Sunday, August 10, 2008

Friday Fiction for July 18th, 2008

This was the submission for the Friday Fiction on July 18th, 2008. I wrote this story a few years back for a fiction contest at the local college. It didn't win, which did not surprise me, as the contest typically favors literary fiction, rather than genre fiction such as sci-fi.

This story is set in the same universe as my Eridanus stories. The idea behind this story was to look at just how far some will go to prove a point. I enjoyed also playing with the ideas of how converting a barren world into a habitable one might work, and while I didn't delve too deep into theories I imagined, I like the visual of the rings at various stages of development.

I hope you enjoy the story.

The Garden of Stephen
By Rick Higginson

The Rover vessel settled to the surface, ready to deliver several metric tons of supplies and a solitary charter passenger. The pilot positioned the craft with practiced ease, and paid little attention to the persistent signals that attempted to kibitz in the process. When the ship rested securely on the tarmac, she commenced the shut down of the engines and turned to her passenger. “It will be just a few more minutes until everything is stabilized sufficiently for you to disembark. The atmosphere here has been converted to the Terran standard, but we need to allow the engine exhaust to dissipate before we step out into it. Trust me; I got in a hurry one time and stepped out too soon, and the little that was left was enough to make me vomit everything I’d ever thought I’d eaten.”

“That’s fine,” Randy Carlson said. “I’m scheduled to stay here at least until the next supply shipment arrives, so I’ll have plenty of time to grow tired of this place.”

“Are you one of the ecosystem technicians that’s supposed to make this place habitable for people?”

“No, I’m a corporate facilitator. The executives back at Earthrise sent me to find out about the budget overruns and to see if I can get the project back on the fiscal schedule. Frankly, I’d hoped to be sent to a world that has some nice golf courses instead of one that is less than ten percent terraformed. If I’m lucky, the local management will already have corrected the problem, and I can just catch a ride with you back to Puerta del Cielo.”

“That wouldn’t hurt my feelings. According to the local data system, I don’t have so much as a passenger scheduled for the return trip. Your company pays well for this run, but it would still be nice to have at least some revenue manifest for the outbound.”

“I’ll do my best to oblige.”

“You’d better be quick, though,” she said. “It will take about four standard hours to offload the cargo, about three standard hours to prep for departure, and then I’m leaving. As I said, this run pays well, but it doesn’t pay any more if I sit here idle for extra time. Each hour I spend here is another hour that I could be closer to the next paying job.”

“I understand,” he said. “I should know within the hour if I need to stay or if I can leave right away. I won’t hold my breath, but I can always hope.”

“Fair enough,” she said as she checked the instruments. “The sensors say the air is clear outside now; you can disembark any time.”

“Thank you,” he said. He unfastened his seat restraints and stood. He grabbed his small carry-on bag and walked past the row of empty SusAn chambers in the passenger compartment. He’d occupied one of the chambers for most of the voyage, and had only been awaken by the ship’s computer shortly before their arrival. He had just spent over a year in the care of the pilot, and knew less about her than he did about the average restaurant server that had waited on him back in Earthrise.

He glanced at her as she went about her tasks in the control center of the ship. She was older than he but still attractive; her time spent accelerating through the plateaus of light speed had staved off some of her aging. He had heard ample stories of how Rovers were notoriously casual about relationships; when one spent most of their life crossing deep space, they rarely had long lasting relationships or families. If she would stay longer than just a few hours, they might be able to enjoy some mutually satisfying diversions, he thought.

“She’d burn you out and leave your smoking carcass on the tarmac,” he imagined the dire warning in one of his co-worker’s taunting voices. He laughed at that, and thought it would be a much better way to go than the death of boredom he anticipated on Keid 2.

She looked up and noticed his gaze. She shook her head and laughed. “I know that look,” she said. “I won’t go for some fast fling, and I ain’t got time for anything better. Listen; if they don’t need you here and you can leave when I’m ready, I’ll get this girl back on its way to Puerta del Cielo, and then I’ll show you such a time that you won’t need a SusAn chamber to sleep the rest of the journey.” Her teasing smile vanished and was replaced by a look that was all business. “Here’s the catch, though. You’re young and you’re good looking but I’m not hanging around here for any man. Now go; I’ve got work to do.”

