Priscilla Hutchins has been through many experiences.
This is the story of her first unforgettable adventure…
Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins has finally realized her lifelong dream: She’s completed a nerve-bending qualification flight for a pilot’s license.
Her timing is far from optimal, however. Faster-than-light travel has only recently become a reality, and the World Space Authority is still learning how to manage long-range missions safely. To make matters worse, efforts to prepare two planets for colonization are killing off native life-forms, outraging people on Earth.
So there’s not a lot of demand for space pilots. Priscilla thinks her career may be over before it has begun. But her ambition won’t be denied, and soon she is on the bridge of an interstellar ship, working for the corporation that is responsible for the terraforming.
Her working conditions include bomb threats, sabotage, clashes with her employers—and a mission to a world, adrift between the stars, that harbors a life-form unlike anything humanity has ever seen. Ultimately, she will be part of a life-and-death struggle that will test both her capabilities and her character...
Union Space Station (“The Wheel”)
Priscilla was sitting in the Skyview, enjoying a grilled cheese, her notebook propped up on the table. But she wasn’t reading. The room-length portal had, as usual, stolen her attention. She was looking down at the Asian coast. Clusters of lights, like distant stars, sparkled in the night. Shanghai was down there somewhere, and Singapore and Calcutta.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said a familiar voice. She looked up. Leon Carlson, one of the engineers, was smiling at her. “Mind if I join you?”
“Sure.” She glanced at the chair on the opposite side of the table, moved her notebook out of his way, and he sat down. “It’s good to see you again, Leon.”
The smiled widened. “And you, Priscilla. How’s the training going? You do your qualification flight yet?”
“No, I’m still a few months away.”
“You must be looking forward to it.”
“More or less. Actually, it’s a little unnerving.”
“You’ll do fine.” He glanced out at the lights. “I’ve never been able to get used to it.”
“Me neither.” He was tall and blond with blue eyes. And he looked pretty good. She took another bite out of her sandwich while he ordered. “How long have you been up here, Leon?” she asked.
“Two years. I’m getting near the end of my assignment. They’ll be sending me back down to Toronto in a few weeks.”
She was sorry to hear it. “That’s home?”
“Yes. I—” His eyes locked on something behind her. He frowned, and a shadow crossed his face.
He shook his head. “No.”
She looked around. Three people were being seated at a table. A trim, formal-looking woman, and two guys, one middle-aged and overweight, the other tall, gray, and bent, with a neatly trimmed beard.
“Who are they?” she asked, keeping her voice down.
He hesitated. “The guy with the beard is one of those Kosmik yo-yos. He’s going out to Selika to help with killing everything off.”
“Oh.” She turned back to him. “You mean the terraforming operation.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. I was working on the Sydney Thompson yesterday. Getting it ready for the flight. There are seven of them going. I assume the other two are also part of the operation.”
“I get the impression you don’t approve of what they’re doing.”
“Priscilla, when they’re finished turning the atmosphere over, they’ll have killed everything on the planet.” His voice was getting loud. “They talk about creating a special place for us, but they’re taking down an entire world to do it.”
Priscilla didn’t like the idea very much either. But the experts were saying that Selika would be an ideal place for a colony. For a second Earth. The world was still undergoing severe problems with climate, global population was pushing its limits, and fanatics with bioweapons continued to leave a lot of people with a desire to retreat to somewhere else. Kosmik was denying the charges, insisting that the kill-off simply wasn’t happening, but adding that even if it was, it would be a price well worth paying for a backup world.
A staring contest developed between Leon and the two men. “But that’s okay,” Leon said, getting still louder. “As long as we have a place to hang out. That’s all that matters, right? If we have to butcher a lot of stuff, well, those things happen—”
She heard a chair move. (The chairs, of course were magnetized, to prevent their floating off the deck.) The fat guy had stood up. He was holding on to the table, but his eyes had narrowed, and he was showing teeth. He was bigger than she’d realized. A linebacker type.
