The Central Allied Worlds
Fifth generation since gaining spaceflight
Colony world Paskal
Third colonization ring
Kerin watched the visitors coming down the long hallway by way of the monitor strips in the ceiling. Not that she paid much attention with all the work she had to do in the growth lab today, but enough to feel annoyance at the intrusion of the military into her family's sanctuary. Why did they have to arrive now, when the bio-crystal had started showing signs of reacting beyond her father's hopes or projections? Maybe there were spies, despite her brothers' best anti-spy 'bot devices. Maybe, just like the rumors said, the authorities would confiscate every new development once crucial progress had been made, and hand them off to more loyal--meaning more easily controlled and intimidated--researchers?
"They're perfectly balanced between organic and mineral, neutrally charged and programmable to adapt to any tissue needs. The more advanced we become in our control of the growth process, the more delicately we can guide the uses of these crystals." Pride filled Dr. Nicorazon's voice as he lectured on his brainchild.
He gave the same lecture every quar when the military or other government representatives showed up. He gave the lecture whether the various officer and officials had returned, or there was someone new. There was no guarantee anyone would bother to remember what they had been taught the last time they intruded on the Nicorazon-Leto family's research, and every chance that someone would use the slightest change as justification for cancelling their funding, their research licenses, confiscate all their work, and other major and minor punishments.
"You will be seeing the latest generation," he continued as he led the military representatives into the central lab of the family compound.
The monitor bracelet on Kerin's wrist buzzed twice, in the simple code used when unwanted visitors showed up without warning and their scientist family had no time to check on the status of the various projects before dealing with them. She tapped the tiny screen on the bracelet twice, pause, twice more, signaling that all was well. The bio-crystal hadn't produced any new strange outgrowths or let off any new frequencies suspiciously like brainwaves. That was the goal after another ten generations of growing, programming, and tinkering: mimicry of Human brain activity, so crystal would augment the body's natural healing ability and bridge the gap where there was nerve damage, to give movement and feeling back to the paralyzed, hearing and sight to the deaf and blind.
She looked upward, in time to see her father step onto the edge of the clearsteel dome over the pit of the growth lab. What were her chances the visitors would content themselves with staying on the observation level today? Dr. Nicorazon's voice came through the speakers as he rested his hands protectively on the clear shell that provided the growth lab's outer defenses.
"The scanners must clear all of us for entrance." He smiled and gestured at the spectrum camera directly below him. Behind him, the lights dimmed and took on a faint bluish cast. Kerin went back to her work, satisfied that the lab's defenses hadn't been overridden by the military, and the sensors were checking for spying mechanisms, bacterial intrusion, and weapons. "The crystal is presently in the fourth stage," her father continued, the changing location of his voice indicating he was walking around the dome toward the short flight of stairs down to the growth lab, "transferring to the fifth stage of growth and testing. Thus far, our readings are well beyond our expectations."
"What happens in the fourth stage?" Colonel Areyzi asked.
Kerin flinched at the sound of his voice, and looked up to the monitors. His gaze roved, focusing everywhere and on everything in the room, except for the face of the man he spoke to. That was typical. Colonel Areyzi trusted no one, and scientists least of all. Kerin wanted sometimes to shake him and shout in his face until he listened--just because the Nicorazon-Leto family were scientists studying the Human body did not mean they supported the extremists who had begun to make themselves heard, advocating total control--legislated and mandatory--over the definition of what made someone Human, what gave them value. Bad enough that for the last two generations the government of the Central Allied Worlds required citizens to earn the right to reproduce, either through the contributions they made to society or their genetic perfection and inborn gifts. Her parents had brought her and her brothers up to believe in making full use of all the variations in the Human genetic spectrum, not culling and pruning and taking authority out of Fi'in's hands, to decide what was truly Human and what should and could be destroyed.
Then again, for all she knew, Colonel Areyzi secretly supported the extremists who clamored a little louder every year for genetic purity--always according to their definition, of course. It made sense he was so critical of her family and their research because they believed in celebrating the variety, no matter how useless and impure the extremists considered some Humans.
