©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Fifteen - Missing Marker Mystery
Arion-1 was quiet. Aside of frozen embryos and mature livestock still in cryo, there was no life aboard – at least not in the biological sense. The master of the interstellar vessel was life of an artificial nature, and although technically without gender, the Synthetic Intelligence was generally referred to with a masculine name reflecting the vessel itself.
Arion never slept and was always busy. Although the tachyon drive was now silent and would no longer serve the great ship to cross the void between stars, it had done its intended job well. Part of that system would remain active as long as necessary, providing power to the onboard systems still in use. Numerous integrations had been completely shut down as no longer necessary, but others were still useful tools for the maintenance and continued operation even with the ship parked in geosynchronous orbit.
Although some of Arion’s responsibilities were focused on keeping the quiet vehicle functioning, many new duties had been awakened upon arrival over this new living world. He was in constant communication with his human companions now safely on the planet, providing them with knowledge and direction for the tasks they performed, dispensing information from his vast databanks holding the entirety of human knowledge up until the moment of Earth departure.
Extensions of his entity were shared through techwatches, data tablets, fabrication machines and other equipment they utilized. Landing rovers were quietly gathering information on this new world from other locations around the globe, even as flying drones patrolled the skies over the impact crater where the colonists were making their home.
The previous AI surveyor of this world had not detected any predators during its two-year mission of observation, but that did not mean they were not out there, especially under the canopy of the perpetual rainforest that covered most of this particular continent.
As a measure of safety, Arion launched several more landing rovers from his cargo bays and guided them down from orbit. In addition to targets on the continent, he had also launched two to each of the north and south polar regions, as well as to other landmasses. His goal was to scan and observe Belle, collecting as much information as possible on the biosphere that BR549 could never have done with its antiquated equipment. The rovers would be making detailed analysis of the planet from ground level while the drones could look over the world from higher elevations.
In addition to all of his duties and responsibilities, he also used his android-like waldo to patrol parts of the ship where he had no cameras, microphones or sensors to monitor them remotely. The waldo was capable of looking into closets, cabinets, crates and access panels as needed, going anywhere that a previous human tenant may have needed to go.
It was often during these manual sojourns when he might find signs of the transformed of furmankind, sometimes as discarded clothing that could never be worn again, or tufts of fur or animal hair shed unknowingly. The robotic rodents of the cleaning system sometimes found clumps too large or too dense to pick up, and typically the waldo had to be sent out to unclog them. Sometimes there were treasures to be found in the form of jewelry that had fallen from fingers or other human body parts that could no longer hold them. He had a nice collection of rings, piercings, antique timepieces and even some necklaces that he would eventually send down to the colonists on one of the shuttles while they were still running.
After near constant activity over the days since their arrival, most of the cargo bays had been emptied of its materiel, and once the last of it had been transferred to the surface camp, the shuttles would remain on site, to be used primarily as aerial transportation. Only then would the environmental and life support systems of Arion-1 be shut down completely, so the onboard SI could use its resources to monitor the planet below for new discoveries of a new world.
“According to analysis performed by my lander rovers in this crater and within the three others on this continent, these impacts were all made approximately twenty years ago. I cannot be specific to the exact time of impact, but it would be my conjecture that each were made within moments of one another. It seems that our original supposition may have been correct. Either these meteorites were traveling together in a tight group, or it was a larger object that broke apart during atmospheric entry.”
Ken Robeson looked up from the tablet with the SI’s face on its screen and across the galley tent table at Dr. Kate. “That’s awfully recent,” he said, crossing his arms. “Too fresh for my comfort.”
“That means it could happen again at any time,” said the lioness. “There are no other planets in this solar system orbiting between us and the asteroid belt to give us protection against them.”
“Craters investigated on the other continents are far older with greater environmental erosion,” Arion added. “This does not necessarily suggest a common occurrence, but does not rule it out altogether.”
Kate rested her elbows on the table with a cup of raspberry tea in her hands. “What about the contagion at Site One?”
“This is an unknown element so far, Dr. Kate. I am still performing analysis, but the chemical laboratory on board the rover is limited. I would have to launch a sample into orbit for a more in-depth investigation in a quarantined environment. This can only be accomplished once all personnel have evacuated Arion-1 following the completion of final transfer of cargo and livestock.”
