Lost Colony Ch. 12-2

“We could open a barbeque stand,” Tracee said, elbowing him.

Sparr ignored the joke. Working swiftly, he fed the rest of the strips into the sequencer. Every animal he had sampled so far, from eels to pigeons to elk, was an extremely close match to an Earth species. He put the machine away, still numb and confused.

“They’re all from Earth?”

“Every one.”

When Sparr said nothing more, Tracee spoke up again. “Wait Alain, the original colonists brought animals with them, right?”

“Some, yes. In embryonic form. They were only supposed to clone them if there were no native fauna.”

“So that’s what this is then. The original colonists got here, looked around, and didn’t see any chickens or pigs. They were hungry, so…”

Sparr had already considered, then dismissed, the idea. “No,” he said. “I mean, you’re right, they might very well have done that, but these animals have been here longer than four hundred years.”

“How do you know?”

“They’re not perfect matches. The chicken, for example. Yeah, it’s an Earth chicken, but its DNA suggests that it has evolved enough to be considered a subspecies.” He was recovering from the shock of the revelation, beginning to concentrate. “Plus, I’ve seen these things in the wild. They’re perfectly adapted for the vegetation, to avoid their hunters.”

“And they wouldn’t do that in four hundred years?”

“Oh, no. No way. A new species requires roughly a million years to form. The chicken you just ate, a subspecies of an Earth chicken, could take less time to develop, but at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of years.”

Sparr’s mind raced, considering and dismissing half a dozen possible explanations. The natural world simply couldn’t move that fast. He had no idea what had happened on Kaybe, what was still happening.

Alongside his confusion, a grim truth emerged. Sparr’s entire purpose on Kaybe was to document alien species. The diversity of life would feed new medicines, food sources, and possibly help restore balance to a sick Earth. For months, as he pursued his mission and the planet’s mysteries, Sparr’s hopes had been kept alive by the wealth of plant and animal life he had encountered. To learn that they might all be Earth species was a blow. He stood, ready to leave the square, but unsure what lay next.

“What about the plants?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Sparr had been so absorbed with animal DNA that he had neglected to sample any plants. “Just a sec.”

“Yeah, we’ll just wait here,” Tracee muttered, scratching at Bogg’s muzzle.

Sparr took a leisurely walk up and down one of Seille’s wider streets, discreetly rubbing DNA strips against several fruit trees, a wiry ground cover, and a patch of tiny wildflowers. Upon returning, he resumed the work of reading the strips, starting with a tree.

Ficus carica: 97.9% match.

“A fig tree,” Sparr said.

“So from Earth, just like the animals?” Tracee was picking at the remains of Sparr’s lunch, feeding scraps to Bogg.

“Yes,” Sparr said. He read the rest of the strips. Like the fig tree, the flowers and grasses he had sampled were related to Earth species but with just enough differences to make them distinct. It made no sense.

“I’m bored,” Tracee said, not bothering to conceal a yawn. “I shouldn’t have brought you that thing. Now you’ll never go back to your real calling of being a temple sex slave.”

Joking aside, Sparr spotted real fatigue in Tracee. She was recovering from her ordeal, but it would be weeks before she regained full strength. “Okay, let’s go, kiddo.” He helped Tracee to her feet. “I’ll buy you that pony next time.”

***

“It’s beautiful.”

For once Kevin and Sparr agreed on something. The Odysseus, looming above and in front of the shuttle, was awe inspiring. Built with the latest Alliance tech, the starship practically gleamed with promise. It spun gently along its axis, providing gravity to the outermost portions of the common spaces, while giving the ship the look of being alive. Sleek engine housings, subtly concealed escape pod bays, and a businesslike main hangar all spoke to the singular purpose for which the ship had been designed.

“They’ve already taken it on flight trials?” Calista, as she often did in public, ignored Sparr.

“Quite a few,” Kevin answered. “Fowler says just last week they took it to ten times light. Didn’t even rattle his teacup.”

“Thank you for arranging the tour, Kevin.” Sparr was sincere. Everyone going on the mission had been granted at least one opportunity to visit the Odysseus before launch, but Kevin had used his influence to arrange a private tour. Except for the orbital operations team, they would have the ship to themselves.

“It looks like a sex toy,” Tracee observed. “The Odysseus Five Thousand! Bringing you light years of pleasure.”

Sparr snorted, but the others ignored her. Not for the first time, he thought about what an odd group they were. He and Calista had a physical relationship, but little else. Kevin, who seemed perpetually bitter, somehow managed to remain close with Calista, while Tracee, to whom everything was a joke, enjoyed Sparr’s company while mostly mocking the others.

