Ch 1, Don’t Look Back
Those weren’t fireworks. The last Democracy on Earth was in trouble. Shards of green light streaked into the night sky above United North America, blasting missiles into a rain of molten death. Shading his face with a scrawny arm, 21-year-old Harry stopped on the transport ramp to take one last look, jostled by the other 999 chosen citizens filing past him. Their footsteps whispered escape, but none of them spoke. The screams filling Harry’s ears came from the unchosen outside the fences, desperate for refuge from the wrath of Earth’s religious crazies attacking their pacifist homeland.
“Harry! Come on, little brother!” Joe called from the top of the ramp.
Harry pulled out his iComp to video the light show, his channel’s final live stream. Hell, his final anything on Earth. Missiles streaked in. UNA’s quantum beams slashed the sky. He tilted down to his shadow jumping around his feet as explosions flared and faded overhead, panned across the mob outside the fence, and tilted back up to the bursting missiles. They were pawns sent only to locate the beam generators. Worse was coming. He stuck his iComp in his pocket, and didn’t look back.
Buried beneath Denver, Colorado, UNA, the National Protection Command focused on tonight’s first mission: Keep the skies clear over the thirty cities loading transports long enough to get the chosen 30,000 passengers loaded and launched. Three ships waited for them in orbit.
The bunker’s loudspeaker blared: “FIRE ALL!”
Hundreds of Protectors sat at consoles, aiming and firing quantum beams at enemy weapons. All were volunteers, ready to give everything for family and country. They were the only line of defense, so if this mission succeeded, they would be Second Earth’s heroes. If the chosen made it to their new world.
UNA built the ships in orbit after quantum beam technology was compromised — either stolen or sold — and National Intelligence learned the enemy was using it to develop quantum bombs. The difference? Beams destroy weapons. Bombs destroy life. UNA would be out-matched.
The ships had been orbiting for months, fully supplied, including half UNA’s seed vault stores and DNA deposits. If the second mission succeeded, UNA would be able to re-stock.
“TRANSPORTS READY FOR LAUNCH.”
Passenger selection was confidential. Obviously, those who chose considered the skills needed to build a civilization on an uninhabited planet, but very few knew how they picked particular individuals. They needed people who could change raw resources into buildings, food, industry, and infrastructure. Like Harry, a healthy, hardworking electronics engineer. They needed groups of people who could build and maintain societies: families, teachers, physicians, artists, farmers, entrepreneurs, peacekeepers, scientists. They wanted people of all races, religions, creeds, ages, genders, and political points of view. Selectees could refuse, but not volunteer. The chosen 30,000 citizens of UNA would become the first citizens of Second Earth.
“FIRST ROUND AWAY!”
They would not duplicate Earth. They would step back from technologies like broadcast entertainment, instant communication, and fuel-powered transportation (except for landers at the discretion of the Council). Society would be slower-paced. Healthier, happier, gentler.
“SECOND ROUND AWAY!”
In the cities where passengers started boarding transports, thousands of unchosen UNA citizens rushed the gates, clawing at their freedom. Hundreds deep, they pushed forward in screaming panic, smashing bodies against the fences and underfoot. The crush of humanity was not gentle.
“THIRD ROUND AWAY!”
The bombs arrived. They would explode on impact. The second mission was to destroy them in the air. The Protectors hadn’t known quantum beam strikes would detonate them, too.
Harry was 22 when his ship entered Second Earth’s orbit. His iComp was obsolete.
“I can’t take bein’ cooped up in this damn crate one more day! Come on, Joey, you’re my brother. Do this for me.”
Joe shook his head and shrugged the same way he used to when they were kids and he was just about to go off with his friends and leave his baby brother behind. “I’m not the team leader, Harry. Charlie’s the team leader. He decides who goes down to the surface on his team.”
“Who’s he takin’ — besides you, Mr. Big Time Geologist?”
“Jake…” Joe was stalling.
“Yeah, okay, he’s a plant guy. And —?”
“And… an anthropologist.”
“An anthropologist? What the hell does he need one of them for? All the images show there ain’t no civilization down there. What’s Charlie thinkin’?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” Joe looked past Harry’s shoulder and jerked his chin in that direction.
Harry turned around. Charlie was right behind him.
