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Authors: Sarah Zettel

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Playing God (5 page)

BOOK: Playing God
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“Before and after?” Lynn gestured toward the globe and blueprints on the wall screen as she took a seat at the conference table.

“Sort of, yes.” Keale got up from his comm station and reseated himself across the table from Lynn. “I am not going to waste your time, Dr. Nussbaumer. I put forth a security proposal to the project seniors, which was rejected, and which I want to revive with your help.” He gave her a slightly sardonic smile. “Your praises are being sung from HQ to Dedelph, and I think the veeps might listen to you where they won't listen to me.”

“I'd be glad to hear whatever you've got.” Lynn sucked some coffee from her bulb and forced herself into a relaxed posture.

Keale folded his hands on the tabletop. “My commission is the safety of the Bioverse personnel on this project. I am in charge of making sure our people are not exposed to any excessive dangers.”

Lynn smiled sympathetically. “We are going into a war zone, Commander. You've got a job ahead of you.”

He returned the smile. “Yes. For a long time.” He gazed at the city-ship's blueprint. “However, it's not safety on the ground I'm speaking about at the moment. The plague is everyone's common enemy down there, and they're caught up in fighting it. It's our people on the city-ships that I'm worried about.”

Lynn felt her forehead wrinkle. “On the city-ships we'll have the warring Great Families separated and hundreds of miles away from one another.”

“And that, Dr. Nussbaumer”—Keale laid his hand flat on the table—“is what I am worried about.”

Lynn raised her brow. “I'm sorry?”

“The Dedelphi fight. They fight viciously and savagely, with no aim other than wiping each other out. They've always done this.”

“No one disputes that, Commander,” said Lynn patiently. “The Dedelphi will explain at great length why they do it.”

“Yes, I've heard some of that.” A flicker of distaste crossed Keale's face. Lynn nodded. She'd heard some of the rants, too. They were unsettling, to say the least.

“My teams have been studying the patterns of violence. It came as no surprise to anybody to find that a tribe or family will most readily attack those who are the least related to them.

“Aboard the city-ships, that will be us.”

Lynn straightened up slowly. “What?”

Commander Keale didn't even blink. “The Dedelphi attack those who are farthest from their families in genetic terms. They do not do this because of lack of resources, because they are actively enslaved or oppressed, or because they are threatened in any way. They attack them because they are different. Humans are far more different from the Dedelphi than the Dedelphi are from each other.”

Lynn shifted her weight. “So, with no history of warfare, no grudges, no need to spread and grow, you're saying it's inevitable that the Dedelphi will attack us?”

“I am saying”—Keale pitched his voice soft and low— “that they need to eat, breathe, fuck, and fight. They need enemies. Either we give them some, or they are going to find some, and we, being the farthest away from the family structure, are going to become those enemies.”

Lynn waited until she was sure her voice would stay even. “This level of genetic determinism was disproved as a behavioral predictor years ago.”

“In Humans.”

Lynn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She relaxed her grip on the chair arms. “Have you ever worked in the Dedelphi colonies, Commander?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Bioverse didn't have any jobs for me there.”

“Okay. Then let me tell you about the bloodlust of the Dedelphi.” She lifted her gaze and looked straight into his black eyes. “Unlike us, they do not war over ideologies. They war over actions. Where there is no priming action, there is no war.”

Keale opened his mouth, but Lynn didn't give him a chance to speak. “In Crater Town, Dedelphi from all the Great Families live within ten feet of each other, never mind ten thousand miles. They are supported fully by Humans: medical staff, consultants, trading partners,
neighbors.
They have a Human security force. It has never, not once, been the victim of so much as a web attack. The Dedelphi in Crater Town do not wage war, with each other or with us, because there is no history of war between them.

“The Confederation on All-Cradle is a paper peace. They are making provisions for a conjugal peace. They are using the cultural outlets that allow them
not
to attack each other, or us. As you so rightly pointed out, their enemy now is the plague.”

“I am familiar with the paper and conjugal peace, Dr. Nussbaumer.” Keale's patience was obviously straining. “But they are not universally practiced, or universally acknowledged.
Nothing
among the Dedelphi is. They can't even agree on what to call themselves. We had to label them.” He looked at her more closely. “You're friends with the Crater Town founders, aren't you?”

