Science Fiction polyamory dystopian LBGQT characters hopepunk religious persecution refugees alien planet biological science fiction exobiology

Shades of Green

By Stephen Dedman
Sep 4, 2019 · 10,115 words · 37 minutes

Nebulae over trees

Photo by Christian Nielsen via Unsplash.

From the author: While refugees wait on their planet with too little food or breathable air, a family of scientists come up with an untried way to keep everyone alive... but there are risks. Set in the same timeline as my story 'Transit', published in THE LADY OF SITUATIONS.



by Stephen Dedman

            The descending jumpship was a mirror bubble, so perfectly featureless that even estimating its size was difficult.  A so'ar glided over it, using the updraft from its antigrav to boost it to a greater altitude, while smaller creatures fled from the noise.  Mai looked up from her microscope as the ship eclipsed the small white disc of Lila's distant sun.  She watched the so'ar for a moment, wondering whether this counted as learning behaviour; none of the clan had ever observed anything to suggest that the so'ar were even as intelligent as Terran birds, though as Neve had once pointed out with some heat, they were noticeably smarter than most plants.

            The ship extended three landing legs, which sank slightly into Lila's soft soil as the antigrav field was powered down, revealing a small Danielite flag on the main airlock door.  A ramp of reddish memory metal began extending from beneath it.  Mai smiled slightly, and counted down from ten.  Before she reached 'three', Tad was sprinting from the base to the flat area that served as the landing field, naked but for a filter mask which he adjusted as he ran.  The airlock door opened and the pilot walked out just as Tad reached the bottom of the ramp; he collided with the pilot, who grabbed him and lifted him off his feet, an easy task in the low gravity.  The two friends looked into each other's eyes through the visors of their masks, and Tad asked, "What's wrong?"

            "There's trouble on Ararat," replied the pilot, setting Tad down on his feet at the base of the ramp.  "Food shortages.  The Inquisition are being unleashed, there are rumours of Zhir visiting secretly, people want to escape, and...  I think I'd better speak to the whole clan.  Are they here?"

            "Only Mai and I; the others have gone north in the rover to gather more specimens.  I can patch you through to them, but it's only audio."

            The pilot, Chevalier, nodded, and they walked to the base in silence.  Mai finished her notes, switched off the microscope, considered grabbing some clothes, and decided against it.  "We'll need to contact the others," said Tad, as soon as he removed his mask.  He and Chevalier kissed quickly, then the pilot sat down and unfastened the spider-silk tunic she wore over her shipsuit; it was as warm inside the pressure tent as it was outside, too warm for more than one layer of clothing.  "How's your work here going?"  she asked.

            "Exhausting," said Mai, cheerfully, before Tad could answer.  She liked and respected Chevalier, despite the pilot's propensity for infecting Tad with her own wanderlust.  "It's a hell of a lot of planet for only five of us."

            Chevalier nodded, looking around.  "Not a hell of a lot of house, though."  The tent, a semi-cylinder divided into compartments with thin screens, had been designed to look as roomy as possible despite its small size, but it was much too cluttered for this to work.

            "We're rarely all here at any one time," replied Mai, "and privacy isn't a major problem for us.  We may have to do something about the place before when the baby arrives, but that's five months away."

            Chevalier's eyes flickered downwards to Mai's abdomen.  "Congratulations," she said, softly.

            Mai smiled.  "Thanks," said Tad.  "Now, what's happening on Ararat, and what can we do to help you?"

            Chevalier sighed.  "Where to begin?  I wasn't there long enough to get all the details, but something's caused a serious food shortage; some people are blaming it on sabotage, others on divine intervention, though it was probably just someone's incompetence.  Either way, there's been panic buying and hoarding, and stores are running low.  The Inquisition's response has been to crack down on the usual scapegoats, herding them up and sending them to the camps.  At present, they're slowly starving them, but I doubt it'll be long before someone's 'shot trying to escape'.

            "Fortunately, I have some...  contacts on Ararat who can help smuggle people out.  I have eleven refugees in the tubes.  The sooner I go back, the more I can save; I don't know how quickly the situation could turn into a full-blown purge, but I don't want to waste any time.  That's why I want to leave these eleven here, return to Ararat, collect some more refugees, bring them here, and so on.  You're barely two standard days from Ararat; Daniel is ten.  By the time I came back from there, everyone might be dead."

            Tad looked stricken.  "What about other flights?"  asked Mai.  "Larger ships?"

            "There's one due in five days, from Covenant; it may be able to do something about the food shortage, but it won't take any refugees."  Covenant was the first world the Zhir had given humans, and a stronghold of the Universal Faith; their Inquisition was even more feared than Ararat's.

            Mai nodded.  "Do they have filter masks?"

            "You can't buy them on Ararat," Chevalier replied, apologetically.  "The only people who use them are the police, so they're restricted equipment.  Getting any survival gear on Ararat is almost impossible; there's no demand for it, so no supply.  I have one spare, on the ship, which I can leave here if you like, but I thought the air here was safe, better than it was on most terraformed worlds."

            "Not quite," said Mai.  "It has more oxygen and a good ozone layer, and the pressure's adequate, but the CO2 level's too high even during the day, and it can climb to ten percent at night.  The methane level's a little high, too, but what do you expect from a planet that's nearly half covered with swamp?  None of the tests have shown anything dangerous...  but the protocols say that we sample the air for two years before we risk breathing it without filters, looking for seasonal contaminants - pollens and spores as well as microorganisms."

            "You've been here for -"

            "Local years," Mai pointed out.

            "But that's...  that's nearly thirty years!  When were you ever sticklers for protocol, any of you?"

            Mai glanced at Tad, who passed a hand across his chest in the clan gesture for 'ex-lover's privilege'.  Mai sighed.  "That's unfair.  You're as much an out as any of us, but do you ever try using jumpdrive without getting into a suspension tube first?"  Chevalier winced at the thought.  "You're trying to get your refugees to safety.  Without filter masks and other survival equipment, this place may not be any safer than Ararat.  We've tried exposing some lab animals to unfiltered air at different times of the year, and many of them have shown allergic responses; there's even been a few fatalities.  We've been able to treat the symptoms, and we've had good results from using immune suppressors, but exposing humans to this air isn't worth the risk.  If you take your passengers to Daniel -"

            "That's -"

            "You should be able to get the necessary equipment there for many more refugees.  You could then return to Ararat, pick up more refugees, bring them back here with the filter masks and so on, and shuttle between the two for as long as you can."

