Taming of the Monsters
As they had promised the human crew, the androids had prepared Phoenix One for the mission to create an electric fence. After a restless night of sleep for many crewmembers, breakfast was bolted down quickly and, without further delay, they were led down to the docking area where Phoenix One sat fueled and ready for the task. They were reminded of the nearly super-human power of the androids when they considered what their caretakers had to do to prepare the mission. The hoist in the docking area had been used to more quickly fill the rover with the poles. Instead of the attached poles intended to be reeled out in a roll, as they were intended for the Triton Project, in which each unit was attached to the next pole in line by wires, the poles were all free-standing. It would be a completely wireless operation now, announced Rusty. As if it was an insignificant modification, he explained this revision quickly, without further clarification, and then Skip explained to them, after climbing up into the crowded compartments of the rover, how the grid would be set before the poles were set into place. There were so many poles in the craft (one hundred and ten to be exact) that everyone had to squeeze passed the aft compartment into the forward compartment where the poles were also packed. When Abe questioned them on this discrepancy, and asked them where everybody was going to fit, Skip shrugged his shoulders. There was, in fact, enough room for the flight crew and operators in the aft sector, he pointed out. What more did they need? Standing over the modified control center, Skip showed them the most incredible features of the project: a directional device programmed to lay grid lines and placement points for the poles. The automatic pilot would be used, as the captain monitored the mission. Because of the wireless nature of the poles, he pointed out, the threats of entanglement and spinners attacking the operators was greatly decreased. If things got out of control, they would temporarily abort the current step in the mission, scatter the creatures, then return to the interrupted point and continue dropping poles.
“Excuse me Skip,” interrupted Abe. “How are we going to scatter the spinners? Our first experience with those monsters proved to be very difficult. Even if we did scatter them with the rover, they’d come back. They’re not very bright!”
Skip looked at him blankly, as if this didn’t compute, then, blinking his eyes, appeared to toy with him a moment. “I was coming to this issue,” he said with a nod. “You have options here, captain. You can attempt to scare them off with the rover—”
“Won’t work!” Abe shook his head.
“Frighten them away with the laser and fry a few of them!”
“How beastly!” Nicole said in the background.
“Isn’t there a better way?” Max heaved a sigh. “We’re going to have to clean that mess up.”
“That’s too bad!” Woody sounded belligerent. “To tame this world you’re going to have to kill a mess of them!”
“Or,” Skip announced in a loud voice, “scare them away with noise.”
“Noise?” Sheila wrinkled her nose. “How silly!”
“No Lieutenant Livingston,” Rusty blared. “Noise worked well on Earth to keep beasts away. We’ve installed an amplifier in the belly of Phoenix One that might just work!”
“What if they’re deaf?” asked Nicole.
“That’s absurd,” grumbled Carla.
“No, it’s not!” she said indignantly. “On Wolf 1061c the creatures were mute. Why couldn’t the creatures here be deaf?”
Carla grumbled something unintelligible to herself and Max uttered a nervous laugh, as Skip and Rusty gave the question some thought.
“It’s possible, but highly unlikely Miss Bennett,” Skip replied politely. “It may be possible is that they aren’t susceptible to sound as Earth’s creatures were. The only way to find that out, is experiment with several frequencies.”
“All right,” Abe exhaled anxiously, “I got it. Now how does the damn thing work?”
“We’ve added a control to the rover’s bridge,” Rusty promptly explained. “A button to start and a dial to regulate the frequency.”
“What if it make us deaf?” Nicole cupped her ears. “Have you given that some thought?”
“You’ll be fully protected,” Sandra reassured her. “We found noise reduction ear muffs in Triton’s supplies.
“The most important question for me.” Abe exhaled nervously. “Is ‘Is it easy to operate?’”
“Child’s play!” Woody waved dismissively
“What if it doesn’t do the job?” Ingrid joined the discussion. “What you’ve done is quite extraordinary. The equipment probably all works quite well, but this seems very ify to me, Skip. Sound may not have any effect whatsoever on them. All this might be an exercise in futility if we can’t scare them away.”
Abe, Max, and Sheila gave her a nod. It was an astute observation. Again, though, blank looks were turned on the humans, this time followed by total disregard for the issue. Instead of addressing Ingrid’s concern, demonstrations of the equipment now began, as Skip and Rusty, acting as operators, dropped two poles onto the deck. Due to their weighted platforms, they landed easily on the chalked targets drawn by the androids. Sandra and Woody then followed suit, dropping two more onto two more points. Moving back to the forward compartment, Skip asked Abe and Sheila to set at their controls. Abe was shown how simple it was to operate the new device. After switching it on, as the captain was instructed, he was told to simply watch the screen, after Sheila switched on auto-pilot and followed the programmed path. It was, Skip used a twentieth century phrase, a ‘no brainer.’ All the officers had to do was monitor the controls of the rover. The operators would do the rest.
If an ordinary mortal had been them that all this was possible, they wouldn’t have been believed it. The four androids had created a complex contrivance from pieces of mining exploration equipment, programmed it so that a child could operate it, and fueled and loaded the craft in barely eight hours.
“Amazing!… Fantastic!” Max muttered as he analyzed the device. “From the Triton Project inventory, you created all this—all while we slept. What do we call this contraption?”
“Perimeter Electra!” Sandra christened it.
“I like the sound of that,” Ingrid nodded with approval.
“Me too!” Carla agreed.
“It’s very crowded,” Abe noted with reservations, “but it’s much safer. A child could operate it now!”
“Yeah, nice work!” Mbuto studied the controls.
“It was a group effort.” Skip turned to his crew. “The important thing is your safety. That’s our first concern.”
Perhaps acting on a cue from Skip, Sandra clapped her hands to gain their attention. “It’s time for breakfast!” she chimed.
Without further delay, Skip led the crewmembers from the docking area back up to the conference area of the ship. “After breakfast, there’ll be a briefing,” he called over his shoulder. “We’ll go over the details of the mission and answer any more questions you have.”
As they took their seats to await being served breakfast, Abe summed up his fears.
“There’s still elements of danger,” he announced thoughtfully. “…. You make it sound so easy and safe. I’m impressed by what was done. But this operation must run smoothly, like clock-work, or there’ll be real problems. I wish we could have a few practice runs. At least try out that sound weapon you devised.”
