Captain Davenport of the IPRE looks down at the file open on his desk, and up at the candidate sitting across from him. This one is a round-bellied human with a big bushy beard and an enthusiastic expression. It's hard for him to tell human ages. The candidate's file gives his age as "25 years young!" but he has no idea what that means.
"So, uh, there appear to be some discrepancies in your files," he begins. "Your name here is listed as Percy, but you--you go by--?"
"Graham, yes," he says. "It's my space name."
"Your space name?" He's lived among Big Folk for years, but he's never heard of such a thing.
"It's not unusual, to have a space name," Graham explains. "A name that you use when you're going to space."
Davenport gives him a tight smile. "Well, a little uncommon, I'd imagine, seeing as how we'd be the first to go to space." The idea intrigues his gnome sensibilities. Maybe he should have a space name?
"Yeah, well…I mean, if you think about it…Spaceman Percy doesn't sound too exciting, does it?"
"I suppose." Davenport still isn't sure what to make of this human. "It says here you're a wizard?"
"Yeah," he says, pointing to his floppy wizard's hat. It's an eye-searing purple with bright yellow stars on it. It looks like it's seen better days. "But what I really wanna do is fly on a spaceship! Just…live a traveling life on a ship, you know? Whatever job you need me to do, I'll do. You need me to pilot the ship? I can do that."
He raises an eyebrow. "I'll be the one piloting the ship," he says.
"Oh." Graham visibly sags in his chair. But then he immediately brightens. "I could be your co-pilot! Learn at your side, sort of as a--a shadowing thing."
He looks at Graham's file again. It's not impressive, but there's something about Graham's enthusiasm that speaks to him. "We'll think about it," he says. "And besides, we could always use more wizards."
"Oh, thank you!" Graham leaps out of his chair and grabs Davenport's hand to shake. "Thank you for considering me! I--I won't let you down!" And he turns and half-runs, half-dances out of the office, yelling "They'll think about it!" down the hallway. The back of his robe says Juicy across the butt.
Davenport sighs. But he can't help but smile.
"So tell me," says Davenport, interfolding his fingers and leaning forward, "what skills do you think you'd bring to this team?"
"Well, I'm a demolitions expert," says the half-orc, Cassidy. "I blow up rocks and get diamonds and shit out of the ground. Nobody's better at it. You seen girls like these?" She flexes her beefy arms, which strain at the sleeves of her dress shirt. She's obviously put in some effort to look nice for this interview, but she strikes Davenport as the sort of person who's more comfortable in a tank top and rough work jeans.
"I admit I have not," he says.
"I am super strong," she says. "You see any gerblins on this mission, I'll beat 'em up for you. I don't want no gerblins on this mission. There gonna be any on the ship? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I think that one science guy, Berry Boo-genies, I think he's just a buncha gerblins in a red robe. P-tooo!" She spits into a spitoon which Davenport doesn't remember being in his office. Did she bring it with her?
"He's not, uh, he's assured me he's perfectly human," he says. "There, uh, won't be--we don't expect to have any gerblins on the ship."
Cassidy smiles, showing off her little tusks. "You want some root beer barrels? I got a stash of 'em right here in my pocket." She reaches into her dress pants and pulls out a sticky clump of brown hard candy, stuck all over with lint. "I been savin' 'em for a special occasion. But you seem like a real nice little mustache gerblin. I like you."
"Uh, thanks," he says, too amused by her awkward sincerity to take offense. He takes the root beer barrels and sets them on a little dish. "They'll be my…afternoon snack," he lies.
Cassidy isn't the brightest lightbulb. But the crew could use an extra fighter, and she gets along with Magnus really well. They bond over their shared love of hard candy and flexing.
"My name," says the dwarf, with thoughtful emphasis, "is Boyland."
Davenport raises an eyebrow. "Like the amusement park?" he asks. "The one that shut down?"
The dwarf nods amicably. His face is covered in scars and his voice is like rough gravel, but he seems relaxed and friendly. His references are impeccable. Everyone who has ever worked with Boyland loves him.
"It says here you've got several wives and husbands and…" He squints at the page. "I'm sorry, is this correct? A hundred and seventeen sons and three daughters??"
