The One Word Story for Spring, written in one minute a day using a string of words suggested by www.oneword.com, takes us to another world, and teaches us the importance of the fine arts.
"Government scientists have confirmed that the vaccine is effective. The Advance Colonists are expected to make a full recovery. Accordingly, the evacuation of the planet will go ahead as scheduled. All citizens who have been assigned to the Alpha fleet are ordered to report to the registration stations tomorrow morning at nine A.M." Walsh turned off the television. The city was close to panic already; and he could only imagine what would happen the following evening when it would be announced that the Alpha fleet would not be followed by any others, and only the best and brightest of their people had been selected for survival.
The airlock light switched from red to green, and at that moment their fate was sealed as tightly as the air in their ship. Over the next three months they would make the journey to Mars, sleeping through most of it, and training for the rest. There had not been enough time to prepare for everything before their launch, so they would have to study their new roles in transit, and pick up the practical side from working with the advance colonists once they got there. Commander Morris, the leader of this flight, wanted to tell them the truth about their mission, but his orders were to wait until they had gone too far to turn back.
The first colonists had arrived only three months ago, but had already built the outpost and started production of oxygen and water. Once Morris' ship arrived, they would begin preparing the land for farming. It would take a generation for the outpost to become totally self sufficient, but after that, they had the whole planet to claim as their new home.
To be honest, the trip was boring. They had only been allowed one suitcase of personal goods, and those were stored in a lower deck. Everybody had access to books, movies and other entertainment, but Morris had a long list of tasks to take care of every day, which he could not share with the passengers until they knew their fate, and that left him little time for his own amusement.
One thing the passengers could not complain about was the arrangements for their dietary needs. Anything they wanted, and as much of it as they wanted, except it was all chewing gum. Not having room for real food, it was all fabricated. Pills would have been more compact, but the act of chewing has long been known to be essential to physical health.
And of course, space was at a premium. But if anyone complained, Morris merely laughed and told them there was plenty more outside. It was difficult keeping a balance between the need to be cordial, friendly and open to his passengers and crew, maintaining a positive mood of good cheer among them, and the requirement for an absolute rule of law if anyone tried to step out of line,
as one mistake could kill them all.
Morris had not even applied for the job. Although the selection process for those who would colonise the new world was immensely complicated, and totally secret, his selection had been remarkably simple, and almost accidental. He had met an admiral at a party some weeks before, and was called the next day and told of his assignment. When he asked why, the admiral had merely responded that he was "a good mixer, a pleasant person to talk to". He had wondered why such social skills were important for the mission he faced, but now that they were under way, with four thousand people in his charge, he understood. He had been assigned the control of not only the most advanced spaceship that mankind had ever built, but also the control of the four thousand souls who traveled on her.
Morris stood before the entire assembled crew and passengers, about to destroy their dreams. They were now thirteen months from Earth, and lacked the fuel to return. They were committed to their journey, or condemned, depending on the outcome. So the time had come to tell them the truth. Right at the front of the crowd was an adorable little redhead girl, about the same age as his own
granddaughter. He almost smiled, but then remembered he would never see his granddaughter again, and his facial muscles lost their strength. He had to find it again to prevent himself from sobbing. He clicked on the display, and began to speak.
The room was silent, frozen in shock. Morris was relieved, as no one had panicked or protested. There was nothing to be gained from objecting, their fate was sealed. All their friends back on earth had been dead for a year now, they were the only ones left. The selection process had concentrated on those who would not be leaving family behind; no one with siblings, no one with grown children, all parents deceased. Morris was the only grandfather in the whole fleet, a fact he had kept hidden from the committee.
The rest of that evening the whole vessel was quiet, subdued. The influence of the announcement on morale was mixed. Morris told everyone that they could complain all they liked, because there was no one left to complain to, and it would do absolutely no good. That actually seemed to strengthen their resolve, and they realised they had really become the captains of their own fate.
