Read Me the Story:
The Lodis Chevron arrived in normal space just outside the Plena system one Relative Elapsed hour earlier than predicted on the liner’s itinerary, well within standard parameters for that route. Another six point eight hours on Insystem drive would put them in orbit around Plena Revene, which would already have shuttles standing by to launch and receive the holiday makers headed for Holiday Safari Worlds’ premier resort complex, Plena Leisure Parks.
During an average local day cycle, between eleven and seventeen major passenger ships called at Plena Revene, serving a daily average of 28,000 arrivals and departures, which called for efficient traffic management from the six Plena ports—Palmwinds, Glacierflash, Rivermusic, Junglethrob, Mountainair, and Forestwater. It also made it relatively easy for a traveler to be unobtrusive in their arrival and departure.
Jen-zi Cheyn, Chief Executive of Holiday Safari Worlds, liked being unobtrusive. He normally booked commercial transit for his site inspection jaunts—and nothing about this trip would vary significantly from his normal practices. Equally normal, though not invariable, was calling for a special pickup from Plena Parks management complex.
The small atmosphere-to-orbit vehicle that had been dispatched to the Chevron to fetch Jen-zi was not one of the Plena Parks’ fleet of shuttles. Unlike those larger vehicles, it was designed to carry a maximum of six passengers, could be piloted by a single individual, and it had a fast field-bounce drive unit that made it ideal for short hops between the fourteen separate Parks facilities dispersed over the surface of Plena Revene.
“Ten Cheyn?” the driver wore a standard coverall and the patch of Parks Management. She was a cheerful-looking, athletic young woman who differed from standard HSW guest services personnel only in a slightly heightened alertness. When he settled in the front seat next to her, she cleared her throat, and said diffidently, “Excuse me, Ten, but I was instructed to verify…?” She indicated a security jack on the operation console. He stuck a finger on the pad for a micro-sample and DNA match. The indicator winked blue, and she smiled. “Thank you, Ten Cheyn.”
“Thank you, Ti…?”
“Navrit. Luras Navrit.”
“Thank you Ti Navrit.” He sat back and let her do her job, but once the initial flight check was completed, she turned to him. “I was told to take the final coordinates from you, Ten Cheyn.”
She had the clearance, or she wouldn’t have been assigned to this task. He gave her the coordinates of the officially nonexistent research and development facility. She entered them, then looked at him blankly. “Needs additional clearance?”
“Oh, right.” Jen-zi activated his implant and provided the extra key. Once the nav board went blue, the pilot carefully disengaged from the Chevron’s gravmag field, made a few minor adjustments with the directionals, and applied just enough thrust to drop them back into the Plena Revene gravity well.
An hour later he was being greeted by Ros Maklenan. “Jen-zi!” Ros was jubilant. “We’ve done it!”
His excitement was contagious. Jen-zi found himself walking faster, and by the time they reached the centropticon, they were both practically running.
“We started with a micro-habitat. Three hundred and sixteen eukaryotes, all from Procyon-D biotopes, and a thousand, eight hundred and nine prokaryotes, most from Procyon-D, but this is the amazing thing—we couldn’t get true life-tropes—well, you know that part. I really have to give the credit to Mayala T’quan, she was the one who thought of tracking the levels of proteinogenic biosynthites. The amazing thing—we were seeing high levels of a pseudo-aminoglycoside, a homolog of the kacin series…”
Jen-zi racked his brain for the specific biochemistry, had to ping his implant for help. It had been too many years since he’d spent any time in a life-lab. “And that would jigger up several classes of prokaryotes?”
“Jigger… Well, yes, more or less. We went looking for a congruent dystope. Scanned the entire Procyon-D biobanks, every known storage facility.”
“And wasn’t that FunCluster Central.”
By this time they were at the control station, and Suva had joined them. She grinned, a flash of white teeth. “We had to route our search requests through so many proxies I am thinking some of them are still working their way through the U-League documentary protocols. And in the end, for nothing. It wasn’t a…”
Ros interrupted, his glee bubbling over— “It wasn’t a xenobiote at all! That’s the amazing thing! It was a terratype—a virus! Well… viroid, really. And… this is the great part… it’s a common one!”
Suva made a noise not unlike a snort. “If you can call a viroid a biotope.”
“If it acts like life…”
They were clearly off and running on chapter two hundred and twelve of an ongoing publication.
“But it worked?” Jen-zi yanked them back to the topic at hand.
