Kim and the Mantas
by Barton Paul Levenson
Kim surfaced like a mermaid–upright, bent back slightly, arms at her sides and hands out, as if she stood above the water on a tail. The illusion broke as she dropped back and turned over to swim back to shore.
It was dawn, the orange sun hanging low over the horizon, but the water was already warm. The sky was purple-blue and cloudless except where the sun rose.
Kim reached the shallows, stood up, and waded to the stony “beach.” She removed her wetsuit’s hood, shaking out her neck-length auburn hair. She peeled off the rest of the suit, leaving herself in a very brief bikini–and a respirator. The air on New Cymru (SSDB 11358 II) was still only 0.27% oxygen.
Elena stood a few yards away, her camera hovering over one shoulder like a levitating candy bar. The blonde reporter had gotten up early. She wore her usual impeccable skirt suit, and the tiny, mostly transparent respirator that let the camera see her face. “This is Elena Efimova Yarovskiy, 5:52 AM local time, at the beach which has been named, rather whimsically, Coney Island. I’m here with Kim Lijang, the official UFN marine biologist here on New Cymru.”
The only biologist here on New Cymru, Kim thought.
“Doctor Lijang, did you find out anything new from your all-night stint?”
“Um, actually, I’ve only been here since 2:15.”
“Delta delta sentences minus two. Doctor Lijang, did you find out anything new from your early-morning stint?”
“I made some observations, took some samples.” She patted the tube pack on her waist. “I can’t draw any conclusions yet.”
“Doctor, would you care to give our audience an overview of what you’re seeing here on New Cymru as far as the biology goes?” She began to walk backward as Kim, wetsuit items gathered into their carrying bag, walked forward.
Kim headed toward the base camp. Twice, her bare feet slid on the black rocks lining the beach, as she failed to see a patch of dark purple cyanobacteria. “Well, evolutionarily speaking, this is a ‘young’ world, even though its age is greater than that of Earth. The ecology is similar to Earth during the Cambrian Period.” She saw Elena about to ask, and hastily added, “Half a billion years ago.” She had learned not to say things like 543 plus-or-minus 0.3 to 488.3 plus-or-minus 1.7 MY BP to the media. “There’s only a very thin ozone layer so far, so the land is mostly lifeless except in tidal zones. But there’s extensive fauna and flora underwater.”
“And it’s these strange creatures that you’re studying?”
Kim almost rolled her eyes, but suppressed it before it could be caught on camera. “Yes, Elena, those are the ones I’m studying.”
Kim’s phone gave off a Pachelbel’s Canon in D ringtone just as Elena’s gave off a snatch of Sarina’s All for Love. Kim snatched her phone out of her bikini pocket and thumbed the button. “Lijang. What’s up?”
Rajiv Ramachandra’s face appeared on the tiny window. “Yo, Kim, Elena. We’ve got company. Literally.”
Oh, crap, Kim thought. She began to run.
The three of them sat in the small command module of Falcon’s Eye–tall Rajiv on the left, the ship’s pilot and planetologist; mid-sized biologist Kim in the middle; short reporter Elena on the right. “Where?” Kim said.
Rajiv moved the mouse pointer over the map on the forward view screen. “Not too far. About two klicks down the coast, near those tidal inlets.”
“Well, I guess they want to talk to you.”
“Have they said anything?”
“Standard warning about the landing, gave us the flight plan and so on. All by the book as far as traffic rules go.”
“Is this satellite vid we’re looking at?” The map looked photographic to Kim.
“Can we zoom? Real-time?”
“Yeah, I think J3’s in position.” Rajiv typed a few commands. The map shifted a bit right. Then the ground seemed to grow. A legend at the lower right said 125x, then 250x, and kept doubling. At 2,000x they saw the new arrival.
“Oh, crap,” Kim said. “Freeze.”
The new ship was huge–at least 200 meters. It was wide, too, and disk-shaped in the middle, as if a flying saucer had merged with an airliner. The Newer Earths logo was plainly visible–a cornucopia labeled NE spilling out habitable planets, blue with white cloud swirls, green with white cloud swirls, and many other colors. “Not exactly inconspicuous.”
“Why should they hide anything?” Rajiv asked. “It’s legal for them to be here.”
“Sure it’s legal, it’s always legal. They have a great legal staff. But they’re terraformers. What are they doing on a life-bearing planet?”
Rajiv shrugged. Elena said, “Doctor Lijang, are you suspicious of the intentions of the newly-landed Newer Earths, Incorporated, starship?”