            Chevalier frowned as she considered this.  "What about food?"  asked Tad.

            The pilot's expression became even more sour.  "Again, you can't buy any on Ararat, not even with my contacts.  I have a few days worth on the ship, mostly concentrates, and you wouldn't believe what I was offered for those.  I know your farm's just large enough to feed you and provide you with experimental animals, but you have plenty of biomass here, the whole planet seems to be green, can't your food converter deal with it?"

            "The farm provides barely half of our food, and we only have two converters," replied Mai.  "One here, one in the rover, and I'm not sure how quickly that can get back here.  At maximum capacity, they could each provide a subsistence diet for ten people.  Again, it's a problem of possible contaminants in the biomass; some of the fungi are poisonous, the algae indigestible, and - how much biochemistry do you know?"

            Chevalier shrugged.  "Paramedic level.  No xeno stuff."

            "The biology here is seriously xeno.  All the large land animals we've studied so far have chloroplasts in their hide, so they can photosynthesize like plants.  And all the species we've examined use copper for oxygen transport, so their blood is also green.  That's not unknown on Earth - squid and octopi do it - but it's enough to make the converter nervous.  It breaks everything down very thoroughly before deciding that it's safe to reconstitute as food, and that takes time; it also discards much of the stuff we put in as not worth the risk.  Apart from the fact that you'd also need to add mineral supplements to the food..."

            Chevalier held up her hands.  "I get the picture, but I don't think you appreciate how bad it is on Ararat.  If I wait twenty days before making another pick-up, there may be no-one left to save!"

            "I've seen a purge," said Mai, softly.  "On New Geneva.  I was only twelve, so I was safe, but I remember how many died."  She shrugged.  "But you're right; there are too many unknowns on both side of the equation.  Whether you decide to go to Daniel first or not, I'll respect your decision.  We'll do what we can to feed them and provide them with filtered air."  She glanced at Tad, who nodded.  "That shouldn't be a major problem if they stay in the tents, though that's going to get very claustrophobic very quickly.  I know we have one spare mask here; the other's probably in the rover.  The water purifiers should be able to cope with a few dozen people; we'll worry about that if we get to that point.  Shall I contact the others?"


*     *     *


            When the Zhir had first visited Earth, three centuries before, they had offered transportation to newly terraformed worlds to those humans they regarded as worthy.  It had taken the Zhir several generations to realise that humans, unlike them, are not strictly monogamous by nature, and do not inherit most of their behaviour genetically.

            The Universal Faith had been born on Covenant shortly after it was settled, and had quickly spread to other human worlds.  It was a synthesis of common features between the Zhir moral code and many of Earth's major religions, but it could have been quickly reduced to a list of 'Thou Shalt Nots'.  Genetic engineering, taboo to the Zhir, was as strictly forbidden as murder, though cloning was routine.  The only legal alternative to monogamous heterosexuality was celibacy.  Though the Zhir rarely visited human worlds, the Inquisition enforced their laws.  Usually, they were content to sterilise the outlawed 'mutants' and perhaps segregate them into enclaves; killing an 'out' was rarely punished, but officially sanctioned purges were rare.

            The situation had changed when the Zhir had invented the suspension tube.  Before this, no organism larger than a single cell could survive Zhir jumpdrive, and people travelled by having braintapes downloaded into android bodies or clones, while their originals stayed at home.  The tube had made it possible for people to physically escape their homeworlds in search of a better.  'Outs' who could afford to do so fled, and eventually found - or founded - worlds where the Inquisition did not reign.  These worlds were usually tolerated for the same reason the enclaves had been tolerated; many people enjoyed visiting them, enjoyed escaping occasionally to a more relaxed society with less rigid rules, then returning to their normal lives and forgetting that the outs existed until it was time for their next visit, or the next purge.


*     *     *


            "We'll head back immediately," said Loren when the situation had been explained to him, "but even by the most direct course possible, travelling without a break, it's going to take nearly four days."

            "That's local days," Tad translated, for Chevalier's benefit.  "Call it six standard."

            "Did you tell them what to expect?"  asked Neve.  "If there are twenty-two of them before we return, there'll barely be standing room at the base."

            "I promised to get them to safety," said Chevalier, shortly.  "I told them they might not get to Daniel immediately, and would have to make their own way from there.  If anyone complains, they're free to come back to Ararat with me when I return."

            Neve nodded, though she didn't look convinced.  "Are any of them carrying anything that might be useful?"  asked Indira.  "Or dangerous?"

            "I'll ask, but I doubt it," replied Chevalier.  "They wouldn't have made it through the starport with any food, or weapons, or anything else restricted or particularly valuable - unless it was very well hidden.  I scanned everyone and their luggage - not that any of them had much - and found nothing."

            There was an uncomfortable silence.  "Okay," said Tad.  "If everyone's agreed, I guess we let them out of the tubes."


*     *     *


            Kimi looked at the filter mask as Chevalier handed it to her.  "Why do I need this?"  she asked.  The other refugees looked even more confused.  The pilot explained as best she could, but with a minimum of delay.  She had only five masks, including her own, and was waking the refugees four at a time and hastily escorting them to the tent.  The first four went along with it with only muttered protests until they'd passed through the tent's airlock, where Kimi immediately turned to Chevalier and wailed, "What sort of place is this?"

            Chevalier looked confused, and glanced around the room, then looked from Kimi to Mai.  Kimi, who was a few weeks shy of fourteen standard, was dressed in Ararat's traditional costume for unmarried women travelling outside the home; a hooded robe with long sleeves and a full ankle-length skirt, colourful but shapeless.  The other woman in the party, Grete, wore much the same, but began removing it as soon as she'd peeled off her mask.  Mai and Tad glanced at each other; Tad, summing up the problem quickly, ran behind a screen and returned wearing a pair of shorts, holding out another to Mai.  "Hi," said one of the men, removing his mask with obvious relief.  "I'm Erik."

            Chevalier looked imploringly at Tad.  "I have to get the others," she said, her voice softened and slightly distorted by the mask.

