It’s tough work exploring the Galaxy, dangerous and often lethal. One never knows when something beyond what Earth-bred imaginations can conjure is going to pop up (maybe literally) out of the ground, and that’s just once you reach something like ground. Obviously it takes the best and the brightest to operate something as vastly complicated and powerful as an interstellar starship, talents which might not even necessarily lend themselves best to the role of exploring worlds…so when the best and the brightest lose one of their own, surely that must be extraordinarily disruptive to morale and ship-board inter-relations, even if it happens all the time. The solution arrived at by the Human future civilization of Gardner’s imagining was to develop an elite cadre of dirt-side “Explorers” who the ship’s crews were psychologically unable to consider one of their own, through the simple measure of selecting intelligent, physically capable, but somehow unpleasantly disfigured members of society and training them to be semi-disposable surface explorers. Amongst themselves, they call each other ECMs…Expendable Crew Members. Our protagonist is Festina Ramos, whose diligent commitments to exercise and self-improvement made her body and mind as fit and attractive as it could be…save for the port-wine birthmark covering half her face (and maybe a few psychological ticks groomed as useful by the Fleet). She and her partner discover they’re supposed to escort an aged (and possibly senile) Admiral to the surface of a planet that is classified and only whispered about amongst ECMs, the planet Melaquin, from which no ECM has ever returned. No matter what gambit she and her partner consider, though, they cannot avoid taking this mission of no return, and are not long on the peaceful (and seemingly perfectly Earth-like) surface of Melaquin before things go horribly wrong. Soon, Festina is alone and unable to contact her ship, with most of her gear lost or in tatters, and only the knowledge that many other explorers have also been lost here and may also have survived can give her hope. Gardner writes with engaging wry humor and a fast pace, and this was an eminently readable jaunt through an interesting and often absurd world. The biggest flaw of the book, I would have to say, is in the framing premise’s gimmicky nature, with it’s obvious reliance upon and relation to Star Trek’s tropes and the fandom idea of “Redshirts.” The premise certainly poses philosophical issues worth considering, but feels thin for a novel length work otherwise. The super-powerful and seemingly omnipresent alien “League of Peoples” also feels like a bit of hand-waving Deus Ex Machina to keep the plot moving and provide some leverage for the otherwise mostly powerless characters against a malevolent and controlling government, and then there’s the astonishing coincidence that almost everyone Festina seems to have an emotional connection to is, themself, connected to Melaquin somehow. Aside from those little misgivings, though, this was highly enjoyable light reading and I wouldn’t fail to recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of “popcorn” between weightier meals. My thanks to Koz for the recommendation.