Boyland smiles, which is a gruesome sight. "And I love each and every one of them," he says. "They make all this worth it."
There's a genuine sincerity to Boyland that Davenport can't help but warm up to. He's a shoe-in for the mission. Magnus, Taako and Merle rag on him a lot, but it quickly becomes a more affectionate sort of ribbing as the team training wears on. Boyland always brings fresh donuts to team meetings, which Davenport appreciates. His busy schedule means he often forgets to have breakfast, but Boyland makes sure everyone on the team has at least some fuel in the tank.
When their world is swallowed, Boyland grimaces, but soldiers on.
When the animal world is swallowed, Boyland is standing on the deck of the ship when he's killed by a stray tendril of the Hunger. It whips out of the swirling chaos and pierces him in the chest. He had stepped out for a smoke.
When he's reformed alongside Magnus, he is shaken.
"Yeah, dude," says Lup, "you really shouldn't drop your guard like that when you're out for a smoke in a dangerous environment."
He nods thoughtfully. "Thanks, Lup," he says. "I'd better not forget that."
"Listen," says Davenport to Commander Fortinbras, "I don't care how rich he is. This isn't a tourist excursion! This is a scientific expedition. We're not taking passengers who want to tag along for the fun of it."
Fortinbras is a reasonable person, but all he can do is sigh. He looks very tired. "I'm afraid he's also a major sponsor of the IPRE. And our budget is very...tenuous at the moment. I personally don't like it any more than you do. But if we don't go to space on his terms, it's very likely we won't be going to space at all."
Davenport grinds his teeth. He's pissed, and Fortinbras can tell he's pissed. But anger won't do him any good. He pushes it down, and puts on his mask of professional calm. "Very well," he says. "But I want it on the record that I have strong reservations about his presence."
Fortinbras nods. Davenport swallows his pride, and goes to welcome Lord Artemis Sterling to the Starblaster.
Artemis is exactly as much a whiny, self-important brat as his reputation suggested. He spends the first several cycles whining and crying about why me and you're the captain, do something! and I demand to go home at once! He refuses to do any work and spends his days on the ship, touching up his hair and reading trashy romance novels and issuing Decrees.
Lucretia comes out of her shell faster than anyone expected her to, volunteering to get off the ship and away from Artemis Sterling as fast as her legs will carry her. But Davenport refuses to leave Sterling alone as the one in charge of protecting the ship, so he initiates a system of drawing lots to see who has to stay behind on babysitting duty. It's the only fair way, otherwise everyone would bolt from the ship the moment it touched safe ground.
Eventually Artemis mellows, becoming less demanding but no more helpful. Until the year of the Judges, when he is left alone to fend for himself.
The rest of the crew reforms to find Artemis standing proudly beside them. He looks at them all and nods, in a way that is both humbled and determined. He wears a different sort of pride than usual. Less vocal, more mature, more earned. He has not aged a day, but he seems decades older than the boy who fled their doomed world a lifetime ago.
And he is different after this, in a way that makes the rest of the crew proud. He never volunteers to stay back with the ship again. He spends less time avoiding the hardships of the journey and more time sharing the weight of it. He becomes understanding and protective and kind. He won't go on to found the Bureau of Balance for decades still, but this horrible lonely year is when Artemis becomes Lord Director.
Klarg is the most polite bugbear Davenport has ever met. "This tea is delightful!" he says, over the cup that Davenport has offered him. "Is this Sencha green? With a hint of rose?"
The gnome nods. "An old family favorite of mine. So tell me, Klarg, what do you believe is your greatest asset?"
"Oh, I'm excellent with people," says the bugbear. "Most people associate my race with fighting, and I admit that was my earliest experience. I can still fight, if I need to. I'm no slouch with a good club in my hands!" He laughs, showing huge incisors. "But that's not something I necessarily love doing, so I've since branched out. My first paying gig was as a butler, and I've moved up the ladder into managerial roles, human resources and that sort of thing." He leans back and smiles.
