Breakpoint Nereis, from Chapter 1


“Can’t we pass over the graveyards?” said Iphigenia Kiriakadis Hiiaka. With her small nose pressed to the porthole of the landing craft, she looked and sounded a fraction of her thirty-one accomplished years.

“No,” Eduard Linares said, more patiently than Teo herself would have. “We don’t over-fly inhabited areas until we know what kind of taboos and hostilities we might encounter.”

Phi sighed, audibly. “We could have overflown the graveyard on that large island to the southwest. It’s the only part with any substantial tryptophan signature. Look, there are the windmills!”

In the dawn-shadowed land below, Teo caught a glimmer of white. With augmented vision, the windmills appeared crisp and bright against the dark hillside. Half revolved slowly, the other half were still. Before re-contact, her own colony of Sparta had used chemical cells and combustion for power generation, but then Sparta’s seasonless climate promoted riotous, diverse growth. These highlands were by contrast almost barren, wide open to the wind.

This planet would have seasons, she thought. Late spring now, then moving into summer, autumn, winter. She should see at least three of them, if not all; that pleased her.

<There’s another field of windmills ahead of you … > From Waiora in orbit, Ramon annotated what they were seeing, text and symbols flickering white in her right eye. <They’re cruder and visually camouflaged. Also some kind of landing strip several miles westward. There are three other strips, all in various stages of disuse. This one looks clear, but it is also camouflaged and the hangers are underground. I’m adjusting landing site according to protocols—>

<Interesting that they have installations outside the terraformed zones,> Eduard said.

<Maybe these are our adaptives,> Phi said. <We know one group of colonists were adapted for conversion of native amino acid variants to usable forms.>

<This wasn’t the adaptives’ settlement-stake. Theirs was the large island with the graveyard you were interested in,> Orpheo put in. Teo opened her mouth to ask the other three to speak aloud, since they were in the same landing craft. And closed it, knowing it was just pre-landing tension speaking.

Through the overhead portals, the early morning sky was clear blue with a glaze of high cloud and a few delinquent stars. To their left, distance flattened the mountains into a succession of greying cut-outs. The western and northern mountain ranges were one of the few large regions on this continent completely unaltered by human effort, while their landing site was in foothills once cleared and now overgrown by an impoverished grassland and scrub. With each cycle of growth, fixation and decomposition, the land would shed more of Earth. Eventually the Nereian forest would return. Nereian proteins lacked three amino acids that normal human metabolism required, and had several socalled abnormal variants. Survival on Nereis required adaptation, or terraforming.

At least humans had managed to survive here. On their last contact, Bahjat, a world with a high background concentration of toxic heavy metals, the last colonist had perished fifteen years before Waiora cleared the jump gate. By the statistics of their missions kept by the Medical Recontact Service, that dead colony was one in five.

Before the plague, humanity had established upwards of two thousand planetary colonies, the strategy of indenturing new colonies to older driving an ever more rapid expansion. The scale of civilization was to Teo, already unimaginable; hardly more imaginable was the rapidity of its collapse.

Records of the plague-years were fragmentary. The epidemiologists thought they knew the index case, a ship found drifting close to a jump, all its crew dead. The combined expertise of physicians on hundreds of worlds had failed to name the pathogen, much less defeat it. The case fatality rate was over ninety-five percent, ninety-five percent of the collective insight and expertise of humanity. Colonies regressed centuries, even millennia, in a few years. The colonies of Hiiaka and Demeter preserved space flight and gate capacity, barely, and became the seeds of the new order.

As Teo, Phi, their ship and their mission were its shoots. Their mission: to re-establish contact with the human colony on Nereis, to assess immediate threats to its survival, to prepare the Nereians for subsequent contact missions—and to excavate their plague-graves for evidence of the infection that had destroyed civilization.

Teo felt a vibration in the pod around her, the final settling to earth. A ridge blocked the windmills from view. Dark hillocks heaved up around them. Something flew past her porthole, like an ill-folded rag. Looking up, she saw birds wheeling against the brightening sky.

