Horror Mystery Science Fiction

Skychildren

By C. L. Kagmi
May 16, 2020 · 5,732 words · 21 minutes


From the author: An undercover detective is transformed by what she finds while investigating a human trafficking ring with its base in interplanetary space.


Chinwe has become a monster.

She had known that it would be part of the assignment. They warned her about what she’d have to do to fit in. None of it had seemed real until the first time her teacher had approached her with a needle, but she had signed the forms.

After all, on this boat she’d be the odd one out if she didn’t look like an alien.

The residents of the Orún are all adapted to make some of their own nutrients and oxygen from the light of the fusion core. The people of Orún still need to eat and breathe, but the engineers cheerfully remind Chinwe that all progress comes from experimentation each time she visits them for a new injection.

Bright growing lights are everywhere, white by day and dimmed to pink that incorporates only the wavelengths most nourishing to chloroplasts by night. Gigawatts more pour from Orún’s core into batteries: for the shuttles, for the outposts, for Orún’s own emergency backup systems (though with fusion at its heart, the asteroid is more likely to overheat than experience a power outage). 

Indeed, the vast majority of core’s power is creatively wasted; through temperature regulators, convection pumps, and any other mechanism anyone could come up with to do the job. 

The hardest job on Orún, the joke goes, is staying cool. 

It certainly isn’t easy to hide a small star in space. Even among Belt colonies, Orún is huge. And, as far as law enforcement is concerned, it isn’t supposed to exist.

That’s why Chinwe is here.

She bares her teeth at her reflection in the silvered polymer mirror of her bathroom. Of course the “bathroom” is open to the artificial breezes of the residential shell, like every structure on this level. A surface area of several kilometers combines with the random number generator that runs the ventilation system to make it feel almost like the open air of Earth. 

Almost. Chinwe still remembers the original, with its blue sky and fluffy clouds, an unimaginable amount of unused air and water. 

Here they have breezes, at least, and there is grass sprouting from the cracks strategically designed to look random in the floor and walls.

Her reflection is as green as the grass, but darker - a dense onyx-emerald. The engineers had offered to inhibit her melanin production so that her chloroplasts would get more light, but Chinwe had declined. And they had understood. Blackness was one of the few traits they respected.

Even her teeth are black, now - carbon steel implants which she grudgingly admits she doesn’t mind.

When she first saw the like photographs, she had thought they looked awful - like cosmetics done in terrible taste. But now she appreciates the fact that, were she back home, she could take out an armed suspect with them.

Chinwe pauses, flexes a black-green arm under the bright glowing lights. She is not bulletproof. Not yet. The Skychildren are still working on that.

And she is still working on stopping them.

Walking in the centrifugal gravity is easy for her, now. 

For the first few weeks she’d been like a newborn calf. The slight difference in centrifugal force between her head and her feet had made her sick when she wasn’t on a constant anti-nausea regimen, and sent her careening into countless walls and pieces of furniture even when she was. But by now, she has adapted. 

So have the four of her compatriots who survived.

As she strides between the little village-huts of this topmost residential level, she puts a caution on her thoughts. Not “compatriots.” Not “friends.” She was trained exhaustively to look, act, speak like one of them - but she is not one of them. 

The four African youth who had been trafficked with her out of Lagos thought that she was like them - American-raised but still African at heart, and still desperate. Those four were desperate for money, for safety, for validation; but they saw her and decided that being desperate for meaning was enough. 

And maybe it is. Bridget Van Aalst wasn’t pretending when she came here.

She must admit that this place has its charms. There are no drug dealers, no loan sharks, and no need for either; there is no money, full employment, no outsiders. Everyone has a place. If a resident of Orún does not fit into an existing niche, one is created for them. No talent or predisposition is wasted. 

Four of the desperate youth who accompanied her are alive and happy here. The fifth died screaming, arteries slashed open by his own carbon steel claws.
There is a price for everything. 

A price for paradise, it seems. A price to drift in the space between worlds, powered by your own private sun. A price to please investors enough to finance such a massive and illegal operation, rich folks who also get to feel part of something, who get to believe that they too are shaping humanity’s destiny from the safety of their planetbound homes.