            "Of course," said Mai.  Grete, Erik, and the other man handed over their masks eagerly; Kimi did so with obvious reluctance.  Mai looked at the young woman carefully, trying to judge her age.  Thirteen?  Fourteen?  Young to be an out; the Inquisition was usually lenient on adolescents, unless...  Mai glanced at Kimi's abdomen, but the garment was baggy enough to hide the slight bulge of an early pregnancy.  Chevalier hurried into the airlock, and Mai attempted a smile.  "I'm sorry," she said, mainly to Kimi.  "We've been living here for years, and we haven't had many visitors, except for Chevalier, so we weren't dressed for company."

            "No problem," said Erik, who wore jeans and a soft grey sweatshirt under his long coat.  "It's good to be warm, and after all, it's your home; we're sorry for intruding.  You're scientists?"

            "Biologists, yes.  What do you do?"

            "I'm - I was - a chef.  Jose's a teacher:  English and history."  Mai glanced at Grete, who had stripped down to a sleeveless knee-length shift.  "I'm an actor," she said, a little too quickly, and looked around for somewhere to put her heavy robe.

            Mai and Tad looked at each other, wondering how to ask the next question.  Jose saved them the effort.  "Erik and I have been together for three years," he said.  "He's too good at his job to be fired, but gays aren't allowed to teach in the schools."

            Grete smiled.  "Three years is a lot more than I ever managed."

            Mai nodded, and turned to Kimi, who looked away.  "The pilot said you were short on food, as well as room," said Erik, in an attempt to be helpful.  "I'm afraid I didn't bring anything with me, but if there's anything I can do to make what you have more palatable..."

            "I'll show you the farm," said Tad, sounding slightly relieved, and led the way to the airlock.  Jose followed them out, leaving the women alone.

            "I like the gravity here," said Grete, when it was obvious that Kimi still wasn't about to speak.  "It makes me want to dance.  How come the Zhir didn't take this place?  They're light-worlders, aren't they?"

            "They are," said Mai, "but the gravity here is point five six, which may still be uncomfortable for them.  Or they may have other reasons; land fauna - animals - are extremely rare in known space, the forms here may be unique, and Neve thinks the Zhir want to see whether they have the potential to become sapient."



            "Do they?"

            "I doubt it.  They don't need intelligence, and this planet wouldn't make it easy to develop any sort of technology; there's almost no useful metal near the surface.  Mind you, if they ever do become sapient, their first religion's going to be sun worship."

            Grete nodded, and looked around as the airlock's outer door opened and Chevalier ushered in another four refugees.  "I have a feeling we're all going to know each other very well by the time this is over," she said, drily.


*     *     *


            Grete's prediction had already proved largely true by the time Chevalier returned with another eleven refugees, four standard days later.  Mai doggedly continued to work as best she could, spending most of her waking hours at the microscope, but it was difficult to ignore the background conversations while Grete and Jose did their best to keep people amused and morale high.  Only Kimi remained completely silent, which pleased Mai almost as much as it worried her.  Kimi also refused to remove her concealing robe when there was any risk of anyone seeing her, despite the warmth inside.  Mai wondered what she would have done if the tent's toilet had been as open as the shower; fortunately, it was the one place where seclusion was possible, and while the other refugees occasionally grumbled about the length of time Kimi spent in there, there had been no threats or violence.

            Indira, Neve and Loren returned to base just as the sun was rising again, and hooked the other tent up to provide some much-needed room.  When Chevalier landed two days later, bringing another eleven refugees, Tad tried again to persuade her to go to Daniel to collect some tents, food, and bedding.  "There are thirty-eight of us here now," he said, as they walked back to the ship together.  "Everyone's already on half-rations, and most of that's processed algae and fungi and recycled shit, plus an egg every eight days and a mouthful of fruit juice.  We're having to walk further and further every day to gather enough plants to feed the converter.  People are trying to sleep three to a bed, for less than six hours a day each, while everyone else talks or tries to work.  We have enough water to drink, but not enough to wash in.  It's hot in there even at nights, and during the day it's like a sauna, right down to the dress code.  We can't possibly deal with forty-nine, much less sixty."

            Chevalier shook her head.  "I may be able to rescue another fifty-five people in the time it would take me to get to Daniel and back.  In twenty days, they might all be dead.  Is anyone asking to go back to Ararat?"

            Tad sighed.  "Not yet," he said, as the airlock door opened.  "I think the girl who you brought here in the first flight may want to go, but she hasn't said anything, and I mean that literally."

            "Kimi?  I was worried about her," Chevalier admitted.  "She doesn't seem like an out, does she?  But she was on her way to the camps, like the others."  She looked at Tad, her expression bleak.  "Of the twenty-three I could have taken that day, I had to choose eleven.  I chose her because she was so young.  Of the other nine, seven are still in the camps, three are here, two are listed as 'missing'.  I had less than three minutes in which to choose.  Have you ever had to do something like that?"


            "No.  Of course I wonder if I made the best choices.  But what else can I do?"

            "What you're doing is wonderful, and I'm sure it's a lot more dangerous than you're telling us; I feel as though we're letting the refugees down, not you.  Look, can you try to get some tranquillizers?  Something that calms people down, makes them eat less, sleep more, and give off less heat and less CO2?  The best we have is anti-histamines; we have plenty of antibiotics and antivirals in the medkit, and we can synthesize more, but we never thought we'd need this many tranqs."

            "I'll see what I can find."

            "If they can sleep standing up, that'd be even better," muttered Tad, as the airlock door slid closed.  "See you in four days."


*     *     *


            "Mai?  Have you seen Kimi?"

            Mai looked up from the microscope and stared blearily at Jose.  "Not unless she's suddenly become a Hell of a lot smaller," she said, more mildly than she felt.  "Why?"

            Jose looked around the room uneasily, and unconsciously hitched up his briefs, the only item of clothing he wore.  Like many of the refugees, he'd lost enough weight that his clothes no longer fit.  "Erik said she didn't collect her meal, so I tried looking for her.  She's not in either of the tents."

            "Maybe she went outside," Mai suggested.  "Ask - who's in charge of the masks?"

