LOST COLONY CH. 08-2

Sparr had to suppress a smile. The blonde, he guessed, was a well-known local hood. It would have to remain a guess. By the time Sparr had returned to the replicator after chasing off the youth, she had passed from her wound.

After making himself visible at the shop, Sparr went back inside. Once again he activated the replicator and fed in the rest of his tokens. There was nothing of use. Nervous energy ran through him. He had come so far, learned so much, yet still lacked answers to his most pressing questions. The spacefarer rose and paced about the cavernous building, trying to focus his thoughts. He scrambled up the sides of the massive hoppers to peer in, explored the different menus on the fabricator touch panel, and dug at the opening until it was large enough for Bogg to squeeze through. Indecision plagued him.

Calista. No matter how hard he tried to distract himself, to keep busy, he couldn’t avoid the hard truth. Calista had betrayed him. It was the only explanation for what had happened: his solo ejection from the Odysseus, the lack of a friendly search party even though the ship and its crew were still intact, even the abrupt way she had broken off their relationship just before arrival. But the piece of information he had extracted from the drone was the most incriminating. Calista and Kevin had programmed the drone to track everyone aboard the Odysseus, and to contain him, whatever that meant.

There was a positive, he realized. Whatever his ex-lover and her friend were up to didn’t seem to include the entire Odysseus crew. The pair were on their own. Sparr might, if he could contact the landing party, be able to set things right. Still, the betrayal stung. He needed something to distract him, something more engaging than poking around the fabricator site.

It was time to find the Precipice.

***

“Thank you for seeing me,” Sparr said.

The Precipice lodge was even more spartan than he had imagined. Whereas the Vonde temple of the Origin had been a sprawling affair with steam baths, a ceremonial hall, and private chambers, the Precipice lodge was little more than a bunk room, a tiny kitchen, and a dim common area. To Sparr, it felt less like a place of worship than a boarding house for impoverished students.

“Please,” Ota said, “we were expecting you. Come in.” He ushered Sparr in, showing him to a seat at a worn table. “We have tea.”

Sparr didn’t spot Chi in the room, but the Interpreter Seph eyed him openly from the far side where she sat with another child, drawing with fine charcoals. Remembering the admonishment never to speak to an Interpreter, Sparr merely smiled. Shortly, Ota returned with a cup of tea so thin and bland that Sparr had difficulty distinguishing it from warm water. He sipped politely.

“We’ve heard,” Ota began, “mostly from ships’ crews. The island is quiet.”

“It was as you said,” Sparr agreed. “There were demons to be banished.”

Ota offered a thin, cryptic smile, leaving Sparr to wonder once more if the Precipice had a better understanding of what was happening than they let on.

“We promised coin,” the priest said. He pushed forward a small bag which Sparr accepted without opening. “It isn’t much.”

“Thank you,” Sparr said. Judging by the austere conditions surrounding them, it was hardly surprising that tokens weren’t in abundance. “And I’m still interested in the advanced teachings you mentioned aboard the Shai.”

“As we agreed,” Ota said. He rose, escorting Sparr to a narrow table where they could sit side by side. Then he pulled what appeared to be a book from a high shelf.

Astonishment shot through Sparr. Though the inhabitants used parchment to create simple drawings, he had yet to encounter any writing, much less a book. Ota sat the book before them, unopened.

“We teach, but few care,” the priest began. “These help us remember.”

Ota opened to the first page, revealing a beautifully detailed rendering of a landscape. Whoever produced it had done so with great skill and patience, striking a balance between representational and abstract strokes, energy and stillness. In the illustration, a lively seascape led to a land of soft hills. In the distance were what Sparr took for snow-capped peaks. A scattering of birds and animals decorated the scene.

“There is the beginning, and before the beginning,” Ota said enigmatically. “I can show you the beginning.”

“Okay,” Sparr said carefully. The concept of ‘before the beginning’ was confusing, but he chose not to inquire.

“As we told you aboard the Shai, the arrival of men disturbed the balance.” He turned the page.

Another detailed drawing revealed itself. Like the first, it depicted a sprawling landscape, this one set at a boundary between plain and mountains. Near the center was an encampment, circled with humans and their dwellings.

“At first, the balance was preserved,” Ota continued. “They were few, and the land is bountiful.”

Sparr noticed Ota’s use of the word ‘they’ to describe the humans. “Okay, so what changed?”

