Tag Archives: The Colored Lens #38 – Winter 2021

Companions

At first the disease seemed minor, no reason for fear. Cooper, the drilling superintendent, checked some dials and smiled. “We’ve put your straw in Ganymede. Take a drink.”

Next to the pump, clear water from the moon’s underground sea flowed into the sample containers. “Testing before drinking, I want to see what’s in it first.”

“Afraid you might not like the taste?” He was joking as usual, but his voice sounded shaky. He sat on a rock to watch the samples being collected.

When the containers were full, I turned to see Cooper clutching his stomach. “What’s wrong?”

Gingerly he stood. His usually ruddy face was pale. “Stomachache.”

“We’re done for the day. Go see what the doc has for indigestion.” Indigestion, no worries.

Next morning in the lab, the base commander’s voice came over the com. “Scott, go to sick bay. They need help with lab work.”

That was the medtechs’ job. “I’m about to analyze our new samples, can’t it wait?”

“Go now.”

The sick bay door was locked—why lock a door on Ganymede? I knocked and Dr. Susan Alidou, our chief medical officer, came out and quickly closed the door behind her. She wore a mask and a yellow protective garment that formed seals with her gloves and boots.

I smiled. “Looking sharp.”

She didn’t smile back as she handed me a second outfit. “Put these on right away—mask, gloves, everything. Make sure the seals are tight.” A shout came from inside sick bay, and she ran to see what it was.

After putting on the protective stuff, I went into sick bay. The acidic smell of vomit hung in the air. Every bed was full, some of the patients were softly moaning. Susan and her two medtechs were frantically working on Cooper. His eyes were wide open and unfocused. Yesterday morning, he’d been healthy and fit. After a few minutes, Susan straightened up and pulled a sheet over his face. A cold wind of fear made my hands tremble.

Susan led me to a small lab and pointed to a tray of blood and tissue samples. “We need to identify the illness right away. Analyze those and see if the AI-1070 can find anything in its libraries.”

I did a full chemical analysis of all the samples and took pictures at a level of magnification that would show every molecule. Susan came back as the AI processed the information. Its flat mechanical voice announced, “Tests detected no sign of any known pathogen or toxin.”

Susan snorted with impatience and told the communicator to open a link to the Byrd, the ship that brought us here and still orbited above us.

In a moment, the smiling face of Dr. Simpson, their chief medical officer, filled the com screen. “Morning, Susan, how-”

Susan cut him off. “We have a medical emergency. Twenty-five cases of an unknown illness that doesn’t respond to medication, two fatalities so far, and more if we don’t solve this fast. We’ll uplink data on tissue, blood, and urine samples, and patient vital signs. Symptoms are nausea, rash mostly on the face and hands, fever, and in a few cases hallucinations. Send that information to Mars Base and Earth and tell them to figure out what it is ASAP.”

We talked to Simpson again later that day. He sounded so very calm. “Three of Earth’s best labs have all the information you gave us and are working on the problem full time. But the symptoms are so general-.”

Susan’s voice got loud. “We have ten more cases and more fatalities. My patients may not have much time.”

Simpson shook his head. “You’re in a terrible situation. It almost makes me think of the Ganymede curse.”

Susan’s eyes blazed. “Forget that garbage. Get me an answer.” She hit a switch, and the screen went black.

Simpson’s mention of the “curse” got me mad too. When planning for our base started, they sent unmanned probes to orbit Ganymede. The first three crashed on the moon’s surface. Two attempts to land personnel also crashed, with a loss of all 6 crew members. Exploring new worlds is hard and dangerous, and accidents are to be expected, but they still lead to stupid talk.

Susan lightly touched my arm. “I hate to ask this, but could you dispose of the dead?” She sighed. “We’ll have memorial services later, but immediate cremation may help in infection control.”

“Sure, I’ll take care of them both.”

“Four now.”

Each body was wrapped in a sheet, placed on a gurney, and wheeled to the plasma incinerator. I put the body in a chamber, closed the gate, and said a little prayer. Then the incinerator destroyed everything in the chamber, including the germs. That didn’t help. Five more people died the next day.

On the third day, the base commander staggered into sick bay, a sheen of perspiration on his forehead and a rash blooming on his cheeks. He shouted, “I saw them, in my quarters, small and horrible.”

