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SONY READER (TBA)
A Novel by
J. Brian Clarke
The three year quarantine was nearly over. As Richard Burret stood beside his bed and packed his personal belongings, he tried not to think of the difficulties which lay ahead, of trying to resume a lifestyle he had almost forgotten. He was in limbo, between a world to which he could not return, and a world to which he did not want to return.
First he packed the souvenirs he had put aside for special handling. Although part of him wondered if it was such a good idea to keep these bits of realism around while time and memories softened what had been in the past, the other part insisted, why not? He and his five companions had, after all, been part of an endeavor beyond anything in human history. They deserved their trophies!
Item. Three vials banded together. The first contained the corpse of an insect-like creature, the second a ball of fluff, the third a tiny plant with pinhead-sized gray leaves. Not much to the uninformed eye, perhaps. But the mind behind that eye could not know these were three stages in the strange life cycle of a single life form.
Item. Another vial, this one filled with a clear liquid. Actually, it was only water. But it had been collected in the mist below a great cataract which plunged an uninterrupted fifteen hundred meters down the side of a fault which split a continent.
Item. A package of samples containing plant and animal matter, plus material which shared the characteristics of both. A slender piece of vine with a tensile strength approaching that of steel. A piece of wood which, when heated, could be molded like soft putty.
The samples were followed by Burret’s finger camera and a package of chips containing he did not know how many thousands of exposures. Not as extensive as the official visual record, of course. But a man needs to do something of his own during a mission of such extended duration. Howard Scheckart, for instance, had taken to painting. Although the botanist’s gloomy landscapes were too depressing for Burret’s taste, he did not doubt a few would end up in some of Earth’s major galleries.
Next, his instrument and sample belt. He coiled the belt carefully, despite the scars and frays which made it look as if it had been dragged through barbed wire. It happened when he tumbled down a slope into a clump of thorn bushes, and his body still bore the marks inflicted by those vicious barbs. Yet the belt continued its usefulness. It even outlasted two sets of armorcloth coveralls.
He lifted a sealed plastic envelope up to the light. The envelope contained a few blades of grass, slivers of faded green from a lawn logic dictated could not be grown. But young Eric Gerenson, communications specialist and former street kid from one of the concrete jungles of western Europe, thought otherwise. He did not, he insisted, smuggle two kilos of seed all the way from Earth for nothing. So Gerenson consulted the ship’s database, prepared the proper nutrients, and contrived a sprinkler system. He fussed, worried, made a thorough fool of himself, and after a few months created the lushest lawn on the fifth planet of Alpha Centauri. Actually it was the only lawn, and it was fortunate its survival depended on such loving care. Otherwise, the next expedition might find the local ecology drowned under an ocean of waving green.
More oddments went into the bag, including a small abstract carved by Victor Kraskin before the geologist lost his right arm in a rockfall.
Finally, Burret sorted through the few letters he received only hours before the Robert L. Cassion departed for the Centauri system. There was a polite farewell from Ron, on office letterhead. They had not seen each other for years anyway, so Ron could hardly be expected to gush over a brother he hardly knew. A couple of letters were from people Burret worked with during the second Mercury expedition. He had largely lost contact with them also, especially after he transferred to the Interstellar Project.
More personal than the others, was Maylene’s last letter. Would he have married her if he was not on the Project? Probably. May was one in a million; he would have been a fool not to. Then again, they only met because she happened to be one of the Project’s technicians, so the question was academic. Another of life’s not-so-minor ironies, he supposed.
The last letter was on cheap brittle notepaper, so he handled it gingerly. But the childish scrawl was still legible. As he read it again, his memories of her earnest little face were as clear as they had been ... how many hundreds of readings ago?
Darling daddy, please do not go away to long. Auntie Pol said you are going to a star, not like mommy but in a spaceship. She said we canot see the star from our house so I want her and Uncle Hector to take me where I can see it sometime. When you come back, bring me a star teddy please, PLEASE? Love and kisses, Cheryl.
Burret wished he knew what a star teddy was, but it had been too late to find out. He hoped the painstaking model he created from local materials and imagination would be an acceptable substitute. His daughter was older now, but surely she would remember and understand.
Goddamn the quarantine!
It was not the three years of confinement on the moon which bothered him, as much as the restrictions which allowed no outside communication incoming or outgoing. Officially, no one even knew the Robert L. Cassion was back from the Centauri system! He did not doubt that except for UNSAA brass who were party to the deception, not to mention those who had forgotten anyway, most of the billions of people on that blue-white world in the lunar sky probably assumed mankind’s first star travelers had expired somewhere out there in the Great Dark.
The reason for the quarantine was logical enough. The statistical possibility they were biological time bombs was nothing new. It was a factor which had even been taken into account when the first astronauts returned from the moon a couple of centuries ago. But the Apollo 11 quarantine lasted only eighteen days. Not three years!