Wow, he flinched. He descended the ramp to the primitive pavement and noted the smell of orange blossoms on the breeze. That’s promising, he thought. It told him that enough soil had been processed to support outside vegetation. He could expect to find alfalfa fields covering vast plots beyond the ring of gardens that surrounded the central facility. Perhaps in the years since he had been dispatched from Earthrise the project had managed to get back on schedule and budget. It would seem a waste for him to have traversed so much space to just turn around and return home, but certainly no worse than the anticipated stay of nearly three standard years until the next supply vessel arrived.

He walked towards the facility entrance, careful to stay out of the lane marked for the remote loaders that sped towards the ship to offload the cargo. Keid 2 was a minor project, as terraforming went, with a single lead scientist and a small team of maintenance workers to keep the equipment in proper repair. More than a few of the Board Members back at Earthrise had questioned why the CEO had pushed for a habitable world around Keid. It was considered too small to serve as a worthwhile colony, and close enough to Puerta del Cielo at Epsilon Eridanus to not be needed as a relay point for farther stars. Maybe I’ll find out why the old man pushed so hard for this project while I’m here, Randy chuckled.

He entered the facility to find an older gentleman waiting for him. “Ah, Mr. Carlson,” the gentleman greeted him. “I’m Stephen Yardley, head of the development here. Welcome to Keid 2.”

“Mr. Yardley,” Randy accepted the offered handshake.

“Please, call me Steve; we’re likely going to be working together for a while, so we might as well drop the formalities now.”

“Well, actually, I’d hoped you might tell me the terraforming was back on schedule and your budget overruns were corrected, so we would not have to work together at all,” Randy said. The thought of the Rover pilot’s promise gave him even more incentive to learn that his services were not required on the remote world.

“Oh, dear me, no,” Steve replied. “While our work is very close to lining up with the schedule, our budget is a horrible mess.” Randy thought he sounded far too cheerful for what should have been bad news. “While I know a tremendous amount about ecosystems and making a planet habitable, I’m almost lost when it comes to corporate fiscal reports, supply requisitions, and payroll systems. I was delighted to hear I was getting a facilitator who could straighten out this mess for me.”

Randy sighed and felt the walls already starting to close in on him. “How much of a budget error are we looking at here?”

“Every time I try and reconcile the system, I come up with around a twelve megacred deficit.”

“Twelve million credits?” Randy steadied himself against the wall. For a year of his life, he would earn less than one thousand credits. The average laborer would earn less than five hundred. “You can’t account for twelve million credits?”

“Well, I can show you where the ledgers are off. It’s a few thousand here, several thousand there, but I assure you, every time I run the numbers, it’s right about twelve megacreds that I can’t figure out what happened to.”

“Diarrhea in the air ducts!” Randy swore. “It could take months, years to figure out where that much has bled from the accounts.”

“Yes,” Steve said. “But we do have a very nice facility here, and I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable with the accommodations we have. In time, I think you might even learn to think of this place as home.”

“Not likely,” Randy said with a scowl.

“Speaking of which,” Steve continued as if he hadn’t heard. “Let me show you to your apartment. One of the remotes will bring your luggage in once it has been unloaded and scanned, but until then I’m sure you’d like to relax for a while before we get to the accounts.”

Randy waved his hand in resignation. “Lead on,” he said when the gesture failed to produce any response.

Steve walked ahead and pointed out features of the facility with a salesman’s charisma. “Here is the commissary,” he paused outside one door. “Keid 2 is completely self-sufficient in food production at this point. We have an excellent variety of agricultural projects going, and our livestock herds are doing exceptionally well. We’ve had to cull the herds beyond our food requirements, so we have ample supplies of meat in long term storage in case of any unforeseen shortages. You’ll find the remote kitchen in the commissary is one of the best anywhere, and can prepare almost any dish you might desire.”

