Entry for Other Worlds Contest
|Other Worlds Contest Entry: Image Prompt (1), Word Count: 4252
Killian’s footsteps echoed softly against the stone pathway that skirted the apartments, lights glowing bright from the cylindrical buildings in rebellion against the dark. The sailblades rose above them and glittered as they gathered the wind and light, and radiating the excess heat of the day from within. Below, the figures of men and women tied thin sailboats to the dock. The sights and sounds of twilight soothed him: the sun yellowing the clouds ahead, twin moons glowing softly behind. The flow of the water was barely audible in the canyon below, a sound that ran gently down the edges of his racing mind.
As still as the evening was, the landing platform had been crawling with people only a few hours ago, new arrivals from Centauri. Most had since taken the buses eastward to Paradise. Films showed great towers rising into the night, dozens upon dozens of levels high and broad enough to house hundreds of thousands. What used to be called a city could now be housed within a single structure. Time was when buildings that tall had to be constructed by hand over years and no few people died raising them. Killian shuddered at the thought. Robots could do the job much quicker now. Most of the immigrants from Centauri would be there, inaugurating the urban towers in grand parties on the windy rooftops, complete with epic firework displays. Killian’s parents had been lured many years ago into settling on this planet, optimistically named Eden in honor of its climate and the relative ease involved in its terraforming. In recent years, Eden had begun to live up to its name as a garden planet. But things were changing: now that the colony had finally gotten up running, Eden could no longer be a garden reserved for a few.
Killian was drawn from his reverie by the sight of a woman leaning up against the stone railing, staring wide-eyed across the canyon toward the sunset. Her hair was a dirty blond, her eyes blue-green against the setting sun, and her skin a smooth dusky brown. The wisps of her dress in the moonlight billowed like the fronds of a willow. Killian slowed to a stop, captivated by her earnest, crooked smile. “You’ve found a fine place to watch the sunset. Perfect evening for it too.”
The woman startled, then turned her head abashedly to face him. “I look as out of place as I feel, don’t I? I can’t regret it. I’ve seen fireworks before, but I’ve never seen this.”
Killian grinned. “It’s worth it, isn’t it? I live here, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. There’s an orchard a half-mile down the path to the right that they used to test the soil and a garden next to it. The garden is better in the daylight, but the orchard is just as lovely under the moon. Still, you can’t beat the river in the twilight, and the only bugs we have so far on Eden are the ones we brought on purpose.”
The glow in the woman’s eyes set him aflame inside, though he stifled as well as he could. A slim, dark hand reached out into the air between them. “My name is Lessa. I’ll be working as a physician in the clinic down the road, at least until I hit my hours, and I can get back into research.”
He bowed his head in acknowledgment. “A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Lessa. Welcome to Eden, and the little town of Landing. I’ve just managed to snag my degree, and I’ll be working on adapting some of the Centauri plants and insects to the local ecology. Maybe we'll even end up crossing paths in the same lab.”
Lessa laughed musically, brushing a strand of blond hair from her eyes. “I can really believe we might. But if you intend to walk with me up to see that orchard, you’d better stop calling me ‘doctor’ right now.”
Killian nodded gravely. “As you say, Doctor. And you may call me Killian, if you like.”
“I’ll call you dumbass if you keep that up,” Lessa giggled.
“I’ll answer to that too,” he responded with a grin. “Shall we?”
Shaking her head, Lessa offered him her arm. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”
Killian closed his eyes for a long moment, waiting for the ache behind them to fade before peering back into the microscope. There, yes, the cell was clearly pulling in nutrient mixture Alpha and fixing nitrogen from the air, so why hadn’t the plant been growing? There had to be another mineral he was missing, something common to Centauri Prime that Eden was short on, but what? He shook his head.
“Late night,” Jessica noted from across the lab bench. She had a white blouse and thigh-length red skirt on under the lab coat. Though still young, she was a rising star among the researchers. Her attention to detail was legendary, whether it came to some trivial matter of chemistry, her carefully crafted grant proposals, or her always-immaculate makeup. He tried to avoid noticing that the fine details of her appearance were, well, very fine, from head to toe. Her slow smile suggested he wasn’t entirely succeeding at that.