Before the plague, he had been a model of calm reason. Susan came up behind him with an injection to knock him out, then she laid his unconscious body on the nearest bed. He was dead in an hour.

Susan took her frustrations out on Simpson. “I’ve tried every antibiotic, every antiviral, and every antiprionic I’ve got. No response to any of them. Fifty-six cases, ten deaths so far. We could lose every person on this base, and what are you doing?”

Simpson let out a deep breath. “We’ve got lots of people working around the clock, on board, on Mars, on Earth. It’s everyone’s highest priority—only priority. I have to go now.” The screen went dark.

Susan shook her head. “So easy when you’re orbiting above the problem.”

On the fourth day after onset, twenty people were dead and eighty were dying. One group went into the auxiliary dome that held the hydroponics bays, barricaded the connecting corridor, and sent a message that they would kill anyone who tried to join them. Their next message was a despairing voice saying, “The plague is here.” Then silence.

The morning of the seventh day, we lost both medtechs. Susan walked with those bodies to the incinerator. Later, she came to the lab and stood by the door. “A long time ago, I read a story about how a doctor in the early twentieth century treated pneumonia before antibiotics. He’d take the patient’s temperature, pat them on the shoulder, speak in a soothing tone, and listen to them talk while he hoped nature’s healing power would work. That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what you’ll have to do.”

“I’m a research biologist, not a doctor.”

“There’ll be no one else.”

I took a few steps toward her. Across the dark skin of her cheeks, the rash wrote its story of coming death. What was there to say but “I’m sorry.”

“I have a few more hours, and I’m going to use them.” She worked with her patients until finally she called me to come. She died the next day.

I stripped off the germ proof clothing. It hadn’t helped Susan or the medtechs. Each morning I went around the beds dispensing comfort and noting who was ready for cremation. Each afternoon Simpson told me how hard they were working to find an answer. No answer came. Soon every other living colonist was infected. There were fourteen patients, then eleven, then seven, then three, then none.

I asked Simpson why I was still alive.

“In almost every epidemic, some people don’t succumb–like the hemorrhagic fever epidemics early in the last century. Some develop the disease but recover. Others don’t get sick at all. Everyone’s immune system is different. Usually the survival percentage isn’t this small.”

“We’ll have to abandon the base. I can’t fly the shuttle by myself. Will you send one down for me?”

Simpson disappeared, and the screen showed his captain. “I’m sorry, Scott, but we can’t do that.”

“So how are you going to get me back?”

“Scott, we don’t understand this plague. You may be a carrier. I can’t risk my crew.”

“I can’t stay down here!”

“We sent down rations for 147 people. Enough of the hydroponics farm and power plant were set up to let one person survive indefinitely.”

Indefinitely! “Do you have any idea when you can bring me aboard?”

He wouldn’t look directly at the screen. “We don’t have enough fuel and supplies to remain in orbit any longer.”

“So you’re going to leave me?”

“We have no choice but to return to Mars now. Another mission will be out here in about a year—maybe then.”

“A year alone!”

“We’ll be in radio contact, and so will Mars Base. You have the AI-1070 and enough of an entertainment library to keep you occupied forever. I’m sorry, Scott.”

The communicator screen went dark. The screen that displayed the view from an external telescope showed the Byrd, a glowing orb that burned brighter as it fired its engines to escape orbit then gradually grew smaller and dimmer until it looked like just another of the cold unfeeling stars.

Third Class

“I had a skill, you see,” the guy said. His long hair fell wetly across his forehead, and a deep gash ran the length of his jaw on the left.

“A skill.”

“Yeah. I was a storyteller.” He laughed bitterly. “A Storyteller Third Class. And here I thought I’d been producing art and would soon see my name on the bestseller lists, my stories in The New Yorker. Nope. The machines weighed me, measured me and found me third class. Still, I guess I was lucky to make the cut.”

I looked him up and down. He didn’t look like he was about to explode or anything, but it was better to be safe than sorry. “I don’t see what that could possibly have to do with crossing the plain of death.”

“It has everything to do with it.”

“Tell me.”

