A Thousand Words

This fall, I’m taking time to reread some of my favorite books and series, and because I’m not a monster, I’ve started with Harry Potter. I haven’t reread these books in several years. (I know. It hurts me, too. There are just so many new books to read.) So this is my first time reading from my new illustrated versions. So. Fun. I am not a very visually oriented person, so I don’t normally worry much about pictures. But the experience of reading this story is enhanced so much by these amazing illustrations.

Of course, in children’s books, pictures are accepted and even expected, but it’s gotten me thinking about the use of visuals in speculative fiction. When the imagination is being stretched to visualize fictional creatures, never-before-seen worlds, and alien architecture, does it help the reader to see an artist’s depiction? I think my answer is yes, as long as it’s done carefully and I still get to use my own imagination.

One of my favorite examples of well-used illustration is in Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. Sprinkled throughout the books are fashion sketches, maps, and field drawings of creatures, all ostensibly made by one of the main characters. They’re lovely…and with such a detailed fantasy world, they help.

Tolkien was doing this sort of thing long before, when he included his own sketches from time to time in The Lord of the Rings. We don’t need these drawings to understand the action, but the visual glimpse into Tolkien’s imagination brings his descriptions to life.

Susanna Clark includes illustrations throughout Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. In this case, they aren’t particularly illuminating, but their old-fashioned style adds to the atmosphere of the book. It helps the narrative that this was written a very long time ago as a true history of England.

With all of this in mind, can I show you something that makes me happy? I recently had an artist create a couple of sketches of the plants and animals in TWIN. As it turns out, I’m probably not going to include them in the published version of the book for now. But I still want you to see my favorite ones. Because they’re too fun not to share.

gashi

montaje_yesela

 

I’m grinning right now. Because that gashi is so perfect, and the yesela’s eyes haunt me. I’ve been living on this world in my head for a while now. I can’t wait for you all to come and visit.

It’s still a few weeks before you can read TWIN, but if you want to visit the world that holds that story, check out UNA, available now on Amazon or for free on Smashwords. UNA is a collection of short stories that tells the history of the Maymar Colony, leading up to beginning of TWIN. It’s only available in ebook form for now, but that means you can download it now and start reading without delay!

debdunlevy

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Sentence

Cal had thought he was delivering good news, but Wyn’s face told a different story. He forced himself not to look away from her pain, as his mother had taught him, but all his reassuring words stuck in his throat.

Max spoke up. “It was the right call. Fair. Measured. Just.”

Not everyone agreed. The judges’ sentence didn’t go far enough for some. They clamored for imprisonment, for suffering. What they wanted was punishment, a natural desire. But punishment wouldn’t help the colony, wouldn’t heal the hurts done, wouldn’t prevent future problems. Punishment was waste. The Charter didn’t allow for waste.

Ny Lee’s sentence was consistent with his crime. He had valued his work and receiving credit for it above his sister’s life and above the good of the colony. As a result, the judges had ordered that he never work in his chosen field again. Since this deprived the colony of his skills, he would take over the job of an apprentice miner. He would serve the colony for the rest of his life by operating mine machinery, closely supervised by one of the judges in his case, while the apprentice he replaced was trained in astronomy. It was a similar sentence to the one Val had received for destroying the Ark, but though she had lost her job, she had been allowed to train her own replacement. Ny Lee would not be put in a position to influence anyone. Most likely, other than the psychologist assigned to meet with him weekly, he would hardly interact with anyone at all.

Wyn gestured with one hand. The doctors thought her damaged vocal chords would heal eventually, but for now, she had no voice. Max handed her a tablet, and she quickly typed, “Where live?”

“There’s a single unit that’s being refitted to have the necessary surveillance. The judges have given his psychologist the power to lift the surveillance in time, to give him more privacy if he shows improvement, but for now, he will be closely monitored.”

Wyn shuddered.

Max put a hand on her shoulder and fixed her with his piercing gaze.

She shook her head in answer to the question he didn’t ask. After a minute, she typed again. “Work. Family. Privacy. They took everything.”

“He tried to take everything from you,” Max growled.

Wyn shook her head again. Cal had never seen anyone look so confused and miserable.

“I know this is all so much to take in. You have as much time as you need to process it. If you have more questions or if there is anything you want, please just ask. At any time.”

She had closed her eyes, but now she opened them and typed a few more words. “Can I see him?”

He didn’t mean to, but Cal looked over at his uncle before he answered. “As governor, I won’t stop you. There is no official reason that you can’t visit. But as someone who cares about you, I would ask that you at least wait a while. I know Harm Griffin is meeting with you himself. Talk to him. And listen. He’ll help you decide if this would be a good decision for you or just cause more pain.”

“Best to cut it off clean and get it over with,” Max said.

Cal flinched at the pain that shot across Wyn’s face. He spent most of his time ignoring emotion, but there was no question in his mind that right now, their presence was hurting this woman more than it was helping.

“Uncle, it’s time to go.”

Max only listened to the governor when he wanted to, but Cal was grateful that today, he stood without arguing.

As he closed the door, Cal got a last glimpse of Wyn’s face. It haunted him all afternoon.