Steve took off again, and Randy struggled to keep up. He knew he missed a majority of what the exuberant older man said; then again, he would have ample time to become as familiar with the facility as Yardley was. By the time they reached the compact apartment that would be his home, his side ached from the exertion. Steve pointed out the main features of the suite and then took his leave.

Alone in the modest room, Randy collapsed on the bed and stared at the ceiling. He had not seen any other people in their whirlwind tour, and wondered just what the population of the development really was. This must be what it feels like to go to prison, he thought as a sense of dread enveloped him. He knew it would be hypocritical to do so, but if had been the kind of man who prayed, he would have beseeched whatever deity might rule over that world that Keid 2 was home to more than just men. He did not look forward to his time there anyway, and if he had to do so without the company of at least one amorous woman, he didn’t think he would survive.

He startled awake to the sound of a gentle knocking on the door, and wondered just how long he had been asleep. He hadn’t brought a watch along, and as he glanced around the room he failed to spot a clock anywhere within view. The knock repeated, a bit louder and longer the second time. He stood and stretched with a yawn, and then crossed the short distance to open the door. Steve stood just outside, his face the same mask of boyish enthusiasm it had been earlier.

“I was just about to head out to one of the remote stations,” he said. “I thought you might like to come along and see some of the nearby progress.”

“Are we walking?”

“Oh, certainly not,” Steve replied with a chuckle. “It’s much too far to walk. I’ve got one of the carts we can take.”

“How long will we be gone?”

“Not long; why? Are you eager to get to your work? I assure you, you’ll have plenty of time for that.”

Randy thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think I’m ready to tackle the accounts just yet. Will I need to take anything along, or am I fine in what I’m wearing?”

“You’ll be fine; this is a very moderate season on Keid 2 and the cart is enclosed. We’ll be able to drive right up to the remote station, as it’s one of the closer ones and on one of the main paths we’ve made.”

It was a short but brisk walk to the garage where the cart waited, and Randy wondered if Steve always moved with such energy. They pulled out of the facility onto a hard-packed road, shaded by orderly groves of fruit trees on either side. “This is the second belt,” Steve explained as they rolled along the dusty path. “The central garden where we started planting Keid 2 is a few kilometers to your right. We have most of the growth regions out to the fourth belt, though two regions are out to the fifth and this one, since it was the first started, is out to the sixth.”

“How large is each belt?”

“The central garden is approximately forty kilometers in diameter, and each belt extends the diameter of the development by another forty kilometers. It takes about five growing seasons before we’re ready to advance a belt from one stage to the next, at which time we’re ready to add another belt to the perimeter. The sidereal year here is shorter than the standard year, so we’re getting more growing seasons in less time. Fortunately, the seasonal changes are relatively mild as well, so the plants which require longer maturing aren’t adversely affected.”

“So your central garden is at the sixth stage? Just how developed is that, anyway?”

“It’s as close to a wild ecosystem as we get without releasing full control. The landscaping has been done to produce a balanced environment, at least for a compact area. The domestic animals have been moved out and select wildlife introduced with an eye on a self-regulating population. While we typically schedule the advancement between the first six stages, we don’t declare an area to be ready for the seventh stage until it has shown it can sustain without constant involvement from us.”

“How close would you say it is to declaring it seventh stage?”

“I’m hoping very close indeed,” Steve replied, turning an optimistic smile towards Randy.He stopped the cart next to some fruit-laden trees. He got out and invited Randy to join him by the low hanging branches. “These nectarines have already ripened; try one. The enriched soil here produces some of the best tasting fruit I’ve ever experienced.”

Randy selected one, wiped the dust from it, and took a bite. “That is good,” he agreed. He dabbed the stray juice from his chin with his shirt sleeve.

“The peaches aren’t quite ripe yet, but they should be soon. Do you like peaches, Randy?”

“Oh, yeah; I love peaches. I moved to Earthrise to study when I was still a teen-ager. You don’t get fresh from the tree fruit on the Moon, and even as fast as they can transport produce from Earth, it just doesn’t taste the same.”

