by Margaret Karmazin
“We are not adventurers,” announces Captain Lee Weber as if he has read my mind. (I had never imagined that we are.) “We are desperate and pathetic beings who have raped and pillaged our world and now slink off to see what we can make a mess of next.”
I like the captain very much. He is a mixture of raw, biting humor and demented brilliance. He excites me sexually, in fact, but it’s doubtful that I’ll ever get to act on my interest since he has been paired to Anna Player, with Malina Covas as his Second. I’m paired with Peter Ovaska and Sandy Erin as my Second. Very little chance of anything happening with Lee.
The Captain does not approve of what we’re doing and neither do I, but he was selected for his role and as all of us know, we have little choice in the matter. The powers that be have presented the need for what we are doing in such a way that is it difficult to refuse. Either we go or the human race will die. End of story.
“You’ve been through the drill,” Lee says. “A few minutes after we take our places in the ship, we may be standing in a pristine world. Or, we may be blown to smithereens. We might arrive safely only to discover that what we thought was an unoccupied Eden is in truth run by human-devouring aliens who hide underground. Or something. I warn you of this since we’ve sent twenty probes and heard back from only four. Just because a probe finds no sentient life where it maneuvers, obviously does not rule it out in other areas.” He pauses. “So I would advise you to stuff down that last piece of chocolate and enjoy your last favorite beverage before departure. If you believe in God, now is the time to tie up loose ends there too.”
Our planet is fast becoming inhospitable to life as we know it. Air thick with smog and sparser of oxygen, water morphing into a carcinogenic soup, a tenth of known fauna species remaining, the human population a fifth of what it once was…and all of this our own doing. We have known for decades, yet kept on squandering resources, kept on polluting. Every day, groups leave, desperately shooting off to other dimensions or unexplored planets.
I leave no one behind. My mother died from heavy metal poisoning, my father of asthma and general lung obstruction, my fifteen year old brother of melanoma.
Sandy Erin, my second, interrupts my reverie. He is, as his name implies, sandy of coloring, freckled, but quite good-looking. Six feet tall, wide shouldered, turquoise eyes. Yet, for all his beauty, he does not thrill me as does the Captain with his swarthy, pointy face and wiry body. “I just want to say,” begins Sandy, “that I have enjoyed very much knowing you. Just in case we—”
I stuff another butter cream into my mouth. “Better to live fast and wild, n’est-ce pas?” Mean of me to be short with him, but he irritates me just being his nicey-nice self. I hope I never have to mate with him.
“I suppose,” he says, politely fading away.
My First approaches. Everyone is touching base just in case. Peter Ovaska is no slouch. Solid, muscular, average height, white blond hair with almond shaped, dark eyes. Perhaps one of his Finnish ancestors mated with a Mongolian? Whatever the case, he is attractive.
“Just want to check in,” he says.
“Yes,” I reply, “this could be it.”
“If not, I look forward to…” He doesn’t finish.
“May our loins bring forth a multitude,” I manage to say without a snicker.
“Well, I was just referring to what we have to do to create them,” he smirks.
I punch him on the arm and we go back to stuffing our faces. Much of my eating feels like anger now. I use anger to cover my fear.
When takeoff arrives, I am so frightened, I can barely speak. My body is frozen stiff as a metal rod. Medical is going around offering tranq injections. “Blast me,” I say. By the time I am strapped into my personal pod my head is buzzed. “Hey, giddiyup!” I yell for no reason and several people shoot me disgusted looks. I don’t have the proper reverent attitude. If I let myself be serious, I might sob uncontrollably, I might go on a rant.
We hear clanging somewhere in the ship’s distance, women who have actual children soothing them, someone quietly sobbing, others praying to God, the Universe, Brahman, Allah. I don’t know where Peter is or my friend Naveen. We were given a number; simply reported to that pod and sealed ourselves in.