“Don’t,” she told Leon, who was also getting to his feet. “Sit down.”
He ignored her. “You got a problem?” he asked the fat man.
The restaurant was about half-full, but they had everyone’s attention. The host was watching them nervously.
“You idiot,” said the fat man. “Years from now, people will be thanking us for what we’re doing.” He was standing his ground, challenging Leon to act. Or sit back down.
Priscilla got up. Her inclination was to put both hands on Leon’s chest to restrain him, but she’d have had to let go of the table to do that, not a good tactic in a near- zero-gee environment. “Please stop,” she said, speaking to both.
The host hurried over and assured everyone, including the two potential combatants, that everything was all right and he hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to call security.
Leon and the fat man continued to glare. The woman at the other table said something, the man with the gray beard reached over, grabbed the fat man’s sleeve, and tugged him back into his seat. Some of the tension dissipated, and Leon also dropped back into his chair.
“The problem,” Leon said to her, still making no effort to keep his voice down, “is that people don’t know what’s going on.” He reached for her notebook. “May I borrow this?”
“Sure,” she said. “But go easy, okay?”
He brought up a forest scene. Trees were shrunken and desiccated. “This is Selika,” he said. And they weren’t really trees. Never had been. Not in the way Priscilla thought of trees. They were rather, or had been, an odd combination of animal and vegetable, large animated plants that had spread their leafy tendrils toward the sun when they were not swaying gently in the shifting winds. They weren’t beautiful in the manner of a pine or a eucalyptus. They were a bit too unsettling for that. In fact, although she didn’t like to admit it even to herself, they made her hair stand on end.
“They’re not dangerous,” Leon said. “There aren’t any flytraps on Selika. Or pitcher plants or anything like that. As far as we know, there’s no carnivorous vegetation of any kind.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. But they were spooky all the same. She’d seen them before, of course. As virtuals. Their sheer animation was enough to rattle her.
“You should see Selika from orbit,” Leon continued. “The vegetation has all turned gray. It used to be a lush, green place. Now what they have would make you sick. The skies, when we first went there, were filled with bags and birds and capos. They’re now almost empty. Like the forest.”
She heard a struggle beginning behind her. And a woman’s frustrated voice: “For God’s sake, Bernie, sit.”
Then a male: “Let’s just get out of here.” Priscilla resisted the impulse to turn around.
Leon, of course, was watching them. “They’re leaving,” he said.
But there was a final round: The fat man, Bernie, took a step in their direction. “How the hell do you know anything, moron?” he said. “You ever been there? Or do you just watch HV?”
Leon stayed in his seat this time. “I’ve been there,” he said. “I built your operational center. Which I will regret for the rest of my life.”
Bernie’s companions marched him away and left the host looking both annoyed and relieved. As they went out the door, two guys arrived and began talking with one of the waiters. Presumably security.
The host joined the conference, but they took it outside.
“You know,” said Leon. “There were warnings. Kosmik knew in advance this would probably happen. There are several people doing research on an alternate method. But the corporates don’t want to wait.”
Priscilla nodded. “Too much money involved, I guess.”
“Yeah. We wouldn’t want Kosmik to lose its investment.”
“So why is it happening? What’s killing everything, do you know?”
“I’m not an expert, Priscilla. But, as I understand it, if you screw around with the atmosphere, change the oxygen-nitrogen balance even a little, you can expect consequences. They hired a lot of experts to explain how there’d be no problem, that the life-forms would be just fine.” He couldn’t restrain the bitterness. “And I helped them.”
“What about the colonists? I wouldn’t think they’ll want to live in a place where everything’s gone.”
“Hell,” he said, “they probably wouldn’t have liked the native life anyhow. They’ll bring their own German shepherds and house cats and oak trees and sycamores and hedges and never know the difference.”
I couldn’t help thinking about all those old science-fiction stories from the early years of the space age. There were always aliens showing up who wanted to kill everybody and take over the world. Turns out maybe, we are the aliens
—June 17, 2195
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