"We are designing them to gather and store energy in any form available, to support whatever healing functions we will program into them. That actually takes place in stage six. Stage five is where we halt their growth. If we don't do that, the crystal could conceivably take over the body of the host subject. And we certainly don't want that, do we?" Dr. Nicorazon smiled. The colonel and his associates laughed as if he had made a joke--albeit a difficult one.
Kerin turned back to her work. She was wasting time watching these intruders. It wasn't like they would even notice her when they came into the growth chamber and asked their impertinent, arrogant questions. The security screen lit up, indicating they were indeed coming in. Sighing, she put down her datapad and stylus and walked over to the controls for the security door. She waited several seconds after the screen read all clear on her father and their unwanted guests, before pressing the command code to open the door. She flicked her fingers over the monitor controls to turn them off--mustn't let the intruders know or even suspect their every word and expression and movement was recorded from the moment they came within one hundred meters of the family compound. Just in case there was trouble later, and her parents needed evidence to defend themselves. Then she went back to making notations as the growth monitor panel readings changed, calculating variances, how long they had lasted, and percentages of the change involved. The computers could do all that, but the computers couldn't be programmed to decide when something looked odd, to theorize implications when new patterns appeared, and notify her father that a decision had to be made.
Computers didn't have the autonomy to make decisions. After the last attempted coup, where a large portion of the military had been wiped out by the scientific branch of the government, using robot ships and weapons--and those advanced robots reprogrammed themselves with new parameters, allowing them to wipe out entire fleets and colonies--limitations on computer autonomy were mandatory. The ability to think in the service of Humans was one thing. The freedom to act on those electronic thoughts and pass judgment was forbidden.
"Kerin, how is this generation coming?" her father asked, coming in the door, pausing the required ten seconds for the decontamination rays to hit him. The pause also forced everyone behind him in the doorway to pause and be cleansed, whether they wanted to be or not.
"Clear and strong." She flicked her gaze at the unwanted visitors, then back to her work.
She also caught the slight nod of "all clear" from her father as he approached. Despite all the readings on the monitors and scanners, she preferred to trust his gut instinct. This was more a nuisance visit than preliminaries to shutting down their research or confiscating it for obscure, secretive military purposes--along with orders/threats to forget they had even theorized the scientific advances that had been stolen from them.
"All monitors read deep into the safety zones," she continued. "Nothing can go wrong unless forced to go wrong." Kerin spared a glance for the five military men who stayed by the door on the far side of the room, not following Colonel Areyzi and her father toward the containment field pit in the center of the room. They stand together like they think somebody is going to bite them. Briefly, she considered signaling one of her animals to attack, or at least growl or lift a leg on someone, when they inspected the barn later.
"Good work." He squeezed her shoulder. "Marcus should be done soon."
"Rex needs his exercise," she offered. Kerin needed to get outside and away from the lab, more than her favorite stallion needed an excuse to run in the clear, open air.
"You and your beasties." Dr. Nicorazon chuckled, then turned to face the military party again. "Colonel Areyzi, my youngest, Kerin. She personally supervises the care of the test animals."
"That makes seven boys and one girl, doesn't it, Doctor?" Colonel Areyzi's heartiness grated on Kerin's nerves. "Is this one as brilliant as the rest?"
"Kerin is still a student. Neither Dr. Leto nor I approve of pressuring or classifying any of our offspring." He stepped away, taking their attention off her, much to her relief, and led them towards the pit in the center of the room. A cloud of pale blue phosphorescence rose up out of it, almost touching the scintillating edge of the containment field. "If you will put on the goggles now, you will be able to see the crystal. Don't lean too closely, though. The containment field is strong enough to kill, and burn to ash whatever touches it."
"Why such a strong field?" a lieutenant wanted to know.
"Until the crystal is fully programmable and programmed, its energy fields are unstable. Conceivably, if the field were to come down, even for a fraction of a second, this whole building could go up like an old-style atomic blast, despite all the precautions we've taken."