If anyone at the windmill farm were in the least vigilant, they’d now know someone had arrived.

<You’re down,> signalled Ramon. Phi had already released her restraint. She shouldered her small satchel and looked around with bright green eyes. Her lips were moving slightly, the single unconscious reflection of her monitoring Waiora’s ongoing survey effort.

The lander’s readouts came up on priority, red numbers scrolling before their eyes. Phi muttered in irritation, but review and consensus was mandatory. Teo ran through them twice, as was her habit: temperature, air pressure, atmospheric composition, all the necessities of survival; then hazards particular to Nereis. Then she reviewed the scripting of her physix, confirming its instructions for clearing the toxic amino acids. She was aware all the time of Phi fidgeting like an impatient child.

Not for the first time, Teo wished she could have been frank with her colleagues about her reservations about including Phi on the initial contact team. The woman’s abilities might be inarguable, her reputation in plague research substantial, but this was her first primary re-contact; her field experience was negligible.

But she had to acknowledge the objection was largely hers alone, and had to do with Phi’s origins and profession. Teo was Spartan, and Phi, born Hiiakan, was Spartan by origin. Phi’s great-grandparents had been among those who, to Sparta’s shame, had broken quarantine in their flight from the plague. It should not affect Teo’s perception of the new pathologist, but it did.

And Phi’s part in their mission was to survey the burial grounds. To disturb the sacred, resting bodies of the dead, said fifty years of lived belief before the first re-contact team arrived on Sparta, with the request to do exactly that.

Teo offered a brief prayer for clarity and forgiveness for the parts of her mission repugnant to the Divine, then acknowledged readiness, the last to do so. The pod cracked, letting in daylight and the new planet’s breeze, and the clatter of the startled birds. Phi Kiriakadis slithered through and out of sight; a moment later, they heard a yodel. When Teo disembarked, gently pushing aside spindly branches, she found the plague specialist inhaling the breeze with head thrown back and arms flung out. “I’ve waited years for this!”

Eduard joined them, and then Orpheo. The lander sealed itself and lifted. Waiora would resettle it away from the landing zone, whence it might be recalled at need.

Eduard shivered, though his integ should satisfy his craving for warmth most humans would find intolerable: Penthe was a hot, arid world. Orpheo rubbed surreptitiously at his arm: his fine, dark pelt, adaptation against intense ultraviolet, tended to itch under integ, and he would discard integ as soon as safety allowed.

<Let’s go!> Phi projected to them all.

<Were we ever so young?> Eduard sent, very privately, to Teo.

Teo thought not; on most colonies, the young matured as rapidly as possible. Hiiaka, as one of the best-preserved colonies, allowed indulgence. All she said was, <We all had our first contact. Val, we’re down. What’s your status?>

<Still in the air to the west and south of you.> Seve Valentin Demeter said from his own lander, with his own team. <There’s native grassland and foothills to the west, and extensive farming just east of us, and there’s an area that looks like its undergoing active terraforming. We’re planning to land just outside of that … >

From the ridge, Phi flashed back an image, which made Teo send immediately, <Stay down!>.

<I think,> Orpheo observed, after a beat, <the natives may not be friendly.>

Through Phi’s eyes, they all saw the four men approaching. They were dark-clad, dark as the grass, with the same streaked pattern. They carried long barrelled guns.

Looking around with infrared augment, Teo easily found the bright tracks of recent movement, and followed them to the smouldering glow of the men themselves. She sent to Phi, <They’re on either side of us. You’d better come back down here.>

Phi hesitated. Eduard added, <Those guns they’re carrying may have the penetration to pierce our integ.>

The plague specialist slithered down from the ridge, her eyes distracted. Teo hoped she was reviewing hostile-contact protocols, and further hoped that she would not then assume she was an expert.

<They’ve stopped on the other side of the ridge,> Ramon reported, from Waiora.