“Ask me what?” Charlie rubbed his freshly shaved head as he looked from one brother to the other.
Joe chuckled, “Harry thinks the team needs an electronics guy to find food, water, and farmland.”
“Well, sure, I can help with that,” Harry interjected, “but I was thinkin’ more along the lines of locating good sites for nanowave towers. You know, for future cyberweb development.”
Charlie guffawed. “Good one, Harry.”
“Maybe we could bring him along for the laughs,” Joe suggested between chortles.
“Nah, we’ve got Jake for that.” Charlie rubbed his chin. “Tell you what, Harry, you can come along as… the journal keeper.”
Harry grinned and stuck out his hand to Charlie. “I can do that,” he said.
Charlie eyed him. “It has to be detailed and it has to be legible.” He grasped Harry’s hand.
“Yeah,” Harry nodded, pumping Charlie’s, “I’ll work on that.”
“You’ll do that or you can stay on the ship.”
“You got it, Boss. Whatever you say.”
“All right then. You’re on the team. Go get your stuff. We’re leaving as soon as the EVA crew gets back. Bay 4.”
“So use a different bay,” Harry said, gritting his teeth. “They might be out there for hours.”
“They already have been,” Charlie said. “I think it’s a maintenance mission before anyone leaves the ship — they shut down all the bays for the duration. So go get ready. Let’s not waste anymore time.”
Spinning on his heel, Harry’s shoulder bashed into a portly, pasty-looking man, knocking the stack of books he carried thunking and smacking to the floor. Harry started to bend down to pick them up when he noticed who he’d inconvenienced. He straightened up and took a step back.
The pasty man nodded to the others in acknowledgement, “Charles. Joseph.” Peering through wire-rimmed glasses resting on his stubby nose, he leveled a disapproving glare at Harry. “Harrison.”
Harry’s lip curled. “That’s not my name… Barrowman.”
Barrowman waggled his head, shaking his wispy, thinning black hair. “I know,” he sneered.
Charlie broke in, “Play nice, boys, or this is going to be a very unpleasant expedition.”
“Wait a minute,” Harry said, “he’s the anthropologist?”
Joe nodded, a tiny grin tugging at one corner of his mouth.
Harry groaned as he walked away. “Maybe I should just stay here.”
The infinite improbability of being here wasn’t lost on Harry. Each person offered the chance to escape UNA’s almost-certain defeat had been warned about the risks of traveling in a ship that would, theoretically, curve space around itself to form a wormhole. The science had been proven on the quantum level during the previous century; brilliant minds had worked ever since to develop a macro application for space travel. Recently, they had succeeded with miniature versions of the technology in remotely piloted drones launched from UNA’s Space Station. Of course, the problem was that once they created the wormhole, they lost contact with the craft, so there was no way to know if it survived the trip. With more time, they would have developed experimental crewed flights, but once enemies of Democracy owned quantum beam technology, the Governing Council felt pressured to use the waiting ships immediately, risking 30,000 lives in space.
During Harry’s lifetime, UNA’s Space Agency had identified two Class M planets within the theoretical range of its untested SATFold star cruisers. A coin flip decided Second Earth.
Six mid-sized landers, each carrying two teams and two Governing Council members, set down in a clearing large enough to hold the entire star cruiser with its 10,000 inhabitants. The ground was covered with knee-high scrubby golden-rust mottled vegetation that looked like autumn back on Earth. But here, they boasted burgundy blossoms on each orange stem, and tender pink shoots broke through ochre soil beneath each parent plant. Gray, brown, and red rocky outcrops rose like towers scattered across the clearing. Trees of unknown species spread green and purple from the borders. Early morning sunlight sparkled on a broad river cutting through one corner of the field. Two moons hung low over the eastern horizon. The sky was blue, but the air smelled… green.
The teams and the Governing Council set up a base camp and gathered for a briefing. Council Chair Rabinsky was a tall, stately woman with graying hair and steely gray-blue eyes. With commanding confidence, she addressed Second Earth’s first humans.
“There will come a time when we celebrate our achievements here with pomp and ceremony. At this moment, however, I only hope you’ll each be thankful in your own way that we got here safely and have this opportunity to build a future we can all be proud of. Together. As you probably know by now, we are reasonably certain we’re the only sentient life on Second Earth.” She chuckled. “Let’s not screw this up. We’ve assigned each team a direction and a slice of the pie to explore. You’re looking for building, mineral, and food and water resources, farmable land, and areas suitable for small communities. Basics. Think early 20th Century with no fuel-powered transport.”