“Well, not at first.” Mayala had arrived. She gave Jen-zi a nod and a grin. “In fact, at first we wrote it off as contamination and were ready to dump the whole arcodish.”
Ros took over again. “But then Maya thought of taking the biosynthite levels one more time, just to establish a reference for another iteration. And there it was! Sustenance and reproduction, throughout the spectrum.”
“At first,” Suva pointed out. “Then we started seeing a bloom-die cycle among the oratinids. We managed to stabilize it by taking some of the low-UV ’topes out and replacing them with higher-sensitivity range versions. And then…”
She stopped, probably because of the hand gesture Jen-zi was making. They all stopped, grinning at him—a grin reflected on his own face, where it looked unaccustomed, but welcome.
They looked at each other. Ros made a “follow me” gesture.
They went through a vacuum-lock, coming out in a small room with a scattering of tools and equipment leaning up against one wall, and a rack of meters and sensor probes on the other. At the far end was a simple—and unlocked—airlock-type exit door. He grabbed a multiprobe from the rack, handed it to Jen-zi. “Here. You’ll want this.”
They stepped practically together through the door. Ros was obviously trying to hang back, to allow the boss the experience of going first, and equally obviously couldn’t control himself, he was so eager to get out there.
To anyone accustomed to the lush habitats in the Plena Revene resorts, it would have been mystifying and a little disappointing. They stepped out into Plena’s natural sunlight, only slightly filtered by a tavis field. There was no jathrin dome here.
And he was breathing.
He could see the edges of the tavis field. This wasn’t a large space, maybe two and a half klicks in diameter altogether. The terrain was uneven, sloping upward steeply to the left, and irregularly, like a line of miniaturized mountains. A natural crevasse—Plena Revene’s surface had many of them—cut the landscape obliquely, near the far edge of the tavis field, ahead.
Unlike the spectacular vegetation featured among the resort habitats, life forms here clustered loosely, thinned out, apparently vanished altogether, in spots. A flash of motion caught his eye to the right, and vanished. Too quick to see what it was, other than macro-dimensional, and motile.
There was an odd effect around the edge of his vision, and suddenly Jen-zi realized he had forgotten to breathe, and filled his lungs with an explosive gasp. He looked down.
Life was everywhere. Stains on the rocks were lichen homologs from the Procyon-D life banks. Among the scree and dust around his feet he could see organic matter, tiny scraps of the dusty blue-green, lavender-brown, and rusty colors that predominated among specimens he’d seen, until now, only in stasis slides or tri-dee repros.
He realized he was holding something—the multiprobe. He took a few simple readings. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, minute traces of nitrogen and methane. Airborne prokaryotic biotopes. Ros, still grinning, was watching him. He touched the boss’s arm, said softly “Don’t move. Look to your left, and down, about one-thirty-five-degrees, about six meters ahead.”
Jen-zi looked, moving only his eyes. This time the flash of motion resolved itself… About half the size of his closed fist. He’d only seen them in holos. They’d been a major, almost dominant, life-form in the tundra-like equatorial zones of Procyon D prior to its terraforming. They were small, unspectacular omnivores. Unlike a few xenobiotopes that had been preserved and replicated, researched and integrated into various commercial and recreational functions (Holiday Safari Worlds used most of them, in various settings,) this creature had never offered any promise of entertainment, function, or profit to humanity. And so, it had languished in the life banks, for centuries. Catalogued, described. Of interest only to a few xenobiologists.
Ros nodded. The creature sensed the motion, vanished from view. “We introduced them nearly a year ago. They have a very short reproductive cycle, you know? Three generations, already.”
The quiet pride in his voice was more eloquent than his earlier enthusiasm.
“Higher life forms.”
“Uh-huh. And look—” he gestured again. A tufty bit of vegetation Jen-zi didn’t recognize, with a greenish-blondish color to it.
“It’s a version of the danthonia that’s employed in the early stages of the Type-4 terraforming process. Do you know, we had to retro-engineer the DNA? I think we got close to its original form, but I wish we could consult with one of the paleobotany people at New Lexandri. Strivek or Mellanbel, maybe.”
He was asking permission, obliquely. “I’ll see what I can do, Ros. Maybe there’s a way.” New Lexandri was heavily subsidized by the big habitat-design industries. U-League security was a sieve when it came to information, and that by design, but it posed a continuing challenge for anyone who wanted to stay off the radar of mercantile R&D espionage.
And now, their own operational security had just ratcheted up to a whole new level.
(Special thanks to Chuck and Peter for voices.)