by Gary Inbinder
Riding the slipstream, drawn into the undiscovered regions of the cosmos by an unknown force, Niemand and Iemand survived, nourished and sustained in their high-tech chrysalis. Niemand and Iemand the last of the chosen, the heroic seed-bearers, hurtled through space toward the fertile valley, the promised land of regeneration. Earth had long since died; it existed only in their memories and as bits of data on computer chips.
They hibernated in a chemical-induced slumber, without conscious thoughts, intentions, actions, or subconscious dreams, their lives dependent upon computers. Machines had calculated their probability of survival. The hope of humankind launched and ventured into the unknown on a cybernetic calculation.
* * *
Niemand and Iemand awoke like surgical patients emerging from deep anesthesia. A few moments of hazy awareness as their glittering sarcophagi hissed open, followed by an instant of recognition as they turned their heads to glance at each other. They did not speak; their landing routine kicked in immediately, as though days rather than centuries had passed since their training.
Exiting their pods, they began analyzing a rush of digital information describing their external surroundings. They had arrived safely on a planet with a habitable climate, much like Earth. Niemand spoke first: “It’s a miracle.”
Iemand’s bright green eyes glared at her companion. She frowned skeptically, as if to say, “There are no miracles. The computers predicted this outcome. They gave us a better than fifty-fifty chance.”
Niemand lowered his eyes, avoiding her silent rebuke.
* * *
The butterflies emerged from their chrysalis, entering a world filled with air no human had breathed, warmed by a sun no one had seen. Their sensors detected no immediate threats, yet they still wore combat armor and carried weapons, guarding against the unknown. Leaving the capsule behind, they began exploring, recording their findings not just for their own reference, but for the benefit of generations yet unborn.
They reconnoitered a green valley spread out between two clear, swiftly flowing rivers, ringed by foothills with giant, purple snow-capped peaks shimmering on the horizon. A gentle breeze rustled the grass-stalks, tall shade trees hummed and buzzed with life. The environs teemed with bipeds and quadrupeds resembling those that had thrived in the temperate climes of old Earth. But these strange animals were different in one striking particular: they lived symbiotically without the least sign of fear, aggression or predation.
As Niemand and Iemand investigated their new environment, they were astonished by the acceptance of their alien presence. Animals did not flee or threaten; they simply went about their business as though Niemand and Iemand were not there. The seed-bearers of old Earth felt like lost children who had serendipitously found their home.
At the end of the first day, they fed their findings into the Master Computer. The response did not surprise them. Niemand and Iemand had discovered the perfect habitation, the ideal base for propagation and the establishment of New Earth.
* * *
The capsule contained a pre-fabricated habitat and sufficient food and water to sustain them for six months. They had seeds for vegetables and grains and their first planting in the fertile soil brought forth a bountiful harvest in an astonishingly short period.
Niemand and Iemand cleared and worked the land with scrupulous care. There appeared to be no natural pests, nothing to attack or hinder their crops. They soon happened upon fruit-bearing trees, and their analysis determined that their produce was good to eat.
The planet had a twenty-four hour day, like old Earth. The temperature remained moderate, the winds calm, and the rains gentle. Iemand soon dubbed the place, “The Goldilocks Planet” because everything seemed just right.
* * *
Time passed. Niemand and Iemand had four children; two boys, Alpha and Gamma, and two girls, Beta and Delta. Delta, the youngest, was born with a dark purple birthmark that spread over the entire right side of her face.
The computer ordered the parents to destroy their imperfect baby, and replace her with another child. Niemand wanted to follow orders, but Iemand protected the girl. “She’s healthy, except for the mark. I won’t kill her, and neither you nor the computers can make me. I’ll raise her and care for her. She’s my responsibility.”
Niemand considered the situation. They had been taught to obey the computer, but that training had not precluded their free will. Iemand’s disobedience shocked him, but he decided not to quarrel with his mate. Reasoning that the girl’s defect was merely cosmetic, he concluded the mark would not prevent her from growing up strong, intelligent and resourceful. She might even prove to be the best of the lot.
He looked at the baby resting peacefully in its mother’s arms. The sight moved him to compassion. Niemand was human after all, unlike the impassive computers who made their judgments without the burden of emotions. “Very well, Iemand, we’ll let Delta live.” They thought it prudent not to report their decision to the Master Computer.
* * *
“Human violence sowed the seeds of old Earth’s destruction. You shall not disrupt the peace of our new home. You must learn the first law of New Earth: Do no harm.” This is what Niemand and Iemand taught their children.
Alpha proved to be fertile soil in which the seeds of parental wisdom germinated and bore fruit. He grew strong, intelligent, cooperative and kind, content to tend the gardens and maintain harmony with their surroundings. Beta was pretty, simple-minded and for the most part obedient, but with a wayward streak that needed correction.
Gamma was dark, brooding and sullen, with a quick mind and a sharp tongue. But he possessed a natural genius for technology and was diligent in his assigned task, the care and maintenance of the computers.