“What about the landers?” a pilot called out.
“If we are prudent, lander fuel stores will last… many years.” Rabinsky smiled. “We will have some advanced electronic tech, but our goal is to slow the pace, scale back on stress, and focus on quality of life. Go as far out as you’re able to go and come back within ten days. Remember, we’re not here to conquer the planet; we’re here to make a home. We can explore further as the population grows. You might not know that we haven’t yet had any contact with either of the other ships, so you should also be on the lookout for any evidence that they’re here. Team leaders have your assignments. Once you’re out of talkie range, you’re on your own. You were hand-picked. I know how capable you are. I’m sure you can handle any problems you might come across. Good luck.”
Charlie took his team aside to pick up their packs. “We’re heading slightly north of due east. There’s a mountain range out there, and I’d like to get at least that far.”
They checked their equipment, and Charlie handed Harry a hefty notebook and a fistful of pens.
Joe slapped him on the back. “There ya go, Harry. You’re Second Earth’s first journalist.”
Harry smirked at his brother. “Well, you know what they say about the mighty pen. If I were you, I’d be careful what I said and did from here on out.”
Eight days later, Charlie’s was the first of the six teams to trudge back into base camp. He motioned his remaining team members to wait where they were while he approached the Council Aide seated at the little table outside the Council leader’s tent. “I need to see Rabinsky.”
“Of course,” the aide said. “She’ll want to speak with you, too. Bring Barrowman.”
Waving Barrowman over to join him, Charlie asked the aide, “What’s this about?”
The Chairman emerged from the tent behind him. She wasn’t alone. On one side was a petite woman with honey-colored skin and long brown hair, and on the other, a weathered little bald man no bigger than the average ten-year-old. Sunlight lit up their brilliant violet eyes. The man had no eyebrows.
Barrowman stopped in his tracks, his mouth hanging open.
Rabinsky put her hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “We were wrong. These… folks showed up here the day after we landed. The man hasn’t said anything, but the woman has been learning English. Actually, she’s picking it up really quickly. It’s amazing.”
Barrowman approached and circled them, inspecting them as if they were prospective purchases.
“They seem peaceful,” Rabinsky went on. “Non-aggressive. We haven’t seen any weapons.”
Shaking his head, Charlie raised a hand to signal the rest of his team to join him.
Harry’s hands clenched into fists.
The woman spread her arms toward them and said, “Wel-come…to…our…home.”
On his fiftieth birthday, Harry was still strong enough to swing an axe. Tonight he sat in the Crossroads, a short walk from his current job site, a shorter walk to his current camp site. Candles and lanterns wavered their splotchy light around the cozy tab filled with woodsmen who spent their days clearing timber to make room for homes and commerce, and their nights eating, drinking, and carousing with the like-minded.
“Theo!” Harry called to the bartender, “another round over here!” He turned to his companion. “I’m surprised you found me out here in the ass-end of nowhere, Jake.”
“It wasn’t that hard,” Jake said. “I just followed the trail o’ destruction.”
“Hah! Yeah, you always had a nose for trouble.”
The barman brought their whiskey. “Enjoy, my friends!”
Harry raised his glass. “You’re a good man, Theo.”
Jake raised his to Harry. “Happy Birthday, you old codger.” He looked around the room. “Hey, if you’re here, how come this place hasn’t got electricity?”
Harry shook his head. “I wired it three years ago, but he’s not hooked up to the grid.”
Leaning forward, Harry blinked blearily and whispered, “The grid’s not here yet.”
“So no nanowave towers, huh?” Jake laughed.
Harry joined him. “Not yet. But someday, I will put ’em up. You wait ’n see.”
“I doubt I’ll be around then.”
“Why not?” Harry asked.
“’Cause not a lot of folks make it to 116!” Jake doubled over at his own joke.
“I am affronted,” Harry slurred. “Your lack of faith wounds me.”
“Aww, you keep on dreamin’, Harry.”
“I will. It’s good to dream. Theo!” he called. “Another round!”