Kim turned to her. “Are you still in reporter mode?”
Elena blushed. “Sorry.” She reached for her camera and clicked it off; put it in her pocket. “Seriously, what’s wrong with NE?”
“They terraform planets, right? Instant colony space?”
“Well, yes, although I think it actually takes years.”
“Instant in geological time. They’ve done about what, 200, 300 planets?”
“I think so. Something like that.”
“I’ve heard two or three of those planets weren’t actually lifeless.”
For a moment Elena looked shocked. Then she composed herself. “Do you have evidence of that?”
“No. Just a rumor in the bio community, plus a certain distrust of immense, powerful corporations operating out of the reach of law enforcement.”
“Oh, well, you can’t condemn people based on suspicion.”
“I don’t intend to. I do intend to be very, very careful with these folks, and I strongly urge you two to do the same.” She told Rajiv, “Don’t call them. Let them call us.”
Kim took a shower, then put on sweats and took her Pad to the library. She lay back in a massage chair, but didn’t turn it on. She needed to calm down before confronting the corporate–Corporate bastards, was that what you were going to say? You raving socialist, you.
She shook her head. She lifted her Pad, brought up Nomura Saburo’s A Spy in the Halo, and found her place.
Rajiv sauntered in. “Hey, Kim, how’s every little thing?”
“Right as rain,” she said.
He took the chair next to her. “Nervous?”
Kim ran a hand through her hair. “Yeah, a bit.”
“I know a great way to relax.”
He put a hand on hers. “Come to my room with me? If you want to.”
Kim sighed. Rajiv was pleasant, handsome, and clean.
“No,” she said. “Thank you. I appreciate your asking, but no.”
He removed his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“No reason to be. I wasn’t offended.”
“May I ask why? I know it’s none of my business, but I’d like to know.”
She sighed again. “I’m in mourning for a family member. I won’t want to get involved with anybody for a long time, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No problem. I’m dealing.” She went back to her book.
Kim had been raised by new evangelical Christian parents–four of them, a group marriage. Kim herself had been devout, serious, very concerned to act ethically and do the right thing.
When the Earth-Sharchee war started Kim declared herself a pacifist and joined the Movement to End the War. The official abbreviation was MovE-WAR, but media cartoonists made it MEW and did endless drawings of kittens. Kim wrote letters, gave speeches, joined protest rallies, went on marches.
She even engaged in civil disobedience. At a research base developing chemical weapons to use on Sharchee soldiers, she chained herself to a gate for the twenty-five minutes it took for security to show up and laser-cut the locks. They didn’t even bother to jail her, just threw her off the base. So many people were protesting that it wasn’t worth pursuing every one. One guard even asked for her phone number.
Then–the raid on Charlotte. That the Sharchee could reach Earth itself with a raiding party had shocked the world. Granted, the vastly outnumbered expedition was doomed from the start, but it achieved its goal. As the Sharchee communiqué put it, “You now know we can strike you any time we wish.” A warning, accompanied by a demonstration of “firepower and frightfulness.”
A tactical success–but an epic strategic error. The pacifist movement evaporated overnight. Earth’s angry electorate voted No Confidence in the Ndebele administration, with its carefully planned long-term military campaign. Instead, they voted in the crazies, in the form of the National Scientific Labor Party and its candidate, Dr. Horst Schumann. Earth doubled its Gross World Product in less than two years, turning out starship after starship and weapon after weapon, culminating in the horrific bombardment of Yoys Sharcha which finally ended the war.
Kim had given up her pacifism, her opposition to the war, and her belief in God on the same day–the day a soldier-caste Sharchee kicked in the metal door of Civilian Shelter #16 at 7151 Thermal Avenue, Charlotte, North Carolina. The towering, vulture-like creature emptied the clip of its weapon into the mass of shocked, screaming humans gathered on their blankets and sleeping bags. Then it threw down the empty gun and waded in, killing with hands, feet, and beak.
Kim’s husband Chou died with one kick to the jaw that broke his neck and almost ripped his head off. A punch to the chest took out her twelve-year-old daughter, Rachel. As the alien swung at Kim, who held year-old baby Michael in her arms, Kim backpedaled, and the blow only stunned (she thought) Michael. She ran for the communal kitchen, put the baby on a counter, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and swung with all her might at the alien soldier.
