Justice


“Any last words of advice?” Cal tried to keep his voice light, the words joking, but his mother saw through him.

“You don’t need advice,” she said. “No one can handle this better than you.”

“You handled it pretty well when it happened to you.”

“No,” Lil shook her head. “It wasn’t the same. Val made a lot of people angry, and angry people are a headache, but what Ny did will leave people afraid. Fear can change people in ways anger never could.”

“You’re not exactly reassuring me here.”

“You don’t need reassurance any more than you need advice.”

That was true. Cal knew what needed done, and he was ready to do it. The system was already in place for this, and he trusted it to see them through. He had planned exactly how to explain things, and there were contingency plans in place for unexpected problems. 

There were also five more minutes to get through before the meeting started, and he needed his mother to fill the silence. 

“I had a good talk with Jen today.” She knew him so well. “We were reminiscing about Val’s sentencing and how angry everyone was. She made an interesting point, I thought. Before Val burned the Ark, we followed the charter and voted in our judges, but no one ever gave it much thought. There was so much work to do. Everyone was focused on survival. The idea of crime seemed as far away as Earth. After a while, people started voting in the most useless person they knew, so that the useful people wouldn’t have the extra distraction of a judge’s work. Then when it came time to deal with Val, they were all yelling about how the judges weren’t competent and two of them were way too young, and…you’ve heard it all. Jen’s point was that after that, people took judge selection a lot more seriously. That’s put us in a good position today.”

“So you’re saying I should be thankful for Val?”

“Yes. And honestly, though she made my life hell at the time, this isn’t the first time I’ve had that thought.”

The door opened and a young man poked his head in. “We’re ready to take him in.”

Right on time. “Thank you, Carl. Kim.” He nodded as another man followed Carl into the room. The three of them crossed to the opposite door, which Cal unlocked with his own card. 

The storeroom had been cleared of its boxes of files and the pile of musical instruments that was its last occupant. A small cot was against the far wall, and a table with two chairs sat in the center of the room. Ny was in one of them, his back to the door.

“Come with us, please,” Kim said. There was a hard edge to his voice that Cal had never heard before.

Ny stood, and the two temporary guards flanked him as they followed Cal out of the room. 

The Gathering Hall was in the same building as the governor’s office, but Cal chose to take them outside and around to the main entrance. This was partially so that Ny could breathe fresh air and have a few minutes to stretch his legs and partially for Cal himself–he didn’t like to enter through a different door than the rest of the colony. It sent the wrong message. A small thing, maybe, but succeess and failure hinged on the small things. 

As planned, they were the last to arrive. Since the entire colony was in attendance, entering from the outside meant walking past hundreds of eyes as they made their way to the front. Cal felt his usual nerves increased by the weight of the situation. He couldn’t imagine what Ny was feeling, but he hoped those eyes meant something to the man. His actions had impacted every one of these people. He should feel the burden of that.

At the front, his mother took a seat in the front row next to her brother and Wyn’s daughter. The three current judges sat in seats facing the assembled colonists. Cal waited until the guards had escorted Ny to a fourth seat, set a little apart, before turning to address his people.

“Thank you all for coming, and special thanks to the apprentices assigned to stay with the children and those unable to leave the med center. This is being recorded so that everyone can hear for themselves all that is said today. Though it is always wonderful to see the entire colony together, the reason for today’s gathering is not a pleasant one. For the first time in our history, a member of our colony has intentionally harmed another.”

Most of the people in the room had come with no idea what the gathering was for. Cal watched as their faces registered a range of emotions. 

“I know that this comes as a shock to many. I know that you all share my sadness and even anger. We all depend on each other for our very survival. Putting the colony’s wellbeing over our own is one of the highest values of our society. The violation of that value cannot be taken lightly. The very possibility of such an act also naturally breeds fear. We will not give in to that emotion. I have full confidence that you all care deeply about this community and about each other. This is an isolated event, and together we will respond with truth and justice.”

Cal paused for just a moment. The room was deathly silent, all eyes fixed on his face. He was relieved to see more determination there than fear.

“The facts of the incident have been carefully investigated and are not in dispute. I will explain our findings as clearly as I am able. Those who have involvement in the case will be called upon to give their own witness. Nothing will be kept back or hidden. You all will know the verified facts, and we ask, as always, that you keep all discussion of this incident to those facts. Further speculation is not useful.”

Briefly, Cal told the story of Wyn’s attack. He saw confusion over the work dispute, shock and sorrow at the personal nature of the attack, relief as the gathering realized that Wyn was alive and stable, anger at the news that permanent damage had been done to her voice box and possibly to her cognitive function as well.

When he finished, he called on Max to give more detail about the nature of the motive. Dr. Nokes explained the medical evidence and confirmed Wyn’s current status. Harm Griffin, the chief psychologist, gave an account of his conversations with Ny, attempting as much as possible to use Ny’s own words to explain what he had done. Finally, Cal asked Ny directly about the attack. In a barely audible voice, the man confirmed everything. 

In the front row, Xi cried softly. The rest of the room was still.

“In accordance with the charter, our three judges will pass the final judgement and will determine the sentence to be given. We are aware that this case is the first of its kind and that all of you have a stake in true justice being accomplished. The charter is clear that everyone should be given an opportunity for input into the process. We will not do that tonight. Now that the facts have been presented, the judges will determine guilt. If anyone in the room objects to their determination, you will have an opportunity to voice that objection. Other thoughts should be saved for later. We all will require time to process the facts, to deal with our emotions, and to consider as objectively as possible the best course of action. The sentencing will take place one week from today.”

There was a stir in the room as people took in this new information. Cal waited for it to die down before continuing.

“Judges are excused from their usual duties until the sentencing, so that they can devote their energies to thought, discussion, and to listening to our colony. I have assigned a special admin to process any messages you may wish to pass along to them, and we will hold a voluntary gathering in three days for anyone who wishes to share their thoughts in person. That gathering will be recorded for those who cannot attend. Let me be clear: the judges will make the final decision in this case. Their decision will not be disputed after it is made. I will see to it that the sentencing is executed exactly as they instruct.” 

Cal looked around at his people, willing them to be their best selves. 

“I ask you all to remember that you elected these judges because you respect and trust them. In this critical moment, continue to treat them with respect and trust.”

Several people were nodding. Cal wished it were more. 

“This was an act of evil, and though we will do everything in our power to counter that evil, there is no action we can take that will erase it. We ask our judges to give us justice. We do not ask them to do the impossible.”

He waited while that sank in, letting the silence stretch out as long as it needed to. Then he turned to the judges and asked them for their ruling.

All three spoke together.

“Guilty.”

No one in the room had any objection.  

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Motive

“Before I talk to him, why don’t you tell me what you know?” Cal handed his uncle a cup of tea, surprised by his own calm. 

Some of that was due to the message he had just recieved, of course. Wyn had arrived at the med center and was still breathing. The lab had already identified the poison in her blood. The antidote would be administered and was expected to work quickly. Unless there were complications, she would survive. Stilll, long-term damage was a possibility.

And there was a would-be murderer in the storeroom next door.

“You’ll know their history from their files,” Max rasped. He took a swallow of tea and sighed. When he went on, his voice was clearer. “They’re twins. Both geniuses in the field. They’ve always worked together by their own choice. Seemed more comfortable that way. They’re pretty quiet, Wyn even more than Ny. She can get worked up over a new discovery, but otherwise, she just watches and listens and lets her work speak for itself. Ny likes to explain things, a habit that annoys the hell out of most other scientists, but when it comes to personal matters, neither of them has much to say. If Jorg hadn’t come along, I don’t doubt the two of them would have lived in their childhood home forever. Still, Ny seemed happy for his sister when she married. He and Jorg used to play bocce every Friday night. When Jorg died, and Wyn was left alone with little Xi, Ny moved in and helped out. That was 13 years ago. Their parents passed last year, within a week of each other. It was a tough time, but I didn’t notice any trouble between the two of them.”

“You said you had idea what might have caused this.”

Max took another long drink of tea. “I’m getting there. Data only makes sense in context, boy.”

Cal thought of reminding his uncle that he was the colony’s governor, not an apprentice astrophysicist, but he knew the petulant urge would only contradict his point.

