Authors: Joe Pace
Tags: #Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Book One of the Harvest Trilogy
Copyright © 2015 Joe Pace
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Reliquary Press rev. date: 7/4/2015
Cover design by Bill Coffin
For my mother, who taught me to love books
For my father, who taught me how to tell stories
Shed honest tears for the lost harvest,
the failed vintage.
Weep for my people’s gardens and farms
that grow nothing but thistles and thornbushes.
William Pearce, Commander
Christine Fletcher, Lieutenant
John Pott, Lieutenant
Charles Hall, Midshipman
Hope Worth, Midshipman
Thomas Peckover, Boatswain
Yancy Waugh, Boatswain’s Mate
Heywood Musgrave, Gunner
Zoltan Szakonyi, Surgeon
Orpheus Crutchfield, Sergeant of Machrines
Dr. Adina Reyes, Xenobiologist
Sir Eustace Green, Gardener
Lord John Banks stood as he spoke, his long body erect behind a chair nearly as elegant as he was. He was a handsome man, a child of generations of nobility, and as famous for that beauty and birth as he was for his role as Science Minister. His vast inherited wealth was evident in his dress, in the finery of his custom-tailored suit, and in the medically-enhanced perfection of his skin, his hair, his physique. As if enough gifts had not fallen to him, he possessed a singular penetrating intellect, an insatiable curiosity, and a talent for unpopular inquiry. The world loved John Banks, and the feeling was entirely mutual. Unfortunately, every scrap of data at his disposal, which, by virtue of his position and his brilliance, was considerable, suggested that world was about to die.
Around the long, polished table sat the other members of the Privy Council. Powerful, accomplished, wealthy men and women, advisors to the King, deeply invested in the empire they and their forebears had built, they regarded Banks with their usual respect and affection, but also with their equally usual tinge of skepticism.
“John,” said Lady Patricia Howe, the thin, spidery presence at the head of the table, her voice a papery whisper and yet heavy with authority. “You can’t truly expect us to believe that.”
The Prime Minister of His Majesty’s United Kingdom of Earth, Howe was the chief executive of this empire that spanned the globe and beyond, and her words were echoed by nods and noises of assent in the room. At the back of her mind, indeed most of the minds in the room, were the previous pronouncements of doom by John Banks, none of which had yet come to pass.
“Your Excellency, the data cannot be refuted.” Banks spoke slowly and deliberately, with deference but conviction. “We are not speaking of conjecture here, or extrapolations from fragile models based on debatable assumptions. There is no question that in five years, at the latest, the food supply of the Kingdom will collapse completely and global famine will result.”
This assertion was met with stony silence, and then a chuckle from the far end of the table, the locus of power opposite the Prime Minister. Short, stocky, with the mahogany features of his Indian heritage, Lord Rajek Djimonsu was officially the Chancellor of the Exchequer, though in reality he was the representative on the Privy Council of The Chamber, the voice of the Kingdom’s aggregated commercial monopolies. Banks suppressed his disgust, as he so often did when Djimonsu opened his mouth. Everyone around the table was wealthy, as befit their rank, but the Chancellor was obscenely so, and his riches came not from inherited incomes, as he had little family to speak of. He was a commoner by birth, still little more than a merchant, though enormously influential. Banks disliked him, distrusted him, but knew far better than to dismiss him.
“Come, Minister, surely you joke.” Djimonsu’s rich, accented baritone filled the room with a voice much larger than he was. “Or else this is another of your famous flights of fancy. Why, I wonder, are they always so apocalyptic? And worse, expensive?”
There was some laughter around the table, and Banks felt his heart begin to sink. It would be difficult, so very difficult, to find help here. They tolerated him, benefited from his reflected celebrity and the love the commons bore for him, but when his brilliance threatened to interrupt the status quo, their fondness evaporated.
As though speaking to a naïve child, Djimonsu continued with an indulgent smile. “The Kingdom’s granaries are full, our agrifactories are running at full capacity, and hunger has been unknown for generations. How can you project famine within five years -- indeed, at all? Our nutritional security has never been stronger.”
John Banks nodded, his fine features darkening just a little. “That much is true, Chancellor. I will point out that this system you laud so grandiloquently is in large part the product of decades of research and guidance and labor from the Ministry of Science you now dismiss.”
“And no small financial investment from the Chamber,” Djimonsu retorted smoothly. Banks inclined his head, ever so slightly, conceding the point, though his eyes narrowed.