Adele “Mama” Nwosu is very good at attracting investors. Chinwe still remembers the PR vid that her “recruiter” showed her in the basement of a tattoo parlor in the bad part of Lagos. A slender green girl, leaping to pluck fruit from an intensely bioengineered tree. The five teenagers who had been in her “class” had been attracted by the same vid. Attracted to invest not money, for they had none, but their lives.

The sisters had come from a village in the northwest that had never quite recovered from the war. Functionally illiterate and afraid of strangers, they’d clung to each other like shadows. The brothers had come from the local slum, two already with extensive criminal records and the third in danger of following in their footsteps. 

Even his brothers seemed to realize that that was a bad idea, and sought out the Skychildren more for his sake, Chinwe thought, than for their own. 

The one who had clawed his arteries open had been the oldest, charged with murder back on Earth after throwing an addict who owed him money down a flight of stairs. He was the one who had died. His brothers were told that it was suicide, that the “empathy genes” he’d been testing were to blame.

Chinwe doesn’t know how she feels about empathy genes. Her teacher has explained to her the genetic variance in oxytocin receptors, which affect the brain’s processing of social interactions. Has shown her all the data about how behavior was strongly predictive of genotype for this specific variant. Lots of hard data, lots of hard facts.

But she finds she doesn’t believe it. The human mind is a funny thing.

Her teacher is coming now - Ariel is emerald green and naked in the warmth but for strings of ornamental beads around her waist and neck. Residents of Orún lose their love for clothing over time, surrounded by the constant heat and by others who are similarly uninhibited.

Ariel says that it has been four years for her, since she jumped ship on Earth in a bout of teenage angst. She doesn’t regret it. Chinwe wonders what happens to people who do regret it, after they have learned of Orún’s location.

She tries not to think about that. 

Like all the residents of Orún except for Mama Nwosu’s handpicked cadre of experts, Ariel is younger than Chinwe. Chinwe was picked for the job in part because she looks perpetually twelve years old; she’s actually twenty-six, a lieutenant with four years’ experience on the LAPD and several months’ experience, now, in international undercover work.

Ariel walks with a spring in her step, and Chinwe finds that she does now, too. It might be a cult member’s pathology of joy, of having found something better than the outside world.

Memories of poor dead Akeem and international laws on the trafficking of minors do alarmingly little to stop the flow of Chinwe’s thoughts - what would Ariel be doing back on Earth? High school, perhaps? Whining at her parents about the woes of a privileged life, like Bridget Van Aalst had done before her disappearance?

Chinwe smiles, baring teeth at Ariel as she approaches. “New recruits?” she asks, slowing her pace to meet the other. 

Ariel shakes her head, grins showing glinting carbon-fiber in return. “Going to the core. Teachers’ retreat with the Adaptives starts today.”

Chinwe nods, curiosity suddenly burning like a fusion fire in her belly. The ‘Adaptives’ are one of four branches of something like clergy. Their full-time employment is to meditate on the founding principles of Orún, with the authority to restructure its operations as they see fit. It is not unheard of for an Adaptive or an Intentional or some other overseer to arrive at a laboratory or residence and entirely rearrange things. This core of thinkers is allowed to controvert any rule or routine they see fit, thus saving Orún from the risks of dogma and stasis.

These people are revered almost as angelic beings, venerated second only to Adele Nwosu herself. Chinwe has never spoken with one, has never seen them except for the occasional speeches and flashes of brightly colored robes in passing or at a distance.

And soon these people might be gone from this place.

“Can I come with you?” she asks Ariel, almost surprised by her own request.

Ariel looks at Chinwe, seeming wiser than her nineteen years. Slowly, she nods. “The retreat is meant for teachers. But perhaps that is the path you’re meant for.”

“I have flex time this week,” Chinwe assures the other. 

Ariel reaches for her hand. Holding hands - that’s another inhibition that a Westerner loses on Orún. It’s an inhibition the Africans had never acquired.

As they walk beneath dangling lianas, passing the grass-sprouting mounds of private quarters, Chinwe remembers the day when she was asked to take this assignment. 

