Return to Eden
It was like stepping into the twilight zone. One minute Anya was thinking of nothing more exciting than her laundry. The next—alien invasion!
Fresh from a Dragoncon conference, it almost didn’t seem unbelieveable at all when the terraformer shot out of the sky and slammed into the ground. Then the horde of nanites swarmed out of it and began eating everything in sight ….
Aidan had come to save the day but (one) Anya wouldn’t have believed him if she could’ve understood him and (two) he was a day late and a dollar short—the terraforming had already begun and he was having a hard time saving himself and her from the monsters evolving during the terraforming. How could he save the world?
Published: May 2014
Word Count: 31,373
Genre: Science Fiction/Futuristic Romance
Available formats: PDF, RTF, Epub, HTML, Mobipocket (.prc)
© Cover Art by Jenny Dixon, May 2014
New Concepts Publishing
Lake Park, GA 31636
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author's imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.
“Don’t be absurd! There are no intelligent life-forms out there … with the exception of the colonies.”
Several of the scientists in the forum uttered appreciative chuckles, as if the reference to the colonists was the punch line of a private joke. Aidan felt his face heat—mostly with anger, although there was also a touch of discomfort. He should’ve become immune to the barbs of his peers considering how many times he’d been swept up in this same debate, he thought with disgust. He supposed he was developing a thicker hide, because, for once, he didn’t lose his temper. “I wasn’t suggesting intelligent life-forms. I suggested there might be higher life-forms on one, or all, of the target planets in the G-1493 system. From the data we’ve gathered, it seems to be a relatively young system—comparatively speaking, but it’s certainly old enough for higher life-forms to have evolved. It isn’t our place to decide whether these higher life-forms have a right to exist or if those that evolved on the home world are superior and therefore more deserving of existence.”
Hatim, the lead scientist on the forum, glared at him. “You’re suggesting we plant ships full of colonists on alien worlds to deal with alien life-forms?”
Moshe nodded. He always agreed with Hatim. The man should try to develop original thoughts, Aidan thought with disgust, or at least a spine.
“Better the devil you know,” he said sagely.
“We can’t be assured that the environment would be conducive to our colonists without the terra-formers,” Lazar said in a kindly voice that suggested he was trying to explain something to a person that was mildly retarded.
Aidan’s temper leapt up another notch. “So, once again, we play gods? We drop the terra-formers on the hapless life-forms that may already be there, destroying them and replacing everything with our own seeds? We’ve barely scratched the surface in our studies of these worlds! There’s been no real attempt to discover what kind of life might already be flourishing there. The telescopes aren’t designed for that and we haven’t sent out any probes—as we should before we make this kind of decision. Maybe we should reconsider sending colonists there?” he said tightly.
If he’d suggested they all kiss his ass he didn’t think he could’ve shocked them more. Hatim so far forgot himself that he dropped all pretense of civility. “Are you out of your mind?” he roared. “When have we discovered a system that even begins to compare to G-1493? Three planets! Three! All within the temperate zone. All rock planets. All with similar gravity and pressure—well within our comfort range once they’re terra-formed.”
The forum promptly disintegrated, all decorum vanishing out the door. No one seemed to realize that everyone else in the room was in complete agreement. They began arguing loud and long over the merits of colonizing G-1493. Aidan was angry enough by that time that he was inclined to stay and argue his own issues, but he could see that it was pointless. They’d made up their minds before the forum was ever called. They’d only attended to make sure that their particular interests were considered.
He supposed, if it came to that, so had he.
There were times—like these—when he almost regretted his decision to become a linguistic anthropologist—any kind of anthropologist! Specializing in linguistics when there were no languages left to decipher only made his situation more frustrating. It didn’t look like he was ever going to get the chance to apply his knowledge beyond the home world, and there was very little, now, to be discovered on the home world.
Colonization had been well established by the time he’d gotten to college, however, and it had seemed the perfect field for him—combining his facility for language with his interest in cultural development.