“Trust me.” Skip held up a hand. “You don’t want to hear that too often. After you give the creatures a full dose of the amplifier, you’ll lower the frequency to more tolerable limits, in the hopes of keeping them away.”
“Okay” Abe ran his hand through his hair. “It’s a leap of faith. Once we set this fence up, though, how quickly will it be activated. Assuming the sound weapon works, how soon will it be up and running?”
“Oh yes,” replied Skip as if it was but a trifling matter, “we found a generator on the station for that purpose. When your operators complete the fence, I’ll buzz down with Phoenix Two and lower it to the ground.” “And voila!” he raised his arms dramatically. “We have juice!”
“Whoa!” Mbuto muttered in awe. “You’re really on top of this!”
“Yeah,” nodded Said, “no wonder you’re in charge!”
“It’s almost too perfect!” Max looked at him quizzically. “Are you certain you’ve thought this through?”
“I understand everyone’s concern.” Skip dodged the question. “Don’t worry. Like your abortive exploration of the dome, I’ll call you back at the slightest hint of a problem. There’s always hazards. This is an alien world—unexplored and, except for those domes you found, filled with unknowns. What we’ve done here is greatly reduce one source of danger: the spinners.” “This isn’t for the fainthearted.” He glanced at Nicole, Mbuto, and Said. To begin with, there’s not enough room on the rover. We need only a flight crew and two persons to act as the operators.” “Aside from Sheila, the pilot, and yourself, captain, I suggest you select Max, the ship’s doctor, and one other operator.”
“I’m in!” Max grinned bravely.
“Ditto!” Sheila heaved a sigh.
“Only one operator?” Carla looked at him disbelief. “Who?”
“Yeah.” Ingrid pointed to Carla and herself. “Why not both of us?”
Glancing at the two women, Abe, thought a moment. “Why not squeeze in one more crewmember on the Phoenix, Skip? We could always use an extra hand!”
“Yes!” Ingrid blurted enthusiastically. “I’m a good shot!”
“And I’m strong!” Carla flexed her muscles.
“Okay,” Rusty spoke on Skip’s behalf. “…. I guess it won’t hurt. While two operators work the poles, another can stand guard with her weapon.” “That’s all though,” he shook his head vehemently. “We don’t need spectators on this visit!”
Skip’s brown eyes flashed and a slight frown played on his face, yet he didn’t argue the point.
“All right then,” he drawled, with a flicker of irritation. “Our crew has a captain, pilot, two operators, and a third crewmember standing guard.”
“You can watch us on the bridge!” Carla taunted the remaining crewmembers.
Mbuto and Said may have been feigning disappointment when they scowled and shook their heads, but they offered no protest. Nicole, however, was visibly relieved.
“Gee, what a shame!” she said, patting Said’s arm. “You wanted to bag yourself a beast!”
“Yeah.” Said affected a look of dejection. “Better luck next time!”
“Oh, we’re still going down,” Mbuto rationalized. “Just not now. What’s the big deal?”
“That’s right.” Sandra gave them both a nod. “The rover’s crowded enough. When we begin building the habitat, we’ll need everyone’s help. First you must explore this planet and understand it’s life forms; to do this you must conquer this world.”
Reminded of their ultimate mission, with a warlike note added by Sandra, the eight humans chattered excitedly amongst themselves while they ate breakfast. Skip, Rusty, Sandra, and Woody seemed to give the humans worried looks. To their vast intellects, the eight crewmembers were like children facing the unknown: fear, excitement, and doubt played on their faces. None of them wanted to contemplate what could go wrong with this operation. The androids had done everything they could do to make the job safe. It was best if they got this unpleasant task over within a timely matter, they agreed. It was decided by Abe and Skip that the rover would, after a briefing of the mission and last minute instructions, take off late in the morning to begin the job of erecting Perimeter Electra—the first step in building a habitat for the new world.
The takeoff of Phoenix One was typical of previous launches. After fastening themselves into their seats, the five person crew, after waiting for the great hatch to open, found themselves descending once again to Kepler 186f, this time with a purpose other than exploration. Because of the greater importance for this enterprise, there was greater anticipation among the audience on the mother ship. Skip and his crew were worried about the outcome of the mission. Because they had no facial muscles and could control the tone of their voices to suit each situation, they had seemed able to mask their feelings. Lately, their human charges detected what appeared to be emotion in the voices (irritation, arrogance, and anger) and a tendency of their eyes to flash when they were annoyed or upset. For the human crewmembers left on the ship, however, there was that ‘better-you-than-me’ attitude evident in their conduct. Despite their relief at sitting this one out, Said, Mbuto, and Nicole were, like the androids, worried about their crewmembers, half certain that the undertaking would end in disaster.
As Captain Drexel and Lieutenant Livingston sat at the controls, they were aware of the interior camera so they tried to look their best. In the passenger seats, Max, Ingrid, and Carla, however, were visibly anxious and scared. All of them wanted to be brave. Ingrid took the opportunity to pray that the mission was successful. This time, even Carla listened attentively, hoping the prayer would take. When the target area loomed into view, there were gasps from both the rover and ship. Now, in addition to spinners, there were a herd of those elephant-like creatures they had encountered at the second dome. Seeing this development, Abe reported immediately to the bridge.
“It’s a mess down here. ” He studied his monitor. “Mutant elephants and spinners—hundreds of them mingling together. Those elephants are going to undo our work. They’ll knock down the poles and trample on them. This is a ‘no-go’, Skip. We’ll have to abort.”
“We see them,” replied Skip calmly. “The spinners don’t seem to bother them much. They’re not the problem as much those big fellows. Place the noise reduction ear muffs on your ears and turn on the sound weapon, you so aptly named!”
“You heard him,” Abe called to his crew. “Put on your ear muffs.’
As he expected, with the muffs securely on his ears, he could still hear noise from the ship. When everyone had complied, he reached down, snapped on the device, and heard the loudest, most piercing, sound he had ever heard. In the screen, as his ears rang and teeth vibrated, he watched the herd and horde of spinners scatter in all directions out of the target zone.
“Merciful Lord!” Ingrid squinted.
“It still came through,” Abe’s voice trembled. “…But it worked!”
“Great!” cried Skip. “Now get it done!”
Having used several different colloquialisms drawn from his database, Skip was taking on more and more human characteristics. Now, they could hear what sounded like genuine excitement in his voice. As well as directing their every movement, he was, like his counterparts, Rusty, Sandra, and Woody, becoming a cheering section on board the ship during the exploits of the human crew. As Sheila lowered the rover until it was almost brushing the ground, placed it in hover mode, then changed to auto-pilot and the programmed path of the craft, the humans gasped as the first pole was dropped into place. The androids, who couldn’t manage such a involuntary action, gripped each other’s hands excitedly. Momentary silence gripped the observers, as the rover continued on its path.
“Keep your ear muffs on,” Skip voice blared in their headsets, “…. Turn the frequency down several notches, unless they come back…. That’s it, Sheila—back to hover mode. Move on to the next point. The program will do most of the work….Watch the monitor, captain. If you see trouble, raise the dial and let’em have it. Until you see the rover stop, operators, don’t begin a drop. Remember to follow the grid, point-by-point.”
“You’ve done marvelously—all of you!” Sandra’s voice rang out.
“Yes, indeed,” agreed Skip, “keep up the good work!”
The original plan, before it was modified for the operation of wireless poles, was a square fence, but, as Max and Carla dropped pole after pole, they realized, as did everyone else, that the grid was turning, not moving in a straight line, as it followed coordinates of the program. Clearly a pattern was developing, detected from the rover, but seen most clearly in the magnified image on the ship.
“Skip,” Said cried with delight, “you sly fellow. You saved this miracle until the last!”
“I’ll be damned!” Mbuto bubbled. “It’s not a square at all. You programmed the laser to cut a circle!”
“It was a group effort!” Skip reminded them. “I couldn’t have done it alone!”
Max was huffing and puffing by now, a grin on his sweating face. “…. No one on Earth,” he panted, “or anywhere else in the galaxy could have done this!”
“Slow down a moment, captain,” Skip called through their headsets. “Max needs a rest.”
“I’ll take over,” Ingrid volunteered cheerily. “Max can stand watch a while.”
“Max will set down and rest.” Skip insisted sternly. “There’s not a sign of spinners or those mutant elephants for nearly a kilometer. The low frequency appears to be working. Maybe we didn’t need maximum range.”
Carla now rested briefly, as Ingrid came forward and took Max’s place. Everyone on the rover and on the ship were in high spirits. The new world which the Phoenix discovered already had a name, Kepler 186f, but was also called Earth II or New Earth. Most everyone agreed that the land on which they would build a habitat would be called New Eden or simply Eden, as in the Bible. Now Sandra, who had dubbed the protective fence they were erecting Perimeter Electra had given the potential compound inside a name: the Ring of Kepler.
“Ooh, I like it!” squealed Nicole.
“It does have ring to it!” Said offered a pun.
“That’s all fine and dandy!” groaned Carla. “Let’s get it done first!”
At that point, almost as soon as the words left her mouth, the shipboard audience gasped. That moment trouble literally arose on the horizon.
“They’re coming back!” cried Rusty.
“Keep you muffs on!” Skip shouted. “Crank up the dial!”
“EEEEEEE!- EEEEEEE!- EEEEEEE!- EEEEEEE!” the sound weapon roared, more fierce and awful than before.
Once again, the spinners and herds scattered, even further away this time from the target area. In the distance, from a large mound in the field, like hornets from an agitated hive, a swarm of what appeared to be fliers rose up into the air, circling like a tornado over the ground. Abe turned the dial down in order to hear the commotion on the bridge. Carla and Ingrid, released their safety harnesses and hurried into the forward compartment.
“What in the hell is that?” Mbuto asked out of breath.
“What?” Carla’s breath suddenly left her. “We can’t see it down here!”
“Shut the aft hatch!” Skip bellowed. “Stay in place a moment while we zero on that swarm.”
In response, Sheila’s hand was poised over manual override. “Shouldn’t we get-the-hell out of here?” she asked in a quivering voice.
“What? And waste all your effort?” Woody turned to Skip.
“We can do it again,” Skip replied half-heartedly. “Their safety comes first.”
“But the poles will be scattered by that herd,” argued Rusty. “What a waste, sir. They’ll have to get out of the rover to straighten them up. It’ll be a total mess!”
“Silence on the bridge!” shouted Skip
“Okay, lieutenant, take us out of here,” Abe ordered Sheila.
“Wait! Hold on!” Sandra called out excitedly. “They’re like giant insects, and yet they shine like metal,” “…like tin foil wasps or hornets,” she drew from her database. There’s thousands of them in the sky, hovering like a twister over the ground.” “…. Look!” She added, after a pause. “Everyone calm down. The fliers are returning to their mound. That awful sound shook their colony. The noise and vibration upset their hive!”
“Thank the Lord!” Ingrid took on a prayerful pose.
“Calm down, Sheila. We’re all right,” whispered Abe. “Let’s get back on the path, people. Carla and Ingrid—back to you posts, anchor yourselves to the aft deck again.”
The aft hatch was reopened. The dial was kept at a tolerable hum. Sandra description of the alien fliers was meant to dispel everyone’s fear, but for most of the humans the shiny fliers were just one more monster on this world. As the crew of the Phoenix One went about their business, they could hear excited chatter on the ship.
“Do you really think they’re wasps or hornets, Sandra?” asked Nicole
“No, my dear.” Sandra shook her head. “This is Kepler, not Earth. At this distance, we could see that they’re shiny, like metal, and fly in a swarm. That is all. We won’t know what they look like until we get up close.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Nicole shuddered. “That was close enough!”
The bat-faced fliers on Ross came to mind now, as Mbuto and Said reminisced. Elroy had been stung by fliers who reminded everyone of humming birds on Earth. The way that the creatures remained in a funnel-like pattern, circling in one spot, was also reminiscent of mosquito or gnat patterns on Earth. What seemed obvious to everyone, though, considering the view from the bridge, was that the fliers were quite large, as big as cats, suggested Said.
“Whatever they are,” he said, gazing at the projection, “they know we’re here. That noise woke them up!”