“About five weeks ago, Wyn came to me with something new. The two of them have focused their studies on Dua for most of their careers. I’ve encouraged it. Our job is to make sure we know enough to colonize off-world when the time comes, and Dua is the most likely first candidate. Makes sense for my best astronomers to study it. The delicate relationship between Una and Dua is another reason. The fact that these two came to orbit each other so closely without crashing is so statistically unlikely as to almost be labeled a miracle. If anything shifted, even a little, it would be the end of us all. I liked knowing brilliant minds were keeping an eye on that. Still, it’s a wide universe, so most of my team was on other projects, and we left Wyn and Ny to do their thing.”

“So she came to you with something new?” There was no questioning the sharpness of Uncle Max’s mind, but his sense of urgency had apparently disappeared with his waistline. 

“They’d been tracking weather patterns on Dua, and she had an interesting theory about its occasional windstorms. The atmosphere of Dua is thick, which keeps the sun’s heat trapped and the surface warmer than ours here on Una. The ocean is small, and there’s no other surface water we can find. That means some clouds, but likely not much rain. Mostly just near the edges of that ocean.”

“I’ve read the reports. That’s part of the reason we settled here instead of there.”

“Part of it, yes. What Ny and Wyn had discovered is that from time to time, wild windstorms sweep across the continent. Wyn had a theory about those storms. I’m not going to get into all the details–yes, I can see your impatience—but before you go in the next room, you should read the entire report.”

“Are the details relevant to this case?”

“I’m pretty sure you’ll find that Ny thinks they are.”

Cal made a note. 

“I told Wyn to go ahead and put together a team, pulling in meteorologists and geologists and whoever else she might need, to develop her theory. Then I sent off a message to Ny letting him know she’d have a special focus for a while, and he should continue their other Dua studies with Xi to help him. An hour later, he burst into my office, red in the face.”

“He didn’t like that plan.”

“More. He claimed that Wyn’s theories were actually his. Not just the theories. Every word in her report. He said it was outright plagiarism, that he’d been obsessed with this new project for a while, and that she only got on board later, and now she was stealing all the credit and the project along with it. I’ll admit the whole thing surprised me. They had collaborated on dozen of reports in the past, and also submitted reports individually, and nothing like this had ever come up.  But I looked into it. Scientists are territorial about their work in general, so we have a procedure in place for things like this, always bring in another Head to confirm our findings. I got Orn for this one. You can verify all of this with him. We asked Ny for proof that the report was originally his, but he had none to offer. Still, he kept insisting, and his emotion seemed genuine. We went through every file on every device from their team. If he had come up with those theories before, there was no record that he’d written them down. Meantime, Wyn seemed baffled. She freely admitted that the project was his in the beginning and that she had only come to share his obsession later, but she said the theory came to her without ever talking to him, and that she wrote the report entirely on her own. Xi could confirm that last part, as she had seen her mother at work. I didn’t find it hard to believe that Ny really had come up with the same theory, or even that he had thought of it in similar words, since the two of them were so tight. It seemed like a pretty simple case of two people having the same idea at roughly the same time. It happens more often than most people know.”

“So how did you resolve it?”

“Wyn offered to share the project with Ny, but I was worried about them neglecting all the other work to focus on this one obsession. I was also worried about Ny. His distress over not being believed was completely out of proportion. He seemed like someone who had pushed himself too far. I told him to take a week off and rest. Then he could come back and be a part of Wyn’s team, but he was to take a minor role that would still allow him to supervise Xi and the other projects. He was furious, but he took the week. When he came back, he seemed calm again. Now it seems like that might have just meant that he had a plan.”

“You really think that this one event was enough to make him want to kill his twin sister? His roommate and workmate of 42 years?”

Max shrugged. “Maybe it was just the tipping point. Maybe things had been bad for a while. No one knew their private life well enough to know, except maybe Xi.”

“I’ll be talking to her next.”

“Go easy. She’s a sensitive girl, and this is already been a terrible day.”

Cal just looked at his uncle until the old man waved an impatient hand.

“Okay, okay, I know. You’ve been doing this job for a while, and you’re damn good at it. But Jo treats that girl like a sister, and that means she’s another granddaughter to me, so I’m not apologizing.”

“I’m not going to interrogate her. Just learn about her life.”

“Well, that’s fine then. But don’t be surprised if you don’t learn much that helps. If I had to guess, I’d say no one knows what’s inside that man’s head.”

“He does.”

“Maybe. Ask your wife about the brain, though. It’s pretty good at deceiving itself.”

“His motives are only one factor in the decision of what’s to be done. We’ll be calling a gathering tonight to announce the trial, once I’m sure I have enough information to be accurate. Our three judges are nearly at the end of their term, and we’re going to deal with this while they’re still holding the office. They’re a level-headed group, and if I have to entrust a turning point in our colony’s history to anyone, I’d like it to be them.”

“Jer’s a friend from my nursery days. Smart man. He’ll help steer them right.”

“Sanj was Jul’s mentor. She’s capable and she knows how to stay calm. Kyr is young, but he’s the best long-term thinker I’ve seen in a while. They’ll get us through this.”

“Better you than me, boy. I think I screwed things up badly enough already.”

“Sounds like you did the best you could, actually. Doubt I could have done better.”

Max laughed, and the sudden burst of sound made Cal realize that his head was throbbing. “Sure you could have. You’re about to prove it.”

Cal hoped his uncle was right.

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“They’re really something, aren’t they?” 

The two four-year-olds were focused intently on the village they were building out of their toys, paying no attention to their grandmother who watched with a smile. Dark heads bent down, sturdy legs crouched, quietly working in and around each other. A stack of books for the greenhouse, blocks for houses, stuffed toys inside a makeshift fence to form a school. The little boy moved quickly, dropping a tower in the center, a cluster of flowers that disrupted the straight lines of sheds. His sister didn’t say a word as she rearranged roads and structures without complaint, building order around his chaos.

“I sometimes wonder where she got her patience from,” Cal said in answer. 

“Who said she’s being patient?” Lil cocked an eyebrow at her son. “You don’t have to be forbearing with something if you don’t see it as a problem.”

Cal refrained from snorting and smiled instead. Who would have thought that the woman who carefully trained him to be ordered and disciplined would have no problem with a grandson who demonstrated none of those qualities? The privilege of being a grandmother, he supposed. She could just enjoy them without the responibility to raise them. 

He didn’t begrudge her the chance to relax. She had led the colony as governor for decades, only officially stepping aside five years ago, and she still worked hard as his advisor. If she wanted to be indulgent of the children, it wouldn’t hurt them any. They had a father and mother to do the harder work of teaching them.

“You’re here early,” he said. “Did Jul call you?”

“I called her,” Lil answered. “I knew she had a lot of work at the clinic. They’re still trying to figure out what’s causing the rash among the school children. I thought she might want to go in early, let me get Bree off to school and stay home with the twins for a change.”

“Thank you,” he said. 

“It’s hardly worth any gratitude. There’s no sacrifice when you’re getting to do what you love best.”

“Well, it’s a help to Jul and to me, too. I actually came back to see if she needed anything.”

Lil gave her son a look of pride. “That’s my boy,” she said. “Though of course, I realize you really learned that from your father.” A shadow crossed her face before she chased it away with a flick of her hand. “But run along now. I know you have a busy day, and I have things handled here.”

As if on cue, the tablet in Cal’s hands buzzed loudly. It took a second for him to realize that it was being echoed by the one sitting at Lil’s feet. They shared a quick look before scrambling  to swipe open the message. 

Code red. SS-10. Murder. Come ASAP.

It took two seconds to read. Then Cal and Lil dropped their tablets in tandem. 

“You go now,” Lil said. “I’ll drop the twins at the nursery and meet you there as soon as I can.”

Cal already had two pairs of shoes in hand. He gave them to his mother as he turned to go.

“Cal,” she called after him. “Don’t run. This is exactly the kind of moment when you should appear calm.”