‘A once in a lifetime opportunity,’ the FBI liaison had said, from across a broad square table in a poorly lit conference room at LAPD HQ. 

‘You could bust one of the largest human trafficking rings operating within the United States. One of the largest in the world.’ 

In that conversation they had neglected to mention that children of obscenely wealthy families were targeted in the U.S.; they had also neglected to mention that the only feasible point of entry would be Nigeria, and that she’d been chosen for her skin and for her accent, which was native to the region. And that the success of the operation depended on concealing it from InterPol.

Yet Chinwe had never once regretted her decision. Questioned it, yes - while being drilled in the customs of a country her family had left when she was five, while watching the capricious and sometimes deceptive mood swings of the informant who was to be her guide, while listening to him, weeping, recount the death of a girl he’d loved like a daughter after her defection from the Skychildren training program he’d introduced her to.

‘They didn’t mean to kill her,’ he’d said. ‘But sometimes the memory blocks do that. They know it. Eighty-percent survival rate, they say. Eighty percent if you defect. Eighty percent if you stay.’

And that had closed Chinwe’s decision. Officially, she was assigned to recover Bridget Van Aalst and the children of other privileged American families. But the Skychildren took far more poor Africans than rich Americans - and killed far more, by extension. 

Walking beneath the lianas, Chinwe shudders. The image of the Adaptives she is going to see, of the green woman holding her hand, twist in her mind. One moment Ariel is a teacher, preternaturally wise; the next she is a child who has been deceived into slavery. One moment the Adaptives are angelic beings, more conscious of true reality than any earthly clergy; the next they are twisted children, playing God.

The Adaptives’ color is red. The red of fire and blood, her Needs teachers have told her. The red of danger and of vital life; the red of animals, hunters and hunted, subject to natural selection.

That is why the Adaptives wear red sashes. It’s certainly a stark and jarring contrast to the blues, greens, and whites that are ubiquitous throughout Orún. 

Anything on the asteroid that can be alive and green on the inner levels, is - everywhere green and white, growing lights and grass and hanging lianas. And the outermost shell is blue - a sea in space, combination water tank, aquaculture, and radiation shield lit. The Orún sea is lit from above and below by growing lights, and thick with kelp and other sea life, and all residents visit for at least a few days each month to assist with the harvest.

So being ushered into the Adaptive’s inner sanctum is almost a physical shock. Everything is red here. 

Ruby-bright LEDs lace every inch of the ceiling in elaborate patterns. The adaptives’ robes, red in daylight, appear white here as they reflect all available wavelengths - all red. The green skin of the supplicants appears uniformly jet black, absorbing all available light. Chinwe observes with fascination that her skin and Ariel’s turn the same color, here. 

The air is warm - warmer even than Orún normal, warm like the heat of Nigeria at noon, warm like the train compartment on the ride she took through its great national forests. She wonders if the warmth is intentional, or unavoidable - because the inner sanctum of the clergy is on the level closest to the fusion reactor, Orún’s true Holiest of Holies.

This is both symbolic and pragmatic, her Needs curriculum explains. The Adaptives, Intentionals, Creatives, and Living represent the highest form of human thought, that which can be devoted purely to imagination, data analysis, invention, and celebration of life. As such, they fly closest to the Sun.

However, the functions of the Adaptives and their kin are also the least necessary to the short-term survival of a society. If Orún’s reactor blows, it is the Exalted Ones who will go first, who will have the least chance to escape. The common laborers, the harvesters, will have the greatest chance to survive, for they are the backbone of any society.

As a side effect of their proximity to the core - and perhaps also as an intentional choice - there is almost no gravity in the Adaptives’ inner sanctum. Chinwe feels as though she might blow away at any moment, finds herself straining, absurdly, uncomfortably, to keep her feet on the ground.

Toes and soles barely touch the floor, and it’s easy to accidentally push off and take ten or twenty seconds to drift back down. The Adaptive’s red/white robes billow angelically in the slightest of air currents, and their wearers seem to simply fly as they spring and perch from the floor to a network of thin wires, invisible in the dim light.

Before coming to Orún such a hot, red space would have carried associations with Hell. Now it’s just so disorientingly different that the connotations of divinity are easy to see. 

