Authors: Victoria Zagar
Tags: #Gay romance, Science Fiction
When Julian's mentor urges him to accept an invitation to study the dying sand of Valeria, all he sees is another assignment. Valeria's ban on romantic and sexual unions seems a trivial price to pay in the name of scientific progress; even the constant supervision by the Sisters, the advanced A.I. that runs Valeria, seems a negligible point.
When the situation proves to be more difficult than anticipated, Julian finds a lifeline in Saidan, a warm, emotional individual who has somehow survived a world of passive expression and uniformity. As they work together to try and solve Valeria's degradation problem, they learn the Sisters had a much more sinister reason for inviting Julian to Valeria, and the two of them may not be able to save themselves, let alone an entire planet...
The Forbidden Zone
By Victoria Zagar
Published by Less Than Three Press LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for the purpose of reviews.
Edited by Tracey Pennington
Cover designed by Natasha Snow
This book is a work of fiction and all names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
First Edition November 2015
Copyright © 2015 by Victoria Zagar
Printed in the United States of America
Digital ISBN 9781620046623
Print ISBN 9781620046630
I'm very grateful to everyone at Less Than Three Press, including my fantastic editor Tracey Pennington and to Natasha Snow for creating the gorgeous cover that adorns this book.
I remember the last day before my extraordinary journey like it was just yesterday, though it feels like it happened in another life. I was walking with my mentor, Professor Lankis, across the courtyard of the Science Foundation. I can still recall the way the sunlight reflected off the mirrored surface of the various research towers, each dedicated to their own particular discipline. There was a pristine, white stone walkway beneath my feet, preserved by automatic maintenance. Flowerbeds and patches of grass grew in perfect squares across the garden, not a single blade of grass growing over the borders. The robot gardeners always took such good care of the courtyard in a way that seemed to reflect their synthetic personalities; all straight lines, no deviation from the program. No soil across the line. No overhanging grass. I was much the same way, back then. I operated within the rules I had created, scorning those who spent time on frivolities such as romance.
Lankis was looking a little older than usual, the angry scars from his fatal KEVAC Syndrome standing out in the harsh sunlight. His white hair and neatly-trimmed beard seemed to reflect the light, creating the image of a God-like figure walking across the courtyard. He could still keep pace with me, but it was a leisurely plod to begin with, with neither of us in any real hurry to get to our destination. I knew that even with modern science, that might be the last time we ever saw one another. I would soon be going to distant Valeria on a five-year science exchange, and he would be entering the hospice to live out his final days without the pressure of the Foundation's constant need of his mind.
"You're really okay with this?" Lankis asked, turning to me with his trademark skeptical gaze. I knew that look; I'd seen it a thousand times in his classes, back when I was one of his students. He really didn't believe I could stick to the Valerian rules, and I didn't blame him. Ten thousand years of human nature told him that it was impossible for a sexual man to abstain for five years. I should have known back then that he was right, but I was arrogant. I believed that love and attraction were simply matters of behavior control on my part. I had even convinced the Foundation, who had favored bypassing the issue entirely by sending the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, asexual, aromantic Elly Sanders. If Sanders had not failed the medical due to a previously-undetected arrhythmia of the heart, I would have willingly bowed out. The only scientist I knew who held a candle to her was Lankis, and I may have been biased in that regard by my affection for him.
"I can do it," I said. "I'm going to Valeria to conduct research, not flirt with the other scientists."
"Obviously," Lankis said. "The human spirit often has other ideas, though. You are not an island, Julian, no matter how much you want to believe it."
"Well, the threat of a death sentence for dating will have to keep me in my place, then." There was an air of smugness to my voice that I regret now, an aura of superiority, as if I was above Lankis' record of failed marriages and sordid love affairs. If he was hurt by my words, he never said a thing, but that skeptical look in his eyes remained. I can still see it when I close mine. It's the look of a man who knows better and has the research to prove it. He understood the human mind in a way no other man did.
"Well, just be on your toes," Lankis said. "Valeria is a surveillance society with a tight hold on its citizens. It's not exactly a holiday resort."
"This isn't a vacation," I said. "I'll have to spend five years in cryogenic sleep just to get there. I'll probably be sick as a dog when I wake up."
Lankis smiled: a sad, wan upturn of the mouth that others might have missed. It was his way of understanding that our chances of meeting again upon my return were negligible; he would likely be long dead by the time I reached distant Valeria.
"It has to be me," I said, almost defensively. "I have no attachments. No family. What I bring back from Valeria could change the future of this world. Somebody has to go. Why not me?"
"The Council decided you were the best choice, yes." Lankis stopped and sat down on a bench, short of breath from KEVAC Syndrome's internal scarring and looking every moment of his one-hundred-and-two years of age. "I do have faith in you. I just know that underneath that hard exterior, you are more human than you let yourself believe."
"Are you ready for the Galileans to send an envoy first? Besides, it would have been rude not to accept the Valerians' invitation."