Unfortunately, by the time he was working on his masters, a brilliant team of scientists had developed the genesis terra-formers. Even he could see that it was a brilliant concept. By breaking down everything on the target planet and sowing the seeds of beginning life from their own world, and accelerating the process of evolution, they’d achieved far more success in terra-forming than prior efforts. The terra-formers insured that, when colonists arrived, they stepped out on a world that truly was their own—a young Eden, fresh and burgeoning with life, and ready to be molded.
The problem, as far he could see, was that it had gone to their heads—the ability to play gods. Gone were the days when they thoroughly examined and probed the potential colony worlds they found. Granted, in the decades they’d spent colonizing other worlds before the genesis terra-formers they hadn’t discovered anything but microbial life, and precious little of that, but that didn’t rule out the presence of higher life-forms as far as he could see. It didn’t rule out the possibility of intelligent life, although he wasn’t crazy enough, or comfortable enough in that belief to openly suggest such a thing. There were far too many worlds that could support life to rule out the possibility of higher life-forms having developed or even intelligent life.
Grabbing his papers, Aidan shoved them into his satchel with a violence that suggested that he would’ve preferred shoving them down Hatim’s throat. The thought did cross his mind.
On the other hand, Hatim had only voiced the thoughts of the forum as a whole, he thought with frustration, stalking from the chambers. Choking the life out of the bastard might help his feelings—briefly—but it wasn’t going to change anything else except his status as a free citizen.
* * * *
Aidan wasn’t generally inclined toward impulsiveness. Not only was it his nature to consider the consequences of possible actions before he leapt, but he was inclined to think that his intelligence would overrule any tendency to leap before he looked even if he’d had that particular trait in his genetic markers.
He wasn’t completely comfortable in his mind, therefore, when he found himself in route to the G-1493 system, grimly determined as he was to beat the genesis terra-formers to the target worlds and uncover proof of his theory of the existence of higher life-forms on other worlds. Part of that discomfort arose from the ethical issues behind his mission—most of it actually.
From the moment the thought had occurred to him—while still in the throes of his frustration and rage over his inability to reason with his peers—he’d seen the astronomical odds against actually doing the deed. He needed transportation and that was the biggest roadblock. He had short range transport, but nothing with the capability of reaching G-1493 and, just as importantly, returning with the life-form inside—him—intact.
He also wasn’t prone to associate with the sort of people that might be able to help him in that area—even if he could come up with the credits to pay for illegal transport.
Soul-searching had produced the credits he needed, but although he’d managed to justify the use of his research funds for the expedition in his mind, he knew, deep down, that his use of funds intended for research on the home world was a long way from being the most ethical thing he’d ever done. It was true that he hoped/intended to put the credits to use for anthropological research, but he couldn’t pretend, even in his mind, that the government agency that had provided the funding would approve of his choice of location for his research.
He’d deal with that, he decided, when and if the time came. He was certain—hopeful—that his mission would be successful and the agency would be so awed and thrilled with his findings that they would dismiss the little matter of the funds having been used to study alien life rather than cultural aspects of their own world.
The ship, as it turned out, wasn’t as difficult to obtain as he’d hoped/feared it would be—hoped because his niggling doubts had led him to think he might be better off if he failed to obtain the wherewithal to shit-can his career. Feared because, at the same time, his certainty that he was right and he would find just what he expected would insure that he actually had a career notable enough to warrant the years he’d spent studying to make his mark on the scientific community—to make history.
He’d tracked down an old schoolmate whose reputation was a little less than sterling due to his tendency toward ‘grave robbing’. Aidan had always considered that that sobriquet was splitting hairs. Lance was an archeologist, after all, and the very nature of that discipline was grave-robbing, or at least desecration since there was no way to study ancient civilizations without digging them up and, naturally, that included a tomb now and then. His tendency to sell artifacts of value on the black-market wasn’t exactly ethical, but then again, like everyone else in his particular field, there were always funding problems. It wasn’t greed or lack of appreciation for the history he uncovered, Aidan reasoned, but practicality. He always dutifully turned over the best of his finds to the government for their museums—or vaults.