“I still don’t like the thought of having alien material on board the ship,” Ken remarked, “but if you can discover what this blight is, perhaps you can also find a way to stop it from spreading beyond its current location. I would hate to set up here only to have this stuff eventually take over the planet and force us to find another world to move to.”
“Agreed, Mayor Robeson. I will launch a sample within the hour.”
The cougar grinned. “I’m still not used to being called that. If you must be formal, you may call me Mr. Robeson, but we’ve known one another long enough that you can just call me Ken when we’re in an informal setting like this one.”
“As you wish, Your Honor.”
“You don’t have to call me that either.”
“Have we received any reports back from Joe?” Kate asked.
“Mr. Kittinger checked in an hour ago. He and his team have set up four of eight weather stations along the ridge rock, each to be placed at a specified compass point.”
“They should have had time to do them all. Why so few?” Ken asked.
“Mr. Kittinger cites difficulties in finding safe landing spots for the Flitter in the upper altitudes. They are not setting them at the tallest peaks, but still require locations they can reach.”
“That’s understandable. We need those stations installed, but not at the cost of safety.”
Kate looked into the depth of her wide-mouth tea mug and frowned when she saw the empty bottom. She set it on the table and looked around at the few other furmen seated around the room; there always seemed to be someone there at all times.
“Anything else to report?” she asked with a glance at her techwatch. “The construction team will be pouring the foundation of our first building soon and we need to be out there.”
“Yes, Dr. Kate. All but one set of the military dog tags have been distributed to colony personnel. After each batch of six sets came out of the fabrication units in the production tent, Mr. Bletchingdon made sure that each set was given to its owner; he has been unable to locate the final recipient.”
“Who is it?” Robeson asked.
“Ms. Whitney Marker.”
The cougar’s brow wrinkled. “That’s the girl traveling without her parents.”
“That’s right,” Kate responded. “Her family will arrive on Arion-2.”
“With everyone coming and going, it’s difficult to keep track of everyone. I don’t think I’ve met her since she came down to the surface. Arion, what was her species?”
“Bos taurus, a Texas Longhorn cattle hybrid.”
The felines exchanged glances. “Dr. Fernando told me about her,” Robeson murmured. “He said she was fairly suicidal when she discovered what she had become. His counseling session with her was especially difficult, and in the end he prescribed antidepressants for her.”
“I’ve met with each person when they transferred to the surface,” Kate said, “but I don’t recall talking with a heifer. Arion, do you have a record of her leaving the ship?”
“Negative, Dr. Kate. She has not been listed on any flight, including the cargo shuttles.”
“Is she still aboard your ship?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Robeson, but no personnel are currently on board Arion-1 that I can detect. The cargo team is presently on the surface for a twelve-hour break from duties that you authorized.”
“She must still be aboard, or someone neglected to list her on a flight down.”
“I regret that I do not have cameras or sensors in all parts of the ship, but I will review all recordings after she left the scanning compartment for clothing and fingerprinting. This was my only personal interaction with the young bovine.”
Robeson looked at the African lioness. “Do you think she might have committed suicide?”
Kate looked morose. “I hope not, but we won’t rule it out; this has been traumatic more for some than others. If Arion doesn’t find her before the cargo team returns to the ship, we may have to send up more personnel for a search party. In the meantime, we’ll have people looking for her throughout the camp. She may just be in hiding due to personal shame. We’ve had people upset with their transformations, but Whitney was hit the hardest of those who survived.”
“I am still reviewing the data,” Arion reported, “but I have ruled out suicide by airlock. None have been opened, not even the manual-operated emergency hatches. If she has not transferred to the surface, she must still be on board. Until you can send up more personnel to look for her, I will send my waldo into areas where I have no visibility.”
“The Kirato family will be returning to the ship when the shuttle truck returns. The corrals and paddocks are just about complete, so they will begin decanting the livestock in cryo, but I want them focused on that task. We’ll send others to help with the search if they’re needed.”
“As you wish, Mr. Mayor.”
“Okay, please stop calling me that.”
“Yes, Your Honor, sir.”
Arion emitted a quiet chuckle from the tablet and Kate looked amused. She consulted her techwatch again and stood up from her chair, making sure her tail did not tangle with the back supports. “Time to head to the construction site. We have to get that foundation started before the next rain showers.”
