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A Stranger in Paradise

Written by Edward M. Lerner
Illustrated by Dean Spencer


Row upon row of blue-and-green-and-white globes mock me.

The world below reflects from tumblers and goblets and snifters and flutes, from more types of antique glassware than I can name. Bottles and decanters of amber liquid line other shelves. Seven thousand years is too vintage for my tastes; I'm ignoring my craving for a drink.

Ama and I first spoke in a place like this—not a derelict starship, but another tavern. Human nature has changed over the millennia, but not in that way.

No, let me call her Amanda. If those I want to find this memoir do, the old form of the name may be more familiar. My name has no old form; Cameron will do.

I was alone, my back to the boisterous crowd, when she approached my table. The friends she had come in with were chattering away. Despite pulsing music and her soft tread, I knew she was there well before she spoke.

"You act like the world is against you."

I was new there—there meaning Earth, not only the Academy—and homesick and friendless. I held back my reflexive reply: that the world was. Medicine and training notwithstanding, the gravity was killing me. The answer I gave instead made her laugh.

I had met the one. Some things you just know.

* * *

Planets are tough on artifacts mere mortals can build. A few thousand years of weathering and erosion destroys and obscures a lot. It wasn't until we stumbled upon ancient lunar settlements preserved by the vacuum that we realized we—humankind—had been in space before. A whole new science, techno-archeology, was needed to understand. When fragments of data finally began to emerge from the lost civilization's computers, we were even more amazed.

The Firsters had burst from the solar system with an armada of slowboats and an excess of enthusiasm. Their ships would, in a few generations' time, reach nearby stars thought to warm planets with good prospects for human colonization.

The solsys-wide civilization collapsed before any of those pioneers could possibly have reached their destinations. Archeologists agree that Earth suffered plagues, famine, global warfare, eco-collapse, and socioeconomic implosion. They just cannot agree on cause and effect.

Millennia later, humanity has recovered, and more, exploring its galactic neighborhood in faster-than-light ships embodying technologies the Firsters never imagined.

And none of our nearest interstellar neighbors has a human presence.

If any of the slowboats narrowcast home as instructed about their first landfalls, no one retained the technology to hear. Some ships, perhaps, never reached their destinations. Some planetary settlements, it was eventually discovered, were started and failed. A few asteroid bases were found orbiting nearby stars—all abandoned.

But those failures were not the end of the story.

What is known for certain is that some missions traveled far past their intended stars. Were the original destination worlds too inhospitable for the colonization methods of the time? Interstellar space is a big place—did they simply lose their way? Did settlements split, some staying to defend a hard-won beachhead, others ever seeking a better world? All the above occurred, and more than once, the process repeating until the slowboats could voyage no more.

The Firster generation ships spread humanity thinly across a million cubic light years, in hundreds of tiny enclaves in as many alien environments. Many groups eventually died out. Some continued to eke out a hard-scrabble existence, their memories of Earth warped or nonexistent. Few retained any vestige of civilization.

For those who survived, there is the Reunification Corps.

* * *

Amanda. . . .

Whenever she entered a room, heads turned, conversation stopped, men smiled reflexively, and libidos engaged. I knew then, and remember now, that she is physically beautiful. Flowing brown hair. Striking blue eyes ever twinkling with warmth and curiosity. A willowy grace.

And yet beauty is the least of her charms.

I should get on subject.

Finding lost colonies is an art. Few records survive to show where the slowboats went, even on their first, usually failed attempts. There are too many stars, even with FTL drive, to search them all. So, while the Reunification Corps employs a multitude of skills and professions, the rarest and most precious talent is the one that makes all the others relevant.


It's a peculiar mode of thought, the ability to put one's self into the mindset of a doomed expedition born of an ancient civilization. To think: I'm here, one of the lucky ones, after generations of travel. To realize: this climate, these perils, a lack of vital resources . . . something makes it too dangerous to stay. Extrapolating from that crushing disappointment, and what little we've reconstructed of Firster technology, how they might have reacted to the prospect of moving on. Which of the distant pinpoints of light would seem the most promising? Which would merit entombing myself and generations of my descendants on a slowboat that logic says may not survive another epic voyage but is too complex to replace? Deciding where, with an entire solar system to choose from, the Firsters might have established a base.

There is no way to capture the process in an algorithm, or exercise it from behind a desk. It takes walking the planets of distant stars, communing with the faint anomalies that just might be the crumbled remains of abandoned settlements.

Amanda and I became instant friends, and then a sweaty-and-entangled whole bunch more than friends, at Corps Academy. We begged and bargained our way onto the same Corps re-orientation ship, two earnest grads eager to help a world of Firster descendants rejoin a larger humanity scarcely recognizable in their mythos. After three missions together, we decided to get married.

I couldn't believe our good fortune that a two-person scout ship mission was available. Starhopping would leave plenty of time for us—it seemed like the perfect honeymoon.

And then one of those starhops brought us to Paradise.

* * *

Long before sensors spotted the tumbling hulk of the abandoned slowboat, I felt certain the Firsters we were tracking had settled here. From halfway across the solar system, sensors showed the planet was too perfect not to settle.

Amanda was equally sure any colony had failed. There was no hint of chlorophyll in the orbital scans, nor signs of energy being harnessed. No chlorophyll means no terrestrial plant life to anchor a human-usable food chain. No energy generation means no bioconversion to change local biota into something terrestrials could eat.