While the fair-weather crewmembers debated what this phenomena might be, Carla and Ingrid continued the back-straining toil of setting poles into place. After awhile, Max came to relieve Carla and, after many more stationed poles, Carla relieved Ingrid, until, after nearly two hours, the perimeter had been set. When the spinners and herds once more began moving toward the fence again, the sound weapon scattered them again. The device was used two more times, as the Circle of Kepler was completed. By now, in spite of the protection their headsets offered them, the five crewmembers had headaches. Burdened with manning the controls, Abe and Sheila’s nerves were frazzled. The operators were ready to drop in their tracks, as they took their seats. As he had promised, Skip was in the air, descending to the target area, as Phoenix One hovered momentarily inside the circle, quickly lowering a huge generator with a winch—both pieces of equipment extracted from the station and modified as additions to Phoenix One.
No sooner had the generator been set down and the winch released, than it was activated remotely from the ship, all of which was explained quite expeditiously by Skip. Suddenly, as the two rovers hovered in the circle, Perimeter Electra was energized. As the first giant aliens arrived at the fence they were stopped in their tracks, as were the faster moving spinners, many of whom, were stunned unconscious as the tried repeatedly to break in.
“Hip-hip-hooray!” Woody shouted. “You’ve done it!”
“We’ve all done it!” Skip exclaimed with genuine emotion. “The Ring of Kepler, as Sandra aptly named it, is ready for the colony. Thanks to Perimeter Electra, your protective fence, you will soon build a permanent wall and then a habitat inside. After which you shall go forth and conquer this world!”
“Hmm, this calls for a prayer!” Ingrid said wearily. “…. Father in heaven, thank you for our deliverance….” She began, mustering her strength. For a few moments, as the crew of Phoenix One returned to the ship, followed close behind by Phoenix Two, everyone patiently listened to her prayer. This had been a miracle, they agreed. No one doubted the super human effort exerted by the androids, especially Skip, but beyond fantastic technology and sheer ingenuity, something else had been at work, greater than such effort. “How could everything have worked so perfectly without help?” Ingrid would ask the doubters. “Why, after so many close calls, had their lives been spared and the mission turned out so well, when everything could have gone so terribly wrong?”
As Phoenix One and Phoenix Two sat side-by-side in the docking area and the compartment was pressurized and filled with oxygen, Abe looked at Sheila and then glanced back at the remaining crew, muttering a tired thanks. Exhaustion was etched in everyone’s faces. For the operators who had done the physical work and the captain and pilot who suffered the mental strain of the mission, today’s achievement was more than just a milestone in their lives. As the proverbial ancient mariners in space, they had survived four hostile worlds, five hibernations, and the current dangers of Kepler 186f, and, against all odds, by their efforts, fulfilled the basic purpose of the mission: created a alien-free zone on this planet—The Ring of Kepler, the foundation of the habitat from which they would continue exploration, or as Skip carelessly put it, the conquest of this world.
That evening, after the five explorers had rested up a spell, a sumptuous feast (by android standards again) was served to the crewmembers. Several toasts were made to their bravery, fortitude, and success, including a speech by Skip in which he outlined the twofold schedule ahead: the building of the permanent wall and habitat and the exploration of the new world. Absent from his speech this time was the word ‘conquest’, which Abe understood as Skip’s way of exciting the crew to great deeds. This adventure would not be undertaken, Skip explained, until the humans had a permanent base (the wall and habitat). The main purpose of exploration, he reminded them, was finding food sources. Within the confines of the habitat, during or after exploration for food sources, they would be able to perform horticulture, then, when the surrounding area was tamed, also be able to make use of the fields to plant grasses similar to wheat and rye on Earth. Since this industry was several hundred years old, this information was, of course, pulled from Skip’s database.
Added to Skip and his android colleague’s control of their lives on the ship, Skip and Rusty’s protection of them during the ventures on previous planets, including their rude introduction to this world, and their superior technology and strength, would be their management of them during their exploration and exploitation of the planet. All of the androids were virtually walking encyclopedias and science books and appeared to know how to do everything needed for the ship and building a new world. The androids expertise and foresight was essential to the humans’ survival. This realization fell heavily upon Lieutenant Sheila Livingston now. When she saw her captain, whom she so greatly admired, remain silent during Skip’s speech, bowing to what seemed a fait accompli, she sighed deeply but kept her peace. It couldn’t be undone, she was certain. It had been foreordained by circumstances and human frailty. The androids, with Skip as their leader, had run the ship. Now they would run this world. Begrudgingly, she and the others had been forced to accept this fact. What she saw in some of the other crewmembers, including herself at times, was lack of resolve. This deficiency which was bread into them by fear and their dependency on their caretakers and protectors, had remained unchanged throughout the ordeal of space travel and hibernation.
Four of their shipmates were victims of the previous savage worlds. To Abe’s credit, most of the crewmembers had overcome the traumas of the past and risen to the demands of exploration, while three remained fainthearted. Of these fair-weather crewmembers, Said and Mbuto, she suspected, merely needed a strong nudge, but Nicole, the most damaged of the eight crewmembers, seemed to be content to remain safety on the ship. Thanks to the captain’s encouragement and example, Sheila had, herself, come a long way from the frightened creature she was during the early years,…but she had a long way to go.
A great milestone had been reached. A safe zone had been created in which to build the habitat. It was decided once and for all that Earth II or New Earth weren’t suitable names for this planet. This wasn’t Earth. Earth was dead. Everyone agreed, as Mbuto had insisted, the that new world should retain its original name: Kepler 186f. From now on influenced by Ingrid, the self-appointed chaplain of the crew, the colony, itself, would be called simply Eden. That it was surrounded by forests and fields (the ‘Garden of Eden’) seemed most significant to her. The enclosure and surrounding wall, however, would preserve the respective names Sandra gave them: The Ring of Kepler and Perimeter Electra. A mystical significance had been given especially to the ring by the android nanny, which had been named in honor of the planet and the mother star. In the future, its name would be abbreviated at times to merely the ‘ring’ and the buildings and gardens of the colony would become known as Eden, as Kepler 186f awaited further exploration outside the wall.