Davenport nods. He can certainly appreciate a person trying to push beyond the narrow stereotypes of their race. "On your resume, you describe yourself as a team player. What do you think is the best way to encourage teamwork, especially among a group of very diverse personalities?"
"Well, I think talking is the key to understanding," says Klarg. "That, and hugs. There are few problems that can't be hugged out, I think. Especially over a nice cup of tea."
Davenport likes his answers. It's good to have someone calm and emotionally stable, especially with a crew as wild as his. Klarg gets along swimmingly with the rest of them, and after the first week of training, the captain often sees the bugbear giving piggyback rides to both elves across the campus, or having long conversations over tea with Merle, or posing for one of Lucretia's sketches.
When the world ends, Klarg's demeanor changes. "I'm gonna kill you!!" he screams at the Hunger. He roars with the sound of a thunderstorm, and practically falls off the ship trying to punch a column of tar. It takes half the crew to hold him back, and then they hit the edge of the planar system, and there is a strange moment when the crew is pulled apart into a hundred iterations. And then they are through, and the Hunger is gone.
Klarg's rage, however, is not.
The crew doesn't know how to handle his frequent personality switches, until in a fury he attacks Davenport. With surprising agility and remarkable calm, the gnome overthrows him. Klarg pounds the ground with a huge fist. "How can you be so cold about this?!" Klarg roars at him. "That thing keeps taking and taking, and you just stand there and accept it like it's nothing!"
Davenport pins him to the ground with a glare like a steel lance. "You think I'm not angry?" he says through clenched teeth. "You think I'm not gods-damned furious every single day?"
Klarg stares at him.
Davenport's hands are balled into small, shaking fists at his sides. "You have the right to be angry, Klarg," he says. "But you are also responsible for your actions, and screaming at the sky and attacking your teammates will do nothing to stop the Hunger."
Klarg regards Davenport for a long time. Slowly, he lowers his head. "What are your orders, Captain?"
After that, Angry Klarg gives him the grudging respect that Soft Klarg gave so easily in that first interview. Angry Klarg is a hard nut to crack, but even he slowly warms up to the crew. Even he becomes family. By halfway through the century, the two sides of him are far closer together, and it is only by the subtlest shifting of his vocal tones that the crew can notice any difference at all.
"You know," he says one day, over family dinner, "I just wanted to thank all of you. For giving me a chance. I don't--I just miss my family sometimes, you know? But you all…you've become my family now, too. And I never thought that would even be possible, you know? That people would care about me, even when I'm…well, you know. Angry and difficult."
"Aww," says Magnus, spreading his arms wide for a hug. "C'mere, you!" And he and Klarg embrace, and the Protector buries his face into the warm fur of the Hugger.
John is impeccably dressed for his interview, well-spoken and polite and respectful. Davenport is at first skeptical of why the mission would require a chronicler and a public speaker, but John makes his case, and the captain is quickly convinced.
John is a very convincing person.
Before the ship takes off, Merle picks up on the fact that John carries a deep weight within him. A restlessness about the state of the world, a longing for some greater purpose or meaning to it all. He understands.
After two months, the expedition comes back with plenty of data for the IPRE's labs to play with for a long time. The post-trip press conference shows a crew that, while they have not become a family, have certainly become friends. They continue to work closely with each other as the years pass, and a few even join Captain Davenport on future missions to the edge of the planar system.
And whatever John was looking for, he must have found it, out there among the stars. He is happier, when he returns. He keeps close contact with Merle, and they often get together for a beer in the evenings, just to talk about life.
There is no story, and there is no song. There doesn't need to be. Just a group of eight colleagues and friends who did the quietly extraordinary, together. And if they have occasional moments where they long for something greater, they can look up at the stars and say to themselves, "I went there with my friends. And it was beautiful. And that is enough."
The old woman slides a basket of scones across the desk towards him. "You like scones, yes?" Her accent is thick, her tone genial and sincere. "Have a bite! They are warm."
He raises an eyebrow. "Is this a bribe?"
She laughs. "No, no! I am trying new recipe. You tell me if you like it. Or if it tastes like dog poop, you tell me that too! I want honest opinion."