Delta was dubbed “the strange one” by Gamma. She grew silent and furtive. Aside from her parents, only Alpha showed Delta any affection. He was always considerate while trying, without success, to penetrate her defensive shell. She never spoke, except in grunts meaning yes or no. But she was no fool; she understood things well enough.
Gamma and Beta mocked her, despite parental injunctions to treat their less fortunate sibling with compassion and respect. Iemand cared for Delta and tried to bolster her confidence, but the girl seemed fit for nothing but menial tasks.
One morning, a week before her thirteenth birthday, Delta performed one of her regular chores, gathering mushrooms. The tastiest of the edible fungi sprouted along a narrow trail snaking round a swiftly running stream.
About a mile from the compound, while crouching by the wayside, she stopped gathering, tilted her head and sniffed. She recognized the acrid fumy stench of burning wood, but there was something else, an unfamiliar scent that made her mouth water and her stomach rumble. Looking up she saw gray smoke rising into the clear, blue sky. It came from round a bend in the trail, a small clearing beyond a nearby thicket.
Delta scampered into the bushes, hunkered down, set aside her bag of mushrooms and peered through a small clearing in the foliage. She saw Gamma and Beta sitting by the fire. Her siblings held sticks to their mouths and on the sticks was the source of the enticing odor, the flesh of animals, sizzling and oozing fat and blood.
Gamma and Beta gnawed greedily as grease dribbled out the sides of their mouths and down their chins. Delta watched her brother and sister with horrified fascination as they broke an ironclad rule of the elders: You shall not slaughter beasts for food or for hides, or for any other reason except in self-defense.
Her sharp ears detected a faint rustling several paces to her right, near the muddy stream bank. Gamma and Beta put down their skewers and turned their heads in the direction of the noise. Alpha entered the clearing. He confronted Gamma and Beta with his back to Delta. “What are you doing? You know the law.”
Beta frowned. Trembling with fear, she withdrew from the fire, creeping back tensely as if she were about to flee. Gamma stayed put. Raising his stick to his mouth, he bit off a strip of meat and chewed nonchalantly. He spat some gristle into the fire, swallowed the rest, and then rose to face his brother. Grinning slyly, he wiped grease from his lips with the back of his hand before speaking. “Why don’t you join us? We don’t mind sharing some of our prey with our elder brother.” He glanced at his cowering sister. “You’ll share a scrap with Alpha, won’t you little one?”
Beta nodded her head. “Yes... yes, I will. He can finish my piece, if he wants.”
Gamma laughed. “There now, isn’t that nice of our little sister? Come, big brother, taste our forbidden meal. You must be hungry after tending your gardens all day under the hot star. We won’t tell, if you won’t.”
Alpha took two steps toward Gamma. Delta could not see his face, but his voice was harsh. It frightened her. “You’ve broken the law. I must report this.”
Gamma stood his ground. His eyes narrowed, his lips twisted in an ugly grimace. “Go tell the elders, you spineless toad. What can they do? Meat has made me strong. As for the law, I’m a law unto myself. I’m the master of the computers and Beta is my mate. We’ll rule this planet and care for the old ones, as long as they don’t interfere. As for you, we’ll leave you to your gardens and you may gather mushrooms with the strange one. You can mate with her too, if you want. Your ugly brats will make good slaves.”
Delta shivered; cold sweat broke out all over her body. Her stomach knotted, she ached in her cramped hiding place but she dared not move. Alpha took a menacing step forward, but then halted and turned his back on his brother. Delta could see his face; it was deep red and there were tears in his eyes. He turned round and began walking toward the stream.
Gamma hunched down and grabbed a large stone. Beta’s eyes widened with terror; she cringed in the shadows of a giant tree. Delta gasped, instantly covering her mouth with her hand to stifle the telltale noise.
Gamma rose to his full height and hurled the rock at his brother’s head. The missile struck Alpha with a sickening crack. The young man fell forward into a patch of tall grass. Thick red blood oozed from a deep gash at the base of his skull. He didn’t make a sound. Delta noticed a twitching in her brother’s right foot; it continued for a moment, and then stopped.
Beta screamed and began sobbing. Gamma ran to her, shook her hard and slapped her face. “Shut up, you fool,” he growled. “We’re going to make it look like an accident, so no one will be the wiser. Do you understand?”
Beta gulped and hiccupped. Then she rubbed her sore cheek while nodding her acquiescence.
Gamma let go of his sister. His face softened and his voice grew surprisingly tender. “I’m sorry if I hurt you, but you must be strong. We have to stick together. Now, let’s make sure he’s dead.”
Delta remained in her cover, watching as her siblings examined Alpha’s body. Satisfied that their brother was dead, the two dragged his corpse through the grass, over the mud bank to a rocky crossing at the edge of the stream. They left him there, with his head resting on a rock. Delta’s keen ears could barely make out their words over the rushing waters.