And perhaps it is Orún that has taught her to associate the different, not the comfortable, with the divine.

An Adaptive drops down to meet the tour group consisting of Chinwe, Ariel, and a dozen other outsiders. Chinwe barely manages to stay silent in her shock of recognition.

The Adaptive is Bridget Van Aalst.

Chinwe didn’t recognize the young woman when viewing her from below while she was up on the wires. But now the sharp nose and cheekbones are easily identified.

Especially since images of her, “age-progressed” to simulate the effects of Orún’s body modifications, have been swimming through Chinwe’s head since her first briefing about Van Aalst’s kidnapping seven months ago.

Van Aalst had vanished along from her father’s L.A. mansion along with $600,000 of his money five years earlier. She’d been described as a “troubled” seventeen year-old with several known substance addictions who had once been sent to a boot camp in the Alaskan wilderness after wiring large amounts of her father’s money to an online boyfriend.

Upon her return, things had seemed normal for a few months - but then she’d disappeared. An exhaustive inventory of her electronic communications had revealed conversations with a faceless screenname called “Adam” - the same screenname she’d wired the money to a year earlier.

The Adam screenname had been untraceable, bouncing off of multiple satellites before reaching Van Aalst’s terminal - and all leads in the case of her disappearance had gone cold until a man from Nigeria contacted the FBI four years later, claiming to have helped arrange her illegal passage into orbit out of a Texas spaceport.

‘Look at me now, Daddy,’ Chinwe thinks as Van Aalst descends angelic to the floor. Her hair billows about her head, lit up like a halo in the red light, and her robes glow dazzling scarlet against the darkness of her skin.

Van Aalst seems to look directly at Chinwe as she smiles, and Chinwe can do nothing about the sense of growing panic clawing at her gut.

There is no way Van Aalst can possibly know that Chinwe is looking for her. Just because Chinwe stared at her picture throughout her last months on Earth, and conjured up a version of the troubled teen in her head, does not mean that Van Aalst has any way to recognize her.

Yet Van Aalst’s appearance has changed the entire quality of this outing, from a pleasant dream into that of a nightmare.

She hopes that her sweat can be explained away by the heat, that her staring can be explained as awe.

“I am - Chinwe. Four months’ new. A student.” 

By the time they get to her in the introductions, Chinwe’s body has gone into crisis mode. Her years of experience in appearing fierce is returning. This is just like the streets of L.A..

Except that she’s roughly one hundred million miles from L.A., alone in an asteroid full of cultists, and her nearest backup is four days away and already at top speed.
Still. Her adrenaline levels have stabilized now, and this is beginning to become fun.

Everyone else in the tour group turns out to be of teacher rank - Chinwe, a student not yet out of her first semester at Orún, must explain herself.

“I - met Ariel on her way here, today. Asked where she was going. I had flex time, wanted to come, so I came.”

Chinwe lowers her face, unable to meet Van Aalst’s sharp-toothed smile, as much to stay in character as because of genuine discomfort.

“We don’t normally take first semester students,” the Adaptive chastises gently. “This is a place for deep thought. You barely have the underpinnings.”

“I studied in the States,” Chinwe blurts. “Biology. Early admit to college. Accelerated program.”

This is true enough - she’d considered medical school before realizing that she hated formal education and opting for the police academy instead. The “early admit” and “accelerated” parts are lies, but the only way to explain her first admission without blowing her cover.

“Ahh.” Van Aalst sits back, pleasure and surprise painting her features. 

“That is something. Not many of us here brought that level of education from Earth. You will learn at least as much in your courses here, and more organically. But what an interesting perspective. What did they teach you, Chinwe, about evolution?”

“That it functions through natural selection,” she recites, verbatim, from her Basic Needs of Organisms class - Orún-based, but similar enough to what she learned at Emory. “Or, at least, it did - before the advent of genetic engineering.” Chinwe pauses, looking to Van Aalst to see her verdict.

“Oh, it still functions through natural selection,” Van Aalst agrees. “But now we can give it help. Dumb organisms must rely on mutation to create new traits at random. Most of them are harmful. We - we can design our own new traits. Consciously.”

