by Carl Rafala
"Can you see anything?" asks Chan.
I glance over at Alexei, who brings the binoculars up to his faceplate and peers out at the foggy beachhead to our right. There is a silence as he tries to pierce through the rolling banks of methane smog that flitter across the thick ocean's surface, the only sounds being the humming of the electric engine and the sloshing of sludge-like water underneath the boat.
"I don't see a thing," he replies in a huff. "Are you sure you saw something?"
"Just keep this position."
Alexei rolls his eyes and turns his back to Chan, then squints his eyes as he looks out and over the water again at the approaching land, as if that would help his vision any. He takes a cloth and wipes condensation from his helmet's faceplate; the ice specks in the fog melt against the slight warmth his pressure suit emits.
"The scanners picked up movement in this area just twenty minutes ago," says Chan from the back of the boat. "And the airspace above is clear of ships."
"The scanners must be developing an imagination," I reply.
"Either that or a sense of humor," says Alexei, tersely. "If there is anything left, any large herds at all, it'd be a miracle. We're chasing ghosts."
I hear Chan sigh with irritation over my helmet speakers.
We had come out from the outpost on a small island in the bay, searching, protecting our newly forming ecosystem. The daily job as a Chaser team is to cull the indigenous population to acceptable levels. Mine is to bag at least one specimen from whatever we encounter for some tycoon's private zoo down in Delta City. Brings in a hefty sum. A little extra income never hurt.
I hear the muffled sound of a seismic detonator in the distance, cracking the caldera of some sleeping fire god. The thick waters waver slightly with the shockwave. Not to worry about tidal waves. Most seas are only a few meters deep, and there are no tides to speak of.
"Haven't seen a manoi in a good year," I say to no one in particular, focusing on the vastness of the wild spaces beyond the shore.
"Radio in," says Alexei. "Report a false alarm."
"Right." I reach absently for the transmitter on my suit arm.
Despite Alexei's negative outflow, Chan's enthusiasm is still getting the best of him as he continues to check and double-check his instruments.
Alexei glances back at Chan, working.
"And get that guy a laxative, will ya?"
* * *
We dock at the quay and await our transfer back to the offices at Bio-Control. Chan paces around nervously, like an expectant father, stopping every so often to look out into the forever-rolling methane clouds above. The cool sun can barely be seen through the dense clouds as an orange blur or a brownish smudge in the sky. Some days it can't be seen at all.
I am just glad to get out of that damned sweatsuit; the stink of my own body is getting to me. I need a shower. Alexei stretches his limbs, shakes his mane of dark hair, and scratches at his beard.
We sit in a large waiting area, watching the people walk by, getting their transfers or going to the few waterfront shops that had just been reopened after an extremist bombing only a few weeks ago. Yes, it's starting to happen here, too: new tenants bringing new scars. However, the growing Naturalist opposition party denies supporting extremists.
Chaser teams aren't immune and have been known to get ambushed. When I joined ten years ago, I had been caught out in two such attacks. Half my team had been wiped out by grenades on both occasions. We never saw them coming. We only saw them retreat, disappearing into the cool methane mists from which they'd sprung. It was known that extremist members sometimes infiltrated teams, leading them right into ambush. Suicide for the infiltrator, but better than getting captured, and besides, it's a cause. Right? Happens that way. Or so I've been told.
But things have been quiet lately. Rumor had it that was about to change again. Three teams had gone missing in the past two standard weeks.
"Drink, Rohan?" Alexei offers, holding out a canister of what we both knew to be some sort of alcoholic brew he'd concocted. I smile and take the canister, place it to my lips, and ready myself for the sting. It is remarkably decent. I hand it back to Alexei who holds it up to Chan. Chan shakes his pudgy, shaved head. Alexei mumbles something and turns away.
I don't really blame Alexei for his attitude. Sometimes I feel the same way. You get a call, you rush around, expecting to bag a big one, then get disappointed when it turns out to be nothing, an unidentified blip, a small transport, anything but what you really want it to be. The damned things have become so elusive lately. Pranks make it worse; they inflame a brief flurry of exuberance that soon fades like the "flimph" of paper on fire.
Damn, I'd like that money!
Chan is new on the job, which counts against him in the annoying department. He's younger than most, and his childlike enthusiasm can make it all rather unbearable at times. Funny enough, he's not out to bag a trophy, like most of us. Like me, he's out to capture one. Hell, as many as possible for the planned reservations. Yeah, the government is planning a few, even though this government-sponsored project is heading for downsizing, to be added to the non-priority list. Which is not a bad thing, really. Makes more room for private business. More money for me.
