Jul 302013
 

Read Me the Story:
Plena Revene-2

The cabin ComWeb chimed softly.

“Attention, Travelers. Inger Chevron, the Inger Lines’ newest liner in the ultra-luxury “Heraldic” series, has achieved final orbit around Plena Revene, home of Holiday Safari World’s Plena Leisure Parks. Disembarkation for Plena Leisure Park resorts will begin in one hour. Disembarking travelers may meet your resort shuttles in the bay indicated on your personalized Traveler’s Itinerary. Inger Lines wishes you an enjoyable stay and looks forward to carrying you on your return journey.”

The chimes and honeyed tones of the announcement produced a wave of activity. Passengers who’d ignored the downtransit announcement some hours back began hastily to pack belongings, activate luggage tags, tip their Personal Stewards (this was encouraged in the Traveler’s Tips provided by the Inger Lines at embarkation— amounts and methods were gently hinted,) assemble hand-carried belongings, and hurry to make their way to the shuttle bays. More experienced (or prepared) travelers ordered a final cocktail, exchanged comservice codes with new acquaintances, and/or used the opulently-appointed ’fresher facilities a final time, and made a more relaxed progress to the shuttle deck.

Tsangmen Shuli was one of those who’d waited to the last minute to pack— but she had very little to assemble. Standard-class travelers were allowed one stored and one cabin luggage item, and no more than three and a half kilos of mass to hand-carry. She’d debated paying for an additional stored luggage item, as she expected to be on Plena Revene much longer than the tenday holiday package she was booked for, but decided to travel light, instead. No sense raising eyebrows— or suspicions.

With an infinitesimal adjustment to the ships’ gravmag generators (barely noticeable to the passengers,) the Chevron opened its massive shuttle deck bay gate, ready for the half-dozen atmosphere-to-orbit craft that were already lifting, perfectly coordinated, from the various Resort Centers.

Shuli found the queue forming to board the shuttle to the Oceans and Islands Center, Plena Parks’ premier attraction in the modest price range. She was booked for a popular standard holiday package, the “Floating Islands” resort targeted to family, convention, and leisure-oriented customers. It provided a variety of beach and boat options that focused on tours, food, and leisure services rather than adventure or athletic recreation. It was just the kind of thing Shuli would have carefully avoided, had she not been following her new employers’ instructions: Blend in.

The queue moved slowly, as each passenger had to have a retina print taken, and various documentation verified. And of course every third or fourth person had misfiled their Itinerary, or put it on a comgle which had then been relegated to an inaccessible pocket or luggage compartment.

There was a short hissing sound, a modest rumble, and then the hatch for the shuttle boarding opened, and the queue began to move a little faster.

An older couple she’d exchanged pleasantries with a few times aboard the Chevron waved at Shuli and indicated a seat in their row; she smiled back and joined them. He’d managed some kind of food processing unit for a branch of the Hoyval Multifoods consortium, but retired on employee shares; she was a voice recorder for some media company. They were celebrating an anniversary with a two-tenday “Outer Islands” package that included snorkeling and floatsailing and a “private cabanienda” with a view of the Rainbow Lagoon.

Shuli’d admired the brochure they’d shown her, and told them she’d recently Certified in Advanced Level Archaeobotany (true,) and was combining a certification present holiday from her parents (a lie, they were both dead and she was older than she looked) with a chance to observe Holiday Safari Worlds’ terraform littoral bioengineering achievements (half-truth, she’d probably see some of that but it wasn’t what she was here for.) They’d shared a couple of meals, and Shuli had taught the she-half of the couple to play Scratch in the Chevron’s Casino, with moderate success. As shipboard acquaintances, they fit nicely into her profile and helped her blend in.

The shuttle filled with no more than the predictable number of hitches- people with oversized hand-carries, parties wanting to rearrange already-occupied seating so they could sit together, nervous travelers with urgent queries for the staff about shuttle safety (excellent) and journey time (1.3 standard hours to the Palmwinds shuttleport.) But eventually everyone was strapped in, and another hiss, and a rumble, and the hatch was closed. A slight gravitic hiccup—a sensation like a very short bounce in a fast-rising elevator—and the shuttle was free of the liner’s gravmag distortion.

The transition to the shuttle’s pseudograv generator was seamless. Shuli felt herself getting light—about one-third standard gee, she estimated. Just enough to keep everyone’s breakfast in place. A few more barely-noticeable bumps as the shuttle’s directional adjustments were laid in, and a momentary sense of increased gee as the pilot applied just enough thrust to drop them into Plena Revene’s gravity well.