"They plan to learn from us as well," Lankis said. "The road goes both ways. Don't act like you're doing them a favor; that's the kind of thing they'd like you to think."
"I'm sure they would." I fell silent, my hands folded together in my lap. For the first time since I'd been chosen, I felt a certain sense of apprehension at the task before me: a sense of doubt that I really could pull this off and return to Earth with new knowledge.
Lankis detected this, of course, and placed a wrinkled hand on my shoulder. It was shockingly intimate: an action I wouldn't have allowed from just anybody, but Lankis had been by my side for most of my adult years. I was thirty-five years old, still pretty young by human standards, and yet, most humans had felt intimate contact by that point. I had not. Lankis had been the closest thing I'd ever had to a friend or lover, and yet, this action was the warmest thing I'd ever felt from him. His hand almost seemed to burn through the fabric of my Foundation uniform.
"If anybody can do it, Julian, it would be you." Lankis withdrew his hand as fast as he'd put it there, and suddenly I realized that was his way of saying goodbye. He knew anything else would just embarrass me, pushing me past the limits of what I deemed acceptable. I was such a robot back then. I could have made a good gardener, trimming the grass in perfectly straight lines. But the human equation is far more complex than any algorithm we could write, and people truly come into their own when taken from safety and placed into extraordinary circumstances.
Extraordinary didn't even begin to describe what I would find on Valeria, or to quantify its value. The value of love, of life, of civilization, and of society. All the things I had taken for granted up until that last day on Earth.
It was a few days later when the gravity of my situation seemed to dawn on me. What had been purely theoretical was now becoming a certainty as I was taken to the preparation center by anti-grav train and measured for a basic jumpsuit that I would be wearing in cryogenic stasis. It was explained to me more than once that the suit would measure my vital signs in stasis and wake me if abnormalities were detected, upon which I could self-administer care and go back to sleep.
There would be no help on the mission: I was going alone, transported by an auto-piloted ship flying under a respected flag of peace. It was highly unlikely that the vessel would be attacked, but it was fitted with an advanced A.I. that could use the ship's weapons as well as any human. Just in case.
The one thing I hadn't considered is how alone I'd be. I think it finally dawned on me that I was actually going into deep space all by myself when the doctors walked away. I was lying in what the doctors dubbed 'the coffin.' The top started to close, creating a glass screen between them and me. I realized philosophically that the screen had always been there: that there had always been something separating myself from others. They worked in groups: I worked alone. They created connections: I was a solitary unit. The glass seemed to cement the fact that I was the only one who could carry out the mission. When I realized that, I started to feel fear for the very first time. The world's future was on my shoulders. I was the only one who could bring home research that could help with Earth's radical soil depletion, medical breakthroughs that could end the epidemic of KEVAC Syndrome, and even sociological research that could change the way we lived on Earth. Me. Julian Tamaris of the Science Foundation of Earth. It was all up to me.
Cryogenic fluid poured into the chamber, the cool liquid rising up around my ears. It seemed to relax me, and I felt like I was floating in an ocean. Yet my last thought before I lost consciousness was a simple moment of doubt. I'm human. What if I fail?
The worst thing about waking up from stasis? Dizziness. As soon as my eyes started to work again, which was after a frightening few minutes in total blindness, the world spun in a sickening way that made me wish I couldn't see. Getting up was not an option, though it had been explained to me that it wasn't supposed to be. The pod opened, the last of the liquid drained out, and I started to rise on a metal plate that made my sense of nausea overwhelming. The plate reached the top of the pod and stopped. I waited in silence for seconds until the end of the plate lifted one leg, then the other, in a stilted kind of exercise routine. Every motion hurt like hell, stiff limbs moving for the first time in five years. I reminded myself to tell the doctors they needed to build in something to move the limbs every now and then in stasis, in order to minimize suffering on this end. Certainly they would tell me a reason why it wasn't possible, and on a whim I would design a prototype just to prove them wrong. It wasn't as snarky and self-serving as it seems, I assure you. I just like to improve the conditions of the human race as much as possible with the knowledge that I have acquired over the years. That's what being a scientist means to me.
After what seemed like hours, though it could have been thirty minutes for all I knew, the plate finally lifted me to a standing position. I was very unsteady and my fears were actualized as the straps holding me to the plate retracted and I instantly fell to my knees. I vomited endlessly, clearing my stomach and lungs of the fluid that had been freezing them. I'm sure the doctors would tell me that it was all normal, though let me tell you, it felt the furthest possible thing from normal. I suppose that's why they don't include it in the orientation. Humans aren't supposed to be frozen like popsicles and sent off to distant planets. We haven't exactly evolved to include a survival mechanism for it.
Anyway, coming back to normal was a very slow process. Luckily, the doctors had planned for this and a robot fed me at regular intervals. I suppose it must have been a week until I was walking properly again. You would think they would have included a chronometer in the room, but either it was an oversight, or they didn't want me to know how inefficient their stasis revival process was. I guessed the latter.