The lieutenant did not look as impressed as Kerin would have wished. He straightened up and his eyes widened a little as he looked around, but she would have preferred some loss of color, a shudder, a step backwards. At best, he looked thoughtful. Was he thoughtful enough to get over the ingrained military confidence that could lead to stupid mistakes?
Kerin turned her back on the lot of them and concentrated on her work, making her ears deaf to their questions and her other senses oblivious to their presence. She had become very good at that, having learned to tune out her brothers' teasing and noise. She silently recited the dates and important names and events she needed to know for her next history test as she resumed her monitoring chores, and begged Fi'in to send these people away forever. Preferably marooned on some remote colony with a poisoned atmosphere, at the furthest edge of the fifth colonization ring.
"So, you're the baby of the family, huh?" The lieutenant stood too close behind her.
Kerin turned and found everyone else gone from the room. He seemed amiable enough, his hands stuffed into his pockets, lounging just close enough to a master control console to worry her for a second. She almost felt sorry for him, confined to a room with no chairs, and unreadable screens and dials. Almost. He wouldn't have stayed behind without orders, and probably an assignment to wheedle some information out of her, to compare with whatever her father told the colonel.
"Technically speaking." Kerin returned to her work. Did the colonel honestly think she was silly enough not to recognize the worn out routine of playing a handsome young man against the plain, awkward daughter to get information the parents withheld?
"Guess that was a bad start. Sorry. Um...how come you have seven brothers? Two offspring are the legal limit."
"Unless the parents have the wealth to support more, and the genetic rating and social contribution points to permit it. I believe at their last review, my parents' offspring limit was raised to fifteen."
"Yes." She noted a microscopic drop in the energy output on one monitor and calculated the new rate of descent. "It was only raised to ten."
"Only ten." He nodded, stepped away from her, and turned his attention to the wall next to him. Kerin wished him luck in deciphering the codes on the screens. "You're going to be a doctor like your parents?"
"Doctor, yes. Physical sciences, perhaps not." She looked over her shoulder for a moment, to see him walk toward the growth pit and squint into the depths as far as the containment field's brilliance would permit.
"This stuff really works, huh?"
"Depending on what you define as 'working'. We are only halfway to our ultimate goal. Perhaps five years away now. Two generations per year." Kerin noted another change and calculated the results. Stage four was only seconds away from completion.
"You really can replace damaged nerves and senses, that's what I mean."
"So far as--" Kerin turned, horrified and paralyzed when she saw him lower himself onto a ledge surrounding the pit. His hands hit the indentations that activated the pressure-sensitive controls hidden in the flat surface. Red warning lights flashed. "Get off!" she squeaked.
"What?" He sat back further on the ledge, hitting more controls.
"Get off that panel!" Her voice broke as she dashed across the room and yanked on his arm to get him to his feet. Every telltale had lit up in that lurid, purple-red Kile had chosen. "Emergency evacuation! Containment field going down," she blurted into the speaker link clipped to her collar. "Computer estimates two minutes until penetration probability. Attempting reversal." Then she cut the link and concentrated on the readings and the controls in front of her.
"What can I do?" the lieutenant asked, right in her ear, making her jerk and lose contact with the panel, as well as precious seconds.
"Just get out!" Kerin turned back to the panel, wishing her fingers would stay steady. She did not have time to see if he had done as she told him.
Reflected on all the monitors and walls, the light of the containment field wavered, darker and brighter in a strobe that grew faster with every pulse. A hissing erupted from the pit--sound, where the field should have blocked all sound, smell, heat, every form of energy but light. Despite herself, Kerin turned to look.
She never had a chance to take another breath, much less scream. White light blinded her, threw her backwards against the far wall next to the door. A thousand molecule-fine darts penetrated her body, turning her sterile white lab clothes red in the blink of an eye.
Slowly, Kerin slid down to the floor. She still had not drawn that breath. All senses faded and twined together into a star-shot blackness that swirled and tumbled around her.