In the coming weeks, Morris realised the genius behind the plan. Once the passengers and crew realised that they had to take charge of their own fate, they became more resolved, more independent, more professional. Within three weeks of the announcement that he thought would destroy morale, they were running like a well oiled machine, a well trained military unit, all focused on the same, simple mission: survival.
The ship Morris was in charge of was codenamed the "Panda". There were fifty ships altogether in this "first wave" of the "Ark Project", all named after animals. It was not lost on Morris that the animal names assigned to all the ships were of species on the verge of extinction. The Committee had chosen these names to remind everybody that they were the last chance for their species to survive.
Two years and one week had passed since they had left the earth, and the fleet of vessels was now on final approach to the new planet. Morris and his crew were in constant contact with the air traffic controller on the surface, who was now on the first day of his new job, as this was the first traffic the base had encountered since the first settlers arrived.
The ship settled gently into the landing bay, and the airlock was engaged again. Within minutes, the passengers were disembarking, greeting the settlers who had not seen any new faces in over two years. Then one of the younger children sneezed, and everybody suddenly stopped. If a virus, or any germ, had made it through the quarantine and the journey, then all their work could be undone.
After an unplanned two week stay in quarantine back aboard the ship, they were finally allowed to join the colony. As each of them stepped out of the ship, the leader of the colony, who insisted everybody called him "Raoul", would shake their hand and hug them, and then led them all on a tour of the facilities, describing all the features and functions in an excited, frantic voice, like a Shopping Channel salesman trying to sell them a timebomb before it went off.
The new settlers handled the transition well. They were glad of the room to move around, after two years spent cramped on the ship, and grew accustomed to their new tasks quickly, completing most of the expanded colony's facilities ahead of schedule. Morris was now in charge of construction of the water facility, ensuing a clean and constant supply to the whole colony. And his evenings were
spent with a young lady he had met here, a doctor by the name of Clara.
Clara put down the book she was reading, and looked at Morris. "I know it's crazy to complain, but there are some things I do miss
about life on earth: Music, ballet, theatre. And I don't mean on video, I know there's tons of that. I mean really doing it,
watching people do it. The actual performance of it, all the work that goes on backstage, the rehearsals, the mistakes. All you
see on video is the finished product, perfected and polished. We need someone to teach that to future generations, or the art
will die out." Morris stared at her, smiling for a few second, then said; "What about you?"
"Me?!" Clara paused. "I suppose I could teach it, but only at a very low level; to kids, maybe. I'm just a big boned, too-tall American. It should be a French woman, really. But it's not just ballet!. There are hundreds of arts and sports we have lost, or will lose, because we didn't bring the practitioners with us." Morris leaned toward her. "There are forty thousand of us here, and we're not all engineers and scientists. The Committee planned this very well. They wanted to save Humanity, not just humans!"
"The Committee knew that we would find it hard here, and would need some form of emotional relief, but they knew they could not be the provider of that relief. It had to come from us ourselves, from each other. So, as well as preparing the huge libraries of books and video of all the cultural history of earth, they also picked some of the practitioners of that culture, to teach it again, so that we could experience it, not just read about it or watch it. So that we could share it again with each other." Morris put his hands on Clara's shoulders. "And they will need help, to spread that culture among all the settlers, so you would be welcomed if you decided you want to teach ballet. And supported, too!"
Clara had said nothing more about the subject that night, but the next evening when he came home, Morris spotted her with one leg up on the kitchen counter, stretching as she waited for her evening meal to be prepared. He smiled. The committee had stated that when people started showing an interest in hobbies and other diversions, it would be a sign that they had begun to overcome their fears about living in the colony, and were settling into a normal lifestyle.
The committee had stressed the need for recreation, to relieve stress among the colonists, and encourage a sense of normality in their new life, but Morris had noticed there had been no preparation made for sport. He presumed this was to avoid encouraging competition, which could lead to rivalry, and ensure that all available energy was devoted to the task of building the colony.
