By Jay Werkheiser
Kev’s stomach curled around emptiness, embracing it as a constant reminder that the colony’s Earth food was almost gone. Another three months, four at the outside. Then what? How will we die?
He bent down to look into the nearest cage. “Maybe you’ll tell us why the food here is poisonous,” he said to one of the rats inside. It rolled its dull eyes listlessly toward him. Rust-brown clumps matted its fur, and the metallic odor of dried blood hung in the air.
Is that how I’ll go, clutching helplessly at alien dirt, coughing up blood? His gut clenched tighter.
“They are not going to tell you anything,” Ahmet said from across the toxicology lab.
Kev looked up from the cage at the short, dark-skinned man walking toward him. His circular glasses, perched atop a narrow nose, reminded Kev of an owl. “I thought I’d stop by on the way home from the analytical chem lab,” Kev said. “One of the grunts said you were looking for me earlier.”
Ahmet nodded. “I was hoping you could run some samples for me. Give me a clue what’s in them.”
Kev frowned. “The biochem team has me running Bradford assays day and night, looking for alien proteins. Did you come up with a new lead?” Hope flared in his chest, then died with Ahmet’s reply.
“I’m afraid I’m just grasping at straws. My subchronic rats keep developing the same symptoms — nosebleed, bloody stools, and ultimately internal hemorrhaging.”
“Subchronic?” said Kev, quizzically. “My field’s spectroscopy.”
“The subjects receive daily doses of an alien food source over ten percent of their life span, about three months for rats.”
“Three months?” Kev said. “The hydroponics tanks are dying, Ahmet.”
“Yes, I understand that. You’re not the only one living on short rations.” Anger flashed behind Ahmet’s glasses, but quickly dissipated. “Toxicology is a slow business. I don’t think we’re going to have results in time.” Ahmet seemed to deflate with his anger. “We came all this way, spent all those years on the ship, to fail before we even get started.”
Kev put his hand on Ahmet’s shoulder. “We’re not going down without a fight.”
Ahmet nodded, his eyes downcast. “I have learned that mycowood produced the most severe symptoms in the rats.”
“Mycowood? They’re those mushroom-shaped tree things, right? Smell minty.”
“Yes. The organic team tells me the smell comes from salicylate esters. All the local plants produce them.”
Kev connected the dots. Salicylates. Aspirin. “Blood thinners?” he asked.
Ahmet’s head bobbled up and down. “But only dangerous in quantities much larger than we find here. Still, I think it could be important.”
“All right, send some of your mycowood samples over to the analyt lab. I’ll squeeze them in first thing in the morning.”
“Thank you. Thank you!” Ahmet’s Turkish accent was normally muted, but it thickened when he was excited. “That will be most helpful.”
“Save your enthusiasm for tomorrow.” A thin smile curled Kev’s lips, his first in a long time. “It’s nearly fourteen o’clock, time to head home for a few hours’ sleep.”
The short walk across the colony compound felt longer because Epsilon Indi, settling low on the horizon at this late hour, cast bright sunbeams into his eyes. Two long shadows moved through the glare ahead of him. Kev shielded his eyes with his hand to see who it was — two grunts working late in the reactor building.
He hated the way the word grunt had become a part of the colony’s lexicon. He cringed inwardly, remembering that he’d used it himself in the tox lab. It’s hard to fight human nature.
But he could try. He waited until he could see the nearest worker. “Hi, Logan.”
Logan lifted his form straight upright, elevating his square jaw so that it was level with the top of Kev’s head. He looked down at Kev with disdain in his eyes.
Kev shook his head and continued walking.
The corrugated aluminum hut that Kev called home doubled as Mandy’s office. Her attention didn’t waver from her spreadsheet when he entered. Tension lines were clear in the screen’s reflection of her gaunt face. Kev tried to remember her during the good times back on the ship, the carefree ecological engineer he’d fallen for before the dieback of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the hydroponics tanks. The memories of those days, only two years distant, felt like another life.
Did he dare say anything? Interrupting her carried serious risk. He settled on something noncommittal. “Why don’t you take a break, hon? Maybe get some sleep.”