            "Hye," said Jose, who had a teacher's knack for remembering names and timetables.  "Thanks."

            Mai nodded, and tried to return her attention to her work.  Jose returned ten minutes later, with Erik, Hye and Loren in tow.  "She has a mask," said Loren.  "I tried calling her, but she doesn't reply.  She may just have gone to get some privacy or some sleep."

            "Have you located her?"

            "Just over half a klick away, almost due south."

            "She went out four hours ago," said Hye.  "I was asleep.  Beth gave her a mask, gave me the list when she went to bed, and...  well, that was two hours ago."  They all looked at the window; even the summer nights on Lila were more than eighteen hours long, and the mornings very cold.  The landscape was mostly flat, and the tents clearly visible from kilometres away, but they were surrounded by swamps and treacherous ground.

            Mai sighed.  "Are any other masks out?"

            "Two," replied Hye.  "Tyler and Andy went out to stretch their legs, run a few laps -"  Erik snorted.  "They won't have gone far," Hye conceded.

            "Call them, tell them to come in.  Keep trying the radio, but if there aren't any signs of movement in the next ten minutes, get the Morpho ready and send out a search party."


*     *     *


            The Morpho, named after a spectacular species of butterfly, was a two-seat ultralight aircraft, its paper-thin wings lined with bright blue solar panels.  It could coast for as long as the sun was up, but its reserve battery was small, and only expert pilots took them out at night.  Mai had reluctantly yielded the pilot's seat to Neve and the observer's position to Tad.  Indira, Loren, Jose, Tyler and Hye took the remaining five masks and headed south while Mai remained in the tent, manning the radio.

            "Why no lights?"  asked Tyler, as he adjusted his visor.  "Because of the animals?"

            Loren nodded.  "Most of the fauna here photosynthesize; waving a bright light around is like walking into a lion's den carrying a side of beef."

            "Are any of them dangerous?"  asked Jose.

            "Not really.  We haven't found any nocturnal species, and the only things you couldn't outrun are the fliers."  He pointed over at a riverbank a few hundred metres away.  "Mind you, some of the bugs can sting, and the cavernmouths are best avoided even at night."

            Jose set the visor to magnify.  "Why do they sleep with their mouths open?"

            "Their jaws are flush with the ground, and heavy; they bite by bringing the upper jaw down, instead.  They lie there waiting for something to wander by."

            "Does it?"

            "Sometimes.  They seem to be omnivorous, eating plants as well as animals, but a lot of their energy comes from photosynthesis.  We don't know how much, yet, because they make lousy test subjects; very lazy and uncooperative, no interest in science at all."

            Tyler laughed, but cut it off when a call came through from Tad.  "We should be right on top of the mask," he said, "but I can't see anything on the infra-red that looks like a girl, or any tracks.  She must have ditched the mask a while ago.  I'll keep going south, see if I can find anything; can you pick up the mask?"

            "Will do," replied Indira.

            They trudged along in the direction of the signal for a few kilometres.  "She shouldn't be too hard to spot," said Tyler, trying to sound reassuring.  "Not in that robe.  She must be the only thing around that isn't green."

            "She could have ditched it," said Loren.

            "Not her.  Besides, it's already getting cold.  Never thought I'd feel so goddamn glad to be cold.  The place is going to be like an oven if we try to squeeze any more people in there."  He stretched luxuriously.  "And cramped?  I've had sex with people with less skin contact."

            No-one responded.  A few minutes later, Tad called to say that he'd found Kimi - unmoving, but still warm, probably just asleep.  "We'll fly back and get the rover," he said.  "Easier than trying to carry her back.  Can you guys look after her?"


*     *     *


            Mai sighed in relief as Tad carried Kimi back into the tent.  "She seems okay," said Viviana, a pathologist who'd arrived in the third wave of refugees, and who was their most qualified medic.  "She's been breathing the air outside for a couple of hours.  I pumped her stomach, too."

            "She'd eaten some of the fungi," growled Indira, as Tad lowered her gently onto a bench.  "Probably just the same sort the mice ate safely, the ones that look like big yellow morels, but I'll want to check under the microscope - and it's time you had some sleep.  I've made sure there are a couple of empty spots in one of the beds."

            "I'm okay," murmured Mai.

            Indira sighed.  "I'll leave everything the way I found it.  What're you working on?"

            "It's not important," she said.  "Doing chromosome counts and that sort of thing for some of the specimens you brought back.  Just busywork, really."  Indira nodded.  She knew that continuing to work was important to Mai, a way of staying sane in insane circumstances, but she was also concerned that she might be overdoing it.  "When did you last sleep?"  she asked Tad.

            "The same time she did," he replied, a little muzzily.  Indira shook her head, wrapped her arms around both of them, and steered them towards the mattresses.

            Five hours later, she woke them, her dark eyes gleaming despite her own fatigue.  Mai stared at her.  "What's wrong?"

            "Nothing," said Neve, who was standing behind her.  She sounded as excited as a five-year-old on Christmas Eve.

            "Is Kimi -?"

            "Still asleep," said Neve, impatiently.  "Viviana's watching her.  Look, the stuff you and Tad have been doing, the biochemistry and genetics...  we've found something."

            Tad opened his eyes, as did Grete, the third in their bed.  "Wha- ?"

            "The chloroplasts in the cavernmouths and so'ars," said Neve.  "They don't match the rest of the animal - not genetically, and not biochemically.  Indira recognised them; they come from one of the green algae that're common in the shallows, the sort that the water purifier filters out."

            "Volvocines," said Indira.  "Motile colonies with sixteen haploid cells, except in the zygote phase; a lot like some Earthian Gonium species."

            Neve nodded.  "How much do you know about sea slugs?"

            "Not a lot," replied Tad, yawning.

            "Sea slugs absorb the chloroplasts from some of the seaweeds they eat, so they can photosynthesize in seasons when food is hard to come by," said Neve.  "It looks as though all the macrofauna here are doing the same with these algae."

            Tad blinked.  "Useful," he mused.  "The animals get free energy and need less food, and the algae get to travel."

            "It gets better," said Indira.  "I think we may be able to do the same."


            "I want to feed the algae to some of the mice," said Neve, hurriedly.  "If it doesn't harm them, I want to try it on Porky, then -"

            "Photosynthesizing humans?" said Mai, obviously appalled.