...acid. Burning. Biting a shallow gouge in her thigh. Her brothers scrambling to hush her cries of pain and find the medic kit.
...spider webs. A huge spider web spread out through the darkness below her. It reached up, enfolding her. It spun through her, as if she had no substance at all.
...horses. Rex, the stallion, fought the treatment when they first injected the crystal into his severed spinal cord. He bit anyone who came near him. Except Kerin.
...teasing. Raolo telling her to give up trying to make her limp, straight hair into the mass of curls she so desperately wanted. Trae shoving sweets into her mouth when she protested him taking her book disks. Franq waving the test tube of acid over her head, to drive her out of the study lab. Evin dissecting her only doll. Danel puffing out his cheeks and vocally calculating every calorie she put into her mouth.
...pain. Agony that rippled along her severed nerves. Fire that turned her to ice. Whiteness that flared red, then blue-white, then shimmered into silver. Snowflakes turned to spider webs.
...color. The bronze of her mother's curls. The ebony of her father's richly waving hair. The dusty brown of her straight, skimpy locks. Green and blue eyes. Eyes of rich, loamy brown. The muddy hazel of her own eyes. Freckles and tans and the pale, winter-indoors white of her skin.
...horses. Rex learned to relax in the special harness that held him up in his stall. He ate from Kerin's hand and listened when she told him in a soft voice how happy he would be when he could run again. And when he kicked the back of the stall open with his hind legs after a stallfly landed on his rump, no one witnessed it but her. Kerin had wanted to keep the victory to herself. Just for a little while.
...spider webs. They spun all through her body, tying her together into something new. Remaking her. New sensations jangled along rewoven nerves. They buzzed and tingled, clanging like badly tuned chimes.
One by one, the chimes fell into tune. The spider web stopped thrumming, letting her sleep at last.
Like a series of switches being turned, her senses returned. Kerin could feel her body again. The heaviness of her limbs, the coarseness of sheets under and over her naked body, the faint sting of IV ports puncturing her skin, and monitor tabs clinging to her forehead, throat and chest. She heard the warbling gurgle of a hospital diagnostic screen in the air over her head. The sound was distinct, unique to only the best-equipped facilities. Her brother, Raolo, headed the one in their home district.
Her mouth tasted dusty, her tongue swollen, sticking to her teeth and the roof of her mouth. She smelled the antiseptic sting peculiar to hospitals in the air.
Kerin felt fine, except for the awful taste in her mouth. She felt fantastic, to be specific.
Light flooded her brain, and it took a moment to discover she had opened her eyes. Kerin had to think, like manually redirecting logic channels in an overloaded computer. Hard at first, but easier with each nanosecond that went by. She lay in a hospital bed with equipment attached all over her body, in a spacious, private room painted pale green like newly sprouted lily shoots. The bed sat next to a huge picture window, light streaming over her from a rainbow-streaked sunrise.
For a time, Kerin simply lay still and watched the colors change with every second as the day grew longer. She'd never seen light in quite that way before, shimmering, vibrating almost, each color moving at a different speed. The frequencies, the chimes more felt in her skin than heard with her ears, changed with the colors. Somehow, she could calculate waves per second, like the device Trae had made for a photographer friend. Not that any of it mattered. It was all so beautiful, and that was more than enough to satisfy and nourish her mind and soul after the blackness that had engulfed her.
The door opened on the far side of the room, too loudly, and she winced at the thunder that crashed through her head. Like a dial being turned, the volume decreased to an acceptable level. She turned her head in what felt like an eternity and saw her parents creeping through the doorway.
That's wrong, she decided, and immediately, they moved at a more normal speed. The strange beauty of the light altered as well, losing the rippling variety of colors.
"Kerin?" her mother whispered. The color drained from Dr. Leto's elegant face for a moment when their gazes met. Shock and relief pulsed in a bitter sweet odor from her body, and she hurried to grasp her daughter's hands.