Chinwe nods dutifully. 

Beneath the exterior of rapt student, her two personas are wrestling - the fictional Chinwe-Niece-of-Javier still awed by Van Aalst’s poise and title, Chinwe-L.A.P.D. poised to go on the offensive.

“What did they teach you about genetic modification,” Van Aalst asks, “at your university on Earth?”

Chinwe glances around at the other adaptives hanging like angels in the rafters, carrying on secret conversations with each other in hushed tones. 

“They taught that it was - dangerous. Certain cosmetic therapies are common among the wealthy now, and gene therapy to cure diseases is very common. Genetic modification of crops is good. But new treatments for humans take a long time to be approved. They have to be deemed very safe. Or bad things can happen.”

“What sorts of bad things?”

“Deaths. Three of them, in the past century. Runaway immune responses. Deemed unacceptable. Research must not introduce risk to those who are not already in danger.”

Van Aalst nods sagely, and Chinwe can feel her cheeks burning. This earthly attitude is directly contradictory to the trailblazing attitude of Orún, and under the pressure of Van Aalst’s gaze Chinwe feels almost ashamed to support the former.

“How long,” Van Aalst asks, “to get a new treatment to market, on Earth?”

Chinwe dredges that information up, from a memory of another world. 

“Five years. Average. Three or four rounds of clinical trials with small groups. Exhaustive analysis to confirm no added risk. One vaccine - they said it prevented thousands from contracting illness, but sixteen people had neurological side effects so its approval was revoked.”

Van Aalst pushes off the ground slightly, seeming at once to become playful and to gain imposing height. 

“So,” she says, “on Earth, they introduce new and beneficial mutations at a snail’s pace. And - here’s the key - only reactively. They make the body work the way it’s supposed to. The way it used to. Not the way it could, if they scrapped the old design and their old assumptions.”

Van Aalst reaches up, seizes an invisible wire above her head, and pirouettes around it in a backflip. Red-white robes billow and expose her bare, dark body below the waist before she launches herself horizontally and sails across half the chamber. 

“Fly with me!” she commands.

The hands-on lesson is instructive; you cannot soar in Earth gravity.

They are breaking for a meal in the Blue Room when the emissary comes for her.

The Blue Room - home of the Intentionals, who are pure, cold intellect to the Adaptives’ exuberant fire - is darker than the Adaptives’ home. The walls are black but for geometric illustrations in blazing blue. Chinwe recognizes a few of them - one is an illustration of the Golden Ratio, intersecting, she thinks, with an illustration of the paths of the planets around around the Sun. 

The meal is unusual, even for Orún. It’s mostly protein refined from kelp and yeast - that’s not unusual - but it’s flavored and colored in bizarre ways. One of Chinwe’s entrees is radiating its own blue light. 

Her intellect knows that means it was fresh-harvested from a plant imbued with the genes of bioluminescent jellyfish, but her emotions refuse to see it as anything other than radioactive - or maybe heavenly.

A previously hidden door opens in a wall near the dining supplicants. “Chinwe Ondongo,” a man asks, peering in, “would you please come with me?”

Her fear at having sighted Van Aalst has cooled by now, and she does not think this overly strange - Orún’s workings are not well spelled-out in any way that a newcomer can understand, and with each newcomer on their own unique development path, it is not wholly unusual for individuals to be summoned elsewhere without warning. Perhaps it’s her Needs teacher, or perhaps the kelp team is short today after all.

Chinwe rises and walks. She’s half-nervous that she is in trouble for skipping her portion of today aquaculture rotation - she normally loves kicking through the depths of the ocean-in-space, but today was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. And the teams usually have a bit of “flex” room which can be made up later in the week.

But soon her spine begins to tingle. The door that is held open for her seems to open onto nothing. Black space - a floor, clearly, because her escort is standing on it, but her eyes perceive only black. Police mode resurging, she makes note of his features the way you would a suspect’s - mostly African, perhaps one European grandparent, dreadlocks, Caribbean origin by the way he walks and speaks.