            There was an uncomfortable silence.  "Well," said Indira, finally, "if you used immune suppressors to stop any allergic reaction, it'd solve some food problems..."

            "Without genetic engineering," said Tad, impishly.  "I say we try."

            Mai looked around the group, and realised that she was outvoted.  "I'm the biochemist," she said, flatly.  "The mice, okay, but not Porky, not until I've run some tests."


*     *     *


            Kimi revived a few hours later, and Viviana and Mai moved her to one of the beds, despite protests from the other refugees.  "What were you trying to do?"  the pathologist growled, as she took a temperature reading from Kimi's navel.  "Commit suicide, or just kill your baby?"

            Kimi blushed.  "It's still alive," Viviana continued, her tone still rough, "in case you were curious.  I just hope there isn't anything teratogenic in the air."

            "Tera -"

            "Anything that causes malformation in embryos," explained Mai, sadly.  "You and I are the last two people on this planet who should try going outside without a mask."

            Viviana looked at the two of them, then gathered up the samples she'd collected.  "I'm going to run these through your lab," she said.

            "I'll join you in a moment," said Mai, nodding, and sat on the mattress beside Kimi, waiting for her to speak.  After a few minutes, the girl began crying.  Mai continued to wait.

            "I don't belong here," Kimi snuffled.  "I can't stand it any longer."

            "Would you rather go home?"

            "I don't know!" she wailed.  "Sometimes, yes."

            "Chevalier should be back tonight," said Mai.  "She can take you back, if you want..."

            "I don't know," Kimi repeated, with less force.  "What do you think'll happen if I do?"

            "The Inquisition will send you to a camp; it won't be as crowded as this one, or as hot, but there probably won't be any more food.  They may keep you alive until your baby is born, or until you lose it, or they may abort it; I don't know enough about the law on Ararat.  You'd need to ask Yannis, or someone like that.  But I've seen a purge, when I was a little younger than you are.  A few people were just sterilised and released, but not many, and I suspect they bought their way out.  The rest...  disappeared.  No-one ever said what happened to them, and even young kids learned not to ask."

            "They won't let the baby live, if I go back," said Kimi.  "I know that much.  They won't abort it, that's illegal, but they'll kill it if it's born.  Its father's already dead - beaten to death by vigilantes, not the Inquisition."

            Same people, different wardrobe, thought Mai, but said, "Do you want the baby?"

            "No," she said, hollowly.  "I don't really feel like it's mine.  I was raped, and I'm glad the bastard's dead."

            Mai nodded.  The Zhir were physically incapable of non-consensual sex, and tended to mete out equal punishment to rapist and victim, but the Inquisition would sometimes extend mercy to the victim if they were convinced of her non-compliance.  "How long ago did it happen?"

            "About eight weeks before I left Ararat," she snuffled.  "Dad was scared that I'd be killed, too; that's why he smuggled me onto the ship."

            So she was still in the first trimester.  "We can abort it, if that's what you want," Mai said.  "I don't know whether that would make it safe for you to go back to Ararat, but it's up to you."

            Kimi was silent for nearly a minute.  "How do you feel about your baby?"

            "I planned her, I wanted her and still do, I love her," Mai replied.  "But our circumstances are very different, and so are we.  I can't make your decision for you."

            "How does Tad feel?"

            "The same, though maybe not as intensely.  Same with all the clan; I wouldn't have done this without their approval.  For one thing, I needed Loren's -"


            Mai looked at Kimi, and realised she might just have blundered.  "His sperm," she said, softly.

            "It's not Tad's child?  But he's your husband."

            Mai took a deep breath.  "They're both my husbands.  Neve and Indira are both my wives.  I spend more time with Tad because we work together better in most ways, we're more compatible, and I would've loved to have had his child, but he has genetic defects that made it too risky; it was his choice too, not just mine.  And Neve's, because she's Loren's primary partner the way I'm Tad's.  And Indira's, too, because we all have to live in these tents.  We'll all raise the baby, care for her, love her, teach her."  Kimi stared at her, her face ashen.  "That's why we call ourselves the clan.  Oh, we came here as three couples - Tad and I, Loren and Neve, Indira and Amaka.  We were all outs, we'd all had other lovers before, but we drew boundaries, and we managed to stick to them until Amaka died in a stupid accident.  Indira turned to Neve, and they became lovers, and then I joined them, Neve and I had been lovers before, and...  well, now we wonder why we ever bothered with any rules apart from making sure we weren't hurting each other."

            "But that's..."


            "Unnatural..." Kimi said, her voice almost a whisper.

            Mai shrugged.  "Unnatural for whom?  The Zhir claim that they're naturally monogamous, that it's somehow hardwired into their genes, and maybe that's true - they haven't let us study them to be sure - but even if it is, they're Zhir, not humans.  You might as well say that the way the animals here breed, with the female laying eggs and the male squirting sperm into the water at the right cue, pheromones or sound or whatever, is natural.  It's certainly natural for them, and for amphibians on Earth, and humans certainly could do something similar.  There's at least one authenticated case of a virgin birth that I know of, after a girl bathed in bathwater into which her brother had ejaculated."

            Kimi shuddered.

            "Asexual reproduction is perfectly natural for many species, too," Mai continued.  "Personally, I prefer the method most humans have used for the past few million years, though Indira might not agree with me.  Most of the time, humans use 'natural' to mean 'comfortable' or 'aesthetically pleasing'; we even call farms 'natural', which is ridiculous.  The same goes for 'moral', or 'decent', or even 'human'.

            "There were - and maybe still are, on Earth - human cultures that believed it was moral, even natural, for a man to have as many wives as he could support.  There were cultures that believed it moral, even natural, for some ninety percent of brides to be visibly pregnant.  There were cultures that lacked any concept of paternity, and others which apportioned it out among a woman's lovers according to how often they'd had sex with her around the time she became pregnant.  I'm not saying that what was right for them, or for us, is right for you; you're old enough to decide for yourself what you believe is 'natural' for humans."  She stood.  "I'll give you whatever help I can, but you have to make the choices."


