by Mark Bonica
|Table of Contents|
Dr. James Driscoll, a specialist in extremophiles, departs on the spaceship Demeter for an interstellar terraforming mission. The ship crashes wide of its target on the barren planet RO-5, and Driscoll is the sole survivor.
In the months that follow, Driscoll learns that he is not alone, for the goddess Demeter has a daughter, Persephone. The two are marooned on the planet they now call “Rogue,” and their spiral through time, space and Persephone’s programming leads them to the discovery of their ultimate purpose.
Chapter 1: Federation of Planets and Planetoids (FPP) Year 817
“Jim, you should consider it an honor. You’ve waited a long time for an opportunity like this. It’ll punch your ticket. You’ll be leading research teams back home within six years if things go well. It’s almost guaranteed tenure.” Dr. Harris’s eyes were wide and seemed to sparkle with appreciation at the prospect of the assignment he was offering the man in front of him.
Jim felt lightheaded, and looked hard at everything in the room other than Dr. Harris’s eyes. A black trashcan with the translucent blue plastic of a liner hanging over its rim. The corner of a frame that held a degree from the University of New Mexico. The frame was glossy brown wood veneer. Harris was clearly part of the Club.
On top of an overflowing inbox was a blue folder resting under a few white papers. It held what Jim was reasonably sure were his personnel records. James Driscoll, Ph.D., University of New Heights, Microbiology. Original specialty: aquatic extremophiles. Projects: extremozyme harvest, recombinant DNA transfer, extremophile adaptation for terraforming (sulfur). Four publications in the eight years since joining the administration, generally expounding on areas that others had already developed. Modest academic promise, average leadership potential.
These were the words that he was reasonably sure were contained in that file. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been sitting across from Harris with this offer between them. He wondered how much the file actually weighed. He remembered a grade school teacher he had when he lived in Welcom that had talked about the incredibly dense hearts of stars. Only a few milliliters of their fiery innards would weigh more than the entire school module they were all sitting in, she had said.
The weight of that file pressed down on the nine years he had spent at the Agency, forming a lump in his heart that was slowly traveling down to his stomach. He felt he might vomit.
“An honor, Jim, really. But we can offer it to someone else if you like,” he heard Harris saying now in his blue-blood Earth accent. “There are a number of young scrappers out there ready to take a whack at deep-space field work, ready to become something.” He paused. Jim could sense his gaze settled on him. He could hear a grin in Harris’s voice, even though he knew that if he looked up, his face would appear to be placid.
* * *
Sitting across from June a few hours later, Jim still felt lightheaded and sick.
“You could have told him ‘no’,” she said, setting down her cup of cappuccino. Its murky surface had twists of cream forming arcs, curling, preparing to form systems of black coffee planetoids.
“Yeah. And then I could have kissed my career with the Agency goodbye.” Jim snorted, picking up his own cup and sipping the creamy hotness. “It’s an honor, though. How could I turn it down?”
“You’ve got good credentials. You could get a job teaching easily.”
“Not here. Not on Earth. Come on. I’m off-world educated. Everyone wants their faculty to have Earthside credentials. I’d be stuck teaching grade school science on some orbital mining station. There’s no potential.”
“Let’s talk about no potential, Jim. Long-range jump to potentially four systems with potentially no feasible minimum terraforming qualities to test a potentially dysfunctional enzyme system that has never been effective in other trials?” June slapped the four fingers of her left hand on the edge of the yellow table each time she said “potentially,” as if each touch triggered the table to multiply exponentially the farce that he had just agreed to.
“Hey, it’s only two years real time if all goes well,” Jim said, shrugging his shoulders, surprised to find June so concerned.
“And if it doesn’t?”
“You could be hit by a bus on the way to work any day of your life. Or slip in the shower and—”
“How long could you be gone if you have to hit all four systems?”
“Well, I haven’t really checked out the specifics—”
“Bull.” She was a little plump around her cheeks, and her upper arms were rounder than he would have liked as they moved along her sleeveless green dress.
Jim smiled. “Five years at the most, I’m sure.”
“Oh, Jim,” she said reaching out her hand across the expanse between their cups, settling on top of his. He felt the air move again in his lungs. He felt the lump that had been traveling back and forth between his heart and his stomach begin to dissolve and he wondered how soft her lips would be.
“It’s not such a long time.”
“It’s almost forever.”
Behind her he watched the flow of human traffic. The coffee shop they sat in was part of the Agency’s complex. His apartment was in another building not far away. Hers was even closer. They were both researchers, so they both warranted apartments of their own.
Three months later they had coffee again to say goodbye. The affair had already cooled, though he spent his last night with her before lifting to the orbital launching station. When he stood to go to his final briefing, they hugged, then she walked away. She hadn’t even taken the day off from work.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica