by J. Daniel Sawyer
A New Vantage
Mission Historian Personal Perspective
Mission Day 30
Year 2253 of the Common Era
I, CHAN XIYI AYA, AM number thirty-six.
That should be a nice round number. It is not. Thirty-six is the number of exclusion. It marks me out as the one who does not really belong.
Eight weeks ago, I emerged from quarantine. Last in line for awakening means last in line for release—they have to prod your immune system so it can handle the native hazards, at least the ones that they know about. Growing the super-Ts, then testing them, is said to take some time. We were warned, but hearing about a thing and doing a thing are not the same. By the time I saw the sky, the rest had already sorted out the living situation, divvied up the responsibilities, implemented the initial organization of the expedition. As the official tag-along, I do not get a voice. Given everything else, I prefer it that way.
My title is “Official Civilian Observer, Expedition: Filbert.” It is not exactly a military expedition, but the word “Civilian” fits. The Americans have a saying about “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Well, you play a lot of cards sitting around in quarantine, and within two days of my release, I put together that I am more of a “three of all trades” who might make Jack if she sticks with this project for the next twenty years or so, and doesn’t go spare from boredom.
The mission gods planned it that way, of course. That is what a Civilian Observer is supposed to do. I am a sort-of quality control measure, in beta-test form. This round of missions is the first time they have used people like me, in various quantities. Me, here, on this mission? I am the only one. Lucky me. The theory is that we designated idiots will spot problems that all the specialists and the commander do not notice.
Filbert is the name they picked for our fair planet. Someone in the home office determined that a playful and stupid planet name would make the job feel less daunting for the sorts of people they send out.
I am not sure how the other teams decided to organize their quarantine period, so here’s how we did ours. The commander—Dr. Darren Galbraith—was the first to get released into our ground station, and from there he decided in what order everyone else should come out. Since he did not find anything amiss that might need specialized attention, he chose to bring people out in order of authority. Department heads first, then the research scientists, then the physical plant team, then me. By the time I saw my first glimpse of sky, the colony was fully functional, and I had a duty roster.
They made me the designated floater. When the waste team needs an extra pair of hands to perform a task they haven’t yet built a robot for, they call me. And when I’m not doing the work of a dalit, I spend my time looking over shoulders, asking questions, trying to understand what everyone is doing.
Most of that data will not make it into these journal reports, but I need to understand it much better than I do at present, if I am to make anything useful out of myself. Being useful is not an easy thing to do when you are stuck in the middle of a quarantine zone on an uninhabited planet, surrounded to suffocation by the thirty-five most boring people Earth had to offer.
Perhaps “boring” is not fair. “Emotionally stable” is what they selected for. But it is boring. And old. They all have well-maintained bodies, just like anyone else, but youth is just a cellular matter. Age, the sort that matters, seeps into the soul. I am the youngest person on this planet by at least fifty years, and every conversation I have reminds me that I am little more than a schoolgirl sitting at the adults’ table at a wedding feast. I never felt so out of place, not even at school. Now, as I did then, I spend my free moments walking outside, trying to locate myself in the world I can only see through the plasma fences that keep out the local flora and fauna.
They also keep us, the visitors, in. Our own human zoo. The animals that come to visit, attracted by the field—the small ones come right up to the fence, but sometimes we see the larger ones hiding back, just behind the flora, watching us. We cannot see them so well, cannot classify them. But what we can see, and what our probes show us, give us a body plan for their chordate animals. They have backbones, or something that serves the same purpose straight down the middle, with segmented strutted rib cages, and organs and muscles positioned all around the body in a spiral pattern, making their necks and backs less vulnerable go breakage and changing the dynamics of everything they do. I trust that Dr. Sansa will forgive me if I have made any errors of terminology.
But we go to the fence to see them. I go every day. And they come, drawn by the electrical fields, and they see us, trapped inside. Us, and all our pathogens and botanicals. For safety, ours and theirs whatever lurks out there beyond what we can see through the brush.
The mission gods—I assume it was the mission gods—chose for our home base a marvelous vista. The compound was built by the robots between the landing and the end of our quarantine. We were not conscious for most of it. They have located us on a high hill, backed up to a sheer cliff. They burned down to bare dirt the hilltop around us, sterilized it, and cultivated it for Earth-type vegetation. We need to be able to live safely and in biological isolation until the team finishes phase one, and has the data to make its decisions about our integration plan.