When morning came, the entire crew appeared ready to embrace the future. Now that there was a safe enclosure to begin work on the habitat, Said and Mbuto eagerly joined in the effort. Even Nicole had been convinced by her mentor Ingrid to return to the new world. After breakfast, Skip showed the humans a printout of the inventory of what was available from the Triton Project supplies for the building materials and equipment required to build the habitat. There were, numbered and corresponding to a master blueprint, prefabricated walls, flooring, ceiling, windows, and door pieces to be fitted together according to a master blueprint. On the second document, an electrical schematic, there were instructions for installing the electrical circuits, including heating, air-conditioning, and lighting components found on the inventory list. The third document listed equipment for water purification with corresponding instructions, a fourth document listed basic furnishings for the habitat, including beds, chairs, sofas, and desks, and a fifth document itemized kitchen equipment and furniture. In addition to an important inventory of medical supplies and equipment to be furnished in the habitat hospital and a separate inventory for the materials required for the green house and garden, there was finally, one of the most important inventories for the habitat: the materials and equipment for the science lab, to which, almost as afterthought it seemed, the special project of the Triton scientists were lumped in under the title: Clone Research.
Until this moment, due to the greater concerns of hibernation and exploration, the humans had thought little about the specimens taken from their bodies. Now, as if they had heard it for the word ‘clone’ for the first time, there was dissension in the group.
“I knew that was coming,” Ingrid cried. “It’s against nature and God!”
“Would you rather your species becomes extinct?” Skip frowned down at her.
“Let’s face it,” she reasoned sharply. “Thanks to those wars, we are extinct. Those monstrosities don’t count!”
“For once I agree with Ingrid,” Carla made a face. “I hate this. It gives me the creeps!”
“Yuck!” Nicole glared at the list.
“All right, that’s enough,” Abe scolded. “This isn’t Skip’s fault. Our caretakers didn’t create this project.”
“They might not have created it,” Mbuto said, pointing to Sandra and Woody, “but they gathered the samples. We didn’t give them permission for that!”
“That’s right.” Said shuddered. “I know how that clone thing works. I don’t want a thousand Said’s walking the planet. One’s quite enough!”
More calmly, Max posed a medical question. “I’m familiar with clone research. It has its limitations. What makes you think they’re even viable after being in the deep freeze?”
“They are!” Sandra stepped forward, her eyes blazing with anger. “I know they are!”
“Oh,” Abe looked at her quizzically, “how do you know that? We’ve been in and out of deep freeze, but those cells have been in it continually for over a hundred thousand years!”
“That’s a good point!” Sheila nodded her head.
“No its not!” Woody shook his head. “We tested them. They’re already viable!”
Silence came over the assembly. A collective, “What?” followed as the crewmembers stared at their caretakers in shock. The old distrust they had for the android now resurfaced.
“… What are you saying?” Abe studied Woody’s shiny face. “… The clones are already hatching?”
“No,” Sandra clarified, “…not hatched. They’re not chickens. We now have a hundred fertilized eggs in the containers. When we construct the special lab, they’ll be transferred to clone tanks. When they reach their growth, a second batch will be processed the same way. After taking so many specimens, we will have thousands of clones in the future, enough to perpetuate the race.”
“I thought clones were infertile,” Carla looked at her in disbelief. “They’re created asexually.”
“Not true,” Rusty replied this time. “Because male somatic cells are injected into the female egg, the process is sexual.”
“What?” Nicole’s eyes popped wide. “How ghastly!”
“Its true,” Sandra said defensively, “plants propagate sexually. Why not clone creation?”
“In the first place,” Ingrid dismissed Sandra and Rusty’s explanations, “this isn’t perpetuating the race. They’re clones. They’ll always be clones. Injecting somatic cells into an female egg is not technically sexual; it’s scientific manipulation of the worst kind. I’d rather our race become extinct than they become our legacy!”
Rusty’s Howdy Doody face now loomed in front of her nose. “Well, that’s too bad!” he growled. “It is your legacy. Like the other women, Ingrid, we have your eggs too.”
Wringing her hands in despair, Ingrid had to be consoled by Nicole and Abe.
“Calm down,” murmured the captain. “We didn’t want to think about it,
but we all knew this was coming.”
“Do you really want the human race to become extinct?” Skip studied Ingrid a moment. “What’re you worried about the most? That there will be multiple copies of Ingrid Westfalls and all the other crewmembers?”
“Yeah!” Said answered for her. “That creeps me out!”
“It’s against God and nature!” Ingrid glared at him.
“Ah hah!” Skip tried a different tact. “It’s more basic, isn’t it? Because you think that clones, because they’re scientifically created, don’t have souls.”
Ingrid shrugged her shoulders. “God didn’t create them. Science did. How can they have souls?”
“Who are you to say that Ingrid?” challenged Woody. “You were an atheist, yourself, until you faced the dark sleep!”
It was a fact she couldn’t deny. That moment he said something that reopened a previous issue following hibernation, that, coming from Woody, the least human-looking of the androids, greatly surprised the crew.
“No one has the right to define God or what he thinks,” he announced flatly. “You are condemning your descendents to eternal darkness because of your prejudice. It’s a medieval perception unworthy of the ship’s chaplain. I believe that we androids, who think like humans, can even have souls. Why not? We’re intelligent. We have feelings. The Native Americans believed that everything had souls—plants, animals, rocks, all objects natural or man-made. They are thousands of years older than Western Civilization. How much less are we, your benefactors, who nurtured you and found you a new home? So why do you exclude the clones, your offspring, from God’s grace? Who are you to make this decision?”
The room was again plunged into silence. Even Skip seemed surprised with his outburst.
“I thought the same thing,” he confessed, with a shrug. “Our long odyssey in space has made we caretakers philosophers. The black void of sleep dimmed much of your human optimism, but, thanks to Ingrid’s preaching, many of you are practicing Pascal’s wager— Bet on the fact that God exists. What do you have to lose?” Philosophy has taught me one thing, though. It can replace science to give us explanations, but it can’t give us straight answers, such as, ‘what comes next?’ It certainly can’t define the nature of a soul. There is no scientific instrument that will confirm it’s existence or prove the existence of God.”