We hear the central drive rev up. The noise grows deafening. My head might explode. The pitch is now unbearable; my body is threatening to blow apart atom by atom. I lose consciousness.
I wake to an incredible stillness, which lasts a minute or two before chaos erupts. People burst from their pods, hugging each other, yelling, crying, singing. I rush to get out, see Naveen several meters down an aisle and push my way to her, my head still buzzing. “I can’t believe it!” I cry. “We made it!” I actually am elated.
“Are you sure?” she asks. “How do you know we aren’t dead and this is the afterlife?”
“We seem pretty solid,” I assure her. That tranq is not going to wear off for hours probably.
Captain Lee’s voice booms from the speakers. “Outside,” he orders. “Nearest hatch, GET OUT!”
Naveen and I look at each other and follow orders. Everyone stands about outside looking dazed.
“Move away from the ship,” Lee yells. He makes us huddle about a hundred meters away and stares at the ship while the crowd gawks about. We gulp fresh air and grow lightheaded. Oxygen without nasty chemicals, what will our bodies do with it? A woman swoons and drops to the ground; two men drag her to her feet. “I feel lightheaded,” says Naveen.
I look around for Peter; he is over by Lee. The Captain apparently feels satisfied and turns around to address the group.
“Didn’t want to alarm you before, but one of the returned probes found some other probes had exploded within minutes upon arrival. We’re probably okay, give it another fifteen minutes and you can return to the ship to unload. I want camp set up by the stream over there. Spread out under the trees.”
The trees are not any species we recognize, though apparently deciduous. A creature darts across the loamy ground and Naveen cries, “A golden lizard, did you see that?”
I glance up at the cobalt sky to watch two birds soaring—hawks or eagles of some sort? From my left, something crashes through the underbrush. What animals will we see on this alternate Earth, one dimension from ours, 1.7 million years in the future? What happened to the humans who once populated this world, assuming there were any? And if not humans, who? I feel nothing short of terror if I allow myself to think.
We work hurriedly, setting up our slapdash community, expressions businesslike. By nightfall, we have jetters and rovers unloaded, tents erected, cooking gear going, investigative apparatus set up, their antennae turning this way and that reaching for data. Boomerang probes are fired off in all directions. Botanists test the stream.
Soon food odors blossom in the air and we gratefully drop everything to eat. Afterwards, Captain Lee calls a meeting to order. We sit about on blankets and notice two very large, black birds land about twenty meters from the group.
“Those look like crows sort of,” Naveen says.
“Much bigger,” I remark. “Larger even than ravens.”
“They’re watching us.”
Captain says, “We’ll rest for tonight and tomorrow send out scouts by land and air. Did you see the fish in the stream there? They almost look like trout used to look. Craig, what’s the water report?”
“Perfectly normal. No dangerous microbes,” Craig says. “Go ahead, drink up.”
“Atmosphere?” Lee nods at another group, which includes my Peter.
“So far, excellent. Anyone feeling funny?”
Several hands fly up, including mine.
“It’ll pass eventually, according to the medical team, but if anyone needs help, don’t hesitate.”
Lee’s talk lasts an hour, then we are left to sleep or gawk at the starry sky, something humans no longer see on Old Earth. There are six of us in my tent and Peter pulls his sleep bag close to mine. He encircles me with his arm, though stops with that. My heart pounds all night with the strangeness of everything.
“Do you think we have a right to be here?” whispers Peter. “After what we did to Old Earth?”
This riles me again in a place that is worn out from feeling sad and impotent. “We’re a disease,” I snap, “spreading now to other worlds. We have no right.”
“But we’re here, you’re here.”
“I had no choice, did I?”
He rears up on one arm. “I think you’re expecting humans to be divine. We have the instinct to survive like anything else. There are wasps that lay eggs in other insects and when the offspring hatch, they consume the living host. I could name more if I weren’t so tired.”
“But,” I insist, “we are conscious that we’re doing it. We’re self-conscious.”