When his work was finished, he took a walk around the colony, giving himself time to breathe before heading home to dinner. It wasn’t an accident that Ny’s sentence had been announced on a family dinner day. Five days a week, the colony would gather to eat in the huge common dining hall. In addition to being logistically easier, eating together created a sense of community that was vital in their isolated position. On days like this, though, the larger group was a liability. Ny’s crime and the consequences for it were a milestone in their history. People needed time to process, and the quiet environment of dinner in smaller family units would provide that.

By the time Cal arrived at home, the dinner had been delivered from the kitchens, and Bree was setting it out on the table. He gave his oldest daughter a hug and kissed the top of her dark hair. She smiled up at him, a miniature version of her mother.

“They told us the news at school today.”

Cal nodded, waiting. She knew what he would want to know.

“I don’t think most of the kids really understand. They didn’t seem upset or excited or anything really. Just like it was something that happened.”

“What about you?”

Bree pursed her lips as she thought. Another inheritance from her mother. “It was fair. Right for the colony, which is what is important. But…”

Cal raised his eyebrows, inviting her to continue.

“I wonder what his sister feels.”

And there was her mother’s true gift. Compassion, empathy, and ability to cut straight to the heart of the matter. Bree was going to make a great doctor someday.

“You saw her?”

Cal nodded. “She is…in pain.”

A shadow fell over Bree’s face. “At first I wondered if she would want him to be punished more for hurting her. But then I thought, he’s her brother. She’s going to worry about him.”

Before Cal could answer, the front door burst open, and Tom and Cara tumbled, laughing, into the room. Jul was just behind. “Slow down, goofballs, before someone gets hurt. Go scrub your hands for dinner.”

The twins giggled again and headed for the bathroom.

Jul shook her head. “They are in rare form tonight.”

“Something at the nursery?”

“I don’t know yet. They barely said a word, just giggled all the way home.” She sighed. “At least someone is happy tonight.”

Cal wrapped his arms around his wife. “Maybe we should learn from them and just enjoy our dinner and a few hours together.”

“Can you do that?” she asked into his shoulder.

She knew him too well.

“Good leaders know how to rest,” he quoted his mother.

Jul looked up at him with exaggerated disbelief. Cal laughed for the first time in days.

“I can at least pretend,” he said.

“Me, too,” she said, resting her head on his chest again.

“Me, too,” said Bree.

Cal smiled into his wife’s hair.

“Me free!” said Cara from the bathroom door.

“Me free, too!” said Tom.

They were still laughing when they sat down to dinner.

Justice


“Any last words of advice?” Cal tried to keep his voice light, the words joking, but his mother saw through him.

“You don’t need advice,” she said. “No one can handle this better than you.”

“You handled it pretty well when it happened to you.”

“No,” Lil shook her head. “It wasn’t the same. Val made a lot of people angry, and angry people are a headache, but what Ny did will leave people afraid. Fear can change people in ways anger never could.”

“You’re not exactly reassuring me here.”

“You don’t need reassurance any more than you need advice.”

That was true. Cal knew what needed done, and he was ready to do it. The system was already in place for this, and he trusted it to see them through. He had planned exactly how to explain things, and there were contingency plans in place for unexpected problems. 

There were also five more minutes to get through before the meeting started, and he needed his mother to fill the silence. 

“I had a good talk with Jen today.” She knew him so well. “We were reminiscing about Val’s sentencing and how angry everyone was. She made an interesting point, I thought. Before Val burned the Ark, we followed the charter and voted in our judges, but no one ever gave it much thought. There was so much work to do. Everyone was focused on survival. The idea of crime seemed as far away as Earth. After a while, people started voting in the most useless person they knew, so that the useful people wouldn’t have the extra distraction of a judge’s work. Then when it came time to deal with Val, they were all yelling about how the judges weren’t competent and two of them were way too young, and…you’ve heard it all. Jen’s point was that after that, people took judge selection a lot more seriously. That’s put us in a good position today.”

“So you’re saying I should be thankful for Val?”

“Yes. And honestly, though she made my life hell at the time, this isn’t the first time I’ve had that thought.”

The door opened and a young man poked his head in. “We’re ready to take him in.”

Right on time. “Thank you, Carl. Kim.” He nodded as another man followed Carl into the room. The three of them crossed to the opposite door, which Cal unlocked with his own card. 

The storeroom had been cleared of its boxes of files and the pile of musical instruments that was its last occupant. A small cot was against the far wall, and a table with two chairs sat in the center of the room. Ny was in one of them, his back to the door.

“Come with us, please,” Kim said. There was a hard edge to his voice that Cal had never heard before.

Ny stood, and the two temporary guards flanked him as they followed Cal out of the room. 

The Gathering Hall was in the same building as the governor’s office, but Cal chose to take them outside and around to the main entrance. This was partially so that Ny could breathe fresh air and have a few minutes to stretch his legs and partially for Cal himself–he didn’t like to enter through a different door than the rest of the colony. It sent the wrong message. A small thing, maybe, but succeess and failure hinged on the small things. 

As planned, they were the last to arrive. Since the entire colony was in attendance, entering from the outside meant walking past hundreds of eyes as they made their way to the front. Cal felt his usual nerves increased by the weight of the situation. He couldn’t imagine what Ny was feeling, but he hoped those eyes meant something to the man. His actions had impacted every one of these people. He should feel the burden of that.

