Her being clad to the hilt like a walking decompression chamber rendered that first meeting of eyes equivocal. The language should not have been a problem, but the rate of delivery defied translation. Since the woman before her was obviously of Terran descent, that uninterrupted stream of avalanching consonants could mean only one of two things: she either had a tremendous lung capacity or she was hysteric. The appearance of two men, carrying some sort of equipment over the ridge, confirmed the latter. Ensign Palladia Conté, in full environmental exo-suit was indeed the focus of their panic.
She had tried to contact them, but every one of their orbiting satellites had run out of power at least four decades ago. She had tried to find some broadcast channel in use, but the ether was just as empty. She would have thought the outpost was uninhabited, its original colonists long dead, if she hadn’t filtered out of the ionospheric static the telltale signs of a primitive AC power grid. Obviously, they did not care for visitors. So, she came down at night, close enough to the drop coordinates to be able to pinpoint the parcel’s landing spot and still be discreet. Pick it up, leave unnoticed; that was the plan. It didn’t work.
Their eyes met again. She loved those eyes. One of the men had them too — deep purple. He grabbed her suit’s arm and repeated his words slowly enough for the meaning to clear the corners of the accent. “You are in danger.” She couldn’t expect him to understand that she would be fine. She was wearing an Engine Tech suit, three generations beyond anything they had ever seen. It had enough HimalonTM to withstand the mother lode output of their worst open-pit mine.
“I didn’t mean to intrude.” She spoke haltingly, edging her consonants as they did. Tapping the pad at her shoulder snapped open her ID pack. “See? Earth United, Navy Postal Det—” The glances exchanged sent two conflicting emotions ricocheting around the trio before her: hope and dread. The purple eyes clung desperately to the hope. The dread settled on the man with the yellow-green eyes. They called him Ehon. With a barely perceptible shiver he molded the dread into determination. He was the leader.
“What’s wrong?” She had to ask.
“How big is your ship?”
“A pick-up shuttle, designed for three. I am the sole crew.”
“Cease all transmission!”
“Yes, Sir.” She tapped the command into the virtual keyboard.
The man glanced down at the display panel of the oversized instrument that hung over his shoulders and chest, and then back up at the sky. From this vantage point, in this darkness, her orbiting ship would be visible any minute as a drifting silver speck, about the size of a pea. It should have been. But the flash that crossed the horizon was yellowish and much larger, and much faster. “How did you come down?” The leader asked.
“Drop pod, 450 meters in that direction.” Her eyes went from his again to the sky, extrapolating along the trajectory of the yellow star…to hers, 15 degrees ascendant. Two flashes lit the sky. “What’s going on? Wait, you can’t do that. That’s my ship!” Her screams at the night made no difference. The yellow orb slipped past the dimming cloud that replaced her silver speck. A cold shroud of fear started to replace the outrage, but his eyes forced her to regain control.
“Is your shuttle ever deployed unmanned?”
“They’ll know that. Quickly, we must destroy your pod.”
Her drop pod could reach orbit and maintain it for 32 hours, but there was nothing up there to rendezvous with anymore. Together they removed all the communication equipment from the pod, and the brother and sister of the purple eyes vanished into the darkness with it. She and the leader carried the pod down the backside of the hill to a steaming swamp. With her suit’s force amplifiers bearing most of the load, they covered the kilometer in less than 10 minutes. But that consumed a full hour’s worth of filtering power.
A sharp motion from him warned her to step no closer. From a safe distance they started the large metal ovoid rolling toward the glistening surface and then they stepped even farther away. The suit’s environmental spectroscope detailed for her the composition of the boiling chemical soup before them. Superheated piranha clean would have only diluted it. In a matter of minutes, the bronze surface of the pod started flaking off in gray shards that vanished under the roiling surface.
That swamp confirmed what her first orbit around this planet had suggested. They were open-pit miners. She could see why no one mined this way anymore. The last such mine in Sirius Alexandria had shut down operations sixty years ago. This colony belonged to Sirius Phoenix. They had become environmentally conscious at worst a decade later. As a result, within one generation their radiation-hardened genes had stretched their expected lifespan beyond the century mark. But these people were stuck in the past. Under these conditions they couldn’t live past 50.
Palladia winced at the next thought that crossed her mind. Under these conditions an unprotected normal human would die in less than a week. Unprotected, as a Deneuvian hybrid, she could survive perhaps two weeks, but the damage would be beyond genetic repair in four days; and her eyesight would be gone in less than a day, the aqueous humor bleached by alpha ionization.