Cal took her advice. He had learned long ago that her advice was always right. But walking with measured steps made his heart race even more. Murder? That couldn’t be right. The colony had been on Una for fifty years with no violent crimes. Interpersonal problems were always dealt with immediately and thoroughly. Everyone knew their survival depended on cooperation. The worse crime they’d dealt with in a decade was a case of petty theft, and that had been a couple of kids.

The space science work groups had offices in a rectangular building near the northwest gate, with quick access to the observatory that had been built in the hills outside the settlement. Cal’s uncle Max ruled supreme in that building, technically head astrophysicist but in reality a personal mentor to almost everyone who worked there. They were a reclusive bunch, eyes fixed upward on the sky or downward on their calculations more than side to side at their fellow colonists. Not that they didn’t work as hard for the good of the colony as everyone else. They just did it from their own ivory tower.

From the outside, the space science building looked normal. No one rushed in or out. Nothing seemed out of place. 

Cal opened the front door onto the small open lobby. Photos of the universe covered the walls, and a few chairs were grouped around work tables, but otherwise the space was empty. A few of the larger offices were right off of this room, but Cal knew the hallway straight ahead would lead him to SS-10. Memorizing the layout of all of the colony’s buildings was easy when you made regular rounds. The governors of Wayland were known for being present among the people. 

The hallway was quiet, most of the doors were shut to keep out distractions, or perhaps their occupants had been on duty at the observatory last night and were now at home sleeping. Only the door to SS-06 was open, and the man inside had huge headphones over his ears and his eyes shut as he drew something on his tablet. Under other circumstances, Cal would have been curious, but today, he was just glad that everyone here seemed to be unaware of the crisis. It was important to be clear on the facts before rumors and panic spread.

The door to SS-10 was half-shut, likely to keep away casual observers, and Cal pushed it open without hesitating. It was a sizeable office, but crowded with three work spaces. His uncle Max was standing in the center of the room, watching as a doctor leaned over a body that had been stretched out on one of the desks. From the look of things, the contents of the desk had been hastily dumped on the floor to make room. 

“What happened?”

Max’s salt and pepper hair was standing up even more than usual but he answered calmly enough. “She collapsed over her morning coffee. I happened to come in to ask a question, so I called the clinic immediately. By the time Dr. Nokes arrived, she had stopped breathing.”

Cal stepped closer to the desk and took in the bloodless face of the woman lying there. He recognize her, and his memory supplied the rest from her file. Wyn Lee. Age 42. Astronomer. Widow. One child, now her apprentice.

“I’ve got her stabilized for now, but it was a close call,” the doctor said.

Cal’s breath caught. “She’s not dead?” He turned to his uncle. “Your message said…”

“Murder,” the old man growled. “Thank God we can change that to attempted murder.”

“How…?”

“He’s already admitted to poisoning her coffee,” Max said, jerking his head toward the corner behind Cal. Sitting on a chair wedged between a desk and the wall was a man. 

Ah. Of course. Wyn Lee had a twin brother, Ny, also an astronomer. The two had been working together their whole lives.

“Why?”

“He’s not talking, but I’ve got a good idea. We can go over it all once we get out of here. Doc wants to take the girl back to the hospital, but I made her wait for you. This needs someone to be smart about it. I don’t want my whole group disrupted.”

Cal had the unaccountable urge to laugh, but he stifled it easily. “Your group? Uncle, this is going to disrupt the whole colony.”

“Well, it’s your job to take care of that, isn’t it?”

It was, and Cal believed in doing his job.

“Wyn needs the hospital. Gettting her back to health is our first priority. Doctor, do we have medics available to transport her?”

“I’ve already called them. They should be here any minute.”

“Great. When they come, we will tell them, and anyone who asks, the truth, that she collapsed over her coffee and that you were able to revive her, but nothing else. I’ll see to it that we get you samples of the coffee so that you know what toxins you’re working with. I’ll inform the lab tech who works with it that it was intentionally introduced poison. We don’t want to compromise the lab’s ability to be useful to her recovery. But leave that conversation to me, please. Everyone else only needs to know the necessary facts to care for the patient.”

Dr. Nokes nodded. She was a very practical woman. Cal would have preferred that Jul had answered this call, but Mol Nokes was a good second.

“We’ll need to take the coffee, including the cups, into evidence. Uncle, do you have anything here we can use to transport them safely without damaging the evidence?”

“I’ve some sample boxes borrowed from earth sciences. I’ll get you one of those.”

“Thank you. We’ll also need to seal off this room until we have a chance to investigate further. It’s a crime scene now.” The words sounded surreal to Cal, but both his uncle and the doctor nodded as if it was all very sensible.

“I can lock up when we go. Only these two and their apprentice have key cards.”

“The apprentice is her daughter, right? Where is she? She’ll need to be informed.”

“She’ll be at home sleeping. Spent the night at the observatory.”

“Is there anyone you trust to go wake her and take her to the hospital? She should see her mother, but not be told the details until you and I can do so in person.”

“I’ll send Jo,” Max said. “They’re friends.”

“We’ll interview Ny in my office. There is a room next door that can be used for detention.” It had only been used once before, and right now it was full of musical instruments that one of their master musicians had been inventing from local resources. Cal had been studying them in his free time. “Will he go quietly?”

“I think so,” Max answered.

“I can sedate him if you’re worried,” the doctor suggested.

“I’d rather not,” Cal answered.

“That won’t be necessary,” Max was growling again. “He’s not a stupid boy. He gave up the truth as soon as he saw that I was not going to believe it was an accident, and he knows there’s nowhere to run to.”

Cal nodded and turned for the first time to the suspect in question. “I’m not going to restrain you. You’re just going to walk between me and Max all the way to my office, and then you are going to sit in the chair I give you there. Are we clear?”

Ny nodded, his dark eyes blank.

Two medics rushed into the room. The doctor immediately began to instruct them on moving Wyn. Mercifully, they asked no further questions.

“Uncle, we’ll go as soon as we get that sample box.”

 Max ducked out of the room. Cal could hear him saying something in the hallway, and then Lil entered.

“Max says you have everything under control.”

“She’s alive.”

“Thank the stars.”

“Talk more at the office?” she said with a significant look at the medics. 

“Yes. Max will bring a sample box that we can use to take the most important evidence with us. Can you handle that?”

Lil nodded and followed him to the third desk which held two identical cups of synthetic coffee, each swirled with a white substance that was undoubtedly a milk substitute. The perfect symmetry was eery. Both cups nearly full. Both with a small smudge on one side showing where someone had taken a drink. A sort of horror came over Cal as he pictured brother and sister sitting down and drinking their twin coffees, while one waited for the other to die. 

The medics were already leaving with Wyn carried on a stretcher between them. Dr. Nokes gave Cal a curt nod as she followed them out. 

“I’m not sure if I’m ready for this,” he said in a low voice only his mother could hear.

“No one’s ever ready for this,” she answered.  “The universe never asks for permission.”

She was right. Luckily it didn’t matter what the universe wanted. It had been throwing curve balls at humankind since the beginning, and humankind just kept swinging until it figured out how to hit a home run. Or at least a good single. This would be no different. 

Cal turned toward the would-be murderer and began to plan.

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Consequences


They weren’t even really keeping it all that secure. The room was locked, but everyone on the biology teams had access. The ark itself was sealed with a passcode, but it was neither long nor complicated. It was the kind of security you used to keep people from accidentally stumbling onto something. Clearly, they didn’t think anyone would intentionally try to break in.

They were wrong.

Usually, Val despised people for being naive. Today, she was grateful. She took no pleasure in what she was about to do; it was a necessary evil, and the sooner it was over, the better.

The room had no outside windows, so as soon as the door shut behind her, Val activated the lights, blinking a little at the sudden brightness of the stark white room. 

There were three enormous bio-storage units against the far wall. Human genetic material was contained in the largest one. Most people chose natural reproduction, but the danger of genetic stagnation was very real in a small population, so the original colonists had planned carefully when they left Earth. Val herself had never married, and she had always figured she’d be coming here one day to make a withdrawal.

Not that they would allow that after tonight.

The other two units were what interested her today. The one that the colonists had called “Eden” contained seeds and other genetic samples from nearly all of Earth’s species of flora. The other, the Ark, contained the animal embryos and tissue samples. The ability to preserve, transport, reanimate, and breed from these samples was one of the advancements that had finally made deep-space colonization possible.