She shook her head without turning to face him. “No time. Bad news from the soil tests.”
His mood deflated further. “It’s not going to be able to support Earth crops anytime soon?”
“Maybe not ever.” Kev caught the slightest quiver in her voice.
“Working yourself to death isn’t going to help,” he said.
“Sleep isn’t going to save the colony.”
“You were elected mayor, not miracle worker.”
“They elected a savior.”
And that was the problem.
The next morning she was still at her desk, slumped over the keyboard. Kev gazed at her, longing for the life they had planned, for the bright new world they were going to build together. The dieback changed everything. Through sheer will, Mandy had held the hydroponics tanks together long enough for the ship to reach New Hope. When the colony’s mayor became the first to die on the new world, Mandy had been swept into office on a wave of adulation. Her dreams were on indefinite hold.
All Kev could offer her was sympathy. It wasn’t enough.
He slipped out without waking her. He squinted in the early morning sunlight as he made his way to the analyt lab. Ahmet’s samples sat on his workbench next to the UV-vis spectrophotometer. Kev shook his head and started extracting organics from the mash.
By noon his workbench was crowded with protein samples marked urgent. He ignored them. Ahmet’s mycowood had his full attention. There was no need to stop for lunch; that meal had vanished with the food reserves.
Better to focus on work than on hunger. The infrared spectrographs of the mycowood samples showed strong ester peaks as expected, but there was also a significant peak showing carboxylic acids that weren’t involved in ester bonds. And it looked like there was a sulfate peak in there. The problem was that Ahmet’s mycowood had been mashed up and dried to make rat food. Everything was jumbled together.
What Kev really needed was a fresh set of samples. But that meant leaving the colony compound. He blew out a long breath, purposely avoiding the protein samples with his eyes. There would be hell to pay.
He headed next door to the biology lab, looking for a travel partner. He found his target’s scrawny frame hunched over a microscope, his clean and pressed white lab coat contrasting sharply with his mahogany skin. A half-week’s unruly growth lined his jaw.
“How about a trip into the wild, Ben?”
Ben jerked his head up from the microscope, a startled look on his face. “You know those flying bug-things that occasionally buzz around the compound? I think they’re actually seed packets from one of the forest plants.”
“Why would you say that?”
“I got one under the scope,” Ben said. “Looks like their skin cells have cell walls.”
“Humph. They sure look like bugs,” Kev said. “So are you coming?”
“What? Oh. You couldn’t drag me out of here. You’ll have to go without me.”
“You know the rule. No one goes out alone.”
“Take a grunt.”
Kev sighed. “All right. But you owe me.”
It was a bad idea anyway, he thought. He had too much work to do. He took a quick stroll to the mess hall first. No food would be available this early; he hoped to fill his stomach with some water.
Logan and his wife, Marta, were the only other people in the hall.
Take a grunt. He found himself standing beside their table before he was aware he had made the decision.
“I’m going off compound, and I need someone to go with me. Interested?”
Marta looked up at him. “I’ve got a work detail in an hour or so, but Logan’s off today.”
“Wasn’t planning on going anywhere,” Logan said.
“Oh, go with him. You’re always complaining about being cooped up.”
Logan shot his wife a sharp look. “Sure. Anything for the mayor’s fiancée.” He snorted.
The jab connected. Kev and Mandy were supposed to have married at planetfall, but by then she had taken the weight of the colony on her shoulders. Single-handedly holding a dying ecology together left no time for marriage.
Without a word, Kev walked away with what-ifs swirling around his mind. If only they had brought more soil bacteria. If the old mayor hadn’t botched his first shuttle landing. He was surprised when Logan took up a position at his side. His long strides forced Kev to pick up his pace.
Once away from the cluster of corrugated aluminum structures of the colony compound, the hard-packed soil became spongy and loose. The planet’s slightly-above-Earth-normal gravity pressed Kev’s boots deep into the soft loam. The ever-present noises of construction gave way to the sounds of alien wildlife.
A metallic click caught Kev’s attention. His eyes snapped to Logan, who had just slapped a clip into his 9 mm pistol.
