were playing a twentieth-century RPG," Anderson said. He raised his pale blond eyebrows as if for emphasis. "They believed in Martians, right, Elizabeth?"
"Right," she said, grateful for his interruption. Cutler liked Anderson. He was one of the smartest and most imaginative of the younger members of the crew. He had bright green eyes and brownish hair and a smile that could charm paint off a bulkhead. Like her, Anderson was stationed in the science department. His specialty was geology, while hers was exobiology.
"Now," she said, "let's pretend here. The Martians are like no alien race we have run into. Okay? They are the first bad guys you're going to have to deal with."
Hoshi still looked confused, but Mayweather and Anderson were nodding.
"What exactly is our goal in this game?" Mayweather asked. He gave Hoshi a sidelong glance. She ignored him.
Cutler couldn't think of two more different players. Hoshi was the ship's language expert and she'd already shown herself to be a mixture of brilliance and timidity. Mayweather had experience in deep space already, because he had grown up with his parents on cargo ships flying slowly between outposts. He seemed to love adventure, but sometimes his desire for new experiences made him seem impulsive.
"Your main goal," Cutler said, "is to keep your character alive through all the adventures."
"That's a good idea." Mayweather's eyes twinkled.
"If you're really successful and you like the game, then we can use these characters in a future game, months down the road."
"Months?" Hoshi said.
"We wanted something that would take a long time," Anderson reminded her.
"I was thinking of a game that would spread out over a few nights, not a few months."
"Nights, months." Anderson shrugged. "Out here, we got all the time in the world."
"Universe," Mayweather corrected.
"Universe," Hoshi repeated, and closed her eyes.
It was well known that she hadn't wanted to come on this trip, and rumor had it that she'd asked Captain Archer to find someone to replace her when the first mission ended. He had refused. She was trying to get accustomed to the trip, but she still seemed nervous.
Cutler was of the private opinion that some people were cut out for space travel and others weren't. Cutler knew she was; she suspected Hoshi wasn't. That was why she'd been surprised when Hoshi had volunteered for the game.
"Your second goal," Culter said, "is to collect enough parts of a Universal Translator as to be able to build it."
"A complete Universal Translator will never be possible," Hoshi said, her frown deepening.
Cutler bit back a retort. She'd decided on a Universal Translator as the goal because she'd known Hoshi was playing. Cutler thought it might make the game more interesting for the ensign.
But Cutler should have known better. Hoshi Sato was one of Earth's top linguists, personally brought on board by Captain Archer himself. And she had already helped them through a number of tough situations with alien languages. So if anyone knew if a perfect translator was ever going to happen, it was Hoshi. But being right or wrong about a translator at this point didn't matter.
"This is just a game," Cutler said, smiling at Hoshi. "Remember, we're making all this stuff up. A group of humans and aliens -- your characters -- were taken to Mars for this mission. All this is make-believe. Okay?"
"It has to be," Mayweather said, "since we'd only gotten to the moon in that century."
"And Mars doesn't have little green aliens," Hoshi said. "Or a translator."
Cutler sighed. "Exactly. Nothing is real in this game. Okay? Just let your imaginations roam all you want. That's the fun of this."
None of them were smiling. Not a good sign, as far as Cutler was concerned. This might turn out to be the shortest role-playing game in history.
"So," Anderson said, "what are the rules?"
Cutler glanced down at the notes about the game that she had worked out from memory and logic over the last few days. With luck she had most of what they were going to need. Some things she figured she would just have to make up as they went along.
"Well, first we need to figure out each of your characters. Anderson, pick a name for your character."
"We only get one?" Anderson asked.
Cutler resisted the urge to shake her head again. "Believe me, one will be plenty."
"Okay," he said. "My character's name is Mr. Doom."
"Mr. Doom?" Mayweather asked. "What about Dr. Doom?"
"Been done," Anderson said. "It's Mr. Doom."
"Human and male?" Cutler asked, smiling at the great character name.