Lance was suspicious when he first broached the subject, but it wasn’t hard to stimulate his interest in the possibilities. Alien artifacts, if any could be found, would be tremendously more valuable than anything he’d managed to unearth on the home world.
Lance arranged transportation by purchasing a revamped interstellar ship that Aidan had an uneasy feeling had been used by pirates since it looked far more like a luxury yacht than a research vehicle or even a commercial transport.
He resolutely closed his mind to that possibility, however, focusing on the importance of his proposed mission. If he could find what he was looking for, it meant more than a huge boon to his career. It meant saving who knew how many higher life-forms.
The shared guilt of what they intended comforted him, as well. Realistically, he knew it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if the authorities decided to prosecute. They would both be charged, but Lance didn’t seem to be overly concerned about that possibility and he was insensibly cheered by Lance’s attitude.
He wasn’t superstitious but, in retrospect, he wondered if he shouldn’t have considered it an evil omen that Lance was so severely injured on his latest dig-site that hospitalization was required and he was unable to communicate—due to his coma—much less join Aidan when the time came to leave. Instead, he loaded his supplies and took off alone, his grim determination to see it through unshaken.
That determination to ignore ‘bad luck vibes’ suffered a setback when he made his first fold/jump. He’d experienced the jumps before. As a linguistic anthropologist in a time when very few ‘new’ discoveries were made of ancient civilizations, most of his living was made following the lecture circuit and most of his studies involved the evolution of language and culture on the outpost colonies. He’d never actually performed a jump himself, however, having previously traveled via commercial transportation and it made him extremely uneasy to hold his own life in his hands when he wasn’t trained to pilot a ship—at least not an interstellar one.
As he had from the moment he’d conceived the hair-brained notion to investigation G-1493 himself since he couldn’t convince the scientific community to do so, though, he merely gritted his teeth, closed his mind to the possibility of disaster, and did it.
He was a man on a mission and he wasn’t going to allow anything to deter him, certainly not the minute possibility that the computer might malfunction in the antiquated ship he was using or miscalculate the jump exit in uncharted space and emerge in the middle of a meteor field. A little shaken but relieved when the first fold was performed flawlessly, he was able to put disaster from his mind and focus on his goal as the ship performed the next three jump/folds as flawlessly as the first. Particularly since he emerged from the last with his goal in sight. That was when he discovered the bastards at the forum had kept him out of the loop.
Chugging along at sub-light speed since it wasn’t safe to fold within a system, he was nearing the first of the trio of planets that were the targets for the terra-formers when he saw hundreds of bursts of light that indicated impacts on the planet’s surface. Shock held him in its blank grip for a handful of minutes, his mind struggling to decipher the explanation for the explosions. Then comprehension hit him.
He was too late! The fucking bastards had sent the terra-formers!
That was when Aidan did something impulsive for the first time in his life.
He shot toward the surface of the target planet in a desperate attempt to collect data of some kind before it was lost forever in the dust of reconstruction. The landing was a hard enough jolt to jog his mind into gear—to a degree. He was scrambling into a suit while the ship performed the landing maneuver and out the hatch so fast upon contact that he was pitched by the lurch of the rough landing down the gangplank and landed hard enough to knock the wind out of him for several moments. Struggling for breath, he pushed himself to his feet and looked around—realizing several things at once.
Theoretically, his ship was safe from the terra-formers since it was made of an alloy that the nanites weren’t programmed to break down. That was only a theory, however. Once the terra-formers were sent out to do their job, no one landed on the target colony until the terra-forming was completed and the cycle of breaking down suitable materials for terra-forming and accelerated evolution was terminated. In other words, it hadn’t actually been put to the test.
Secondly, he’d been in such a rush to get out and actually see the planet that he hadn’t thought to grab his equipment to record what he might find.