“Yes,” Banks said. “I agree that both Science and Commerce are to be thanked…and blamed, in equal measure. So why not work together to repair this crisis we have together wrought? The facts remain. The very success of our food programs will prove our undoing. As has been discussed before in this room, the vast majority of His Majesty’s subjects rely on grains for sustenance. The consumer products made from them are myriad, but all derive from the same three grains: wheat, corn, and rice. Over the centuries, we have so perfected the replication of these grains that energy investment in other, less efficient foodstuffs has been all but replaced by grain-based facsimiles, augmented by the yeast and algae yields. Actual meat proteins, organic fruits and vegetables, are now luxuries.”
“Yes, yes.” This growl came from Lady Rebecca Cornwall, the fleshy, florid Minister of Defense. “We know all of this, Banks. The commons eat. Come to the point.”
“I will, milady. You see, we have so refined our three master grains that each is reliant on a single variant. There is no genetic diversity to them, which was necessary for successful mass replication, and yet that very characteristic has left them vulnerable to the coming calamity. You see, those master grains are dying. Without an infusion of new genetic variation within five years, they will all be dead. Not long afterwards, so will all of us.”
The Star Lord
There was something comforting about Trafalgar Square.
It was open, for one thing, and you could see the sky as more than a narrow blue strip high above, squeezed between thousand-meter buildings. Here you could almost imagine the world as it was when the square was first built, when the British Crown reached out across the living seas, extending its sway with wooden ships and intrepid captains. John Banks was a romantic; his education in the sciences had not interfered with his learning of languages, architecture and history. He admired the aesthetic of the place, and fiercely loved this small bastion of London, here at the very heart of a globe-encompassing empire, one which still remembered its roots as an island that conquered the world.
Having come from his offices in the Royal Academy at Piccadilly Circus, he entered the Square from the northwest, down Whitcomb Street, the looming presence of the massive and handsome National Gallery to his left. Banks did not stride swiftly across the flat stones of the square, as so many others did, but lingered, strolling, feeling the pull of the past. One of the things he loved about being a Briton was the sense of continuity, of connection to antiquity. Most of all he enjoyed the statuary, even though they were a bit martial for his taste. Napier subduing India, Jellicoe defeating the Germans, Cornwallis returning those pesky American colonials to the fold. Kings, generals, admirals. The grandest of all, of course, was Nelson’s column, reaching up in vertical salute to the great man himself. His favorite, which he visited now, was smaller, nestled in the southwest corner, of a man in repose, a robe draped around his frail frame, left hand against his chin in a thoughtful moment. This was a thinker, a scientist: Edward Jenner.
“Don’t think, try,” murmured Banks, repeating the father of immunology’s mantra as he gazed up into the bronze eyes. “We shall certainly aim to do both.” Jenner’s defeat of smallpox centuries before had been a signal triumph of the human mind over an illness that had preyed on humanity for millennia.
Now it’s my turn
, Banks thought. Perhaps, if he was successful, there might be a statue of him in Trafalgar in years to come. If he failed…if he failed, there wouldn’t be anyone left to notice.
Banks sighed and turned away from Jenner’s unmoving gaze. He had an appointment, and it did not do to keep the Star Lord waiting. He walked across the Square to Whitehall, and felt the sudden encroachment of the buildings on either side, cutting off the sun. The streets of London, and of most cities, were lit at street level day and night by the glowing of lamp-panels set into the buildings themselves. The vehicular traffic was constant, even in midmorning, with the workday some hours old. Even with the bulk of the public using the rapid-transit underground tube network, the sidewalks were choked with pedestrians. Swarms of humanity engulfed him, and as always, the battle between encroachment and belonging raged within him.
You are never alone in London
, Banks thought with a tight smile, remembering the trite tourism logo from some years past. Most people were seldom alone at all; born, living, dying in the ever-buzzing honeycomb, the ever-milling anthill that Earth had become. The Minister was one of those rare few with the wealth and prestige to enjoy a home with even the scarcest concept of personal space, one that did not abut others on six sides.
, he thought, even as he enjoyed his isolated residence, there was something comforting about the press of the crowd all around. Famous as he was, his face known to billions, not one other stopped, or even gawked at him as he joined the throng. It would be the height of impoliteness to invade his privacy.