Killian smiled in return. “I see I’m not the only one. I’m just trying to work out how to get Centauri greatfruit to grow here, and it’s taking some convincing. They’re not my favorite, but anything to increase the cafeteria food variety has to be a good thing, and there’s a fair bit of cash in it for the department if I get seedlings up this month.”
Jessica deftly tucked her notebook under her arm and plucked the last tray from her side of the table with the same arm, wiping down the surface with a cloth in the other. “It would be hard to argue with that, though I’d like to get the adapted native fruits spread more broadly first. The ecosphere here is pretty simple, even with what we’ve introduced from Earth, but the more gardens we can set up before Centauri agribusiness sweeps in, the better.”
Killian sighed and removed the slide-case from the microscope arm, reaching for his own cleaning cloth. “I totally agree. We’re going to go from a few hundred-thousand people to maybe a billion in the coming decade, so we need all the help we can get to feed them. But the terraforming of Eden has been spectacular. With a bit of care, it has the potential to match its name. If we lose that to greedy businesses and overpopulation like Centauri did, it’ll just about break my heart. So yes, we have to set aside some green spaces now, while we can.”
“Exactly!” Jessica replied, tossing her white coat into her locker and slipping a faux red leather jacket over her slim shoulders.
“So, what is it you’re late working on?” he asked.
Jessica raised an eyebrow, but her grin was conspiratorial, as she looked back over her should at him, holding open the door. “I’m under a non-disclosure agreement, but I can tell you it’s for the Eden Conservation Research Foundation. As you probably know, the ECRF shares your concerns, and as a member of the Eden’s Founding Coalition, it’s got the juice to make it happen. With the help of a few good researchers to work out the details and make the case.”
Killian whistled as he stepped forward to put his hand on the door. “I’m impressed.”
He got a wink in return. “You should be. Busy tonight? I could use someone to walk me home. The house is a long walk up the path in the dark.”
The young man cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I’m actually meeting someone for dinner. I just met her the other day out on the walkway. But wait, you have a house?”
Private land wasn’t illegal on Eden or Centauri, just unavailable on account of all it being owned by the government or a few large corporations, each of which would be happy to lease it to you at a “reasonable” fee. Very few people owned land, and not many more could afford to rent a house. Killian was sure he looked as surprised as he felt, and Jessica practically preened at his jealousy. “Well, yes, the ECRF is generous with those they trust. I wasn’t going to let anyone know yet, but in a couple of months, I’m going to move over to their labs officially, and they’re letting me help pick my team members too. If you weren’t otherwise occupied, you could swing by and try to convince me to take you on. I could use a good man, someone loyal.”
Killian swallowed. “Yeah, I mean, it sounds like a good opportunity.”
Jessica’s grin was wicked. “It’s a great opportunity, if I do say so myself. But you say you’re busy tonight? Pity. Let me know how things go with this girl. Maybe we can talk about this some other night.”
“Sure. Thanks for thinking of me,” Killian replied lamely, but with with a swish of her hips, Jessica had bumped open the door and started out into the darkness.
“The lasagna is absolutely marvelous”, Lessa said, eyes rolling upward in half-mock pleasure.
“Sweet of you to say so,” a contralto voice answered kindly.
Killian chuckled. “Mother likes you, I can tell. Flattery will get you everywhere.”
“I’m impressed. You don’t seem nervous at all,” Liam quipped from the end of the table, sipping on a glass of stout. Like his wife, he looked to be approaching middle age, a gift of the new longevity treatments. They hadn’t quite mastered the smooth skin of youth, but the researchers had managed to stave off the worst symptoms of age with the new genetic treatments, and lifespans were soaring. A woman could wait until she turned a hundred before having her first child, and still have more energy to raise that child than her grandmother had had at thirty.