Carla, allegedly the most atheistic of the crew, was deeply moved by this conversation. Hastily wiping away tear, a gesture not lost on the others, she turned her back and stared down at the new world. Abe, Sheila, Max, Ingrid, Nicole, Mbuto, and Said joined her on the bridge, sharing her unrest but also realizing the truth to the caretakers’ arguments. As they had done in caring for the stellarnauts, the androids had preserved and nurtured their somatic cells and eggs. Now, as the last humans of Earth, thanks to Sandra and Woody’s harvesting and careful nurturing, they must become caretakers, too. The clones would be their legacy. For at least this hour, criticism and outrage of the subject ceased.
In stages, as the habitat was constructed, the science laboratory in which the clone factory would be set up, would be among the first portions finished. It was here that potential food resources would be analyzed and experiments on hybrid plants conducted, and it was here that the first embryos of the new humans would grow and become fetuses, new births, and someday populate Eden.
The first order of business in the creation of the habitat, however, was the preparation of the surface. This required most of the heavy duty equipment that would have been used on the ill-fated Triton Project. Using a grader and then a steam roller, the field was cleared and then the ground was leveled. Carla enjoyed this task very much. The men and other women also took turns with these vehicles. A loader was used by the workers to remove the excess dirt, which was dumped over the perimeter of the circle. When the circle became a relatively smooth surface, the first structure built for the habitat was the permanent wall. This required everyone, including the androids, except, of course, Skip who remained on the ship to keep watch. Cement bases, the most difficult part of this feat, were set up at intervals in back of the poles. When the bases had dried sufficiently, the prefabricated walls were easily installed in the holes. When electrified by means of the generator in the center of the circle, the sixteen foot electrified wall became a physical and energized barricade, the poles becoming secondary line of defense. (To protect the heavy duty vehicles and construction equipment from the elements and store unused building materials, an adjoining shed would be added later to the compound.)
Relying on the blueprint in the android’s shared minds, as well as the printouts from the database, with Skip giving his counsel from the ship, the work crew laid the foundations—perfectly cut sections of flooring that fit the corner stones at each corner on the foundation blocks. Onto the flooring, walls were set into slots, and then the crane was used to lift up sections of roofing, also set into slots. At various locations indicated by the blueprints, doors and windows, which came as complete ready-to-used units, were set in place. Four restrooms were set up—male and female, which included showers, baths, sinks, toilets, and medicine cabinets. The fixtures were all made permanent with industrial glue. Electrical circuitry radiating from circuit boxes for lighting, heating, and air-conditioning had also been preplanned, and was already operational before the roofs had been set into place.
The sleeping quarters, a galley, kitchen area, hospital, recreation room, library complex, utility rooms, and the science laboratory which would, when the habitat was finished, store, nurture, an propagate the clone cultures, were completed in several weeks. While the green house and garden area was set up, the habitat was filled with household furnishings, kitchen appliances, hospital and scientific medical equipment and supplies, and most of the dried and canned food on the ship was transferred to the kitchen stores.
The largest room in the main compound was designated the command center, which was almost an afterthought after most of the work was done. In Phoenix One Rusty ferried unused computers and communication equipment from the station’s supplies to this important room. For added security, all of the buildings, even the green house, were connected by corridors. Around the perimeter of the circle, twenty foot post were added with lamps, also for security. A prefabricated gate in one of the wall slats, however would remain unoperational—locked tight until the outside world was tamed.
As the final touches to the Ring of Kepler (as the circle was called), were added (an adjoining utility shed for the heavy duty vehicles and construction equipment and a guard tower in the center of the circle), Skip was already discussing with Abe, as the captain sat his command center, the next expedition on the new world.
“Captain!” his voice boomed from the command screen. “In the coming days after you and your crew are rested up, you should think seriously of tapping the planets food resources. As you folks began building the habitat, my crew took samples from the field being ploughed under. We’ve found that the grain in the field is unfit for human consumption. Some of plants sprouting up in the grass proved to be actually poisonous. Exploration of the closest patch of forest in which the dome was discovered will hopefully uncover food resources, such as fruit, nuts, vegetables, and herbs. I’ve been eavesdropping on your crew on the ship and also as they went about their work on the habitat. Despite their high and mighty talk, most of them don’t seriously consider killing the sloth-like and squirrel creatures and other alien life forms. Mbuto and Said simply want to beg themselves a beast. We don’t even know if the furry creatures of Eden are edible. After searching the nearby forest for edible plants, which are your best bet right now, you might also study the lake and more distant ocean for fresh water and marine creatures, which, when tested, are fit for human consumption.”
“You don’t say.” Abe stared blankly at Skip’s image in the command center. After listening patiently to Skip’s long-winded suggestion, which sounded very much like marching orders, he could merely nod, amazed anew at the android leader’s brazenness. Arrogance was a very human trait.
Sheila, who sat next to him getting acquainted with the controls, exclaimed as soon as his image vanished, “The nerve of that man!”
“You have said it.” Abe looked at the darkened screen. “Man!... Woody’s little speech on the soul and what constitutes humanity helped redefine what that means.”
“You would classify that creature as a man?” Sheila looked at him in amazement.
“Well, you must admit.” He uttered a sour laugh. “He does!”
“Hah!” Carla joined the conversation. “Those andies think they’re above humans. As our watch dog, Skip is more powerful than ever. He has almost god-like powers.”
“You can’t really mean that.” Ingrid shook her head. “Not after what we heard Woody say. I’m half-convinced, after his speech and what Skip said, those androids also believe in God. It is troubling, I admit, but Abe’s right.”
“And what about the clones?” Sheila asked thoughtfully. “Will they really have souls?”
“Blah!” Said made a face. “I’ll never get used to it. The very idea creeps me out!”
“It’s something right out of science fiction,” Mbuto marveled at the thought. “What would my people back in Africa think if they saw an army of Mbuto Sawalas marching toward them?”
“Yuck!” Nicole wrinkled her nose. “That’s really scary. An army of Said’s would be even worse!”
“Well, I think we should put this subject to rest,” concluded Abe. “It’s a done deal. The clone lab is almost set up. In no time whatsoever, the first generation of infants will be processed, ready to march out the door.”
“Ho ho!” Max chuckled. “What a sight that will be!”