"Damn. Sorry." Amanda's sympathy for the lost colonists was sincere. And misplaced.

There were people on the planet below. I was as sure of that as I'd been, from star to star to star, which way this slowboat had gone. Call it a hunch.

"It's a waste of time." Amanda had been seated in front of a bio-readout panel. "Humans might as well eat dirt as anything growing down there."

The planet we circled, that I still circle, is green almost everywhere not covered by water or polar ice cap. That lushness was one more anomaly, since its orbit was barely within the habitable zone of its K-class sun. While I began the painstaking process of bringing back on-line the slowboat's ancient, crumbling computers, Amanda, at my insistence, flew down in a lander to check things out.

We have been apart ever since.

* * *

Any planet you would want to colonize belongs to someone else—the only question is how much of an ecosphere you are willing to displace. That is true, at least, if a breathable atmosphere is a meaningful part of your lifestyle. Oxygen is so chemically reactive that only a planet rich with photosynthesizing life can sustain an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

From interstellar distances, the only discernable planetary characteristics are orbit, rough size, and atmospheric composition. Evolutionary progress from the single-celled stage until sentients begin to use radios, not that any such have ever been found, is undetectable. Fortunate colonists found bare rock plus oceans full of oxygen-producing algae. Unlucky colonists, at least for those with a sense of bioethics, encountered continents teeming with indigenous life.

Like Paradise.

* * *

The lander touched down just inside one of the planet's few desolate regions, on the rocky coast of an inland sea. Amanda could not bring herself to use a more hospitable prospective landing site. A column-of-flame descent into some verdant meadow would have been, she said, like torching a park.

I had no reason to doubt her inference that the area had, within the last few years, been cleared by a forest fire. "Caused by lightning," she insisted. "There are no careless campers here." Charred, often toppled, boles of tree-analogues dominated the landscape. Beyond the devastation towered vast expanses of the spiky, fern-like plants. Patches of new growth poked, scrub-like, through ashy soil. "You getting this?" she radioed, surveying the landing site on foot. She wore an envirosuit although every sensor showed the area to be safe. That was protocol: Thorough checkout took time. Videocams on the lander panned slowly.

"Good place to take up charcoal drawing," I commented from orbit. I had no difficulty imagining her answering smile.

"Not among my talents, and I don't see staying here long enough to cultivate new skills." Her suit radio conveyed faint crunching sounds as she walked. Saplings became denser as she progressed towards the closest unmarred growth. "What luck with the slowboat's computer?"

"Not much," I admitted. Computing was one of the technologies at which the Firsters excelled. The Corps had, over time, reverse-engineered a few of their tricks, but the systems on every slowboat differed. Each crossing took generations . . . why should their technology stand still? "Maybe you can charm it . . ." I trailed off.

"What?" she asked.

"Stand still." She froze. "Speed up panning." Her helmet camera did. The matching view on my display swept across the countryside, then reversed direction. Fern saplings trembling in the breeze showed the only motion.

"What did you see, Cameron?"

"Apparently nothing." The videocam again reversed its arc.

Something shot across the screen.

"Did you see that?" she shouted. Her gloved fist, one finger outstretched, blocked a corner of the camera's field of vision. Ground-hugging fronds still rustled where she pointed.

I was advancing, frame by frame, through captured images of a scuttling, six-legged, ankle-high alien something when Amanda whooped excitedly. Her helmet camera swung wildly. "What is it?" I yelled back. "What do you see?" The image stabilized; from the change in perspective it was clear she was squatting. Green glowing eyes studied Amanda from deep within shadowy underbrush. My gut clenched. "What is that?"

Moments later, a clearly terrestrial calico cat sauntered out of the undergrowth to sniff Amanda's still outstretched finger.

* * *

The slowboat was a wreck. I tell myself that if I had skills beyond gleaning clues from traces of hints of ruins, I would have brought the old systems on-line soon enough to have made a difference. Or that if I'd somehow stitched together the colonists' story faster, I'd have gotten Amanda offworld in time.

But I don't believe it.

I had followed these colonists across four interstellar hops. That was a record . . . most slowboats were worn out after two; a few managed three. The problem was always biosphere collapse. A crossing Amanda and I could reasonably call a hop was to the Firsters a multigenerational odyssey. By the time the colonists reached Paradise, the slowboat's ecology was exhausted and dying. They had no choice but to descend to the surface.

They were up to something neither Amanda nor I could comprehend. I kept exploring, kept reconstructing the spotty surviving records for some clue how these Firsters expected to live here, how they thought to avoid ravaging a thriving native ecology to transplant their own.

Now that it is too late, I do understand.

* * *

What did Amanda see in me? Given my looks—straw-colored hair, a pasty complexion, features I've always thought a bit awry, and the tall-and-gangly frame common to Belters—there was always ample speculation. I've overheard enough whispers to grasp the popular explanation, and it makes me crazy: That it is a marriage of convenience. She gets the career benefit of my semi-spooky skills at tracking down Firsters. I get . . . her. It's hardly flattering for either of us.

As I said, it drives me crazy.

She met, she loves, an artist. When I could no longer bear the stubborn refusal of planet and slowboat to relinquish their secrets, I sought refuge—looked, in a way, for Amanda—in my art.

There are many restored recordings of Firster music; by those standards my compositions are arrhythmic, overly complex, and discordant. Each of my melodies has a visual setting, forming a sight-and-sound poem. The first time I shared one with her, back at the Academy, she gazed at me in silent wonder. What a rare treat it was to bask in someone's appreciation.