He regards her with imperious grace, odd for Orún but less odd for the Intentionals’ corner of it. He gestures her into the blackness impatiently, and she ignores her officers’ instinct not to follow the strange man into the dark alley

“Where are we going?” Chinwe asks with the obedient curiosity of a good student. Against her will, she glances back at the pool of blue light retreating behind the closing door.

“You do want to meet Nwosu, don’t you?”

Suddenly there is ice in Chinwe’s veins.

Meet Adele Nwosu? She’s not sure if this is a supreme honor being offered to a precocious student, or a death sentence for a spy.

Images of Nwosu dance before Chinwe’s eyes, mostly drawn from decades’-old holos made before the woman disappeared. She lives in Chinwe’s mind as an elegant young woman in lavender silk - a visionary, a mystic, an entrepreneur - who disappeared amid allegations that she had charmed a series of rich men into supporting illegal human genetic experimentation.

Nwosu had been a dock worker in Lagos herself to start, the daughter of two farmers who moved to the slums to give her a better education. The education had taken, even if conventional success hadn’t. Eventually she had met a businessman on a layover who had taken her to Belgrade to meet his investor friends.

Adele Nwosu had been a beautiful and charismatic thirty-something before her disappearance. She’d have to be middle-aged now.

And she was here. That alone filled in a huge blank in the LAPD’s knowledge. Chinwe thinks of the cruiser force, four days out, coming to extract her and evacuate Orún.

“Adele Nwosu? Why?”

“Hell if I know,” her escort responds eloquently. He is invisible now, ahead of her in the darkness. She feels her way with each step, fingers trailing along the wall to keep her going straight.

She realizes then that this is the deepest darkness she has seen since settling on Orún four months ago. It has to be intentional. Nothing grows here - no white or pink growing lights, no cracks for grass to sprout out of. The floor beneath her feet feels like polished stone. 

Her guides’ footsteps stop, and a door begins to open. She sees that he is standing aside to admit her. 

A soft pink-orange radiance pours in. It is not like the pink lights of night, not like anything Chinwe has seen since leaving - 

Earth.

The door opens onto a garden, lush with plants with huge emerald leaves, delicate spring-like vines, and dark, swollen berries swaying in breeze. The lighting is the color of dawn, and Chinwe catches glimpses of pink and violet between the leaves.

By the gravity, they’re still on the level of the inner sanctum - but this place clearly belongs to none of the four branches. 

Only inches from her face, a brown hand pushes a curtain of leaves aside. 

“Hello, Chinwe Contee. I have been watching you.”

Contee. Her real name. American name, LAPD name, FBI name. Nwosu knows. How long has she known?

Nwosu’s face has grown round with age, but she’s a young fifty-something, and she is smiling as she emerges from behind a thick curtain of hanging lilies. 

She is the only person Chinwe has seen since on Orún who isn’t green.

Chinwe says nothing. There is nothing to say.

“You don’t seem surprised to see me.” Nwosu smiles, a crooked, mother’s smile. 

“I’ve gotten good at hiding my surprise.”

Nwosu steps towards her, apparently unafraid. It strikes Chinwe that this is absurd - Nwosu is nude and clearly unarmed, older, and has probably been living in microgravity for decades. Chinwe could win in a fight easily - could kill Nwosu with her bare hands if it came to it.

Of course, it won’t come to it. This is Nwosu’s turf, no way off for four days. Chinwe wonders how the Skychildren would handle someone who tried to kill their founder. She has never heard of an attempted homicide on Orún.

“What are you going to do with me?” Chinwe asks.

“I am going to let you choose.”

Chinwe’s eyebrows goes up, and she’s surprised to feel herself smiling. “You would place your people’s fate in my hands?”

“No,” Nwosu concedes. “Only your own.”

It’s death or allegiance, then. Allegiance: stay; or refuse, and die. She knows nobody gets off of Orún. 

Does she dare to lie? Does she dare to tell the truth?

“The Belt Authority already knows where we are. They’re en route. Four days away. Kill me and add murder to the list of crimes you will face.”

Nwosu smiles, and Chinwe thinks suddenly of the girl who died in Javier’s care. “I will already face charges of murder if I return to Earth.”