Val was about to undo 200 years of work.

She stood in front of the giant metal cylinders, hating herself and hating the ones who had made her come here even more.

Their final study on domesticating the native animals had shown that there was no way for reproduction to keep up with current levels of consumption. Some had tried to present this as a crisis for the colony, but of course, it wasn’t. It only meant that they needed to reduce consumption of animal products. There was an abundance of plant products which could make up the caloric difference, and Val herself had been part of a team that had created new dietary models which provided all the necessary nutrition for a healthy populace to survive and grow. It was somewhat lacking in variety, but that was likely only a temporary problem. After all, they still had only explored a tiny fragment of their new planet.

You start taking the meat away, though, and people get angry. Some old man mentions eating chicken as a child on the original spaceship, and suddenly there’s talk of breeding Earth chickens on Una. Talk of chickens leads to talk of fish, of pigs, of cattle even. 

They were all crazy. 

Una had a fully-formed ecosystem with well-developed species of flora and fauna. It was a miracle to find such a place in the universe, and its relative proximity to Earth made it even more miraculous. Even with their best conservation efforts, the colonists’ presence on the planet had already disrupted the delicate balance of their new ecosystem. If they began introducing other alien species, they risked destroying everything that was here. 

Humans had already decimated one planet; it was unthinkable to do that again. They had all promised that they wouldn’t. It was in their Charter. It was the reason Val’s grandmother had signed it.

Val had argued all of these things at the gathering. Some agreed with her, of course, but a surprising number of fools fought back. Finally, the governor had put an end to debates and set the vote for tomorrow. Lil had the right to override the vote, but she had given no indication of how she was leaning.

Val knew in that moment that she couldn’t leave it up to chance. If the animals were gone, so was the threat. 

A surge of anger spurred her into action. With her tablet to help run calculations, she only needed two minutes to find the right pass code and open the Ark. Inside, the control panel was equally easy to decipher. 

All in all, it took ten minutes to end half-a-million potential lives. 

Val stood her ground, staring at the numbers until the thawing cycle was complete. She imagined each and every species she had studied, remembering them from the photos and videos in the archives. Giraffes with their awkward but oddly beautiful bodies. Hawks that soared through the sky and swooped low to catch their prey. The huge grey one-horned monsters they called rhinoceros. When she was ten, she hung a picture of one of those brutes on her wall, only barely believing that it was real. Something twisted in Val’s gut, and she forced herself to feel it. Of course the destruction made her sick. She had devoted her career to life, not death.

She told herself that these animals still existed in the universe, some still on Earth, but all also being packaged up like these and shipped off to barren planets across the galaxy.  They would live on elsewhere. And now the pennifins and ipits of Una would also survive.

When she was certain the process couldn’t be reversed, Val closed the Ark. She hesitated for a moment before the container marked “Eden,” then turned away. No one had expressed any desire to seed Earth plants on Una, and one day they would fill this planet and take flight to colonize another. Better to have as many species of flora as possible for terraforming. Besides, there was only so much death Val could take in one night.

Instead, she turned off the lights and slipped out of the lab, not bothering to close the door behind her. She would go home, not because she wanted to escape being caught–she’d turn herself in tomorrow–but because she wanted to be surrounded by her plants. They always comforted her.

She had felt brave coming here tonight, the only person with the courage to make the hard choice. She didn’t feel like a savior now, though. She just felt the weariness of having done what needed to be done. 

She would go home, find her bed, sleep until the sun came up; and tomorrow, everything would be changed.

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Survival


Val was bored, which always pissed her off.

She picked at the skin next to her thumbnail while the head of the zoology group droned on about the reproduction rates of apex predators and their prey. This was all stuff the previous generation had studied at length, but he “wanted to refresh their memories” as they began a new phase of breeding. 

Val didn’t need her memory refreshed. It didn’t go stale like some people’s apparently did. What she needed was to get back to her research. She was days away from being able to present her finding about twin cells. It was going to change the whole way they looked at their world.

A sudden silence made Val look up. Was he finally finished?

Then Yun, annoying as always, raised his hand. “One quick question…”

Val wanted to cut his tendons, but she put her agression into making her thumb bleed, instead. The drops of red welling up calmed her a little.

“We won’t take you away from your individual projects,” zoology was saying, “but we do ask that you provide sustainability estimates for the fodder we’ll need for domestic herds and be on hand for other questions as they arise.”

He could have asked for that in a message. Why were they all in a meeting?

“So this breeding project isn’t displacing the others?” Yun really liked to have things spelled out for him.

“It will for the zoology department but for botany, that won’t be necessary. We do ask prompt replies, though. The governor has made this a top priority. Our presence has already lowered herd counts, and we need to learn all that we can about sustainability in order to make the decision of whether it’s time to open the ark and begin seeding Earth animals onto Una.”

Val’s head snapped up. He had to be kidding. She had to have heard him wrong. One of the two of them had clearly taken a blow to the head.

“That can’t seriously be an option,” she said loudly.

“Nothing is decided yet, of course.” Zoology put on his best diplomatic face. “But it has always been one option, and a few people have begun to suggest that this might be the time.”

The way he said it made Val sure that he was one of the people arguing to open Pandora’s box.

“Is there ever a good time for xenocide?” Val didn’t believe in hiding agression from her superiors. Either they could deal with opposition, or they should give authority to someone who could.

“That’s not exactly a fair characterization…”

“You’re going to release birds into an ecosystem with no flying predators, and you don’t think that will decimate the insect population? Or were you thinking goats to wipe out the vegetation?”

“We would start much smaller…”

“Oh good, yes, let’s start with single-celled organisms that can infect the existing flora and fauna. Mass extinction is always a laugh.”

“Ms. Garrigio, this is not the time or the place for this discussion. We’re working on this project to hopefully prevent the necessity of opening the ark.”

“The second we even consider this, it’s time for the discussion. The charter clearly stipulates that our guiding principle will be to care for the world we colonize, including its preexisting flora and fauna.”

“That is one of our guiding principles. Another, more fundamental one, is that we all work for the good of the colony first and foremost.”

“It’s not in the best interest of the colony to murder entire populations of living beings.”

“That word is overly dramatic. It’s not in the best interest of the colony to starve.”

“Well,” said Zen brightly, springing to her feet, “this meeting got way off track. I don’t know about zoology, but the botany group has a lot of work to do. Shall we get back to it?”

Val was staring down zoology. (She suddenly remembered that his name was Bron, which just proved that his mother was as stupid as he was.) She wasn’t willing to let him off the hook yet. 

“Val,” Zen said, taking her arm. “We’ll take this up with the governor when we need to. It’s time to get back to work.”

Val liked Zen. She was a good group leader and a thoughtful scientist. A little too much of the politician, but if that motivated her to keep taking all the extra administrative work, that was fine by Val. Space knew, Val didn’t plan to do it.

She let herself be led away, ignoring Zen’s final assurances that they would get the necessary data over to zoology ASAP. 

“Thanks for making my job so exciting,” Zen said when the door shut behind them. “What would I do without you?”

“I’m not going to apologize,” Val said, though the stress lines around Zen’s eyes did soften her a little. “They can’t be seriously thinking about this, and if they are, we need to be saying a lot harder things than what I just said.”

Zen sighed. “You know I agree with you. Of course I do. But calling people murderers isn’t going to convince anyone.”

“I’m not trying to convince them. I’m trying to call them out, so they’ll feel enough shame to do the right thing.”

“The right thing isn’t always quite that simple.”

“It is in this case. The original colonists brought along the ark because they were planning to land on a planet with little to no life already in existence. Instead, we found this.” Val gestured at the tough grass beneath their feet, the neatly planted gashi with their thick spines and their glorious blooms, crimson in the autumn air. As if on cue, a pennifin fluttered by, its translucent wings sparkling. “We don’t need animals from earth. We probably haven’t even discovered all the ones that are on Una.”

“Probably, but we haven’t discovered any new ones in the last decade. The planet is sparsely populated, and in spite of our best efforts, our presence is lowering the populations of nearly every species we’ve found.”