“You won’t need that,” Kev said. “Nothing on New Hope wants to eat us.”
“Says you.” He waved the gun. “If the Army taught me anything, it’s to trust this more than you techs.”
Kev tried to put Logan out of his mind. Tendril-leaf sprouts were already encroaching on the bare soil surrounding the colony. Their whip-like tendrils waved in the breeze, luring unsuspecting prey. Humans had been on New Hope for three months, not enough time to learn much beyond the basics about the native ecosystems. The tendril-leaves seemed to be carnivorous plants that turned the tables on the small crawling animals that came to feed on them. A few mycowoods dotted the area, outliers of the forest that covered the hills a couple of kilometers ahead. Squat fern-like structures and low prickly bushes, members of several yet-unnamed species, surrounded the mycowoods.
Walking into an alien ecosystem filled Kev with a sense of discovery. He felt the tension in his gut dissipate, and soon he was absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells that mankind had never before experienced. The soft wintergreen aroma of mycowood bark hung in the air, mingling with the earthy smell of decaying tendril-leaves. A light wind carried clicking sounds from the distant forest, a scuttlebeast calling for a mate. The exobiologists had been hoping to get a close look at one of them since planetfall, but so far no one has found the time to set up a decent trap.
Kev reached out and touched the first mycowood he came upon, allowing his fingers to sink into the rubbery bark. The squat, barrel-shaped trunk recoiled from his touch, sending ripples through the translucent umbrella-shaped frond that formed its cap. Thigmotropism, Ben had called it, a plant responding to touch. On Earth the term more commonly applied to Venus flytraps and ferns whose leaves curl when touched. Here, just about everything responded to touch in some way.
A handful of small spongy fruits hung under the mycowood’s frond. He was lucky; most had nothing more than unfertilized seedpods. The ship had arrived early in the mycowood’s reproductive cycle, or so the exobiologists speculated. He plucked one of the green fruits as his first sample. He busied himself with collecting samples, bagging them, and labeling.
Logan radiated tension like a small sun. Kev worked in silence, absorbing stress through his skin. He couldn’t wait to get back to the lab. Facing angry biochemists would be a relief.
“Whew! Did you bathe in mouthwash this morning?” Kev spun around in time to see Mandy hurry past, her nose wrinkled. No time to stop and chat, just a quick one-liner and off she goes.
“Ethyl salicylate,” he said just before she reached the door.
She stopped and snapped her head back to face him. Her auburn hair whipped around her neck with the vigor of the action, coming to rest atop her shoulder. “Hmmm?”
“It’s an ester.” Anything to get her attention, if only for a moment. “It’s similar to methyl salicylate, which is used for mint flavoring of foods back on Earth. I extracted it from mycowood.”
She walked back to his workbench, sat on a corner, and gave him a weak smile. It was the closest approximation to intimacy he had gotten from her since planetfall. The hint of the old Mandy awoke his desire for the giddy young woman she had once been. “Is that the toxin Ahmet’s been looking for?” she asked.
“Well, anything’s toxic in large enough quantities,” he said, “but no, this can’t be our culprit. It’s actually less toxic than most of the esters used as food additives on Earth.”
She wrinkled her nose in displeasure, deflating his hopes. “So you found that mycowood tastes minty. Lovely. Do you have anything helpful?”
Two years earlier her scorn would have cut him deeply. Not any more. He tapped his keyboard and brought up the infrared spectrograph he had been working on. “This is one of the water-soluble extracts I got from mycowood while trying to identify the salicylate ester,” he said. Keep your voice professional, he thought. Cold. “These peaks are fairly standard carbon and oxygen bond vibrations. Here is an amine absorption peak. That broad peak around eleven-micrometer wavelength is produced by a carboxylic acid group, but it generally only shows up there in polymers. If I had to guess, I’d say you were looking at a mucopolysaccharide.” He folded his arms over his chest and gave her a smug grin. Get snippy with me, will you?
“Um, okay. I know that a polysaccharide is a chain of sugar molecules, like starch,” she said. “What’s the muco-part?”