The shuttle matched the rotation of the Odysseus before easing into one of the hangar bays. At once the sensation of weightlessness that had accompanied them since reaching orbit was replaced with a very mild gravity. Trying not to embarrass themselves by crashing into doors or ceilings, the four exited the shuttle, for the first time standing aboard the ship that would be their home for the next two years.

“Welcome to the Odysseus. If you’ll follow me, we can begin the tour.” This came from a bored-sounding young woman who looked like she’d rather be calibrating instrument clusters than talking to humans. She led them from the cavernous hangar to a lift which took the group to the outer ring of the ship. Here the gravity effect was a bit stronger, but still short of what they were accustomed to on Earth.

“Shouldn’t the gravity be kept higher,” Tracee wanted to know, “so when we arrive on Kaybe we’ll be strong enough to stand up?”

The engineer responded as she led them through the ship. “We’ll spend most of our time aboard the Odysseus in hibernation. There, electrical impulses will keep our muscles from losing too much tone. The few weeks at a time that we’re awake and moving about won’t be enough to make a difference.”

The private tour did have its advantages. In addition to a look at the briefing room, racks of hibernation pods, observation galleys, and common areas that would have been included on any tour, the four each got to peek at something of particular interest to them. The engineer showed Kevin the security operations console near the forward command station. Tracee got a glimpse at the medical facility, and Sparr was shown the compact but well equipped bio lab where he would perform more detailed analysis and cataloging of samples taken from the surface.

“What about you, Calista?” Sparr asked. “Are you bringing an, oh, I don’t know, enormous box to stuff all of the cool rocks into?”

Calista didn’t take the bait. The rivalry between the two had softened into little more than a running joke. Instead she turned to him calmly, a thin smile finding her lips. “How about a sub?”

The cargo bay lay along the central axis of the ship with the least gravity effect. Moving with great care, the guide led them along a catwalk past prefabricated building supplies, sleeping drones, water purifiers, food, and tightly-folded communications satellites waiting for deployment. Beside them was a massive crate marked with K2-Mineral’s logo and fastened with high-tech security seals.

“So, like I said, an enormous box.”

“The Sea Otter, I’ll have you know, is extremely advanced.” Calista turned to face the others, clearly enjoying her opportunity to lecture them. In the low gravity her hair tossed about her head in a fine, blonde cloud. “It can gather and process samples at depths beyond ten thousand meters, staying submerged for weeks at a time.”

“What if you have to poop?” Tracee asked.

“She’s designed to operate autonomously, but can be crewed if necessary. Of course there’s a toilet.”

“You know sea otters are aquatic mammals, right?” Sparr asked. “They spend most of their time in the shallows or floating on the surface. I realize Nautilus is taken, but you could have named her the Anglerfish, or Seadevil. Actually Seadevil is a really cool name.”

“Ohhhhhhhh that’s right,” Calista replied. “I remember now that I meant to ask for your help naming my state of the art sub. I feel soooo bad about forgetting, too.”

The guide led them back, but Sparr couldn’t stop thinking about the sub. K2-Mineral would have to have paid a staggering price to bring the sub aboard. Even launching it from Earth would have been a major undertaking, and transporting it would have meant making difficult decisions about what to leave behind. Plus, mineral contracts on remote worlds such as Kaybe weren’t likely to have big payoffs. The best K2-Mineral could hope for would be for Calista to discover new mineral compounds which could be synthesized back on Earth. With what logic had K2-Mineral justified the high cost?

“The Captain has a game for you,” the guide said, breaking Sparr’s idle train of thought. She had led them to just outside the main hangar, but now stopped.

“This was Fowler’s requirement for the private tour,” Kevin explained. The message was clear. They’d either play the game or catch Captain Fowler’s wrath.

The guide continued. “This game will test your knowledge of the ship’s layout. I’ve sent you each a list of ten locations on the ship. Everyone’s list is different. You have fifteen minutes to visit as many as possible. Just check in with your datapad at each one, then meet back here when time’s up.”

“I hope one of my locations is a lounger with a nice view of the stars,” Tracee said with an exaggerated stretching motion. “I could use a nap.”

“You’re already on Fowler’s shit list,” Kevin warned. “But yeah, if you want to rise to the top of that list…”

Tracee wrinkled her face, but like the others, turned to her datapad.