Years later, I cannot experience that piece without memories flooding my mind. Recalling her, recalling that moment, my heart aches.

So what did Amanda see in me? The person. Mine is not the only sixth sense.

* * *

Recovering data and restoring limited operations in the balky Firster computers involved one part inspiration and twenty parts head scratching. The work left plenty of time for watching Amanda through landing-site cameras. I missed her.

I miss her now.

DNA from a blood sample proved Amanda's new friend was, without doubt, a terrestrial cat. She was playing with the feline, teasing it with a dangling bit of vine, the game by way of apology for the needle stick, when two landing-site motion sensors gave alarms.

Moments after the alert—trilling discreetly in her personal communicator and booming from my console in our orbiting starship—someone strode from the brush, as obviously a human as the cat was a cat. The burly figure wore a knee-length tunic of clearly natural fibers, cinched at the waist by a braided sash from which hung a cloth sack and various wood-and-stone implements. The loosely woven garment left no doubt that her caller was a man.

"Amanda," I whispered.

"I see him."

He ambled casually towards her, greasy hair hanging past his shoulders. If he understood the lander's stungun turret slow swiveling to track his progress, he gave no sign. His body language seemed somehow disdainful of the ship. He sniffed repeatedly, a puzzled expression on his face.

"Amanda," I whispered again. "What's he doing?"

"You tell me," she whispered back.

The stranger sniffed again. His meandering path took him past the flat rock on which lay the galley scraps Amanda had set out for the cat. He bent slightly, inhaled, and then continued slowly towards her. He seemed no more impressed by home-world food than had the cat.

After the linguistic drudgery of the initial colony rediscoveries, the Corps had painfully reconstructed passable versions of the Firster languages. Modern survey ships carried translation software attuned to all major colonist dialects—that is, to the versions deduced to have been spoken when the slowboats were leaving solsys. It didn't take many utterances by the visitor to recognize English as the root of his speech. The lander's computer took longer, but not much, to derive many of the pronunciation shifts and some divergent vocabulary. From a speculative understanding of roughly every third word, Brian—his name was one thing we did ascertain—was most interested in discussing the weather.

"His vocabulary appears limited," Amanda said. She had cranked up the sensitivity of her implanted communicator sufficiently to capture her subvocalizations.

We both knew the computer had already reached that conclusion, and she wasn't one to repeat the obvious. "What's worrying you?"

"Why isn't he more curious? This," and she gestured at the lander, the stacks of equipment she'd unloaded, and herself in the crinkly envirosuit, "must be strange to him."

Paradise's sun, almost overhead at the beginning of the visit, nearly touched the horizon. I was hungry, although I had snacked throughout the session. Improvised cat food sat, scarcely touched, in a corner of my screen. Chicken scraps . . . funny that the cat still had not attacked them. "Not curious fails to do it justice." The Academy had drummed into us that body language is not universal, but I indulged myself once more. "He's yawning a lot. Fidgety." I fast-scanned backward. "Bored? And the angle at which he cocks his head, the tension in his jaw, the squint of his eyes . . . it's as though he has a headache."

Brian loosened the drawstrings of the bag that hung from his belt. He removed two pieces of lumpy, red-orange fruit. He bit into one, pulpy juice trickling into a matted beard. The second piece he offered to Amanda. If he considered the head-to-toe encapsulation of her envirosuit strange, or an impediment to her ability to sample the local cuisine, he kept it to himself. "These need little rain."

"Thank you." To me, she subvocalized, "I'll analyze it later." She set his gift on a portable workbench, and then unsealed an emergency ration. Insinuating food through the helmet port of an envirosuit is neither easy nor pretty; she mimed tasting a cookie before offering one to her visitor.

Brian spit seeds in several directions before giving the cookie a perfunctory sniff. This time his expression was too foreign for me to hazard a guess—but the snack went unsampled into his sack. The headache I inferred him to have seemed to have worsened. "I must leave." He pivoted without ceremony and began walking purposefully back the way he had come.

"Will you return?" Amanda called. "Will you tell others?"

He stopped, less to answer, it seemed, than to reposition a box. A frond that had been bent by the crate sprung straight. "Why?"

Without further comment or explanation, he disappeared into the woods.

* * *

"So what do you think?" Amanda spoke around a mouthful of the autogalley's finest. She had a heroic metabolism and an appetite to match. The lunch foregone due to the inconveniences of the envirosuit only made her that much hungrier. A still frame of the disinterested colonist occupied the wall screen behind her.

Halfway around the world I was also eating. "About Brian?"

"About whether it's time to lose the suit." She chewed a mouthful of greens. "Obviously Brian is fine without one."

What could I say? That I had a bad feeling about this? I did, and she laughed.

"You have a bad feeling about everything." She turned her attention to a cookie like the one she had given her visitor. "However." Her eyes darted to the lab containment unit in which were arrayed row after row of culture dishes with smears and thin sections of native fruit glob. "That no earthly mold or bacterium has taken hold on the fruit he eats is puzzling enough that I'm going to stay protected for a while."

* * *

Things stayed the same for a time. Fruit globs, while non-toxic by every test known to the ship's computers, were also entirely lacking in dietary value. Nor was the mystery limited to the one native species. Amanda made several trips to the edge of the forest—Brian made plain, without lucid explanation, that he did not want her entering—to collect roots and tubers and growths of every type remote sensors captured Brian eating. All hid their nutrients well.

