A short story
Dr Tallis Deveraux took a leaf from the plastic sample-bag and laid it on the desk in front of her. Out of the sunlight, exposed to the -to it- alien atmosphere of the orbital station, faint blue streaks had begun to appear on its surface. Its smooth, creamy skin had begun to wrinkle.
Magra. The staple diet of Species 9. To an earth-human it had a sweet, slightly metallic smell. Like all the life on N-52, human scientists had invented it almost two centuries ago. Part of the Project, as it was known, with a capital P: to create a human mind in a body that could survive in an alien environment, along with whatever other life was needed to sustain it. As it said at the entrance to the Project's matrix-node: creating a template for a technology to colonise the galaxy. The first-born of the Species had been created in a laboratory on earth with the aid of human genetic material. It breathed carbon dioxide and could withstand the radiation levels of a planet with a thin atmosphere: precisely the conditions found on N-52.
She took a scalpel from an open box to her left and cut a thin, two-millimetre strip from the edge of the leaf. She then made two short cross-cuts to create a two millimetre square. She contemplated the minute tile for a moment. It contained nothing that was poisonous in small quantities: but then it contained nothing particularly nutritious, either. She had not heard of anyone ever attempting to eat a magra leaf before.
So why her, now? Curiosity. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but she had seen members of the Species on the planet’s surface, from a distance, grazing on the magra. It was considered essential to the scientific integrity of the Project to avoid all contact, physical or social: it had to go on working long after both the earth and its inhabitants had ceased to exist. A minute glitch in the present could spell catastrophe in the future and there would be no-one there to fix it. Eating a magra leaf was as close as she could get.
She put down the scalpel, picked up the tile with the tip of her index finger and placed it on her tongue. An unpleasant, burning sensation quickly spread to her nose and eyes. In the lab she had smelt, though never tasted kerosene, and this was what she imagined it to taste like.
Water. She desperately wanted to wash her mouth out. She should’ve thought of that: a glass of water. She tried to lift her head, but it felt three times heavier than usual. The more she tried, the more it lolled uncontrollably. She tried to hold it up with her hands, but it kept slipping out.
She tried to get up, but it was as if the strings that controlled her arms and legs had been cut. Instead, she tumbled sideways to the floor...
She opened her eyes. Time had passed, although whether it was seconds, minutes or even hours she had no idea. Her cheek was pressed against a hard surface that she could see stretching away into a blurred middle-distance. Things slowly began to make sense. The floor. The legs of the chair and the side of the desk slowly came into focus. She felt strangely happy. She wondered why. She cast her mind back and forth, searching for a reason. Only one thought intensified the feeling: tomorrow they were returning to the planet.
The midday sun beat down relentlessly on N-52. The suit's environmental controls maintained a comfortable temperature but you could see by the turbulent heat haze and the sharpened outlines of the landscape (as seen through the tinted visor) just how formidable an environment it created. It was not without reason that Species 9 were nocturnal.
They had landed in the north eastern region of the third continent, on the edge of the mountains, the northern edge of the magra fields. The Northern Apennines it said on the map. She wondered what the Species called them, if they gave names to mountains. They gave a name to themselves: the copra. They were largely nomadic: in the summer they moved north, to avoid the fierce heat of the south. As they traveled they collected and dried enough magra to see them through the summer months, as magra was scarce in the north. Once Tallis' team had come across a deserted camp: she had seen for herself the drying leaves hanging from the ceilings of the tents like a colony of blue, wizened bats.
It was one thing to cultivate magra on earth for a few years, in an artificial environment. It was quite another to establish it on another planet and leave it to grow for an indefinite period. How would it cope in less than ideal conditions? It was Tallis' job to monitor this. How did it respond to extremes of weather? Was it resistant to disease? Since leaving the cube that morning she had been collecting samples from the patches of magra that were growing here and there in a wide corrie: they reminded her of patches of snow on mountains she'd climbed on earth. The surface was red and rock-strewn. High cliffs rose on either side.
She had finished collected her samples. She was climbing a little further up the corrie than she intended to but then, she thought, why not? The mountains were beautiful. She had a few minutes to spare. Part of her felt uneasy about this: but it was a very small part of her, too small to do anything about it. It was almost as if that part of herself was outside of itself, watching another Tallis Deveraux making decisions and acting on impulses that were not her own.
A few minutes later she noticed she was still walking. She'd walked further than she intended. But then, why not? They allowed themselves wide margins. She was usually the first back. She smiled to herself. Patrick was usually last: it wouldn't hurt him to be left hanging about for a change.