“They reached for that which they should not have. They broke between.”

If the previous drawings had been beautiful, the next was darkly troubling. At the top was a compact but detailed representation of a landscape, similar to that of the previous page. In this scene, however, the animals and birds seemed to flee from a dense human village, and the trees nearest by were warped and bent. The occupants of the village were clustered around a scar in the earth, a dark ring which turned into a narrow, black stripe that plunged down.

The lower half of the drawing was more difficult to decipher. Instead of depicting a landscape, it consisted of soft, swirling pastels. Broad, gentle strokes swept across the page, diverging, or in some cases, merging together both in color and line. Sprinkled throughout were dark grey, slightly elongated spots which reminded Sparr of seeds. On the far right of the lower illustration, the black line from above pushed down into the scene. Where it did, the surrounding pastels faded to white.

Sparr struggled to make sense of the scene. “The black line is… what, exactly?”

“It is metaphorical,” Ota said quickly. The priest cast his eyes back over his shoulder toward Seph, but the girl was absorbed with her art. He turned back. “It represents the disturbance in our balance.”

It didn’t look metaphorical to Sparr. He pointed to the mountain in the top illustration. “Is that Horn Island?”

“No,” Ota said, though he hesitated. Finally, as if reaching some difficult, private decision, he clarified. “There is more than one Horn Island. More than one disturbance.”

The pieces were falling into place, but Sparr was still eager to hear the rest of the teachings. “What next?”

Ota flipped to the next page. The illustration suggested a plague. Human figures fled the site of the scar in the ground, but most had collapsed. At the farthest edges of the scene, human settlements burned.

“The disturbance nearly destroyed them,” Ota said.

Sparr stared at the illustration. There was something familiar about it that took Sparr a moment to recall. It was a much more refined version of the cliffside drawing he had encountered on his way from Shong. “This seems like a history lesson, Ota. What does the Precipice actually teach? What do you ask your followers to do?”

“Live simply.” Ota’s response seemed reflexive. “Do not take more than you need. Do not disturb the balance.”

The priest’s response could have come directly from a Green party rally. On Earth, recognizing the importance of respecting the natural world had taken millennia. How well did the Precipice creed resonate with the struggling residents of Kaybe?

Unprompted, Ota turned the final page. The scene was more subdued than those immediately preceding it. Smaller communities were sprinkled across a sprawling scene of oceans, hills, rivers, and plains. “We have been in balance for so long, but now I fear…” He trailed off, closing the book.

Sparr had been shown so much, so fast. He tried to pull everything into place. “What happened before the beginning? Is there another book?”

“No,” Ota said. He sat back. “It is forbidden.”

For a moment Sparr thought to press the point. Instead he, too, sat back. In one afternoon he had learned an enormous amount. He just needed time to sort it out. Still, something bothered him.

“The book you showed me,” he began, “each lodge has one?”

“Usually several, yes.”

“It’s beautiful. Did Seph draw the one you showed me?”

Ota smiled. “Yes. She’s quite talented with charcoal and brush.”

“You taught her?”

“No. Each of us is taught during our time at the Portal.” Then, sensing Sparr’s confusion, he continued. “The Portal is our holiest place.”

Sparr was overwhelmed, nearly bursting with what Ota had revealed. “Thank you,” he said, standing. He let Ota show him to the door, then stepped from the dim and philosophical world of the Precipice out into the glaring light of a Santi afternoon.

***

“It is time, ladies and gentlemen, for everyone’s favorite topic: Arrival Protocol.”

The assembled Alliance crew and passengers let out a collective groan. Someone made an exaggerated snoring sound.

‘Yes, yes, I get it,” Captain Fowler continued. “But I have a bit of a surprise for you today. Dr. Stacke, Principal Archivist, will share something her team only recently turned up.”

Stacke, an imposingly tall, but almost frighteningly thin woman of late years stepped forward.

“You like ’em skinny,” Calista whispered into Sparr’s ear. “Maybe the two of you could…”

Sparr prepared a retort, but Stacke spoke first.

“Good morning, everyone,” she began, her voice precise. “While Captain Fowler has been preparing you for the voyage, my team has been digging up anything we can on the original mission. “Only last week we finally located the colonists’ arrival protocols.

“Would they be that different than ours?” The question came from one of the navigators.

