edited by Ellen Datlow
2 SciFiction Originals
SciFiction Originals 2 ? 2000-2001 by SciFi.com Visit SciFiction at http://www.scifi.com/scifiction
SciFiction Originals 3
The duck hunter waded through the marsh, breathing deeply of the sweet dawn air mixed with wet decay. Each lift of his high boots sucked up mud with a soft splurgling sound. Cattails rustled in conspiratorial whispers. The dog beside him flicked its tail at a dragonfly.
"Soft, girl, we're not supposed to be here," the man said, grinning. "But listen to them ducks!"
Abruptly the flock of mallards, until now out of sight, flew up. The man raised his gun, fired once, twice. A bird fell and the dog took off.
Grinning, the hunter waited. She was the best dog he'd ever had. Never missed. A beauty.
"Hey, girl, what you got, let's see it there, oh you beauty..." The man's wife complained that he talked more affectionately to the dog than to her. The dog dropped the duck. The man bent to pick it up from the shallow water, and the snake swam past him.
Not a snake. Green, long, but with fins. Three eyes. Three.
Before he stopped to think, the man had grabbed the thing behind its head, the way you grabbed a copperhead if you had to grab it at all, and lifted it out of the water. On its underside were four short legs.
And the thing went on staring at him from two of its eyes, the two facing sideways, while the third eye stared straight up to the empty gray sky. It didn't thrash or try to bite. It just gazed steadily, interestedly.
The dog barked to draw attention to its duck. The man
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ignored her. He went on staring at the thing gazing so tranquilly back at him. "What... what are you?"
Then he saw the blackened craft half submerged in the mud and water.
Lisa still wasn't used to the guards. Security guards, yes, Kenton had always had those, although not because anyone expected trouble. The John C. Kenton Memorial Wetlands Preserve and Research Foundation in upstate New York wasn't exactly a hotbed of contentious activity. Until now, the greatest excitement at Kenton had been the struggle to keep Lythrum salicaria,
purple loosestrife, from displacing native waterfowl food plants.
However, like all research labs, Kenton contained expensive equipment that no one wanted stolen, so there had always been one guard, seldom the same one for very long because the work was so boring. But now they had Army soldiers, two at the door and two in back and God-knew-how-many on patrol around the unfenced perimeter of the wetlands. None of them knew what they were guarding, although it seemed to Lisa that if they had any intelligence whatsoever they would pick on the intense, badly suppressed excitement pervading Kenton like a glittering mist.
"Identification, please," the soldier said, and Lisa handed over her new government pass. The soldier ran it through a slot on a computer and handed it back. Then he smiled. "Okay, Lisa Susan Jackson. You sure you're old enough to be in there?"
You don't look any older than I do, Lisa wanted to snap back,
but didn't. She'd already learned that silent disdain was the only thing that worked, and not always that. It made no difference that she was a graduate student in fresh-water ecosystems, that she had been selected over three hundred other applicants for this prestigious and unusually well-funded internship, that she made a valuable contribution to Kenton's ongoing work. She was a small blonde woman who looked about fourteen years old, and so even this cretin in camouflage felt entitled to patronize her.
She walked past him with freezing dignity and went to the main lab. Early as it was, Paul and Stephanie were already there, and through the window she could see Hal pushing off from the
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dock on the flat-bottomed boat accompanied by yet another visitor. The staff always tried to arrive earlier than the visiting scientists and Washington types, even if it meant getting to Kenton at four in the morning. Lisa couldn't do that, not with Carlo.
"Lisa, the latest test results are in," said Dr. Paul Lambeth, Kenton's chief scientist. The scientists were all very considerate of her, keeping her fully informed even though she was only an intern. Even though the project was, of course, now heavily classified. Dr. Stephanie Hansen had insisted that Lisa stay on even after the Department of Defense had questioned the presence of a mere graduate student in this unprecedented situation. Hal—Dr. Harold Schaeffer—had fought to get Lisa the
necessary clearances, which probably hadn't been easy because of Danilo. Never mind that she hadn't seen Danilo in over a year, or that membership in Greenpeace was not exactly tantamount to membership in China First or the neo-Nazis. The DOD was not known for its tolerance of extremist organizations, no matter how non-violent.
Of course, Lisa knew, Stephanie and Hal had been thinking mostly of protecting the whole internship program rather than her specifically. Lisa was still grateful. She just wished that gratitude didn't make her feel so constrained.
"The latest results," Stephanie repeated after Paul, and an alert shiver ran over Lisa. Stephanie, decisive and taciturn, never repeated others' words, said anything unnecessary. And Stephanie's eyes gleamed in her weather-burned face that had spent thirty years in the outdoors studying how the environment and everything in it worked together to sustain life.