Jake rubbed his face with both hands. “I was sorry to hear about your sister-in-law.”
“What about her?”
“Oh, man. I was afraid you might not know. She passed away, gosh, must be five years ago.”
“That’s a shame,” Harry said. “I always liked her. It woulda helped her out if I’d stayed close by, but I just couldn’t. Not after…”
“I know,” Jake nodded. “I left, too.”
Theo set two more whiskeys on the table as voices scattered across the room called his name.
“You know anything about her kids?” Harry asked Jake. “A girl and a boy, I think.”
“Yeah. They’re all grown up with kids o’ their own. I hear the boy looks like his dad.”
“Lucky for him he doesn’t look like his uncle, huh?” Harry raised his glass.
“You mean, lucky for his uncle!” They laughed uproariously.
“I always did like that kid’s mother.”
“Joey woulda killed you.”
“Yeah, he woulda.”
They sat a moment in silence.
Jake shifted in his seat. “Whata ya suppose really happened to Barrowman?”
“Barrowman? Who the hell cares?” They locked eyes and broke out in laughter again.
“I’m serious,” Jake persisted, “do you think he really killed himself?”
Harry looked around the room. “How many Genics you see?”
“I dunno. Five? Six?”
“How many o’ those hairless little fichu Outsiders?”
“None? Oh, wait. There’s two playin’ darts. Or maybe three. It’s hard to tell.” Jake squinted their way. “They’re kinda tiny.”
“They’re all freaks. They don’t belong here.”
“They were here first, Harry. It’s their planet, remember? Live ’n let live.”
“Yeah but they all got those, whatcha call ’em, Enhanced Senses. Can’t be trusted. Dontcha think they’re listenin’ to us right now, makin’ their plans?”
“Gosh, ya really think so?”
Harry waved them off. “Ehh — who the hell knows what goes on in those bald lil’ brains? Who the hell knows what really happened to Barrowman?”
The Deputy Director of The Home, the only government-sponsored orphanage on Second Earth, met the Council rep at his lander. The rep handed him a baby bundled in a green homespun wool blanket.
“Only one today? That’s an extravagant trip, isn’t it? There’s still lander fuel after 33 years?”
“Well, the Council determined the circumstances required immediate placement, so here we are.”
Malver arched an eyebrow. “Circumstances? May I ask what those were?” When the Council rep hesitated, Malver’s brow furrowed, and he pressed without pressure. “Look, we ask the children to research their ancestry when they’re a little older. It helps if we have some background.”
The Council member chewed his upper lip. “There was… an accident. That’s all I know. Hey, Malver, how’s your wife? How’s your baby boy?”
“They’re fine, thanks. Tadeh’s about the same size as this one. How old is she?”
“Huh. Mine’s ten months. I guess he takes after his mother.” The baby grabbed his thumb and pulled it into her mouth. Malver laughed and let her gnaw on it. “You hungry, little one? What’s her name?”
The rep pulled the paperwork from his satchel and flipped the folder open. “Ellisyn. Ellisyn Terely.”
“Tadeh!” Ellisyn’s face was six inches from his. “Don’t let them push you around like that.”
“But they’re big! And I’m only five.”
“So what? So am I. You gotta stand up for yourself. Fight back.”
“I’m not like you, Ellisyn. I don’t wanna fight with anybody.” One tear escaped each eye.
Ellisyn sighed and put her arm around his shoulders. “It’s all right, Tadeh. I promise. I will always protect you.”
Ch 2, 27
Three notes rang through Second Earth’s star-dusted sky. Holding Verini’s hand, Remey laughed. “Shhh. Are you trying to wake the entire parage? Don’t you know what time it is?”
“Of course I do,” Verini giggled. “It’s finally springtime. Look at that -- both moons are full! How can you just stroll along like this isn’t an amazing night? It makes me want to sing!”
“I think it’s the wine that makes you want to sing.”
Verini stopped to look Remey in the eyes. “I love you, you know that, right? For all the years we’ve been together, I only love you more every day.”
“I know. Me, too.” They shared a kiss.
Verini shuddered and peered into the shadows under the trees. “Did you feel that?”
“I thought someone was watching us,” Verini whispered, still searching the shadows.