Didn’t they know better? Obviously not. Their satellites were long dead. The space buoy that was supposed to have linked them to the rest of the Universe per the Accord of ‘37 was 600 milliparsecs away, placed in orbit outside a proto-planetary belt by some idiot. The only reason she found them was because of the parcel.
“The parcel!” It brought her here; had it been anything else she would have filed it as a ‘Robinson’ and abandoned it.
He turned at the stress in her voice.
“It’s transmitting too. I can’t shut it down.”
“There’s no time.”
Without the load of the pod they made it to the edge of their compound just as the golden ship’s landing thrusters lit up the horizon. They hid her that night in an abandoned subway dock. Its lead-lined walls were thick enough and its emergency pressurization system clean enough that she could shut down her suit and conserve power. A hardwired intercom line gave her a black and white view of the surface. What she saw shook her to the core.
The men in the battlesuits spoke to each other in Harnachi. She understood almost every cruel word they uttered. It was like something from an old space pirates movie, except it was all real. It took them a day of public beatings before they were willing to believe that their luck had been so extraordinary, that the pilot of the orbiting shuttle had actually landed in the middle of one of the acid swamps.
As soon as they left the village, Vadere, the woman of the purple eyes, and a tall, slender, much older man joined Palladia in the subway dock. The physician’s manner was unmistakable. He placed her arm inside a bucket-sized piece of electronic equipment and nodded in satisfaction at the flickering dials. As he made his annotations in a hand-pad, Palladia realized her blood and DNA were being analyzed by a museum piece, an instrument resembling a 250 year old television set. And all of a sudden the size of the instruments all around her made sense. In a Kelvin planet, with a mantle full of transuranics, the surface continuously bombarded by ionizing radiation, semiconductors didn’t have a chance. All their technology was based on vacuum tubes, incredibly bulky but impervious to latching or breakdown. It was the only alternative up to half a century ago. They never got fermatronics.
“You are not Sirian.” He allowed her to withdraw her arm from the instrument. “Yet the blood parameters are so similar. Are you also from an engineered race?”
“No, no; humanity only made that mistake once.” She instantly winced at her choice of words. These people standing before her were the product of that mistake. But they weren’t mistakes. The quiet nod from the Doctor meant that he understood full well what she meant, too well. She hid her face in her hands. She still could not believe what was happening. It was like stepping back in time a hundred years. Slavers — “Slavers!” She paced about the room. “How? This was taken care of eighty years ago.”
“Eighty years?” He echoed.
“How long has this colony been here?” It was both question and voiced frustration. “There is no record —” Had she somehow missed it?
What was supposed to be Palladia’s last week of space-parcel duty, the most boring, mandatory stint in her Combined Services ensign-training curriculum, was starting to turn into a nightmare.
She had made the first couple of weeks interesting by matching wits with the Sending slingshots, guessing which planet they would use as gravity brakes for their parcels. But soon they became all too predictable. General comms and supply requisitions usually came out of the Navy Command Center and dropped into easy to retrieve solar orbits just inside the comet nursery of one of the secondary Sirian systems. She was always there ahead of them. They had such low forwarding priorities she started slinging them in tortuous exit orbits just to see the curlicues streaking though her 3D display. Higher priority, sensitive material was usually slung her way during low traffic times and always aimed at some inner planet of a primary system. But even those she could guess down to two or three planets, depending on the office code of the sender.
But this last parcel came from an office code she had never seen before. The closest her interweb research got her was to identify the prefix as a Science Tag, Earth origin, and not necessarily Navy property. That the Navy was handling delivery meant it was probably something classified. But her access level would let her find out no more.
They chose the most obscure planet in the Sirius complex for their brake. And she did her best to be there when it got there. But there… wasn’t really there. The system reference buoy had been mis-installed, left orbiting a pile of rocks in the middle of a proto-planetary belt. That ought to have been clue enough for the installer to figure out he’d made a mistake. But, as her uncle used to say, ‘Space is not the deepest vacuum out there’. Nevertheless, it didn’t take her long to figure out where the planet should have been, and once she did, she couldn’t just leave the parcel drifting.
“Ninety years,” he repeated.
“Ninety? You don’t know…” It had sickened Palladia when she first learned about it in school, that she, a hybrid, only half Terran, would have at one time enjoyed a higher citizenship status than these people. But it all had been fixed, amends made, humanity restored. It had.
“The world-wide protests of ’07, on Earth,” she started, “that was the turning point. The Earth United Congress took on the whole Civilization Conference, unilaterally revoking the sentio-genetic ownership laws in all its territories.