Gamma put his arms around Beta. “We’ll say nothing to the elders, little one. After a while, they’ll worry and want to search for him. When we find him, everyone will think it was an accident. He slipped while crossing the stream, fell back and cracked his skull on the rock. With Alpha gone, there’s nothing to stop us. Our seed will inherit the Earth.”
Beta gazed up at her brother. “What about Delta?”
He smiled and stroked her long, dark hair. “She’s a harmless dummy, fit only to serve.” Gamma kissed Beta. His right hand slid up her smooth thigh and underneath her short skirt.
Delta closed her eyes and shrunk from the scene. Stealthily, she crept through the foliage back to the trail and then ran to the compound.
* * *
New Earth transformed. A storm struck the evening of Alpha’s murder, the rainwater swollen stream disposed of the evidence, rending the corpse as it washed over jagged rocks and rapids, cascading downstream to places unknown.
To Gamma, the tempest seemed fortuitous. He induced Beta into believing that the natural forces were their accomplices. The storm was a sign; nature approved of Alpha’s murder and that was consistent with Gamma’s version of the Master Computer’s plan. The new first law was Survival of the Fittest, and Gamma and Beta had proven themselves worthy of life. They were the chosen ones.
When Niemand and Iemand asked; “Where is your brother, Alpha?” Gamma replied, “How should I know? He can take care of himself.” The parents were suspicious, but they never accused their children. Delta remained mute; she hid in shadows, watching and waiting.
* * *
The tempest was the harbinger of a long, merciless winter. Rain turned to sleet and hail, and then snow. Fruit froze on dying tree limbs and vines, crops failed, docile animals turned into predators and prey. The hungry land recalled Niemand and Iemand’s worst memories of old Earth.
Necessity changed the law; they used weapons to hunt beasts for nourishing meat and warm hides. Beta died giving birth to a son, Epsilon. Shortly thereafter, Gamma was killed on the hunt by a pack of prey turned predators. The self-appointed Chosen One passed through the guts of a hungry beast into a mound of droppings.
The day Gamma died, Delta spoke her first words. “Mother and father, I will care for you and Epsilon. I’m strong and know the ways of this new land.”
Niemand and Iemand stared at their daughter in amazement, recalling how the Master Computer had ordered her destruction.
Delta continued: “Have no fear. I’ll provide.” She glanced at the computers, and pointed directly at the Master Computer. “We have no need of them. They’re obsolete, useless. Do you agree?”
Niemand and Iemand nodded their agreement. Delta took a stout ax and within minutes she had smashed the last remnants of old Earth’s most advanced technology.
* * *
Delta proved a resourceful provider and a firm but loving mother and teacher. She adapted well to the new world, with its harsh but still habitable environment. She never burdened her parents with the secret of Alpha’s murder, though she figured they had guessed the truth. Some things, she reasoned, best remained unspoken.
With time, Niemand and Iemand grew too weak for cultivation and the hunt. Their minds slowed, their senses dulled, muscles deteriorated, joints ached and bones grew brittle. They depended completely on Delta and the growing boy.
Niemand went first. He slipped and fell by the stream near the clearing where Alpha had died. Delta found him, lying prone in the tall grass. She carried him back to the compound and put him to bed. After two days of fever he died without regaining consciousness.
Iemand lasted a few months longer. Shortly before Epsilon’s thirteenth birthday, his grandmother retired to her deathbed. Delta tended her mother and did what she could to ease her pain with medicinal herbs she had discovered while gathering mushrooms.
As Iemand neared her end, Delta stayed close by, tending to the old woman’s needs. Epsilon was out gathering. Delta did not worry. The boy had grown big and strong for his age, and had learned his lessons well. He could take care of himself.
“Oh Delta,” Iemand sighed.
Delta leaned over the bed and gently stroked her mother’s feverish brow. “Yes, mother, I’m here. Are you in pain?”
“No, no pain. Just tired... very tired.” The old woman opened her cloudy eyes and focused on her child, but everything was a blur. “We tried, Delta. We wanted a better world for our seed, our progeny. But we failed. This place is no better than old Earth. Forgive me, daughter. Forgive me.”
Delta smiled and stroked her mother’s frail hand. “There’s nothing to forgive. When I was young, I wanted to be pretty, like Beta. I didn’t speak, because I was afraid of Gamma. But I learned to adapt, persevere, and survive. Soon, Epsilon will give me his seed. New Earth will be far from perfect, like my ugly face, but it will be a habitable world. Your descendants will multiply and replenish it, I promise.”
Iemand lifted her hand. She groped for the marked cheek, and Delta guided her. What Iemand felt was soft and warm, and she could see nothing but light. “We never told you that the Master Computer ordered your death. We disobeyed, and at times I thought we had been punished for our transgression. But I’m glad, Delta, so glad that we spared you.”
“So am I, mother,” Delta whispered.
The old woman sank back on her pillow. Her shallow breathing dwindled to a barely audible rasp. Delta put her ear next to Iemand’s lips to catch her last words. “You’re not ugly, my daughter. You’re beautiful, a beautiful seed.”
Copyright © 2011 by Gary Inbinder