And third, even he could see this was a dead world. If any higher life-forms had evolved they’d long since vanished.
The sinking feeling that he was going to find the same thing on all three planets hit him like a wrecking ball and visions of incarceration for his actions, to say nothing of the death of his career, filled his mind.
There were still two more worlds to check! Since there were no visible signs of higher life on the planet he’d landed on and he didn’t think he had the time to look for more subtle signs, he scrambled back into the ship and, after a very little thought, programmed the ship to head directly for the third planet from the sun since it sat in the most desirable orbit around its parent star. The other two, he told himself, had always been the least likely since they both sat at the outer edges of what was considered the habitable zone—at least for life-forms similar to what could be found on his own world and therefore easily recognizable as life-forms.
Aidan wasn’t technical minded. He knew how to use the very limited equipment necessary for his work. He knew how to use the very limited technology he could afford for his home, but he was no techno geek. For him, technology was a tool, not a toy. He used what he needed, learned what he needed to know to use what he needed, and otherwise had no interest in the electronics he depended on. If they broke, he either replaced them as he could afford to, or he sent them out for repairs if that was possible and more affordable than replacing them. Like everyone else, however, he depended completely on the technology that surrounded him.
He was, therefore, completely taken off guard when his onboard computer suddenly squawked out the warning ‘imminent collision!’ about a nanosecond before the actual impact. He’d been in too big of a rush to get to the next planet before the terra-formers could begin to destroy the evidence he was seeking to strap his safety harness on and the impact threw him to the floor of the cockpit. By the time he managed to get to his feet, the computer was screaming out the damage report—distracting to say the least—but he managed to stumble to a port to see what the hell his ship had managed to hit in what should have been open space. All the while his mind was trying to figure out how the ship had managed to hit anything at all when it was equipped with sensors from nose to tail that should have detected and either evaded or deflected whatever the object was and he struggled with the unhappy, unnerving possibility that the landing—controlled crash—on the previous planet just might have damaged a few vital components on the ship.
What he saw now barreling planet-ward faster than his own ship so stunned him that it was many seconds, maybe as much as minute, before it clicked in his mind what it was.
The ship hadn’t collided with a rogue meteor as his mind had instantly concluded.
The object racing away from him wasn’t a meteor or a rock of any kind. It wasn’t a natural body that had been orbiting the planet that his ship’s sensors had failed to detect and deflect.
It was artificial. It was manmade.
And it had been orbiting the planet.
His breath froze in his chest as the implications sank in. His heart leapt against his chest wall painfully. It took his mind a bit longer to catch up to his body’s instinctual reaction.
This planet didn’t just harbor higher life-forms! It was the home of intelligent life-forms advanced enough technologically that they weren’t planet bound!
“Good gods!” Aidan exclaimed, feeling a momentary high generated by the excitement that leapt in his veins at that discovery.
The excitement took a nosedive in the next instant as his vision, instinctively following the object his ship had collided with, took in the blossoming explosions of the terra-formers as they landed.
* * * *
Anya Dupris was tired as she pointed her car toward home, gripping the steering wheel in a death grip as she negotiated the awful Atlanta traffic. She’d thoroughly enjoyed DragonCon, loved every minute of it. She was glad she’d let her sister talk her into going, but she was just as anxious at this point to get home as she’d been to get to the conference to start with.
She could see, now, why so many people made the pilgrimage to Atlanta every year to attend.
And maybe she’d make plans to go back next year, she thought as she finally began to leave Atlanta traffic behind?
It really hadn’t been as bad as she’d expected it would be when she’d thought about the headache of negotiating Atlanta traffic to find her hotel—mostly because once she’d reached the hotel and parked her car in the parking garage, she hadn’t left it, by car, again, hadn’t had to deal with the traffic. The hotels where the conference took place were connected by walk bridges. The foot traffic had been horrendous, of course, since upwards of fifty thousand people attended, but that hadn’t been stressful or frustrating. Everyone paraded around in all sorts of costumes from the time they arrived until they left and everyone was in a cheerful, holiday mood. She thought that part had actually been the most fun, getting out to see the costumes. And most of them had been simply amazing. Hollywood couldn’t have done any better. They didn’t require special camera angles or lighting to make them seem realistic. They were just that well done.