The alien was hunched over to keep his head under the ceiling, hands down low to reach the smaller humans. Kim’s swing got him right in the side of the head. He went down, momentarily stunned. Then the kitchen workers attacked, throwing everything from knives to pots of boiling soup at the alien. Sharchee soldiers were incredibly tough. But several dozen enraged humans, including the survivors from the main room, were enough to beat, stomp, stab, and burn him to death.
UFN soldiers arrived minutes too late. The death toll in the shelter was 52. Medics took Kim and Michael to the hospital.
An hour later, a doctor sat down with Kim in the waiting room. “He’s alive,” he said. “But only technically. His higher brain functions . . . . There’s nothing we can do. He’s never going to wake up.”
Kim had cried in the doctor’s arms. The man had rocked and patted her for a while. Then he went on talking.
“We’ve got a crisis. The city is burning, the hospitals are packed, and… well… there are, you know, other injured, um, infants. I understand you’re a Christian. Would you permit us to… donate Michael’s… organs… to save other children’s lives?”
As if in a dream, Kim signed the doctor’s pad. She never saw her son again. He was officially listed as death #53 in the attack on the shelter.
Shortly afterward, her older brothers, Pete and Tyrrel, went down with the Winged Victory over Alpha Myrmetidae III. She had never been that close to the boys, who had wanted little to do with their younger sisters growing up. In any event she was still numb from the murder of her husband and children.
Then she received word that her sister, Helen, had been killed in action. She had been close to Helen. Best friends, two minority Christians standing together against the atheist and neo-pagan majority of their classmates. They had written poetry together, giggled together over made-up stories about mean teachers, sighed together over cute pop stars. Kim loved Helen more than anyone else on Earth. And Helen loved her back.
Kim had felt dazed for weeks. When she came out of the numbness it was to rage–rage at the sudden ruin of her life, at the meaninglessness of events, at a God who seemed to have abandoned her. She went on a month-long binge of drinking, drugs, and sex with anyone who was interested, male or female.
Then she had started imagining Helen’s face on her female lovers. It paralyzed her. One girlfriend after another dumped her over her inability to complete love-making, coupled with her unwillingness to explain why.
Her parents found her passed out in an alley after an all-night drinking binge. They dragged her to a rehab, where she sat for six months, thinking.
In the end, rather than pursue whatever was going on in her head to bring the weird images up, she had turned her back on the whole problem. She had gone back to school, intending to become a scientist like her sister. Helen had been an astronomer, and it was only by incredible bad luck that her lonely work for the Cosmic Survey had run into Sharchee fighters fleeing a lost battle.
Kim wound up in marine biology. Despite the resurrected sharks and killer whales that once again peopled Earth’s oceans, despite the myriad other dangers, she loved the world beneath the waves. She saw it as peaceful. She loved the dark and the quiet.
She had been celibate for ten years.
Kim’s phone rang, startling her out of her reverie. “Lijang,” she said.
The other person’s face looked pleasant enough. Good-looking, too. White guy, black hair, her age or a bit older. “Doctor Lijang?” he said. “I’m Mark Preston, with Newer Earths?”
“What can I do for you, Mister Preston?”
“Well, I’m a biologist myself, and I thought we might get together to discuss the local ecology.”
“To what purpose?”
He shook his head, seemingly unprepared for the question. “Just . . . to confer with a colleague. You’re the expert on this life-system, and I’d like to know what you’ve found out here so far. Don’t want to reinvent the wheel, you know how it is.”
“And I would get what out of this?”
His mouth opened slightly. She had surprised him again. “Doctor Lijang, I just thought you might want to compare notes with a colleague. If I’m imposing I’m sorry. I . . . I have to say I wasn’t quite, um, I didn’t quite realize you were so . . . . Oh, damn.” He looked flustered. “I’m sensing a little hostility here. I’m not clear on how I could have offended you. Is this a bad time to call?”
She began to feel a little guilty, but didn’t express it–this was no time to show weakness. “Doctor Preston, I don’t know you, but I do know a bit about your company. As what you just called the expert on this life-system, I feel a little protective toward it. You know how it is.”
He nodded slowly. “Those news stories about Newer Earths terraforming life-bearing planets. Is that what this is about?”
“Do you deny it?”
His face grew in the screen. Probably he had leaned forward. “Doctor Lijang, I don’t know. I can tell you it never happened with any system I worked with. I’d also like you to know, just FYI, that I try to conduct myself as an ethical person. Even if I do work for a giant, evil corporation.” He receded again, arms crossed. “So I’ll ask you just once more and then I’ll assume you don’t want to be bothered and I’ll leave you alone. Do you have any interest at all in talking to a fellow biologist? Just say yes or no and I’ll be on my way.”