That root cause of frustration had been addressed by Eratosthenes administrator Dr. Curtis Paoli, at the first of his weekly briefings. In his gentle way, it was a reminder. “There are six billion people on planet Earth,” he said. “There are only six of you alphanauts.”
Burret hated that ridiculous term, especially the anonymous idiot who dreamed it up. But they were apparently stuck with it.
“With those odds,” Paoli continued, “how can you possibly object to us making sure you are biologically safe? And need I remind you that a motion to extend the quarantine to forty-two months, right into the red-line zone, was defeated by only one vote? Gentlemen, I suggest you consider yourselves lucky.”
“Lucky, my eye!” angrily shouted Gellan DeZantos, the expedition’s astronomer. “Dammit Curtis, you can’t transmit a plague by radio! So why can’t I talk to my Earthside colleagues? Why can’t any of us?”
Paoli waited patiently until the whispering died down, then repeated what everyone already knew. “Gellan, you cannot be allowed to communicate with people who do not know you exist. It has to be that way because of what you are and what the mass media can do with it. All right, I admit most media people can be trusted to do the right thing. But not, unfortunately, all of them. If certain bottom-liners find out what is going on, they can pull enough political clout to end this quarantine within a year at the most. If that happens...”
Burret would never forget the chill which ran up his spine as he recognized the look of absolute determination on Paoli’s face.
“If that happens, I will destroy this facility and everyone and everything in it!”
The alphanauts sat in stony silence while everyone else nodded in grim acquiescence. No one doubted the threat was real, that the director had the codes which could blow the complex into the lunar vacuum. It was a situation resented by the alphanauts, who were the only ones not here by choice. The others, all volunteers, had been thoroughly briefed when they signed on.
Yet despite the Damoclean sword over their heads, it was not such a bad life. There was work to do, especially with the samples and reams of data brought back from Alpha Five. Their place of exile was luxurious beyond belief, with every imagined creature comfort including a swimming pool and a well-equipped gymnasium. The small holo-theater frequently showed the latest entertainment offerings from Earth, and by the end of the first year there was a thriving repertory company. Yet every time the robo-shuttle arrived with fresh supplies, there was fierce, even acrimonious competition for the privilege of being part of the four-man unloading crew.
As far as other needs were concerned, it was fortunate UNSAA’s funding was no longer subject to the political whims of the United Nations House of Assembly. The cabal of religious fundamentalists who dominated the Assembly for so long, threatening financial termination if all-male crews were not used on the interstellar projects, had finally succumbed before the onslaught of twenty-second century pragmatism. Which was why — and during his retrospective moments Burret put aside his innate agnosticism to thank God for it — twenty of the thirty-four assigned to Eratosthenes were women. A few couples were already married when they arrived, and within six months several more signed contracts. Although none of the alphanauts entered similar commitments, only the monkish Howard Scheckart chose to remain celibate.
As Burret closed the bag and pressed an identification label to its side, he wondered if he would see much of Joan after they returned home, if he had made a mistake when he told her he would consider nothing permanent until he was adjusted to Earthside. He suspected her feelings for him were stronger than she admitted, although that could be mere conceit on his part. He did know Joan’s pride would never accept the implication: You’ll do if no one else turns up.
The P.A. announced, “Final briefing in fifteen minutes. Those not on essential duty are requested to attend.”
Burret left his room, walked down the corridor and tapped on her door. “Richard. Can I come in?”
“It’s open,” she called cheerfully.
Joan Walsh was also packing. But she smiled at the lanky, solemn-faced man who came into her room. “One to go,” she said lightly, referring to their private countdown. “Nervous?”
Burret grimaced. “Does the sun rise in the morning?” He kissed the nape of her neck. “I only ask that you stay around for a while. I have become somewhat accustomed to your face.” Although he attempted to sound jocular, he knew he did not fool her. She knew him too well.
Joan said, “Richard, you are uptight. I know it is difficult, but please try to relax.”
“Try to relax,” he mimicked bitterly. “I bet you say that to all your patients.”
She nodded. “Of course I do. But with you it is more personal. Can’t you hold on to that? To us?”
It was a good point. A trained psychologist, the lissome redhead had become Burret’s better, saner half, which was a substantial plus for the meteorologist/alphanaut.
She smiled again, touched his angular face with her finger tips and added, “I will be with you every step of the way, dear.” She put a filmy thing into the case and snapped it shut.
Guess I won’t see that again, he thought wistfully, then forced his attention to more practical matters. “What do you think Curtis is up to? We have already been briefed to death.”
“I know.” She considered a moment. “Perhaps he is hooked onto the image of himself as a father.”
“Uh ... I beg your pardon?”
“If you are the head of a large family whose members are about to go their separate ways, won’t you at least want to wish them well?”
“Well, I suppose...” Burret chuckled. “So you think we are in for some parental advice?”
“Without doubt,” Joan said seriously. “After all, we have all been away from home a long time. You cannot fault our lord and master for wanting to make sure he is not about to unload a collection of anachronistic misfits.” She tucked her arm within his. “So let’s go and find out, shall we?”
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