Planet Magazine No. 3 - Science Fiction

No Man of Woman Born

NO MAN OF WOMAN BORN

by Brian Burt

Karyl Carson dipped the wings of his solar skimmer and dropped low over the
field of pherns. The photoelectric plants flashed beneath him like an emerald sea, their
fronds twisting with indiscernible slowness as they tracked the sun’s path across the sky.
This field covered four hundred square kilometers, its intricate root network supplying
power for the surrounding farms and the capital city of Olygius. He leveled the skimmer
and sighed. So lush. So beautiful. To the west, a stand of methuselah trees rose above the
pherns, one of the few species native to Verdis that remained untouched by the
bioengineers. Trunks as thick as buildings stretched gnarled limbs in all directions,
dangling leaf-webs to catch the golden rays of Prometheus. From this distance the
methuselahs looked like an army of giant, hairy ogres. Some were older than humanity
itself. When he gazed at them, Karyl felt certain that they were the guardians of Verdis,
ready to cast the human invaders back into space at the slightest offense. If he did not handle
the next few days just right, their wrath would be upon him.

He lifted the skimmer’s nose to clear the forest and continued westward toward Olygius,
eyes twitching heavenward. Somewhere far above him, the mothership from Titan orbited
Verdis like a third moon. Its cold shadow followed him wherever he went. He tried to push
his thoughts beyond the darkness, to enjoy the graceful cityscape approaching beyond the
trees. Olygius grew out of the fertile soil of the Makarri Plain like a sculptured oasis,
filling him with a pride that temporarily burned away the shadows. His ancestors had
shaped this place, nurtured the interconnected web of green towers and living structures
that made Verdis unique in all the galaxy. His great-grandfather, his grandfather, his
father — all brilliant biochemists, all wise leaders in their time. Now the mantle of power
passed to him as the only son of Gabriel Carson, a right of succession guaranteed by
planetary charter. A great honor. A greater burden.

He banked the skimmer toward the city center, landing on the pad beside the Ministry
complex. One of his aides — Curry, or Curren, he couldn’t remember — rushed to help
him from the craft, wide-eyed and breathless. "The Titanians have confirmed the meeting,
but for nine o’clock instead of ten. Minister Bailey says they want to show us who’s in
charge."

Karyl nodded. "For once, I agree with him. Let’s move, we don’t have much time." The
two of them strode briskly toward the private entrance to the Central Ministry, stepping
through the security membrane without pause. Karyl winced as the veil of protoplasm
recognized his tissue and oozed around him to permit him entry. Anyone not authorized
would find the membrane as impermeable as a wall. Safe and reliable, but the gooey stuff
still made his skin crawl. He hurried down the main artery of the complex after Curren,
his footsteps muffled by the pliant skin of the corridor.

A few minutes later Karyl and his aide passed through a second security membrane into the
Control Center. Karyl quickly scanned the wall of screens and monitors, a marvel of
bioelectronics. Security Minister Jepson turned to meet his gaze. "Morning, sir. We
received their transmission about twenty minutes ago. Mallow and three of his deputies
should be shuttling down from the mothership any time now. It’s one mother of a ship, all
right. Twice the volume of our entire complex, five times the mass. More armaments than
a whole squadron of Star Patrol. Signal beacon identifies it as the C.S.S. Titanic."

Karyl let out a staccato burst of laughter. "The Titanic! There are no students of ancient
Terran history on board that ship."

"Excuse me, sir?"

Karyl’s grin faded and he shook his head. "Never mind, Jepson. I can see you flunked
history too." He saw the man’s face tighten and instantly regretted the barb. Why did he
bait them? Why did he alienate them all? They could not always hide the mockery behind
their eyes, the patronizing smirk beneath a smile. Sometimes they did not even try. A tiny
voice echoed in his head, shrill and chiding. You’re a freak, Mr. President. Any man
brought to term in his mother’s womb instead of in a gestator is not fit to lead. Any man
who has not been genetically enhanced must be inferior. In a world of perfect people, he
stood out like a mutant with his rounded belly, his balding head, his hooked nose. The
eccentric ‘back-to-nature’ beliefs of his parents made him an outcast on the planet he
commanded, filling him with bile.