The intimate solitude
, a prominent sociologist had called it in a popular book a decade or so earlier, this collective urge to be alone together. The walls around the individual were reinforced by personal entertainment devices carried by virtually all those around Banks, plugged in to their own worlds.
Before long, he arrived at the row of centuries-old arches that lined the front of Admiralty House. The Minister passed through the central and largest of these, and traversed the small courtyard to the main door. Four tall marble columns stood sentinel there, and alongside these stood two ramrod-straight Royal Marines at attention in full scarlet dress, antique decorative rifles at their shoulders. Neither spared Banks a glance as he pushed through the replica-wood double doors.
He was on time, not an altogether common occurrence for him, and he was rewarded for his punctuality by being shown directly into a large office lined with dark windows and boasting a tasteful collection of nautical effects. Two works always captured his attention on his visits to the Admiralty. First was a massive oil painting of the HMS
, from some four hundred years before, under the command of the near-mythical Captain James Cook. The second was of a similar size, and was a starkly beautiful digital rendition of the HMSS
, the ship Captain Jane Baker had taken to the edge of the galaxy and back. Banks was always reassured by these images, reminded that whatever else the man might have become during his tenure, the Star Lord remained, at heart, more explorer than warrior.
“You still miss her?”
There was warmth in the question, and in the man himself as he entered through a paneled door. The former Timothy MacKinnon, now Duke of Exeter, First Lord of the Admiralty, often called the Star Lord, was smaller than his titles, short and squat with a full black-and-gray beard, eyes lidded yet still afire with curiosity and intellect under a prominent brow. Exeter sat heavily in an antique wooden rocking chair, exquisitely carved, and indicated a nearby couch. Banks sat as well, with a small sigh.
“I always will, I’m afraid. Both Jane and the
“She was a singular woman,” Exeter said, with a small shake of his shaggy head. “Twelve years this spring, since we lost her.”
Banks nodded, his gaze returning to the image of the
. At least once a day he thought of that first great voyage, now nearly twenty years past. He had been so much younger then, the universe a new and vast playground for his mind and ambitions. As a civilian scientist, he had joined then-Lieutenant Jane Baker on her journeys to uncharted sectors of space, forging an unbreakable bond of respect and affection despite their vastly different backgrounds.
“I would to heaven I had gone with her again on that third voyage.”
“Then I might be mourning the loss of you both, my friend.” Exeter’s sharp eyes narrowed slightly. “I have always meant to ask you, John, about the rumors…”
Laughing with genuine mirth, Banks waved a hand in the air. “Oh, I have heard them, of course, but they are empty chatter. No, Jane was only my friend, never my lover. Truth be told, I don’t know if she ever had a love other than the
Banks understood the whispers, naturally. They had both been heroes, and made for a juicily odd coupling – the elegant, aristocratic Banks, academic giant, and the unattractive commoner Baker, intrepid starfaring explorer. Neither he nor Baker had ever married, and the tabloid journals did their very best to establish a fictional romance between the two in the popular imagination, if nowhere else. But of course, it had never been, could never have been. Banks turned in his seat, and faced Exeter again.
“I come here to talk not about the past, but the future. And whether we are to have one.”
“I know,” the Duke replied, pulling at the bottom of his beard. “I was at Whitehall, remember? I was there in Whitehall, remember? You are arguing with facts, and facts are insufficient to carry your cause, Minister. What you need are favors. Alliances. Friends.”
“I have few enough of those in that room, and I had thought to count you among them. You could have spoken up.” Banks’ tone became frosty, and Exeter raised an eyebrow, head cocked.
“Don’t play the victim with me, John. Any enemies you have at Privy you’ve made for yourself. You’ll forgive me if I’m not eager to assume those animosities for myself. I have the Fleet to look after, and some of your enemies are people I need.”
“Is that the kind of courage you showed at Pegasus, Timothy? Is that how you won your flag?”
The Star Lord stared, his jaw working side to side as he ground his teeth at the casual use of his given name, the cheap insult to his service record. A dangerous flush had begun under his collar, creeping up into his bristles. He seemed on the verge of standing, or shouting, or both, but instead he settled back in the chair, rocking slowly.
“I will let that pass, because I know you do not mean it. But do not presume too much of our friendship, Minister.” His tone was gentle, but Banks knew he had touched a nerve unnecessarily, and regretted it. Exeter was an ally, if not an outspoken one, and Banks knew he was vitally important to what he hoped to accomplish. That, and the Pegasus jibe had been both unworthy and inaccurate. Exeter had always been a bold starship captain, and his climb from the upper deck to the Privy Council was entirely meritorious.