“A long strand of amino sugars alternating with acidic sugars. Normally I wouldn’t have thought anything of it; similar compounds are found in plant cell walls and pectin,” Kev said. “But this tiny sharp peak at nine micrometers really got my attention. It means that the thing is sulfated, but that usually occurs in animal tissues.”
“That’s odd, all right,” she said, eyebrows pressed together in concentration. “I’ll see if I can schedule you for some time on the electron microscope. Maybe a good look at its structure will help you out.”
It was what he needed, at least professionally.
A shout cut off the thought. His head twisted around to the window cut into the corrugated aluminum shell of the lab. The dusk outside brought the startling realization that he had been immersed in Ahmet’s mycowood mystery for the better part of New Hope’s seventeen-hour day.
His back stiffened when a terrified shriek followed the shout. He leapt from his seat and followed Mandy outside into the crisp evening air. His breath came in ragged gasps. Not yet adjusted to the lack of light, his eyes caught mere glimpses of running figures. A string of rapid clicks amid the shouts told the story — a scuttlebeast had wandered into the colony compound.
A small crowd had the thing cornered against the sloping shell of the mess hall. Its spongy, hairless flesh was pressed against the aluminum wall. Its flat front teeth chattered together so rapidly that the clicks nearly merged into a single buzzing noise. The glassy black compound eye atop its head glistened in the sudden brightness of a flashlight beam. Kev snapped his head around and traced the beam back to its source. He found Logan aiming a flashlight — and his 9 mm — in the direction of the cornered scuttlebeast.
Ben stumbled out of the biology building, most of his slight frame hidden behind the trap cage he carried. No one else seemed to see him as he staggered forward under the weight of the cage. Kev watched, transfixed by the impending conflict. By the time he opened his mouth to call out to Logan, it was too late. Pop, pop. Pop. The beast collapsed to the ground as the echoing reports from the gun faded. Ben dropped the cage and charged past Kev. As he passed, Kev could barely make out the grimace hidden beneath the stubble on his face.
A growing crowd pressed in around the two men, a skinny science geek facing down a hulking grunt. Kev pushed through to get a closer look.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Ben shouted.
Logan stood firm, shrugging his massive shoulders. “Better safe than sorry.”
Ben stepped forward and thrust his finger into Logan’s face. “Safe?” he shouted. “Safe? We could starve while we try to figure out what’s safe and what’s not. We had an opportunity–”
Logan ground his teeth and slapped Ben’s hand away. Kev worried he was about to witness New Hope’s first case of assault and battery. He turned to Mandy, waiting for her to step in. Lead, damn it! She stood transfixed, her eyes darting back and forth.
Do something. Now.
Before he could change his mind, Kev stepped between the two men. He wrapped an arm around each man’s shoulder. “You’ll learn plenty by dissecting it, Ben.” His pulse was racing, but he spoke as calmly as he could. “And I wouldn’t mind passing a few samples through IR. It may turn out that Logan did us a favor.” Turning to give Logan a hard look, he added, “Now that we know they’re not dangerous, we’ll make sure to take the next specimen alive.”
He held his breath. Ben glared at him for a moment, then hissed, “When did you start apologizing for grunts?” He twisted from Kev’s touch and stalked away into the darkening evening.
Logan pushed Kev’s arm away. Kev looked up at piercing brown eyes set into a face that could have graced the cover of a cereal box back on Earth. “Nice going, hero,” Logan said.
Kev shook his head and turned away. He walked toward the analyt lab, mumbling, “There’s no pleasing him.”
He hadn’t intended Logan to hear, hadn’t intended even to say it out loud. He felt Logan’s meaty hand close on his shoulder and his knees turned to rubber.
“You’re right, nothing’s gonna please me until we get a fair shake,” Logan said.
Kev turned to face him, acutely aware of the hushed colonists huddled around. Jeez, how did I get myself into this? “Okay, Logan, tell me. How are the gr — the workers treated unfairly?”
Logan stared down at Kev for a long moment before the fire in his eyes burned down to glowing embers. “Us second-class types don’t like being short changed in the chow department.”
“What are you talking about? We all get equal rations.”