Steve nodded his understanding. “I remember my time at the lunar universities. Believe me; you’ll be able to enjoy all the fresh fruit you like during your stay here.” He gestured towards the cart, and the two men resumed their journey.

The path climbed from the facility, though the cart did not seem to have its speed inhibited at all by the altitude gain. It was easy to determine when they passed from one belt to the next, as the type of foliage that lined to road changed quickly. They were almost to the outer edge of the fourth belt when they heard the Rover ship depart. Any hope Randy had of leaving soon was gone, along with the only woman he had seen since departing Puerta del Cielo.

When they reached what appeared to be an endless sea of alfalfa plants, he knew they had entered the sixth belt. The path eventually took a gentle turn to the left, and the alfalfa fields gave way to bare ground.

Randy saw that the work had already begun to add the seventh belt, as evidence that remote machines had worked the soil was clear all around them. The air held a faint trace of the nearby alfalfa as well as aged manure, and when he looked he saw a few stray alfalfa plants had already started to invade the new ground. A short distance ahead he spotted a small building, and Steve slowed to a stop next to it.

“Normally, I’d send one of the maintenance people out to do this,” he explained. “But they’re all busy elsewhere and this is just a minor problem. Besides, I enjoy getting out here to see the belts firsthand, and I thought you’d enjoy a casual tour.”

Randy looked back the way they had come as Steve went to work. They had climbed much higher than the grade of the path had seemed, and he had an excellent view of the development spread out in the valley below them. It was like looking at an archery target, if one could imagine a target that stretched 240 kilometers in the distance. The other side was lost in a thin haze that covered the valley, but he could still discern the different belts along the path they had followed.

Steve walked up behind him. “Pretty impressive, isn’t it?”

“It would have been great to see it from the Rover ship as we descended, that’s for sure.”

“I have some satellite imagery I can show you of that, but what I was talking about was this,” he reached around Randy to show him an open hand. An intricate nest with several tiny eggs rested in his palm.

“A bird’s nest?” Randy asked skeptically.

“The birds are the hardest to keep where we want them. We have a variety of insects for pollinating, and the birds follow the food. I don’t mind, really, as the purpose here is for life to cover the entire planet. However, this pair built their nest blocking the air sampling port of this station, and it’s been messing up the data we get from here.”

Randy had to laugh; all of the technology that they used for transforming a barren world into one teeming with life, and two small birds could cause a problem that required a long drive to correct.

Steve maintained his constant monologue as they made the drive back to the central facility. Randy listened politely, only slightly more interested for having seen the extent of the development from the higher elevation.

When they reached the garage again, Steve led him to the control room. Monitors lined every wall, each showing different areas of the development on the planet. Steve walked directly to one particular bank of displays and pointed with satisfaction. “These show my central garden; I’m especially proud of how that is turning out.”

He had to admit that the garden certainly appeared to be worthy of such pride, as every scene he could see had the look of a lush paradise. The vegetation was healthy and thick, and periodically a small animal would wander though one scene or another.

“System; find and display Annie,” Steve said.

The main monitor went blank for a few moments before showing another part of the central garden. Randy didn’t notice what Steve had searched for until she moved, reaching for a piece of fruit that dangled from a low branch beside her. “She’s naked,” Randy commented in both surprise and admiration of the young woman sitting beneath the tree.

“That’s Annie,” Steve said. “She takes care of the garden for me.”

“Why is she naked?” Randy asked. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you,” he added.

“She is completely innocent; she doesn’t know clothed from naked, and isn’t really aware of anything that goes on outside of the central garden.”

“How did she get there?”

“Why, I put her there, of course. I created this world, and I created that garden especially for her. She was the daughter of one of the maintenance workers here. Her mother was killed in an accident involving one of the atmospheric conversion machines early on, and Annie was devastated. Her pain vanished when I eradicated all memories of her former life.” He turned to look at Randy. “Are you a religious man, Mr. Carlson?”