Karyl abandoned his dark musings and turned to his aide. "Have Ministers Bailey and
McMahon report to my conference chamber."

His own problems would wait. The Titanians certainly would not.

* * *

Karyl slid through the membrane that secured his inner office, grateful for a
moment of privacy. Pacifico lay curled beside his desk, one orange eye fixed on him. He
bent to pick up his pet glitter-dragon, stroking the creature’s iridescent scales with
affection. Nerve toxin on the scales quickly paralyzed the dragon’s predators in the wild,
but it had a delicious soothing effect on humans. God, how he needed that today! With great
reluctance he released Pacifico and passed into the Presidential Conference Chamber.

Science Minister McMahon was already seated behind the long conference table, while
Diplomacy Minister Bailey paced in front of it. Karyl gave Bailey a curt nod and returned
McMahon’s smile. Evan McMahon was one of the few people inside these walls who treated
him like an equal. The young science minister was also a genius with phytometallics, a
fusion of plant chemistry and metallurgy. Bailey, for all his intransigence, was breaking
new ground in phytopolymers. They were all scientists by choice, administrators by
necessity. Science had built this world. Karyl always felt far more comfortable in his
private lab than inside the somber walls of the Ministry. He took a seat beside McMahon,
lowering himself onto the form-fitting petals of the lily-chair. The elegant chairs were
McMahon’s own creation. They usually impressed visiting dignitaries, but Karyl doubted
that Aldous Mallow would even notice. He motioned to Bailey with annoyance. "Sit down,
Quentin, before you bruise the floor."

Bailey glared back, his voice edgy and a touch condescending. "You might want to do some
pacing yourself, Karyl. This new Premier of Titan is not one for negotiation. You’ll have a
much more difficult time of it than your father did."

Karyl winced. The wound caused by Gabriel Carson’s death was fresh and painful. "You’re
right. Old Killian was tough but fair. He wasn’t out for conquest. Mallow is a different
breed. My contacts on Arsenia say he’s effectively annexed their planet. They’re calling
him the Wolf of the Outer Rim. I wish to god Killian was still alive."

Bailey sighed. "I wish to god your father was."

McMahon shook his head in disgust. "You’re way out of line, Bailey."

Karyl smiled tightly. "Forget it. That’s something else Quentin and I agree on. But right
now, the three of us have to present a united front. If Mallow senses weakness, he’ll chew
us up. And Verdis with us."

Karyl’s comm badge beeped before either man could answer. "Mr. President, this is
Jepson. The shuttle is down. Premier Mallow is on his way."

Karyl and his ministers settled into their lily-chairs and waited in tense silence until a
security trooper appeared outside the entrance to deactivate the membrane. Aldous Mallow
stepped inside, followed by three burly deputies. The man was even more menacing in
person than on the holovids. Like all Titanians — descendants of the first human colonists
who had settled Titan centuries ago — Mallow had been genetically engineered to endure the
frigid climate of his homeworld. He stood at least two meters tall, his face buried beneath a
shaggy mat of hair, mustache, and beard. Tufts of body hair curled over the edges of his
purple dress uniform. His smile unleashed a feral vision of fangs gleaming in a dark
forest. The Premier of Titan looked like a mythical Terran werewolf frozen halfway
through his transformation.

Mallow extended a beefy arm, his growl a perfect complement to his appearance.
"President Carson, a pleasure. My condolences for the loss of your father."

Karyl rose and offered his hand in return, watched it disappear into Mallow’s massive paw.
Both parties found their seats, the Titanians not without trepidation as the lilies strained
to support their bulk. "Thank you, Premier Mallow. Congratulations on your new office.
I understand your victory was a landslide."

"Yes. The people of Titan need help. I offered it, and they responded. That is why I am
here. In the past we have relied heavily on food imported from Verdis to support our
growing population. The shipments you send are much appreciated. But we find ourselves
in a crisis situation. Titan is a cold, harsh planet. The narrow agricultural belt along our
equator cannot support us. Hydroponics cannot support us. Current imports from Verdis
cannot support us. We need more, and will gladly pay for it."

Karyl nodded warily. "I see. How much more?"

"To meet our immediate needs, let us say twenty times the current level of grains and
vegetables."

McMahon whistled. "With all due respect, Mister Premier, you can’t be serious."