Just before the guide started the game Calista passed close behind Sparr, her hand discreetly brushing his ass. “And I’ve got another game planned for us later,” she whispered into his ear, then was gone. The game began.

Sparr inspected his list of places.

Emergency assembly point: R1-C3-S2.

R indicated the ring of the ship. R0 was the central axis which included the cargo bay, zero gravity training room, and main propulsion. R1 was the next ring out, reserved mostly for the hibernation pods. C indicated which corridor, each of which ran bow to stern. S stood for section, or as some said, slice. Slice zero was the frontmost part of the ship, with S7 the aftmost.

Ignoring the lift, Sparr took a tubular ladder to ring one, cut over to corridor three, then forward to slice two. There he found the emergency assembly point, a brightly painted intersection with an alarm panel and an alcove with emergency supplies. He checked in on his datapad and looked at the next location.

Escape pod two: R4-C4-S5.

The game seemed to have been designed around safety protocols. Sparr found another ladder, dropped down two levels, over one corridor, then aft to slice five. Like the emergency assembly point, the hatch to the escape pod was clearly marked, with lights embedded into the walls and floor. Sparr tried to check-in on his datapad, but it wouldn’t let him until he opened the door and stepped into the pod.

“The fuck kind of game is this?” he muttered.

The minutes ticked by as Sparr continued his quest. Once he spotted Calista sprinting across a corridor in front of him, as competitive as ever, but otherwise he saw no one. He checked off the bio lab, a ventilation duct, and one of the little rooms that passengers and crew would call home during their brief periods out of cryo-sleep. Time expired.

“Who won?” Calista asked, once the group had reconvened near the hangar.

“I did,” Tracee said. “I didn’t run around like a moron for fifteen minutes, although I did discover the R4 cantina and bar. Thanks for that, Kev-O!”

Kevin ignored her. “Alain and Calista tied at five each. I had four, although I think Captain Fowler purposefully made it harder for me.”

“Sure,” Calista said, “let’s go with that. Just have the prize sent to Alain’s quarters.”

“Okay,” Kevin said, but his eyes blinked in surprise. Although everyone knew about it, Calista rarely let slip any hint that she and Sparr were in a relationship.

“Wait, what did I win?”

“Oh, you’ll see soon enough.” Calista said. “Don’t stray too far from your quarters tonight. We’re going to share that prize.”

***

“Can we review my sudden disappearance?”

Among the jumble of revelations that Tracee had shared the day of her rescue was the story of how Sparr’s exit from the ship had been explained. At the time Tracee had still been half asleep. He was hoping for a bit more detail.

In her telling, an emergency alarm had been triggered shortly after the ship settled into orbit around Kaybe. The crew had eventually determined that it was a false alarm, and that an escape pod had been launched. No cohesive, official explanation had ever been released, but by the time the mission started to set up a base on the planet’s surface everyone knew that Sparr was missing.

“Didn’t anyone wonder why?”

“Of course,” Tracee responded. “There were a thousand rumors, each juicier than the next. You were an imposter whose past was catching up with him. You were a relative of one of the original colonists. Or, my favorite, you were a martial arts expert who had beaten Earth’s top fighters and was looking for challengers on Kaybe.”

“Fowler must have said something, surely.”

“Sort of,” Tracee admitted. “The arrival was super chaotic. When the emergency alarm was activated the hibernation pods unlocked. Suddenly we had four times as many people waking up as we could feed or had space for. People were hanging out in their hibernation pods, eating emergency rations, and waiting in line to poop. Fowler and the Alliance leadership made the decision to organize an accelerated arrival protocol.”

“That sounds messy.”

“Very. A security detail went down first, followed by a construction team. They picked a good spot to set up a camp, but it was closer to a local settlement than anyone realized. By the time more teams arrived the locals knew something was up. The arrival protocol officer was pissed! They’ve been trying to catch up ever since.”

“You said Captain Fowler made some sort of remarks.”

“After several days. He named you, saying that in the confusion of the arrival you had gone missing, as had one of the escape pods. They were still looking into it.”

“And there was no update after that?”

“I’m not exactly in the loop, Alain. But no, not in the six plus months before I was captured. I do know they were looking for you, but there was no word on that, either.”

Tracee’s capture by the slavers was another topic Sparr wanted to explore, but he stayed on track. “When I first rescued you, you said I was dead.”

“I did?”

“You were pretty worn out, but yeah, you said something like ‘You’re not Alain, Alain’s dead’.”