Now she definitely felt guilty. The guy was a scientist, not a sinister corporate agent. He reminded her of her colleagues on Earth and elsewhere.
She took a deep breath. “Yeah, all right. Sorry if I came on a bit hard-ass there. We’ve got three–” Damn it, don’t reveal information! “We’ve got a small expedition here, and to suddenly have a humongous corporate research station drop out of the sky next to us is a little unsettling.”
He seemed to relax, and nodded. “Okay. I guess I can see it from your point of view. Sorry if I got a little self-righteous myself.” He smiled.
Out of nowhere, she suddenly pictured kissing him. Restrain those old hormones, girl.
“Where can we meet?” Dr. Preston asked.
In the Falcon’s Eye? No, she wanted to reveal as little about the expedition as possible. In the corporate ship? No way! If her fears were justified, she’d be out of sight–vulnerable.
Better to meet out in the open, in good weather–where the satellites could record whatever happened. “Why don’t we meet out at the beach? I can introduce you to some of the wildlife.” She told him the coordinates.
The guy grinned and suddenly looked much younger. “That’d be great! When’s a good time for you?”
“I go out early, but I’ll bring my Pad and wait for you. Is six, local clock too early?”
“Twenty-four hour scale?”
“Bingo. Though the planet actually rotates in 27 hours.”
“You got it! Thanks very much, Doctor Lijang. I really appreciate this.”
The day was clear and bright, despite the purple sky. With the planet’s thin atmosphere, the sky was always dark. Kim waited with her hand in the water, resting on sand and pebbles. She tried to keep it motionless. On her palm lay a single uprooted puffer hydra, a pink, quarter-inch animal which resembled nothing so much as the head of a brush.
A dark shape several inches across glided over her hand to snatch the puffer. Kim closed her hand on it and stood up fast. “There we go. The highest life-form on the planet.” She opened her hand to show Mark the mini-manta.
With the water draining from her hand, the animal began flapping its “wings,” trying to get back to the sea. Kim flipped it over once, to demonstrate the light-colored underbelly. Then she knelt and put her hand under the water again. The little creature wriggled off and flapped away. “What do you think?” she asked.
“Well, I assume it’s a predator.”
“Predator or scavenger by opportunity. Anything smaller than it is. It’s actually not much like an Earthly manta ray except for the shape. Real mantas are filter feeders; this one just scoops up prey and chews it.” She wondered whether to mention the trick she had accidentally taught the mantas; decided not to for now.
“The colors are almost perfect for concealment–dark above, light below,” Mark said. “But in the shallows, you can’t miss that dark back. I assume it’s usually found further out?”
“Very good. Yes. A few of them get washed closer to the shore by the tides from time to time. Morning is the best time to find strays.”
“The rest are mostly what, anemone-like? Like that little one you fed to Big Mama?”
“A lot of them are filter-feeders with tentacles, yes. There are also worms, crawly things with legs, some weirder things. I’ve done a bit of area sampling, and I’m getting a trophic ratio of thirty to one.”
“What’s it on Earth, ten to one?”
“More or less.” The trophic ratio was the mean ratio of prey to predators at a given level of the food chain. The creatures at the top usually had the smallest biomass; those at the bottom the greatest.
“Would you say that makes it a more primitive ecosystem than on Earth?”
Kim frowned. It was a peculiar question from a biologist. “The difference between thirty to one and ten to one for such totally different ecosystems doesn’t tell you much, I don’t think. Too many factors, too big a standard deviation.”
“Hmm, I’ll have to look for something else.”
Kim frowned. What did he mean? “What are you looking for?”
“Well, I’ve got a theory about this place–not just this place, a theory in general. I believe very early multicelled organisms on Earth may have lacked immune systems. When big animals were new, I’ll bet it took time for them to be parasitized, and with lower threat, there would be less selection for the body’s chemistry to deal with such things.”
Kim saw some possible objections to that theory–like the development of cellular symbiosis a billion years before the Cambrian–but no one knew for sure. “Could be.”
“New Cymru is an ideal place to test such a thing. This place is in something like Earth’s Cambrian Period. It came out of a global glaciation less than 100 million years ago, and these–” He gestured toward the water. “–are probably the first macroorganisms on the planet.”