Remey leaned his head to one side and stared in the same direction. “I don’t see anything.” Still looking into the woods, he kissed Verini on the cheek. “It’s just the two of us.” Grinning, he added in an ominous voice, “Unless you think it might be El Prenedor.”
Verini scoffed, “Well, now I just feel silly.” They put their arms around each other’s waist and walked down the path, wrapped in quiet.
At the top of their two story stone building’s stoop, Remey let go of Verini to grasp the latch and push against the door till it jerked open. He glanced over his shoulder. “See? We’re home safe and…”
Verini lay in a heap while a soft, insectoid buzzing menaced the stillness. Something stung Remey’s neck and his world went black.
When he woke up, he couldn’t raise his eyelids. He was lying in the doorway, his mind clouded and bemused, his elbow throbbing. The sting burned. Dizzy and nauseated, he teetered to his feet, gripping the door jamb for support. He willed his eyes open. Only then did he remember Verini lying on the stoop. Reaching for his love, he turned.
Verini was gone.
Ch 3, Ellisyn
Ellisyn recoiled as the man who held the Air Field outpost door open, winked at her. He was a charming smile wrapped in a Med Center uniform, but he didn’t fool her — not for a second. If he’d bothered to look at her face as he cut in front of her saying, “You don’t mind if I slip through Security first,” he would have seen her green eyes flash contempt.
Sure, he was handsome and had a deep, lush voice that vibrated the floor, but what was this guy’s hurry? The lander wouldn’t be here for fifteen minutes, and the only other person in the room was the Security guy. She pressed her lips together and stepped back.
When Security Guy looked up from his paperwork, his violet eyes caught the light. Huh. She hadn’t expected him to be a Genic. Why not? she asked herself. They deserve the same opportunities as the rest of us.
But not every Mainstreamer agreed.
“Your papers?” the official inquired. Med Guy fluttered them just out of reach. Leaning across the table, Security Guy took them and carried on. “Name?”
“You know very well who I am,” the other intoned. “Bronsard Chastain. Remember that. It’s going to be important for the future of your kind.” Bronsard Chastain started through the gate.
“One moment, sir -- uh, Mr. Chastain,” the official called after him with only slightly exaggerated deference.
Bronsard stopped short and turned to face him, his eyes narrowed, air sucking and blowing through his nose.
Holding out the papers he’d scanned, the official grinned and said, “Your papers.”
“Watch yourself, young... man,” Mr. Chastain warned as he yanked them from the official’s hand and stalked across the room to the landing pad access door.
Ellisyn thrust her papers at Security Guy.
Giving her a frank once-over, his eyes lingered at the faded knees of her black slacks. She drew herself up and shot him a what-are-you-looking-at look, grinning inside when he flinched.
“Ellisyn Terely?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“That’s right,” she said, giving her head a little shake. Her straight, chin-length hair fell back into place framing her heart-shaped face in auburn. His eyes passed back and forth between her photo ID and its flesh-and-blood model as if he were confirming her green eyes, straight nose and wide mouth, and she fought down a gnawing impatience that had nothing to do with him.
Can’t deny he’s thorough, which is probably why he’s in Security. This was an unusually high-status solo job for such an obvious Genic. But you know what — good for him.
Ellisyn returned her ID and assignment papers to her shoulder pouch, nodded to the attendant, and passed between the metal rods of the security reader. She resisted looking back, her nerves twanging with every hollow thud her boots made crossing the rough wooden planks. Unlatching the door, she shaded her eyes from the glaring white landing circle, and inhaled the heaviness of the surrounding evergreens and oaks Mainstreamers had introduced to this planet fifty years ago.
She and Mr. Chastain weren’t the only people waiting for the lander. He was already deep in conversation with Tadeh’s parents. She supposed they had come to collect new orphans from the Outside, although she’d been told this shipment was strictly tech.
She hesitated a moment and a half before approaching the couple who had taken her in as a baby after her parents died. While they had always treated her well, even helping her obtain her first job when she turned sixteen last year and had to go out on her own, seeing them away from The Home unsettled her.
Officially, they were the Director and Deputy Director of the only government-sponsored orphanage on the planet. Private orphanages in many of the local parages depended on donations to support small groups of children, but each of those facilities served only one race, depending on the predominant population of the parage.