“Right. Because we introduced an alien species. Which is exactly why we can’t introduce any more. You’ve seen the preliminary outlines of my research, Zen. This entire world is built on different building blocks than ours, and we barely understand it at all. We almost killed ourselves once because we didn’t see the twin effect, and we were so relieved to have solved that one little problem that we never looked deeper, never saw how vital those twin pairs are to the survival of every living thing on this planet. And yet they’re easily disrupted. They won’t survive the introduction of the kind of ferociously fecund life that thrived on Earth.”

“I know.” Zen stopped outside the door of the botany lab. “And when the time comes, I’ll stand up and argue that right along with you. But for now, we need to finish our research and to cooperate with theirs. That’s the way to convince people.”

“I’ll finish the research, no problem. The cooperation is up to you.”

“Fine,” Zen said. “I’ll do all the communicating with zoology. Just promise me you will let me do ALL the communicating. No more arguments.”

Val shrugged. “Done.” She wasn’t planning to leave her lab for the next week anyway. 

If finishing her research had been a minor obsession before, now she’d work on it like the whole world depended on it.

Most likely it did.

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The Rest


Lil couldn’t remember the last time she had slept. Two weeks had passed since Roon’s death, and they still had no idea where this new disease had come from or how to stop it. The medical reasearch team was starting to question whether the strange molecules they’d identified were even to blame for the disease, but if it wasn’t that, they had no idea what it could be. 

Meanwhile, fourteen more people had died. Fourteen people out of a little over a thousand, and the hospital wing was overflowing with the newly sick. The clinic lobby and a few of the lab rooms had been taken over to accommodate patients, and the researchers were stepping on each other as they worked. Lil herself was working out of the little tool shed in the front garden, close enough to be on hand when she was needed while still keeping out of everyone’s way. 

Her tablet pinged from its perch on top of a small work bench. She punched a button, and her father’s exhausted face popped up on the screen. Behind him, she saw his office, and shook her head. He was supposed to be at home resting right now. They still weren’t sure how the disease was spreading, so he’d given in to her request that he stay away from the med center, but nothing could keep him from working himself as long and hard as everyone else. She didn’t bother to scold him. She knew what he’d say. A leader works harder, stays longer, exhausts himself more. That’s what it means to lead. 

He was right, but her heart ached at how old he looked. She had thought she was too numb to feel anymore, but something about his eyes made her throat close up.

“They’re bringing in two more,” her father said, and his voice cracked. “Lil, it’s Max and Van.”

Lil forced herself to nod, even though the tightness in her throat was making it hard to breathe. She had known this might happen, but still, she had hoped…

“I wanted to come with them, but Fern won’t let me out of her sight.”

Lil tried to swallow, but it didn’t work, so she forced the words out, even though they scratched, “Ye…yes. She’s right. We need you well. I’ll meet them.”

“You need rest, too, Lil.”

She couldn’t smile, but she tried to lift her head and look more energized that she felt. “I’m fine. I should go.”

“Give…” Her father broke down. Lil looked away from the screen. “Give them my love.”

“I will,” she whispered.

Outside of the little shed, a cold breeze hit her face. For just a second, Lil felt sharper. Then the headache crept back in at the edges of her brain. She walked through the scraggly bushes to the front of the garden. From there she could see the cluster of people carrying two stretchers. She didn’t run.

The man at the front of the larger stretcher gave her an understanding smile. Tan was an engineer, one of the best they had, and he had volunteered to head up the emergency service now, too. Lil nodded her appreciation and looked down at the figure on the stretcher.

“Hey, little brother,” she said. “If you wanted a day off, you could have just asked.”

Max’s neck was covered in rash, his eyes bright with fever. “No way,” he said. “You’re too much of a slave-driver.”

“True. Still, this seems a bit drastic.”

Max closed his eyes, clearly in pain. “How’s Van?”

Max’s son was on the next stretcher. His face showed rash, but he didn’t have any signs of fever yet. He pulled a candy stick out of his mouth and gave her a grin.

“Aunt Lil! I have a charberry stick! I get to eat the whole thing! And we’re going to see Ma!”

Max’s wife, Bette, had been brought in the day before. Luckily, her case was still in the early stages.

“Let’s get you there quickly then,” Lil said, taking Van’s hand. 

The stretcher-bearers moved steadily, and the tired nurse at the door of the med center found them a place to set Max and Van while beds were made up for them.

“If you can put them here, maybe Bette can be moved here, too?” Lil asked. “I’ll take a shift of caring for them.”

The nurse tossed her a grateful smile as she turned away.

A hand on Lil’s arm made her jump. 

“Can I have a moment?” Tan asked.

Lil was still watching as a second nurse came out to take Max’s vital signs. “Um…yes, of course.”

“This is in the report we sent, but I’m not sure what Val said about it. She isn’t convinced it’s important.”

Lil turned toward the engineer, saw the intense look on his face, and tried to focus her brain. “Isn’t convinced what is important?”

“You asked us to double and triple check anything new from the last several months, so we have, and you were right. I think it’s the key what’s causing this. The fibers we’ve been processing from the Reddi vines? Our new processing system is one of the key recent changes.”

“Yes, we’ve investigated that. There’s nothing toxic in the Reddi or in the process. We tested the Reddi vines and the newly produced fibers, but we didn’t find anything.”

“I know, and that’s why Val dismisses it. But I’ve spend sometime studying the Reddi fibers, and there’s something we haven’t considered. Our new process breaks down the vines on a chemical level in order to make them softer for fabrics. It separates molecules, strips away some of the bonds that made it stiffer. You can read the details in the report, but basically it comes to this: all the tests we’ve done have been on newly produced fibers. I think we need to test the fabrics we’ve made after they’ve had time to rest. I think it may take time after separation for the problem to show itself because I think molecules we separated may have bonded with something new to form the infective agent.”

Lil’s head hurt. “Is that something that can happen?”

“Theoretically.”

“Then test it. Test whatever you have to.”

“That takes supplies from the medical labs. They aren’t eager to let those go right now.”

Lil looked at Tan, noticing how his dark curls fell into his eyes. The man needed a haircut. She shook off the irrelevant thought. He also needed lab supplies. 

For once, there was a problem she could actually solve.

—————

“I was wrong!”

Lil jerked her head up, dropping the cool cloth she’d been about to put on her brother’s head. The angry words on the tip of her tongue died when she saw Tan’s shining face, but she did gesture for him to lower his voice.

“I was wrong!” he whispered, still excited. “It didn’t form a new bond!”

“If you’re wrong, why are you so happy?”

“Because I was also right! We broke it apart from its twin, and it’s going around looking for a bond it can’t make.”

“So…?” Lil’s exhausted brain just couldn’t keep up. Max’s fever had raged all night. She was thankful that he was still restless..it was when they went still that you knew the end was close…but she had been forced to physically restrain him multiple times.

“So we know where it came from. And we don’t need to kill it. We just need to give it back the other half it’s looking for.”

“The other…?”

“The infecting agent they’ve been calling morcillus is actually…” Tan stopped abruptly as Max began to thrash behind Lil’s back. For the first time, the engineer seemed to take in her slumped shoulders, her dark-circled eyes, her family laid out around her.

“You don’t need the details,” he said. “I’ve already sent the results to the lab to confirm, but I’m right. I know I am. They’ll confirm it, and we already have the equipment we need to separate out the twin molecule. This is a cure, Lil.”

“A cure?”

“We screwed something up. We didn’t understand the biology of these plants, but we can fix it.” He put a hand on her shoulder. It felt impossibly warm. “They’re going to live.”

“I’m not sure…”

“You don’t have to be. I am. You pointed us in the right direction. I can get us where we need to go.”

Someone called his name from the direction of the laboratory wing, and with a final squeeze of her shoulder, Tan strode away. 

Lil sat on the edge of her brother’s bed, stunned and unbelieving. She should call her father. She should go see if the researchers needed help. She should check on the other patients in her area. But there was no strength left.

She picked up Max’s hand and held on tight. It was all she could do. Someone else would have to do the rest.

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First


When they told her about the first death, Lil felt betrayed. Not by her father, who brought her the news. Not by the medical team, who had worked around the clock to identify this new disease. Certainly not by Roon, whose body had lost its battle. 