She had no better luck with snared specimens of the six-legged native things we'd taken to calling mice—because that's what you call what a cat stalks. The wireless cameras Amanda had strewn around the landing site and nearby woods had yet to catch her furry friend hunting anything else. It did not eat many Earth-food scraps either. "She," I was repeatedly corrected. "Calico cats are always female."

Ship's sensors had failed to find people on the surface for a good reason: Weaving and woodworking are not industries one observes from orbit. Now, with Brian as an example of the survivors, I switched tactics. Low-flying microbots spotted plenty of other humans. Their shelters were primitive: caves, hide tents, and lean-tos and shacks made of fallen branches. They lived alone or in, we guessed, family units. Nothing bigger.

That dispersion was one more mystery. Even for hunters and gatherers, there appeared to be more than enough food to support many times the current population.

Brian remained nearby, rarely venturing from the densest parts of the fern woods. If he ever saw other humans, those encounters were as elusive as the nutrients that sustained him.

* * *

With power and supplies from my docked starship, I restored to habitability an insignificant portion of this ancient and mummified miniworld. The fragile, recreated bubble of life evoked in me some essence of the long-departed crew. Grudgingly, and in elusively suggestive fragments, repaired computer archives surrendered their secrets.

Only constant nurturing of the ecosystem had enabled completion of the slowboat's fourth voyage. In the process, the crew became devoted—by most standards, fanatical—to ecological sanctity. They were overwhelmed when, another interstellar voyage clearly impossible, the prospective home finally within reach after lifetimes of travel proved too Earth-like. They would not consider wreaking ecological havoc to give Earthly life a chance to take root; they could not survive any longer aboard ship.

I'm a rock boy, asteroid born and bred, so maybe my comments are uninformed. Still, studying the slowboat's records, I didn't consider the planet the colonists were so mystically protective of all that special. The planet at which they had arrived, that is. In the intervening few thousand years, it had flourished.

All I knew for certain was that the colonists had done something—found some course of action between extinction and their principles. What that compromise was, I could not say.

* * *

"The damnedest thing," Amanda said. She did not puzzle easily, or admit to it readily.

She had been poring over long-range fauna surveys from microsats I had deployed and low-flying drones she had deployed. "We've got very stable populations. The herbivores don't overgraze anywhere, which means the carnivores are keeping them in balance. The carnivores are nicely dispersed, too. Very uniform."

From our years together, I more or less understood her point. Natural systems tend toward equilibrium—but outside shocks to the system disturb that equilibrium: forest fires, earthquakes, volcanoes. Disaster strikes; in that region, one species or other is disproportionately killed off. Surviving species burst into a new niche, for a while with dis-equilibrating effects. Why weren't there more areas in which the predator/prey balance was off? "What do you make of it?"

"Nothing." She grimaced at the camera. "I'm not getting it."

Constantly vidding Amanda made separation that much harder. I even found myself jealous of Brian. The neighborhood primitive showed no interest in her, but at least he had the unused option of seeing her, in person. Until, with no obvious reason, he was back.

Back to the fringes of the burned-out region, that is. He was in plain sight of the lander and Amanda's outside equipment, but he did not come close. His attention was on planting seedlings even when she donned her envirosuit and hiked to visit him. When she asked if anyone else would join them, the translator's best guess at his answer was confusion.

* * *

I was running out of excuses why Amanda should maintain isolation from Paradise's environment—although, as the mission's biologist, that decision was logically and factually hers. Why I sought excuses was unclear. A planet declared safe would mean our reunion. My innate caution outweighing my loneliness, I speculated. Airless "worlds" like the rock I grew up inside had no tolerance for mistakes.

Long searching eventually revealed some poisonous vegetation, but no more than could be found on large swatches of Earth. Mice (the four-legged, Earthly kind) set outside sniffed and peered about curiously, perfectly content within their wire cages. The big mystery remained how Brian's people lived on what grew here. Amanda's lab animals had ignored samples put into their enclosures. As long as that critical detail eluded us she agreed, reluctantly, to continue avoiding all exposure to the biosphere.

And then. . . .

"These guys were brilliant."

We kept comm channels open at all times. Amanda's whoop roused me from deep sleep. I had reset my body clock to sun time at the landing site, where it was now far from daylight. Why was she up? "A chipped rock is their idea of advanced engineering," I grumbled. It was an attitude I knew I had to lose. The reunification protocols—our reason for being here, after all, and my job to implement once I was on the ground—were meant to be executed with an open mind.

"Trust me." On-screen, her eyes shone. She could be so enthusiastic; that passion for her work is yet another reason I love her. "I couldn't sleep, so I got up to finish some lab work." She brushed an unruly lock of hair from her forehead. "Cameron, I know how they eat here."

That brought me fully awake.

"The Firsters left Earth many thousands of years ago, and we don't know the human genome of the time in detail. Ever since, they've been an isolated, in-bred community. And shipboard shielding is never perfect: There are always the random effects of generations spent exposed to increased cosmic radiation. We always expect to find minor genetic drift in rediscovered colonists." She finally paused for breath. "I think this bunch made a genetic change on purpose."

I found I did not share her enthusiasm, even if genetic tinkering had enabled the colonists' survival. "What, exactly, did you find?"

"Gifts from Patches." The lander's galley was tiny; Amanda's body blocked my view of whatever late-night snack she had cooking. A buzzer announced the completion of something. I saw only her back as she turned to remove something from the infrared oven. "From Brian, too, although he is equally oblivious." She turned back to the camera, a mug of steaming whatever clasped in her hands.