How do I know she feels that? Since when do emotions have smells? Kerin tossed aside those questions as she marveled at the soft, agile strength in the hands holding hers.
"Momma, what happened?"
"She doesn't remember, Jase." Dr. Leto laughed shakily, reaching out to brush sweaty strands of hair out of her daughter's face. "I do believe you hair is curling, kitten."
"My hair doesn't curl. But what happened?"
"You don't remember any of Colonel Areyzi's visit?" her father asked, looking up as he brought chairs over next to her bed. Dr. Nicorazon gave off a wave of concern that put a bitter taste in Kerin's mouth.
"I remember that idiot lieutenant activated the control panel on the ledge, then sat on it and scrambled everything."
"That's what happened? Areyzi has been trying to blame it on a malfunction or an error in my calculations. After twenty repetitions, I'm going to make an error?" He snorted.
"You never make errors, Poppa. But what about the lieutenant? He should have told you what happened."
"He...was hurt too, Kerin." He shared a look with his wife, a conversation that lasted a mere second. Kerin ignored it, caught up in her own concerns. "What else do you remember?"
"Trying to bring the field back on line, and seeing it wavering...and pain. Like being stabbed with a million needles all at once."
"Then why are you asking what happened?" Her mother straightened the sheet over her.
"Everything in the lab should have vaporized. I shouldn't be here. What happened?"
"The data we salvaged shows the critical point passed only seconds before the field died. The crystal shattered when the air touched it, but was otherwise nucleonically stable."
"I was hit with crystal?" Kerin felt something tighten in her chest as her father nodded slowly. "Did you get it all out?"
Silence. The flood of feelings from both of her parents came so strongly to her, so interwoven and tangled, she could not sort any of it out.
"Did you get it?"
"We couldn't find any, sweetheart." Dr. Leto shrugged, smiling crookedly. She fussed with the edge of the sheet, tucking it in under Kerin's arm.
"You don't have a mark on you, even though you were covered with blood." The puzzlement in her father's voice would have been laughable, but Kerin could not find enough air to breathe, much less waste on laughing.
Sunset. Kerin stood with her nose a centimeter of space from the dura-glass window, her hands pressed hard against the cold hardness of the sill. She felt chilled, although climate controls supposedly kept the room at the perfect heat and humidity for her needs. She had to laugh when she thought of that--no one quite had any idea what her needs were.
She hated seeing the sunlight slowly fading away. Especially now, when she could see it--no, not see, but experience with all her senses--in so many ways. A prickling sensation ran over her skin as a cloud passed before the setting sun, blocking what little light remained. Not fear. Not regret. But something of both, mixed with anticipation.
She had never cared about sunsets before, always too busy with her books and animals; busy proving herself just as brilliant as her parents and brothers.
Kerin ran her hands over her arms, glad the red splotches from the wires, tabs and tubes had left so quickly. Did she imagine it, or had she lost some weight in her arms? They certainly felt thinner, firmer. She could not be sure of anything right then. Not with everyone so busy with tests they had no time to talk with her. In the morning, if nothing changed during the night, the doctors had promised she could go home. She would be safe at home. Her parents could fix anything. Maybe that was why she felt such trembling joy at the thought of sunrise.
The floor buzzed under her feet. Muted voices called in controlled alarm. Kerin listened, straining to hear. Her ears seemed to pop after a moment, like coming down the mountainside too quickly to adjust to the altitude. Then she could hear and understand everything being said with perfect clarity, although a thick ceiling-floor lay between her and the emergency in the room below. The words made no sense.
Or did they? Without meaning to, she recalled the summer Raolo had strained his eyes building a reflector dish for one of his scholarship experiments. He had nearly blinded himself, and spent a lunar with bandages over his eyes. She had read his year's textbooks to him to help him prepare for his fourth term medical exams.
Every word of those texts came clearly to her now, and she knew the exact nature and needs of the emergency occurring below her feet. A doctor ordered pendreseen when Kerin knew cortrasell worked better. Faster. The patient needed speed. Why did the doctor not see that? Kerin knew she had to tell him. She moved to the door, the floor cold under her bare feet. Until she decided not to feel the cold.