At the front, his mother took a seat in the front row next to her brother and Wyn’s daughter. The three current judges sat in seats facing the assembled colonists. Cal waited until the guards had escorted Ny to a fourth seat, set a little apart, before turning to address his people.

“Thank you all for coming, and special thanks to the apprentices assigned to stay with the children and those unable to leave the med center. This is being recorded so that everyone can hear for themselves all that is said today. Though it is always wonderful to see the entire colony together, the reason for today’s gathering is not a pleasant one. For the first time in our history, a member of our colony has intentionally harmed another.”

Most of the people in the room had come with no idea what the gathering was for. Cal watched as their faces registered a range of emotions. 

“I know that this comes as a shock to many. I know that you all share my sadness and even anger. We all depend on each other for our very survival. Putting the colony’s wellbeing over our own is one of the highest values of our society. The violation of that value cannot be taken lightly. The very possibility of such an act also naturally breeds fear. We will not give in to that emotion. I have full confidence that you all care deeply about this community and about each other. This is an isolated event, and together we will respond with truth and justice.”

Cal paused for just a moment. The room was deathly silent, all eyes fixed on his face. He was relieved to see more determination there than fear.

“The facts of the incident have been carefully investigated and are not in dispute. I will explain our findings as clearly as I am able. Those who have involvement in the case will be called upon to give their own witness. Nothing will be kept back or hidden. You all will know the verified facts, and we ask, as always, that you keep all discussion of this incident to those facts. Further speculation is not useful.”

Briefly, Cal told the story of Wyn’s attack. He saw confusion over the work dispute, shock and sorrow at the personal nature of the attack, relief as the gathering realized that Wyn was alive and stable, anger at the news that permanent damage had been done to her voice box and possibly to her cognitive function as well.

When he finished, he called on Max to give more detail about the nature of the motive. Dr. Nokes explained the medical evidence and confirmed Wyn’s current status. Harm Griffin, the chief psychologist, gave an account of his conversations with Ny, attempting as much as possible to use Ny’s own words to explain what he had done. Finally, Cal asked Ny directly about the attack. In a barely audible voice, the man confirmed everything. 

In the front row, Xi cried softly. The rest of the room was still.

“In accordance with the charter, our three judges will pass the final judgement and will determine the sentence to be given. We are aware that this case is the first of its kind and that all of you have a stake in true justice being accomplished. The charter is clear that everyone should be given an opportunity for input into the process. We will not do that tonight. Now that the facts have been presented, the judges will determine guilt. If anyone in the room objects to their determination, you will have an opportunity to voice that objection. Other thoughts should be saved for later. We all will require time to process the facts, to deal with our emotions, and to consider as objectively as possible the best course of action. The sentencing will take place one week from today.”

There was a stir in the room as people took in this new information. Cal waited for it to die down before continuing.

“Judges are excused from their usual duties until the sentencing, so that they can devote their energies to thought, discussion, and to listening to our colony. I have assigned a special admin to process any messages you may wish to pass along to them, and we will hold a voluntary gathering in three days for anyone who wishes to share their thoughts in person. That gathering will be recorded for those who cannot attend. Let me be clear: the judges will make the final decision in this case. Their decision will not be disputed after it is made. I will see to it that the sentencing is executed exactly as they instruct.” 

Cal looked around at his people, willing them to be their best selves. 

“I ask you all to remember that you elected these judges because you respect and trust them. In this critical moment, continue to treat them with respect and trust.”

Several people were nodding. Cal wished it were more. 

“This was an act of evil, and though we will do everything in our power to counter that evil, there is no action we can take that will erase it. We ask our judges to give us justice. We do not ask them to do the impossible.”

He waited while that sank in, letting the silence stretch out as long as it needed to. Then he turned to the judges and asked them for their ruling.

All three spoke together.

“Guilty.”

No one in the room had any objection.  

Motive

“Before I talk to him, why don’t you tell me what you know?” Cal handed his uncle a cup of tea, surprised by his own calm. 

Some of that was due to the message he had just recieved, of course. Wyn had arrived at the med center and was still breathing. The lab had already identified the poison in her blood. The antidote would be administered and was expected to work quickly. Unless there were complications, she would survive. Stilll, long-term damage was a possibility.

And there was a would-be murderer in the storeroom next door.

“You’ll know their history from their files,” Max rasped. He took a swallow of tea and sighed. When he went on, his voice was clearer. “They’re twins. Both geniuses in the field. They’ve always worked together by their own choice. Seemed more comfortable that way. They’re pretty quiet, Wyn even more than Ny. She can get worked up over a new discovery, but otherwise, she just watches and listens and lets her work speak for itself. Ny likes to explain things, a habit that annoys the hell out of most other scientists, but when it comes to personal matters, neither of them has much to say. If Jorg hadn’t come along, I don’t doubt the two of them would have lived in their childhood home forever. Still, Ny seemed happy for his sister when she married. He and Jorg used to play bocce every Friday night. When Jorg died, and Wyn was left alone with little Xi, Ny moved in and helped out. That was 13 years ago. Their parents passed last year, within a week of each other. It was a tough time, but I didn’t notice any trouble between the two of them.”