It made life a little boring, but they had more important things to be worrying about.
Clara came home from her lesson, and opened up her bag. "Some of the students are complaining about the smell!", she reported, holding up a sweat soaked top. The whole colony was air conditioned, as was most of their clothing, and almost all manual labour was done by robots or exosuits, so practically no-one had any reason to sweat. Even if they did, the fibers used were designed to refresh themselves through electrical stimulation, but it seemed that an hour of vigourous dancing was beyond the capabilities designed into their clothing. Morris had realised the need for detergent some weeks ago, but was fully aware that none had been brought due to restrictions of space. They would have to figure out how to make their own.
It was not the first time they had found a need to improvise. In the eight months they had lived on this planet, they had faced many unforeseen problems. But they had just been through the biggest upheaval of modern times. An asteroid had hit southern Europe, killing over two hundred million on impact, and releasing a deadly virus into the seas. Every attempt to contain it was confounded by mutations, so the only choice was to evacuate the planet. But there was only time to prepare vessels for two hundred thousand, after they had sent a small reconnaissance team to a recently discovered planet that looked like it could sustain human life. And even that team had been struck with a strain of the virus, which threatened to deny them all hope, but they managed to develop
a vaccine for that strain, which was eliminated before it could mutate again, and the planet was declared clean, so the main group was cleared to travel. And that had only been the beginning of their adventure.
Once it had become clear that they could not keep up with the mutations of the virus, they had accelerated an ongoing project to colonise another planet. It had started as an experiment when the planet had been discovered, intending to send a few hundred colonists to survive for a year then come back, but once it became clear that they could not continue human life on earth, the
experiment became the world's top priority. Experts from all nations figured out in just a few short months how to expand the plan from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand, and how to make all aspects of life sustainable. One thing, Morris now noted, that they had not devoted their energies to was the fact that he now had laundry to do, and nowhere to hang it up to dry!
For better or for worse, the first anniversary of the colonists' arrival came around. That was measured in Earth time, of course, they had yet to figure out how long a "year" was on this planet, as the twin suns seemed to just hover in the sky. Apparently, the planet's period of rotation was almost equal to its period of orbit, much like the moon around their home planet, and they would need at least one "day/year" to pass before they could determine how long it was in earth days or years. Had there been only one sun, they would have had to relocate their colony several times a "year" to stay out of the cold deadly shade, but they were lucky, at least, that they were twin suns, as the "dark side" that was lit by neither was only a very small, thin segment of the planet's surface, like an inverted, jet black mohican on a flourishing, verdant head.
She had awoken some time ago, and moved toward the bright area for some food. But she had stopped cold, just inside the shadow, when she spotted them. Tiny creatures, crawling around as if establishing a colony for themselves, here in a world she had endured by herself since countless sunrises ago. It was parasites like those that had killed off the rest of her tribe, so she was wary
of making any contact with them.
Her planet had once been more diverse, with many creatures sharing a luscious paradise, but then those small creatures had come, falling to the ground in little fiery rocks, and spreading out to destroy everything around them. They had cleared away forests to plant other, smaller trees, moved rocks into rivers to divert their flow, pulled stones from the ground to build caves in the open, and any number of other unnatural things, even killing some of the smaller animals to eat them instead of share their plentiful food. But in time, nature had fought back. Stricken by disease, they died out quickly, but only after they had changed her world forever.
As time went on, the colonists settled in to their new lifestyle, but there were the inevitable doubts. One rumour had started about an alien being that was watching them from the dark zone but the Committee had dismissed it as an airbag from a landing vessel that had been taken by the wind and given a life of its own. Even among the highest ranking intellects they had chosen, there was
superstition; - a side effect of the creative minds they had sought to include in the colony population.