“Yeah, well how many calories do you burn sitting in your lab? Us grunts work for a living. Equal ain’t necessarily fair.”
Shouts of agreement erupted from the crowd. Mandy stood in place as though stunned. As if Kev didn’t have enough to worry about.
Kev got his turn on the electron microscope the next morning. He drifted toward the analyt lab, squinting to read the micrographs in the glare of the morning sun. The molecule was indeed a mucopolysaccharide, but the amino sugars were linked at the sixth carbon. In Earth life, carbon-four bonds were the norm for saccharide chains. The odd linkages coiled the polymer into a tight helix.
“Eh! Watch where you’re going, tech.”
Kev looked up from the paper to see that he had nearly walked into a grunt. Worker, he corrected. Three months ago the man had been the heftiest human to walk New Hope; now his denim work clothes hung limp across his frame. “Sorry.”
“Hey, ain’t you the hero from last night, gave us some bull about fair rations?” His eyes narrowed, appraising Kev.
“Maybe he should try swinging a hammer for a while, see if he thinks his rations are enough then.”
The new voice came from behind Kev, and he wheeled around to see that the speaker did indeed have a sledge in hand. Two more men sauntered toward him. His empty stomach gurgled in fear.
“We can resolve your complaint at the town hall meeting tomorrow.” Kev backed away and stepped right into the grasp of the first man.
The man with the hammer pressed the tool into Kev’s hand. “I’d like to see you do some real work, tech” he snarled.
Kev’s eyes darted back and forth, anxiously seeking a way out. He caught motion off to the left — Logan approaching. That’s all I need. Marta clung to him, her arm draped weakly over his shoulder, her head hanging limp. He staggered forward under her weight.
“What the hell?” Kev said. The surrounding workers’ heads turned as one.
“Gimme a hand over here, will you?” Logan shouted.
Kev ran toward them, burning valuable calories, leaving the bewildered grunts to follow in his wake. He grabbed Marta under the shoulder and helped Logan ease her down onto the packed earth. “What happened to her?”
“Well, I, uh, she didn’t….”
Kev noticed a large purple blotch on her upper arm where Logan had gripped her. He bent closer, running his hand over the red markings that dotted her skin. Subdermal bleeding. His mind snapped back to the hemorrhaging rats in Ahmet’s lab. “Did she eat anything unusual? Damn it, Logan, tell me!”
Marta’s hand closed on Kev’s wrist in a feeble grasp. “I…I’ve been adding tendril-leaf shoots to my rations.” Kev could barely hear her voice. He waved the men around him to silence and leaned closer to her. “Just a little with each meal,” she said, “enough to stretch my rations further.”
“Why, Marta?” Logan’s eyes shimmered as he spoke. “Why would you try something like that?”
“I thought if I ate less Earth food there’d be more for you,” she said. “You need….” Tears streamed down Logan’s cheeks. He buried his face in her hair and whispered into her ear.
“Damn,” Kev said. He looked up at the men surrounding him. “We’ve got to get her to the med hut. Now.”
“They said it was like a heparin overdose,” Kev told Mandy that evening. “It’s a drug they use to prevent blood clots. They gave her protamine sulfate, the same treatment they give to neutralize heparin. The doc said she’d be fine, unless there’s some other toxic effect we don’t know about yet.”
Mandy’s eyes lit. “Can we detoxify all the local food with it?” For a brief moment, hope danced in her eyes.
He shook his head. It hurt Kev to take away her first moment of optimism since planetfall. “We’d need a lot of it, administered intravenously after every meal. I can’t see how we could make it fast enough.”
“Then we’re back to square one,” she said. “Worse, because we had to use valuable medical resources.”
“Maybe not. Heparin’s a mucopolysaccharide. There might be a connection–”
“I’m going to put restrictions on grunt movements.”
Kev locked onto her icy stare. “What?”
“I’m afraid others might try Marta’s trick.”
“They’re hungry. The rations are barely enough for us scientists and we don’t work half as hard as they do.”
“I already cut the work schedule down to the bare essentials — running the power plant, putting up prefab shelters, unloading critical supplies from the landers.”