“You said you had idea what might have caused this.”

Max took another long drink of tea. “I’m getting there. Data only makes sense in context, boy.”

Cal thought of reminding his uncle that he was the colony’s governor, not an apprentice astrophysicist, but he knew the petulant urge would only contradict his point.

“About five weeks ago, Wyn came to me with something new. The two of them have focused their studies on Dua for most of their careers. I’ve encouraged it. Our job is to make sure we know enough to colonize off-world when the time comes, and Dua is the most likely first candidate. Makes sense for my best astronomers to study it. The delicate relationship between Una and Dua is another reason. The fact that these two came to orbit each other so closely without crashing is so statistically unlikely as to almost be labeled a miracle. If anything shifted, even a little, it would be the end of us all. I liked knowing brilliant minds were keeping an eye on that. Still, it’s a wide universe, so most of my team was on other projects, and we left Wyn and Ny to do their thing.”

“So she came to you with something new?” There was no questioning the sharpness of Uncle Max’s mind, but his sense of urgency had apparently disappeared with his waistline. 

“They’d been tracking weather patterns on Dua, and she had an interesting theory about its occasional windstorms. The atmosphere of Dua is thick, which keeps the sun’s heat trapped and the surface warmer than ours here on Una. The ocean is small, and there’s no other surface water we can find. That means some clouds, but likely not much rain. Mostly just near the edges of that ocean.”

“I’ve read the reports. That’s part of the reason we settled here instead of there.”

“Part of it, yes. What Ny and Wyn had discovered is that from time to time, wild windstorms sweep across the continent. Wyn had a theory about those storms. I’m not going to get into all the details–yes, I can see your impatience—but before you go in the next room, you should read the entire report.”

“Are the details relevant to this case?”

“I’m pretty sure you’ll find that Ny thinks they are.”

Cal made a note. 

“I told Wyn to go ahead and put together a team, pulling in meteorologists and geologists and whoever else she might need, to develop her theory. Then I sent off a message to Ny letting him know she’d have a special focus for a while, and he should continue their other Dua studies with Xi to help him. An hour later, he burst into my office, red in the face.”

“He didn’t like that plan.”

“More. He claimed that Wyn’s theories were actually his. Not just the theories. Every word in her report. He said it was outright plagiarism, that he’d been obsessed with this new project for a while, and that she only got on board later, and now she was stealing all the credit and the project along with it. I’ll admit the whole thing surprised me. They had collaborated on dozen of reports in the past, and also submitted reports individually, and nothing like this had ever come up.  But I looked into it. Scientists are territorial about their work in general, so we have a procedure in place for things like this, always bring in another Head to confirm our findings. I got Orn for this one. You can verify all of this with him. We asked Ny for proof that the report was originally his, but he had none to offer. Still, he kept insisting, and his emotion seemed genuine. We went through every file on every device from their team. If he had come up with those theories before, there was no record that he’d written them down. Meantime, Wyn seemed baffled. She freely admitted that the project was his in the beginning and that she had only come to share his obsession later, but she said the theory came to her without ever talking to him, and that she wrote the report entirely on her own. Xi could confirm that last part, as she had seen her mother at work. I didn’t find it hard to believe that Ny really had come up with the same theory, or even that he had thought of it in similar words, since the two of them were so tight. It seemed like a pretty simple case of two people having the same idea at roughly the same time. It happens more often than most people know.”

“So how did you resolve it?”

“Wyn offered to share the project with Ny, but I was worried about them neglecting all the other work to focus on this one obsession. I was also worried about Ny. His distress over not being believed was completely out of proportion. He seemed like someone who had pushed himself too far. I told him to take a week off and rest. Then he could come back and be a part of Wyn’s team, but he was to take a minor role that would still allow him to supervise Xi and the other projects. He was furious, but he took the week. When he came back, he seemed calm again. Now it seems like that might have just meant that he had a plan.”

“You really think that this one event was enough to make him want to kill his twin sister? His roommate and workmate of 42 years?”

Max shrugged. “Maybe it was just the tipping point. Maybe things had been bad for a while. No one knew their private life well enough to know, except maybe Xi.”

“I’ll be talking to her next.”

“Go easy. She’s a sensitive girl, and this is already been a terrible day.”

Cal just looked at his uncle until the old man waved an impatient hand.

“Okay, okay, I know. You’ve been doing this job for a while, and you’re damn good at it. But Jo treats that girl like a sister, and that means she’s another granddaughter to me, so I’m not apologizing.”

“I’m not going to interrogate her. Just learn about her life.”

“Well, that’s fine then. But don’t be surprised if you don’t learn much that helps. If I had to guess, I’d say no one knows what’s inside that man’s head.”

“He does.”

“Maybe. Ask your wife about the brain, though. It’s pretty good at deceiving itself.”

“His motives are only one factor in the decision of what’s to be done. We’ll be calling a gathering tonight to announce the trial, once I’m sure I have enough information to be accurate. Our three judges are nearly at the end of their term, and we’re going to deal with this while they’re still holding the office. They’re a level-headed group, and if I have to entrust a turning point in our colony’s history to anyone, I’d like it to be them.”