“When the multi-planetary conclaves holding the exclusive rights sued for a restraining order in the Civilization Conference High Court, declaring a breach of interplanetary commerce law, the Terran Congress responded by voiding every gene patent that had been issued to secure rights to the ‘novel radiation-hardened humanoid bio-system’. After all, its core genetic template, your template, is Terran human.
“That move took even the Civ Con council by surprise. Many ‘allies’ of Earth urged them to reconsider, agree to arbitration, seek a reasonable settlement. And that was too much for Earth Representative Derek DuPris. He walked off the Council floor and, as representative of one of the three Re-founding Civilizations, he called for an Emergency Founding Council meeting.”
The doctor nodded in understanding. “That’s reserved for situations of imminent interplanetary war, right?”
“Yes. That call brought Civ Con to a screeching halt. Derek Dupris’ speech before the Founding Council, a week later, was historic; since then required reading for every citizen of Earth and everyone who believes in the innate liberty of the sentient soul. Every hybrid child memorizes it. He crowned it with a devastating scientific exposition.
“Under his direction an interplanetary team of Space biologists and Xeno-biologists had been performing a complete remapping of the Sirio-Terran genome. Their findings made even the head of the multi-planetary conclaves sink in his chair. Not one of the originally designed radiation hardening mechanisms was at work inside the bodies of the genetically engineered Sirio-Terrans. And yet they – you – survived their radiation-laden environment.
“Super dense cell membranes, engineered to resist ionization damage, had reverted to the normal Terran membranes. Instead, the cells quintupled their number of mitochondria, supplying enough energy to effect cellular repair at an accelerated rate. Defective DNA was not destroyed but recycled. Cancer was not forestalled by triggering the cellular kill gene at the first sign of uncontrolled duplication. Instead, a new ‘halt’ gene had appeared, preventing a diseased cell’s duplication but allowing it to remain as a source of energy and structure until it could be replaced. The list went on. The conclusion was inescapable. Derek DuPris stepped down from the podium and delivered it face to face to the head of the conclaves:
“‘The first generation of radiation-hardened humans died before age 30 because outside the laboratory your genetically engineered template was an utter and complete failure. Their children survived only because they mutated away from that design into a viable alternative, by the mercy of Nature and Nature’s God. Now, four generations later their life spans can reach well into the 60’s, if they can avoid mining accidents. If you deserve anything, gentlemen, it is a criminal conviction for placing a colony of sentient beings in a lethal environment that led directly to their untimely demise.’”
Palladia stepped out of her memories and returned to pacing the floor. “It has been almost a century since then. By all accounts the standard of life for Sirio-Terrans has been steadily improving. Most chose to remain in their assigned planets and continue to mine them.”
“It is our way of life.” The doctor put in.
Palladia agreed with a nod. Besides, no one else could do it. They were the only humanoid race capable of surviving intense radioactive environments. It was a hard life, but at least now they had the freedom to trade their own product, to negotiate, to profit from the labor of their hands. The few that had decided to venture into the rest of the Civilization Conference had made a name for their own. Gifted musicians and mathematicians, with a natural lifespan estimated at 120, they raised the level of humanity’s culture one more notch. Some had even become ranking members in the administration of the Civilization Conference.
“How? How did this happen?” She spoke again.
The Doctor sat down, and that brought Palladia’s pacing to a halt. “Our Space Support Team never arrived. I was the youngest of the medical corps of the Logistics lander. It was a five-year colonization pack… had enough supplies to establish the colony and support it through its first doubling. We didn’t get the follow-up handshake from home, but we had landed during a sun storm. So, we went ahead and set up camp; we had our own schedules to keep. Within two months, production was ramping up in all three of the mining centers and consumables were down by 20%. The ore yield calculated at almost ten times higher than any previous colony. The profit would have been enough to buy our colony corporate autonomy within a decade. We pressed on and waited… and waited.
“We knew radio could barely get through the ionosphere, but the weather satellites we planted on the way in should have been able to act as repeaters. There was no reply. We used up all the automatic message pods. No answer. When the anniversary date came and went without the requisite visit from the Colony Assay Office, a group of engineers decide to rebuild one of the landing rafts and try to get beyond the magnetopause. We never heard from them again.