“Welcome, Adventurers!” a hologram of an attractive couple in exotic, colorful beach gear appeared on the overhead presentation stage at the front of the shuttle compartment. They were smiling and waving.

“Plena Leisure Parks is happy to welcome you to the Oceans and Islands Experience! Your shuttle will arrive at Palmwinds port in approximately one point three standard hours, and surface transit and docents, couriers, and sherpas will meet you at the port after you complete entrance formalities.” The male hologram was cheery, matter of fact.

“May I suggest that if you haven’t yet reviewed the Basic Complete Disclosure presentation, and filed your Liability Waiver, you use the journey time to do so? This will expedite your entrance processing. This shuttle is linked to the Plena Leisure Parks ComWeb system, and you may view the presentation on your individual presentation stage by touching the blue button on your armrest.” The female hologram was warmly confiding.

Shuli had dutifully viewed all of the recommended Complete Disclosure presentations for her holiday package, and filed her Liability Waivers from aboard the Chevron. She’d found them quite funny, actually. The idea that anyone signing up for a safari holiday wouldn’t realize that yes, they’d be exposed to potentially hazardous terrains, non-standard biological entities, and even “random and potentially uncomfortable extremes of environmental conditions,” was baffling. What did they expect? It was all legal stuff, of course—required by Hub Mercantile Conventions for the covering of HSW’s butt.

The holograms rambled on about the entertainment channels available during the shuttle journey, then wished everyone an “Amazing Adventure!” and vanished.

She managed to lose the friendly older couple during the entrance formalities, by heading off to a ComWeb kiosk while they queued up for entry processing. By the time they’d boarded the floatbus with the Rainbow Lagoon logo, Shuli was in line for the Floating Islands resort check-in, blending nicely near-but-not-with a large group of conventioneers.

The Floating Islands resort offered a choice of floatbus transport: A short transit directly from the port, more or less at surface level (about fifteen minutes’ ride) or the 90-minute “glassbottom floatbus tour” that circled the Oceans and Islands complex and provided a “True bird’s-eye view of this marvel of terraform engineering and environmental design!” Shuli opted for the tour.

She’d known it would be impressive—she’d spent a lot of time studying the HSW tri-dees and even some of the technical reports about how their resorts were designed and constructed. They really did push the envelope of bioeme design and habitat construction, combing Life Banks for usable specimen material and employing the most advanced habitat control technology. They put it all together to re-create an incredible variety of intricate, complex environments on a vast scale. Everything from re-creations of imagined Old Terra, to “Colonial Altair,” “Galania before humanity,” and fantastic hybrids of imagination and reality that involved every conceivable combination of (reasonably safe) “natural” conditions and life forms.

But actually seeing it unroll beneath you… They’d flown over one end of Oceana Plena, nearly 3 million square kilometers of saltwater habitat teeming with terraform life. They’d seen a herd of large cetaceans, the guide had called them “narwhales,” breaching and milling around a massive tour ship. Islands clustered around brilliantly colored, jewel-like lagoons, ringed with outer bastions of rock formations like twisted bridges and fountains, gleaming in the brilliant light. Beyond that a chain of larger islands, with cliffs and mountains—one nearly five thousand meters high!

They’d overflown the main shoreline—majestic pale cliffs at the north end and a rugged, rocky coastline that merged into a classic littoral zone. Then a river delta and marshes, and beyond that, coves, bays, and sandy beaches merging into a peninsula and another chain of islands, this one including a small, perfectly-simulated (but not tectonically active, the guide assured them,) volcano!

And the vegetation. Everywhere, the vegetation. Specimens Shuli had seen only in stasis labs and arcodishes and holorecs. Hectares of mixed marsh grasses, sedges, reeds… SEAweeds washing in with the waves. Islands full of tropical specimens, flowers, fruit, palms. An incredible variety; she hadn’t even tried to keep count of the categories, much less individual species.

She had been told to wait until the third day of her stay—and then sign up for the “Insider’s Tour” of the Parks Management complex. At a certain point in the tour, she was to ask a certain question of the guide.

Sometime after that, her new job would begin.

As the floatbus made a wide, curving approach to the Floating Islands Resort and began to descend in front of the rambling Golden Jasmine Inn, she reflected that the next two days might seem very long indeed.

Jul 292013
 

Read Me the Story:
Basic CMYKThe 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.

“So?”

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.

“A lorrtel.”

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.

“Terraform?”

“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.)

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