*     *     *


            The first fight broke out later that day, after the egg ration was handed out and one man accused another on welshing on a bet.  Yannis, the only lawyer there, stepped into the breach and sent the accuser outside to gather plants, then listened to witnesses and appointed a jury.  When Chevalier arrived a few hours later, she was greeted with hostile silence.  The new refugees she'd brought with her looked around the cramped quarters with obvious dismay.

            "We can't take any more," said Mai, as she walked Chevalier back to her ship.  "We've collected most of the edible plants for a kilometre, and the large land plants seem to be drying up and dying; Loren thinks that's a seasonal thing, not our fault, but even so, it means we're having to gather more seaweed to get enough biomass.  That's hard work, which means people have to eat more, and there isn't any more to eat; people are already feeding their clothes into the converter.  The CO2 level inside the tent is nearly what it is outside, we had a fight this morning and a suicide attempt last night, and there's a dozen people we don't trust to give a mask to in case they decide not to come back.  I'm worried that someone's going to get mad enough to wreck the place, or the food converters, and then we'll all die.  Can't you go to Daniel now?"

            "The Governor on Ararat has resigned," replied the pilot, heavily.  "The Inquisitor-General is Acting Governor, and is flexing his muscles, trying to scare people out of voting against him.  The election's in six standard days, and whoever wins, there's going to be bloodshed.  Oceans of it.  I probably won't be able to get anyone out after that - not for a week or two, anyway.  If I can just make another two trips..."  She looked at Mai's face.  "I'll take the second lot straight to Daniel and come back with survival gear, unless you think I should bring them here and take some of those who've been here longest..."

            Mai shook her head.  "I think that'd cause more trouble than it's worth.  We need Erik, and Jose won't go if he stays, and there's no safe and fair way to pick their replacements.  Another eleven people?"

            "That's all.  I promise."  The airlock door slid open.  "Who was the suicide?"

            "Kimi Kooiman.  I've asked her to decide whether she wants to stay here or take her chances on Ararat.  She's still deciding."

            Chevalier winced.  "Please, no..."

            "What's wrong?"

            "Tad was worried about her, so I did some asking around.  My contact in the Inquisition, my most important contact?  He's her uncle."

            Mai stared at her, then at the turquoise sky as though expecting to be hit by a thunderbolt.  "It gets worse," said Chevalier, grimly.  "The Inquisition's a family tradition.  Her father's a sergeant, both of her grandfathers are lieutenants, Kimi herself was an Inquisition cadet.  Still is, technically; she's on sick leave.  If I take her back, I'll be lucky to get offplanet alive, and I sure as shit won't be able to help anyone else."

            Mai was able to swear in three languages, but she couldn't think of an obscenity strong enough to do justice to the way she felt.  She stood there silently, her fists clenched, and Chevalier nodded agreement.  "I'll be back in four days.  Sorry I couldn't get any tranquillizers."

            Mai shrugged.  "It's okay.  Neve and Indira may have found something better."


*     *     *


            Loren stood on a bench, drew himself up to his full height (at 191 centimetres, he was noticeably taller than Indira, and towered over the rest of the clan), cleared his throat, and waited for the hubbub to subside so that he wouldn't have to shout to be heard.  "If I could have your attention for a moment, please...  as the old joke goes, I have good news and bad news, though you may have to decide for yourselves which is which.

            "There's going to be one more shipment of refugees in four days, and that will be the last.  After that, Chevalier will be going to Daniel to pick up food and tents and survival gear, then bringing it back here so that those of you who'll have to wait to be evacuated can at least do so in more comfort, but she won't be back for three weeks, and some of you may be here for months unless she can bring a larger ship back."

            There was some grumbling at this, but it was soft enough that Loren could talk over it.  "Okay.  In the meantime, it's going to be uncomfortable here.  Quite apart from the crowding and food problems, the life support system can barely cope as it is; the carbon dioxide level in here is only a couple of percent lower than it is outside.  So I'm going to ask for volunteers for an experiment.  Though the protocols say we're not supposed to try breathing the air outside without filters for two local years, I don't think we have a choice any more.  We've tried letting some of our lab animals breathe it, and the only problem we've found is an allergic response which we can counteract with medication.  I'm not saying it's risk-free; there may be long-term effects that we can't predict, and we're not considering any volunteers who're pregnant."  He glanced at Kimi, then at Mai.  "Dr Ochoa has spent the past few hours breathing unfiltered air from outside; do you have any observations?"

            "It doesn't smell any worse than the farm," said Tad, drily, as everyone in the room turned to stare at him, "and I don't feel any more tired or short of breath than I do in here, but I'd suggest that at first everyone who goes out, goes with a masked partner, just in case.  Are there any volunteers?"

            Tyler was the first to raise his hand, but no-one could have said who was second.


*     *     *


            Andy was the first to reach the far end of the landing field, but Tyler tagged him as soon as he turned around to look at the rest of the racers.  Yannis was still five metres behind them, with Tad and Beth hot on his heels.  Everyone else, masked or unmasked, had slowed down to a jog.  Tyler grinned, and kissed Andy's bald spot.  "God, that felt good," he panted.

            Viviana was the last to catch up.  A relatively recent arrival, she was still carrying some extra weight, though she carried it well.  "I'm a swimmer, not a runner," she puffed, as she checked Hye's pulse.  "Is it safe to swim here?"

            "I wouldn't recommend it," said Neve.  "The cavernmouths are territorial about their patches of shore, the leeches grow as big as bananas, some of the jellyfish sting, and swallowing the water isn't a good idea."

            "Pity," said the pathologist.  "Well, you seem okay.  Next."

            "I thought most of your patients were dead," muttered Hye.

            "True, but they never complain.  Never threaten to sue, either," she said, grabbing Yannis's wrist.  "Okay.  I want you all back inside in an hour.  Those of you who aren't masked, come straight to me for a checkup.  Those of you who are, keep the masks on; you'll get your turn later."

            "An hour?"  said Tyler, plaintively, digging his toes into the soft moss.

            Viviana looked at him, and at Andy, who was stroking his back.  "Okay," she sighed.  "Ninety minutes, but if you're any later than that, I'll send out a search party with nets and stunners."  Beth and Hye also split off from the party, as did Grete and Mikhail.  "Pity we can't do something about the food, too," said Viviana, as they walked slowly back to where they'd left the baskets.