“Jer’s a friend from my nursery days. Smart man. He’ll help steer them right.”

“Sanj was Jul’s mentor. She’s capable and she knows how to stay calm. Kyr is young, but he’s the best long-term thinker I’ve seen in a while. They’ll get us through this.”

“Better you than me, boy. I think I screwed things up badly enough already.”

“Sounds like you did the best you could, actually. Doubt I could have done better.”

Max laughed, and the sudden burst of sound made Cal realize that his head was throbbing. “Sure you could have. You’re about to prove it.”

Cal hoped his uncle was right.

Murder


“They’re really something, aren’t they?”

The two four-year-olds were focused intently on the village they were building out of their toys, paying no attention to their grandmother who watched with a smile. Dark heads bent down, sturdy legs crouched, quietly working in and around each other. A stack of books for the greenhouse, blocks for houses, stuffed toys inside a makeshift fence to form a school. The little boy moved quickly, dropping a tower in the center, a cluster of flowers that disrupted the straight lines of sheds. His sister didn’t say a word as she rearranged roads and structures without complaint, building order around his chaos.

“I sometimes wonder where she got her patience from,” Cal said in answer.

“Who said she’s being patient?” Lil cocked an eyebrow at her son. “You don’t have to be forbearing with something if you don’t see it as a problem.”

Cal refrained from snorting and smiled instead. Who would have thought that the woman who carefully trained him to be ordered and disciplined would have no problem with a grandson who demonstrated none of those qualities? The privilege of being a grandmother, he supposed. She could just enjoy them without the responibility to raise them.

He didn’t begrudge her the chance to relax. She had led the colony as governor for decades, only officially stepping aside five years ago, and she still worked hard as his advisor. If she wanted to be indulgent of the children, it wouldn’t hurt them any. They had a father and mother to do the harder work of teaching them.

“You’re here early,” he said. “Did Jul call you?”

“I called her,” Lil answered. “I knew she had a lot of work at the clinic. They’re still trying to figure out what’s causing the rash among the school children. I thought she might want to go in early, let me get Bree off to school and stay home with the twins for a change.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“It’s hardly worth any gratitude. There’s no sacrifice when you’re getting to do what you love best.”

“Well, it’s a help to Jul and to me, too. I actually came back to see if she needed anything.”

Lil gave her son a look of pride. “That’s my boy,” she said. “Though of course, I realize you really learned that from your father.” A shadow crossed her face before she chased it away with a flick of her hand. “But run along now. I know you have a busy day, and I have things handled here.”

As if on cue, the tablet in Cal’s hands buzzed loudly. It took a second for him to realize that it was being echoed by the one sitting at Lil’s feet. They shared a quick look before scrambling  to swipe open the message.

Code red. SS-10. Murder. Come ASAP.

It took two seconds to read. Then Cal and Lil dropped their tablets in tandem.

“You go now,” Lil said. “I’ll drop the twins at the nursery and meet you there as soon as I can.”

Cal already had two pairs of shoes in hand. He gave them to his mother as he turned to go.

“Cal,” she called after him. “Don’t run. This is exactly the kind of moment when you should appear calm.”

Cal took her advice. He had learned long ago that her advice was always right. But walking with measured steps made his heart race even more. Murder? That couldn’t be right. The colony had been on Una for fifty years with no violent crimes. Interpersonal problems were always dealt with immediately and thoroughly. Everyone knew their survival depended on cooperation. The worse crime they’d dealt with in a decade was a case of petty theft, and that had been a couple of kids.

The space science work groups had offices in a rectangular building near the northwest gate, with quick access to the observatory that had been built in the hills outside the settlement. Cal’s uncle Max ruled supreme in that building, technically head astrophysicist but in reality a personal mentor to almost everyone who worked there. They were a reclusive bunch, eyes fixed upward on the sky or downward on their calculations more than side to side at their fellow colonists. Not that they didn’t work as hard for the good of the colony as everyone else. They just did it from their own ivory tower.

From the outside, the space science building looked normal. No one rushed in or out. Nothing seemed out of place.

Cal opened the front door onto the small open lobby. Photos of the universe covered the walls, and a few chairs were grouped around work tables, but otherwise the space was empty. A few of the larger offices were right off of this room, but Cal knew the hallway straight ahead would lead him to SS-10. Memorizing the layout of all of the colony’s buildings was easy when you made regular rounds. The governors of Wayland were known for being present among the people.

The hallway was quiet, most of the doors were shut to keep out distractions, or perhaps their occupants had been on duty at the observatory last night and were now at home sleeping. Only the door to SS-06 was open, and the man inside had huge headphones over his ears and his eyes shut as he drew something on his tablet. Under other circumstances, Cal would have been curious, but today, he was just glad that everyone here seemed to be unaware of the crisis. It was important to be clear on the facts before rumors and panic spread.

The door to SS-10 was half-shut, likely to keep away casual observers, and Cal pushed it open without hesitating. It was a sizeable office, but crowded with three work spaces. His uncle Max was standing in the center of the room, watching as a doctor leaned over a body that had been stretched out on one of the desks. From the look of things, the contents of the desk had been hastily dumped on the floor to make room.

“What happened?”