“Not really, but I’m almost afraid to ask you why you want to know.”

“I am a scientist, Mr. Carlson; I deal in empirical facts and repeatable effects. I’m not given to accepting the traditional beliefs of supernatural events that led to our existence.”

“Is this where the missing twelve megacreds ended up?” Randy whispered.

Steve laughed. “I assure you, Mr. Carlson, the budget is completely balanced and every credit accounted for. No, you weren’t selected for this assignment because of your talent in accounting and project management.”

“Then why am I here?”

“Were you alive yet when we first made contact with the Eridanis, Mr. Carlson?”

“No; that happened before I was born.”

“I was just starting my science education when the expedition brought back news of another human civilization in our tiny corner of the galaxy. It was, shall we say, rather disheartening to hear that, rather than the discovery promoting the scientific view of the origins of life, the Eridanis held such a similar creation account that it boosted the religious view. When the first Eridani priestess was brought to Earth and immediately bonded to a Terran Bible student through their pseudo-psychic connection, it was taken by many in the Archipelago as proof of the religious claims. Without even trying, those two sparked a widespread revival of superstition masquerading as spirituality.”

“But what does that have to do with that woman in the central garden?”

He turned a wry smile towards Randy. “Do you know who Annie thinks she is, Mr. Carlson?”

He found the return to the formal address almost as discomforting as the direction the conversation had turned. “Why do I have a feeling I do know?”

Steve laughed. “You might; you’re certainly bright enough. Annie believes she is the first woman ever created, because that is what I told her. I’m sure you can guess who she thinks I am.”

Randy shook his head and rubbed his brow. “Yeah, I’m sure I can, and I’m also sure what will happen when word of your project here gets out to the rest of the Archipelago. The priestesses on Eridanus 4 are liable to drive every Terran from the system for something like this. I don’t have to be religious to know that this is blasphemy. You’re going to have every religious person on the hundred worlds ready to crucify you.”

“Oh, wouldn’t that be poetic? The Christians already believe they crucified their God; how amusing it would be if history repeated itself in that regard, too.”

“But why? Why would you risk such public outcry for a stunt like this?”

“Demonstrable repeatability,” he replied. “Think about it; when the population of this world has grown to a sizable level, they will have a very similar ‘creation account’ in their tradition. They will attribute it to a god, even though it was just me behind it all. I will have a scientific process showing that parallel accounts do not equate to a supernatural cause. We’ve argued for years that the similar accounts between the Terran Judeo-Christian tradition and the Eridani tradition could be due to a common colonizing ancestry leaving behind traces of their mythology. Perhaps the colonial race specifically chose to foster religious superstition, even as I’m doing here.”

“You can’t do this,” Randy said. “It’s going to destabilize the relations between the Archipelago and the Eridanis, first off, and it’s liable to set off riots throughout the colony worlds.”

“But I’m already doing it,” Steve countered.

“You’ve got to put a stop to this experiment. You’ve got to tell that woman out there the truth and bring this whole project back to a simple terraforming development.”

Steve sighed in resignation. “I’d so hoped to sell you on the idea, and that you would agree that debunking the foundations of the Judeo-Christian and Eridani religions was a worthwhile advancement for science.” He gestured helplessly. “If I can’t get your support, I have no choice but to scrap the project.” He turned back towards the door to the control room. “Come on; I’ll show you back to your room. It’s going to take me a while to reset the control systems for the standard development.”

He led the way down the hall in silence; the difference in his demeanor from the exuberant host he had been when Randy first arrived to the deflated man that slumped just ahead was striking. He paused outside one door, seeming to debate a detour.

“Since we’re right here, I should point out this room to you.” He held the door and waited for Randy to step ahead of him. “This is the dispensary; should you require any medical assistance, the computer in here can diagnose and treat most common maladies. If anything serious should arise, we have a SusAn chamber in here that will maintain you in stasis until the next supply ship can take you back to the hospital at Puerta del Cielo.”