“Yes, very,” Stacke said. “Your mission takes you to a planet which has already been colonized. You’re focusing mostly on how to make contact with the original colonists. They, in turn, were more focused on exploring what was hopefully an uninhabited planet.”

“What if it wasn’t uninhabited?”

Stacke spoke again. “Exactly what they had to cover in their arrival protocols. We’ve uploaded the documents to the mission portal, but we’ll also review them here as a group today.”

A composite image appeared, floating in the space next to Stacke. It consisted of four sections, each with a different photo. “Can any of you tell me which of these is an alien species?”

“That one!” called out a propulsion engineer, pointing to the lower-left photo. “I’d turn the other way if I saw that thing!”

“Are you sure?” Stacke asked. “You’re on a newly explored planet and you encounter this creature. Did you introduce it, or is it alien?”

The propulsion engineer wisely held his tongue.

Calista jabbed Sparr. “You’re good at this shit. You answer.”

“It’s a trick question,” Sparr whispered. “Our engineering friend just declared the platypus to be an alien species.”

“Right,” Stacke said. “What about this?” Another image appeared featuring four different organisms. “Which are alien?”

No one spoke, but Fowler noticed Sparr and called him out. “How about you, Mr. Sparr? Any of these alien?”

“Lower right,” he said.

Fowler glanced back to the image. “Looks like reeds to me. Or grass.”

“It does,” Sparr admitted. “Scientists can’t agree whether it’s a plant or animal, but it’s definitely not from Earth.”

“And what about the other three?” he asked, still addressing Sparr.

“Sealife from right here in our own little corner of the galaxy.”

If Stacke was bothered by Fowler’s hijacking of the conversation she didn’t let on. “Correct on all four counts. Now, Mr. Sparr, since you seem like you know your way around aquatic creatures, can you tell us what those three have in common?”

He took another look. “Lionfish, green mussel, and crown of thorns starfish. All have at one time or another been considered invasive species.”

“Precisely,” Stacke said. “And the problem of invasive species is at the heart of the colonists’ arrival protocols. According to the original documents, they were forbidden to introduce any species which might interact with one already on the planet.”

An astounded maintenance technician spoke up. “Wait, they brought animals with them?”

“In embryonic form only. Remember, protein synthesis was in its infancy when the original mission left Earth. The colonists brought both plant and animal species with them to establish basic agriculture. Whether or not they needed them, we don’t know.”

“And what if they found intelligent life?”

Stacke nodded. “Yes, that’s the other half of the protocols. Colonists were directed to first search for sentient life. If they found it, then the protocols go into great detail about first contact and the rules for possible co-settlement of the planet.”

The lecture continued, first with Stacke reviewing the original protocols, and then Fowler stepping in to clarify the differences with those the Odysseus would follow.

Sparr was barely listening. Instead, his head swam with thoughts of an exotic alien world, swarming with life.

***

Feeding Bogg while in Santi proved to be easier than Sparr could have dreamed. On the road, the creature had foraged happily, discovering berries, insects, crustaceans, and roots. In the urban confines of Santi, Sparr had wondered where the animal would find a similar bounty. Two of the vendors in the merchant courtyard solved the problem. One, a butcher, was more than happy to give up the day’s bones and scraps, provided Sparr watched his shop for an hour over lunch. The other, a vegetable vendor, fell in love with Bogg, rushing to greet him every time Sparr returned to the courtyard, rubbing her fingers through the creature’s thick coat. Thanks to her, Bogg never wanted for scraps, sometimes even receiving whole vegetables.

Solving his own challenges remained more problematic. Sparr fed the few tokens he received from Ota into the fabricator, turning up one additional air car part, something called an aft stabilizer coupler assembly. It was a beginning, but he would still need hundreds of additional parts. Sparr had no idea where he would get his next token, much less the thousands it would take to have a chance at stumbling upon the parts needed for the air car.

Then there was the question of how best to approach the Odysseus. Calista, with the help of Kevin, was pursuing an agenda of her own. Sparr couldn’t be sure what lies they had told the rest of the crew. Kevin was a security specialist. With his access to logs, records, and defensive systems like the drones, they could tell almost any story about him, while also keeping him at arm’s length. Had they painted him as some sort of dangerous criminal? His best bet would be to directly contact someone senior like Captain Fowler. But how? He wasn’t even sure where on Kaybe they had set up camp.

