(A Science Fiction story, not for the squeamish.)
3504, Sol standard. Day 162.
I had the fortune to be inboard SS Adventurer at a turning point in human history.
Jefferson J Jefferson, luckiest man in the universe, started a new stream in the ship’s video log to record the great event firsthand. Every spacedrifter dreamed of finding a Terroid planet. To do so on a first mission was little short of a miracle.
He rocked back in his leatherette captain’s lounger, smiling at the bridge’s main screen.
He had been born to fortune. I know for a fact he bought the ship and funded the tour with his grand-daddy’s ill-gotten wealth. There are no secrets between the metaphorical sheets.
The furrowing of Jefferson’s brow told me his mind was hard at work, probably wondering when to rehydrate half a gallon of wine. He turned to the navigator. “Spandau, I’m getting impatient. Twelve days until orbit?”
Spandau Orion, astrophysicist and all round smartass, sat next to me by the bank of com. ports. He didn’t take his eyes from the screen in front of him. “Twelve days on current settings. We could do in seven, but why waste fuel? The probes are there already.”
Jefferson grunted. “I’ll start a sub-ether link then. Damn the cost.”
They picked me from a color chart, Spandau told me once. First thing they were shown, in the back room of a bar at Moonstation Delta, was a color chart, so at least I knew I was their preferred shade of brown. Made me so proud. twelve thousand inters, Jeff paid, and I made damn sure they got his money’s worth.
Petros Kwek, life sciences and several other sciences as well, had hardly slept since they discovered New Earth. I can’t believe they sat down and debated the matter for three hours and came up with New Earth, but who cared what I thought? I was just a dumb comfort girl.
3504, day 174
New Earth orbit. Just another day to me. When I wasn’t giving service or working on the flexigym, I played backgammon against the ship. I’ve heard what they said: “She wins a lot. Must be on novice level.” Huh.
They sat around the galley table, in the centri-ring’s pseudo-g. I played. They had a bottle of wine which had been allowed to mature, after hydrating, for a full twenty minutes.
With half a mind on my game, I kept an ear on their conversation. Something big going on.
Petros soon got to the heart of the matter. “It’s looking better each day. The air is almost a perfect match for Earth’s. No sign of harmful pathogens. Life near as dammit Earthlike, at least at the highest level – plants, fungi, animals. No fish, but many immature amphibians fill the fishy niches. For Pan’s sake, the soil even has earthworms, or at least soil creatures which can’t be distinguished from worms until we get to analyze their DNA. It scores as well as Earth on the Asimov scale.”
I’d heard of Asimov. Wasn’t he the one who discovered Mars?
Jeff emptied his glass and reached for the bottle. “Encouraging. What’s the catch?”
“Almost too good to be true, Jeff. No mammals. No grasses, but I can see no reason why we couldn’t plant our own and raise sheep in time. The insects are two-winged and not as common or varied as on Earth.”
“Huge ones. Mostly amphibians, with some reptiles. But the island Spandau suggests for our first camp has nothing larger than a wolf.”
Jefferson settled back. “So, it looks like we are going to be three very wealthy men. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe we can’t eat the meat or anything from here. We neutralize the island and grow our own. Some settlers prefer it that way. Either way we’re onto big money, and it’s time we formalized our agreement.”
Smart-ass Spandau raised his glass. “To fifteen percent of immense wealth.”
Jefferson and Petros echoed the toast, except JJJ said seventy percent. And that was it, their agreement formalized and recorded.
Jefferson set his glass on the table. “Do you know what the hardest decision was, planning this expedition? Second only to crew selection was how much alcohol to bring along. It’s also one of the first things either of you asked. And our five gallons of wine concentrate are already down to three.”
Petros laughed. “I’ve got it in hand. Grape DNA being synthesized as we drink.”
Spandau poured himself another and pushed the bottle toward Jefferson.
I’d had enough. With my thermoflex gown flowing, l walked the few steps to their table. I took a glass from the overhead rack, filled it, drank half and topped it up, then, when I was sure I had their attention, I sat.
Wearing thermoflex is an art. Some girls never get it, but that’s what full length mirrors are for. It swirls like gossamer, but when it settles it sort of clings to the body, attracted by the heat. By the time I had arranged myself on the remaining seat, those three men had gotten an emphatic reminder of my assets, as if they needed it.
I picked up the bottle and waggled it towards Jefferson. “This’ll need refilling soon.” One thing in their favor, not one of them objected to my taking a drink, at least not out loud.
Petros stared at me, just like the first time he saw me naked. Spandau shook his head but managed a smile.
JJJ let his jaw drop for a moment, then forced a shrug. “You could have asked.”