Randy glanced around the room with detachment. It was difficult to think of such mundane information with Stephen Yardley’s bizarre project still so fresh in his mind. I’m going to have to spend several years with this crackpot until the next supply ship can get me out of here, he realized. He sighed in resignation and wondered how he could make the best of it. Maybe when he tells Annie the truth, he’ll let me tutor her back to current standards. Spending time with her would certainly be better than spending time with this old fool.

He was about to turn and exit the room when he felt the pressure of a hypo-stream on the skin of his neck. “Hey!” he said, jumping away from Steve. “What the hell are you doing?”

Steve smiled indulgently. “I’ve given you a tranquilizer, Randy. It’s not as fast-acting as I would like, but since I’m not a medical doctor, I’d rather be safe with a slower one than to risk causing you permanent damage with a strong one.”

“They’re going to…” his thought drifted from a complete sentence.

“No one is coming to look for you, Randy. By the time the Rover returns to Puerta del Cielo, Keid 2 will be under a corporate quarantine order for the next two hundred standard years; my ‘sponsor’ back at corporate headquarters has already seen to that. The scientists who come after the quarantine is lifted will find the records of what I’ve done here, and despite the unwavering faith of the population, they’ll know that no god was behind the creation of this world. The point will be proven, even if I’m not alive to see it.”

“But I…”

“You won’t remember a thing, Randy, and trust me; you’ll be much happier for it.”

He tried to stay on his feet, leaning against the examining table, but for all his efforts he knew it was a losing battle. His eyes refused to focus even as Steve eased him onto the table. He could still hear Steve’s voice reassuring him for a few moments more after his vision was gone, and then he was out.

“Hello?” The voice was gentle and unfamiliar. He did not remember ever hearing it before. Then again, he did not remember ever hearing anything before, yet he knew he understood the word. He had a vague sense that there must have been something before that moment, but he could not recall so much as a single memory.

Words? What were words, anyway? What was he, and what was speaking to him?

With a conscious effort he opened his eyes, and then shut them immediately against the bright light.

“It’s all right,” the voice said to him again. He moved his hand to shade his face, confused for the moment by why he knew the part that he moved was called a ‘hand’. He opened his eyes again slowly, allowing them to acclimate to the ambient light. The source of the voice stood over him, looking down on him with a gentle smile. She drew closer, reaching out a hand to explore his body. “God tells me that you are Randy, and that He has created you for me. You are different from me, but God says that our differences will be a good thing for us.”

He looked around, confused. Randy? Is that what I am called?

“I am Annie,” his companion said. “Soon God will speak to us and tell us things we should know, but until then, let me show you this garden that God has made for us.” She drew him to his feet even as she studied his features without shame. “Look around,” she encouraged him. “This is all ours, except for one tree in the middle of the garden.”

Watching on the monitor in the control room, Steve smiled. His garden had just reached the seventh stage, and it was time for a rest. The peach tree in the center would have ample ripe fruit in another few weeks, and Randy especially appeared to be highly susceptible to the temptation it would present. He wouldn’t use a snake for the tempter, though. It would make an interesting experiment to see what human perception of the creature would be without the induced bias from the creation mythology. Perhaps a raven instead; he’d always thought they had a somewhat sinister look to them, and it would be a simple matter to implant the neural controls necessary to make it go where he wanted. With the implants in Annie and Randy, he could make them believe they were hearing the raven speak, just as he made them believe they could hear the voice of God.

He already had the implants at work on their libidos. He could tell watching them on the monitors as Annie showed Randy the garden that they felt the first pangs of sexual need. He would allow it to build until it reached the level of constant distraction, and then ‘God’ would tell them what they needed to do to satisfy it. Be fruitful and multiply; wasn’t that how the Judeo-Christian account worded it? He smiled at the thought.

In a few years he would bring some of the maintenance people out of the SusAn chambers they were in, wipe their memories, and place them in other gardens around the planet. He would insure that as children matured they were moved from one group to another to get the gene pool mixed.

All of them, though, would remember the story of Annie and Randy in the Garden of Stephen.

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