Lessa lowered her eyes, covering her face with a hand as if hiding a blush. “I’ve been really looking forward to this, but whatever Killian sees in me, I can’t have you all fooled. After all - ”
The conversation was interrupted by a loud electronic noise, quickly replaced by an officious stream of words from the speaker in the corner, “Please stay tuned for a brief emergency bulletin. Citizens in your area are urged to remain indoors, as a small explosion has been detected in your area. Police units are on their way to apprehend the suspects, but for your safety, it is requested that you stay inside until a hazardous materials sweep has been conducted and the security curfew has ended. The curfew is currently scheduled to end within the hour. Thank you for your cooperation.”
The older man blinked, then raised a small object before his eyes, pausing only a moment for a frown of apology before speaking. “Anti-Centauri terrorists. They were trying to set off the hydrogen fuel cells for the complex, but they didn’t bring a big enough device. Those tanks are pretty resilient.”
Lessa looked grimaced, and her response came in a voice barely above a whisper. “They really hate us, don’t they?”
Killian shook his head determinedly. “Very, very few of us feel that way. Some people are always going to be afraid of change.”
Lessa sighed, poking at her vegetables with her fork, but not moving to lift them. “I get it. Space is tighter now, and rents are higher. They’re going to start restricting childbirth soon, like they did in Centauri: only one child for anyone receiving longevity treatments, two for those who can’t afford it. There will be energy rationing, water rationing, all of it. There will be lots of free tasteless food, and everything else will cost a fortune unless you grow it yourself. That’s what they do once you get billions of people on a planet. And if you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter, because us newcomers will outvote you a thousand to one, in a decade or so, anyway. To bring everything we left Centauri to avoid.”
"At least there won't be screen use restrictions anymore," Liam pointed out.
“It’s not your fault,” Killian’s mother assured her. “We know that.”
Lessa’s lips to somehow simultaneously express sorrow and gratitude. “Thank you. I know you’re not like the protesters or the terrorists, or the zealots of the ECRF who are trying to prove that Eden can’t support more than a few million immigrants a year without overtaxing the local ecology and risking famine and plague?”
“They’re what?” Killian asked, heart racing in his chest, recalling Jessica’s hints about her own research.
Lessa shrugged, blond curls parting as her slim shoulders rose. “You didn’t know? It’s hard to blame them for wanting to preserve their planet, but claiming we’ll bring the C-plague is a little low. Our screening and quarantine procedures are essentially one hundred percent for that. It’s true, though, that a large population gives bugs a lot of chances to mutate - that’s what keeps people like me in business, keeping up with all the new strains.”
“It’s no excuse, though, especially for those nuts today,” Killian protested, voice hardening.
The dark-skinned woman shrugged again. “Centauri has brought a few nuts of our own along, people hoping that life here would be better, and finding that life isn’t very much different here, except now they’ve spent most of their life savings moving to a new world that still doesn’t have jobs for them, and isn’t sure if it wants them. We don’t commit more crimes per person, but if you have millions of new people moving into a small area, the number of beatings and robberies you see per area sure is going to go up, especially until they hire enough police for the growing population. I hear the Founding Council is already considering a bill to reduce the rate of immigration, no matter what the Charter says they owe.”
Killian rubbed his nose. “They are, but you know the governor isn’t going to get re-elected after that.”
“Not with all the new Centauri citizens to vote her out?” Lessa chuckled ruefully.
Killian’s parents shared a glance, but he reached an arm across the table to grip Lessa’s hand. “The Charter leaves us no choice: Eden was founded specifically for this purpose. But even if we had a choice, we have the opportunity to save or improve billions of lives. Our job isn’t to stop that. Our job is to make it work. And looking at at least one of the people Centauri decided to bring over, I’m pretty damned grateful.”
Lessa held his hand in return, and her smoldering smile melted his heart.
Killian gave up. His head hurt, and the dots on the microscope’s display screen swam in indiscernible patterns. So he rubbed his eyes, leaned back in his chair, and turned the scope off.
“Still having trouble with the yield on the quickrice?” Jessica asked.
Killian blinked, then offered up a weary grin. “Yes, actually. I’m getting close, but there’s got to be something I’m missing.”