“You could have refused. Now, time to talk about my share.” I had absolutely no right to any share, but what the hell? They were talking zillions. They wouldn’t miss it. “All I ask is one half a percent, negotiable, but only upward.”
Jefferson glared. “You get an end-of-tour bonus when we upgrade, as your contract clearly states, and a–”
I grabbed the bottle, beating Spandau by an inch. “You’re right, Jefferson. And have you any idea what would have happened to me if I hadn’t signed? I wouldn’t still be pretty.”
Jefferson’s face dropped a couple of shades on the color chart. So he hadn’t known the threats that compelled me to give myself into slavery. I shuddered. He had bought me without sparing a thought for my humanity, without considering I had once been free.
He settled back in his seat then frowned at me. “Where are you from, Zelda?”
I looked down to a fold on the thermoflex clinging to my thighs. “It doesn’t matter anymore.” Snatched from my pony the day after my twelfth birthday, lifted skyward, hoisted into a copter. Four dreadful years before they sold me on, then pleasing the drunks of Moonstation Delta. Thinking about it brought back the pain. When I looked up, Jefferson was still staring at me.
He turned to the log. “I, Jefferson J Jefferson, formally confirm the following shares of all profits for the settlement planet we are orbiting. To Spandau Orion, fifteen percent. To Petros Kwek, fifteen percent. To Zelda – What is your name?”
I told him.
“To Zelda Hamadrass – fifteen percent.”
I didn’t hear a word for a minute after that. A little buzzing in my head, not just from the alcohol, made me sway on the seat.
3504, day 178
Base camp. On Spandau’s recommendation, they’d chosen a large island in an area the probes suggested had a temperate climate. They’d neutralized a couple of acres to a depth of twelve feet, set up bio-barriers and activated the hut-builder. We crammed into the landing craft and tumbled down.
The ship’s quarters had all the luxury that could have been provided, but they lacked space. I felt my body sigh as I ran on a sterile, sandy beach, with body-cling shorts. I wore a chest band for support, glad I had resisted enhancement. My lungs strained, my heart pounded.
The men found a football in store. That soon got kicked through the barrier, so they ran too.
When we had showered together and dressed, we sat around a table robotically fashioned from sterilized local wood, with a meal that included some amphibian flesh and the fruit of two varieties of New Earth trees, all collected by a small rover.
Analyses, Petros assured us, had been thorough. He took a little meat onto his fork and turned it around.
Jefferson laughed. “If we can’t trust the computer–” He bit into the amphibian and chewed. I had expected some display of histrionics, a feigned poisoning, but he just cut off a little more and carried on eating.
We watched the sun set, saw a flock of birds approach and turn when their leaders were zapped by our bio-barriers.
I had worried that my outburst four days before would isolate me, somehow isolate me, but instead I found myself drawn into conversations where I would before have felt excluded.
Spandau looked up at the stars. “I wonder what happened to the Krakov mission. They were lost in this sector, way back. Do you think they ever saw this planet?”
Krakov? I repeated the name to myself, fixing it in my mind.
The three men spent an hour deciding what would go into their first sub-ether message – climate, flora and fauna with video of the more Earth-like examples, the single moon, the slight axial tilt and seasonal variation.
Jefferson leaned back against the wall of our eight-roomed hut. “That should be enough to raise some serious interest on Earth. And credit, if we need it. We’ll know in five days.”
Petros shook his head. “We have to mention the DNA anomaly, Jeff. It could be important.”
It was getting a little technical for me. I went inside to a com. port, but didn’t play backgammon. Krakov. I’d not had the need to research anything before.
It surprised me to find how limited my access was, even to simple information systems. The little I did learn gave me no reason for concern.
3504, day 178
By the end of the morning, the hut felt like a home, with the few luxuries we had brought down. Petros and I lent a hand while the others got ready–lightweight suits and helmets to keep out germs, handguns that could stop an elephant, a range of tubes for samples.
Jefferson raised his helmet then paused and lowered it. He waved his arm, pointing to a line of thick vegetation. “We’ll head that way. I don’t expect to be more than two hours, but to be safe we’ll stay visible and avoid the areas of thicker cover.”
I watched the barrier flicker as they passed through.
Petros surprised me by heading toward the hut. He turned to me without breaking his stride. “Come on.”
My years in the lunar bar had taught me to associate disobedience with great pain. I followed, but I felt uneasy. He went around the hut, not into it as I had expected.
When we were out of sight of the others he reached out a hand, rubbing his knuckles against the material of my dress. The contact was slight but enough to make his intentions clear. “What d’you call that thing?”