Paul was always more flamboyant than Stephanie. It was Paul, of course, who would eventually announce to the media, standing side by side with the president in the Oval Office. "Do you want to sit down, Lisa? It's big."
"What is it?" she said, wishing he wouldn't play games, knowing she was reacting to his game with the strangled breathlessness he expected.
"The genetic structure is not DNA-based."
She felt her mouth open, her eyes widen, even though the statement wasn't unexpected. Ever since she'd seen the animal
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brought in by a man illegally duck-hunting in the Preserve, she'd wondered. They all had. It was the spacecraft that made them take the animal so seriously, rather than writing it off as just one more deformity caused by pollution. NASA had come up from Washington, run tests on the blackened outside and mysterious inside of the half-submerged object, and verified the structure as a spacecraft. Immediately it had been carted off to somewhere classified.
But Paul Lambeth had fought to keep research into the animal, and the other animals soon found exactly like it, as a joint project between Kenton and Washington's hand-picked labs. Paul had won, but not because Kenton was such a well-equipped research lab (although it was; John C. Kenton had left an endowment so generous it was the envy of even places like Harvard). Kenton had kept primary research responsibility because that's where the wetlands were, and who knew what else had come off that spacecraft? The Kenton Preserve, immediately quarantined, had become the mountain toward which the eminent scientific Mohammeds went, since the entire wetlands ecosystem could not go to them. So Kenton did the in situ
research, and the CDC, Harvard, and Cold Harbor did the genetics and zoological work.
"What..." Lisa was annoyed to find her voice coming out too high. "...what will they do with it?"
"Nothing, yet," Paul said, and even in his slick media-loving voice she heard the hidden awe. "We're not done searching the ecosystem, even. Did you finish those water sample tests?"
"Not yet," Lisa said. Yes, work, that's what she needed, routine methodical work. To ground her. But she couldn't do it. "Can I see the report?"
"Sure," Paul said, smiling, and there was that condescension again, that egotistical pleasure in his own generosity at sharing this historic moment with such a very junior colleague. Lisa pushed the perception away. She darted for the report and began to read hungrily, wanting to know everything, to gulp it down all at once.
From the stars.
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After the initial elation came the questions. The animal was not DNA-based, yet it was eating DNA-based plants. Lisa could see one of the snakers (the catchy name was Paul's) in the oversized cage, munching contentedly on sedges. How was it metabolizing plant food it had not evolved to metabolize? And how had such fully developed animals—warm-blooded, multi-stomached, large
if unfathomable brain tissue—survived the trip through space?
They might have been in some sort of cold sleep; Lisa had not seen the inside of their small craft. So small! How many had made the journey?
They couldn't have been here more than a few years, at the most. Someone would have seen them before now. The twenty-square-mile Kenton Preserve was supposedly off-limits to hunters and bird watchers, but in fact both seeped in all the time, at least on the vast wetland's edges.
The CDC/Harvard report said the genetic material seemed to be concentrated not in the cell nucleus but rather scattered throughout the cell. That was characteristic of very simple organisms like prokaryotes, but not of complex ones. The cells themselves were full of structures. Some had already been catalogued, at least in a preliminary survey, as analogous to ribosomes or mitochondria or receptors. They broke down molecules for energy, they utilized oxygen, they received chemical signals from other cells. Some were total mysteries.
Lisa read the report once, twice. Then she went to stare at the snakers' cage, which was a mini-ecology twelve feet by five, equipped with marsh areas, a pool, a dry hummock, stands of cattails and bulrushes, aquatic plants and rocks and insects. Two of the three captive snakers had disappeared into the foliage. The third one raised its head and looked back at her from a side-facing eye. Lisa stood gazing for a long time.
"Lisa?" Stephanie said. "We're going out this afternoon on the boat to survey another sector. Want to come?"
"Yes!" The Preserve had not been so thoroughly surveyed in years, now that everyone wanted to know exactly how many of the alien creatures existed. A lot, it seemed. They bred quickly. Lisa went to finish her water sample runs as quickly as possible
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so she would be able to go out on the boat.
When she finally got home, muddy and exhausted and smelling of swamp, Danilo was there.
"How did you get in? The door was locked."
"Jimmied a window," he said in his liquid Filipino accent. "Not hard. God, Lissy, you look like a drowned rat."
Lissy. His pet name for her. Which he goddamn well had no right to use. He lounged at the table in her kitchen, which was also her living room and dining room, having helped himself to Raisin Bran and English muffins. She said sourly, "You better be careful. That food probably has genetically modified foodstuffs in it. You could sully your ideological purity."
"Same old Lissy." He sat up straighter, and the gleam of white teeth disappeared from his sunbrowned face. Despite the heat, he wore jeans and heavy boots, the old uniform. A knapsack rested on the floor. His trim body looked fit and rested, which only irritated her more. It had been so long since she'd had a good night's sleep. Too much to do, always.