Clara felt that she should be nervous for their first performance, but found it hard to be so when she saw the instruments the musicians were using. Made from the copper pipes from the cooling systems of the transport ships, they were always a reminder that everything in their lives here was makeshift, a compromise; and that everything they had was a valuable resource that they had to fight for, to share with, or take from someone else. That realisation made everything seem more precious to her.
They had come here with so little, that apart from personal items, there was nothing that belonged to anyone. The Committee had decreed that there nothing of value, other than what they had brought with them, could have an owner, it belonged to everybody. Their survival depended on the whole community thriving, and greed had no place there. The rewards for individual efforts would come in the next generation. They worked now in return for food, clothing and other essentials only. Their credits could only be collected by their children.
Clara wished she could get hold of some makeup for the performance; the children's sallow complexions were not very evocative of the swans they were supposed to be portraying. But such non-necessities were wishful thinking on the colony, even though the sodium tinted sunlight gave everyone's skin a greenish hue.
The clinic was an easy job for Clara, which left her with a lot of free time to practice and teach the dance classes. Medicine was a reasonably simple science now that they had the DNA tuners. The discovery of the "Caretaker Sequence" in human DNA had meant that all forms of cancer, - the last terminal disease that troubled mankind - could be "reprogrammed" out through DNA modification, so that meant that apart from accidents (her main workload), suicides, and the very occasional murder, everybody lived a healthy life until the two hundred and ten year limit that the Caretaker gene seemed to impose.
She moved along the edge of the dark zone, snipping morsels to eat as she edged along like a gardener trimming a hedge, being careful not to permanently harm any of the plants that were kind enough to feed her, and being extra careful not to be seen by her new neighbours. Once her hunger was satisfied, she decided it would be best for a while to go around to the other side of the dark zone; - maybe the new beings had only landed in this one spot. But then she noticed a group of them doing something very unusual.
Clara was in her office, working on a sample of DNA taken from a new born baby, the fiftieth child born at the colony since their arrival. The rocker tipped from side to side, separating the different components of the sample for analysis, and Clara found herself unthinkingly tapping her feet to the rhythm of the machine. All new DNA samples were to be added to a database, to monitor any
mutations or other changes, and to record the cell renewal rates that the Caretaker genes were measuring, both to ensure that they were not being adversely affected by their new environment, and that the Caretaker gene was also working normally in that new environment. Suddenly Clara's feet stopped, as she felt an overwhelming sensation, as if she were being watched through a microscope herself.
Clara walked over to the window and looked out. Her office was facing the dark zone, the long, thin stretch of land where no sun shone. The colony had been built on the sunrise side of it, so that the dark zone would slowly move away from the colony, and would have to circle the planet before plunging them into an eighty year long darkness, some thousand years hence. Some of the colonists, especially the children, had started spreading rumours of mysterious forces emanating from that shadow, and most of their parents used them as scary stories to tell their children at bedtime. Clara wondered how people would react when that great nightfall came upon them; assuming, of course, they were still here when it did!
Clara sensed it more than she saw it, but there was definitely something there in the darkness. She moved towards the door and turned off the lights. Another reason they had chosen to build near the dark zone was that it would give them time to develop energy sources for climate control before they would have to face the full heat of the planets twin suns at noon. This meant that without lighting, they were in a low twilight, and if she allowed her eyes time to adjust, she might be able to see into the abyss before her. She brought a flashlight over to the window, opened it, and once her eyes were used to the darkness, turned on the light. In an instant, she saw it, then she was dazzled, and it was gone. In the low gravity of this planet, all the colonists moved like they were bouncing, partially floating, but the creature she had just seen was swift, sharp, and very obviously accustomed to this lightweight environment. Her blood chilled, as she realised; they were not alone!
Clara rushed home from work, and found Morris in the jacuzzi. "Care to join me?" he joked, then noticed her look of horror. "What, I don't look that bad, do I?" he continued, then noticed that she was shaking. Before he could ask what was wrong, she started explaining. He grew gradually more serious as she went on. Eventually he reached over and turned off the jacuzzi; even in the hot water, what she was telling him gave him goosebumps.