Robeson picked up his tablet as he got to his feet, but shook his head. “I’ll let you go officiate with that,” he said. “I need to talk to the Bonavitas.”
The lioness raised an eyebrow. “I don’t envy that conversation,” she scoffed. “Good luck!”
Leaving her tea mug on the table, she dropped to all fours and padded away to the sunlight outside. Robeson retrieved their dishes, put them away in a plastic wash tub on a nearby table, and then heaved a mental sigh. He did not see the embryonic specialists in the galley tent, but he had a good idea where they might be.
The production tent was another large pavilion that held the manufacturing printers and the assorted materials they needed for operation, and although the first permanent structure had yet to be built, there were a number of those in the colony who had been using the printers to craft items to personalize their temporary shelters. The Bonavita family had been seen within the tent on numerous occasions, and he had no trouble finding them inside.
The brown bear and her feline husband looked up in unison when they noticed the cougar walking toward them. “Hello, Your Honor,” Angelo said in greeting. Robeson got the impression that the words had been spoken in derision, but he decided to ignore it.
“Hello, Angelo. Emma. How are you two doing?”
“We’re surviving,” said the ursine woman who refused to be referred to as a sow. “We’re just trying to make ourselves comfortable for the time we’re here.”
“Have you come to say we’re leaving this awful place or that you’ve found a cure for our conditions?” Angelo asked in a slightly raised voice, his eyes refocused on whatever it was the manufacturing printer was working on beside him; it was faster than earlier 3D printers, but as a result it tended to be rather noisy.
“Neither,” said the colony leader. “It’s time for the two of you to put your skills to work.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“All of the freezer units have been brought down from orbit and set up on power units in a large tent on the other end of camp. The corrals and stockades are about finished and the Kiratos will return to the ship in a few hours to begin decanting the livestock in cryo. As they ship live animals down on the shuttle trucks, you’ll need to implant embryos to initiate full pregnancies.”
“Why should we bother?” Emma scoffed. “You aren’t making enough of an effort to find a way to get us back to Earth, but that should be your highest priority! There’s no need to impregnate the livestock if we aren’t staying.”
“Where did you get the impression that we’re leaving Bellerophon?” Robeson responded, trying to keep his hackles down. “We’ve told you time and again that we are staying right here!”
Emma looked at the feline, set her jaw and then sat back on her haunches. “We refuse,” she stated defiantly.
“We aren’t going to touch a single embryo. If you don’t have fresh livestock, you’ll have no choice than to go back!”
“How many times will I have to repeat this? We are not going back to Earth. We can’t! Ever! We don’t have the means, nor do we have the intention of even trying! We came to Bellerophon for a purpose and that hasn’t changed! Our mission stands.”
Angelo sat on the ground beside his wife and crossed his arms. “We refuse,” he echoed what the bear had said. “End of discussion.”
Robeson drew himself up to his full height and glared down at them. “So be it,” he said tightly. “If you do not work, you do not eat. I will inform Rocky right away that neither of you are to be provided any food stock meant for working colonists, since you hate this place so much.”
“What!” both said in unison.
The cougar made a show of snapping his fingers, even if they did not make the desired sound. “In fact…” he said, “if you wish, I can even have a pilot take a Flitter and transfer the two of you to any other place on the globe that you would like to live out your lives away from this camp you so detest; I can even let you take a tent with a couple of days of provisions, but we can’t spare more than that. You won’t ever be allowed back up on the ship, so get it through your thick heads that Arion-1 will be making no interstellar voyages ever again. You’re here to stay – whether it’s working with the rest of us, or living off by yourselves!”
Angelo got to his feet. “Now, let’s not be hasty,” he said in a softer tone that Ken had never heard him use before. “We didn’t say we wouldn’t work around the camp. We’ll do whatever is needed, but we won’t touch any of the embryos. There’s no need to exile us for that!”
Robeson suddenly felt vindictive. “If you stay but refuse to do your assigned jobs, be prepared to do all the menial tasks we can think up for you around camp. You will have to earn your meals. In the meantime, I’m sure Piale would be happy to accept responsibility for your jobs. From what I’ve been told, she may be young, but she has the necessary experience to implant the embryos, and I can get two or three others in similar fields to work with her on this assignment.”