"If you don't stop pacing," says Alexei, "I'm gonna break your legs."
Chan glares at him and takes a seat away from us. "Where's that damned transport?" he asks, drumming his fingers on his helmet in his hands and craning his neck to see out the huge bay window.
"An hour from here," I say. "So cool your jets. We'll file a report, go home and drink a lot. Another hard day's work."
I feel sour, thinking about the commission I might lose.
* * *
We spend the time discussing the species of this world, Australius, from the tiny ice moles to the large prey, which are the ones we hunt: the manoi, air flitters that resemble large manta rays of old Earth, but with wispy tentacles that waver about like Medusa's hair. The creatures were named after Hans Manoi, the man who had unfortunately ran into a herd at Arrival Point to the south of Beta Junction. His landing party was never seen again, but pieces of a body were picked up a few days later, scattered over a kilometer. It took a DNA tag to identify him.
Alexei does his best to stay out of the conversation and smokes a cancer-free cigarette. Chan speaks about the self-regulating systems of worlds, the Gaia Mothers, the balance out of whack. Although I can't quite understand Chan's philosophies -- a fusion of early twenty-first century eco-New Age Gaia worship and Taoism -- I can admire his passion. It may be attributed to his youth, or his naive enthusiasm for the "natural order" of things, but it amounted to little more than heated debates or boring speeches we only half listened to.
Being a Naturalist member of the popular sect known as "The Way," Chan had volunteered for this post rather than applied for it. And we certainly hadn't asked for a guy with next-to-zero qualifications. But the government seems pleased to take on volunteers.
"Artificial ecosystems will never fully stabilize," Chan contests. "How long do you think we can live on synthetics alone? How long can a controlled climate hold? Learn from history. Whenever a great answer to a great question is found, nature eventually comes along and changes the formula, recalibrates, fine-tunes. Remember what happened at Mars?"
Alexei grumbles, "So someone screwed up. Happens."
Being one of the few Firsts left, I remember the catastrophe well. Reactivating the volcanoes of the Tharsis ridge to speed up the atmosphere project had cracked the once solid Martian plates. Earthquakes shook the New World almost endlessly for an entire decade. And with the old bacteria awakening, and new diseases spreading out like locusts, Mars was uninhabitable for almost a century.
"The forces of Tao," Alexei says, mimicking a deep and reverent voice. "We and the universe are one. Mother Gaia, Father Cosmos. It is all divine. Seek yea, harmony, harmony, harmony!"
That did it. I crack up. Chan is straight-faced. I put my hands up, as if fending off an attack that never comes.
"You heard the news reports before you left," he says. "Hell, man, you were there! The increase in weather shifting; the blizzards in the middle of a hot summer day; ocean swells swallowing huge chunks of land. You were there!"
It was true, but dismissed as flukes in the system that must sometimes occur. We'd terraformed Earth to suit our specific needs, and with the transformation of other system worlds and moons, starvation and unemployment went down to ten percent of the overall population. It was hard to imagine why anyone would want to preserve an ecosystem we obviously had no need for anymore. We'd constructed kilometers of architecture that would rival even the stone geniuses of ancient Europe. The wildlife no longer had a home. Some were saved in privately sponsored zoos. Most either died or were eventually destroyed, effectively putting an end to raw meat consumption. Protein was obtained from other sources. Reserved areas of land were used mainly for agriculture, and what was not grown was synthesized. Ironically, after millions of years, we'd become an agricultural society again, the only part of our new lifestyle the extremists agreed with.
What we were doing was our best to alleviate the Great Depression of the twenty-first century that had plunged most of the world into depravity. Our fleets of sleeper ships, migrating outward in droves like an ancient herd of buffalo, were merely an extension of that desire to alleviate the pain of over-population, to find space, feeding ground....
"You do not seek what is natural, the balance," says Chan. "All life understands this. You do not believe. You will not concede. You do not heed the warnings. Your recklessness induces chaos."
"Oh, no," moans Alexei, holding his stomach as if he's in pain. "Please spare me the pseudo-spiritual bullshit. I get gas." Alexei takes another long pull at his canister and refrains from commenting any further, much to Chan's relief, I'm sure.
I smile sideways, glancing out at the spires and domes of Harbor Town. It might make a great painting. I think about that.
Although my main function in our new society is in the position of Chaser, I am actually a painter, and was one before I left Earth. I wasn't very good, but I had made a name for myself painting the glittering metallic landscapes of home, Greater Brasilia, the Euro-State, all those mega-cities in all their fantastically elaborate constructions and designs.