Max’s salt and pepper hair was standing up even more than usual but he answered calmly enough. “She collapsed over her morning coffee. I happened to come in to ask a question, so I called the clinic immediately. By the time Dr. Nokes arrived, she had stopped breathing.”

Cal stepped closer to the desk and took in the bloodless face of the woman lying there. He recognize her, and his memory supplied the rest from her file. Wyn Lee. Age 42. Astronomer. Widow. One child, now her apprentice.

“I’ve got her stabilized for now, but it was a close call,” the doctor said.

Cal’s breath caught. “She’s not dead?” He turned to his uncle. “Your message said…”

“Murder,” the old man growled. “Thank God we can change that to attempted murder.”

“How…?”

“He’s already admitted to poisoning her coffee,” Max said, jerking his head toward the corner behind Cal. Sitting on a chair wedged between a desk and the wall was a man.

Ah. Of course. Wyn Lee had a twin brother, Ny, also an astronomer. The two had been working together their whole lives.

“Why?”

“He’s not talking, but I’ve got a good idea. We can go over it all once we get out of here. Doc wants to take the girl back to the hospital, but I made her wait for you. This needs someone to be smart about it. I don’t want my whole group disrupted.”

Cal had the unaccountable urge to laugh, but he stifled it easily. “Your group? Uncle, this is going to disrupt the whole colony.”

“Well, it’s your job to take care of that, isn’t it?”

It was, and Cal believed in doing his job.

“Wyn needs the hospital. Gettting her back to health is our first priority. Doctor, do we have medics available to transport her?”

“I’ve already called them. They should be here any minute.”

“Great. When they come, we will tell them, and anyone who asks, the truth, that she collapsed over her coffee and that you were able to revive her, but nothing else. I’ll see to it that we get you samples of the coffee so that you know what toxins you’re working with. I’ll inform the lab tech who works with it that it was intentionally introduced poison. We don’t want to compromise the lab’s ability to be useful to her recovery. But leave that conversation to me, please. Everyone else only needs to know the necessary facts to care for the patient.”

Dr. Nokes nodded. She was a very practical woman. Cal would have preferred that Jul had answered this call, but Mol Nokes was a good second.

“We’ll need to take the coffee, including the cups, into evidence. Uncle, do you have anything here we can use to transport them safely without damaging the evidence?”

“I’ve some sample boxes borrowed from earth sciences. I’ll get you one of those.”

“Thank you. We’ll also need to seal off this room until we have a chance to investigate further. It’s a crime scene now.” The words sounded surreal to Cal, but both his uncle and the doctor nodded as if it was all very sensible.

“I can lock up when we go. Only these two and their apprentice have key cards.”

“The apprentice is her daughter, right? Where is she? She’ll need to be informed.”

“She’ll be at home sleeping. Spent the night at the observatory.”

“Is there anyone you trust to go wake her and take her to the hospital? She should see her mother, but not be told the details until you and I can do so in person.”

“I’ll send Jo,” Max said. “They’re friends.”

“We’ll interview Ny in my office. There is a room next door that can be used for detention.” It had only been used once before, and right now it was full of musical instruments that one of their master musicians had been inventing from local resources. Cal had been studying them in his free time. “Will he go quietly?”

“I think so,” Max answered.

“I can sedate him if you’re worried,” the doctor suggested.

“I’d rather not,” Cal answered.

“That won’t be necessary,” Max was growling again. “He’s not a stupid boy. He gave up the truth as soon as he saw that I was not going to believe it was an accident, and he knows there’s nowhere to run to.”

Cal nodded and turned for the first time to the suspect in question. “I’m not going to restrain you. You’re just going to walk between me and Max all the way to my office, and then you are going to sit in the chair I give you there. Are we clear?”

Ny nodded, his dark eyes blank.

Two medics rushed into the room. The doctor immediately began to instruct them on moving Wyn. Mercifully, they asked no further questions.

“Uncle, we’ll go as soon as we get that sample box.”

Max ducked out of the room. Cal could hear him saying something in the hallway, and then Lil entered.

“Max says you have everything under control.”

“She’s alive.”

“Thank the stars.”

“Talk more at the office?” she said with a significant look at the medics.

“Yes. Max will bring a sample box that we can use to take the most important evidence with us. Can you handle that?”

Lil nodded and followed him to the third desk which held two identical cups of synthetic coffee, each swirled with a white substance that was undoubtedly a milk substitute. The perfect symmetry was eery. Both cups nearly full. Both with a small smudge on one side showing where someone had taken a drink. A sort of horror came over Cal as he pictured brother and sister sitting down and drinking their twin coffees, while one waited for the other to die.

The medics were already leaving with Wyn carried on a stretcher between them. Dr. Nokes gave Cal a curt nod as she followed them out.

“I’m not sure if I’m ready for this,” he said in a low voice only his mother could hear.

“No one’s ever ready for this,” she answered.  “The universe never asks for permission.”

She was right. Luckily it didn’t matter what the universe wanted. It had been throwing curve balls at humankind since the beginning, and humankind just kept swinging until it figured out how to hit a home run. Or at least a good single. This would be no different.

Cal turned toward the would-be murderer and began to plan.

