Short Stories

Stranded
 

available as audio bookavailable as ebook


“A Strand in the Web”
(a science fiction novella)

Stranded, edited by Debra Dixon
BelleBooks, August 24, 2012

("A Strand in the Web" was originally published in Orbiter.)


OTHER EDITIONS

Stranded Audio

 
COVER COPY FROM STRANDED

Three Great Authors—Three Great Science Fiction Stories

A Strand In The Web

New York Times Bestselling Fantasy Author Anne Bishop makes her U.S. debut in Science Fiction with this engaging futuristic novella. The Restorers travel the universe fulfilling a purpose handed down through the generations. They live and die aboard city-ships, never knowing the worlds they create and save. What begins as a disastrous training exercise in creating and balancing ecosystems becomes an unexpected fight for survival. The only hope may be the secret project of an untried Restorer team. 

A Host Of Leeches

Award winning author James Alan Gardner pens a wonderfully imaginative tale, in which a young woman wakes to find herself the sole human on an orbiting, mechanical moon. To find a way home, she must navigate the dangerous politics of war between opposing robot leaders.

Stranded

Popular urban fantasy writer Anthony Francis (Dakota Frost, Skindancer series) explores the clash of Frontier and Alliance when a young, genetically engineered centauress from an advanced civilization lays claim to a rare, mineral-rich planet, only to find herself saving a band of rag-tag Frontier refugees who’ve crashed their vintage ship on her unexpectedly hostile world.




EXCERPT FROM "A STRAND IN THE WEB"

Copyright © 2002 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.

“Oh, yuckit,” Zerx said as she looked at the cup in her hand and made squinchy faces. “I asked for it hot, and this is barely even warm!”

“That sounds like the date I had last night,” Benj said, snickering as he walked over to his console to begin the morning’s work.

No one responded to Benj’s remark. That was how we handled these typical morning comments—with polite silence.

“I don’t see why the maintenance engineers can’t fix this thing,” Thanie complained, taking her mug from the food slot. She sniffed it to make sure it held tea, then took a cautious sip.

“I heard Marv finally fixed the warning light problem,” Whit said as the data for his part of the project filled the screen in front of his console.

“What warning light problem?” Stev asked.

Whit swiveled his chair to face the rest of us. “A warning light on one of the main panels has been flashing intermittently for the past several weeks, warning of a circuit failure in one of the minor systems.”

“It’s probably our food slot,” Thanie grumbled.

“Of course, the engineers checked the system out every time and didn’t find anything wrong,” Whit continued. “When the warning light started flashing again yesterday, Marv gave the control panel a thump with his fist. The warning light went out and hasn’t come back on since. Problem solved.”

The computer chimed quietly, the signal that the morning class had begun.

As the rest of the team settled into their places, Zerx complained loudly, “Why do I have to do the insects?”

Before any of us could remind Zerx—again—that the computer had done a random draw to give us our parts of the assignment and that every part was equally important, Benj said, “Because you look like a bug.”

Unfortunately, that was true. Zerx had gathered two segments of hair at the front of her head and used some kind of stiffener on them so that they stood straight up and looked quite a bit like insect antennae.

Benj turned away, satisfied with his retort. He didn’t see the look on Zerx’s face before she went to her own console. Zerx could be very unpleasant when she was in a snit, and that look on her face always meant payback.

Tuning out the usual morning grumbles, I carefully checked my own data, feeling the shiver of excitement go through me as it had for the past month when I sat at this console.

My teammates kept acting like this was another computer simulation that was part of our classwork. Oh, it was part of our classwork all right. In fact, this was our classwork now. Only this. But this wasn’t a computer simulation where time was accelerated and a planet year was contained within a classroom day. This was real.

There were six teams at this stage of our education. We’d had to take an extra year of schoolwork while we waited for our city-ship to reach this world—and another extra year after that while we waited for the Restorers to prepare this world for the life we would give back to it.

You couldn’t apply for a Restorer’s team until you proved you could work in real time and maintain Balance in your part of the project. So, we had waited and studied and done the computer simulations and watched our simulated worlds crumble into ecological disaster—much like the worlds the Restorers committed themselves to rebuilding.

Now each team had part of a large island. Each part had a strong force field around it to prevent any accidents or disasters from going beyond the team’s designated area. Now we were working in real time. We couldn’t just delete plants and animals to make it more convenient when something got out of hand because we were given an allotment from the huge, honeycombed chambers holding the genetic material for billions of species from all over the galaxy. That allotment determined how many of each species we could deposit at our site. Now, every life counted—not just for our own final scores in the project, but for the well-being of the planet.

