The lab was quiet except for the occasional gurgle as blue fluid was exchanged in the biotanks. There were a total of thirty biotanks, upright cylinders made of treated titanium with a quarter-panel of toughened glass so that visual inspection of their contents could be carried out. The titanium was treated to prevent the build-up of biofilms, and a further five biotanks were currently empty, being re-treated. Low-powered lights were set into the top cap of the biotanks, weakly illuminating the fluid and its contents, and casting odd shadows across the floor of the lab. Unlike the other labs in this end of the starfreighter the ceiling lights in here, harsh fluorescent tubes capable of producing a blinding white light and irradiative UV-rays, were turned off and recessed, filtered LEDs produced something closer to moonglow.
Dr. Anna Lesjes walked from one occupied biotank to the next, her pace slow and even. At each tank she paused, checking the contents by sight and then sliding back a titanium plate to reveal a set of digital displays and readouts. She carried a clipboard-like tablet, with a pen-like stylus attached to one corner by a long, flexible cord, and she copied down the values from the displays before closing up the panel and moving on the next. She was wearing a white lab-coat with the Cobaxia logo emblazoned on both breast pockets, but underneath the lab coat she was wearing a short black dress that was a little too tight for comfort, sheer black stockings and high-heeled shoes. She had reached the twenty-fifth tank before a door at the far end of the lab shuddered and tried to open. It stopped, closed up, and tried again, getting a little further this time. A hand, golden skin and hairy, seized the side of the one of the halves of the door and pushed. She turned and watched now, a faint smile playing across her lips, as the door sighed and groaned and eventually gave in and opened enough to let a man through.
“Dr. Lesjes!” called the man, his voice booming through the quiet lab and drowning out the latest gurgle. He looked a little startled, and spoke next instead of shouting. “How long has that door been like that?”
He was a little shorter than her – most of the men on the starfreighter were shorter than her – but if she hadn’t been wearing high heels they’d have been about the same height. He had dark hair in a widow’s peak that was definitely starting to recede, and a lined face that made him look about fifteen years older than she knew he was. His eyes twinkled pretty much all the time, and his lips were constantly curving into a mischievous, boyish smile.
“Dan,” she said, her voice warm but containing a little bit of control. He was her junior after all. “As I’ve told you at least three times, that door’s been broken for over eighteen days now. I keep telling you to contact maintenance about it.”
“I did contact maintenance,” he said, crossing the lab to join her in front of the biotanks. “Every time you told me to. They keep telling me that we’re low priority and there are more urgent things on their list to do. I tried raising that the last time, and they just told me that airlocks are priority over everything else and I would just have to wait.”
Anna closed up the panel on this biotank, and moved on to the next. Dan followed her.
“What department did you say we were?” she asked, sliding open the readout panel and starting to copy the data onto her tablet.
“Research and Development, Military I,” he said. He sounded a little puzzled. “Why should that make a difference?”
“You told them the wrong thing,” said Anna. The data on the readout was all within normal parameters, but she added a star next to it on the tablet anyway. Some of the figures were a little higher than she was expecting. She checked the biotank number: 26. “You should have told them that it was Lab-EST.”
“I’ve seen that written on some things,” said Dan. “I don’t know what it means though.”
“Then ask!” Anna turned to face him, her eyes bright and annoyed. She pursed her lips. “You’re my assistant, Dan, and you can’t assist me if you don’t know everything! Ask when you see something you don’t understand, because by the time you need to know, I might not be here!”
Dan’s face creased a little with shock, and his mouth dropped a little before he controlled himself and closed it again.
“Where are you going?” he said, his voice sounding astonishingly quiet suddenly.
“Nowhere. No you idiot, I’m not leaving or dying, or any such thing. But this is a dangerous job and you can’t just assume that you’ll get an education before you’re required to use it. This isn’t a school, and you’re not going to get things just put in front of you for you to absorb at your own rate.”
He was quiet now, thinking about what she’d just said, and she took the opportunity to move on to the next tank. Four more and she could hand the data over to Dan for the evening, he could process it, and she could go and attend this ridiculous cocktail party she was all dressed up for.
“What’s Lab-EST mean, please?” he said, and she was pleased that he’d decided to listen and not argue.
“EST are the Empirical Storm Troopers,” she said, peering into the tank. Something in the shadows caught her eye, but before she could identify what it was a clatter on the floor behind her made her turn her head. Dan was bending down picking up his tablet.
“We look after the Empirical Storm Troopers?” he said. “But they’re like… they’re the elite….”
“Yes,” said Anna. “And since you’ve apparently not realised it, we don’t look after them. We grow them. That’s what’s going on in these biotanks right here, and what the data I’m gathering is for. They’ll be grown in another thirty-five hours, and then–“ she stopped there. Dan clearly needed to understand a lot more about the job, and it would be better to get that understanding in place before she told him what the ESTs had been grown for this time.
“We grow them?”
“Yes. Look, Dan, this is not the right time for this conversation. Make sure you’re here tomorrow at 12ship and we’ll find out what else you don’t already know.” She looked back at the biotank, but the shadows seemed normal now. She supposed it must have been a trick of the difficult lighting, and copied down the numbers from the readouts. Her wrist-assist chimed, telling her she had ten minutes before the cocktail party started.
“Right,” she said. “There are three biotanks left, you can do them Dan.” I’ll do the visual tomorrow with you, so you know what you’re looking for, but for now you just copy down the data here and take it and the rest for initial processing. Got that?” She passed him her tablet, then took it back from him and tapped in a override password to allow him read-and-write access to the biotank data. She handed it over once more, and shrugged out of her lab-coat.
“Have fun,” he said, noting her dress and smiling warmly.