            "We're working on it," said Neve.


*     *     *


            By the time Chevalier returned, the refugees were going out in groups of threes and fours, with only one masked watcher to a group.  The pilot was astonished to find the tent less than half-full, and amazed at the warmth of the greeting she received from the refugees inside.  "Where is everyone?"  she whispered to Indira.

            "Out getting food before it gets dark," the phycologist replied.  "I called them as soon as I saw you landing, told them to bring their masks back."  She explained the situation as quickly as she could, as they walked towards the ship.  "It's done wonders to restore their sense of perspective.  People are hoping that you've managed to rescue some of their friends, rather than worrying about squeezing another eleven people into the tents."

            "How's the food situation?"

            Indira grimaced.  "Not much better.  We can send more people out looking for converter fodder now that we're not using masks, but they're having to go further and further, and there's only the one rover; in three weeks..."

            "The ground still looks green," said Chevalier.

            "Moss and lichen, mostly.  Gathering that and converting it takes even more energy than collecting seaweed, or even hunting."

            "What about fishing?  Ararati should know something about that."

            "We've set up some traps, but the stuff we're catching still has to go through the converter.  We'll eat cavernmouth if we have to, but I don't think the converter will deal with that any -"  She froze as she saw Tad running towards them.  "I...  I'm sorry," she said, quickly.  "I wanted to warn you, but..."

            Chevalier stared as Tad hurtled towards her, completely naked.  "Jesus!" she exclaimed, hugging him.  His skin, formerly a pale gold, had a distinct greenish tint.  "You look...  what's happened to...  Is that meant to be camouflage, or..."

            Tad glanced at Indira.  "I didn't have time to tell her," she said.

            "It's okay," said the geneticist, soothingly.  "I'm just using myself as an experimental subject."

            "Without telling us first," growled Indira.

            Tad shrugged.  "What would you have done if I had?  I made sure it was reversible first."  He looked up at Chevalier.  "Some of the local green algae form small colonies; if you break down the colonies and inject yourself with the individual cells, they reproduce inside you, but only the ones that reach your skin and can photosynthesize survive for very long.  After a few days, it reduces your need for food and oxygen - not completely, but enough that the converters should be able to feed all of us.  I'm not sure how long it will last without needing to top up with more algae, but we have antibiotics that will reverse it in a few days."

            Chevalier blinked as she absorbed this.  "Jesus," she muttered, looking at Tad's skin.  "You'd better keep this a secret; can you imagine what the militias could do with this?  Camouflage and logistics taken care of in one injection."

            Tad shook his head.  "I hadn't thought of that, but I don't think it's a problem."  He slipped out of Chevalier's grasp and turned around, showing that his back had only a faint greenish tint, unlike his chest and face.  "You have to keep one side of you facing the sun," he explained, "and stay out of shadows.  More importantly, you have to be naked, or as near as possible; wear any more than a g-string, and you won't be able to absorb enough sunlight, so no armour, not even a helmet.  I suppose it might have some limited usefulness for scouts and snipers, but that would be all."

            Chevalier looked him up and down.  "Will it work with darker skin?"

            "I think so; you'd get a darker green, but no darker than some of the plants around here.  Indira's volunteered to be the next subject."

            "You're braver than I am," muttered Chevalier.  "Both of you.  I mean that."

            Tad smiled, almost seeming to glow with the praise.  "It seemed worth the risk," he said.


*     *     *


            Mai looked up from her microscope as she heard the jumpship descending, and glanced at the com screen, a slight frown creasing her forehead.  It had been barely twelve local days since Chevalier had left, and she hadn't expected her back until the next night.  She heard Kimi come running up to look out of the window, and stared uneasily at the ship.  Had something gone wrong?

            The ship extended three landing legs as the antigrav field was powered down, and Mai reached for a pair of nox.  The flag on the main airlock door, though barely visible through the rain, showed not the rampant lion of Daniel but a mountain peak topped by a wooden ark.  She looked around the base; everyone except Kimi and herself was outside gathering food, photosynthesizing, or enjoying the first shower they'd had in weeks.  The blood drained from Mai's face as the ramp extended and the door opened, and she saw the armoured figures emerging, two at a time, carrying large guns.  They advanced slowly, and not just because the rain had turned the landing field to sticky mud.  Urgently, Mai reached for the radio, wondering who was wearing the masks and listening - if, indeed, anyone but her still bothered to do so.  "Unidentified ship on landing field," she said, broadcasting on all frequencies, "you are on a restricted planet, a biological reserve.  Do you require assistance?"

            To her relief, none of the clan or the refugees answered.  "This is the Dove, from Ararat," came the reply, in a hard voice that she didn't recognise.  "Please identify yourself."

            "Dr Mai Long," she replied, then, drily, "How can I help you?"  She glanced at Kimi, wondering what she was thinking.

            "By staying where you are," the voice replied.  "How many of you are there?"

            "Just two," said Mai, without hesitation, "and we're not armed."  She muted the radio, and turned to Kimi.  "Do you recognise the uniforms?"  she asked.

            The girl shrugged.  "Just militia in space armour.  Why?"

            "Do you know why they're here?  From the look of those guns, I'd say it wasn't to tell you it's safe to go home."

            Kimi glanced at her, her expression unreadable.  "I don't know."

            Mai stared at her, then looked around for the shift that Viviana had given her; she had no wish to meet an invading army while wearing nothing but a maternity bra.  She considered opening the inner airlock door, to keep the soldiers out, but those guns looked more than capable of puncturing the pressure tents, and she suspected that they'd be carrying knives, too.  The first pair of soldiers entered a moment later.  "Into the centre of the room," one of them barked, looking around at the squalor.

            "We're not armed," Mai repeated, obeying.

            One soldier stared at her, while the other checked some type of sensor on his wrist.  "Just the two of you?" he said.

            "Unless you count unborns, yes," said Mai, drily.

            "You're both pregnant?"


            "Where are the men?  Our records say there should be five people here, all scientists."

            "They're out in the hoverover," said Mai, truthfully.  "Collecting samples."

            "What about the refugees?"  The inner door slid open again, to admit another two soldiers.  Mai glanced at one of them, noticing the insignia on his sleeves.  He removed his helmet and visor, and stared at them appraisingly.  "Just the two of them, sir," said the first soldier.