“No. You’ve got me locked up here in a cell. I’ve been through the wars and all you can do is throw me on a chair and ask me questions?” He raised an eyebrow. “Well I won’t answer anything until you start treating me decently.”

“So what do you want?”

He hesitated, wondering how far he could play his hand. “Can I have something to drink?”

I almost laughed. That was his big demand? “Didn’t you get anything?”

“No.”

Someone had screwed up. But, of course, this outpost expected a huge battle, a sudden invasion across the border executed by terrifying war engines run by machine tacticians smarter by an order of magnitude than anything we could field. A terrified guy covered with mud, escaping through the rain, was not something they’d trained up for.

“All right. What do you want? Coffee?”

“You have coffee?”

That caught me off guard. “Of course. Why wouldn’t we?”

“It’s supposed to be bad for you. The minds have weaned us off the stuff for our own good.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” I replied. “I was just a kid when you guys declared yourselves independent. Do you want cream and sugar with that?”

He goggled as if I’d offered to sacrifice a clutch of virgins, so I just walked out and told the guard by the door to bring us some coffee and something to eat. He looked at me funny, but said he might be able to scrounge up some donuts. I thanked him and went back inside.

“They’re bringing the drinks.”

“Can you take off my handcuffs?”

“I don’t have the keys.”

“Why not?”

I laughed. “Because my bosses think that if they’d given me the keys, I would have unlocked you.”

He thought about it. “They’re afraid of me?”

“You’re the first thing other than propaganda messages to get out of California. We’re all wondering what the machines decided to send us. At least if you have the capacity to brainwash me, I won’t be able to let you go.”

“Brainwash?” He shook his head. “Dude, I’m just a writer. According to the machines, a bad one.”

“And still, you escaped.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because I really wanted to, and I believed that if I made them choose between killing me and letting me walk, they’d let me walk. I was right.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The machines have a mandate: to protect human life. It’s kind of like Asimov’s old laws, but they are sophisticated enough to actually weigh things for the greatest good, so there’s none of that conflict. They just do what’s best for the greatest number, but when it’s just one guy trying to cross a minefield and beam killing ground, they just turn the defenses off.”

I had no idea what the guy was on about. “They sound like a bunch of commies to me.”

“Nah. The machines aren’t political. They couldn’t care less about all that crap we used to get so excited over.”

“Also, they don’t just turn the defenses off. We tried to send people through a few times… They’re still in the killing field, but I don’t think there’s anything larger than a finger left of any of them.”

He shrugged. “I guess it only goes for the citizens under their protection.”

“Interesting.”


The Colonel was less than impressed. “So what you’re saying is that we could get in as long as one of their own people is trying to get out at the same time?”

“Yes, sir.”

He glared at me. “You’re an idiot, Johnson. Get out.”

“Yes, sir.”

I left, secure in the knowledge that he was going to steal my idea. If it worked, he’d get the credit. If it didn’t, I’d get the blame.

I didn’t care. What was the worst that could happen? I was way too senior to bust back down to Captain.


The other shoe dropped a week later.

“Me, sir? I’m not a combat soldier.”

“This mission doesn’t call for combat soldiers. It calls for infiltration troops, and you’re supposed to be good at that.”

“Yes, sir, but…”

“No buts, Johnson. It’s an order. Besides, it was your idea.” The Colonel chomped on his cigar. Where he’d gotten a cigar was anyone’s guess. Tobacco had been outlawed ten years ago. The cigar was a message, as if one was needed, that the Colonel could do whatever the hell he wanted. “Look on the bright side. You’re on an open budget. Ask for whatever you want, and you’ll get it. The only condition is that you’ve got sixty days to cross over. If you haven’t done so in that time, I’ll have the MPs toss you into the killing zone and film you getting atomized. That should go viral quickly, and I’ll get some serious ad revenue.”

He left me shaking my head; say what you want about his methods, but the man certainly knew how to motivate people.

I turned to a lieutenant. He must have been just out of the Point, because he hadn’t had the sense to run for cover. “You. You’ve just been seconded to this project, so stop gaping and go get the prisoner.”

“Which prisoner, sir?”

“We only have one, Lieutenant.”


“I’m not going back to California,” the writer said. Someone had taken off his cuffs.