Anderson nodded. "You got it. Very male."
She picked up the cup of bolts, shook it, and handed it to Anderson. "Roll the bolts to determine your character's strength."
He took the cup and dumped it on the table between them. The clatter of the bolts hitting the hard surface echoed in the empty mess, as if some machine had just fallen apart. Luckily, they had the room to themselves at the moment. Cutler would have to find a cloth pad to dump the bolts on for the next session. That sound was so loud, it was no wonder Captain Archer didn't hear it on the bridge.
"Five red," Cutler said, counting the red-up bolts. "That means your character, on a scale of one to ten, has a five strength quotient."
"What good are they?" Mayweather asked.
"Your character runs into a situation, just like in real life, you have to have abilities and tools to use to solve the situation." Cutler looked at three frowning faces. She waved a hand in dismissal of their questions. "I'll show you how it factors in when we get to the first situation. Anderson, roll the bolts again."
Again the noise of the bolts clattering on the tabletop filled the mess hall.
"Five intelligence factor," Cutler said.
"Your guy is sort of average," Mayweather said, "for someone with the name Mr. Doom."
"Mr. Mundane," Hoshi said. "You should change the name."
Anderson just glowered as the others laughed. For the first time Cutler felt this might have a chance. She led Anderson through his next few rolls, giving his character charisma (another five), dexterity (a four), and luck (another five). She had decided to leave out all the skills relating to magic, since this game was science fiction, and that shortened the character rolling time considerably.
"You'll all start with zero experience points," she said, "but you'll acquire them as the game goes on."
"I get how strength, dexterity, luck, and intelligence help," Anderson said, "but I'm not getting the charisma and the experience."
"I'll say," Mayweather said with a smile.
Anderson gave him another glower.
"Charisma determines leadership," Cutler said. "If your five is the highest charisma roll, you lead the group."
"Fighting force, led by the evil Mr. Doom," Mayweather said in a theatrical voice.
"The evil, mediocre Mr. Doom," Hoshi added.
"You haven't rolled yet," Anderson said ominously. "What about experience?"
"I would think that's obvious," Culter said. "The more experience you have, the better choices you'll make."
"Let's hope," Hoshi said, and somehow Cutler thought she wasn't talking about the game. But she let the comment slide.
Cutler made Mayweather go next and he came up with an alien named Unk. After two loud rolls, Unk came up weak with only three bolts, but smart with eight bolts. He had a charisma of seven -- "Sorry, Doom," he said to Anderson -- a dexterity of five, and a luck of seven.
"I don't like how this is shaping up," Anderson said.
"We can't all be equal," Mayweather said.
"I remember something about being created equal," Anderson mumbled.
"Not in an RPG," Cutler said, unperturbed. They were getting interested now. She only hoped she could hold Hoshi.
Hoshi called her human woman Bertha, which broke them all up. Hoshi would not explain her reasons for the name, no matter how much the others pushed. She rolled a strength level for Bertha of eight bolts and an intelligence of four. Her charisma score was ten, her dexterity an eight, and her luck was nine.
"Well, this is a crew," Mayweather said. "A weak but smart alien, an average guy, and a strong but not too bright woman. Sounds like the perfect away team to me."
"Except the dumb one will lead us," Anderson said.
"Hey!" Hoshi said. "That's not fair. I don't want to lead."
"Then order someone else to do it," Cutler said. "You've got the charisma."
"Great," Hoshi muttered.
Still, she seemed interested. Cutler could sense the excitement at the table. No one had looked out the windows in the last fifteen minutes -- and the crew was still new enough to look out the windows all the time.
"You people ready to tackle Mars?" Cutler asked.
"You have the place we are going all made up?" Anderson asked.
"I do," Cutler said, not wanting to admit she had only the first part of the adventure worked out. She had wanted to see if anyone was interested in trying it before she spent any more time on it.
"Well, let's try this then," Mayweather said.