Lil felt betrayed by Una itself. Una, the first solid ground Lil had ever walked, the first unfiltered air she had ever breathed, her first and last home. And she was Una’s first, too, the first human to step foot on her wide open plains. Most people thought that honor had gone to Hiram Wayland. Only Lil and her father knew that just before he had stepped off the landing platform, he had set her down first. From that moment until this one, Lil had felt that she and Una shared a bond. 

And now the planet was trying to kill her and all her people. 

Slowly, Lil stood up and brushed the coarse grit off her hands. She had been working in the gardens, covering the shift of one of the infected women. She was tempted to shake the dirt of Una off her feet, too.

She was being ridiculous, of course. To hide it, she answered her father quickly and in a steady voice, “Have they started the autopsy?”

“They gave Shar the chance to say good-bye first, but by now they will have begun.”

Lil nodded. Everyone had agreed they would need to act quickly in this situation, to gather as much information as possible. Shar would understand. She was a scientist herself. 

“How is she?”

“As you would expect. She has asked that I go along to tell the children. Po won’t understand yet, of course, but Ryn is old enough to need a man’s voice.”

Ryn was nine. Lil knew what it meant to lose a parent at that age, and she knew her father was boy’s best chance at feeling understood.

“I’ll go the medical center, then, to wait for the first reports. You shouldn’t hurry that.”

Her father didn’t answer. Likely because he had already known that would be her response. Twenty years since she officially became his apprentice, and she’d been sharing the duties of governor for the last five. At this point, they often finished each other’s sentences.

Lil glanced over as they walked. Her father’s hair had gone completely grey now, though he walked with the same firm steps. He spent more and more time with his camera and he’d begun talking about stepping away soon and giving her the official title. He seemed to be waiting for something, probably for her to marry and begin having children to carry on the work, though he never said so. Lil didn’t ask. It wasn’t time yet. The colony wasn’t ready to let him go. She wasn’t ready, either.

They arrived at the medical center just as Shar came out the front doors. Gab, one of the nurses, walked by her side, carrying a small bundle. Roon’s personal items. 

Lil stopped in front of Shar and looked into her eyes, witnessing her pain as her father had taught her. The shock and loss written there reminded Lil sharply of the day she had lost her mother, but she pushed the memory away. Today wasn’t about her loss. “I’m sorry,” she said, still holding Shar’s eyes.

The woman’s tears spilled over, but she smiled, too. “Me, too,” she said. “But the doctors think they may learn enough from him to save the others. He would have been proud to know that.”

“Yes. He always put others before himself.”

Shar pulled her into a hug, and Lil let her hang on as long as she wanted. 

When Shar finally pulled away and said goodbye with a little pat on Lil’s shoulder, Lil took a deep breath and stepped into the medical center.

It was cool and quiet in the small waiting area. No one was coming to the clinic these days except those who had contracted the disease, and they were in the hospital wing with their families. Twenty-two sick so far. Roon had been the third to show symptoms. 

Lil would visit them next. First, she went through the double doors marked RESTRICTED behind the nurse’s desk and into the hall of the laboratory wing. Here, every room she passed had people busy working. She made her way down to the chief’s office. 

Jun wasn’t there, of course. She’d be performing the autopsy herself. Her admin, Bev, was busy compiling notes at the desk, though, and she nodded as Lil came in. “I just finished sending the reports to your tablet,” she said. “Jun is dictating as she operates, and the transcription should automatically update every five minutes.” Bev was the best admin in the colony, and though Lil had sometimes wished they had her in the governor’s office, today she was thankful the woman was where she was most needed.

Lil scrolled through the report summary Bev had sent. All of the patients seemed to be passing through the same series of symptoms, though at different rates. First a rash. Then sudden weakness, fever, passing into elevated heart rate and blood pressure, often accompanied by agitated behavior. Then that passed into lethargy. The fever burned on, but the heart rate slowed more and more until eventually, in Roon’s case, it stopped. Six more patients had entered the lethargic stage. For some reason, Jer, the first case, was still showing agitation. He was younger than Roon, but only by a few years. The doctors had found no explanation for the slower advancement of the disease. 

Jun was convinced this was being caused by a new strain of bacteria. They had found it in the blood samples of all the infected patients. It didn’t respond to any antibiotics, though, and they hadn’t yet been able to find the connection between the infected patients. They were all ages, came from all shifts and job assignments. 

Why now? That was the question that plagued Lil as the feeling of betrayal surged again. Nearly twenty years they had lived on Una, and they had only lost a handful of colony members. For eight of those years, their diet had come chiefly from native products, with no ill effects. Why would this bacteria appear now? What had changed? 

If there was a physiological explanation, Jun would find it. She was brilliant, and her team matched her skill. In the meantime, Lil would search for changes, anything big or small that the colony had begun doing differently in recent weeks. 

She typed up a quick communication, asking the department chiefs to meet her at the med center with full reports. 

“Is there a room I can use where I won’t be in anyone’s way?” she asked Bev. 

Bev raised an eyebrow. “We’re at full capacity,” she said, “but you can set up in the off-duty room if you like. No one’s sleeping these days.”

Lil nodded and headed toward the door only to crash into the person who barreled through it. 

“Mia?” She took in the doctor’s face, and her heart sank.

“We just lost another one,” Mia said. Her face was drawn and grey. “Hol, five years old.”

Lil let the emotion sweep over her, concentrating on standing firm as her father had taught her, so that she’d still be there when it passed. It only took a minute. 

She took Mia’s arm, gently pushed her into an empty chair. “You need rest.”

“I need a cure,” Mia said. “Three more have gone still. We’re going to lose Jil any minute, and Hy isnt far behind. Engineering just brought a new case in, an apprentice who collapsed in their office.”

“We’re doing everything we can.”

“Lil, an epidemic will be the end of us.”

“The Plan took it into account.”

“Only to a certain point.”

“Then we won’t let it get to that point.”

Mia’s look said that Lil was being young and naive. Lil preferred to think of it as strong and determined. Her tablet buzzed.

“I have to go. Engineering sent the report I need, and the engineer who brought the apprentice is prepared to answer questions.” She looked Mia straight in the eye, witnessing her fear. She knew words couldn’t help, so she just let Mia see her understanding. 

Then she turned away and went to look for answers. 

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Waymar Charter

For those of you who are interested in the minutiae, I’m sharing just the first couple of pages of the Waymar Colony Charter, as referenced in the stories and eventually the book as well. The entire thing is 13 chapters, which is way more than anyone who isn’t me or one of the members of the colony ever needs to read, but just so you can see the ideals that launched this whole thing…

Charter of the Waymar Colony 

Preamble

We the members of the Waymar Foundation believe

  • That humanity is capable of greatness beyond what it has shown
  • That human dignity and freedom are of equal importance with advancement and discovery
  • That it is in the best interest of humanity to think not only of itself but of the well-being of the world which sustains its life•
  • That too much of humanity’s resources have been spent attempting to correct the errors of the past and not enough ensuring a better future
  • That careful planning can provide the balanced growth which is the ultimate key to the survival of the human species

Therefore we have determined

  • To leave Earth and its current colonies behind with no violence or ill-will
  • To begin the settlement of a planet beyond our solar system
  • To end contact with what we have left and move into the future without outside influence
  • To form and follow a plan of growth which will aim to secure the future of humanity
  • To dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of the highest quality of human life

To that end, using the resources of the Waymar Foundation, we the undersigned agree to form the organization that shall be known as the Waymar Colony.