Patches was the calico cat. "What did . . . she"—a dazzling smile rewarded me—"give you?"

"Gnawed exoskeletons of the local mice. In Brian's case, spit fruit-glob seeds. In both cases, piles of excrement."


"Enzyme traces, Cameron." An arm waved excitedly in, I knew, the direction of her lab. "Enzymes like I've never seen. In the saliva. In the excrement. Enzymes that convert indigenous biochemicals into amino acids and sugars our enzymes can process. The colonists must have reengineered themselves, in a way we're not smart enough to manage."

Our civilization has its technological advances, primarily in physics—hence our FTL ships—but all those years ago the Firsters knew much about bioscience we still do not. We could never have gotten to the stars by slowboat—we couldn't keep a shipboard biosphere viable for generations, not for even one slowboat crossing. The ancestors of these Stone Age primitives had sustained an ecology in their slowboat for four.

I shared, for a moment, my lover's awe in the colonists' accomplishments. That emotion demanded suppression of the misgivings Paradise continued to generate.

"Do you agree?"

An amused tone of voice revealed I had missed an earlier iteration of a question. "Sorry?"

"Do you agree it's time to lose the envirosuit? The lab mice outside are still fine."

What could I say? That I had a bad feeling about this? Again? "I can't think of a reason why you shouldn't."

By the time I was ready once more to consider sleep, Amanda was outside, casually dressed, pitching a tent.

* * *

Amanda grew up in an Earth megalopolis with, if it were possible, less vegetation than most asteroid habitats. At one level, that's why she went into the life sciences. She is an expert by modern standards, if not those of the Firsters. Her parents are interplanetary traders, and, from my between-mission contacts with them, egotistical, self-centered, and greedy.

The popular image of the Reunification Corps is of a band of romantics. The truth is very different. Most members enlist for the adventure, the fame of discovering a lost civilization, or the rewards of recovering a lost Firster technology. Amanda, and I love her for it, was idealistic. Sure, a part of her recognized her selfless behavior as rebellion. Independence is another part of her charm.

Sudden interest in gardening was no more surprising than many of her whims, and unshielded immersion in Paradise's environment was the last phase of eco-safety assessment. I would be joining her soon. I took her new hobby as an indirect compliment, a way for her to fill the time until our reunion.

Finally, the regulation quarantine period was complete. Amanda suggested that I delay joining her. "I just have a bad feeling." The lopsided grin was like her, if the words were not.

Days laboring outside had left her tanned and toned. Sunshine had bleached brown hair almost blonde. We had been having steamy radio sex since she landed. I wanted to land immediately. What was happening?

The radio sex had become a bit routine, I realized. That was surely from repetition. What to many people would have been the obvious explanation never crossed my mind. There was no way Amanda had become involved with someone else—I know her. And Brian, still the only other human in the area, kept his distance more than ever since she had shucked the envirosuit. Only Patches was a frequent caller.

Hurt, I redoubled my own cultivation: of techno-archeological insights coaxed and reconstructed from the slowboat's balky computers. Why was Paradise so much greener than upon the colonists' arrival? Why were the animal populations so well balanced? How had the colonists accomplished their genetic adaptation?

Those questions were no more tractable than the one that most troubled me. Besides being my wife, Amanda was the mission's commander and biologist—and she had ordered me to stay where I was.


* * *

Adrenaline coursing, I startled awake. I had not been sleeping well. My body coped by springing catnaps on me.

A half-heard shout still rang in my mind's ears. On a nearby screen, Amanda stared at me, wide-eyed. The sensors that surrounded the landing site read uniformly normal. "Are you all right?"

She swallowed loudly. Her forehead furrowed. "I am."

I needed to be down there to comfort and support, as well as to see and hear. If not her, then who? There were few choices. "Did something happen to Brian?"

A shiver ruined her shrug of denial.

"Amanda! What is it?"

She stepped aside, revealing a mouse cage suspended by steel cable from a local tree at about her shoulder level. She shivered again.

Within the wholly intact wire-mesh cage, the scarcely recognizable remains of two mice lay bloody and still.

* * *

Perimeter sensors had detected nothing approaching. The lander's cameras had not been watching the cage. Brian, whom she sought out, reacted to the bloody cage with an inscrutable comment about the weather. He kept his distance from her.

Amanda's bad feeling suddenly was not so implausible.

For lack of other ideas, we deployed more sensors and camera drones. We encountered a plethora of local species, both predators and herbivores. I have described this world as Earth-like, but I should clarify: I refer to a much younger Earth than knew humans. None of the indigenous forms was as advanced as a cockroach; Paradise had yet to evolve endoskeletons, multi-chambered hearts, or lungs. At great separations, we saw several cats, a dog, a goat, and two rabbits. Nothing had the incredibly thin claws that would have been required to reach into the still-intact mouse cage.

What kept down the human population? Did something invisible shred them unawares, like the mice? Brian did not understand the question, let alone have an answer.

We closely observed Brian, and, far around the periphery of the forest-fire zone, his closest human neighbor: a woman. Both spent their time thinning underbrush, pruning weather-damaged fronds, and doing other pastoral tasks. Don't expect details: On my home rock, we cultured our food in vats.

To meet that newly revealed neighbor meant leaving line-of-sight of the lander and its automatic gun turret. Stun rifle in hand, camera on her shoulder, and translator in her backpack, Amanda trekked to see her. Myra's vocabulary was as limited as Brian's; her curiosity, if anything, even less. Her attitude, which I once again chose to infer from body language, was hostile.