Kim’s suspicions boiled up again. “Why is a terraforming company interested in life-bearing planets in the first place? Don’t tell me pure research. Why this pure research? Don’t you guys want lifeless planets?”
He smiled. “Terraforming a planet involves introducing life-forms into its atmosphere and onto its surface. If we introduce an ecosystem onto a planet, and then something happens to kill it, we’d lose a fifteen-quintillion-dollar contract.”
“What would kill it?” she asked. “An asteroid impact?”
“Or the introduction of a virus.”
“Introduction… who would…”
“Think about it. Who has the most to gain from killing a terraforming project?”
Kim thought. “Another terraforming company.”
“Good grief. Does that kind of thing happen?”
“Not officially, but we have our suspicions about certain cases.”
The man had the same goals she did when it came to politics, or at least ecology–protecting ecosystems. She felt a little ashamed for mistrusting him.
“What’s your sampling policy?” he asked.
“Whatever you like. This is just one location.”
“Thanks!” He took sample cases out of his clothing. “I’ll just start with one of those manta things, and maybe a couple of the anemones.”
Kim found the dying mini-manta less than a week later. The creature had beached itself and lay on the pebbles, panting, its delicate pink gills fluttering rhythmically. “What’s wrong with you, boy?” She picked it up, examined it carefully. “Make that, girl.”
Elena the reporter was with her that morning. “Is that unusual, Doctor Lijang?”
Kim shrugged. “No way to know. Maybe this one is old, or diseased, or wounded. Seems too weak to get back in the water. I’ll take it back to the lab and see what I can see, but I doubt we’ll see this again. I haven’t seen it happen before, but for all I know, it happens all the time.”
She put the sickly mini-manta in a shallow tank filled with a good synthetic analog of the local seawater. A visual survey with magnification showed no wounds aside from scrapes presumably made by the beach pebbles. It hadn’t been attacked by another animal, at least not recently.
Kim had estimated the lifespan of the species at perhaps six Earth years. This one was about two, so the problem wasn’t senescence, either. That left disease.
“You’re a sick fishy, huh, girl?” She stroked the little creature’s back with a finger. It shuddered. At first Kim thought it was wriggling happily, which most of the mini-mantas did when petted, but then she saw the creature’s gills had stopped moving. “Oh, crap.”
It was dead. “Delta delta notes,” she told the ship’s AI. “Animal deceased at 11:35 AM local time. Beginning necropsy.” She already wore polymer surgical gloves which reached past her elbows. She took the mini-manta out of the tank and pinned it to a necropsy board. “Observation: There is yellowish foam amounting to perhaps half a cubic centimeter exuding from the animal’s mouth. I have not seen this in a living specimen.”
She put on what looked like a shiny-blue armored glove over her right hand–a dissecting assembly. She extended a scalpel blade and got to work.
Elena burst into the lab.
“Hey, stay back!” Kim said.
“Kim, they’re all dying!”
She turned. The reporter held a handful of limp mini-mantas. “Can you help them?”
The woman’s distress was palpable. Kim tried to be helpful. “Elena, I’m not a veterinarian. If you want, you can try returning them to the water.”
“What is it? Some disease?”
“Probably. An epidemic, perhaps. I have to get back to work on this, Elena.”
“I understand.” The reporter spotted the seawater tank. “Can I use that?”
Kim sighed. “Surely.”
Elena dumped her handful of creatures into the tank, picked it up, and raced outside with it.
The three of them met in the lounge later. “Did you find out anything about the manta rays?” Elena asked.
“Well, they’re not rays. But yes. It’s definitely an infection. The insides of the one I dissected were black, and normally they’re pinkish–I think I was seeing system-wide necrosis. I’ve got samples going through the machinery now for micro analysis.” Kim slapped her knees. “But enough about me. How are things going for you guys?”
“Well, I’ve got all my reports up to yesterday fired off to Ceti,” Elena said. “I wish I could broadcast live! But that costs so much. The grahzniy bratchniy at Network wouldn’t let me do that for anything less than a major, breaking-news headliner.”
“I’ve got news,” Rajiv said. “And it’s not good.”
“Newer Earths is playing games with us. Five other ships have landed–all over the horizon, pretty far from here, in different places.”
“Huh? How could that happen? Wouldn’t the satellites have spotted them?”
“The satellites are mostly here to look at the ground, not to intercept landers. NE calculated the blind spots and went in when nothing was looking.” He added, “I re-missioned Jay 3, 4 and 5 to keep observing us and the area around us–to make sure there’s a record.”
