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Baby Stay Young

by Ian Cordingley

“We have visitors!”

Her father shuffled over. “Pardon?” he wheezed.

She swung around the monitor. A grainy feed from a tiny video camera in the second line, black and white: six people in environment suits.

Her father’s face lit up. “Well now,” he said, “about damn time.”

He shuffled through the hallway. After a few steps he paused and leaned against the wall, wincing. Sandra came up to him. She offered her hand, but he refused. Even in great pain he was so stubborn.

He shuffled over to the lock doors. A rough metal structure that forced its unwelcome way into the front of their compound. He fiddled with the controls, gingerly, with wrinkled, wizened fingers.

Sandra hoped, despite the excitement, that this wouldn’t be too long. She wanted to go play, hopefully with her father. It was the nicest day in a long time. Granted, even behind thick walls to guard against feral animals, desperate people and the “bugs in the dirt.” All she had to play with inside were the drones. Some were tools for her father, a few refashioned into playthings for her. Sandra hated them: about her height, and with their wide, almost pitiful artificial eyes.

The six people entered the lock. It cycled them through, bringing with them the funk and heat of the outside world. Their apparent leader removed his helmet and the others followed his lead.

“Paul Nelson?”

Her father nodded, “Yes.”

“Brian Cole.” He offered his hand and her father shook it. “Colonial Deep Expedition, Reclamation Assessment Team.”

Her father’s eyes lit up. “So they’re coming back?”

“Apologies about the sudden arrival. But you haven’t been answering our calls. What’s a mother to do?”

“We lost the relay in a storm about a dozen years ago.”

Sandra remembered it well. She had been very small and cradled in her father’s arms. He had found her behind a shelf, trembling and her face was red and damp with tears. Behind thick glass they watched the rickety structure teeter over, collapse onto one of their sheds.

“Well... I’m glad to finally meet you.”

“They still talk about me?”

Cole smiled. “Why wouldn’t they?”

“Oh, it’s been so long. I would have thought by now that at least someone...”

“You’re still the best, sir. The way you handled Venus was absolutely peerless, in my opinion.”

“I left a profile, I believe.”

“Nothing like you, but profiles seldom are,” Cole assured him.

Sandra involuntarily flinched at the sound of the word; memories of awkwardness, being lowered head first into something. “Too imperfect, it lacks the human touch.”

“But you didn’t come seventy-four light years to flatter an old man.”

“We’ve been sent to lay the groundwork for reclamation,” Cole explained, “if possible.”

“Well, we were hoping you had something to tell us.”

Her father snorted. “You haven’t noticed?”

Cole shrugged. “It’s obvious from above. The planet’s dying: you’re pretty much in the last green patches. But in a few years that won’t matter.”

The air was growing thin, her father would sometimes admit. They were hemorrhaging water. In a couple of decades it would be as if no human could ever have set foot here. But that she shouldn’t worry about it. There was plenty of time before that happened.

She should be more worried about the bugs in the ground, her father had explained.

“Dr. Nelson,” Cole said. “We’ve brought someone you should meet.”

The only woman in the group stepped forwards. “Dr. Nelson, this is Specialist Sandra Lane,” he explained. “She’s your daughter.”

Her father reacted with a look that bordered between surprise and anguish. Sandra stood for a moment, the words not registering.

Granted the woman looked a lot like her. Her blonde hair, short and brushed back, was slowly turning pale brown. She looked weathered: some of the resemblance was still there, but barely.

She swallowed and stepped forward. She had a picture frame; she cycled to the first picture.

Sandra at about two, standing in the middle of a blizzard of snow: “I used to think it was only something that existed in story books.”

Her father’s face brightened. “Yes, that night you got good and cold and wet. We had to carry you inside. You didn’t want to come in.”

Another photograph of her, peering into a cage of fluffy animals: decanted terrestrial animals, ready to provide a fresh ecosystem. Her father smiled and nodded.