She stopped climbing for a moment and turned to admire the view. Below her the southern plain stretched as far as she could see. Close to the mountains, the red surface was streaked with fields of magra. In the distance, in the turbulent haze, the streaks merged into a single mass. As she watched, that small part of her that felt as if it were
looking in on herself from the outside seemed to shrink to a helpless thought at the back of her mind. She was seized with an urge to lift her visor, to feel the air of the planet on her face. The pressure was not so different from that of the suit. The intense sunlight was a different problem. She noticed that the sun was no longer directly overhead: the cliffs to her right had begun to cast a shadow. If she made her way to the foot of the cliffs, into the shade...
Lucas' voice. She tried to speak. She moaned. The mother of all headaches was pounding at the centre of her forehead.
She felt her eyes begin to open. She was aware of the soft bluish light of the station. The ceiling.
'Are you OK?'
She nodded. A head, bending over her. Grey, receding hair. Lucas' head.
This time she succeeded. She was rapidly regaining control. She lied. 'I don't know,' she said.
'I can't remember.'
'Your visor was off. The planet's contaminated.'
She said nothing.
'Did you see anyone? Anything?'
'I don't know.'
'Were you attacked?'
The question struck her as bizarre. 'No,' she said. 'At least not...' She frowned. She felt suddenly weak. She had forgotten what it was she was trying to say.
'It's nothing. Who would attack me? Out here?'
It was typical of Lucas to think like that. He had reason on his side, in a way. It all went back to Perez, the twenty-second century geneticist who started it all. He began by inventing a rodent that could live on Mars and worked up. The leaders of the Sects at the time said it was a crime against God. Perez maintained that even if it was, then to do nothing, to allow the only intelligent life we knew about at the time to be destroyed along with the earth, was a greater crime. Perez himself survived three assassination attempts before they got him. Things quietened down after that, but the problem never went away completely.
A thought occurred to her. She didn't take it seriously, but she thought it would do Lucas good to consider it.
'What if they did it?' she said.
'Impossible. They don't even know we're here.'
'Of course,' she said. Fortunately she was still unable to speak loud enough to convey the intended note of sarcasm.
Lucas smiled down at her and put his hand on her shoulder.
'Get some rest. I'll drop by later.'
'Thanks. Bye,' she said. While he had been speaking it had occurred to her exactly what she should do. The whole idea seemed obvious from the moment she thought of it: why had she not thought of it before? It so took her by surprise that she felt sure every last detail of it must've been written all over her face. She smiled with as much sincerity as she could muster: it was essential that he should have not the slightest inkling.
The research area was never busy in the evening. Patrick was there as usual, bent over a magnifier, testing insect specimens. No-one else. He mumbled a greeting without looking up.
At least she could do what she was about to do without arousing his curiosity. Her work often involved the use of nanobots and so it was not unusual for her to program the computer to create a batch. Her fingers ran deftly over the touch-screen.
'I thought you were on the sick,' said Patrick.
'Yea, well. You know what it's like.'
An oblong drawer-front lit up to the left of the screen.
'Sick of staring at the ceiling,' she went on. 'Thought I'd catch up on a bit of light research.'
She touched the drawer-front and it opened to reveal a phial of nanobots. She glanced at Patrick. He was still engrossed in his work. She took an injector from the rack and carefully inserted the phial into it. She then slipped the injector into her overalls pocket.
Creating nanobots was a restricted operation liable to scrutiny. Security routinely monitored computer operations. From now on she'd have to move fast. There was a chance no-one had noticed yet, so she closed the drawer and quickly deleted the program.
It was a two minute walk to the cube lock. She had to force herself not to look over her shoulder. At one point she met a security officer coming the other way but he just smiled and walked past her. The cube lock was deserted. The green cube sat dimly illuminated in the dark space of the lock, almost as if it were suspended in space itself. She finally allowed herself to look over her shoulder. There was nobody there.
The thought crossed her mind that there might be somebody inside the cube already. If so, she'd have some explaining to do. She typed quickly on the barely visible touch pad on the cube's smooth, matt surface. The door opened. A wedge of light flooded over her. She stepped inside. The cube was empty. The door closed.
'Surface,' she said. The journey would take about thirty seconds. The nanobots or, to give them their full name, the Species 9.1 effectors, took about that long to act. She pulled out the injector and fired it into her arm. There was still a chance she'd be found out and the ship brought back. When she opened the door she might find herself still in the lock, facing a team of security officers. If so, she'd be dead: she'd collapse and suffocate at their feet.
4 years ago