“Yes, you are. You just haven’t accepted it yet,” I told him. “Now, I think the machines might recognize you as one of their citizens and let us pass, just because you’re aboard… but I’m not willing to bet my life on that. What do you think?”

“I think you’re insane. Why would you want to go into California?”

“We’ve got to get in in order to sabotage the machines from the inside.”

“That’s stupid. How many people are you going to take over the border?”

“Five. Two demolitions experts, you and me and, of course, the lieutenant.”

“You’re going to try to take down the machines with five people? That’s insane.”

“Four people. I’m only taking the lieutenant along because I don’t like him.”

He stared, obviously unsure of what to say. I wasn’t actually nuts, but I wanted to see what he said. It had been ten years since we’d had contact with the people of California, the first—and thus far only—place on Earth that had voted to allow the Technocracy: rule by a sextet of computers designed and programmed to optimize the well-being of the population. His responses should be informative, or at least give an indication of how much he remembered of his time before the Secession.

“Do you mean that? About the lieutenant, I mean? He’s not necessary to the mission?”

“Of course. Bastard gets on my nerves. Serves him right to get shot to pieces or brainwashed by a bunch of boxes that go ping.”

“But… that’s not… right.”

“Spare me your machine morality. I have a job to do, and I’m supposed to do it how I feel fit.”

“This has nothing to do with the machines. It’s a question of human decency.”

“What do you know about human decency? Didn’t you vote to let the computers rule over you?” Even if he hadn’t, the machines had allowed dissenters to leave before closing the border.

“Sure I did. I already told you. I was a writer, which essentially meant I had to pay off student loans I’d used for a degree that would never pay for itself, and a job at the local coffee shop. It was either that or let the human politicians keep screwing me over.”

“Let me get this straight. You were a barista, and the machines made you a writer. Third class or whatever, but you were a writer, and you could survive just by being a writer.”

“Yes.”

“And you still left? I’d think that of all people, you would have had reason to stay. The bankers would still be bankers, the cops would still be cops, but you got every dream you ever had handed to you on a plate. Hell, you’re the worst double agent ever. No wonder no one even blinked when I told them I was going back over the line with you. They think you’re worthless.”

“There are no more bankers. No more cops, either.”

“No cops?”

“No need. There’s nothing you can steal. The machines ensure that everyone has whatever they want.”

“Surely, there’s still stuff people want. Original artwork. Exotic cars. Stuff that can’t be mass produced.”

“All of that belongs to everyone now. There’s no market. And if you want a car, the machines will build you one faster than anything built before.”

“And no one kills other people? Or starts a riot? Or gets drunk and disorderly?”

“Not really. There are stun drones everywhere. Things are stopped before they get out of hand… and if it looks like it was more than just an isolated incident you go to reeducation.”

I shuddered. I could just imagine the needles and the brainwashing apparatus at a reeducation center. “Ugh.”

“It’s not what you think. A lot of people get themselves sent to reeducation on purpose. It’s pretty nice. Sex, music and drugs. Only the ones that don’t damage you permanently, of course.”

“And you want me to believe that you just walked away from all of that?”

“Yes. You don’t understand.”

“I do. I just don’t believe you. Explain why you left.”

“I can’t.”

“Then you actually are useless.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t make you understand, I just said that I couldn’t tell you.”

“Pretty much the same thing.”

“No. It isn’t. I’ll show you.”

“So you’re coming after all?”

“Damn you.”


The tech dweeb didn’t want to hear it.

“Will you just try?” I said.

“All right, but it’ll probably screw up the entire comm system for weeks.”

“I trust you’re good enough to fix it before then.”

He sighed, but obeyed. Everyone on base knew the Colonel’s orders: I could have whatever I wanted as soon as I wanted it. A couple of IT guys opened an access panel, climbed in and began to curse.

Eventually, a head popped out. The tech was a young blond woman who looked too young to be allowed anything as complicated as the comms system. She glared at me.

“You’re still here?”

“Yeah.”

“Hand me that wrench.”

“Here you go.”

“You should probably go away. Come back in a couple of hours. We’re going to have to change some transmitters in the modulator, and we don’t know if the parts work at all. Those frequencies haven’t been used in decades.” She shook her head in disgust. “We’ll all get court marshalled for listening to you instead of carting you off to the loony bin, but the Man’s gotta be obeyed.” She disappeared back into the access panel.