Sandra remembered little of her early childhood, of course, and even less about her mother. Though one night she remembered if not the face than at least the sound of her voice, her two parents talking behind a closed door. I want a profile of her made.

And one photo she didn’t remember: naked, wet, her mother and another woman were toweling her off while she howled. “My first day on the home world,” the woman admitted sheepishly. “I was such a little brat.”

Her father laughed. “Well, why not? You were so little.”

He studied her. She had grown up to be strong in her limbs, and likely crafty in her mind. Sandra kept close to her father’s ankles. The woman had not made eye contact with her. What little glimpses seemed to be motivated by despair and concern.

“You’re back,” her father said, placing his hands on her shoulder. “You’ve come back.”

“Well, that’s pending,” the woman explained. “There’s the Aleph...”

“Oh yes,” her father said. He turned, nearly tripping over Sandra. “I’ve done some cursory work. But nothing too detailed.”

He shuffled over to a table. He dug around, bringing out a plastic folder. “Just my observations since the colony left,” he explained, “it’s nothing we haven’t foreseen.”

Cole, the woman, and the rest of the team one by one went through the papers. They read, nodded, passed it over while gesturing at some word or paragraph.

“Environmental degradation, sad to say, is accelerating. The nano strain has mutated; one of the little design flaws. Some of the more resilient plants and animals continue to endure. But it’s only a matter of time.”

Cole nodded, “We’ve been working on a counter-strain. Damn, I just wonder how you lived back then?”

“Environmental restructuring is never easy, top down or molecule by molecule. And I take it we’re still new at this!”

Cole got to the point: “We need to start over completely. We’ll drop the counter-strain from above. It should cleanse the planet, purge it good.”

Her father nodded, but there was clearly something wrong. “It will be... fatal, I take it?”

“Everything here has been soaking in Aleph for decades,” Cole said.

Sandra remembered the word Aleph being tossed around. Exactly when was hard to say, except everyone kept saying it over and over and somehow her father was being blamed for it. She gave many small kids black eyes and bloody noses when they taunted her that her father was the reason they were leaving, or staying.

She shuffled in her place.

“Obviously you’ll need to relocate.”

Her father shuffled, his face seemed to loose colour. “Dr. Nelson?” “It’s not that I haven’t taken precautions. It’s just... well, with the state the planet was in, it’s not like everything was invulnerable.” Every word pained him.

“But I can’t say there weren’t breaches. I can’t guarantee there wasn’t contamination.”

There was a long pause in the conversation. Mutual understanding: to say the obvious words would be unnecessary, even cruel. Cole breathed in deeply; the woman seemed on the verge of losing composure.

“We’ll need to do some more surveying. We’ll be back to check on you later, all right?”

Cole nodded. He turned his back, leaving the woman and Sandra’s father by themselves.

“About my profile...”

“Yes,” her father sighed.

“You used one of... those?”

“It wasn’t hard,” he explained. “I didn’t want you to be trapped in some computer. At least I can pick her up, have something like a child.”

The woman nodded, studying Sandra. She hated being looked at like that, studied as some aberration or freak. The woman nodded again, solemnly. “Good luck, dad.”

They awkwardly hugged. “Thank you for coming back,” her father struggled to say.

The team suited up. They walked out of the lock.

The woman gave a look back into Sandra’s wide, pitiful eyes. She donned her helmet. The door closed behind her.

There was a long pause. Her father stood by the metal door, thinking, obviously in discomfort.

“Are you okay?” Sandra asked.

“Yes,” he replied, though Sandra knew that it was a lie.

“It’s going to be a long time since more people are coming?”

“Yes,” her father said, trying to reconfigure his responses to the comprehension level of a child. “But it’s going to take some time.”

Sandra took in the information. “So... we’re going to be by ourselves for a long time?”

“No,” her father said, “we’ll be all right.”

He took Sandra’s hand and let her lead him to his favourite chair.

Copyright © 2008 by Ian Cordingley

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