Jessica’s node was sympathetic. “We’ve all been there. Nice job on the greatfruit, though.”
He cocked his head in response. “You’ve been checking up on me. Not still looking for a team member at the ECRF, are you?”
“You’ve got me,” Jessica replied, touching an index finger to the center of her chest. “It’s hard to find good people, but I’ve been going over your project work, and it’s impressive. You have a lot of potential.”
Killian crossed his arms. “Thank you. I kind of thought you’d given up on me. We haven’t talked in a while.”
Her thin, dark brows furrowed, but she spread her hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I had to check up on you first. You’ve got the skill, but the ECRF wants loyalty too. They make a big commitment to their researchers, but it’s no secret they have a political angle. Don’t get me wrong, they would never ask their scientists to lie - they have the highest ethical standards. But they do want to make sure they’re asking the right questions. And that girl you’ve been dating from Centauri…”
“Lessa,” Killian replied heavily, starting at his hands.
“So it’s true then? You’re not with her anymore?” Jessica seemed determined to bore into his skull with her eyes.
“I don’t know what I am. She’s taking a job in New Alpha in a Centauri Foundation Clinic, just let me know a few days ago. She didn’t even tell me she was looking, and she made sure to point out that she didn’t expect me to follow. We haven’t spoken since.”
He could almost feel the sympathy pouring out of Jessica. “Ouch, that’s rough. You seemed happy with her, and I’m sorry to see you lose that.”
“Thanks, that means a lot.”
“Look, if you want to head out to The Bullet and talk it out over a beer, we can. I’ll even save the pitch for the position for another day if you want. But I did want to let you know I have to make my recommendation within the week.”
“I’m not sure if we should,” Killian said, meeting her gaze. She seemed genuine, and her face was that of a concerned friend.
“I know you’re hurting. All I’m offering is a beer and an ear, that’s it.”
“I suppose it couldn’t hurt,” Killian responded after a moment. “Let me get my jacket.”
The night passed quickly, and long before one beer turned into six, Killian found himself relaxing into the music, the friendly atmosphere of the local tavern, and Jessica’s friendly commiseration. They talked about work, about their hopes for a beautiful planet, and even a bit about their politics. Killian was pleased to discover that she was far more reasonable than he had feared based on her talk of “political loyalty”. He was surprised to discover he was actually having a good time.
When the tables began to empty, and they finally stood to go, Jessica put a hand on his shoulder and leaned against him to speak in his ear. “It’s good to see you smiling again. I promised I wouldn’t harass you about the job, and I won’t. But if you want it, just say the word. Doesn’t have to be tonight, either, but I’m leaving soon, and I’d like to take you with me. I wanted you to know that.”
Killian’s throat seemed to dry suddenly as he met Jessica’s warm brown eyes. “Thank you for taking me out tonight. I needed that. I’ll think about it, I promise.”
Seemingly content, Jessica patted his arm, and then they headed out into the night, in opposite directions. Killian took one moment to look over his shoulder just in time to catch a glimpse of her doing the same. He thought he caught a hint of her smile in the dark, and then she was gone, leaving Killian alone with a choice to make.
The sparkling walls stretched high above beyond the shadow, beyond sight in to the haze. Here, on the stone floor, the rays that had reflected and scattered a thousand thousand times on the reflective surface of the nano-engineered carbon composite were dim, and the street lights were needed to see. The wide streets were new, though, their surfaces flawless. Homes and shops stood behind strong, clear, glass walls. The flow of human traffic was constant, with men, women, and children passing close by in all directions, though most of the people remained the slow-moving lanes of the sidewalks. There were moving lanes too in the balconies above, stacked in dozens upon dozens of layers high, and the underground levels would be even brighter for their lack of dependency on sunlight, but the scientist had wanted to see how the earth directly beneath his feet had been transformed in Paradise, the new capital city of Eden.
“It’s a bit intimidating,” Killian remarked, gesturing above.
Lessa sounded surprised. “It’s so clean. But wait, you’ve never actually been to a city before, have you?”