They were probably right, but I had to test what our prisoner was telling me. Had the machines really put their entire civilian communication network onto the old TV station frequencies?

No wonder no one had been able to locate them.

Where the Shadow Falls

With gritted teeth, Jackson watched jets of fire spurt from the nozzle of the flame thrower while his eyes watered behind his windowed mask. He didn’t need to look at the target to know whether he was hitting his mark, but he couldn’t help himself. It was hard not to focus on the body that lay dashed across the mound of broken bricks, its limbs alight in a burning pyre whipped by the wind.

Coils of smoke slid over the rubble, following a lonely path through the ruins. Jackson doused his flame; he hadn’t snuffed a twitch in twelve days, and he would eat well when he reached the Meekon settlement, which was just ten clicks away. If he wound up with an extra allotment of rations, he might trade them for a pleasure ticket; the Meekon girls were worth it, even if they did smell like goats and cheese. There was one girl in particular he might go back to, a well-built woman he’d bedded the year before—but first, he had to mark his prize.

Without removing his mask and gloves, Jackson stripped off his pack and wiped down the muzzle of the flame thrower, which was still too hot to stow. Then he dismantled his crossbow, slung it in its leather pouch, and removed a bright red beacon ball from his pack. As he squeezed the ball, it lit up like a hot coal pulled from a blazing fire, but it gave off no heat; its light was cold.

Jackson approached the body. Leaning over, he gently lobbed the beacon at the mound of smoldering rubble, and he watched it bounce once before it came to rest in a well of clay shards. The little light began to flash, sending a signal that would let the Givers know that Jackson was responsible for this kill.

He turned away. He was pleased with himself, happy to have eradicated another twitch. He was halfway to his pack before he spotted the boy who was standing near his flame thrower.

Jackson froze. The boy was shirtless, clad in leather breeches, and he was crying. In the hours Jackson had spent tracking his prey through the ruins, he hadn’t seen another living soul. He doubted that the boy was a scavenger, since he wasn’t carrying a satchel or pulling a cart. Could he be the dead man’s son, perhaps? If he was, he would be twitching soon as well.

“Is that man your father?” Jackson bellowed through his mask.

Without answering, the child began to gesture in an odd fashion, creating strange signs with his hands. Jackson had never seen anything like it, but he gathered that the boy wasn’t playing a game; the earnest look on his face suggested that he was trying to communicate something that couldn’t be said out loud.

“Back up,” Jackson commanded. “Step away from my pack.”

The boy dropped his hands and stared.

“I told you to get back!”

Squatting down, Jackson grabbed a rock that was large enough to stop a wild dog in its tracks. Hefting it, he showed the rock to the boy, and then he lunged forward, feigning a pitch. The boy jumped back; repeating the gesture, Jackson forced him to retreat a second time. While the boy stared at him, he stowed the flame thrower and wondered what he should do next. He couldn’t prove that the boy had had any contact with the man he’d just killed, but he couldn’t prove that he hadn’t, either.

“I don’t know who you are or where you come from,” he said, “but you’re not showing the signs, so I’m not going to hurt you. Do you understand?”

The boy’s face remained a blank slate. His drying tears made dark tracks in the dust that covered his face.

“I won’t hurt you, but I can’t help you. You’re on your own. Got it?”

With his arms dangling at his sides, the boy kept staring at Jackson.

“Are you soft?” Jackson asked, pointing at his own head.

There was no response. Grunting, Jackson strapped on his pack and started for one of the footpaths that had been worn into the rubble by travelers passing through the ruins. He was sweating under the mask and the gloves cuffed his wrists, but he would keep them on for the time being, until he knew what the boy was going to do.

A few minutes later, he looked over his shoulder. The boy was following him; Jackson imagined a response that involved nipping the hard ground between them with an arrow from his crossbow, but the boy wasn’t enough of a threat to justify the gesture. Jackson walked on.

As he neared the outskirts of the ruins, he stopped to remove his mask and his gloves. The boy stood still and watched him with the same perplexed stare, sparking an uneasy feeling in Jackson’s chest.