I was assigned the trees for this project, which pleased me very much because my name is Willow.

As I scanned my data, I took a deep breath and let out a sigh of satisfaction. The number of trees had increased since I last checked. I had planted some mature trees, but most of my allotment for this area had been used for saplings and seeds, and the seeds were beginning to grow.

I keyed in the coordinates and the command for a planetside picture on half my screen. A moment later, I was staring at a tiny twig with two leaves—a baby oak tree. Someday its roots would spread deep into the land. Its thick trunk would support the strong branches that would provide nesting areas and shelter for birds. Its acorns would feed chipmunks and squirrels, and it would produce oxygen that the animals needed to breathe.

A tree was a wonderful piece of creation.

“You look pleased,” Stev said as he approached my console.

“Tree,” I said, grinning like a fool.

“That is your assignment, Willow,” he replied, trying to maintain a somber expression. Then he glanced at the screen and his eyes narrowed. He looked at my twig of a tree and then at the numbers for each species. “How’d you get that many trees out of the generation tanks so fast?”

I stiffened a little. But there was nothing in his voice—like there would have been in Benj’s or Zerx’s—that implied I was getting preferential treatment because both of my parents were Restorers. “I requested 20% of the stock as mature trees old enough to begin self-reproduction, 30% as saplings, and the rest as seeds.”

It could take days for the generation tanks to produce a mature specimen, depending on how fast the growing process was accelerated. But it didn’t take the tanks more than a few hours to produce healthy, viable seeds.

Stev whistled softly. He didn’t say anything for a minute. Then, with his eyes fixed on the little oak tree still on my screen, he said, “The Blessed All has given you a gift for this kind of work, Willow. You’ll be on a Restorer’s team the moment you’re fully qualified.”

With a smile that was a little sad, he went back to his own console. And I went back to staring at the little oak.

Restorers. That’s what the 87 people who are the heart of our city-ship are called. They give purpose to what would otherwise be an aimless wandering through the galaxy.

The Scholars say that a very long time ago we lived four score and seven years. Our people now live forty score and seventy years—870 years. They say that the Blessed All granted us the knowledge to extend our life spans so that we could make Atonement. That is why the city-ships that are now the home of our people were created—so that we could make Atonement by restoring worlds ravaged either by external disasters or by disasters caused by their inhabitants.

And it is part of our Atonement that we live in a world made of metal, that we never walk on a world we have restored, never feel the breeze that ruffles the leaves, smell the wildflowers . . . or press our hands against the bark of a tree that we planted.

The Scholars never say why we have to make Atonement, but they know. You can see the sorrow that’s always in their eyes after they complete their training and are told the Scholars’ Secrets.

So, this restoration of damaged worlds is our way of making Atonement to the Blessed All for some failure long in our past. The Restorers and their teams are the ones who shoulder that responsibility.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a Restorer—not because of the prestige that goes with the title, but because I love to watch things grow.

My console chirped a query, reminding me that I had work to do.

Blanking my screen, I called up the dot map that would show me the placement of the trees. I still had acorns, some sapling ash and birch, and one young willow left from my first allotment of trees, and I wanted to use them for the start of a new woodland.

As I brushed my finger over the direction pad on my console, intending to shift the dot map and look at the coastline, my hand jerked. I shook it, wondering why it had done that since the muscles didn’t feel cramped.

The Scholars say that sometimes the Blessed All shows us our path in very small ways.

When I looked at the screen, my hand poised above the direction pad to shift position back to my team’s designated area, I saw the other island. It was to the west of the students’ island and about one-third the size—which didn’t make it a small island by any means.

Curious about who the Restorer was, I keyed in the coordinates and asked the question. Every Restorer had a specific code so that other Restorers could quickly find out who was working on a particular section of the planet.

There was no Restorer code for that island.

Thinking I’d made a mistake when I keyed in the coordinates, I tried it again.

No Restorer code.

That wasn’t right.

I requested soil analysis data. Maybe the Restorer teams had missed this island when they had carefully laid down the microbes and bacteria that were the first step in restoration. Maybe the land was still too toxic to support life, and that’s why no one was working it.

No, the land was fertile and waiting.

I closed my eyes. It was rash. It was foolish. I would never be granted a land mass that size for a special project. And even if I was, I wouldn’t be able to achieve Balance without a team to help me.