“My apologies, my Lord.” The Duke inclined his head, as if to dismiss the matter. “But your voice and aid would have mattered a great deal at Privy.”
“You will have to settle for my aid out here, where it can do you some good. First, though, you should know that none of what I might do would be as a favor to you. I happen to agree with your position. My analysts report that your science bears out.” Banks found himself full of surging gratitude, and felt even more sheepish about his outburst. He even laughed ruefully.
“My analysts, and yours, can see the truth of it. What of Djimonsu? Surely the Chamber has access to whatever experts it chooses, and can independently verify our findings.”
“You hit close to the mark,” muttered Exeter, scowling. “The Chamber has nothing to gain from changes in the status quo, John. The data you report, and their terrifying import, threaten their bottom line. And so they choose experts who do their damndest to refute your findings.”
“They would,” said Banks, aghast, “intentionally falsify information? Put everyone at risk to preserve their own wealth?”
“You cannot possibly be this naïve. You are one of the best minds on the planet, Minister, would you please try to act like it? In any event, it is not a matter of falsification. It is a simple matter of selecting different sets of facts. Challenging your underlying assumptions. They do not wish to believe the truth you present, and so they craft a different, more pleasing one. You are a brilliant scientist, Minister, but a truly lousy politician.”
“I take that as a compliment,” Banks sniffed.
“You shouldn’t, not if you’re going to play at this level. It is that shortcoming that dooms your agenda, however righteous.” The Star Lord grimaced. “It is an omnipresent political truism, my friend. For those with the most, change brings the most risk. And to preserve their wealth and power, they will redefine reality itself.”
Banks knew he spoke the truth. He pictured Rajek Djimonsu, nestled comfortably at the Privy table, deftly guiding the affairs of the Empire in the directions most profitable to the Chamber. For years he had jousted with the Chancellor, at times on this very subject, and always come off the worse for it, regardless of the force of his arguments. Even the current crisis might have been averted, had his ministry’s research on hybrid vigor not been shorn of funding by a nervous Treasury.
“All that aside for the moment,” Exeter continued as Banks grit his teeth, “this is your audience, John. You told me last night that you have need of a ship. Ships I have, of course. I assume you have identified some remedy to the calamity you described to the Council?”
“I have.” Banks leaned forward in his chair, thrusting one hand out, jabbing at the space between himself and Exeter. “I believe that our master grains can be revived.” The Star Lord’s chin moved forward, just slightly, but Banks knew the man well enough to know it was an encouragement to continue. “What we need are DNA samples from fresh strains of each.”
“But there are only the single strains,” Exeter said.
“Yes…here on Earth. In our headlong rush to perfect their DNA, we shortsightedly failed to retain genetic samples of earlier strains. We’ve done all we can in the decades since, exhausting the traditional – and some very innovative – means of replenishing them. We’ve introduced mutations, bred selective viruses, all the tricks. What we need now can only be found off-planet.”
“And you believe it can be found?”
“Not ‘can be found’, my Lord.
been found. Let me show you what I would have shown the Council, had they allowed me to make my full presentation.” Banks slipped a data chip from a pocket inside his jacket and, with nodded encouragement from Exeter, inserted it into an aperture just below the surface of the beautiful teakwood table between them. A holo-monitor sprouted from the tabletop, and displayed the ghostly three-dimensional image of a slowly rotating sphere, variegated green and blue and white.
“You found it,” Exeter whispered. Banks shook his head.
“No, not I. Jane Baker, on her final voyage.” Banks reached one hand into the display, his thumb and forefinger apart, and deftly squeezed them together. The planet shrank, becoming a bright red dot against a galactic star-chart.
“Cygnus.” The Duke’s hand rubbed at his beard again.
“Yes,” Banks replied. “Kepler-22B, or as it’s more commonly known, Cygnus. Jane’s final discovery, as it turned out. Before…before the nasty business there, she unearthed how incredibly compatible the Cygni and human genetic structures are. More specifically, and more pertinent to our immediate needs, the xenobotanist on her crew, Dr. Tyson, made some startling observations about the nature of the flora there. Most notably, the rather remarkable congruence of nucleotide sequences between their staple grains and ours. It made some sense, of course, that with our similar digestive systems we would consume similar foodstuffs.”