But my energies had run dry; my life's blood in art seemed to become static. Nothing seemed worth painting that I could be satisfied with. My work seemed to be missing something, maybe always seemed to be missing something. I hadn't produced anything for years, and when the opportunity came along by government invitation to enlist on the Humility flight, I signed up. They wanted me there, at the beginning, to watch it happen all over again, shaping and shifting, a recorder of events as they happened. An historian for posterity, and of course I wrote it all down.
Why not? I shrugged to myself, accepting the fact that my once prestigious career, my passion, had ended. Maybe I'd find a new one. And if not, as least I'd be part of a great adventure.
Once, one drunken evening after work, Chan had seen one of my earlier works in a corner of my digs. "Rohan, you don't paint what is important," he had remarked. "For instance, what does this structure have to do with anything?"
"We created it. It is aesthetically beautiful."
He shook his head. "But it doesn't move one, and it doesn't complement the surroundings either, it rather pushes it aside, displaces the natural. The achievement of wu-wei, creating harmony by integration with the universal flow, is not depicted here."
I shuddered in misunderstanding. "But surely its aesthetic beauty is as important?"
"You are an artist," he had said fervently. "In tune with the natural energies. You have the eye, my friend. Now, release your spirit!"
My comm-link chimes and I answer it, placing my helmet back on in order to hear. I could see Chan wait in deathly silence, sweat beading up on his brows.
I pull off my helmet and make a three-second sideways glance at him.
"We've got movement."
* * *
A tall man in military fatigues greets us as our transport docks at the last outpost, the last refuge before the Great Wilderness. He quickly checks our identification tags and scans us through. We replace our helmets and walk through the connection corridor to the outward-bound transport. A group of eight heavily armed men are standing outside by the vehicle. Alexei frowns and walks out the hatch toward them. A man steps forward. They communicate on a closed frequency.
Alexei returns and switches to our channel. "They'll be coming with us," he says.
"Military?" Chan raises an eyebrow.
"Apparently there's been confirmation of a sighting," Alexei replies, not sounding convinced. "Manoi in the hills."
"So we need them?" Chan points.
"Multiple signals," says Alexei. "Apparently it's a herd. We'll need the extra guns."
Chan went silent; his face stone.
I shrug. "Let's go."
* * *
The Wilderness is still vast, unpopulated and untouched. It would be the logical place for any animals to be hiding. If any herds survived the wave upon wave of Chaser onslaught the first three hundred years of occupation brought with it, that is. And within a few decades more the Wilderness would be gone, beaten down by the rapidly advancing mega-cities being built. Anything indigenous that does survive would quickly perish when our atmospheric factories go online, pushed along by irritants and seismic detonators to kick-start volcanism.
We had hands for such speedy work because our ship was capable of carrying thousands. Built within the heart of an asteroid from the Belt, we coasted out to Pluto where we rode the quantum wave to our destination. Although we have a large fusion reactor, we only used it upon arrival, when the gravitational field of our destination was close enough to yank us off the wave. Once here, the fusion reactor kicked in and we dropped slowly to our new home.
Thanks to modern advances I, and a few Firsts like me from the original crew, have lived long and healthy lives, and have been able to see and enjoy the progress. Revitalized by technology, I am almost three hundred and ninety, with the vitality of a forty-year old. However, as with everything, there are limits, and they say they can keep me alive for another fifty years or so, if I'm lucky.
The transport rolls across the slushy, reddish snow at top speed, occasionally skidding as the driver makes a sharp turn or applies the brakes for some reason. Alexei dozes in the back, snoring away and driving Chan crazy with the noise. Every so often Chan turns around and kicks the seat. Alexei mumbles and falls silent for a spell.
The ranking officer we've come to know as Ali orders the vehicle to be stopped at the foothills and we disembark. Alexei yawns, uninterested, and lazily picks up his weapon and follows me out. Chan is already out, scanning the thick sky.
"We'll have to be quick," says Ali. "Storm front moving in. Everyone check your suits, then your buddy's. Okay. Move out." He waves his team on, ignoring us. Alexei glances at me and shakes his head.
"Johnny Gung-ho," he mumbles. "Gotta love 'em."
We go on foot, since we can't drive through the icy slopes, or fly through the peaks at that altitude, as it is always snowing at that height and visibility is near zero. Scanners work, but not fast enough for a pilot to avoid the close needle peaks all around.