She was pleasantly exhausted, she decided. Unlike most vacations where she was just exhausted, period, and ready to get home and back to her routine—to get into her ‘safe’ little rut.
The traffic didn’t actually thin appreciably until she was south of Macon. She was halfway home by then, though, and her mind had begun to seesaw back and forth between conference highlights and formulating a list of the chores she needed to take care of before she went back to work.
The sun sank toward the horizon as she passed Macon. She was glad of it. The glare through her side windows had been bothersome, but then she began calculating how far she still had to drive and what the possibility was that she’d manage to get off the interstate before it was completely dark. After checking her gas gauge, she realized she needed to stop for a fill up. She didn’t think she could make it home with what she had and she definitely didn’t want to start hunting a gas station after dark—or risk running out of gas on the interstate because she’d tried to make it home without stopping.
Irritated at the necessity, which practically guaranteed she wouldn’t get off the interstate before dark, she watched the road signs until she saw a gas station and pulled off. There was a choice of two stations, she discovered, and no sign of a town. She debated briefly on which to stop at but settled on the one that wasn’t as busy. The gas price was the same. The smaller place just wasn’t as appealing because it was small and didn’t have anything to tempt travelers but a tiny convenience store.
Well, she wasn’t looking for supper. She could wait to eat until she got home. There were plenty of restaurants to choose from in Valdosta. When she’d filled her tank, she went inside to pay and grab a drink and a snack to tide her over until she reached her destination.
As she reached her car again, she looked up at the sky to try to gauge just how much daylight she had left. Pleasure wafted through her when she caught sight of a falling star. Smiling faintly, she watched it, her smile fading as she discovered the damned thing looked like it was heading straight for her. Instead of fading as it burned out, the light got brighter and brighter and the ball of light bigger and bigger as it got closer and closer.
Disbelief and uneasiness replaced the pleasure of watching a shooting star along with the growing conviction that it wasn’t a shooting star at all. Crashing plane, she wondered, feeling her heart leap uncomfortably? She squinted her eyes, trying to pierce the light surrounding the thing to see the object itself. She could see something that looked dark and cylindrical—she thought.
It looked like one, though, and the conviction settled inside of her that the damned thing was getting way too close for comfort. In fact, it seemed to pour on a tremendous burst of speed as she watched.
Dropping her purchases, Anya abruptly whirled and began to run. She was dimly aware that several people emerging from the convenience store at that moment gaped at her like she’d lost her mind. There were cars on the road, heading back to the onramp of the interstate. She leapt the shallow ditch and dodged one as she raced across the road, scared, and yet more than half convinced that she was just making a fool out of herself.
She’d barely cleared the narrow two way road when she heard a roar of sound that nearly drowned out the sudden chorus of screams and yells behind her. She wasn’t certain afterwards if it was the blow of the concussion that threw her to the ground or if it was the fact that she twisted her ankle as she leapt from the asphalt. Everything happened too fast for her mind to process it. One moment she was convinced she was going to be horribly embarrassed for acting like an idiot, the next she heard what sounded like a sonic boom and then she felt a sharp pain in her ankle and found herself rolling down the steep embankment on the other side.
There was a sound in her ears that was almost like the roaring of the ocean when she finally came to a stop. Her head was spinning and dull pain was rolling through her body from every direction. Dizzy, completely disoriented and convinced she was dying, Anya closed her eyes and lay where she landed, trying to throw off the dizziness and disorientation.
Muffled sounds penetrated the roaring in her ears but between her inner focus and the partial deafness, she couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was hearing. Slowly, the dizziness and disorientation subsided. Once it did, she began to feel a multitude of aches and pains but, to her relief, nothing intense enough to suggest that she was seriously damaged. Realizing that she was just bruised and that she’d probably been too shocked, and limp, to sustain anything serious, she opened her eyes, slowly pushed herself upright, and looked around.