Mallow’s lupine smile faded. "I am very serious. Children are starving on Titan. It is my
duty to feed them."

Karyl stared at the Premier without blinking. "It is my duty to feed my own people.
Verdis depends on a delicately balanced network of ecosystems to keep its biosphere intact.
We have limited our population to the Maximum Planetary Load, per Galactic
Commonwealth directive. When we have crops in excess of that required to support our
population, plus a contingency factor, we export them to Titan. We will certainly continue
to do so, but we will never be able to supply twenty times our current exports. Your
children are starving, Mr. Premier, because Titan has allowed its population to expand
well beyond its certified MPL. That is the problem you must face."

Mallow’s face darkened. "Whether we have exceeded some Commonwealth bureaucrat’s
arbitrary limit is irrelevant. My people are dying. We must have food."

"I repeat, we can’t give you any more without endangering our own people. However, we
have developed some advanced agricultural techniques that may prove useful on Titan. The
details of those techniques are freely available via STARNET for your bioengineers to
review. I suggest you make use of them."

"We have no time to learn techniques. My people need to eat now, today! I had hoped you
would appreciate our situation. However, if you refuse to compromise, we are fully
prepared to take what we need. The choice is yours. You can be paid for it, or not."

Karyl stood, propelled to his feet by growing anger. "My ancestors spent centuries
creating Verdis. They wove a living, breathing technology into this planet. I’m not about to
let Titan’s greed strangle it."

Mallow’s glare became a snarl. "I won’t take insults from a freak who was carried in his
mother’s belly. I bet she squealed like a pig when she squeezed you out!"

Karyl bounded around the table, his fist curving up into Mallow’s shaggy face with a thud.
Mallow roared in rage. Before he could raise his own fists, the petals of the lily-chair
clamped his arms against his sides. He struggled to break free, but the phytometallic
tissues of the chair held him fast. He bellowed useless orders to his deputies, who were
similarly shackled. Karyl cradled his bloody hand and smiled. "My science minister
designed those chairs well. Struggling will only make them bind tighter." He pressed his
comm badge and a dozen security troops slipped through the membrane. "Gentlemen,
please escort the Premier and his party back to their shuttle."

One of the troopers deactivated the chairs to release the Titanians. Aldous Mallow looked as
if he were about to spontaneously combust. "You sealed your own fate, freak. Verdis will
get nothing from us. Nothing!"

Karyl nodded. "We ask nothing but to be left alone. Verdis has its own defenses, Mr.
Premier. Remember that."

Mallow stormed out, escorted by Jepson’s security team. When he was gone, Karyl sank
into a chair. "Evan, get a medic in here. I think my hand is broken."

Bailey shook his head in disbelief. "Losing your temper is one thing, Karyl, but you... you
had to punch the most dangerous man in this part of the galaxy."

Karyl studied the red smear on his knuckles. "Mallow decided to swallow Verdis long
before today. And I needed to draw some blood."

"You drew it, all right. Was it worth a planet?"

Karyl Carson studied his bloody hand. "It might be, Quentin. We’ll see."

* * *

Karyl was working in his private laboratory when the comm badge beeped.
Through a haze of exhaustion he realized that Prometheus had risen above the tree line,
that he had worked all night. He strained to put authority into his voice. "What is it?"

McMahon’s voice sounded as lifeless as his own. "Karyl, it’s Evan. Mallow hit us this
morning — hard. We need you at the Ministry."

Karyl’s innards burned as if digesting broken glass. "Did he kill anyone?"

"No human casualties, but... Look, just get here as fast as you can."

Karyl nearly ran to the skimmer. When he touched down outside the Ministry complex
twenty minutes later, McMahon and Bailey were there to greet him personally. The fact
that Quentin Bailey seemed too shocked to fire a verbal salvo told Karyl enough to make his
chest hammer with dread. "What’s happened?"

Bailey could only shake his head. McMahon grabbed Karyl’s arm and pulled him toward the
entrance. "Wait until we’re inside." Karyl did not even have the energy to shudder as
they squeezed through the gelatinous membrane and hustled down the corridor into the
Control Center. Security Minister Jepson stood in his usual place, tight-lipped and
somber. "Morning, sir. Come to survey your handiwork?"