“Let’s make like Elena and fire off a report to Ceti. This is illegal.”
“Nnnnn, no,” Rajiv said. “It is not, technically, illegal. There is no law against their merely being here. But…”
“Those ships are huge. Two klicks across, the size of small asteroids, though less massive. Those are factories, not research ships. TEs.” Terraforming Engines.
Kim stood up. “Now that is illegal!”
“Again,” Rajiv said. “Hoshiyar rehiyay.” ‘Be careful’ in Hindi. “We don’t know yet that they’re doing anything. Don’t fall for post hoc ergo propter hoc. For all we know this is a natural epidemic among the mantas. And if it’s just the mantas, it’s probably not Newer Earths dicking around with the ecology.”
Kim got up.
“Where are you going?”
“To see if it’s just the mantas.”
The first thing she tried was the trick. She put her (respirator-covered) face in the water and called out, “Tik! Tik! Tik!”
It was the sound of a big shelled animal, a kind of seagoing snail, rolling against the beach pebbles. The snails only did well in deep water; a snail rolling in the pebbles was a snail trapped by the tides in an environment it couldn’t cope with.
To a mini-manta, that meant easy prey. They’d come swarming, and fight over the snail if one was present. The sound was easy to imitate, and Kim had had great fun showing Elena and Rajiv that she could get the mini-mantas to swarm.
She tried it for several minutes. A few struggling mantas showed up, all with yellow bubbles oozing from their mouths. No great tide of them. Of course, it was no longer morning.
She stood up, taking a deep breath. This was the important part. She waded out far enough to check the creatures anchored to the rocks.
The anemone- and shellfish-like animals were also dying.
I’ve got a theory… very early multicelled organisms… may have lacked immune systems.
“You bastard. You fucking genocidal bastard.” Kim corrected herself–these weren’t intelligent beings, so it wasn’t, technically speaking, genocide. Ecocide, maybe. She took out her phone. “Rajiv, connect me with Mark Preston of Newer Earths.”
“Uh huh?” The corporate scientist sounded sleepy.
“What made you think you could get away with it?”
“Did I wake you up, Doctor Preston? Are you having trouble understanding me?”
“Uh, wait, what’s this all about?”
“What are you doing to the animals?”
“Hold on here, I gotta get myself together.” Silence for a few seconds. “Good morning, Doctor Lijang. Now, I’m not sure what you’re on about, so could you please be very clear what you’re asking? Because I haven’t got a clue.”
“What. Are you doing. To the animals?”
He took a deep breath. “Some of them I’m observing. I took blood from some, and started cytological analysis. I killed a few so I could perform necropsies. You must realize there’s nothing unethical about that. We do these things. You’ve done it yourself, I’m sure.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I . . .” She realized suddenly he thought the subject was the animals he had taken specimens of, the animals in his own lab. “Doctor Preston, I’m talking about the native ecology of New Cymru. What is Newer Earths doing to alter it that’s killing all the native life-forms?”
“You heard me.”
“What’s happening to the native life-forms?”
“You honestly don’t know?”
“I do not know. Doctor Lijang, this is a research ship, not a terraforming engine. We don’t have the capacity to alter much of anything.”
“And I suppose you don’t know about the other five ships from Newer Earth that have landed, all of which are TEs? About two kilometers in size? Newer Earths logo plastered on their sides?”
“Oh my God,” he said. “What’s happening to the animals?”
“Systemic necrosis, across species lines. Everything’s dying.”
“When did it start?”
“Earlier today. Possibly last night.”
“I’ll meet you at that beach in twenty minutes. No, make it ten. I can eat breakfast later.”
She waited in the shallows as Mark came jogging up. “Show me,” he said.
She stooped into the water, detached a dead pseudo-anemone from the rock, and handed it to him. The creature’s pink tentacle-mouths drooped limply. A little yellow foam came from most of them.
Mark stared at it. “What did this?”
“That’s what I want you to tell me.”
“We’ll have to do a necropsy… cytological examination…”
“I’ve already necropsied a manta. Systemic necrosis, I said. Waiting for the AI to come back with cytology.” She faced him with hands on her thighs, trying not to ball them into fists. “Tell me you didn’t know about this.”
He looked up at her. “I will find out what’s behind this. I should have been consulted. At the very least, I should have been informed. But they went behind my back. They knew how I’d react.” He dropped the dead anemone and balled his hands into fists. “I will stop this.”