“This? A body tube.” It was one of my favorites, deep summer blue, silken, it shrugged to the ground quite slowly when I wanted it to.
“Get it off.”
I stared at him. It wasn’t his words–I had already figured something like that was coming–but by his assumption I would obey. Had it been his scheduled day, dress and ground would have been together in seconds, but it wasn’t. “Not today, Petros.” I started to move off.
He grabbed my arm and raised a hand. “Don’t make me slap you, girl.”
Slap? After what I’d lived through, that was not a threat.
I relaxed and smiled. After he released my arm, I shimmied the dress to the ground and stepped out of it. “Ready when you are.”
He took a step back. “Now you’re being sensible.” He looked over my body as if deciding where to put his hands. “Love those legs, hairless to the eyebrows.” Same old line, every time. He reached a hand toward me.
I pushed it away. “You slap all you want. I won’t even bother to resist. But don’t expect me to hide the bruises. And if you take me by force, you can watch your back for as long as you live.” My voice shook. I stared at him.
For a moment he glared back. His hand was still raised, but soon it began to tremble. I had won, at least for the moment. He picked up my dress and threw it at me. “Your trouble is you don’t have a sense of humor.”
The man deserved no reply. When he had scurried off into the hut, I draped the dress over a shoulder and returned to the barrier from where I could watch Jefferson and Spandau. Let them see. Let them wonder. But neither looked my way before I had slipped back into the body tube.
When they returned, I helped them out of their gear. They could have helped each other but I enjoyed being involved. Jefferson held out the sample tubes for me to take. “Don’t worry, they are sealed. The outsides are sterile.”
I held out my hands to receive them. “Anything interesting?” I couldn’t have asked that question and expected a response two days earlier.
Jefferson laughed. “It’s all interesting at this stage. We’ll see what the analyzer says.”
We walked side by side to the hut. Spandau followed, carrying the suits.
Jefferson nodded toward the samples. “One thing that might amuse you. That little tube, top of your pile I think. The bones of what would pass as a frog.”
“Interesting what flew from them. A four-winged insect. A large one.”
It didn’t amuse me. My access to information had proved limited in some areas, but I had discovered no other planet in this sector of space as Earth-like as the one we occupied. Hearing of Jefferson’s discovery, the plot began to thicken. Several times during the afternoon that followed I thought of that insect without knowing why, and by the time we settled down for our second and final meal of the day it had started to haunt me.
Petros was the first to mention it. “I suppose a four-winged insect could evolve from one with two wings, although the most successful Earth orders, at least in terms of number of species, have gone the other way. I’m thinking of coleoptera and diptera–beetles and flies, if you prefer.”
I waited, but no one asked the obvious question. “Why didn’t the probes record them?”
Petros glanced at me, then turned to Jefferson.
“Fair question,” Jefferson said. “Either rare or localized. The probes just sampled randomly.”
Petros turned his attention to his plate. “If I had seen this lizard on Earth, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Similar niches, similar creatures evolve. That’s what we have found, in the nine planets where life has been discovered. And this isn’t the first where the DNA is different.”
“You mean that BBL thing?” Three pairs of eyes turned toward me. I regretted the words as soon as I had spoken them, although I had done nothing wrong. “A little research last night.”
Petros lowered his fork to his plate. “BBL 2681109 C. You’re correct. And it’s the same anomaly we have here. Instead of the adenine and thymine, we have two other nucleobases. Is it significant? I don’t know but I’m working on it. That other planet was dry, with no permanent seas. And it had only single-celled life.”
No one showed any concern about the day’s discovery. In fact, all tests, according to Petros, confirmed the land to be safe.
“Still too many unknowns,” Jefferson said. “The barriers stay up.”
Petros swallowed. “Of course, but I’m willing to walk outside without a suit. It has to be done some time.”
Next day, Petros and Spandau went out without protective suits. I didn’t understand the makings of a doorway through the barriers, no more than a shimmer as they passed, except that it was possible because they no longer feared the land’s microbes.
Jefferson and I watched the rover leave. We waved to them. Spandau waved back.
Krakov. Why should thought of that ancient mission flicker through my mind.
My days inboard the Adventurer hadn’t always been happy. I feared the men at first. Then I learned to tolerate and even to like them. Since settling on New Earth, I grew restless, not exactly afraid because I had nothing specific to fear, but not easy either.
I asked Jefferson about the Krakov mission.
“Why do you care? That was eight hundred years ago.”
“I know. But they were lost in this sector. Is there any other star more sun-like than this? Is there any other planet more likely to attract their attention?”