 

Chapter 1: Purposes and Principles

Article 1

The purposes of the Waymar Colony are to

1. Form a community of committed individuals which represent all the skills and experiences needed for survival and growth on a previously uninhabited planet

2. Establish a colony on the planet of Theta Prime in the Theta solar system

3. Ensure a high quality of life for all colonists and for the future generations of the inhabitants of Theta Prime

4. Create and promote a plan for long-term survival and growth of both individuals and community

5. Use Theta Prime as a base of operations for studying systems in that part of the galaxy with the goal of eventual further colonization

Article 2

This colony and all its members, in pursuit of these purposes, shall act in accordance with the following principles

1. Each and every human is equal in dignity and worth and possesses the right to life, to freedom of person, and to the pursuit of self-improvement

2. Each and every human being has the right to self-determination with regard to personal relationships, including but not limited to romantic alliances, legal family formation, and reproduction

3. All members will place the good of the colony above their own good, knowing that their own survival depends upon this mutual commitment

4. All members will carry out their assigned work to the best of their abilities and in keeping with established standards in their field

5. All members will seek to live in harmony with other members and agree to settle disputes peaceably, without violence or threat of violence

6. All members will submit to the judgment of duly chosen arbiters as laid out in this document

7. All members will participate in open and measured communication on all topics relevant to the community at large

8. All members will do what is in their power to protect and wisely use the resources of their new home planet, including its preexisting flora and fauna

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Beginnings

 George had told her this was how the end would begin.

Ashanti tried to blink away the black spots, but they weren’t temporary afterimages. This was her body betraying her one last time. 

She gripped the doorframe. There would be no working today. Ever again? It was impossible to imagine.

“Ama?” Max tugged at her hand, and when she didn’t respond, he pressed his face hard into her side.  Ashanti put a hand on his head, feeling the soft curls, trying to steady her breathing. 

When she could control her voice, she said, “Can you walk Ama to her chair, Max?”

His tiny hand came up and gripped her fingers. Together, they walked to the chair, and Ashanti sank into it. Max climbed onto her lap. She couldn’t stand to see her son obscured by the dark spots, so she closed her eyes and hugged him close, focusing on his smell and the feel of his solid pudginess in her arms. She should call Hiram, tell him it had started. George said once it began, there would be days at most. But Ashanti made no move toward the comm. Instead she sat perfectly still, hugging her boy tightly, feeling his breathe move in and out. 

As he had been when he lived inside her, Max was content to snuggle close and be still for much longer than most children, but he was nearly two, which meant that he had to wiggle eventually. He pushed away and twisted around, putting a hand on each side of her face. 

“Seeping, Ama?” 

“No, beta, just resting.” Ashanti forced a smile and opened her eyes. She could only see one of his beautiful brown eyes and the round cheek under it. The rest was already in darkness. It’s fine, she told herself. You knew him before you could see him. It is just the same.

“Cool?”

“No. No school today. Today we’ll stay here.”

That brown eye squinted. He wasn’t happy. Max liked his routine, and though he wasn’t one to throw fits, lately he had started quietly crying when things didn’t go his way. She really should call Hiram. 

“We can do school at home, beta. How is that?”

The eye shifted as he cocked his head, and she now saw his little button nose. 

“Bocks?”

Ashanti wasn’t sure how she would manage, but she nodded anyway. “Yes. Go get your blocks.”

Max jumped down. She immediately missed his weight, holding her down, holding her together. When something hard bumped her knee, she opened her eyes again. Max was back with his box of geometric blocks. Ashanti slide down onto the floor next to her son. 

“What should we build?” she asked, even though she knew what the answer would be.

“Sar!”

“All right. What shapes do we need to make a star?” Fortunately, this dialogue was familiar to both of them, and Max didn’t really need help with the star anymore. George and Mia said it shouldn’t even be possible for a child his age to manipulate the blocks the way Max did. His spacial reasoning was off the charts, and though his motor skills couldn’t keep up, he made up for the lack with extreme persistence. Ashanti reached out and squeezed his shoulder. He shrugged her off, not wanting interference with his work. Something sharp and cold stabbed at her chest, and for a second Ashanti thought it was a new symptom. Then she recognized it as grief.

Her son had incredible gifts, and he was going to do something amazing with his life. Only she was going to miss it.

Her whole vision went black, and Ashanti didn’t even try to see through it. She had no idea how much time passed before the door opened with its soft chime. She recognized Hiram’s steady footsteps even before Max said, “Da!”

“Hey there, bigs. Look at what you made.”

“Sar! Un. Two. Tee.”

“Three stars. They’re wonderful. Maybe you can make a space ship to travel from star to star.”

Max immediately began rummaging in his block box again. 

Hiram’s voice came closer as he sat on the floor by Ashanti. “Bel said you were late coming in to the lab.”

Ashanti just nodded.

“It started?” 

She nodded again.

Hiram took her hand. “Too soon,” he said. “It was always going to be too soon.”

Ashanti couldn’t stop the tears as he pulled her close. 

After a while, he cleared his throat. “I’ll comm Tan and have him send Lil.”

“No,” Ashanti said into his shirt. “Not yet.” She took a deep breath, tried to pull herself together as she sat up. “There’s nothing for her to do here but watch her mother degenerate. She should stay at school.”

“Shanti.” He said her name so quietly that she opened her eyes. She still had that one patch of clarity, enough to see his mouth and chin as he said, “We only have a short time together. We need to be a family.”

Ashanti swallowed. She thought of Lil, just turned seven and full of energy. Every night for the last four months, the little girl had read to her mother while she endured the headaches or tried to control her shaking body. In the last few weeks, Lil had started picking up the family dinner from the mess, so that Hiram could walk Ashanti home from the labs. The girl knew what was coming, and she was already preparing to fill the mother’s role, playing with Max in the evenings and helping Hiram clean up the quarters. But who would fill her mother’s place in Lil’s life?

As always, Hiram was right. Lil needed every minute they had together. “Yes,” she said. 

After he made the call, Hiram sat silently next to her, holding her hand. They had gotten to the place now where no words were necessary. The marriage that had been a friendly partnership for the first twenty-five years had grown into something deeper and more exciting after the discovery of Una and Dua. They had changed course as a colony, and her private life had changed course at the same time. That year had been the best of her life.

Then one day her right hand had started trembling uncontrollably. The next day it was the entire right side of her body. George ran extensive tests. The news wasn’t just bad. It was the worst. An extremely rare degenerative disease. Genetic. Incurable.

“We keep discovering new techniques and inventing new cures, and our bodies respond by manufacturing new ways to die,” he had said. George wasn’t known for his bedside manner, and his anger at his own uselessness made him even more curt than usual. “We cure cancer; then we start seeing Throm’s disease. We find a treatment for HIV, and suddenly Gorhoff syndrome rears its head. We’ve managed to increase average life-span past a hundred, but it’s like there’s some invisible line we can’t cross.”

As a scientist, Ashanti understood why this frustrated him at macro level. As a woman, all she could see was her own imminent death. Four to six months, George said. He could give her drugs to help manage some symptoms, but there was no effective treatment. 

That was the first night she and Hiram passed holding hands and saying nothing. In the weeks that followed, they had many long talks that lasted until the early hours of the morning, but that first night there was only the fierce grip of shared pain. The same grip that held them now.

They could do these next few days together, but after that, they would each have a road to walk alone. In some ways that was the worst part. They had just learned how to really be together, and now it would end.

The door opened, and Lil ran in.The girl never walked when she could run. Ashanti caught a glimpse of wildly swinging brown curls and a perfectly formed ear before her daughter threw herself down beside her and wrapped her arms around her neck. Ashanti closed her eyes and willed the tears away. She needed to be strong. She needed to… Lil’s whole body shook, and Ashanti wrapped her arms around her girl and sobbed with her. 

The unfairness of it all ripped at her. Her father had been one of the architects of this colony. He and Hiram’s mother and father had written the charter, had recruited other families, had spearheaded the building of this ship. Ashanti had prepared for this mission since she was three years old. She had married Hiram and boarded the ship at age 20. She had helped steer the decision to move toward Una and Dua and had made the final calculations for their new course. She had studied those two planets for months as they decided which they should colonize first. She had worked all those years to get to this point: less than three months from landing on Una, from founding their first village, from beginning a brighter future. She would never see any of it now. She would never step foot on Una. She would never see her daughter grow into a woman and take over her father’s job as governor. She would never see Max realize his full genius, would never get to take him on as apprentice. How could you be so close to everything you ever wanted and then get none of it? 

Then Lil pulled away, leaving her hands gently on Ashanti’s shoulders. “Does it hurt?” she whispered. “Can I help?”