“You know what happens to whistle-blowers. Firing will be the very least of it.”
“I’ll do whatever I have to, Kim.” He hesitated. “Listen to me. This is important.” He waded up to her.
He pulled a slim object out of a pocket. Her eyes turned to follow it. The one in his other hand, the one she hadn’t seen because the first had distracted her, went off with a small PAF! A pressure injector. She felt the pinch in her thigh.
She woke up feeling cold, then realized she was cold because she was wet. She was, in fact, still in her wetsuit and respirator, and still outside, looking up at the sky. But she lay on something hard and awkward. “What the hell?” She tried to roll off whatever it was and got brought up short. Something had snagged her wetsuit. No–much of it had been torn from her body and was held tight by something under the water. She had scrapes all over, not very bloody because of the constant washing with seawater. Had she been rolling through the shallows?
Her view looked peculiar. She realized it was because most of her faceplate had been smashed away.
She looked around wildly. She was in a narrow tidal inlet, on a barely submerged boulder. High rock walls rose into the sky on either side. She knew this place; it wasn’t far from where Falcon’s Eye had landed. A kilometer or two.
She tugged at her wetsuit. The tough polymer was well caught, and she couldn’t rip it free. Okay, I just need to get this off. She tried to slip out of it and found she couldn’t lift her legs high enough, because her left flipper was also caught. No problem, I’ll slip out of that.
She couldn’t. Normally the flippers came off easily, but not today. “What the fuck? What is this, screw Kim day?”
“I’m not that kind of person, Kim,” came another voice. “Not while you were unconscious, for God’s sake.”
She looked around. By turning her head as far as she could to the right, she could see Mark standing in the water behind her. “Get me out of this.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry, Kim. I really am.”
“What do you think you’re doing? What kind of stupid super-villain stunt is this?”
“Surely you can figure it out? This inlet is so narrow, the tide rises more than three meters. When it hits high tide in an hour or so, you’ll be under the waterline.”
The chill she felt wasn’t just from the water. “The samples are still in the ship. Drowning me won’t eliminate them.”
“The samples will be useless by the time the ship reaches Ceti, and you won’t be there to testify.” He shrugged. “I’m a biologist, not a secret agent. Maybe I was over-elaborate. I’m trying to plan for everything, and I have no experience.”
“No experience at torture and murder? Boy, you’re a great colleague, Mark. What a role model for your students to look up to.” She added, “Why not just shoot me?”
“Because there will be an investigation. There will be an autopsy. It has to look like an accident. You’re a scientist, Kim, a fearless adventurer who goes to uninhabitable planets to study weird life-forms. You’re the sort who might look for clues almost anywhere, especially with some kind of terrible plague hitting the life-forms you’re studying. Taking this kind of risk wouldn’t be out of character for you.
“Or you might have felt suicidal. Look what’s happened to your life. Your husband and children are dead. Your brothers and sister are dead. You went on a sex and drugs spree that only ended when your parents dragged you to a rehab. Perhaps with the subjects of your study dying all around you, you couldn’t take it anymore. You wouldn’t commit suicide–not directly–but you might take stupid risks, figuring your life isn’t all that valuable anyway.”
Her jaw dropped. She felt it and closed her mouth again. The man had researched her thoroughly. “Mark, why are you doing this? This is a whole new life system! How you can you destroy it?”
He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Look, I don’t like doing this kind of thing. Sure, in an abstract sense, all these little mantas and things have a right to live. But so does humanity, and the wonderfully varied life-forms of Earth–much more highly-developed life-forms than these. For God’s sake, Kim, humanity’s already been in two interstellar wars! We need to expand, if only for self-defense. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t like. You think I like wiping these things out? Me, a trained biologist? I’m not a monster, Kim.”
“I imagine most monsters don’t think they are.”
Kim said nothing.
“If you don’t want to talk to me, I understand. You have every reason to resent me at this point.”
She couldn’t call Rajiv–her phone was gone. She was unarmed. Mark might be trained in martial arts, and she wasn’t. In any case, she couldn’t get loose from the rocks.
Was the water higher yet, or was she imagining it?
“Drowning . . . hurts,” she said.
He looked away. “Oh, no. It’s not that bad, really. One of the easiest ways to die. I know that choking sensation is pretty scary, but it doesn’t last long. Then you just blank out. I wouldn’t worry about it. You’ve got plenty of time to pray about your soul, if you’re into that kind of thing.”