“How do we know the wasp isn’t?” he asks.
“Well, you asked the question and I answered,” I say, too weary to argue. “I don’t think we have the right to be here, no. Quite frankly, I have thought for some time that humans are despicable. After what we did to our world?”
We’ve been here three weeks. On New Earth, the days are twenty-nine of our old hours long. This takes getting used to. A lot of people drag themselves around yawning. Since I don’t seem to be having trouble, the Captain sends me out with one of the reconnaissance teams. “Take Flyer 12 and do a northwest search.”
Other teams have done preliminary southern and eastern searches and reported lands rich with wildlife, serious game and predators. According to probes and flyovers, the continents, while similar to Old Earth’s, are unmistakably different. So far, no sign of human life, no remains of lost civilizations. Not yet.
We head out, I and three others. “Anyone else want to pilot?” asks Belina, a slender Indian with velvet skin. She must be all of twenty, dewy young to my twenty-eight. Most of the group is young and fertile—we need breeders. Once we determine the safety situation, we’ll get right on that.
Below our flyer, we see seven of those large black birds in a V flight pattern. One leaves the V and flaps around our vehicle.
“Do ravens fly in formation?” asks Belina.
“Yeah, but we don’t know that these are ravens,” says Musa, a French-Senagalese in his mid-thirties. “A raven is what—two feet tall? I haven’t seen one for years. Do they still exist on Old Earth? These birds look twice that size. Did you see that one check us out?”
“Could they bring us down if they wanted to?” I ask him.
“This is a lightweight machine,” he says. “Who knows? But why would they want to?”
I don’t know why I asked that question. I have never been afraid of birds, not that there were all that many left on Old Earth.
“Well,” says the fourth member of our team, Giovanni, “they’re heading off in the opposite direction. Not planning an attack at the moment.” He smiles, showing a set of fabulous teeth.
For a second, I wonder what it would be like to mate with him. Not that there is a choice in the matter. They have paired us, after much genetic testing, with our firsts and seconds for favorable reproductive connection. Many of the crew met their mates only a week before we left.
We head in a straight northwest direction for several kilometers, scanning the land below, then warp to second speed, slowing after about fifty kms, checking. We keep up this pace till we see under us, on what would be on Old Earth the plains of North America, vast herds of some type of herbivore. “Looks similar to cattle, no?” says Musa. “Little bit like wildebeest?”
“Do you think they’re the descendants of Western cattle in this world?” I ask.
“That would assume that people existed to create Western cattle.”
Belina jumps from her seat to point. “Look at those birds again. They’re hovering over the herd. Are they going to attack them? How could something that small hope to take down an animal of that size?”
Giovanni says, “They aren’t trying to attack. They seem to be in some kind of pattern, not a hostile one.”
We rise and shoot off another fifty kms northwest, coming down to see two giant bear-like beasts tearing apart another animal, this one resembling a reindeer, though larger. The ground is thinly covered with snow.
“Those things are huge,” says Musa.
“And beige,” I say. “Looks like they have long dog snouts. They certainly don’t blend into the environment with that coloring.”
“I don’t think they need to blend,” says Belina. “They are probably on top of the food chain.”
“Don’t crash here,” I kid nervously.
We zoom on, seeing more grasslands, forest ending in rocky shores.
“If there are people, where are they?” asks Belina. “Shouldn’t there be ruins somewhere?”
“This is a lonely world,” Giovanni comments.
“Only in our opinion. I’m sure it’s far from lonely for the animals.”
As we approach camp, a flock of the black birds flies in the opposite direction.
I swivel my head so fast, I almost wrench my neck. “That bird is carrying something. Did you see that?”
“Some kind of prey?” asked Giovanni.
“It looked like…I don’t know, a box, maybe?”
“Maybe they stole it from camp,” says Musa. “You know how some birds like to hoard.”