Jefferson looked at me with a little half-frown, half-smile that had become his usual reaction to my questions. “Zelda, do you have access to history?” He led me to the com. ports and spoke a few words. “That should make difference. Let me know what you find out.”
Two hours later his shout alerted me. I hurried outside.
The rover bounced along the ground faster than comfort would allow. Its top was open and there was only one occupant. Petros, disheveled and smeared with blood, gesticulated toward the barrier.
Jefferson gave a high thumbs up, did something as Petros approached that set a section of the barrier shimmering, then stepped back. Once the rover was through, he sealed the barrier again.
The rover halted. Petros slumped forward, his head on his arms, shaking, sobbing.
Jefferson put a hand on his back. “What happened? Where’s Spandau?”
Petros sat back, looked first at me then at Jefferson. He shook his head. “I had no choice. They were eating him alive.” Leaning on Jefferson’s shoulder, he stepped out of the rover. His legs were shaking. There was blood on his tunic and trousers – not much, but widely scattered. Many small scratches marked his face and arms. His holster was open and empty.
Jefferson pointed to it. “The gun?”
“Jefferson, I had no choice. He begged me to end it.” He looked down at the holster at his side, then inside the rover where he had dropped the gun.
Together we helped him inside. I got water. Jefferson settled him in a seat. We waited.
“At first I thought, on Earth they would pass for dragonflies. There were just a few, then more came, resting on reeds and branches. I looked closer and I recognized them. They were from Earth, the four-spotted skimmer, Libellula something. I said as much to Spandau. We even laughed about it, then they rose, a great cloud, every one of them darting toward him.
“Why? He was nearer, but why just him? It’s as though they had selected their victim with a single mind. But they were dragonflies. It doesn’t make sense.”
He paused, looking around, his eyes wide. Jefferson made no attempt to hurry him. Petros looked at the scratches on his arms. “I did what I could. I must have killed hundreds, but in the end I knew he couldn’t be saved.”
When he had rested for a few minutes, Jefferson insisted they go back for samples. “Fully suited, of course.”
Petros slept for a couple of hours but had asked to be woken for the results, which arrived that evening. It was Libellula quadrimaculata as Petros thought, males and females. And in every cell the adenine and thymine had been replaced by the local variant.
Petros frowned. “It makes no sense. This is not a swarming insect. Quite the opposite. The male is strongly territorial.”
“Are they common on Earth?” Jefferson asked.
“Very. North America, Europe, Asia. Their choice of prey makes them highly – adaptable.” Petros whispered the last word.
I needed to know, “Did those dragonflies kill off the Krakov mission?”
Petros shook his head. “If they did it would have been a few years after they landed. They have a two-year life-cycle. I can’t imagine how they could have changed so much in behavior, even in four hundred generations. It must be the DNA variant.”
Jefferson said we would lift back to the Adventurer in three days, “as soon as the lander has generated enough fuel.”
3504, Day 179
I didn’t sleep at all that night. Early morning in the warm sun I went for a run, keeping well within the confines of the bio-barriers. It was good to move, to sweat. I must have become accustomed to the barriers’ hum because I didn’t notice it after my first minute outside.
When I was fully exhausted I went in for a shower, passing Jefferson on the way out for his exercise.
Petros and I ate together, mostly synthetics since we were losing faith in the local fauna. I asked if he had learned anything more.
“Learned, no. But I wonder if this world may once have been like BBL 2681109 C, dry, just temporary pools of water. Why else would amphibians evolve before fish?”
I finished my food. “Where’s Jeff? He’s been outside a long time.” A brief dip of Petros’s eyes made me uneasy. I remembered the silence of the barriers. “You’ve turned them off. While I was outside.” I stood. “Let’s go.”
It had been easy for me to stand up to Petros the day before, when Spandau and Jefferson were alive. He wouldn’t dare face their wrath. But at that moment I feared we were finally alone. I had only myself for strength.
Petros kept his attention on the plate in front of him, eating without hurry. My body shook. When he had finished, he pushed the plate away and looked at me, the muscles of his jaw firmly set. “We’ll need to suit up.”
There was no suit for me, but Spandau’s fitted with a lot of slack and one connection that I didn’t have the right joinery for. At least my skin was fully covered.
We found what was left of Jefferson J Jefferson – bones and gristle, shorts, shoes – on blood-stained sand. Another colleague lost, and I didn’t even know his middle name, although I might have guessed.
It’s difficult to describe what I felt for Petros at that time. Hatred, certainly. Contempt. Bewilderment. It could have been me, eaten alive with no hope of help. It could’ve been me screaming for a merciful death. It wasn’t me. It was a man who had treated me with kindness.