Karyl saw it then, in Jepson’s face, in nearly all the faces. The unspoken accusation.
McMahon spared Karyl the need to answer. "Give him a break, Jepson. He doesn’t know
yet. Just put the aerial view on the monitor." Karyl stood silently, a condemned man
awaiting his execution. The main screen shimmered, coalesced into a bird’s-eye view of an
immense crater. As the camera pulled back, he recognized the surrounding scenery and
moaned.

McMahon whispered as if at a funeral. "At around eight o’clock the Titanians obliterated
ten square kilometers of the Galayo Forest. The heart, where the oldest stands of
methuselahs grew. Jepson thinks they used some kind of antimatter beam. There’s nothing
left, Karyl. They even vaporized the first three meters of topsoil."

Karyl’s knees nearly buckled beneath the weight of his despair. "A thousand centuries of
living history gone. Just... gone."

Bailey finally managed to find his voice. "You challenged him to attack, and he did. It looks
like he figured out how to hurt you the most. He sent a transmission thirty minutes ago to
say this was just a demonstration. If we don’t comply with his demands, he’ll start taking
out the phern fields next. He’ll cripple us."

Karyl closed his eyes to escape the nightmare image. "I can’t believe it. I can’t believe
even Mallow could do this."

Bailey’s tone grew shrill. "He might not have if you hadn’t baited him like you bait
everyone around here. Damn it, Karyl, you dared him to do it!"

McMahon’s voice rose to meet Bailey’s. "You were pretty invisible during that meeting,
Bailey. Didn’t have the guts to say a goddamn thing, but you’re the first to criticize the
man who stood up to that hairy bastard."

Karyl struggled through a fog of exhaustion and misery. "Stop bickering over what’s done.
Let’s decide what to do next. Jepson, is there any way we can neutralize the Titanian
beam?"

Jepson shook his head. "Whatever it was, the beam left no trace, no radiation signature.
We have nothing to analyze, so there’s no way we can stop it."

"What about the anti-meteor defense net. Could we adapt that for an offensive strike
against their mothership?"

Jepson frowned. "Good idea, but it won’t work. The satellite net is designed to deflect large
meteors so that they pass by Verdis, not to destroy them. The Titanian ship is made of some
alloy we can’t identify, but it’s tough and scanner-proof. The worst we could do is shake
them enough to make a few of them spacesick."

Bailey’s voice broke the silence, his words edged with panic. "Look, we’re a sovereign
planet, a registered member of the Galactic Commonwealth. We’re entitled to protection!
Why don’t we just contact Star Patrol?"

Karyl’s laughter came hard and brittle. "We’re on the Outer Rim, Quentin. Thirty
thousand light-years from the galactic center, fifty thousand light-years from Terra.
We’re part of the wild frontier. They’re not sending Star Patrol out here unless it’s a
full-fledged war. If it comes to that, we’ll be gone before they get here. No, we’re on our
own."

Bailey could not keep the fear out of his voice. "All right, Karyl, you tell me. What on
Verdis do we do now?"

The chamber suddenly grew as silent as a tomb, disturbed only by the hum of the
bioelectronics. Karyl scanned the faces, some filled with hope, most with resignation.
Silently he cursed his father for dying. "What we do now is contact Aldous Mallow on the
Titanic. We invite him to a parley tomorrow morning."

Security Minister Jepson did not flinch. "What do I tell the Premier, sir?"

"Tell him we want to discuss his terms."

Karyl left the chamber with as much dignity as he could muster amid the angry buzz of the
Security staff. He saw a new look in the faces now, even in McMahon’s. He was no longer
just a freak. He was the freak who had sold their heritage. With ponderous steps he made
his way back to the skimmer and turned its nose toward home. There was work to do.

* * *

Aldous Mallow stared across the table with bright, predatory eyes, as if he had just
eaten a fresh kill. Or was about to. A pair of deputies flanked him, while McMahon and
Bailey sat on either side of Karyl. Mallow’s guttural voice rasped against the walls of the
conference chamber. "So, President Carson, we try again." He bared his teeth and leaned
closer, his words pitched low. "You have no insults for me now, eh, freak? No fists?"