She heard clacking, like the birds, but low and to the side. <The net’s not the only way to communicate,> Eduard noted. Val said, <Teo, we’re holding our drop.>

<They’re moving again …>

The men crested the ridge, weapons already trained. Teo spread her arms to the sides, showing open hands; the others did likewise. The men descended the ridge in a series of rushes which always left two with rifles levelled. She could feel the slight stiffening of her skin, which was its integ hardening. But that was as much as she felt: her implants suppressed the physiological responses of fear. She rather resented that.

<Here come the others,> Phi Kiriakadis reported, as seven others rose out of the scrub to encircle them. Teo sent, <Don’t even move,> in emphatic symbols.

Then they were upon her. One of the youths pinned her arms while a second ran quick searching hands over her jacket. She noticed that he had a broad brown blemish on his forehead, likely a lesion resulting from traumatic exposure to native materials. There was a fine glaze of sweat under reddish-brown hair. He tugged at her pocket, trying to find the fastening. She said, quite calmly, “If you allow me, I will open it.”

As she had hoped, that prompted him to speak, feeding the linguistic kernel already primed with the dialect of those first settled on Nereis and what had been learned since the plague about drift and degeneration of language. She could already half understand what he was saying. Was she Kayani?

<Kayani?> she queried Waiora, and Waiora returned suggestions ranging from a fruit to a low-caste Vandragen minority included in the seeding of Nereis, almost certainly the meaning in this context. “No,” she said, emulating his pronunciation. “I am not Kayani. I am Teodora Makrydinas of the Medical Re-contact Service. Our ship Waiora is in orbit around Nereis.”

She would have continued, but she did not like what she was hearing from the men around Phi. She was just about to prompt Phi on how to defuse it, when Phi snapped something in their dialect which Teo did not catch, but by Phi’s tone, was not intended to defuse.

<Quiet!> she flashed.

The young man in front of her yelped, “No!” and turned wide eyes on Teo. “What are you doing here? Spying?”

“No,” Teo said, steadily, “we are trying not to trespass.” She maintained eye contact, trusting that this was a formal hierarchy, backed with training and external structure, and not a gang whose order could collapse in an instant.

There was a sudden shock through the group around her. The leader’s gaze snapped past her. Through Orpheo’s offered visuals, she saw Phi Kiriakadis and one of the other—soldiers? Gangsters?—confronting each other over his machete. He held it by the hilt; she gripped it by the blade.

<Let it go!> Teo blazed, as the man jerked it downwards, out of Phi’s grasp. Phi smiled sweetly and displayed her unbloodied hand. The wind feathered her soft, flaming hair. With her doubled vision, Teo saw the leader’s expression change. “Bring them,” he said, suddenly decisive. “Creon will want to talk to them!”

<What happened,> said Teo privately to Phi, as the Waiorans were herded together, rifles at their backs.

The plague specialist flashed Teo a quick cascade of images, of the knife being drawn, and brandished, showily rather than menacingly. <I don’t like bullies.>

<Dr. Kiriakadis, in these situations we do not escalate. We do not display our abilities, we do not attempt to intimidate or back people down. We do the absolute minimum until we know the rules of this culture. There are times we then have to work very hard to recover face or prestige, but we would find it much more difficult to recover from a use of excess force.>

Phi was flushed with temper. Teo wondered if the other team members were weighing in with their own opinions; they were entitled, after all. They weren’t invulnerable, even with their integ and physix, and Phi’s actions put them all at risk.

They were marched away from the windmill installation. At the bottom of the ridge, they spilled onto one of the narrow tracks leading towards the forest. Four of their captors—the knifewielder one of them—then turned back up the ridge. The anxious young leader stopped and ordered their hands bound, which was done with a ribbon of braided metal wire. They could have freed themselves, Teo with the surgical suite in her prosthetic right hand and the others with primed physix, but they conferred and decided not to.

With a rattle, four open jeeps swung around the nearest bend. Camouflage painted again.