Ashanti’s sobs stilled even as the tears flowed harder. What kind of seven-year-old asked that? How could Ashanti say she hadn’t gotten all that she wanted when she had a child like this? Lil’s empathy and compassion. Max’s quiet brilliance. This was what the universe had given her and what she would leave to make a better future. Hiram’s steadiness and inner fire. This was what the universe had given her and what would guide her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“I’m not in pain,” she said to Lil. “All you need to do is be here.”

They all sat in silence for a long time.

“The department heads came to me yesterday,” Hiram said. “They said everyone has taken a vote. They want to name the first village after you. Shanti, they want to call it.” She could hear the lump in his throat.

Ashanti was moved by their affection, but..”That isn’t right,” she said.

“They want to remember you. You brought us here,” Hiram said.

“If they want to remember me, they should call it Wayland,” Ashanti said. She had taken Hiram’s last name when they married, not because she liked it or wanted to make Hiram happy but because it set a good example of family unity for the rest of the colony. Now she thanked her younger self for doing the right thing, even if her reasons were weak. “This. Us. This is what should be remembered. Not me alone.”

Hiram nodded and took her hand again. Max butted his head into her side again, and Lil cuddled close. Ashanti closed her eyes and just felt them all. Together, for as long as there was. 


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Turning Point

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a question of if. It’s only a question of which one.” Gil leaned back in chair and swiped a hand through his shaggy hair. There was a lot more grey mixed with the brown than there had been six months ago.

“We’re talking about throwing away a Plan that our fathers and mothers worked their whole lives constructing.” Belle kept her voice soft, but it was sharp at the corners. “You can’t seriously expect us to have no arguments at all.”

“No one is throwing away the Plan,” said Ashanti. She tried not to let her exhaustion show. “The location of our colony is only a small part of the charter. Its true principles will hold no matter where we settle…or when we arrive.”

“You can’t pretend it’s not a huge change,” Belle insisted.

“Of course it’s a huge change,” Hiram said, “but Shanti is right about it still being true to the charter. I would remind you that the Plan includes the need for adaptation to new discoveries. In considering this new course, we are following the Plan perfectly. Not…” he said forcefully as Belle opened her mouth again “…that we are taking the decision lightly.”

Ashanti marveled again at her husband’s controlled energy. As the rest of them had become progressively more drained in the weeks of work since discovering Una and Dua, Hiram seemed to gain vitality. On the surface, he maintained his steady demeanor, but underneath a fire had been lit.

“We’ve been studying the system for more than five months now,” Gil complained. “No one in this room has had a decent night’s sleep in all that time. We know more about these two planets than we do about Theta Prime, and every single thing we’ve learned tells us that they are both a hundred times more suited for human habitation than Theta Prime will ever be. I can’t believe this isn’t already decided.”

“It will be by tomorrow night,” Hiram said. He was watching Ashanti, and she saw the worry in his eyes. “You’re right. We’ve done the work we needed to do, and it’s time to get everyone back to a more reasonable routine. But we will discuss the decision at length in a full gathering tonight. Everyone will get a say. In this, as in all other things, we will follow the Plan. Everyone’s life depends on it.”

“Sure,” growled Gil. “I’m all about letting everyone have their say. As long as we make the right decision when they’re done.” He turned on Belle. “Tell me you don’t think these planets are our best chance for survival.”

“As it happens, I do,” Belle said. “But people are afraid of a change this big. You can’t force it on them.”

“God save us from shrinks forevermore,” Gil muttered. 

“We all want the same thing,” Hiram reminded him. “We always have. Now, enough talking. There’ll be plenty of that tonight. Everyone take the afternoon off. And I mean OFF. Go back to your quarters. Read a book. Take a nap. Think about anything but Una and Dua.”

“Its name is Bhaskara,” Gil said for the hundredth time.

No one answered. 

Ashanti smiled to herself as Hiram helped her to her feet. As the discoverer of the binary planets, Gil had been given the honor of naming them. He had immediately named the larger one Una, after his Russian grandmother on Earth. In the three days it took him to decide on a name for Una’s sister planet, his staff had started referring to it as Dua. It was a joke, but it took hold. Even though Bhaskara was the official name of record for the smaller planet, everyone but the chief astronomer called it Dua.

In their family quarters, Ashanti eased herself down onto her usual chair, leaning back and closing her eyes. She was only six months along, and already her belly was as big as it had been full-term with Lil. It was like lugging around a melon everywhere she went. These months would have been exhausting even without trying to grow someone inside her body. With it, the edges of her brain were permanently fogged over.

Not that she would want it any other way. Just last month they had found out the baby was a boy. A son. She didn’t know how Hiram felt about it–there had been no time for talking about anything other than Una and Dua–but Ashanti walked around with the same feeling she had when she solved a difficult equation, every number and symbol falling perfectly into place. One girl. One boy. They were complete. Even her ridiculous size was a comfort. This was a quiet little guy, only occasionally moving around to let her know he was okay. After Lil, who punched and kicked non-stop until her release, Ashanti found this baby’s stillness strange. If it weren’t for her rapidly-expanding waistline, she might have been truly worried.

“I didn’t know it was possible for a person to look so exhausted and so happy at the same time,” Hiram said. 

Ashanti opened her eyes a crack to see her husband watching her with a half smile.

“Well, I didn’t know it was possible for a person to look so tranquil and so agitated at the same time,” she said.

Hiram’s smile disappeared, and for a second, she thought she had offended him, but he considered her words thoughtfully.

“That’s how I feel,” he said finally. “I feel calm, purposeful. I have as much surety as I ever had. But I also feel something I didn’t before.”

Ashanti’s sleepiness faded, her brain clearing up as much as it ever did these days. She waited for him to go on.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “I don’t have the words.”

She could have let it go. She and Hiram had been married for twenty-five years, and though there was plenty of affection, neither was in the habit of sharing their personal feelings. Most of their years together, they had felt more like coworkers than lovers. But something had changed in Hiram, and after watching it slowly grow these last weeks, Ashanti found that she wanted very much to understand it.

“You’re excited about this change in the Plan. We’ll arrive so much sooner.”

“Yes. Yes, that must be a part of it, surely. But…” Hiram sat down in the chair opposite her, leaned forward with his forearms resting on his knees, almost like he was going to tell her a secret. “From the moment I heard about these planets and realized we would have to make a huge decision, it was like…”

“…something came alive.”

“Yes. Exactly that.”

“I saw it,” Ashanti said.

Hiram studied her face, and Ashanti dropped her eyes. She was thankful she wasn’t given to blushes. It was uncomfortable to talk like this. 

After a long silence, Ashanti looked up again. Hiram had leaned back, but he still watched her. She tried to smile like this conversation was normal.

“You think you’re just ready to get off this ship?” she asked, mostly so that he would have to talk again.

“Aren’t we all?” he said. “But no, I think…I think I was waiting all this time to have something to do.”

“You work as hard as any of us. You always have.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “I collect everyone’s work. I listen to complaints. I keep files and records. A robot could do those things. But my father trained me to look ahead, to bring the future into the present. He always told me it would require resourcefulness and adaptability to make the Plan into a reality, but until now it was all just…execution.”

Oh, thought Ashanti as the disconnected pieces fell into place. “You have been governing, but now you get to lead.”

Hiram’s breath rushed out.  “Yes.” His surface control broke down for just a moment, and he sagged in his chair. 

After a second he looked up, and this time when he caught Ashanti’s eye, she didn’t look away. “Thank you,” he said. “You made that sound almost…reasonable.”

She meant to tell him that it was perfectly reasonable, that anyone would understand why he was happier with a problem to solve, that she felt the same. Instead, she said, “I like you this way.”

The words felt simultaneously inadequate and much too revealing. The way Hiram’s eyes darkened told her that he heard what was under them. 

For a long moment Ashanti held herself perfectly still, returning her husband’s gaze, barely daring to breathe. Then the little one inside gave a single kick, and her eyes widened. She pulled Hiram’s hand to her belly, but their boy was still again.

“Sorry,” she said. “He doesn’t move much.”

“He has his mother’s calm,” Hiram answered.

“Or his father’s self-control.”

Hiram took a deep breath. “Yes. About that.”

“It’s maybe not necessary all the time,” Ashanti said. 

Her husband smiled.

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