“Looks like you and me, Bogg!” The beast, when he lay down, made an excellent backrest for Sparr. The two were reclining inside the fabricator facility, the massive hoppers towering overhead. Sparr tried to digest what he had learned at the Precipice lodge.

The Precipice told of the arrival of men and, curiously, even referred to a time before their coming. As Ota had told the tale, men at first had prospered. They set up villages, lived off the land, and co-existed with the natural world. It was only later when seemingly they did something which disturbed the natural balance, and brought on some variety of disaster. Ota had insisted the illustration was metaphorical, but to Sparr unmistakably it represented mining. His theory was supported by the request from the Precipice to ‘quiet’ the mining operation on Horn Island.

The stories told by both the Origin and the Precipice, he realized, echoed the same theme. The stages of Omm’s journey represented a growing disaffection with material wealth, as provided by machinery. The Precipice, he was certain, had shared the message first. The Origin, later, had found a way to monetize the same belief system, turning a profit while selling sex, influence, and drugs. Though his understanding was incomplete, the Precipice teachings seemed closer to the truth of what had happened to Kaybe’s original colonists.

Bogg began to snore, a heavy, sonorous sound that seemed to reach every fiber of Sparr’s being. Like the beast, he too slipped toward the chasm of sleep, his last thoughts chasing after Kaybe’s enduring mysteries.

***

“You promised to show me a feather star, remember.”

“I said no such thing,” Sparr objected. “I only said they were common to these waters.”

Sparr stood with Calista on the beach, an hour before sunset. Before them, the waves spilled gently onto the sand. A troop of plovers darted past, seeking dinner in the aftermath of the water’s retreat.

‘I’m certain you did,” the blonde said, winking at him. There was a playfulness in her eyes that Sparr rarely saw. Without waiting for him, Calista donned her mask and snorkel. The bikini-clad woman pranced toward the surf, her curves putting on a show.

For almost an hour the two swam and snorkeled. Sparr would paddle peacefully along the surface, scanning the shallows. When he spotted something of interest he would signal Calista and the two would submerge to explore it.

“That was a fucking shark!” she shouted once after they surfaced.

“That was a tarpon,” Sparr laughed. “But yeah, they’re pretty big, especially when they catch the light.”

“Okay,” she said, skeptically. “Then what was that little thing you showed me, the pink one with the little squares on it?”

“That’s a flamingo tongue.” Sparr was pleasantly tired, bobbing on the surface as he caught his breath. “And you saw the feather stars, right?”

“They’re the ones like ferns attached to rocks?”

Sparr laughed again. “Yes,” he admitted, “a ‘fern on a rock’ isn’t a bad description.”

Calista eyed the evening sky, traced with pink and coral clouds. “It’s getting dark.”

“Probably too dark to spot anything we haven’t already seen,” Sparr agreed.

The two found their way back to the beach, where they shed the rental masks, snorkels, and fins.

“What time do you have to get these back to the Alliance recreational club?” Sparr asked. Calista had surprised him by suggesting and organizing the snorkeling trip, including picking up the rental gear, and packing a small cooler.

“I can return them tomorrow morning,” Calista said. “Why, are you in a hurry?”

“Nope,” Sparr said. He sat on the blanket, doing his best to avoid tracking more sand onto it than was necessary.

“Anyway, I packed us a few things.” Calista opened the cooler. In addition to water, she had brought cheese, crackers, and fruit. Sparr realized how hungry he had become.

As the two snacked, the sunset deepened around them. The pink and coral clouds turned orange, then darkened entirely. A few of the brighter stars began to appear. The tide was coming in.

Calista pulled an insulated bottle from her pack. Sparr watched curiously as the blonde unscrewed the top and poured two small cups of frothy, orange liquid.

“What’s that?”

“Try it,” she said, handing one to Sparr.

He took a sip, savored the taste, then took another. The soft warmth of alcohol announced itself. “It’s sweet.”

“Yep,” Calista said. She held Sparr’s gaze as the two sipped their drinks. With the snacks pushed out of the way, she lay on her side, just half a meter from him. The evening was turning into something more than just a snorkeling trip.

For the hundredth time, Sparr admired Calista’s athletic body. Her full breasts seemed eager to spill from the bikini top. Prominent hip bones lifted the strap of the bikini bottoms away from her abdomen, creating an inviting and suggestive gap.

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