<They’re going to separate us,> Eduard said. His unease was palpable. Early in his career, he had been sole survivor of a contact team that had been trapped and burned alive. It was, he explained, a demon-trial, since demons did not burn.

<Do we let them?> Teo asked him, since he made an ongoing study of violence against re-contact teams. He stared briefly up at the gold-tipped hill above them. <As long as we are close together, we can protect each other. But if they separate the vehicles then we may need to reconsider.>

<I don’t want to do anything to undermine the authority of the youngster in charge,> Teo said.

<Notice that they’re all male,> Orpheo observed. <That ordinarily would elevate the risk of violence, and there’s no record of modification to—>

Val interposed, <Teo, stand beside Eduard. Phi, beside Orpheo. Closer than pure social distance, but no immediate suggestion of intimacy.>

Teo immediately eased towards Eduard. Phi did not move. <Why?>

<If this is a patriarchal or male dominant society, then they will expect women to have a male partner or protector. Any unattached woman could well be considered available for claim or allocation.>

The jeeps pulled up beside them, in a swirl of dust. Orpheo tugged Phi towards him; Eduard shifted his shoulder behind Teo’s. Teo was aware of the odd pairings they made, herself conspicuously older than Eduard, and Orpheo with his very dark skin, paired with the pale and redheaded Phi. She had no idea whether either would be an affront to local orthodoxies. But she trusted Val’s assessment; cultural interpretation was one of his specialties.

They were loaded in their self-selected pairs into the two middle vehicles, with a gunman riding shotgun to the driver and another mounting a running board to the rear. The leader went with Phi, Teo trusted because he had identified her as a flashpoint. Phi was distracted by Val’s analysis of gender relations in male dominant societies. <Just leave them to me. I’ll show I don’t need anyone’s protection.> Val gave her—albeit more temperately than Teo had—the ‘don’t escalate unless there is no alternative’ message. Eduard politely dissented, pointing out that, for the doomed Charon team, there always seemed to be alternatives until the heavy doors were slammed and the incendiaries triggered.

The caravan lurched into motion on the rough road. Though strapped in, captives and guards bounced like beans in a shallow tin. Teo was impressed at the prowess of the youth riding the tailboard. He looked to be in his teens, with a strong jaw and big hands and wrists he had yet to grow into; he reminded her of her second son in his youth.

They were headed towards the forest, its canopy brushed gold with new sunlight. It was Phi, in the front jeep, who asked of the leader, “Where are you taking us? Who is Creon?”

He frowned at her, and then he suddenly waved his driver to a stop. Teo’s jeep pulled in behind his.

He pulled a brown scarf out of his pocket, got out and came around to beside Phi, and tied it carefully over her eyes. His driver handed him a second one and he blindfolded Orpheo. A movement from behind was all that alerted them to the blindfold their tailboard rider dropped over Eduard’s face; Eduard tried to pull away; the man in front thrust him back. Eduard was breathing hard, panic fighting autonomic rebalancing. Teo said, quietly, “Please keep his nose clear.”

They obliged, and then blindfolded her, in her turn, briskly and without apology.

Then they were on the move again, shaken more helplessly than ever for the lack of visual cues.

After a little while, Orpheo said, <Don’t ask any more questions, will you, Phi?>

<We should be able to process the image we get through the weave … >

Teo sighed, inwardly, and concentrated on her remaining senses. She thought they had swung west, perhaps along the edge of the forest. On her left she could hear avian clattering, and diverse twittering which she might have assumed were birds had she not heard lizards, insects, mammals and even fish, sing. She could also hear the wind catching the trees. So west, and then after a little while, south. <They’re taking us the long way,> she observed.

Ramon flashed her a composite of the terrain they were traveling, along the forest’s edge to an eventual junction with the road to the city.