He shrugs, and takes a bite. The scone is warm, as promised, and its taste is buttery and softly sweetened with vanilla and lavender. He tells her so. She smiles.
"Also, I don't need a bribe," she says. "I'm going to be on the ship anyway. I saw it, in my prophecies."
He raises the other eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"I am divination expert. So let's cut to business, yes? I am going to be on this ship. I will divine for you, and I also make excellent scones." She takes out a handkerchief and slides it across the desk towards him.
"We, ah, already have two arcane experts who are excellent chefs--"
"But they are not divination experts," she says, as if she has already looked at their files. Which isn't possible. The files are quite secure. "I cough up prophecies before breakfast. I burp and prophecies come out! On this mission, trust me! You will need someone who can see what's coming."
"And what is coming?" he asks. And then he feels a tickle in the back of his throat. Without thinking, he grabs the handkerchief just in time to catch a sneeze.
"Gesundheit!" she says, grinning. "To answer your question, a big storm is coming. You will need to be prepared."
He takes another long look at her. "All right," he says. "Welcome aboard, Ms.--ah--"
"Call me Paloma," she says.
Paloma, of course, becomes the ship's beloved aunt or grandmother, depending on who you're asking. She comforts them during hard times, and guides them out of uncertain situations. Davenport, always a man of facts and reason, learns quickly to trust her guidance, to unpack her often mysterious prophecies so he's never caught off-guard.
Merle invents a new three-person variation of Yooker and invites Paloma to join him and Davenport at the card table--under the promise that she doesn't cheat. She laughs and pinches his cheeks, and sits down at the table. "Let us get this party started!" she cackles. "I don't need prophecy to whoop both your butts!"
Barry and Lup get together officially during the beach year. Paloma and Taako set them up on a surprise date, after Taako has a talk with Barry and Paloma has a talk with Lup and they compare notes. A table is waiting for them on the beach, lit by candles and spread with some of the most delicious food either of them have ever tasted. They are both shy, but with beauty and calm all around them, the words flow more easily than either of them expect. After the dinner plates are cleared away and Taako prepares their desserts, Lup extends her hand across the table, lays it halfway between them. A tentative reach. And Barry, nervous but full of an indescribable depth of love for her, takes her hand in his. And they don't let go.
After Legato, Paloma visits Davenport in his office.
"You need a hobby," she says with her usual bluntness.
Davenport smiles. "So I've been told."
"No," she says, "I mean you need a hobby. Invest your time in something that has nothing to do with the Mission. Is good for the brain, the heart, the soul. You liked the singing, yes?"
Davenport sighs, leans back in his chair. "Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to invest more time in it. Bardic magic could be a useful addition to the team--"
"NO." She grabs him by the face, presses his cheeks together. "It must have nothing to do with the Mission. Not today, not ever. Use everything else for the mission, if you must--your illusions, your mad piloting skills--but take this one thing, and lock it up in your heart where the Mission cannot ever get its grubby little hands all over it. Do this one thing, Davenport, only for yourself."
He clears his throat and gently disengages himself from her. "So you're, uh, asking me to be selfish."
Paloma smiles warmly. "Yes, Davenport. Just this once, you need to be selfish."
Years later, Magnus the fighter, Taako the wizard, Merle the cleric, and Davenport the bard listen to the soul-battery that once belonged to Maureen Miller.
"…But I saw a brilliant light, heralded by eight birds, flying tirelessly from the storm. The twins, the lover, the protector, the lonely journal keeper, the peacemaker, the seer, and the pathfinder. I saw eight birds."
He doesn't know what it means. But his brain is already picking the prophecy apart, slipping through it sideways to try to uncover its hidden meanings. Figuring out the best way forward with this information, so he's not caught off-guard.
He feels like he's done this before.
It's the hardest interview he's ever done. Mainly because he has trouble even looking at the being sitting across from him. The candidate is some sort of warlock, with a centuries-long résumé of mostly retail positions. If he squints hard enough, or if he glances out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he catches a glimpse of pearly fang, glowing golden eye, a feline grin. But he's not sure, and staring too hard gives him a headache.
"So it appears most of your experience has been in sales," he says.