I don’t comment since I see one bird pass the box thing to his companion. During this transaction, I swear the ends of his wing move like fingers.
The illness strikes so fast that one minute someone is working his equipment and the next on the ground messing his pants. Too ill to be embarrassed, the victims are helped to the stream to wash. Is it safe to drink that water? So far we’ve thought so. Were the small deer-like animals we shot and cooked yesterday the culprit? We test everything to exhaustion. The infection could be airborne, but we’ve tested that too. It only stands to reason that this world would contain agents of infection evolved far from Old Earth’s, but before we left, we were systematically prepared by countless injections and stem cell alterations to our immune systems. By departure, any one of us could have eaten the food of vultures without ill effects.
Peter crawls into my bag. I have retired early, exhausted from the exploration. He looks at me meaningfully and we kiss. We’ve been enjoying our intimate contact more and more, but now I’m distracted by a scuffle outside. Gently pushing away him, I sit up. “Listen,” I hiss.
Eventually, we can’t resist going out. What greets us is terrifying. Apparently, Sandy was outside our tent when suddenly seized with paroxysms of agony. He lies on the ground groaning, skin ashen. A crowd forms. From another tent, we watch someone dart outside and, clutching her gut, soil herself before passing out.
By morning, Sandy, my Second, is dead. I am struck with a grief that amazes me. Here I thought I didn’t care for him. I have treated him with such disdain; why did I? His is the first death from this scourge. The woman who soiled herself survives, but twenty-three others will die before this is over, eleven of them children. The sound of mothers sobbing goes on day and night.
Naveen, who is medical staff, tells me before Lee makes a public announcement. “It was poison. Deliberate.”
“What?” I say. “Who did it and why? There’s a psychotic among us? I thought no one like that could pass through the testing.”
Though at times, I have wondered if I myself am crazy. The terrible thoughts I have about us being here—sometimes they actually scare me. We have no right, we have no right.
Her expression is inscrutable. “It was not,” she says carefully, “one of us.”
It takes me a moment. “Huh?”
She glances about before leaning in to whisper, “It was some kind of mold, apparently cultivated. From this world, not ours, at least nothing like it in Old Earth data base. Someone got it into some of the food.”
“How do you know it didn’t just get in there naturally? By air or something.”
“It’s a paste. We found a little box of it behind one of the privies. The box is made of bark from a local tree. What was in the box matched what was in the remains of the victim’s food. The mold gives off a mycotoxin from which the victims can form antibodies, but of course some not in time to save themselves. More likely, those who did survive probably did not consume enough of the poison to finish them off.”
“What food was the poison in?” I ask, thinking back to my meal that night.
The group’s next to you. They had the fish fry and someone made an onion/noodle combo from the dried stores. It was in that.”
Immediately, all of our own food stores seem sinister.
“After Lee talks, a team is coming around to examine all foods.”
I’m relieved to hear that, though not much. She leaves and I sit on my sleep roll to think. Peter has helped carry Sandy’s body to Medical. Light is flowing through a small hole in the corner ceiling of the tent and I watch it, mesmerized. It is busy with dancing dust motes, which remind me of a sunbeam I once studied at my grandmother’s house. The word “box” flashes into my mind and I remember the big black bird carrying what appeared to be a box. Two plus two produces a lightening stab of fear in my gut. I run to Naveen.
It will take us another week before we realize fully what we’re dealing with. Others die, not from food poisoning, but “accidents.” Tom, an engineer, mysteriously falls from a cliff; Louis, a marine biologist, does not return from an excursion downstream. His inflatable canoe turns up shredded and hanging from a tree. Chunhua, nutritionist and botanist, is found after a three day search, her body mutilated and stashed in a small cave.
“Pecked to death, it appears,” says Peter sadly. “I think that pretty much verifies our suspicions.”
Lee calls another meeting. We are now having them once or twice daily.