Karyl swallowed the urge to swing at him. "I just want to end this little disagreement,
negotiate a treaty to benefit both Titan and Verdis."

Mallow leaned back, smiling magnanimously. "That’s what I’ve wanted from the start. My
deputies and I have drafted just such an agreement. We are prepared to establish Verdis as
a Titanian protectorate. The Outer Rim is a dangerous place, far from the security of Star
Patrol. We will furnish a portion of our fleet for a base on Verdis, to insure your planet’s
safety. In exchange, we will accept fifty percent of your agricultural production."

McMahon looked angry and slightly sick. "Half our crops? What are our people supposed
to eat?"

Mallow smirked. "They can eat methuselah mulch for all I care. You had a chance for a
better bargain several days ago, but you chose to spit in my face. Now your people suffer
the consequences. We can build an operative orbital base in two standard months. We will,
of course, begin taking our agricultural allotment immediately. That is our offer."

Karyl tried to keep the tension from his voice. "Fifty percent would expose Verdis to
extreme hardship. Can we compromise at, say, forty percent?"

"The percentage is not negotiable. If you question it again, our share will be sixty
percent."

Karyl’s head drooped and his shoulders sagged, the picture of a broken man. He hoped
Mallow would see it that way. He turned to Bailey and McMahon, but neither said a word.
There was nothing to say. He turned back to his hulking adversary. "It will take time to discuss
this with the rest of the Ministry. If you could give us a few days, we’d be grateful."

Mallow’s eyes glowed. "You have until tomorrow. If we do not hear from you, we will be
forced to dissolve your government." The Titanians stood in one motion. Karyl rose as
well, extending his hand. Mallow smiled quizzically before taking it, pressing hard enough
to grind the bones to powder. "Until tomorrow." The Titanians lumbered from the
chamber without another word.

McMahon slouched forward, all color draining from his face. "Well... that’s it, Karyl.
Verdis is finished."

Karyl smiled a thin, desperate smile. "Not quite yet. I’ve just begun a little experiment
with our friend the Premier."

Bailey shook his head sadly. "This is one you can’t bluff your way out of, Karyl. What can
we possibly do?"

"We can wait, gentlemen. And we can hope."

* * *

Karyl Carson was sitting in his office with Pacifico in his lap when Jepson hailed
him. "Sir, we’ve got a priority visual transmission from the Titanic. Premier Mallow
demands to speak to you personally."

Karyl gave the glitter-dragon one last stroke for luck before setting it aside. "I hear you,
Jepson. Tell the Premier I’m on my way."

When he stepped through the membrane into the Command Center, McMahon and Bailey
were already there. He moved onto the holovid platform and faced the ghostly image of
Aldous Mallow, who looked less than his usual intimidating self. Mallow slouched in a
chair, apparently unable to stand, and glared at Karyl with tangible hatred. Karyl noticed
the unnatural cant of his head and felt a rush of triumph. "Mr. Premier, how convenient
that you contacted us. We were just about to transmit our response to Titan’s offer."

Mallow tried to scowl as spittle oozed from the corner of his mouth. "Carson, what have
you done to me and my crew?"

"Are your personnel experiencing a slight loss of muscle control?" He had never seen
such a pure embodiment of rage as Mallow struggled to reply.

"You know what we’re experiencing! Half the crew are completely paralyzed, the rest
shuffling or crawling through their duties. What kind of poison is this, freak?"

Karyl shook his head. "I’m afraid your people are suffering from a virus that affects some
of our livestock populations. It attacks the central nervous system, gradually disabling
neuromuscular control until the victim is little more than a vegetable. It’s harmless to
us, but we suspected it might mix poorly with Titanian physiology. I’m afraid you and
your deputies must have contracted it when you shuttled down here."

Mallow raised his shaggy head with what looked like immense effort. "I consider this an
act of war. We could vaporize your cities in a matter of hours."

Karyl nodded, his stomach twisting into tight, hard knots. "You could. But then you’d be
destroying the anti-viral serum along with us. Without it, the Titanic will be a ghost ship
by the end of the day."

Mallow struggled to sit up, his words slurring into a barely comprehensible stream. "If
you can cure this accursed sickness, Carson, then this may be your lucky day. I’d be
willing to spare the life of your planet for the lives of my crew."