Cutler nodded, took a deep breath, and then with a glance at her notes, started to outline what the three were facing.
"You've landed on the side of a massive red sand dune, not more than a hundred paces from the banks of the grand canal."
Hoshi said "There aren't canals on -- " before she stopped herself and smiled. "Sorry. I'll get into this. I promise."
Cutler smiled too, but continued. "The canal runs beside an ancient Martian city, now in ruins. You have been informed that there might be part of the illusive Universal Translator buried in a vault in the center building of the city. Your job is to find it and return to your ship. You have six hours of daylight to cross the canal, get into the city, and find the part."
Cutler looked at her three players. The men looked back at her. Hoshi was actually taking notes.
"Now remember," Cutler said, going on, "this is a dangerous place. You have been told that there are large serpents in the canals and that the green Martians who live in the ruins of the city love to attack humans and aliens."
"Are we going in there unarmed?" Mayweather asked.
"Sounds like a suicide mission to me," Anderson said.
Cutler pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead. "I knew I was forgetting something."
She consulted her notes on weapons. "Listen up," she said. "I'm not letting you look at this."
Mayweather and Anderson searched for their own padds. Hoshi waited, poised and ready.
"I had no idea this was going to be like school," Mayweather said under his breath to Anderson.
"We never fought green Martians in my school," Anderson said, then set his padd on the table. Mayweather placed his beside Anderson's.
When they were ready, Cutler read them the weapons information. They dutifully wrote it down.
"Each of you will start off this mission with these weapons," she said. "When these weapons are used up or destroyed, you can't get more without returning to the ship. Understood?"
All of them nodded while reading.
Cutler pushed on, feeling as if she had almost got them to the point where they actually might like role-playing. "I ask you questions about what you want to do. You can ask me questions about the settings. When you take an action, I will tell you if there is a consequence to the action or not. Then we'll roll the bolts to see how you do. Okay?"
"Roll the bolts," Anderson said, trying the phrase.
"Like rollin' dem bones," Hoshi said.
"What's that?" Mayweather asked.
"It's a slang term that came from -- "
"Ready to start?" Cutler interrupted on purpose. She knew from experience that sidetracks could prolong a game. She'd seen it on the nets when she played as a kid. "So what do you want to do first?"
"Okay, we're standing in front of the canal," Anderson said, obviously checking.
"Is there a way across?" Anderson asked.
"There's a small boat tied to the bank, just barely big enough for the three of you. And one hundred paces down the canal there is the remains of a bridge that might be crossed."
At that moment a faint glow came through the windows of the mess as the Enterprise dropped out of warp. Mayweather, Anderson, and Cutler scrambled to their feet and went to the windows. Entering a new system was always exciting. Even, Cutler had to admit, better than making up an adventure in their heads.
She glanced over her shoulder. Hoshi clung to the edge of the table, her expression neutral, but her body rigid. She hated any unusual movement of the ship -- and she seemed terrified of the changes in speed.
Cutler turned away. The crew had tacitly agreed to ignore Hoshi's reactions, hoping, perhaps, that they would go away.
The yellow sun of the system seemed warm against Cutler's face, even though it wasn't possible to feel heat through the port. A reddish-tinted planet was spinning into view. Greens and blues and reds swam by below them as they dropped into a high orbit.
"Wow, that could be a terraformed Mars," Anderson said.
"Too much water," Mayweather said, pointing at the oceans that covered about a third of the planet.
At that moment Captain Archer's voice came over the communications speakers. "Ensign Hoshi, Ensign Mayweather, report to the bridge."
"We'll start this game later," Anderson said as the two headed for the mess hall door.
"You can count on it," Mayweather said. "After this much setup, I've got to see if we at least can get across the canal."
"Piece of cake," Anderson said, laughing.
Cutler said nothing as she picked up the painted bolts and cup. She knew what she had planned for the three of them crossing the canal. And there wasn't going to be anything easy about it.
Copyright © 2002 by Paramount Pictures