The Way to Freedom
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by Nina M. Osier
Category: Science Fiction/Suspense/Thriller
Description: Ten years ago Nora Falconi, Marcus Cranshaw, and Rudolf Tasker barely got off Planet 8055 alive after the alien Ast took it over. What can draw the long disbanded cultural survey team back together, and back to the most brutally misogynistic world any of them ever visited, after all this time? A dying little girl, that's what. Nora's daughter, conceived on 8055, who for reasons not yet known can't survive into adulthood anywhere else. The secret behind that is just one of the perils awaiting the reunited comrades--but the worst danger of all is the one they're bringing with them. Without realizing it, of course
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net/ebooksonthe.net, 2005 ebook
eBookwise Release Date: October 2006
10 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [416 KB]
Reading time: 270-379 min.
"Nora, you've got to get Keren back to 8055. Now. Yesterday! Or you're going to lose her."
In all my 56 years of living, I can't remember when I heard words that scared me more than those ones did. Go back to Planet 8055, from which I and my survey team mates escaped (damn near miraculously) ten years earlier? Go back there on purpose, to a world where a post-menopausal woman like me is under an automatic death sentence--where the Ast and their almost equally mysterious (and ruthless) allies rule--and the human inhabitants are doomed to extinction, as soon as the current generation dies off? All that would have been bad enough to contemplate, but Dr. Reiko Ballantine was telling me I must take my nine-year-old daughter with me.
"Are you sure there's nothing you can do to help her?" I asked my old team mate Rudy Tasker's wife, who also happened to be the best pediatric endocrinologist in the business. She'd come all the way to Rigel 5, home to me (and for the past decade, to my husband and our daughter, too) to try to diagnose Keren-Happuch Mira Cranshaw Falconi's curious malaise, that approaching puberty seemed to be worsening ... and that, Reiko had just let me know, heralded a much worse problem.
Marc, my team mate throughout my long career as a planetary survey leader and my husband ever since we returned from 8055, sat beside me in the office Reiko had borrowed at Rigel 5's best pediatric hospital. He reached out for my hand, because we no longer had to act like colleagues now that we were both retired. Retired in mutual disgrace, because of how our careers ended ... but that's another story. A long one, called REGS
Maybe you've read it? But if you haven't, don't worry. I'll make sure you can understand this one, without doing that first.
"Yes, I'm sure." Reiko nodded, and then sighed. "Whatever those 'Others,' as you and Rudy always call them, did that made all of 8055's women sterile except you ... and made you fertile again, somehow, at the same time! ... also affected Keren. While she was in utero. That's my best hypothesis, anyway, since what's happening to her is definitely a function of her body preparing itself for menarche. What I'm sure about is that we'll never find the answer here. You've got to get her back to where you conceived her, and--oh, hell, Rudy's going to kill me when I tell him this, but there's no help for it! I'll have to come with you."
She made it sound so simple. Which, of course, it was. But "simple" is not at all the same thing as "easy," and unfortunately she'd made it sound that way, too. So I asked again, not believing I was doing so when my little girl's welfare surely depended on this woman's continued willingness to go far beyond the call of medical duty, "Reiko, are you sure she won't survive if she stays here?"
"Yes. I'm afraid I am. If Keren goes on deteriorating at her present rate, she may celebrate her tenth birthday--but she'll never make it to her eleventh. Not even with any palliative treatments I might be forced to prescribe, if you're refusing to try the one thing that I believe can actually work."
Once again, Dr. Ballantine had no idea what she was saying. Despite being married to a survey op, she was clueless about the impossibility of getting our hands on a ship capable of making the passage from here to 8055--taking it, unnoticed, down to the planet's surface (assuming neither our own forces nor the Ast had stopped us from crossing the interstellar border)--blending into the population there for long enough so Reiko could determine the exact cause of Keren's condition--and then getting back into space, and safely across the border in the opposite direction. Nor did she realize, I felt sure now, what getting stranded on that world would mean.