I didn’t speak to him throughout the day. He probably thought I was playing backgammon, but I was trying to access the ship’s system. Mostly I lacked the authority. That evening I hydrated a quarter gallon of concentrate, pleased to find I could at least access food stores. I had no intention of drinking.
Petros was sitting on a bench outside our hut. I sat beside him, not close. I poured for us both. “Just to get this straight, we are each on fifty percent. True?”
“I knew you’d understand.” He raised his glass and drank half.
I refilled it. “You turned the barriers off while I was outside. Did you want me to die as well as Jefferson?”
“Hey, no. I was pleased when you came back. Who else is going to give me pleasure when I demand it?” He shuffled a little closer.
I stood and turned to face him, my back to the sunset. “I want something from you. I want access to navigation, security, sub-ether and all systems.”
Petros laughed. “You’re taking charge?”
“I’m protecting myself. If anything happens to you, I’m stranded and helpless.”
It took a few minutes and another glass of wine to persuade him but soon we were sitting by the hut’s two com. ports. Mostly it was voice controlled just like the games. Anything I didn’t understand, and there was plenty, I asked and it was explained. The explanations assumed more knowledge than I had. I would have been surprised if they hadn’t.
I had one final question. “Can Petros Kwek revoke my authorities?” He could. “Petros, that needs to change.”
He finished his drink and held out his glass for a refill. I took it from him. The bottle was still outside.
When I returned he nodded to the port. “Ask again.”
I sat and repeated my question. “Thank you, Petros. Now we are partners.” I didn’t look at him. My words were no more than a formal recognition of what he had done.
He sighed. “Now, something for me.”
I felt his hand on my thigh, moving slowly. If he had taken a moment to look at my expression he would have known I had no desire for contact. He either didn’t look or didn’t care. He expected. No, he demanded.
I waited, staring ahead. His hand moved in a gentle caress. I put my hand on his, halting its rise. I took hold of his middle finger. When my hand was around it I looked at his face. He was smiling. I brought my other hand over and forced his finger back until I felt and heard it crack. A little twist set bone grinding against bone.
Petros groaned. A little of the color drained from his face.
I still had a firm hold of his shattered finger. He kept it very still. “Next time you and I get cozy will be when I want to. Do you understand me?” I knew then it would never happen, but I needed to give him hope, some reason to let me live.
3507, Sol standard. Day 211
Am I recording? Good.
My name is Zelda Hamadrass, commander and only survivor of SS 61.707 Adventurer. I am no longer a slave except in the academic sense that I own myself by contract. I see no reason not to use my contracted name. Josephine was lost when she left her pony.
Since the tragic death of Petros Kwek, the last of my masters, I have been forced to learn rapidly. I believe I can manage the navigation without understanding it. Sub-ether took a while, but I understand it now, or at least I understand its effects. I can communicate with Earthbase with a five day turnaround.
Recent communications have raised some alarm. Apparently the form of DNA found on New Earth and one other planet might be associated with rapid change. Nice to be forewarned.
For more than three years I have been alone. We worked together, Petros and I, to forge a plan. He died soon after it was finalized.
I have notified the appropriate authorities of the fact of his death but not the details.
Our plan was to make this island Earth-like in its flora and fauna – 400,000 square miles of a greatly simplified Earth, more than 2,000 miles from any other land. One question had to be answered first though. Was this the island on which the Krakov mission set its camp? If it was, we could reasonably assume the sterilization of the island alone would end the threat from those rapidly evolved dragonflies. If it wasn’t, then they existed on some other body of land and we would be faced with the almost impossible task of neutralizing the planet in one go.
Petros set off in the small rover, heading toward a metallic mass that our probes had located. He said he would be back in twelve hours. When I found his body, some days after I had neutralized the island, his helmet wasn’t on it. I feel a little guilty as I had helped fit it myself. He had injured a hand.
I’ve transferred my rights over New Earth for a fraction of their value. Why should I care? I shall live well on Earth, and maybe see if my parents are still alive. Verifying the sale through sub-ether is difficult since I can’t verify the source of any verification, but even the deposit on the ship would let me live in comfort.
My only slight concern arises from a recent blood test. By some means that I can’t explain, an anomaly has occurred, not in every cell, but in a few. The adenine and thymine of the DNA have been replaced by their New Earth equivalents.
I don’t suppose it matters. I can never have children. And I’m sure it will reverse once I get back to Earth.
Thanks for reading.
I also blog about Autism:
wordpress.com/post/writerpluck.wordpress.com/23 – All in the Genes
Fancy another story?
wordpress.com/post/writerpluck.wordpress.com/10 – The Philosopher’s Experiment