Lynn nodded. “My family worked with the Shin t'Theria to build the colony. I was an Environmental Manager for them until I signed up with Bioverse. Praeis Shin and her daughters got to be my friends.” She did not add how she had held Praeis's hand while they sat death watch over her sisters Jos and Shorie during the second wave of plague that hit Crater Town. It was not something Keale would appreciate.

He was watching her closely, measuring her words. “It's hard to see friends in an unflattering light. The refugees that live in the Solar system are unarmed and at the mercy of Humans. Many of them have been disowned by their governments, if not their families….”

“Many of them are hailed as heroes for bearing the family healthy daughters when their sisters back home couldn't,” Lynn cut in.

Keale shook his head. “But they're still unarmed and helpless, and even then the Shin t'Theria were bright enough to bring in armed Humans to keep the peace.” He paused to let that sink in.

“If the Dedelphi don't attack the colony security, Commander, what makes you think they'll attack us?”

His eyes glinted darkly for a moment. “You're saying there aren't any brawls in the colonies? You're saying the Getesaph and the Fil and the Chosa ty Porath don't live in their own walled ghetto?”

Lynn felt the pressure of her rising anger against her temples. “The Getesaph quarter is walled for the Families that let their fathers wander loose in the streets. The others consider that blasphemous, or at least negligent, so a compromise was reached…”

“But there are still brawls,” said Keale.

“Some,” admitted Lynn. “Between newcomers, usually.”

Keale nodded. “The Dedelphi we are dealing with here are neither unarmed nor helpless. They have never been subjected to an even, outside disciplinary force. They are going to be crammed together in a prison, as comfortable a prison as we can make it, but a prison nonetheless. They are going to have no outlet for collective aggression. They are going to turn it on each other, or on us. Their patterns tell me they'll go after us first as the most alien, unless we put them together with nonfamily with whom they have immediate grudges. We will obviously have to work to make sure the paper and conjugal peaces hold firmly, but we need a buffer between them and us, just in case.”

Lynn uncurled her hands from around the chair arms and laid them flat on her thighs. “I'm sorry, Commander. I do not agree with you, and I will not support the implementation of such a plan.”

A single muscle in Keale's face twitched. “I see. Very well. Would you agree, however, that we must be careful whom we place together and when we relocate them?”

Lynn stood up. “Yes. Absolutely. We must be careful about the schedule. I assume you've untied my knots on the subject?”

Keale nodded. “As far as they go, your plans seem workable.”

“I'm glad you think so.” Lynn rubbed her forehead. “Commander, I'm going to ask you something personal.”

He waved one broad hand. “Go ahead.”

Lynn took a deep breath. “Do you realize what a paranoid bigot you sound like?”

His mouth twitched for a moment. Then, to Lynn's surprise, he threw back his head and laughed so loudly the sound bounced off the high ceiling.

“Oh, God.” He wiped his eyes. “Finally somebody said it out loud.” He shook his head. “Everybody tiptoes around looking at me like they want to say that, but they won't because it's impolite. It's a relief to meet someone who will actually come out with it.” He straightened up. “And, yes, Dr. Nussbaumer, I'm afraid I do.”

Bemused by his outburst, Lynn asked, “Then why are you doing this?”

“Because I'm worried,” he said, completely serious again. “I know the Mars colony works. I'm glad it works, but the people you and I are dealing with are not the ones who ran away from war and plague. They're the ones still unleashing radiation and viruses on their neighbors for reasons I can't get myself to understand, and they
worry
me.”

Lynn sighed and studied her fingertips for a moment. “I can't argue with that, Commander. They worry me, too. But they don't fight because they have to. Like Humans, they fight because they're frightened. If we don't frighten them, they will have no reason to attack us.” She stood up. “Is there anything else?”

Keale also stood. “No, I'm afraid not. The rest can be easily handled during the official sessions.”

“Okay, I'll see you then.”

Keale touched a key on the table and the door swished open. Lynn found herself wanting to hear some parting comment, some kind of closing remark that would tell her that Keale really cared about the project, about the Dedelphi, about saving the world. But he just looked at her with a thoughtful expression on his face.