The Home was different. As required by Second Earth law, the quarters for Genic children were the same as, but separate from the quarters for Mainstreamers, with a smaller out building that housed Estrangers. Genics and Mainstreamers ate in the same dining hall and shared some classes, but also had their own. Estrangers apparently had their own classrooms and hall, because Ellisyn had never seen them in any of her classes or at any of her meals. In fact, the only time they were together was when a cleaning crew was called in to eliminate an unexpected mess. Like the time when she was ten, and half her class had gotten sick to their stomachs from something served at lunch. Five hairless Outsiders (that’s what the kids called the Estrangers behind the adults’ backs), about her own age made up the cleaning crew, supervised by an adult Genic. The illness lasted a full day, and the Outsider crew followed wherever they were needed. She wondered why children her age had to clean up vomit instead of go to class. When she asked her teachers, none of them had been able to explain it to her. The odor didn’t linger, but that was the day she began to question the way things were.
Their conversation stopped when Ellisyn joined them. “Good to see you Director Solveig, Deputy Solveig.” She used their formal titles when they were in public, but because their son was her closest friend, she was allowed -- even encouraged -- to call them by their given names when they were in private. Were they as unprepared to see her as she was to see them? Though the Director’s response was cordial, Ellisyn sensed an underlying discomfort.
“Ellisyn. It’s always a pleasure.” Junah greeted her, but she didn’t hold Ellisyn’s gaze. Instead, she glanced quickly at her husband, then toward the sky, apparently searching for the lander.
Malver, on the other hand, always sounded like he was about to laugh. “How are you, my dear? You must have earned Tech Director Larpon’s trust, if he’s sent you to pick up a shipment. I always knew you’d do well.”
“Thank you, but I think your recommendation had a lot to do with it.”
“Maybe at first, Ellisyn, but I happen to know you’ve been promoted twice in less than a year. It won’t be long before we’re all working for you.”
Her embarrassment was matched by her surprise. Had he checked up on her? They hadn’t spent much time together since Tadeh had moved into The Colony, and she’d never imagined they were interested in how her career was progressing. “Oh. Uh…” she began, relieved when Med Guy stuck his hand out at her.
“Hello, Ellisyn. I’m Bronsard Chastain.” He seemed oblivious to the possibility that his earlier behavior or his apparent impatience to end this interruption might have affected her opinion of him. “We were just discussing the impact this election might have on their budget.”
“Yes,” Malver interjected, “we’re anticipating a little extra consideration from the Council during the next session, if everything goes as we hope.”
Bronsard shook his head. “The Sectari Party candidates have strong backing. Especially our candidate for Chair. If Martienne wins, even if we split the Council, her tie-breaker vote will stop the Tolera Party from pushing their Genic Equal Rights agenda off on hard-working Mainstreamers. In fact, I’m going to make sure of it. I’m running for my parage’s seat.”
Ellisyn’s jaw tensed.
So did Malver’s as he turned to her. “Would you mind terribly if I asked you to give us a few minutes to discuss this a little more privately? Thank you. There’s a good girl.”
Good girl, indeed. Would he ever see her as an adult? Maybe that’s why he felt a need to know what was going on with her job -- he wasn’t sure she was responsible enough to succeed, and he didn’t want to be embarrassed if she failed. The conversation was moving deeper into the one subject Ellisyn felt unsafe discussing in public anyway, so without comment, she moved back toward the building, into the shadow of a mature oak. Tadeh would enjoy hearing about this at lunch.
Unable to hear them at this distance, she swallowed her passion about Genic rights. She was directly behind Tadeh’s parents, but she could see Bronsard’s expression. Things must be heating up. His handsome face was distorted and he was gesturing wildly. Yet Junah again searched the sky, and Malver, one hand in his pocket, one arm around his wife’s shoulders, stood quiet and passive.
The lander appeared above the trees, slowing to hover over the pad, the engine’s roar writhing into a whine rising to a pitch almost beyond human hearing. Something was wrong.
To Ellisyn, the scene played out in slow motion. Bronsard twisted toward the sound, first his head, then his shoulders, then his legs. Malver pulled Junah to the ground where they lay flat against the pavement. A searing flash of white became a sky-splintering blast of fire edged with yellow and orange as a million bits of lander shot through flames that were heading everywhere at once.
Heading right toward her.