Kerin paused with her hand almost touching the sensor field for the door. She was going to help? How, with no training beyond those books? But she knew the doctor had made a mistake. She stepped into the sensor field, the door slid open, and she started down the hall. No one saw her, no computer voice asked her what she was doing out of her room, nothing and no one stopped her.
Until she came face to face with a...thing...that lay in an isolation room at the end of the corridor. She had to pass by it to turn the corner to the elevator tube. All the polarization had been turned off, letting light in and out of the room, so the vaguely man-shaped thing lay visible, enclosed behind four unbreakable transparent panels. Kerin instinctively knew what it was, but acceptance took time to sink in fully.
Once, it had been the stupid lieutenant who had sat on the control panel and released the containment field.
Now, he appeared more mineral than flesh. The thing gleamed under the soft, synthe-sun lights, like diamonds. Rainbow diamonds, the colors moving up and down the spectrum, infra-red to ultra-violet, showing the density of the mineral growth, where the energy collected in the greatest concentration, where it moved the quickest. Kerin did not wonder how she knew to interpret the colors or even how she could see the ordinarily invisible ranges. More important things demanded her attention right then.
Terror and instantaneous understanding rose up in a tidal wave through her mind, then fled again a fraction of a second before she could grasp them. The lieutenant had been hit with crystal, like her. Why was he not whole? Or more important, why had she not become like him? Something was wrong, but with her, or with him?
The surface of the thing lay in crags and spikes, a fantastical alien city of angles and planes. It reminded Kerin of crystal experiments she had performed in introductory geology lessons.
The thing moved. A sound trickled from it, from the mineral formations that had replaced the mouth and vocal cords of the man it had been. The vibrations moved in the lower inaudible ranges, yet sounded like the frightened whimper of a puppy to Kerin's ears. She moved closer to the isolation chamber, pressing her hands against the clear panel. Something vibrated all through her body, responding to the sound. She felt sorrow, and pity.
A crackling moved across the spiny surface. It became energy Kerin felt all through her body, invisible and inaudible. Terror washed up and over her, paralyzing her. The energy reached out to her, tried to draw her in.
"No," she whispered. "Not me. Not now."
Resistant energy flowed along her skin, breaking the sensation of drawing, pulling, suction that came from the thing in the bed. Kerin pushed the other force away, conquered it, and the energy flowing out of her enveloped and dissipated the other. There was a sensation in the air of shattering something, like a balloon of the finest, thinnest crystal, turning to dust and blowing away with a thin, high shriek she felt in the roots of her teeth. She felt, somehow, she had scolded it. Like she would scold a messy puppy that refused to be trained. Though it never moved, the thing in the bed gave off an impression of cowering before her, reaching out a tentative thread of its essence in submission. When she hesitated, the submissiveness shifted to hunger. It wanted to pull her closer, wrap around her, pull itself up out of the darkness and fear and confusion. Merge with her.
Revolted, she turned away. The essence followed, pleading. A temper she had never known flared up and she snapped back at it. The thing recoiled.
As she fled down the hall to her own room, Kerin sensed the thing shuddering. Violently. The alarms on all the life-support systems went off at once as it went into convulsions. She saw it all, inside her mind, and there was no way to close her eyes or turn off the connection. Its crystalline surface shattered, spraying the room with needles of icy sharpness, penetrating the material of the unbreakable walls as if they were paper.
Kerin fled, her feet hardly touching the floor as she raced into her room and leaped into her bed. She huddled under the covers as footsteps raced towards the isolation room from all directions. She had not felt so horrified and guilty since as a six-year-old she had yielded to her brothers' teasing and stayed up to watch a marathon of monster vids on the planetwide entertainment broadcast station.
This time, however, the monster was real.
She cried slowly. Silently. Crystalline dust filled her tears, chiming as they fell.