We walk in relative silence, guns pointed ahead of us, eyes scanning the thickening smog, and snow beginning to flitter down. An hour passes. The light of day is beginning to wane. Nothing happens.
"Looks like this party could be over before it begins," says Alexei. "And I was hoping to bag a hide for my bedroom wall."
The officer's hand goes up. We stop. He signals for his team to fan out. We do likewise and I take to the right, Alexei the left, and Chan brings up the middle. The mountain peaks, once looming all around us, are now hidden behind blankets of methane. The snow gets heavier, thicker as it falls.
"The transport's comp says there's something in this area," says Ali.
"I don't see a thing," says Alexei.
Chan moves on up ahead of us and off to the right. Ali signals a watchman.
"This is such bullshit," says Alexei. "Even if we can...." He stops and I could just make out an expression of shock on his face through the fog. "There!"
Suddenly there is silence, not even a whisper from the troops. They just hunch down, scanning the low ceiling of cloud. No one seems to move for a very long time.
"Multiple signals," says Ali, checking with the transport comp. "Sporadic, though. Hard to get an accurate number with this interference."
A shadow passes behind a thick curtain of fog, and suddenly the darkening spaces come alive with the red streaks of fire. Shouts and whoops from the troops as they blast their way into the encroaching night. After a few minutes they finally stop. Ali flags down the watchman.
"You get 'em?"
The troop moves forward into the mist. "Yeah, I got 'em," he says, dragging a body down the slope. "Got 'em good, too. Goddamn extremists."
I am choked with disbelief. He is dragging Chan's body.
Ali moves forward, looks down at him, and fires a slug through his faceplate and into his head.
"Bloody hell, man," I say, head pounding with rage. "He's dead already. What the hell is all this?"
Ali ignores me. "Keep your eyes peeled. His buddies are out here. There's more where this came from."
Alexei looks hard at me. "His buddies?"
"What's going on?" I say. "I demand an explanation!"
"Screwed him good," says someone. "Bloody infiltrator!"
Alexei moves forward. "Hey, man," he says. "You said jack shit about shooting people out here. What the hell is this? We're supposed to be hunting."
"We are," Ali sneers.
"The hell we are!" Alexei retorts. "I may be many things, but I'm not a killer, man. No way. I'm not doing this. To hell with you!"
"I agree," I say. "You said nothing about this. What about the herd?"
Ali turns to face us, a slight grin perched upon the left side of his face. We soon understand. The implication hits me hard, almost knocks the wind out of me.
I hear my own voice quiver. "You can't do this...."
Ali regards me intensely for the first time. I can feel the hardness of his eyes. "My orders come from the top." He moves closer to me, pokes a gloved finger in my chest. "Of all people, you should understand."
I grab his finger and twist it away. "Yes I do. And I have no problem defending my team. But I won't do it this way. I won't hunt people. I won't hunt humans."
"Terrorists," Ali sneers.
Although Alexei has no sympathy whatsoever with the Naturalists, and was often downright shitty toward them, toward Chan, he has his limits. I can see he is about to launch himself at Ali. I throw myself in his way.
"Look here," Alexei huffs. "Chan may have been an asshole, but he was no infiltrator! Just a dumb kid, that's all. There's no ambush waiting for us out there. Even if there were it doesn't justify this!"
"I know," I say. "Just cool it!"
Another shadow passes off to the left. The troops repeat the earlier process. But soon there is another shadow, then another, moving, flitting behind blankets of cloud and mist.
Something swoops through the smog. A quick, violent scream followed by a gurgling sound.
"Aziz? Aziz, is that you?"
"What the hell was that?"
Everyone begins chatting furiously.
"I thought he was to my left. I can't see a thing!"
"Stow it away!" Ali yells.
The smog is wrapping around us, tighter, tighter, closing in as the snow comes down. I am sweating in my suit. I can't see a damned thing, and visibility is shrinking as the storm moves in.
A shadow. A quick motion. Another scream. The team begins discharging their weapons in the air, all around. There's an explosion nearby; several of us are almost knocked off our feet. Shouts of chaos overtake us.
"Keep an eye out on the person nearest you," says Ali.
I grab Ali's shoulder. "I'm not gonna let you get away with this! A man was murdered!"
"Lieutenant!" he barks. "Lock these two up in the transport."
"What?" says Alexei. "On what charge?"
"Obstruction of the law."
The lieutenant and another man grab us both and begin to pull us back.
Shots fly about. I can hear them ringing dully through my helmet. As they drag us down the slopes, the ground begins to vibrate ever so slightly, then builds up, and I can hear a thunderous roar. The sound waves, bouncing through the walls of rock and ice, dislodge the snowdrifts.