They both strained their eyes, looking into the darkness. Shining flashlights did not help, there was nothing to be seen. After ten minutes or so, Morris was ready to give up and go home, but he didn't want to appear like he was doubting Clara. Eventually, she lowered her flashlight too, and looked at him sheepishly. "I guess I must have imagined it." He put his hand on her shoulder, and said; "Come on, let's go home." Deep in the dark zone, the creature remained motionless, not daring to move until they were completely out of sight. Her instincts told her to get as far away from them as possible, but her curiosity would not let her comply.
They had started again. She had been watching the new beings for some time now, and they seemed to have patterns for doing things. A short time spent doing one thing, then another, then they would all go inside their little boxes for a while, then all come out and start the cycle again. It all seemed pointless to her, but there was one small group that captivated her attention. They had a small box that made beautiful sounds, and they would all move in unison with the rhythms that came out of it. It seemed to be some kind of emotional outlet for them, as they all seemed relaxed and happy afterward, and even she had to admit that watching it had a soothing effect. She began to wonder if these beings were different from the ones that had come before.
Morris and Clara had been called to appear before the committee. Clara had told a few people about what she had seen, and rumours had spread quickly. The committee was not pleased, as rumours did not help the colony function as a cohesive unit, which was essential to its survival. Now that people were afraid of some monster in the dark zone, there would be discord, there would be
uncertainty. Now they would have to assign precious resources to warding off the threat from her "monster", and eventually come up with evidence to prove that the threat it posed had been neutralised. Both of these acts would prove to be a waste of effort that they could not afford. And they would hold Clara responsible for that.
It had gotten ridiculous. People were organising a hunt where they would use lights, spotlights, projectors, any light source they could find to illuminate the dark zone and see if they could find the "monster". The committee was livid, as it was a waste of energy that they could scarcely afford, and there was no way it would ever conclusively prove the existence or otherwise of any life form
in the dark zone. Eventually, they banned the illumination of the dark zone in any way, for any reason; ostensibly to avoid wasting energy, but mainly to get people to concentrate their efforts on the tasks that would ensure their survival.
People were still curious about the dark zone, and its supposed occupant. The committee had to step up its warnings, and even resorted to insinuating that traces of a disease called the "Bourbon Virus" - a RNA based virus that they claimed had a 100% mortality rate, had been found in the vicinity, in order to scare people away from the area. When Morris reported this to Clara, she almost laughed, but caught herself in time. She had heard of the disease, detected in the early twenty first century. That 100% mortality rate referred to one, solitary instance of the virus in one, solitary patient who had died. This made Clara all the more curious about what the committee was trying to hide.
Morris and Clara were walking along the edge of the dark zone. When the settlers first arrived, it had been a great spot for a romantic walk, affording the privacy of twilight, and a landscape reasonably clear of plant growth, as everything had died out in the cold of the eighty year night. Now, though, it was awash with people looking for the "monster", but at least the committee
had prohibited people from flashing lights into it, so it was once again a nice place for a relaxing walk. "If there really is a monster," said Clara, "we should be searching for it. People aren't searching for it out of some morbid curiosity, they're scared!" "If there is a monster," Morris responded, " so far it's been leaving us alone, and maybe that's for the best! Even if it's as cute
as a puppy, it could carry some disease that could wipe us out in a week!"
Clara protested; "But it could be some sentient being! If that were true it would be the single most significant event in our history! To meet another intelligent form of life!" - she was almost crying. "Even if it's intelligent, it doesn't know that we are!" Morris responded desperately. "Think about this from its point of view; some unknown form of alien, a parasite in its eyes, suddenly invades
what had up to now been its kingdom. It's bound to see us as a threat! Until we know more about it, including how to defeat it, we have got to keep our distance! - That's assuming it even actually exists!" He threw his hands in the air and stormed away.