All she could do was turn around and go.

As she retraced her steps down the corridor, Lynn wondered if she should tell Praeis what had just happened. She decided against it. No sense getting the project off on a bad footing. Keale had admitted his idea had no support, anyway. Worrying Praeis about his attitude was pointless.

Lynn picked up her pace. Keale could deal with his own paranoias. She had a meeting to get to.

Chapter III

P
raeis Shin watched All-Cradle's sphere, wrapped in its soft wools and creams, turn under the shuttle's cameras. Here and there, the cloud blanket parted to show a ripple of grey ocean, or a wrinkled cluster of green-and-beige islands.

Her daughters pressed close against her, one on either side. The shuttle didn't have artificial gravity, so stiff, magnetic slippers held them to the metal floor.

“So, that's home?” Theiareth peered closely at the screen.

“Profound, Theia.” Resaime's nostrils flared. The sarcasm was light, reflexive, just banter between pouch-sisters. “Brilliant.”

“That's home.” Praeis rubbed her daughters’ shoulders, feeling the strength of their muscles under her hands and enjoying the warmth of pride that spread through her. They were strong, beautiful, well-grown children. Both wore red-on-gold kilts and white tunics. They had been able to leave their clean-suits behind. This shuttle had been sterilized for their use. Under the tunics, their mottled belly guards covered gently swelling pouches. They were nearly adults, almost ready to make her a second-mother.

Theiareth's ears dipped toward the screen. “Looks a lot like Earth, doesn't it? I thought it'd be…” She waved her hand. “I don't know, different.”

“It might be if there weren't so many clouds.” Resaime reached out and tugged her sister's ear absently. “It rains more here than on Earth, right?” She flicked her mother a sideways glance.

Praeis nodded and concentrated on keeping her hand from tightening on Theia's shoulder. It had been twenty years since she'd seen this sight.

In their stiff shoes, Praeis's toes clenched, searching for something to grab to help preserve her balance.
Why do I want to turn around? Why do I want to stuff my daughters into my pouch and run screaming back to Mars? I've been longing after home for half my life; why are my muscles melting now?

In response to her silence, both Resaime and Theiareth pressed closer to her. Praeis could feel their warmth through her burgundy sarong. They smelled clean, all Human soap and Human-filtered water. Clean of blood and war and intrigue and lies, all of which she was taking them into on All-Cradle.

Praeis bared her teeth at the planet.
If you hurt them, I will make you pay. Earth of my ancestors, I swear I will.

“Attention all hands and passengers.” Praeis's ears jerked. The voice through the intercom had a precise, mechanical inflection.
“Margaret Teale
will be entering the atmosphere in twenty minutes. All baggage must be securely stowed in marked locations. All passengers …”

Praeis relaxed her ears. She gathered her daughters in her arms for a final embrace before she stepped backwards. The voice went on reeling off its lists of do's and don'ts.

“We'd best obey, my children.” There was only one atmosphere couch per occupant per cabin, which meant they had to split up for this last leg of the journey. She had at least managed to finagle Resaime and Theiareth a dual-occupancy cabin. The only way down from the Human station was the Humans’ shuttle, and Humans went to a great deal of trouble to separate themselves from one another. From enemies, Praeis could comprehend, but from the rest of your family? Incredible. Twenty years of it, and it was still utterly incredible.

“Obedience first, obedience second, obedience third,” quoted Resaime. “Come along, my pouch-sister.” She took Theiareth by the wrist and pulled her along. Theiareth looked back at Praeis, wiggled her ears, and grinned.
Bossy,
Praeis knew she was thinking. She smiled and felt ears and spine relax. They'd look after each other.

Getting down to the ground was a long, uncomfortable business. The atmosphere couch was big enough for a large
man,
but barely large enough for her. The pressure of gravity and acceleration after hours of free fall pressed her stomach against her spine and made her very glad she had not eaten breakfast.

Then came the long line of clean-suited Humans, t'Therians, near family, and Others shuffling through the shuttle's too-narrow corridors, trying to keep hold of daughters and luggage at the same time.

BOOK: Playing God
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