Consequences


They weren’t even really keeping it all that secure. The room was locked, but everyone on the biology teams had access. The ark itself was sealed with a passcode, but it was neither long nor complicated. It was the kind of security you used to keep people from accidentally stumbling onto something. Clearly, they didn’t think anyone would intentionally try to break in.

They were wrong.

Usually, Val despised people for being naive. Today, she was grateful. She took no pleasure in what she was about to do; it was a necessary evil, and the sooner it was over, the better.

The room had no outside windows, so as soon as the door shut behind her, Val activated the lights, blinking a little at the sudden brightness of the stark white room. 

There were three enormous bio-storage units against the far wall. Human genetic material was contained in the largest one. Most people chose natural reproduction, but the danger of genetic stagnation was very real in a small population, so the original colonists had planned carefully when they left Earth. Val herself had never married, and she had always figured she’d be coming here one day to make a withdrawal.

Not that they would allow that after tonight.

The other two units were what interested her today. The one that the colonists had called “Eden” contained seeds and other genetic samples from nearly all of Earth’s species of flora. The other, the Ark, contained the animal embryos and tissue samples. The ability to preserve, transport, reanimate, and breed from these samples was one of the advancements that had finally made deep-space colonization possible.

Val was about to undo 200 years of work.

She stood in front of the giant metal cylinders, hating herself and hating the ones who had made her come here even more.

Their final study on domesticating the native animals had shown that there was no way for reproduction to keep up with current levels of consumption. Some had tried to present this as a crisis for the colony, but of course, it wasn’t. It only meant that they needed to reduce consumption of animal products. There was an abundance of plant products which could make up the caloric difference, and Val herself had been part of a team that had created new dietary models which provided all the necessary nutrition for a healthy populace to survive and grow. It was somewhat lacking in variety, but that was likely only a temporary problem. After all, they still had only explored a tiny fragment of their new planet.

You start taking the meat away, though, and people get angry. Some old man mentions eating chicken as a child on the original spaceship, and suddenly there’s talk of breeding Earth chickens on Una. Talk of chickens leads to talk of fish, of pigs, of cattle even. 

They were all crazy. 

Una had a fully-formed ecosystem with well-developed species of flora and fauna. It was a miracle to find such a place in the universe, and its relative proximity to Earth made it even more miraculous. Even with their best conservation efforts, the colonists’ presence on the planet had already disrupted the delicate balance of their new ecosystem. If they began introducing other alien species, they risked destroying everything that was here. 

Humans had already decimated one planet; it was unthinkable to do that again. They had all promised that they wouldn’t. It was in their Charter. It was the reason Val’s grandmother had signed it.

Val had argued all of these things at the gathering. Some agreed with her, of course, but a surprising number of fools fought back. Finally, the governor had put an end to debates and set the vote for tomorrow. Lil had the right to override the vote, but she had given no indication of how she was leaning.

Val knew in that moment that she couldn’t leave it up to chance. If the animals were gone, so was the threat. 

A surge of anger spurred her into action. With her tablet to help run calculations, she only needed two minutes to find the right pass code and open the Ark. Inside, the control panel was equally easy to decipher. 

All in all, it took ten minutes to end half-a-million potential lives. 

Val stood her ground, staring at the numbers until the thawing cycle was complete. She imagined each and every species she had studied, remembering them from the photos and videos in the archives. Giraffes with their awkward but oddly beautiful bodies. Hawks that soared through the sky and swooped low to catch their prey. The huge grey one-horned monsters they called rhinoceros. When she was ten, she hung a picture of one of those brutes on her wall, only barely believing that it was real. Something twisted in Val’s gut, and she forced herself to feel it. Of course the destruction made her sick. She had devoted her career to life, not death.

She told herself that these animals still existed in the universe, some still on Earth, but all also being packaged up like these and shipped off to barren planets across the galaxy.  They would live on elsewhere. And now the pennifins and ipits of Una would also survive.

When she was certain the process couldn’t be reversed, Val closed the Ark. She hesitated for a moment before the container marked “Eden,” then turned away. No one had expressed any desire to seed Earth plants on Una, and one day they would fill this planet and take flight to colonize another. Better to have as many species of flora as possible for terraforming. Besides, there was only so much death Val could take in one night.

Instead, she turned off the lights and slipped out of the lab, not bothering to close the door behind her. She would go home, not because she wanted to escape being caught–she’d turn herself in tomorrow–but because she wanted to be surrounded by her plants. They always comforted her.

She had felt brave coming here tonight, the only person with the courage to make the hard choice. She didn’t feel like a savior now, though. She just felt the weariness of having done what needed to be done. 

She would go home, find her bed, sleep until the sun came up; and tomorrow, everything would be changed.

Survival


Val was bored, which always pissed her off.

She picked at the skin next to her thumbnail while the head of the zoology group droned on about the reproduction rates of apex predators and their prey. This was all stuff the previous generation had studied at length, but he “wanted to refresh their memories” as they began a new phase of breeding. 

Val didn’t need her memory refreshed. It didn’t go stale like some people’s apparently did. What she needed was to get back to her research. She was days away from being able to present her finding about twin cells. It was going to change the whole way they looked at their world.

A sudden silence made Val look up. Was he finally finished?