“Even so, we had to assume our replacement crew would eventually come. Protocol is clear in cases of delay: building infrastructure takes priority, water processing plants, protein generators, agricultural adaptation… then landing strips. Once all that’s done, we start low rate production and stockpile the product. It’s sustainable, as a five-year plan…”
Palladia shook her head in silence. It was a colonist’s nightmare, to be abandoned, forgotten. It should not have been possible. Sirian mining colonies always ended up at the hub of a trading circuit. Their fission products were standard fuel for low cost deep-space tankers. In fact, the market demand this far out on the Sirius complex should have been high enough to guarantee at least a ten-planet trading circuit, profitable enough to forestall any temptation to dabble in the weapons-grade black market… as long as someone knew they were out there.
It didn’t take long for her apprehension of the men in the battlesuits to become a deep hatred. Their plan had been utterly cold-blooded. As one of the long-lived species of the Galaxy, the Harnachi were famous, no, infamous for their long-term vision. From somewhere in space they must have intercepted and falsified all outgoing signals, somehow warded off any attempt at reconnecting with the colony. And then all they had to do was wait, however many years it took, to make sure the Sirians were desperate, so long that eighty percent of the original population died, victims of curable autoimmune disease and worse.
The riches of Parnassus came at a steep price: dangerous even to a people bred to survive intense irradiation. The original Sirian plan had been to rotate crews every twelve months, and to fashion a new generation of bio-generated booster treatments from their blood plasma. Without that option, the best they could do was dismantle their deep-dig platforms to fashion a few, select, reduced radiation havens. Reverting to low tech mining processes freed up more equipment for repurposing. The two spin-bins from the ore-refining stations became the hub of their hospitals, the subway docks became maternity wards. Like their ancestors, they were reduced to hoping that children born under these conditions, the ones that survived, would be better adapted. And they were, marginally; but the same was true of a few pathogens.
Something like rheumatic fever swept through the botanists’ quarters. Despite all the physicians’ attempts, the victims died one by one, until only a young girl was left. Her aunt, her last living relative, a forty-seven year old tool-maker, came to the doctors with a desperate plea. She was willing to give up her life that her niece might live. She was offering herself as a living heart-transplant donor. She had an answer to every objection, even arguing that under these conditions she herself had less than five years to live, but her niece had thirty or forty if they would just give her her heart.
The arguments raged around the clock for four days, ethics of communities versus the individual, Hippocratic oaths standing in the way of saving a life by destroying another. And the girl only got weaker. And then came the accident that no one believed was really an accident, a reactor steam-pipe explosion. The overpressure alarm sounded just in time for the emergency crews to evacuate most of the workers, but not early enough to prevent the blast. It claimed the life of the woman, instantly killing her but leaving her torso, and her heart, undamaged. The transplant specified in her last will and testament was performed, and the miracle discovered: Their tissues had become rejection proof. The niece’s body accepted the heart as if it had been her own, without a trace of trauma.
The same mechanism that had allowed their cell membranes to resist free radical corrosion now foiled all tagging attempts by white blood cells. Just as the supply of radiation blocker and tissue repair drugs was nearly exhausted, Nature and Nature’s God had once again taken pity on these people.
That discovery gave them a new lease on life. Soon every physician became an expert on transplant science, and every citizen a willing donor. Mercy suicide was still outlawed but no one would stand in the way of the head of a family willing to take a risk and donate a spare kidney, or a lung that would be compensated by the other one growing larger, or half a liver, or even heart tissue, because the heart can beat just as effectively with less.
The doctor’s voice slowed down as his story circled to the answer to her question. “By the eighth year, our material scientists engineered Hypermalon, a Boron-Himalon polymet, five times the radiation shielding strength of Himalon. And so, by the tenth anniversary of our landing, with a population reduced to one fifth of its original size, the mortality rate finally dropped below the birth rate. But protein generators were not made to last that long. If only we could solve the food problem, there would be hope. And then the slavers came, offering food and medical supplies in exchange for weapon’s grade fissionables.”
It was illegal, it was black market tender, it was blood money still dripping from the touch of revolutionaries and would-be planet presidents. But they had no choice. The slavers were buyers and traders and suppliers. They made the rules. And they kept their traffic precisely within the parameters that made it undetectable by the Space Trade Monitors.
On the fifth year of bondage, a young man arose as leader of his people. He almost convinced them that Sirius-Parnassus was better off dead than tainted with the blood of the oppressed. The slavers promptly reminded them what blood was. They stopped their carnage at the point that would guarantee their next load of fissionables would only be short by 25 percent. No father, no brother, ever risked the life of his family again. But they did not give up. Ehon’s grandfather didn’t. Ehon’s father didn’t. Ehon didn’t.
If he had just let her kill them that first week, she could have ended it all.