The light around her had dimmed enough that she realized she’d lost a good bit of time while she lay stunned on the embankment, but there were no cars moving on the interstate and no lights—anywhere that she could see. In point of fact, the interstate looked like a parking lot, or rather more like an untidy child’s car collection. There were cars on top of cars, crushed cars, cars and trucks laying crazily on their sides. Clouds of steam were rising from busted radiators. The smell of burned rubber was thick in the air.
For many moments, Anya merely stared open mouthed at the pile up, searching with her gaze for any movement. Where were the people, she wondered blankly? As horrendous as the pile up was, everyone couldn’t be dead.
Unable to process what she was seeing, Anya’s mind abruptly leapt backwards to the falling star, her conviction that it was going to land on top of her, and her race to escape. Grunting, she heaved herself to her feet, looked around to get her bearings and began climbing up the hill she’d rolled down. Slipping and sliding on the grass, she finally managed to reach the top again. Shock rolled over her when she took in the sight that met her gaze.
Both gas stations appeared to be intact—basically. Most of the cars were gone and despite the fact that it was almost completely dark by now, there were no lights—and no signs of any people.
Blinking a couple of times, Anya scanned a wider survey. From her vantage point, she could see up and down the interstate in both directions. The entire highway, as far as she could see, looked like a parking lot. There were no lights anywhere. In the distance, she could detect some movement and thought it was the people who’d abandoned their cars. Most of them seemed to be running.
From what, she wondered blankly?
Her heart skipped several beats as the primal instinct to run from threat went through her in a rush that seemed to sap every ounce of strength from her muscles for many moments when her mind abruptly answered the question—missile.
She whipped a look around, but there was no sign of an explosion—nothing except the glass blown out of windows everywhere and toppled signs. That brought the memory flooding back of the forceful concussion that had helped her down the embankment.
There were no emergency lights. There was no sound of sirens. There were no planes overhead.
She spied the obelisk then.
She didn’t know how she’d missed it before—except maybe her mind had simply dismissed it as something that belonged. It looked to be made of metal. It was almost the same dull silver color and size of the massive high power towers she was used to seeing, but there all similarity ended. Part of it, she was certain, was buried in the ground from impact, and yet it looked taller than the towering high power poles she was used to seeing and beyond that, it seemed … almost sculpted. It reminded her of pictures she’d seen of totem poles, except this was made of metal, she thought, not wood. It wasn’t painted and the odd sculpting didn’t feature a series of mythological monsters. It looked—more like some sort of modern art, or alien glyphs ran the length of it.
The moment the word ‘alien’ popped into her mind, certainty sank through her.
It wasn’t a missile or a misplaced rocket from NASA. This wasn’t something from any place on earth!
Almost the moment that thought sank in, she heard a whirring noise and saw cracks begin to open along the length of the strange missile. Her heart hit her chest wall and dropped to her feet.
“Oh my god! It’s about to blow!”
Weak with terror, she looked around frantically for some sort of protective shelter, but both of the buildings within easy reach were way too close to the thing for comfort. Ditto her car. She looked at it longingly for a moment, but she realized she had no idea where her purse or her keys were.
A sound drew her gaze back to the strangely alien obelisk and she saw that it was slowly opening …almost like a flower extending new stems. There were posts now sticking out from it in different directions and more opening.
Uttering an animal noise of terror, she raced across the road, instinctively running in the direction of home even though she was still miles and miles from that safe harbor. Mindlessly, she ran down the embankment on the other side. The urge to scream ‘wait for me!’ struck her as she pierced the darkness in front of her and saw tiny, dark shadows of people running away, probably several miles from where she was by now. Cringing with the expectation of feeling a blast from behind at any moment and fire melting her into a puddle, Anya ignored the pain that developed in her side and her breathlessness and struggled to reach safety before the bomb went off.