Once more, I was left to wonder: Why?

* * *

Three days after the first incident, more mice set outside were slaughtered. This time, the cages had been under constant video surveillance. We replayed the episode, time and again, in confusion and horror.

The mice tore each other apart.

* * *

I kept sifting through the digital detritus of a lost civilization, as Amanda grew ever more restless at the landing site. Neither of us found answers.

Amanda started taking long hikes, gleaning samples from the scattered flora poking up through nearby ashes and specimens from the periphery of the native forest. Studying the local plant life was unsurprising enough for a biologist, but, "It seems like the thing to do," was not the answer I expected to her planting and nurturing far more seedlings than she analyzed. What I had called a garden now evolved, by my standards, into a farm. A restful pastime, I supposed. One I would try to get into after I joined her.

Brian, meanwhile, had become openly sullen. He was curt, even belligerent, whenever she approached the fringe of new growth that separated the fire-scarred region from his forest. Without quite knowing why, Amanda found herself taking an unprofessional dislike to him.

There was a Firster expression that applied: about how the cobbler's children went barefoot. Mining the data of an ancient slowboat was second nature to me. Analyzing our own situation—that it had not occurred to me to do. Data about the present was Amanda's purview. When I finally did a correlation, two things stood out. Brian only visited when the wind came from his forested home region. Both mice incidents followed weather shifts such that the wind blew briskly from the inland sea.

Brian's ever-cryptic references to wind and weather suddenly took on importance.

* * *


My heart instantly pounding, I looked up from a dissected Firster computer. On-screen, Amanda shuddered. I was relieved to see her safe inside the lander. Behind her, visible through open airlock doors, stretched the still unnamed inland sea. I could hear the surf. "What is it?"

Still shaking, she pointed to her left; a ship-controlled camera panned to follow the gesture. Two more caged mice, dead. Other mice scurried frantically around their own cages, squealing. The survivors were scant inches from the enclosure of the latest victims.

"Cameron." Sweat beaded on her forehead, ran down her face and neck. An eyelid twitched uncontrollably. "Cameron, if it can strike in here. . . ."

It: The madness that made creatures kill each other. No need to finish the thought.

Unable to concentrate on my work, I watched her autopsy and analyze the dead rodents. She soon had an answer of sorts. "The enzymes from Patches' and Brian's saliva . . . they're also in the dead mice's stomachs."

I asked the one question whose answer might have negated my sense of doom. It did not. "Have you fed these mice any local food?"


Which suggested that whatever caused these deaths was transmitted by air. But what could it be?

* * *

Patches mostly disdained Amanda's offered snacks. It was a small surprise that local descendants of Earth mice, when caught and caged, would, once they got hungry enough, eat ship's food. It was a far bigger surprise when Earth-bred lab mice ate local food. So far, they were doing fine on a diet of it. I watched her peel a piece of native fruit and feed slivers to mice in their cages. They were delighted.

Then she popped a piece into her mouth. "Spit it out!" I yelled.

She swallowed instead, and licked her lips. "It smelled good," she said, as though that were a justification.

* * *

The final lab mice were gone, their self-destructive struggles captured on video. The early deaths had involved pairs of mice, who killed each other. Separating them, attempted more for lack of ideas than a theory, accomplished little. Solitary mice fatally injured themselves in a frenzy of failed escape attempts. The one thing we learned was that mice did not die before puberty.

Amanda refused to quicken any more mice from frozen embryos. "I have no theories to test, no experiments to perform. Creating new mice would be wanton, pointless cruelty."

Misery and fear had us speaking almost constantly; stress made us snap and snarl at each other. When would the self-destructive insanity strike Amanda? I respected the wisdom of Corps protocols, the reasons for her quarantine below . . . all the while hating them.

Meanwhile, she endlessly cultivated her ever-expanding fields. Dirt streaked her face where she had, distractedly, brushed at trickles of sweat. Her bare arms and legs grew filthy, as though she dare not pause to rinse the caked, dried mud.

* * *

So we dug, side by virtual side, Amanda in her garden and I, in my own way, in the vast, gap-filled digital archives of the slowboat. "What," I finally asked, on repeatedly encountering the same exotic term, "is an eco-pheromone? Our colonist friends were fascinated with them." On-screen, she shivered. "What? Is that significant?"

"Don't know. A bit of a breeze here, is all." She was kneeling; her attention fixed on the ground until she had tamped down the soil and moistened mulch around the most recent bit of transplanted greenery. It took her a long time; I couldn't imagine what she found so interesting. Finally, she looked up to wink at the camera. "Some pheromones would be welcome."

"Hmm." It had been a very long time, even by radio. "I could be talked into that."

"That has never required rhetorical skill." She cackled at my mock glower. "What do you say? Give me a while to wash up, and I'll call you from," and she batted her eyes, "my private chambers."

"Hmm," I repeated enthusiastically. This time we both laughed.

We met at the appointed time, each in our own cabin. The only alcohol on the lander was in the form of lab supplies, pure but without character. Amanda named a brandy we both favored, suggesting that I enjoy for two.

Then, touchingly, she called up one of my compositions, the first she had ever experienced. Arpeggios from a thousand synthesized instruments rippled and interlaced in counterpoint to a spectacular video from Alpha Centauri 4. Snowcapped mountains glittered in countless colors. Shadows cast by three suns lengthened and blended. One by one, the suns set, until only a warm red twilight glow remained. Music and dusk faded together into an infinite sea of stars.