In a few short days, things had gotten very much worse. People were demanding that a hunt be started. The committee had calmly pointed out that the people had no democratic franchise, and had an obligation to obey the instructions of the committee.
A few dissenters continued to protest, but they were soon deprived of all social rights. This had an immediate backlash, leading to a threatened rebellion, which Morris knew could not be allowed to win. A breakdown in order now would mean the end of the colony.
Their future was resting in the hands of a small number of the finest minds the earth could produce, who were trying to stifle the very curiosity and desire for knowledge that they had sought when selecting people to join this mission.
Now their ability to perform that mission was being jeopardised. Morris petitioned the committee for a chance to resolve the issue.
A small search party was commissioned to seek out the lifeform. The committee finally relented because some among the colonists had started referring to the supposed life form as a divinity, and they did not want the spectre of religion rearing its ugly head in their colony. They wanted people to follow only science. They wanted people to obey only the committee.
Morris was picked to head the search party. He decided to allow Clara to come along, in case there were any injuries. As they prepared for their departure, Morris was surprised to discover that the committee had brought weapons. "Will we need those?" he asked, suddenly devoid of any faith in the organisation to which they had entrusted their lives.
Morris was beginning to find it hard to reconcile his own beliefs - about what their purpose was here, and how they should achieve it; with the actions and attitude of the committee that was leading their mission.
More and more it seemed to him that the committee was trying to suppress individuality in order to advance the collective well being, when it had been sworn to promote both; - individual growth in tandem with the advancement of the colony as a whole. This supposed "monster" was a nuisance, but some of the conversations he had heard behind closed doors scared him much more!
Some members of the committee had actually suggested using the monster as a means of controlling the population; - a universally acknowledged but not clearly defined threat was essential to engendering loyalty among a population. It had been so for centuries. Morris was thoroughly shocked at this deliberate attempt to mislead, and control the colonists, but he kept his mouth shut. He knew that in a situation like this, actions spoke louder than words, and were harder to suppress.
They gathered at the appointed spot, and prepared to begin the search. Morris almost laughed when someone handed him a badge to wear. He felt like they were in a posse from one of those old "Western" movies from the last century. One of the many differences, though, was that they did not have any weapons.
There were of course some protests, some members of the colony objecting to the hunt, believing that if any native species existed, they should be left alone.
That was the policy that they had taken with the flora they found, which had helped their agriculture takeoff at a flying pace once they determined that several of the indigent plants were very fertile, and very tasty.
They moved slowly, deliberately, lighting up each section as they moved forward, like mountain climbers attaching ropes to the rockface as they progressed upward.
In fact, the team leader was an ex-climbing instructor, chosen for his ability to control a team in a stressful situation.
As they moved forward systematically, the lighting for each section was switched on once they had positioned and passed it, so that they would not be dazzled by their own lights but could see clearly the ground in front of them. After almost two hours of this work, one of the team called out to the leader, half whispering, half screaming.
In the half light before him, he could see an outline, a vague stencil of a face, staring back at him. All available lights were focussed in that one direction. The beast flinched, squinted, then froze for a moment, before it started moving very slowly.
Everyone in the search party froze, in either fear or amazement. This was a defining moment in their life here, their mission as planters of the new colony hung in the balance.
Clara immediately felt a sort of empathy with the creature as she watched it move with the grace of a figure skater, almost sliding across the ground. She always felt this way when watching a fellow dancer. She understood immediately that it had been watching them, and was now trying to communicate with them.
She reached out and put a hand on Morris' shoulder. She could feel his tension dissolve. "I think we have found a friend!"
Clara estimated the distance between them to be around twenty meters, and she decided to take a chance.
She cast her arms into the air and started spinning, moving in a roundabout path closer to the creature. As she got near, the creature opened its arms, lowered them, and as Clara came in front of it, swept her up and started spinning too.
The watching crowd gasped, as the two of them twirled around in the half light, entwined in a dance that would go down in history.
- THE END -
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