Then Yun, annoying as always, raised his hand. “One quick question…”

Val wanted to cut his tendons, but she put her agression into making her thumb bleed, instead. The drops of red welling up calmed her a little.

“We won’t take you away from your individual projects,” zoology was saying, “but we do ask that you provide sustainability estimates for the fodder we’ll need for domestic herds and be on hand for other questions as they arise.”

He could have asked for that in a message. Why were they all in a meeting?

“So this breeding project isn’t displacing the others?” Yun really liked to have things spelled out for him.

“It will for the zoology department but for botany, that won’t be necessary. We do ask prompt replies, though. The governor has made this a top priority. Our presence has already lowered herd counts, and we need to learn all that we can about sustainability in order to make the decision of whether it’s time to open the ark and begin seeding Earth animals onto Una.”

Val’s head snapped up. He had to be kidding. She had to have heard him wrong. One of the two of them had clearly taken a blow to the head.

“That can’t seriously be an option,” she said loudly.

“Nothing is decided yet, of course.” Zoology put on his best diplomatic face. “But it has always been one option, and a few people have begun to suggest that this might be the time.”

The way he said it made Val sure that he was one of the people arguing to open Pandora’s box.

“Is there ever a good time for xenocide?” Val didn’t believe in hiding agression from her superiors. Either they could deal with opposition, or they should give authority to someone who could.

“That’s not exactly a fair characterization…”

“You’re going to release birds into an ecosystem with no flying predators, and you don’t think that will decimate the insect population? Or were you thinking goats to wipe out the vegetation?”

“We would start much smaller…”

“Oh good, yes, let’s start with single-celled organisms that can infect the existing flora and fauna. Mass extinction is always a laugh.”

“Ms. Garrigio, this is not the time or the place for this discussion. We’re working on this project to hopefully prevent the necessity of opening the ark.”

“The second we even consider this, it’s time for the discussion. The charter clearly stipulates that our guiding principle will be to care for the world we colonize, including its preexisting flora and fauna.”

“That is one of our guiding principles. Another, more fundamental one, is that we all work for the good of the colony first and foremost.”

“It’s not in the best interest of the colony to murder entire populations of living beings.”

“That word is overly dramatic. It’s not in the best interest of the colony to starve.”

“Well,” said Zen brightly, springing to her feet, “this meeting got way off track. I don’t know about zoology, but the botany group has a lot of work to do. Shall we get back to it?”

Val was staring down zoology. (She suddenly remembered that his name was Bron, which just proved that his mother was as stupid as he was.) She wasn’t willing to let him off the hook yet. 

“Val,” Zen said, taking her arm. “We’ll take this up with the governor when we need to. It’s time to get back to work.”

Val liked Zen. She was a good group leader and a thoughtful scientist. A little too much of the politician, but if that motivated her to keep taking all the extra administrative work, that was fine by Val. Space knew, Val didn’t plan to do it.

She let herself be led away, ignoring Zen’s final assurances that they would get the necessary data over to zoology ASAP. 

“Thanks for making my job so exciting,” Zen said when the door shut behind them. “What would I do without you?”

“I’m not going to apologize,” Val said, though the stress lines around Zen’s eyes did soften her a little. “They can’t be seriously thinking about this, and if they are, we need to be saying a lot harder things than what I just said.”

Zen sighed. “You know I agree with you. Of course I do. But calling people murderers isn’t going to convince anyone.”

“I’m not trying to convince them. I’m trying to call them out, so they’ll feel enough shame to do the right thing.”

“The right thing isn’t always quite that simple.”

“It is in this case. The original colonists brought along the ark because they were planning to land on a planet with little to no life already in existence. Instead, we found this.” Val gestured at the tough grass beneath their feet, the neatly planted gashi with their thick spines and their glorious blooms, crimson in the autumn air. As if on cue, a pennifin fluttered by, its translucent wings sparkling. “We don’t need animals from earth. We probably haven’t even discovered all the ones that are on Una.”

“Probably, but we haven’t discovered any new ones in the last decade. The planet is sparsely populated, and in spite of our best efforts, our presence is lowering the populations of nearly every species we’ve found.”

“Right. Because we introduced an alien species. Which is exactly why we can’t introduce any more. You’ve seen the preliminary outlines of my research, Zen. This entire world is built on different building blocks than ours, and we barely understand it at all. We almost killed ourselves once because we didn’t see the twin effect, and we were so relieved to have solved that one little problem that we never looked deeper, never saw how vital those twin pairs are to the survival of every living thing on this planet. And yet they’re easily disrupted. They won’t survive the introduction of the kind of ferociously fecund life that thrived on Earth.”

“I know.” Zen stopped outside the door of the botany lab. “And when the time comes, I’ll stand up and argue that right along with you. But for now, we need to finish our research and to cooperate with theirs. That’s the way to convince people.”

“I’ll finish the research, no problem. The cooperation is up to you.”

“Fine,” Zen said. “I’ll do all the communicating with zoology. Just promise me you will let me do ALL the communicating. No more arguments.”

Val shrugged. “Done.” She wasn’t planning to leave her lab for the next week anyway. 

If finishing her research had been a minor obsession before, now she’d work on it like the whole world depended on it.

Most likely it did.