What we said and did . . . those are important only to us. Afterward, I slept soundly for the first time in a long while.

* * *


Yet again, strident alarms made me jump. System after system aboard the lander screamed electronically: catastrophic failure. Text scrolled faster than I could absorb it: alerts and warnings. Mostly obscured on screen by the blur of dire notifications was a frenzied, axe-wielding figure. Amanda. Sparks, flame, and black smoke spewed from shattered consoles.

"Stop!" Had she heard me over alarms shrieking in the lander and echoed here? "Amanda, stop!" My shouts had no effect. "Please," I implored. Why was she doing this? From orbit, I could only send an acknowledgement of the alarms. Electronic warbling faded. Great sobs became audible between crunching thuds of the fire axe. "Amanda!"

Either my yelling or sheer exhaustion finally stopped her. She tottered, leaning against the wooden haft of the axe. Sooty garments clung to her, sodden with sweat. Her eyes glinted insanely. "I . . . I . . ." she coughed.

"Please," I pleaded again. I fell silent in confusion. Please what? Stop? She already had. Tell me I'm going mad, that I'm imagining things? "Please tell me why you are doing this."

The choking sobs subsided a bit. Her eyes streamed tears, whether from smoke or emotion I did not know—and that I couldn't distinguish was bitter. "I . . . I had to do this before I lost the will."

"Do what, Amanda?" Coughing preempted any answer. The crackling of the flames grew louder. Alarms rang anew, as fire suppressant sputtered futilely from ceiling nozzles. "Get off the lander." She nodded and stumbled to the open airlock.

Outdoor sensors imaged her from all sides as she stood, stoop-shouldered and weeping. Wordlessly we watched the lander vanish in a geyser of flames. Comsats relayed the scene, low-res and shimmery for lack of landing-site amplification. "Amanda." No response. "Why?!"

"I can never leave. I made certain that, if my resolve weakens, I never do." It had to be blisteringly hot so near the still-burning wreckage, but she was shivering.

My mind raced. Whatever momentary lunacy had made her wreck the lander need not doom her. Our starship was fine—if unbearably empty. I could go for help, for a team of biologists to somehow make things right. "At least tell me what this is about."

She explained a lot now, with one word.

Replaying the video, the fronds of the seedlings all around Amanda had been perfectly still. There had been no breeze; her spontaneous trembling in reaction to my question about eco-pheromones had been horrified insight. The long time she had spent puttering with the plant, staring at the ground and away from the camera, masked frantic thinking.

"For some reason, you feel you can't leave." I could not yet imagine what the reason might be. I did not care. It was Amanda. "Then I'll join you. I'll come down in the other lander."

"No!" Tears that had subsided welled anew. Mucus bubbled from her nostrils and ran down her chin. "Don't you see, Cameron? That would be worse. If I see you in person, I'll be repelled." A shudder made her pause.

"If you leave, at least we'll have our memories."

* * *

Pheromones, it turns out, are much more than sexual attractants. More broadly, they are biochemical stimulants of behavior, like the scent trails left by ant scouts to lead worker ants to food. Not only animals secrete pheromones; so do some algae, slime molds, and fungi. But pheromonal effects were largely intra-species—on Earth. Eco-pheromones, Amanda had realized, must involve wide-ranging biochemical signaling among species.

And that mechanism resolved so many of the unanswered questions about Paradise.

* * *

Only science far beyond even the Firsters' usual unattainable standards had kept the ship's biosphere viable long enough to reach Paradise. With the scattered and incomplete records that were recoverable, we had not a chance in several lifetimes of recreating their achievement. By we, I mean the Corps and all its resources.

I did not have several lifetimes.

Still, what had happened was finally clear, if only in barest outline. The Firsters had synthesized two of what they called retroviruses. These molecular machines were benign as far as the immune system was concerned, which made them invisible to our biohazard sensors. Both retroviruses implanted designer genes into terrestrial mammals. The spliced genes from the first retrovirus expressed the proteins that, by allowing the colonists to digest local life forms, enabled survival. Given that adaptation, however, there was nothing to stop the highly evolved immigrant species from out-competing all native fauna—which the colonists were unwilling to permit.

Hence the second retrovirus: It implanted the genes that let the survivors live with themselves.

"We will not prolong our time through the wanton extinction of those who belong on this beautiful world," declared the slowboat's log, in an entry recorded as the shipboard biosphere was in its death throes. "Nor will we abandon to their fate those who have been such loyal shipboard companions.

"We will co-exist, or we will perish."

Perhaps they knew what they were doing. I prefer to think they ran out of time before testing could be completed. Either way, the crew descended to Paradise's surface, committed to being stewards of the land.

They had succeeded brilliantly. Earth animals coexisted everywhere with native forms, and, as the records from planetfall proved, the indigenous biosphere was now far lusher than before humanity's arrival.

But genius does not preclude unintended consequences. Such as: Biological imperatives that made caged mice, their enforced proximity unbearable, fight to the death once a fickle wind stopped wafting plant and animal scents, eco-pheromones, from the nearby forest. The same imperatives that drove uncaged cats and dogs—and humans—far apart.

Humans are meant to be social creatures, not territorial like cats.

