The habitat doors hissed open. Steam slipped from Vesha’s body. The air grew cold, until ice strands formed between her fingers and toes. Her lungs burned. The plastic umbilical cable tugged at her navel as it pumped stabilizing chemicals into her bloodstream.
Vesha squinted through tears of pain. Outside, Torumba’s frozen landscape stretched to the wall of the Border Zone. A layer of mist clung to the blue ice field.
Her earpiece crackled. “Acclimation sequence complete.”
Vesha strode out onto the ice.
“Crystozoa concentrations at point-six above. Lung capacity at fifty-five percent. All systems operational.”
Vesha coughed, and tasted blood. Operational. Yeah, right.
“Evening, Vesha.” Through the habitat windows, Jacob’s bushy hair stood out like an orange sun. He sounded different today. Nervous.
“Hot date today, doc?”
Jacob forced a chuckle. “Yeah, right.”
He rattled off her test parameters. It had been a year since her inception date, and the damned tests never ended. If she was meant to parent humanity’s next generation, shouldn’t she get started? The habitat would only hold them for another few years.
She crouched at the test site and planted her fingertips atop the ice. Liquid pooled in small circles. Beneath, the soil was visible. Her fingers sank, and for a moment it looked like it might work. Then a chill overtook her, and the water froze. She tore her hands free, and her skin bled.
Vesha gritted her teeth. More failed tests. They had built her to thrive on Torumba, not just survive. But Jacob himself had admitted, halfway through a bottle of chag one night, that they’d rushed her genetic encoding, pressured by worsening habitat conditions. There was still no word from Earth, and everyone feared the worst. Their meager colony might be the last vestige of humankind. They had no fuel to venture beyond this system, which meant they had to adapt. Vesha was their only hope for survival. “The key to humanity’s future,” Jacob called her.
Vesha spat, and the ice stained red. Some surrogate mother she was.
She shot a glance at the habitat. A gaggle of scientists peered over Jacob’s shoulder. Vesha’s earpiece buzzed, and the white-coated team shuffled down the hall, leaving Jacob alone.
“What’s going on, bud?”
Sweat glistened on Jacob’s brow. “If you run, you might make the border in time.”
Vesha snorted. “Not following you.”
“You have to go. It’s your only chance.”
A tremor rippled down Vesha’s spine. “Are we under attack?”
Jacob hesitated. “Check the west corral.”
The wall dividing her corral from the next loomed fifty meters away. That corral had always been empty. What was he getting at?
Jacob slammed his fist against the glass. “Go!”
Vesha ran. Her lungs felt ready to burst. Her muscles strained around the joints, where the tests always showed signs of genetic defects.
She reached the wall and leapt. She hauled herself atop the wall. Blood streamed from her nostril onto her lips.
A shadow played across the ice in the adjacent corral. A woman. On the surface. How was this possible? Vesha was the only one with lungs that could handle the Crystozoa.
The woman’s skin was a dull green. Her fingers and toes were long and thin. The light from the habitat caught her face. She looked just like Vesha.
The woman crouched, and sunk her fingertips into the ice with ease. She tossed chunks of the blue stuff aside and clutched the rich soil beneath. Her breathing was relaxed. She was perfect.
“Jacob, what… is she?”
Jacob sighed. “There isn’t time–”
“She’s… your successor.”
The woman in the corral dug out a handful of soil and studied it. Vesha clenched her teeth.
“But I’m… key to humanity’s future… ”
“You’re just our first try. You’re not the… finished product. Listen, Vesha. You have to go–”
“First try? We’re all first tries! What about you, Jacob? Are they building your successor, too?”
“It doesn’t work like that, Vesha.”
The woman shook Crystozoa strands from her hair. Vesha fought off the urge to leap down and tear that hair from her scalp by the fistful.
“What will happen to me?”
“It’s not my decision. I just found out. Doctor Thomas–”
Jacob’s voice quavered. “You’ll be decommissioned. But you still have a chance, before Doctor Thomas gets back. You have to run.”
Vesha looked across the ice fields. Beyond the far wall lay the Wilds. Where would she go? The Wilds were filled with Crystozoa breeding pools and god knew what else. And she was… flawed. She didn’t stand a chance.
An angry voice piped into her ear. Doctor Thomas.
“–the hell? Vesha, return to base immediately.”
Vesha’s umbilical cord lay sprawled across the ice like the slack string of a kite, waiting to reel her in.
“Return to base. That’s an order.”
Vesha drew the cord to her mouth and gnashed it with her teeth. The fibers snapped. Milky liquid spilled across the wall.
An alarm blared. From the habitat, a security automaton shot into the night on blazing thrusters.
Vesha ran across the top of the wall. Her thighs burned like hell. The border of the Wilds loomed closer, a knife’s edge of white against azure mountains.
Metal hands gripped her. Her feet slipped from the wall. She twisted in the automaton’s grasp, but its fingers dug deeper. It hauled her toward the habitat.
Doctor Thomas stood in the window, hands on her hips, a venomous glare in her eyes. A pair of guards restrained Jacob nearby. His eyes were wide, locked on Vesha as she drew nearer.
Vesha thrust a hand upward. Her open palm smashed into her captor’s chin, and sparks flew. She tucked her legs, planted her feet against its chest, and pushed.
Metal fingers slipped from her skin, drawing out ribbons of blood. She flew backward. A flash blinded her. Pain lanced through her torso. She gagged as her fingers felt the gaping hole in her abdomen.
Vesha landed atop the wall and the air shot from her lungs. Jacob’s voice rang in her earpiece, a string of muffled words. She tried to sit up, but the pain was too much. Her legs were numb. Crystozoa clung to the surface of her eyes. She let her head drop.
Over the west side, her successor stood in her corral, watching. A thin trail of blood ran from the woman’s nostril. Vesha smiled bitterly as the pain slipped from her body at last.
Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up story writing to kick the habit. When he’s not writing, he spends his time on another continent in search of adventure.