But I could feel an ache in my bones that I knew was the land’s cry to be filled with living things again.

I wanted to answer that cry so much.

A soft warning beep reminded me that I had other land to tend.

I called up the screen that listed the trees and the numbers of each species.

My mouth fell open. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe.

During the time when my thoughts had been elsewhere, 10% of my trees had been destroyed!

Yesterday, Dermi had placed three deer in the meadow that bordered the woodland—which was fine because the meadow was already well-established and could feed them.

Now, fifty deer had been plunked in the middle of the woodland. There was nothing else for them to eat, so they were devouring my seedling trees.

My fingers raced across the keyboard as I wrote an Urgent request to Dermi for the immediate transfer of the deer to other viable positions within our designated area.

I could have just shouted across the room—and, sometimes, we did that—but every request had to be backed up with written data. The computer could override any request that wasn’t formally made because, in part, that trail of requests and memos was what our Instructors used to judge our work. And that was sometimes very frustrating. We weren’t graded just on our individual work, but on the team’s ability to maintain Balance.

I sat back, trying not to bite my nails while I waited for Dermi’s response. It wouldn’t take long. Urgents always got top priority.

Minutes passed.

I swiveled my chair and looked at Dermi. She was sitting there, inputting data as calmly as you please.

I sent another Urgent request . . . and waited.

I attached a verification requirement to the third request to confirm that she was receiving the Urgents.

The verification came back. Dermi had gotten the requests and still wasn’t doing anything.

Throughout the first part of that morning, I continued sending requests while I watched the number of my remaining trees fall . . . and fall . . . and fall.

When midmorning came, I sent an Urgent request to Fallah, who was handling large carnivores, and asked for a sufficient number of predators who ate deer to be brought to the woodland. At that point, I didn’t really care what kind of carnivore she used as long as they would start eating the deer before the deer ate the entire woodland down to the ground.

By the time the computer chimed the signal for the midday break, there were 125 deer in a woodland that wasn’t ready to support even one and still maintain Balance.

Instead of transferring deer out, Dermi had responded to each Urgent request by sending more deer in.

And Fallah hadn’t sent one carnivore.

I blanked my screen before going to the food court where the older students gathered for the midday meal. When Stev asked me what was wrong, I brushed him off. I didn’t mean to be rude; I just couldn’t talk to anyone. Still, he brought his plate over and sat at the same table. Not next to me or anything, but he was there, along with Thanie and Whit.

I picked at my food, choking down only enough to give my body fuel for the rest of the day.

As we headed back to our classroom, Thanie tugged on my tunic sleeve to slow me down. Not that I was eager to go back in and find out how much damage had been done in the past hour.

“I overheard Dermi and Fallah talking,” Thanie said in a low voice. “You’re not going to get any carnivores.”

“Why not?” I said loudly enough to have Thanie shushing me.

“Because Dermi’s in a snit because Stev went to the concert with you last night, and Fallah is Dermi’s best friend.”

“Stev didn’t go to the concert with me,” I hissed back at her. “A group of us went together—including you.”

I know that. But Dermi wanted Stev to ask her. So she’s not going to give you any help and neither is Fallah.”

I’d spent a month creating that woodland. A month’s worth of work, and all that life I had drawn from the genetic material so carefully stored. All of it wasted because Dermi was jealous.

As I walked to my console, I looked at Dermi. She and Fallah had their heads together, whispering. There was something smug and mean about the way they stared at me.

I called up the data on my screen, and for the rest of the afternoon, I watched my woodland die.

I didn’t give Dermi and Fallah the satisfaction of seeing me cry.

I also didn’t plant any trees to replace the ones that had been devoured.

I just sat there . . . and watched.

Toward the end of the day, when we were supposed to write the day’s activity report for our Instructors to review, Zerx sprang her nasty little surprise—her payback for Benj’s bug remark.

I wasn’t paying attention to much of anything until Whit yelled, “ZERX!” He sent a planetside view to each of our consoles.

Swarm after swarm of locusts were descending like black clouds onto the meadowlands. Zerx must have used almost her entire allotment of insect life to create them.

And there was nothing any of us could do until class began again the next morning.

I think that’s why I did it.

Instead of writing my activity report, I used my personal computer pad to write a request for a special project, a piece of land where I would have complete control, where I would be the only one responsible for achieving—and maintaining—Balance.

I asked for the other island.


Written in Red Written in Red, in paperback March 2014