Biological imperatives the colonists had created rewarded ecological stewardship above all else. Healthy regions exuded a rich trans-species stew of pheromones, and the body responded to immersion with an endorphin-like reward. Even a brief absence from a healthy, balanced ecosystem interrupted secretion of the endorphin, and began production of its opposite, some type of repellent. Too late, I understood Brian's evident headaches—drug withdrawal—when he ventured into the forest-fire zone. I remembered him meeting Amanda in her envirosuit and sniffing in puzzlement—at her lack of pheromones.

Only in a broad expanse where many species flourished did the density and diversity of pheromones enable small groups to form, and then only temporarily. Puberty began pheromone production; only an exceptionally fecund region could sustain eco-balance in the presence of pheromones from more than two adult anythings. Puberty caused dissolution of the family unit.

When Amanda shed her suit, Paradise's ubiquitous retroviruses began her transformation. No mere garden could prevent her altered body's production of the anti-endorphin. Whenever the prevailing wind shifted, whenever steady currents of pheromones did not arrive from Brian's ceaselessly cultivated and much larger domain, she became abhorrent.


As I would be, if, against Amanda's express commands and wishes, I were to join her. . . .

* * *

Luminous orbs dominated an ink-black sky, mirrored in a glass-smooth sea. The nearer moon, larger than Earth's and closer to its primary, seemed to fill the sky. The other satellite, appearing half the size of Earth's, also full, hovered above its companion. An evening star sparkled like a ruby just over the paired glowing disks. Music swelled as celestial spheres swung into alignment, a visual harmony observable at this spot but once every three hundred nine Paradise years.

The image is computer-generated, because the next physical alignment is not due for twenty years. Amanda and I silently shared the moment. Needing above all else to parallel her experience, I too witnessed it on a portable computer, shunning sensory immersion in the starship's holographic theater.

We watched each other watching through tiny inset windows of our computer screens. She recovered the power of speech first. "It's stunning, Cameron, a gift I will cherish always." Her voice quavered. Left unspoken was that this new composition, like that last night of passion, was meant as a keepsake for the long years to come. "When alignment comes, Cameron, I'll be playing your music and thinking of you." Tears flowed, and her voice grew husky. "Still loving you.

"Now, go."

* * *

Loneliness rends me. Protocol, the mission commander's orders, and common sense all insist that I leave. My preparation, such as it is, is complete.

I look for the last time around the empty tavern of the slowboat. Hundreds of blue-and-green-and-white reflections of the globe below mock me.

This history is almost complete, recorded for some improbable resurgence of civilization by the primitives below.

Can the humans of Paradise ever cure what their mad, desperate, genius ancestors did to them? A cure is what's needed. The retroviruses, more than an ecological adaptation, are a devolutionary trap. In a scant few thousand years, the surviving colonists—addicted to healthy-ecology endorphins, unable to congregate—have regressed to near-instinctual behavior.

Most of the planet's surface is already in bloom; there is no basis for population expansion. Culture and science have been forgotten. How much longer, in a "society" that can support even family units only occasionally and temporarily, will traces of language survive? How few generations remain until the mute descendants of starfarers become mere tireless servants to ferns?

There is little left to say.

"If you now viewing this history come from afar, from the Reunification Corps, perhaps, a sincere warning: Do not land! If you reached this ship from the planet below . . . then surely you understand the nuances of your biosphere better than did Amanda or I." In case of that eventuality, computers were rendering my rambling oration into English. The translation had to use the full Firster language—that which I needed to impart was far too complex for the pathetic scraps of speech still in use below. "Somehow, you have escaped the trap. I salute you."

I like to believe that somehow involves me.

I have set my landing coordinates for the fire-ravaged area in which Amanda now makes her home—but at the opposite extreme. If we can make bloom our separate ends of that desolation, can expand them until they merge, the reclaimed region, bountiful with its own eco-pheromones, will make possible our reunification.

My lander's lab computers contain the finest of modern and recovered Firster biotech. Long after I become a grubber in the dirt, lab automation will simulate, and wherever there is a chance, synthesize, possible counter-pheromones and anti-retroviruses.

I do not delude myself: Much of the search will be by trial and error. Mere neutralization of the Firster technology, as unimaginably difficult as that would be, is not my goal. A new bioagent must be limited in its effects to humans—anything less specifically targeted would destroy the biosphere the colonists sacrificed so much to preserve. Extrapolation suggests that the process could take hundreds of years, but it could still help someone.

I have purged all interstellar navigational data from the lander. That precaution, this recording—and the dispatch of the Corps starship to its fiery death in the nearby sun—are necessary to protect my civilization from the eco-madness below.

Hundreds of blue-and-green-and-white reflections of the globe below mock me.

I will not be mocked.

Amanda's first words to me were, "You act like the world is against you."

Slowly, I had turned toward at her. Smiling, I had peered deeply into her blue, blue eyes. "If we can be together," I had answered her, "I'll take those odds."

I stride confidently to the lander. In twenty years, we have a celestial wonder to share.

* * *

Edward M. Lerner is a physicist, computer scientist, and curmudgeon by training. Now writing full-time, he applies all three skill sets to his science fiction. His web site is

Science Fiction Weekly says, "In his novel MOONSTRUCK, physicist Edward M. Lerner operates proudly in the classic hard-SF tradition of John W. Campbell and Robert A. Heinlein." SFRevu writes of MOONSTRUCK, "This is a terrific book by an emerging talent."

Baen Books will re-release MOONSTRUCK, a unique first-contact tale, in mass-market paperback around February 2007.

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