Danilo said quietly, "I want to see him."
"You don't have the right."
"I know. But I want to anyway. Carlo is my son."
"Only biologically. A hyena is a better father than you've been," Lisa said, and they were off again, the same old track, sickening her even before they really got rolling.
"Only because I had a more urgent job," Danilo said, apparently willing to go over it all yet once more. Lisa wasn't. He'd made his choices, and at the time Lisa had even seen why he'd made them, or thought she had. The fate of the planet over the fate of a single child, the human race itself at stake, global warming, depleted oceans, dangerous genetically engineered organisms released into the environment, deforestation, pollution, nuclear radiation, blah blah blah. Or, rather, not blah blah blah; she was preparing herself to work for the same ends, through scientific ecology. But it all looked different somehow when you had that actual single child with you day and night, dependent on you, needing your care and interrupting your sleep and clamoring for your love. You realized that there was no more
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There was no way to tell that to Danilo, no way that he would hear. Lisa said only, "I'll get Carlo. The woman next door takes care of him while I'm at work."
"Is she... can she..."
"She's had experience with disabled children." And then, cruelly, "She costs most of my grant and all of my scholarship, of course, between daycare and physical therapy. Nothing left to donate to good causes."
Danilo didn't answer. Lisa went next door to get Carlo.
It was one of his good days. He laughed and reached up for her, and she knelt by the wheelchair and hugged him. Undoing all the harnesses that kept him comfortable was a major undertaking. "Mommy! I drawed a picture!"
"He did, Lisa. Look," Mrs. Belling said, and held up a childish picture of a blue tree, green sun, and red structure that might have been a house or a car. "He's getting really good with his right foot, aren't you, Carlo?"
"I'm good," Carlo said, with such innocent grandiosity that Lisa wanted to weep. He was almost five. Next year he would start school. How long would he keep that pride around other people, people less kind than Mrs. Belling or Lisa's colleagues? Carlo was intelligent, happy, severely deformed. Both arms hung truncated at his sides, devoid of any nerves to transmit muscle impulses. His head lolled to one side. He would never walk. His radiant smile nightly filled her with fear for his future.
Danilo had left her, joined first Students Against Toxins and later Greenpeace, the day Carlo had been born. Carlo's father blamed the baby's condition on contaminated groundwater in the factory town where Lisa had grown up. Perhaps he was right. Lisa had gone into shock that Danilo could leave her now, leave her with a deformed infant, leave her unmarried and about to start graduate school and all but broke. Selfish! She had screamed at him. Necessary, he had replied, so more Carlos aren't born like this, and more, and more. She was the selfish one not to see that. It was no different than going off to war. He was disappointed in her that she couldn't see that.
The horrible thing was, she could. But she was still the one left with Carlo. Whom, now, she wouldn't trade for anything on
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"Carlo," she said, after lavishing praise on his picture, "Uncle Danilo's here." Her one condition for letting Danilo see him at all: unclehood, not fatherhood. Fatherhood was something you did, and Danilo never had.
"Uncle Danilo?" The child frowned, trying to remember. It had been over a year since Danilo's last will-o'-the-wisp appearance.
"Yes, your Uncle Danilo. You'll remember him when you see him. Let's go, sweetie."
"Bye, Mrs. Belling!" Carlo called. "See you tomorrow!"
Lisa watched Danilo flinch when she wheeled in Carlo. Revulsion, or guilt? She hoped it was guilt. "Carlo, this is Uncle Danilo."
"Hi! Mommy, he gots a bord!"
"A 'beard,' sweetie. He has a beard."
"Can I touch the beard?"
Danilo knelt by Carlo's chair. Lisa moved away, unwilling to stand that close to Danilo. But on the warm air she caught the scent of him anyway, bringing such a rush of visceral memory that she turned abruptly away. God, how long had it been for her... and never like with Danilo.
Lisa Jackson and Danilo Aglipay. Salty working-class American and wealthy cultured Filipino. Ideological purists, committed activists, the sexual envy of an entire campus, with her blonde small-boned beauty and his exotic dark intensity. Except that the working-class salt-of-the-earth parents shoved Lisa out of the family when she took up with a "gook," and the wealthy Filipino swore he would never go home to the father who made his money exploiting the planet, and the blonde beauty swelled with pregnancy that ruined the activist plans so much that Danilo left, spouting speeches.
And out of that wreck I made a life, Lisa reminded herself
fiercely. Graduate school, Carlo, the internship at Kenton. The alien animals. Talk about world-changing events! If Danilo knew about the aliens... but he wouldn't. It was her knowledge, her life, and no whiff of masculine pheromones would ruin it for her. Not now, not ever.