Chinwe is silent at that. Considers springing, grappling her, trusting that Nwosu was too confident to have guards waiting in the thick foliage.

Adele taps her head and points at Chinwe. At Chinwe’s skull, she realizes. At the chip in her brain that her falsified medical records said was a stimulator for a motor cortex fried by bad heroin.

“How long have you known?” Chinwe asks.

“Only a day. Our sensor fields caught the signal you sent out last night. I have been thinking very hard about what to do with you since breakfast.”

Nwosu cannot possibly be offering her mercy. 

That Orún still exists is a testament to Nwosu’s thoroughness in expunging elements who might betray them. Chinwe has learned in the course of her months here that Orún’s agents, interact with dozens of Belt mining stations on a regular basis. 

She knows from her FBI briefing that her agents, when captured, have a nasty habit of committing suicide rather than revealing any information about the asteroid. 

And she knows from her catechism with Nwosu’s agents in Nigeria that no one is allowed to return to Earth after they have seen Orún. 

“You cannot trust me,” Chinwe says. “You know that.”

Adele’s eyes rest on her with a heavy curiosity. “Do I?”

Chinwe feels the hairs on her arms stand up. She feels it now, the force of personality that has convinced dozens of people to give their wealth and freedom to make this dream a reality. 

A bastion of human experimentation, beyond the reach of earthbound law enforcement, to advance the human race. 

That most procedures worked best on those not long past puberty was a mere nuisance, which Adele explained by saying that she believed in children’s right to self-determination. The right to choose their own futures. 

Chinwe wonders; the adaptive abilities of a child’s body are well-documented, but aren’t children also more vulnerable to indoctrination?

Chinwe hates this woman. 

And loves what she has created. 

Orún. To walk through the residences, to swim through the kelp. The Adaptives. The Intentionals. The fusion core between the stars.

“Why would you ever think that you could trust me?” she asks.
Nwosu is still studying her with unnerving intensity. “You chose to go to the Adaptives today. The day after you reported us, you break your routine to go there. And we decoded your report; it’s incomplete. You could have told them so much more.”

Chinwe’s face is burning.

“You did your duty. Followed the letter of your law - and then you went to the Adaptives. You probably told yourself that you had to see them before they were destroyed. But you never really wanted to destroy them, did you? You complied with your superiors’ orders out of fear of them. You went to the Adaptives out of love.”

“What do you know about love?” Chinwe spits at her, remembering AKeem, the boy who died screaming.

“Quite a lot, actually,” Adele says softly. What other force do you think brought me here?”

Egomania. Messiah complex. Words from her briefings back on Earth buzz through her head. But what she finally says is: “Pride.”

Adele’s laugh is light and musical. She is moving toward Chinwe again. “Yes,” she laughs. “Pride. Pride caused me to become a fugitive. To forfeit any right to return to the world of my birth.”

“You do not love these people.”

“Who are you trying to convince, Chinwe? Yourself, or me?”

Chinwe wants to realize that talking will do no good. She does not want uncertainty. She wants a death sentence. Wants the certainty of Mama’s cruelty, wants to be gone when the agents arrive to tear this place apart - 

She wants to at least want to go back to Los Angeles. She wants to be sad about the prospect that she may never return.

“I’m not going to give you what you think you deserve, Chinwe. I’m giving you a choice.”

Chinwe waits.

“If you stay, the chip comes out. Right now. I have attendants waiting in the back with sedatives. The chip is removed, no harm, no foul. And you have no way to contact Earth. We move Orún. Four days gives us time to get far away from here. You can stay. Or you can die.”

Chinwe feels like she is dying.

And she is not, she is not going to cry in front of Adele Nwosu.

Nwosu reaches for Chinwe. Chinwe lets Nwosu fold her in her arms.


Orún station glides away from the shade of the companion asteroid that has shielded it for so long. It is silent as nightfall, cloaked with fields and geometries poached from the secrets of the Earth’s best militaries. Its mass is void-black, visible as nothing but a brief eclipsing of the stars.

This story originally appeared in Compelling Science Fiction.


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C. L. Kagmi

I aspire to be the eccentric lovechild of Octavia Butler, Greg Bear, and Frank Herbert.