“Oh. Oh yeah, I can see that.” Fatigued after their excursion to the market and the revelations with the DNA sequencer, Tracee was once again propped up in bed. “Not an official announcement, but some pretty solid rumors that your body had been found, or something to that effect.”

Calista and Kevin. The sole surviving assassin who had fled the failed attempt to kill Sparr must have told them that she had succeeded. Or just as plausibly, Calista and Kevin suspected Sparr was still alive but spread rumors to the contrary just to suppress further search and rescue attempts. No matter. Their lies had given Sparr and Tracee a bit of breathing room.

But not for long. With her cybernetic lenses Tracee was easily identified. Even if no one was looking, word of a petite woman with magic eyes would find its way back to the Odysseus camp. And Sparr himself had hardly been discreet. His disruptive appearance at the slave auction no doubt had made an impression on many. It was just a matter of time before someone came looking, and they would start in Seille.

***

“Have you opened it yet?”

As promised, Calista breezed into Alain’s quarters the evening after their tour of the Odysseus. She had changed out of her flight suit into black tights and a lavender sport top which combined to highlight her athletic body. Sparr smiled. She only dressed like that when she was expecting sex.

“Not yet,” he replied. “Thought I’d wait for you and your mysterious game.”

A courier had dropped off a plainly wrapped box earlier that evening. Calista went to where Sparr had placed it on his coffee table. “I think I know what it is,” she said, starting to unwrap it. “If I know Captain Fowler… yes.” She tugged off the last of the paper.

Sparr’s eyes widened. “Scotch?”

“Yep.” Calista turned the bottle in her hand. “McLaraugh twelve. Not easy to find.”

“Or cheap. I wonder what moved Fowler to put up such a generous perk for our little game.”

Calista began to peel the foil from the bottle. “Between Mineral and Genetics, we’re subsidizing a large portion of this mission.” She removed the stopper and found a pair of glasses. “Ethics rules prevent the Alliance from gifting us directly, but we can win a contest, now can’t we?”

“Kevin or Tracee might have won.”

Stopping mid-pour, Calista fixed Sparr with a disbelieving stare. “Seriously Alain. We’re the two most competitive. One of us was going to win.” She looked at her watch.

“Fair,” Sparr said, shrugging.

The blonde handed him a glass. “To sex, fortune, and adventure!”

“Sex, fortune, and adventure,” he echoed. They clinked glasses.

Sparr sipped, the rich, caramel spirit quickly warming his throat and lingering on his palate, complex and earthy. “This is so nice,” he said. “I guess we’ll have to say goodbye to top shelf spirits for a while.”

“Shit, you’re right.” Calista looked at her glass with new appreciation. “If I recall, the Odysseus can produce fermented beverages, but not spirits.”

“Yep, and I’m sorry,” Sparr added, “but no synthesized spirit can touch this anyway.” He took another sip, holding the whisky on his tongue before swallowing.

“And that’s not the worst of it,” Calista added. She was wearing the same smile she always wore just before a joke.

“Okay, what?”

“On Kaybe, you’ll have to wait longer for sex.”

Sparr almost spit out his whisky. “What? I don’t get it.”

“Well, on Kaybe the days are twelve minutes longer, right? So if you have a date on Friday, then it isn’t twenty-four hours until the next night, it’s twenty-four and twelve minutes!”

Sparr shook his head. “Cali! Days on Kaybe are twelve minutes shorter, not longer.”

“Fuck!”

“You got that wrong on the quiz, too, didn’t you?” It was his turn to grin. Calista despised getting something wrong, especially when Sparr had it right.

“Let’s go outside,” Calista muttered. The change of topic seemed intended solely to distract Sparr.

“Uh, sure, yeah.” Sparr opened the balcony door and the two stepped into the air of a thick Florida evening. In plain view, but at a safe distance, a rocket sat on one of the launch pads, clouds of condensation pouring off of it. In the hundreds of years of space exploration, no solution for getting people and goods into orbit beat strapping them on top of a massive engine aimed straight up. The pair stood quietly, sipping their whisky and admiring the scene.

Knowing it was pointless, Sparr put his arm around Calista. His fingers pressed against her bare shoulder, pulling her tenderly against him as muted noises from the launch facility reached them through the mist. With any other woman it would have been an intimate moment, lovers sharing a respite from the world, holding each other close. The gesture was futile with Calista. The two shared vigorous sexual intimacy, fucking happily as their schedules permitted. To Sparr their sex life sometimes felt like a competitive sport. But closeness, vulnerability, and connection were elusive. Calista rarely dropped her guard.

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