Mission Day 43
Mission Historian Personal Perspective
Year 2253 of the Common Era
Up until this morning, things were going as well as could be expected, operationally speaking—which is the reason it has taken me this long to put together my first proper entry. Everything has progressed by the numbers, according to the schedule they laid out back home, so I have not had much to report.
This afternoon, after rotating the agar plates in the culture lab, I walked the perimeter. Inside the boundary are the five domes and the small farm. Outside, dense forest stretches its amethyst fingers up from the valley’s broad floor, gripping the hills like a prize. Between them, a broad river of phosphor-rich water snakes its way down into a spectacular canyon stretching all the way to the horizon. At night, it glows faintly, like a glow worm. The canyon is surrounded by high plateaus furred with vegetation that, like the forests, tends toward the purple, with bright green and yellow splashes here and there.
We have not yet seen any flying creatures. The first time I asked about the lack of birds, Dr. Sansa—Christiana—gave me a forty minute lecture on cladistics, over breakfast. Never again will I dare utter aloud that word in connection to this planet’s flora.
“Birds are impossible here,” she’d said. “The entire notion of ‘bird’ presupposes an evolutionary history concomitant with…okay, look. It’s like calling bats ‘birds’ because they fly, even though they’re mammals. Trust me on this one. It doesn’t come from Earth’s evolutionary tree, it’s not a bird, ipso facto. If we found flying animals here, they’d be ‘avian life forms’, maybe. Flying creatures, that is fine too. But birds? Not a chance.”
Now, I really love Christiana. She is so sweet, so caring, you will never find a better person in any five planets. But after forty minutes of that I was ready to put a dozen eggs under her sheets so I could hear her scream when she got into bed.
But at least I can say it here, since they all think what I do is some kind of pulp fiction enterprise. Birds birds birds birds. Whatever you want to call them, they do not exist here, at least not on this part of the planet. Nearest they come are enormous flying bugs about as wide as a large man’s hand.
Bugs. That’s another cladistic mistake, I’m sure. Christiana, if you ever read this, think of those eggs, and hold your tongue. I’m trusting you with this.
So, walking. Yes. Along the fence. The view has yet to bore me. The afternoon sun shot through the hazy atmosphere, broken up by the clouds, like laser spears from our orbiting base station. They ignited little blooms of bright color, which burst out from the surrounding deep purple like bunches of overripe berries. I wish I could say it would always look that way, but I can’t. We might have to change it, and then this, and the images and videos and holos stored with it, will be the only record.
I hope we do not have to change it.
As I walked, one of the robotics technicians—Lundi—flagged me from the main building, where we keep the assembly hall and the mess. Histology had an urgent announcement.
Tomorrow was supposed to be our first day for preliminary departmental reports, so an announcement from Histology was not unexpected. Their first round of experiments was a sample catalog of the local floral and fauna, evaluating them for suitability for cultivation and domestication. The more that humans can do in-situ, the better the news for the civilization that the colonists will eventually build here.
The early urgency must mean something exciting, I thought, which suited me quite well, as I have been going out of my mind with boredom—which, come to think of it, is another topic that I need to do a report on. The Foundation has some serious re-thinking to do with the way it selects and manages its personnel.
Dr. Prescott—he has asked me to call him Hal, but he is not my friend, and is seventy years older than I am, has five doctorates, and left his great grandchildren behind to join this junket—plodded into the mess and did not bother to take a seat:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got the results back on the protein analysis from the first swath of the native biome. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we are officially screwed.”
When he said that, my stomach dropped into my pelvis.
He went on to explain that there seemed to be a quirk in the local evolution that happened early in the planet’s history that rendered everything he had analyzed unfit for human consumption. Maybe even unfit for human contact. He said: “It’s chemical warfare on an apocalyptic scale.”
Nobody said this would be an easy job, but they are now trying to decide whether it is even possible to make this place suitable for human habitation. It may not be worth the attempt.
End of sample. ©2015 J. Daniel Sawyer, All Rights Reserved