His voice sounded distant to his own ears. “I’ve seen pictures, but they don’t do it justice. A lot of the apartments are empty, but that shawarma restaurant looks promising.”
“I’m not hungry, but we can stop if you want,” she offered graciously.
“No, it’s alright. Let’s take an elevator. Level one hundred twenty, wasn’t it?” he said, pulling a black coat tighter around him. It was cooler here than he expected, as if the great structures soaked up the heat from the press of passing bodies. Perhaps they did.
Lessa’s voice was so energetic it practically burst from her. “I’m so excited! I still can’t believe we’re getting an apartment together. I know you prefer the suburbs.”
Killian shrugged, but he thought his tone betrayed his relief. “I couldn’t afford it there, anyway, not after I left the University, and I decided I just couldn’t work for the ECRF. I want to build a planet worth living on as much as they do, but for everyone. There are dozens of billions of people across the Commonwealth looking for a way to live together, and that has to come first. Who knows? Once we explore a few more systems, maybe we can all get our own private houses, but until then it would be pure stupid selfishness to try to keep Eden to ourselves. And, of course, it would have killed me to lose you.”
Lessa’s arms were around him in an instant. “Me too! I was so afraid of having to leave you behind that I just didn’t know what to say. But my citizenship agreement says I have to live in the city and spend ten years working for the clinic here. But I thought - well, I was sure that as soon as I told you, you’d let me go. I believed it so long I just stopped questioning it, and then my friend told me she saw you alone with that woman Jessica from the ECRF.”
He gave her a squeeze. “She made me a job offer. I would have had my own house.”
Lessa leaned back from the embrace, eyes widening as they met his. “Dear God, your own house! And you didn’t take the offer?”
“You saw the pictures I showed you of the apartment. A stupid little house could never compare.”
She gave him a quick peck on the cheek, then pulled away to walk beside him as they approached the elevator door, a broad glass enclosure through which a box could be descending from hundreds of feet high. The red bar marked it as an express elevator, one that only stopped every ten floors up to the hundredth. “And here I heard she made a pass at you.”
He chuckled. “Oh, she did, and I’m sure that broke some ethics regulation too. But I was aiming higher.”
The petite blond gave him a poke in the ribs. “I’ll try not to disappoint.”
“You never could,” Killian responded matter-of-factly.
“We have to,” Lessa said, her piercingly earnest blue eyes breaking through all his defenses.
“It's dangerous. You want a child that badly?” Killian asked, his voice wavering.
Her expression was as fierce as that of a bear defending her cubs. “More than anything. We didn’t expect to hit four billion people on Eden in my lifetime, let alone before my ten years probation were up, but the incident on Barnard was so awful. If we stay here, we might not get a license for a child for a hundred years. We can’t wait that long, even with the longevity treatments.”
“But Calypso?” Killian asked.
She continued relentlessly, “You know Eden isn’t the planet you grew up in. Hell, it’s not even the planet where we met any more. The crime, the corruption, the restrictions on water, on speech…”
He fought the urge to look over his shoulder at the last comment. The microphones in the walls might actually be listening. “We don’t even know if it’s habitable yet.”
Lessa shrugged. “If they knew, they wouldn’t be asking for scientists to find out, and to figure out how to terraform it. The probe came back from the system, so we know it has exotic matter: if worst comes to worst, the expedition fails and we come back. But the chance to make our own world, a better world! I’d kill for that - and I have an invitation for two from the Centauri Exploration Commission. All we have to do is say the word, and we’re gone. Please, Killian, say yes.”
Killian had been born on Eden, had lived here all his life, and he loved it desperately. Despite all that had gone wrong, his instinct was to stay and fix it, to come up with a high-yield crop that might support another million people, a hundred million, so she could stay and have a family here. It wasn’t in his nature to run. But staring into those sea-green eyes, examining those trembling lips, there was only one answer he could give. “Lessa, I’ve never been able to tell you no. If you want to go, we’re going. For us, and for our baby.”
The kiss she gave then him was worth facing any risk in the universe. And she had no intention of stopping there.