"Avalanche!" I yell. As my suit begins to get pelted by snowballs I hit the ground with a "humph" and stay there.
"Son of a bitch!" Alexei shouts.
There is a loud swooshing. That is the last thing I hear. I don't quite remember when it was all over, or how I dug myself out. I must have been out for a time, my tank level is low, and I feel the air turning moist and hot, oxygen thinning to vapors....
I am kneeling upon the snow, pulling at Alexei's hands; his helmet faceplate is smashed open. In this deadly atmosphere, he had hemorrhaged his lungs out into the snow. The only other body I find is a man whose name I can't recall. I leave him.
The storm is in full swing. I want to make it back to the transport. Long-range communications are out, which leads me to assume that the slide has hit the vehicle as well. Maybe there will be air, undamaged tanks....
My head begins to swim as my tank bleeds dry. I crash onto my back and lay disoriented, the world swimming in my head. Then I think I see something, something shadowy, hovering over me, moving swiftly, wispy fingers touching me here and there, almost ghostly.
Something large flickers in my field of vision and I freeze. I manage to get to my feet finally, and I turn to stare it straight in the face. A manoi is hovering there in the smog, great filmy flesh undulating.
But this manoi is large, larger than any manoi I have ever seen....
I must have dropped back to my knees for now I am staring up at it. I lock eyes with it for a long while, neither of us moving against the other. I am entranced in its bulbous eyes of swimming black currents.
I suddenly remember how they'd found Hans....
And they are all there before me, surrounding me, great bodies almost translucent, wispy touches of milky white against the red snow, the dark evening, rippling amidst the cool winds, pushing the smog and cloud about with graceful undulations. Thin filaments waver like streamers in a wind, each touching the other with quick flickering movements. Slow, whispery, they make no move against me, nor any move to retreat from my presence as animals do in the presence of humans. They aren't afraid.
I struggle to work my voice, to see clearly, to breathe.
They stay around me for what appears to be several minutes. Then, filaments retracting, they turn around and melt away into the mists. The larger one remains for a moment, then backs off, slowly, and vanishes before my eyes like smoke, spreading out, thinning into the clouds.
The last thing to disappear are its eyes....
* * *
I awake in a quarantine room in the hospital. They say they found me in the transport. Although the power was offline, the beacon down, they said they zeroed in on some faint signals that seemed to flutter, vanishing and reappearing in the vicinity. Extremist movement. Though they never captured any, or found any of their bodies. Only Chan's....
The doctor is leaning over me and telling me that the woman is looking to speak with me. I nod and she proceeds into the room, followed by some heavily armed men.
"You are Rohan Scott?" she asks. "You knew Chan Soong Lee?"
I answer both questions with a nod, head still not quite right. She hits me with another volley of useless questions. This goes on for some time. I ask her who survived. She stares me straight in the face and says that I am the only survivor, and proceeds with more questions. I decide not to tell her about the manoi, although I hear they have been finally declared extinct.
"Have you ever been in contact with the Naturalists? What do you know about 'The Way'?"
I've never known "The Way" to be a violent group.
I shake my head. "Nothing really."
She sniffs and writes something down on a pad.
* * *
After a few days, I feel able to move and sit up in bed. I am discharged and escorted to a habitat, not my own, a solitary one. All my stuff has been moved in for me. When I ask about this relocation I get no answer.
I'm not allowed visitors, nor am I allowed to travel beyond the confines of this particular complex. I ask when I can leave. They say that all depends on me. And once in a while the woman returns to ask me more questions.
I browse the few posted news nets that I am allowed to access. There are briefs concerning the rise in extremist terrorism and something about an ambush in the Wilderness. Chan Soong Lee is mentioned a few times, and an extremist group's bid to overthrow the government. There is also no mention of the avalanche, and the nets are peppered with reports of sporadic fighting in the cities. The opposition party has been threatening to side with the extremists. There is a curfew in place....
I've started dabbling with paint again, to kill time. I think it's coming back to me. And maybe I'll be able to show something for it this time.
And sometimes, just sometimes, I can feel the rumblings of the earth beneath me as the distant and newly awakened volcanoes vomit their insides out. Gaia speaking in soft gurgles....
And I think about that manoi staring at me from the clouds, and I could swear that it was seeing something distant and far truer than anything I could see, and that it understood it, lived it, its life energy swirling in constant motion behind those great bulbous eyes....
Story © 2002 by Carl Rafala firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2002 by Ehrad email@example.com
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