Thinking of what he had just said himself, Mbuto also broke into giggles. Feeling light-headed and weary from their labors, the other crewmembers joined in the mirth. The thought of clone babies—perfect matches of themselves marching by the hundreds out of the door, was a hilarious thought, and yet not so far from the truth.
With the habitat finally built and work on the laboratory by Sandra and Woody finished, Skip insisted that they begin searching for food resources in Eden. The question remained in everyone’s minds: would it prove to be a bountiful garden or forbidden forests and fields unpalatable for human consumption. Already, during the construction, Sandra and Woody had performed tests on the field before it was cleared and found the grain to be lacking in nutrition and, in the case of the other plants growing amongst the grass, actually poisonous. So, exploration of the closest patch of forest in which the dome was discovered will hopefully uncover food resources, such as edible fruit, nuts, vegetables, and herbs. This would be the first food-hunting expedition conducted on the planet. As Skip shrewdly pointed out earlier, no one wanted to kill the furry creatures discovered in the forests, especially, as in the case of Mbuto and Said, merely for sport.
During this first critical exploration of what had been labeled the ‘Domed Forest,’ Phoenix One was again used, with Skip standing ready in the ship to fly down at a moment’s notice in Phoenix Two. Their first breakfast in their new home was a festive occasion. Several of the dried foods found in the station, somehow overlooked during their long journey across the galaxy, included pancake mix, dried potatoes, grits, cryogenically frozen ready-to-heat bacon, frozen orange juice, and canned peaches and pears. Though the food was over a hundred thousand years old, it was in remarkably good shape. Coffee, as well as hot chocolate brewed from dried milk and chocolate mixes, rounded out the breakfast menu. Ingrid insisted on saying grace, this time with the grateful respect of the crew. Many of them gave the celestial god, as she called him, much credit for their survival and success so far. Even Carla bowed her head respectfully and, following grace, added her own ‘amen.’
With the rover parked near the forest’s edge, the eight explorers entered the forest cautiously, with their weapons drawn. Conditioned by their experience with the spinners, they were filled with anxiety and dread, hoping once again to encounter only the harmless tree-swingers that had greeted them before. As they followed behind the captain, Nicole, already experiencing panic, claimed they were being watched.
Pointing to a patch of jungle foliage, she exclaimed, “There…I heard it. It’s over there!”
“Oh no,” groaned Mbuto, “she’s freakin’ out!”
“I don’t see anything, Nicole.” Said squinted his eyes. “It all looks the same to me: green on green.”
“Nicole’s not right in the head,” observed Carla. “Before she comes unglued again, some someone should take her back to the habitat.”
“No they’re not!” Max said, giving Nicole’s shoulders a shake. “Stop this!” he scolded her sternly. “You want to be permanently exiled to the ship?”
“Yes,” she answered in a small voice.
“No you don’t.” Ingrid came forward. “My dear,” she cooed gently, “remember our special prayer?”
“Yea thou I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…” she began.
“Silently my dear,” Ingrid cupped her mouth, “in your head.”
“That’s a good idea!” Abe glanced back with a frown.
“Don’t look for trouble, Nicole,” Sheila said in a hushed voice. “Let it find us. We’ll deal with it when it arrives.”
That very moment, as if to underline Sheila’s consoling words, out of nowhere it seemed, a hideous two-headed frog-like denizen hopped out onto their path. Nicole, of course, was frightened out of her wits. Without thinking twice, both Mbuto and Said opened fired on the hapless creature, turning it into a smoldering mass. Hearing the commotion following this incident and Captain Drexel’s anger at the two men, Skip’s voice screeched from his communicator: “Captain! Captain! What happened down there? Please report in!”
“Two of my crewmembers were trigger happy.” Abe confessed.
“Please explain!” demanded Skip.
“They thought the creature was a threat,” Abe sighed heavily. “It came out of nowhere and scared them half to death.”
“Describe this monster.” Skip snapped irritably.
“Well, it looked kind of like a frog,” explained Abe, “except it had two heads and was very ugly.”
“Listen, crewmembers,” he addressed Mbuto and Said. “You can’t fire upon all creepy-crawler critters just because they’re ugly and scary. It has to be a credible threat, as in the case of the spinners.”
After his bellicose talk earlier about conquering alien species, the contradiction in Skip’s attitude seemed evident. No one, though, could argue about his logic now. Just waiting for the opportunity to use their revised weapons, Said and Mbuto had proved to be trigger-happy. In a whisper now, Abe scolded the two men, promising to restrict them to the habitat if they fired their weapons indiscriminately again. With Skip’s admonishment in mind, the explorers continued on their way, taking samples of what looked like fruits, nuts, berries, and herbs along the animal beaten path and the bank of the stream.
Unlike last time when they went shallow into the forest to inspect the dome, the explorers continued to follow the stream into the jungle, as they had on Wolf 1061c. Occasionally, Skip’s voice would break the tranquility of their exploration to check on their progress and give advice , but for almost an hour as they searched for more fruit trees, he was silent while listening to their progress through the trees. When the explorers reached a certain point in which the leafy canopy of the surrounding forest blocked out the sky and the shadows deepened to almost Stygian black, they turned on their flashlights. Abe could not recall in his military service ever encountering such darkness in the daytime. It was, as their lights played on the greenery and glowing eyes of creatures, like walking through a nightmarish tunnel. Not only the sloths and squirrels, as they were nicknamed now, but countless furry or scaly coated, multi-eyed, and indescribable denizens peered out of the foliage. Not once were they challenged or threatened in the forest. Unlike the meadows and fields, where spinners and other monsters lurked, there were, except for a few bizarre creatures monsters making an appearance, no incidents in the forest. At one point on the stream bank, a long, multi-legged denizen slithered in front of them into a nearby bush. Except for its legs and one-eyed head, it reminded everyone of a snake. Small insect-like creatures flittered passed them and an occasional bush would stir or a new, startling noise echo in the distance. More startling, after these unsettling sights and sounds, was a large, ambling ball of prickly spines, crossing their path. Not wanting to alert Skip, Abe quietly restrained Mbuto and Said, who had pulled out the weapons and were ready to fire, but it was too late. A squeal from Nicole and loud gasp from Sheila caused alarm on the bridge.
“Captain Drexel, report in!” barked Skip.