Especially for women. Surely Rudy had been honest with his wife about our last sojourn there? Technically a survey op wasn't supposed to tell outsiders about his experiences on a world like 8055, but most of us made exceptions for our nearest and dearest.
Then again, not many ops managed to maintain such long-term relationships as those words implied. I'd had Grandmum, and no one else of any significance, waiting back home during my first decade as an op, and I was pretty typical in my scarcity of personal ties. After the old girl died--in a "recreational mishap," which was how the local university described it when their Mathematics Department Chair Creature fell into a crevasse while chaperoning a Mountaineering Club outing--I had no one left at all. That was about the same time Marc parted company with the mother of his first child, after which we turned to each other for something more than the comradely friendship we already shared.
You had to expect it would be like that, when you chose a survey op's life. You just couldn't get home often enough, or stay there for long enough at a stretch, to be of much use to a spouse. Not when your life's work required spending time (sometimes long stretches of it) on a succession of alien worlds that had populations which Survey Central deemed worthy of study. People to whom their families mattered a lot usually didn't last longer than a mission or two--if they made it through op training in the first place, which they often didn't. And that, of course, was a damn good thing.
Did I dare to open my yap now and ask Reiko a series of blunt questions, until I was sure she knew enough about 8055 to make an informed decision about going there? Or should I just be glad she was so willing, and start making travel plans?
"Good thing Rudy's still on active duty," Marc said from beside me, in the tone he always uses when he's waited long enough and finally decides I must want him to take the point (conversationally speaking). "He'll have to find us transportation, you know. We're not poor, Reiko, but chartering a long-range shuttle's beyond us. Even if we used every credit we've got, plus everything we could borrow."
"It would have to be a charter flight, wouldn't it? Or you'd have to buy a ship outright. I guess I'm too used to just getting myself a ticket and then hopping aboard a liner, and winding up anywhere I've ever wanted to travel. So I didn't think about how we'd be getting to 8055 in the first place." Ballantine looked at us both, not just Marc, with the beginnings of wisdom (otherwise known, sometimes, as fear) in those dark eyes with their vestigial hint of Terra's Orient. One of her parents--it would have to be her father, since "Ballantine" must be her mother's surname--had bequeathed to her characteristics seldom seen on the faces of today's homogenized humans. But back on Terra, which was Reiko's home just as Rigel 5 was mine, some regions still had populations that exhibited their ancestors' racial traits. You could identify such people on sight as "Anglo," "African," "Hispanic," or "Oriental"--although Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and so on, were harder to guess. They'd managed to retain their identities, genetically as well as culturally, by keeping determinedly to themselves on their own segments of the home-world's surface.
Those of us whose forebears headed outward to the stars, who established homes for themselves and their offspring on other planets, lost those distinctions long ago. Marc and Tasker and I were (and of course still are) all typical examples of our kind; with skin tones in varying shades of brown, eyes that can be any color, and hair that can be brown, black, or deep auburn. Seldom will you see blondes among us, and almost never what a native Terran would call a "redhead."
Did Reiko Ballantine's ancestral-world upbringing, and privileged adult life, contribute to her obvious naivete about the mission for which she was volunteering? Perhaps. But most civilians were pretty damn clueless, so she probably wasn't that much worse than the rest. I'd been expecting more from Rudy Tasker's wife, that was all.
Anyway, Marc had just administered a first dose of reality therapy to our well-meaning friend; and I was grateful. He'd administered enough of that unpleasant tonic to me, after all, during the years of our professional association--which started when Survey Central put him on the first team I ever "bossed," expressly to serve as my nursemaid.
Sometimes he still plays that role in my life, all these years later. I squeezed his hand, since I was still holding it, and I said, "Good thing Rudy's not off on a mission. At least he's available so he can lend us a hand! How about giving him a call, Reiko? And then hauling him in here, so we can get this caper planned while Keren's big ears aren't listening?"