They engaged in a brief debate over whether Val’s team should proceed to landing or not. Despite Teo’s arguments in favour of proceeding, the consensus was to delay. Val got to hang up in orbit and chew his nails to the knuckles. Phi and Ramon worked on the transforms that would let them see through the blindfolds, and had them refined well enough to let them see the city walls as they approached. Of the city itself, they saw little, as it tended downhill towards a river-plain on the other side. Only the buildings on the two nearest hills rose above the walls, the most notable a square-built, towered mansion. Waiora’s imagery showed them that four other buildings on that scale occupied ample grounds on the lower side of the city. And, around them, lesser mansions-and-gardens on diminishing scale. Along the north and south walls, clustered hovels ringed common planting-ground. Val observed, <We’re going to find an hierarchical society, judging by the range of accommodations.>

<Look at the walls,> Eduard said. <There’s a story here.>

The walls seemed to have been built by two sets of hands, one skilled, one less so. Substantial though the original walls were, they left generous openings for the roads. Those had been roughly closed, with gates erected. The gates were guarded by more armed young men. Through Phi, they heard the brief exchange of the lead driver with the sentry. Prisoners, for Creon. The young leader refused to be drawn into banter, and they rattled through into the flagstoned streets of the city. Turned uphill, towards the mansion.

<Well,> Orpheo noted, <It looks like it’s not going to be mud huts, this time.>

<Mud huts,> Eduard said. <Usually lack dungeons.>

With a flourish, their captors whipped off the blindfolds, granting them their first official sight of their destination. It was the building they had seen from outside the walls, and nothing if not impressive. Granite, three-storied, with four towers advanced to front and sides. Rectangular windows filled each wall, growing in height from ground to third floor; the rooms within must be immense. The main doors subtended ground and second floor; over them was a huge, tiled frieze, showing blue undersea, pale sky and the gold coastland, all dense with stylized wildlife. In a scroll to one side was the name Ivesen, and a date.

<Teo,> Ramon said suddenly, <Something’s happening to the east.> She closed her eyes as the land to the east of the city was laid out like a map before them. Another road followed the river’s edge, out of the green of terraformed land, into the darker green of native floodplain. A little way into the darker green was a dark smudge, spreading, lit by points of light.

Less adept than the others at separating inputs, she almost fell as they were hustled out, up three shallow steps, and through the doors. She had a confused impression of beige, terracotta and offwhite around her, while Ramon, disregarding her disorientation in his urgency, brought her inner eye ever closer to the smoky disaster to the east.

<Spectra are wrong for a brush or forest fire; there are hydrocarbon fuels in it … > Phi said, and, then, <Those are aircraft flying away from it. Are they escaping?>

<No,> said Val. <That was a deliberate aerial attack on some vehicles on the ground.>

Teo said. <Eduard, Orpheo, Phi, what you do is up to you, but

I have to shut down visual feed. Val, if there’s anything I must know, tell me.> She blinked the beige, terracotta and off-white into focus as floor tiling, and looked around at the huge entrance hall. Wide doors led straight ahead, these ones a wood inlay, more animal patterns. From either side of the doors, a staircase flowed upwards to a balcony. And at either end of the hall, a decorative metal cage housed an elevator. A glitter in the corner of her eye was Eduard and Orpheo reminding Phi why they could not, at this stage in the contact, tell the people around them what was happening elsewhere. Until they knew what the attack meant, or how their knowledge of it would be interpreted, they must not declare themselves.

Beneath the stairs, a door opened, and a teenaged girl emerged, her eyes widening as she took them in. She was dressed in a baggy tunic and trousers, whose cuffs slumped down over plain slippers. A crust of rose-hued stone glimmered on each earlobe.

“Kivirin,” said the leader. “I need to see Creon. I have prisoners for him.”

She pointed in the direction of one of the towers. “He’s upstairs.”

“Thank you,” he said, and started to turn to his fellows.

She said, briskly, “You ought to take them into the main hall. I don’t know who all else is going to be coming and going.” The young leader stiffened as though in resentment at her orders, then yielded. The girl bustled to open the doors, while the leader took the stairs two at a time, eager, Teo suspected, to have done with his awkward errand.