“Well, it looks like a giant porky-pine,” Abe’s voice quivered. “It’s not moving toward us. It looks like it’s getting itself a drink in the stream.” “… Phew!” He sighed heavily. “It’s walking away, back into the jungle.”
“Are you taking pictures out there?” asked Skip. “I’d like to study some of these monsters.”
Abe looked back nervously at his crew. “Uh… I think so.”
“They should be making a visual diary,” Rusty interjected.
“I’ve taken a few shots!” Carla called out from the rear.
“Me too!” Ingrid chimed.
“Good!” grunted Skip. “Keep me informed, captain.”
Plunged into silence once more as they followed the stream, they began gathering samples again. There were strange-looking berries and fruit resembling bananas on nearby bushes and trees. One of the bushes found had what looked like small cocoanuts growing on its branches. When they arrived finally at a clearing in the forest, there was a collective gasp.
There in the middle of a small meadow sat the skeleton of one of the beasts, identified now by the explorers as Kepler 186’s version of an elephant. How it wound up in the middle of the forest was a subject that occupied their attention, as they rested by the stream. Though they carried canteens filled with recycled water from the ship, both Carla reassured them, after sampling it, that the water was safe to drink.
“So, the burning question,” she announced, wiping her mouth of droplets, “is ‘Why did this dumb brute, maroon himself in the jungle?”
“Curiosity?” Mbuto looked up from the stream.
“No.” She shook his head. “He’s too stupid.”
“You don’t know he’s stupid,” Max said thoughtfully. “He might have been looking for water and, like Mbuto said, just been curious. I read about a leopard in Africa who climbed up Mount Kilimanjaro then froze to death near its top. That extinct volcano is nineteen thousand feet tall!”
“So why did he climb the mountain?” Nicole wrinkled her nose.
“The same reason the elephant went into the woods.” Mbuto shrugged.
“Right!” Max pursed his lips. “What else can it be? We must have walked two or three kilometers into this forest. He’s a grass eater. It certainly wasn’t to find food.”
“The leopard and elephant were both stupid!” Carla made a face.
“The poor thing,” Ingrid reached out to touch its bleached bones.
Sheila and Said followed her example and stroked the skeleton. Abe laughed softly as he listened to their chatter. During this rare moment, as children on a nature hike, they acted as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Yet all of eight of them, especially Max, were exhausted from exploration. With her pack crammed with the most seed, nut, and fruit specimens and her camera filled with countless pictures, Carla, who should be ready to drop by now, was the most animated member of the crew. Dumping out his canteen, and stooping to fill it with fresh water, he looked back at her that moment, cracking a smile.
“You certain this is safe?” he asked, taking a slurp.
“I tested it.” She cocked an eyebrow. “It’s safe. We should dig wells in the circle and stop drinking that piss from the habitat.”
“It’s purest H2O!” Ship called defensively from the bridge.
“God is talking again!” grumbled Carla.
“That’s not funny!” Ingrid frowned.
“No, but it’s half true” Said looked up at the sky.
“That’s heresy,” protested Ingrid. “Skip is hardly divine!”
As Skip explained the excellent reclamation equipment on the ship and habitat, which purified their water, Abe pointed in the direction of the rover. Wordlessly, he informed them that the trek was over. Without notifying the android captain, the crewmembers followed him back down the stream bank toward Phoenix-One. On the way back, they encountered those familiar sloth-like and squirrel-like denizens and varieties of alien creepers, climbers, and crawlers not seen before, until, reaching the edge of the forest and looking out at the field.
They had been lucky earlier in the day. They hadn’t encountered spinners or other monsters on the way in. Now, on the way out, they could see the chimpanzee-sized menaces skittering around the rover as if waiting for them to return.
“Hey,” Nicole tapped Max’s shoulder. “I thought those things were brainless. Look at them. They’ve been lying in wait for us!”
“Yeah,” Max, said, shielding his eyes from the sun, “I see what you mean.” “Calm down Nicole, we’ve got our weapons.”
“Damn!” Said whistled under his breath. “There’s hundreds of them. We can’t kill them all!”
“He’s right, sir” Sheila said in scared voice. “We need Skip again.”
“All right.” Abe sighed with resignation. “Skip, are you listening to this?”
“Don’t worry,” Skip replied calmly. “I’ll use our sound weapon. Stand fast. I’ll down and let them have it!”
As the eight explorers waited on the edge of the forest, they noticed a peculiarity with the spinners. Unlike their foolhardiness in approaching Perimeter Electra, was their hesitancy to enter the forest. They would skitter up a few meters from the edge then skitter back, as if fearful of the jungle. This fact belied their brainless appearance and foolishness when attacking or attempting to enter the circle. When Phoenix-Two appeared briefly in the sky, he warned them to shut their ears. This time to protect their inner ears, he gave the monsters a lighter dose of sound, but it still jarred the explorers brains. When the spinners had scattered, the crewmembers gathered their wits, and made a mad dash to the rover. No sooner than they had entered Phoenix One and buckled in than Sheila was taking the rover back to the habitat. By then, of course, Skip was already half-way back to the ship.
“There, that didn’t take long!” Abe exclaimed in a cheerful voice.
“What would we do without Skip?” asked Mbuto, shaking his head in wonder.
“We’d be dead.” Max said thoughtfully. “How many times is that now—three, four?”
“That’s the problem,” Sheila looked into her rear-view mirror. “We depend on him too much!”
“It’s his job!” Said shrugged his shoulders.
“As the French would say,” Ingrid replied light-headedly. “it’s a fait accompli. Like it or not, he saved us again!”
“Yes,” Carla looked tauntingly back at her, “he has god-like powers.”
“What would you know about God?” Ingrid waved dismissively.
“Hah!” she tossed her head. “I know as much as you do. Out here, at the edge of the universe, Skip watches over us constantly. He’s the closest we have to a god.”
“Oh stop teasing her.” snapped Mbuto said half-seriously. “Because he has superhuman powers, doesn’t make him divine!”
“Let’s keep things in prospective,” insisted Said. “He’s one of our caretakers and protectors. It’s his job!”
“I have no argument with that.” Ingrid glared at Carla.
“He’s still a robot!” Sheila murmured to Abe.