“Well,” he begins, “the absence of humanoids in this world clearly does not mean there is no sentient life. Crows on Old Earth were an especially intelligent species. Not hard to imagine them growing more so here. Along with the development we’ve glimpsed at the end of their wings, that three pronged appendage. One of those prongs is, apparently, opposable.”
“Do you think we could approach them and get a dialog going?” asks one of the educators.
Naveen glances about nervously. Chunhua was one of her good friends. And like me, she has lost her Second.
“Who volunteers?” asks Lee, one eyebrow raised sardonically.
“We could shoot one of them,” says an engineer. “That might knock some of the wind out from under them!” His face is red. I find out later that Chunhua was his First.
“Do we want to start an out and out war? We don’t know how many of them there are. If they call in reinforcements, we’ll be vastly outnumbered. Do you remember Alfred Hitchcock’s film, ‘The Birds’?”
We are silent.
Belina asks, “Is it possible to go back home?”
“Think, Belina,” says Lee. “Only two of the returnable probes made it back. And both of those were damaged.”
“It’s us or them,” says Peter. “We don’t have the luxury now of being considerate of our fellows in nature.”
The group murmurs. “This is what happened on Old Earth,” someone says. “We were selfish and arrogant and look how it turned out.”
“We are what we are,” says Peter, having already moved into soldier mentality.
I back away, wanting only my privacy to think, to sleep. I am suddenly so sleepy. Someone has to accompany me home; no one goes anywhere alone now or without weapons. High in the sky, the black birds circle. I can’t believe this is happening, this us-against-nature business all over again.
Within a week, the scientists, who have banded together despite their former academic disagreements, announce they are growing a designer flu to kill the sentient crows. From the dropped feathers people obtained earlier, they have sequenced the DNA.
Hands shoot up all around, but Peter who has joined the scientist group, speaks without calling on anyone. “Once this is released, and we will do it by spray, they will drop like flies. All that is necessary is to know a few of their nesting sites and we do. They have no immunity and this will spread in a matter of days.”
His face, once quiet with masculine strength, now holds an expression like that of a fierce warrior. This is not a Peter I know, yet in spite of myself, I am physically thrilled. I hate myself for even having such a reaction.
But back in the tent, I am sickened to think that I’d found Peter’s new demeanor alluring. I work myself into a fury over what the others plan to do, a fury so intense that I’m afraid I will damage my teeth from clenching. Why had part of me, for a moment there, wanted to go along with the plan?
Peter comes that evening to sleep with me and I turn him away.
I begin to work out—and it horrifies me that I am doing so—how to burn down the laboratory. I have told no one, not even Naveen, especially not Naveen, who is in on using the virus. Who would help me? Giovanni? Belina? I don’t know where they stand, but I know what I need to do.
We are the aliens here. The crows have developed a civilization. How do we know the extent of it? They have evolved in this world and they have the right to run it. Knowing full well that if I follow my plan, I am probably condemning myself and fellow humans to die, it remains that I cannot let my people do this terrible thing.
I’ve chosen the next night when a third of the group will be on reconnaissance. I’ll use my laser and if I have to take someone out, so be it.
But the next morning while cleaning my teeth, suddenly I need to vomit. At first, I think oh no, am I poisoned, have they used another poison, but afterwards I feel perfectly fine. It’s as though I never was sick.
Standing a moment to think, I shudder. Quickly, I locate my scan and run it over the skin on the inside of my wrist. In less than a second, it registers and reports: You are eight days pregnant. I drop the scan while I bend over to breathe. Worlds I cannot describe pass behind my closed eyes. I grow dizzy and slump to the floor.
A short while later, I sit up. I’ve become a different sort of being from what I was only minutes before. When Peter comes to me that night, I do not turn him away. He is the father of my coming child.
It is unfortunate, but the crows must die.
“Masters of the Earth” © 2012 Margaret Karmazin
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
(Image credit: EliotimeNosferatum, Wikimedia Commons)