            The officer - an Inquisitor, Mai realised - nodded sharply.  "Check the rest of the place," he barked, while his aide removed a com from his pocket.  "You're Dr Long?"


            "And you?"

            "Kimi Kooiman," said Kimi, after a moment's hesitation.  "Sir."

            The Inquisitor nodded, and glanced at his aide, who nodded.  "You're from Ararat?"  asked the Inquisitor.


            "What're you doing here?"

            Kimi hesitated, and looked nervously at the aide.  "I was brought here, sir."

            "By whom, and why?"

            "Chevalier," she replied.  "My parents wanted to get me offworld during the purge; they didn't think I'd be safe."

            "Kooiman..."  mused the Inquisitor.  "Your name's familiar."

            "I have family in the Inquisition, sir."

            The Inquisitor raised an eyebrow, and turned to his aide, who nodded again.  Mai, startled, realised that the com included some form of lie detector - then glanced at Kimi, and realised that she'd recognised it long before she had.

            "And you're here?"  asked the Inquisitor.

            "Yes, sir," said Kimi, quietly.  "I was raped.  My parents were worried that I might not receive a fair trial during a purge."

            The Inquisitor's mouth quirked slightly.  "That doesn't make what they did legal," he said, mildly, "but we'll deal with that later.  If they can lead us to the people-smugglers, we may be able to help them...  Where are the other refugees?"

            Neither woman answered, and the Inquisitor sighed.  "I know you weren't the only one to leave the planet..."

            "No," said Kimi, while Mai tried not to wince.  "But the others aren't...  They're not here.  You can look if you want, but you won't find them."

            Mai bowed her head slightly, hoping to hide her look of confusion.  What was Kimi trying to do?  Whose side was she on?  "We're the only human beings left on this planet," said Kimi, flatly.  The Inquisitor stared at her, then at his aide, who nodded.

            "Check your records," Kimi continued.  "This is the only base on the planet, and the air outside isn't safe to breathe without filter masks.  How many refugees do you think escaped?"

            The Inquisitor looked sour.  "What about Chevalier?  Where's she?"

            "Long gone," said Kimi.  "Weeks ago.  She took the last load of refugees with her."

            "Shit," muttered the aide.  The Inquisitor turned to him, but he shrugged.  "The gimmick says she's telling the truth, but that's -"  He paused, listening to the voice in his headphones.  "Duggan says his scans show no other humans with a kilometre; the heat and the rain and the CO2 make it impossible to be sure of any readings past that range.  He's located what looks like a small rover, but it's a long way away, near the horizon.  Small and Lechler report that they've found a food converter, but not much food.  Five chickens and a pig, though."

            One of the soldiers laughed.  "Shall we arrest them, sir?  I could do with some fresh -"  The Inquisitor glared at him, and the soldier fell silent.

            Kimi cleared her throat.  "I'm a cadet," she said, quietly, "and I know a little law.  You can arrest me, or any other refugee, you can arrest Chevalier if you can find her, and take us back to Ararat for questioning...  but unless you have proof that any of the scientists here have committed crimes on Ararat, they're outside your jurisdiction."  She smiled thinly.  "I think that goes for animals, too." 

            The Inquisitor turned pink, then bared his teeth in a snarl.  "Knowing the law isn't the same as being the law."  He took a deep breath.  "If the others are gone, why're you still here?"

            "I didn't want to go with them," she said.  "I want to go home."

            The aide nodded, but the Inquisitor ignored him.  "Well, you're lucky we left one tube empty," he growled.  "And you're not quite right about the law.  If anyone here has committed any crime here against an Ararati..."

            Kimi laughed.  "Nobody here has harmed me, Lieutenant, or even tried," she said.  "On the contrary; they've treated me very well.  Or are you accusing her of corrupting me?  I only turned fourteen a few days ago, but I assure you, I'm my own person, I make my own decisions, I know my own mind - and I'd like to get home and see my family.  Or are you going to make me stay here, and keep the jumpship here, while you search the entire planet?"

            One of the soldiers snickered, and the Inquisitor turned around, but their expressions were unreadable through their tinted visors.  "Okay," he said, heavily.  "I want this place searched, thoroughly; if you find anything that contradicts her story, tell me.  Otherwise, we lift off in an hour."


*     *     *


            It was still raining when Chevalier landed, but everyone was waiting at the edge of the field anyway.  The pilot had radioed as soon as her ship had jumped into the system, saying that there was a larger ship following her - a Lanumoanan liner, with enough room for all the refugees.  The eleven who were to go with Chevalier, a few hours ahead of the others, were chosen by a lottery; most of the refugees didn't even bother lining up for their numbers, though they did line up to say goodbye to the pilot.  The cheer that greeted her when she walked down the ramp drowned out the calls of the cavernmouths.

            "I guess I won't be back for a while," she said, half an hour later, as she prepared to leave.  "Not with the Inquisition gunning for me.  I'll make sure someone else drops in to see if you need anything, and lets you know if anyone suffers any after-effects from the injections."

            "Thanks," said Tad.  "The place is going to seem really empty, when everyone's gone."

            "Make the most of the privacy," advised Chevalier.  "Are you going to reverse the treatment, too?"  she asked, watching Viviana and Beth dispensing antibiotics over by the tents.

            "When we've got the farm back up to speed," replied Tad.  "I feel pretty sluggish, but I don't know whether that's psychosomatic, a side-effect, or just hunger.  Thanks for bringing food, by the way."

            Chevalier nodded, and looked over at Mai, who was dancing in the mud with Erik.  "How much longer are you going to stay here?"  she asked.

            "I don't know.  It depends on what we decide is best for Kimi."


            "The baby.  We decided to call her Kimi."  He sighed.  "We'll teach her what we can here, but I'd hate her to have to stay in this swamp if she wants to go somewhere else.  Of course, if she decides to stay, or to come back, that's her choice.  Not everyone wants to spend half their life between planets, like you."

            Chevalier smiled.  "No, they don't.  What about you?"

            Tad stared at the green vista, and the half-green people that surrounded him.  "I think it's about time I put down some roots," he said.

This story originally appeared in Science Fiction Age.