"I’m afraid that’s not good enough. We’ve reviewed your treaty offer and that’s not good
enough either. We’ve drawn up our own agreement whereby Titan guarantees the
sovereignty of Verdis and agrees not to pass within five light-years of the Prometheus
System without the express invitation of the Verdisian government. It further stipulates
that Titan will furnish Verdis with complete, detailed specifications for its antimatter
beam to promote mutually beneficial sharing of technology. If you would just affix your
electronic signature to the treaty and transmit the specs for the antimatter device, we’ll
make both available to STARNET. We’ll shuttle up a medical crew to the Titanic
immediately afterward."

Mallow’s reply dissolved into obscene static. "You cowardly, blackmailing son of a pig. If
I give you the antimatter beam, it will be one blast at a time!"

Karyl forced a grim smile, fighting to conceal his terror. What if I’ve misjudged this
maniac? What if his temper is stronger than his instinct for survival? He ignored the
shrieking anarchy in his mind — it was too late for second thoughts. "That’s your choice,
Mr. Premier. Feel free to discuss it with your deputies. But I’d suggest you do it quickly.
In a few hours, I doubt that any of you will be capable of transmitting a response."

Karyl could only stand there as the seconds stretched, staring into Mallow’s rabid eyes. He
saw the accusing ghosts of his own people reflected in their fevered light. Dear God, he’s
crazy. He’d rather die than lose. Karyl felt his own sanity eroding in the silence. When
Mallow finally spoke, it took Karyl several seconds to comprehend the words. "We accept
your terms. I underestimated you, freak. I won’t do it again."

As the image of Aldous Mallow vanished, the Command Center erupted into bedlam. All
around Karyl people cheered and clapped. Evan McMahon nearly shook his arm off, and old
Quentin Bailey actually hugged him. Tears of relief welled in Karyl’s eyes.

It was Bailey who first regained the power of speech. "Brilliant, Karyl. Brilliant! How did you do it?"

"It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Mallow would come after us sooner or later. For
the past several months I’ve been studying Titanian medical records on STARNET, looking
for a weakness in their structure, a way to exploit it without harming us. Pacifico gave me
the answer. Glitter-dragon toxin soothes us, but with some adaptation it can be made to
identify and attack Titanian neural tissues. I was fairly sure it would work, but I needed a
test. That first meeting, when I so diplomatically slugged the bastard, I drew enough blood
for analysis. After a few trials I refined the chemistry as much as I could and spliced it
into a quick-acting retrovirus. I made sure my skin was coated with enough of the stuff to
guarantee Mallow would be infected during that last meeting. Like us, the Titanians have
been enhancing fetal genetic structure for generations. They’ve produced a planet of
near-duplicates with very little genetic differentiation. That made it easy to come up with
a plague that would affect virtually all of them."

Bailey blanched. "My god... the same thing could be done to us."

Karyl did not say a word. There was no need. He saw something new behind the eyes of the
men and women in the Control Center. The voice in his head no longer taunted him. We
understand now, we who are so alike, so perfect. The same thing could be done to us... but
not to you. McMahon grinned and patted him on the back. "You’ve given us something else
to discuss when this is over. I think it’s time you had some company."

After an hour of hugs and handshakes, Karyl excused himself to the privacy of his office.
He stroked Pacifico and let waves of tranquillity wash away the terror of the past few days.
For the first time, he was truly the President of Verdis. For the first time, he did not feel
alone inside these walls. For the first time, he fully appreciated why his mother had borne
him the way she had. So did others in the Ministry. Things would change on Verdis. There
would be more human variety, good and bad. Evolution instead of stagnation.

There would also be changes on Titan. Designing a virus to attack the Titanians had been
difficult. Creating an anti-virus to cure all but one of them had been nearly impossible.
But he had done it. The crewmen aboard the Titanic would respond well to the serum, but
their commander would grow sicker and sicker. Aldous Mallow was already a dead man. He
was just too dangerous to be left alive.

Karyl could only pray that the next Premier of Titan would be more benign. If not, Karyl
would arrange to meet him.

And Karyl Carson would be sure to shake his hand.   

Story copyright © 1994 by Brian Burt.

(Editor's Note: This story has appeared in AOL's Fiction libraries.)
 

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