“Piale!” exclaimed Emma. “She can’t handle that kind of obligation!”
“I’m sure she’ll step up to the job. She’s already told us several times that she’s willing to do anything necessary to support this colony, which is more than I can say for her parents. I think it’s time she’s given a role of responsibility.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Why not? The only embryonic specialists we have are refusing to do their jobs. Sure, we have some farmers and ranchers among us who probably have experience with husbandry, but Piale is a specialist and will be put in charge of this necessary operation.” Before either of the Bonavitas could gripe further, he held out a hand toward them. “The only alternative is for you to accept responsibility and fulfill the duties you came here for.”
The mismatched married couple fell silent, but they exchanged looks for several moments before either looked back at the cougar.
“No,” Emma said. “We’ll do whatever nasty jobs you make us do, but we will not touch one embryo. Piale doesn’t have what it takes and will fail at this task; in time, you’ll see that we’re right and that we need to leave this place as soon as we can.”
“What is wrong with you two?” Robeson asked incredulously. “Every person here volunteered for this one-way mission, and that included you. Why in blazes did you even come here for? Tell me that!”
“We wanted to make a new life and give humanity a chance to survive should anything ever happen to the Earth,” Emma answered.
“We can’t do that now,” Angelo added, holding out his feline hands. “We aren’t human anymore, so how can humanity ‘live on’ here? If we return to Earth, someone else can come out here in a better protected ship and take our places to represent humanity.”
Robeson visibly deflated. “I understand, but you still don’t get it. How many different ways can I say this? Our ship was designed for a one-way trip out here. It just isn’t capable of making a return flight, and we have nothing here that would change that fact.”
Remembering something that Dr. Kazama had said, he added, “Even if we had the means, it would be a round trip of over a century and a half by the time we got back. It’s already been almost seventy-six years since we left and most everyone will have already forgotten us, tagged us as nothing more than a footnote in the history texts. If we returned looking like we do now, what do you think would happen to us?”
“Maybe they could find a cure,” Emma ventured.
“It’s doubtful, since no one on Earth would have ever experienced this either. In all likelihood, a ship full of talking animals that showed up in orbit would probably be seen as an alien invasion before we could even get them to believe that we were once human. I doubt they would even let us land and explain.”
“We don’t know that they would react that way,” Angelo said. “We need to give it a try.”
“How? We don’t have the fuel and we don’t have the necessary cryo resources for another seventy-six year journey. Even if we can’t go back to Earth in cryo suspension, we have neither the room for everyone, nor enough food and air to last such a trip with us all up and about. Not counting the years I spent asleep, I’m forty-seven years old. If I did not go back in cryo, I would be around one hundred twenty-two years old by the time we got back to Earth, providing that I even lived that long. How about yourselves? If we did manage to survive the long voyage, what kind of a life would we have at that age, whether we were animal or fully human? Those of us still alive would be getting back in time to die of old age.”
“That can’t be true,” Emma muttered. “There has to be a way to replenish our fuel and cryo resources so we can go back. Maybe that’s what we should be doing now — trying to find local elements we can use to make what we need.”
Robeson shook his head. “We have no one with that kind of experience among us. Those skills were not deemed necessary to start a new colony on another world.”
“What about Arion?” Angelo asked. “He’s supposed to be a repository of all human knowledge. Are you saying that he can’t teach us to make what we need to go back home?”
The cougar looked thoughtful, but only for a moment. “I admit that could be a consideration, but you two are the only ones among us who have any desire to go back to Earth, so we aren’t going to expend our efforts to send you back alone. No, I’m sorry. We’re all here to stay.”
The expression on the face of the bear hardened again. “In that case, our decision stands. If you’re going to strand us here, we have no intention of implanting a single embryo. If we can’t leave, and you aren’t going to look for a cure, there’s no need for us to survive. We don’t represent humanity anymore. We don’t belong here.”
Robeson pulled up his tablet. “Arion?”
“Still here, Your Honor.”
“Please lock out the fabrication units to Angelo and Emma Bonavita. They won’t be using them anymore.” The machine in production promptly fell silent, its instructions cut off.
Robeson narrowed his eyes at the two before him. “Report to Mr. Andresen immediately. I will provide him with a list of chores to keep you occupied before I inform your daughter of her promotion.”
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