"That's right!" says the high-pitched, sing-songy voice. "I'm very into making deals!" He flexes his claws. "What are the benefits like here? Because I need a really good dental policy." He grins at Davenport.
The gnome's heart thuds against his ribs. "I--I can see that." He tries to stay focused, tries to keep his nerves from showing. But the presence of this…being in his office is unsettling to him on a gut level. He keeps his tail resolutely tucked beneath his chair, so this Garfield can't see its frantic twitching. "The, uh…we offer a full benefits package, of course. But this won't be an easy trip. We want anyone on board to understand the risk involved. How do you think you'd handle yourself in a risky situation?"
"Listen," says Garfield, extending one finger. A curving onyx claw gleams in the ruddy sunset light streaming in through the window. "I'm not a fan of risk. It's bad for the bottom line. But the best way to get out of a risky situation is to know what your opponent wants. You turn them into a customer, and make them an irresistible deal. They won't want to kill you if you have something they want and show yourself to be willing to, ah, what's the term? Parley?"
Davenport nods professionally. It's an unusual answer, but not the most unusual he's heard in these interviews.
"For example," Garfield continues, "I happen to know you're a really big fan of crab chips. You buy them from Fantasy Shop n' Save all the time, right?"
Davenport's eyes widen slightly. It's true, he does love his crab chips. "Y-yes?"
"Well," says Garfield, leaning forward, "what if I told you I could get you a deal on bulk crab chips at the Fantasy Costco?"
Davenport can't stare at Garfield. So he stares at the file instead. Garfield is actually a fairly competent warlock, and having someone with his…interpersonal bargaining skills may come in handy when meeting the inhabitants of other planes. "Well…I will bear that in mind," he says.
When Commander Fortinbras meets him later on, to discuss the final selections of the crew, he points out the weird balance of classes, and the fact that he has two chefs on a crew of seven people. Also, why did he hire a retail salesperson for an interplanar science expedition?
"I stand by my choices," he says, reaching into a bag of crab chips.
He wonders if he's made a mistake when Cycle 7 is the seventh cycle that Garfield spends expanding his Fantasy Costco franchise. Sure, it rakes in a lot of money for the warlock, but currency changes from cycle to cycle and he has no idea what Garfield plans to do with all the assets he's acquired. He doesn't even contribute his stock to the Mission unless the crew finds a way to pay him for it.
On cycle 30, an opportunity arises.
John finds himself sitting in a conference room lit red by a setting sun. He blinks, uncertain how he came to be here—of how he came to be himself again. Posters on the walls proclaim sales events and bargain clearances at a store he's never heard of. A platter of free cheese samples sits on the table. But before he can attempt to find an exit, a strange being pops into the chair across from him. The being grins a feline grin.
"Greetings!" he sings. "I'm Garfield, the Deals Warlock! Care to make a deal?"
A short while later, the Hunger disperses, separating into its constituent planes for Jeffandrew to put back into place again. Garfield pops back into place on Tesseralia, grinning. The crew celebrates their victory, and eventually settles into life on the peaceful world. Garfield, naturally, opens up a new chain of Fantasy Costcos--funded not only by all the currency he's acquired from 30 different worlds, but also a great deal of money which apparently came from the Hunger itself.
Each one of the crew asks him, at some point, what he offered the Hunger. But Garfield only smiles, and insists that that is privileged customer information.
On a distant plane, John sits in his old office, watching the sun set outside the wall-to-wall windows. He waits, occasionally pacing, occasionally glancing at the phone on his desk. Was it all a ruse? Has he been tricked, somehow? Or did that Garfield creature manage to seal the deal and get him the one thing he craves, the one thing that would make life, somehow, worth it?
He nearly jumps out of his skin when the phone rings. He scrambles to the desk and nearly fumbles the handset. "This is John," he says.
"John!" comes the distant, tinny voice of his agent. "So, I was speaking to an old friend of mine recently, and we pulled some strings to get you a new speaking gig--"
"Yes?" He tries to keep his voice level, but his heart is pounding in his chest.
"Congratulations, John! You're going to be in Trolls 2!"
For the first time in his long, strange life, John weeps with joy.