No. Helen was the faithful one. I’m the one who gave up on God. Helen had died trying to protect the Sharchee soldier who had captured her. Typical Helen.
She looked up at the sky. Couldn’t see the K-type sun, but there were white clouds above.
No way to get help. No way to communicate. No one could see what was happening. No one can see me. Not even God. No one . . .
God. God’s-eye point of view. What did that make her think of?
She cleared her throat. “How long was I unconscious?”
“Overnight. I had to wait for high tide before reviving you. Also, it takes time for the drug to break down in your system. You know, so it wouldn’t show up on autopsy.”
Overnight! Rajiv had to be frantic.
Overnight meant it was morning.
Morning is the best time to find strays.
She put her face in the water, creating a little air bubble with the rim of the faceplate, now that the plastic was gone. “Tik. Tik. Tik.”
“What’s this? What are you doing?”
“Tik. Tik. Tik.” If all the mini-mantas were dead, this was futile. But this was a different part of the beach, and what’s more, a different part of the water–a tidal inlet. It piled up a lot of water, including water from little pools that spent most of their time as tidal ponds–disconnected from the rest of the water. If the disease or poison or whatever it was hadn’t spread everywhere yet… “Tik. Tik. Tik.”
They hadn’t come last time, not in any numbers. Probably they wouldn’t come this time. She was wasting her last few minutes of life. She sat up, breathing heavily.
“Would you mind explaining what that was all about?”
Was there a black line coming in from the ocean? Was there? Or was she imagining it? Oh please, oh please, oh please…
She put her face back in the water. “Tik. Tik. Tik.”
She wasn’t imagining it. Mini-mantas swam toward her. They swarmed around her legs and past her. Many trailed yellow bubbles from their mouths, already sick, but they were still alive and swimming, following their instincts. She grinned as she heard Mark gasp.
“Oh,” he said after a moment. “Oh, okay. I’m being swarmed by five-centimeter fish. Was this your plan? Are they going to nibble me to death?”
“Yes,” she said. Of course it wasn’t–the mini-mantas were harmless to something human-sized.
“What, you just wanted to annoy me? That’s your revenge?”
“Yes,” she said.
The mantas flapped and jumped and swam in the water. She thought some of them looked lively enough. Maybe the plague wasn’t 100% effective. If she could get specifics to them in time . . . . And to the rest of the animals? No, this was going to be a mass extinction event whatever she did. But some life would survive–if Newer Earths could be kept away from the planet.
Big splashes. Mark wading toward her. “You’ve got something planned, and I don’t like it. You’re not a stupid person, Doctor Lijang. You wouldn’t engage in a stupid stunt like this for petty reasons. I want to know why you did this.” He grabbed her right ear and twisted it, hard. Kim screamed. “Talk to me, please. I don’t like doing this, but I will if I have to.”
A roar overhead, darkness descending. Falcon’s Eye hovered in mid-air. Elena stood in the open airlock, microphone in hand, a camera hovering near her head. She spoke loudly to be heard over the ship’s fans. “This is Elena Efimova Yarovskiy, 7:38 AM local time, at Coney Island Beach! This is a LIVE TRANSMISSION of HEADLINE, BREAKING NEWS! I’m watching Dr. Mark Preston, a biologist with the terraforming corporation, Newer Earths, torturing Doctor Kim Lijang, the official UFN marine biologist here on New Cymru!”
Mark didn’t bother trying to talk his way out. He let go of Kim’s ear and ran inland, splashing through the shallows. Kim said, “Get me out of here! I’m stuck!”
Elena stood aside. Rajiv rappelled down from the airlock with a carbon composite knife in one hand. He cut off Kim’s wetsuit and her flipper and helped her grasp the rope. “Come on,” he said, clutching her tightly as the line reeled back in.
“Thanks for saving me.”
“Not at all. The trick with the mantas was very good thinking, Kim. J4 picked it up right away, and we knew where you had to be. Only overhead a fraction of a second, you know, and the angle was poor, but there was no mistaking that sudden darkening.”
“We have to get to Ceti right away.”
“I’d love to go after that Preston person.”
Kim grinned fiendishly. “No need. That tidal inlet’s a dead end. Unless he’s the best swimmer on God’s green Earth–or off it–he’s going to have a hell of a time getting out of there.”
Barton Paul Levenson is an American writer of science fiction, fantasy and the macabre. He is a long-standing member of one of Pittsburgh’s oldest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshops. Read more about him at his Wikipedia page.