“I don’t think they can keep going much longer on the rations they’re getting.”
“What do you want me to do?” Her voice rose to nearly a shout.
Kev felt his own anger peak, but it didn’t last. He didn’t have the strength for any more arguments. “No one blames you.”
“Yes, they do. Even you. I can see it every time I look into your eyes.”
Her words stung Kev. The truth hurts. “I…I just want–”
“I know what you want,” she hissed. “It’s what the whole damn colony wants. Well maybe I’m not the savior everyone wants me to be. Ever think of that?” She flopped onto a chair and buried her face in her hands. Kev could do nothing more than stand next to her. Touch her shoulder? Comfort her? That would just make things worse. The last remnants of his anger drained away, leaving him numb.
When she finally lifted her head, he saw that her eyes were cold and lifeless, hardened against further anguish. “No more leaving the compound,” she announced with finality. “Not for grunts. I can’t trust them out there.”
“How are you going to enforce it? Honor system? An armed militia of scientists?”
Her voice was a low monotone, devoid of feeling. “If I have to.”
“I’ll announce it at tomorrow’s town hall meeting.”
“It’s not open for debate.”
This is how we’ll die, he thought.
Kev slipped out of bed early the next morning to avoid another argument. He walked slowly toward the analyt lab, savoring the damp chill of the morning air, the calm before the coming storm.
Samples from the scuttlebeast dissection sat atop his workbench, each labeled by tissue type in Ben’s meticulous handwriting. A thin smile played across his lips. He knew Ben couldn’t hold a grudge. He hadn’t alienated everyone who was dear to him. Just Mandy.
He prepared a quartz cuvette with one of the scuttlebeast samples and popped it into the IR. The spectrophotometer hummed softly as it passed its infrared beam through the sample, leaving him to his worries.
He tried to occupy his mind by fiddling with the software that subtracted water absorption from the sample’s spectrograph. After an eternity, a green light flashed on the front of the spectrophotometer. He displayed the spectrograph on his monitor and cursed. He must have mixed up the samples! This was the graph of a salicylate sample taken from a mycowood. He pulled the cuvette from the sample tray and squinted at the tiny letters scrawled in his own handwriting across the top edge. “S-Beast Samp 1.” Humph.
The town hall meeting would be starting soon. Was there time to rerun the sample? He decided he didn’t care and poured another of Ben’s scuttlebeast samples into a second cuvette. More time to worry. Had Mandy announced her new policy yet? Would the divide between techs and grunts become an irreparable rift?
He cursed himself for using the derogatory slang terms. We’re all colonists, not two separate species.
And that was the answer.
The green light flashed. One look at the spectrograph confirmed his guess. Scuttlebeasts were mycowoods.
Life on Earth had differentiated into plants and animals; on New Hope it had not. All life fell into one kingdom with a life cycle including both sedentary and mobile forms. The biochemistry fell into place. Blood thinning plant esters. Clot busting animal enzymes. Individually, the body could process them. Consumed together, in the same organism, their effects were cumulative.
He jumped to his feet and ran toward the mess hall, his heart pounding.
He was one of the last to arrive at the crowded mess hall. The science staff clustered around the tables at the far end of the hall, near the podium set up for Mandy. The workers milled about near the entrance. Kev could feel the tension permeating the room.
He waded through the sea of grunts, impatient at the slow progress he was making. He had to tell someone! His eye caught Ahmet, sitting across a table from Ben. He dropped into an empty seat.
“Sorry about the other night,” Ben said, eyes lowered. “I was a little hot about Logan and, uh, well–”
“Not now,” Kev said. “I have a theory that just might explain the toxicity of local food sources.” At the podium, Mandy called the meeting to order. Ben’s eyes and Ahmet’s spectacles locked onto Kev as he explained.
Ben snapped his fingers. “That explains a lot about scuttlebeast tissue morphology. Would you believe that the squamous cells in the animal’s skin contain chloroplasts? And cell walls, just like the bugs. Deeper inside we found more animal-like cell structures.”
Ahmet shook his head in dismissal. “I’m afraid the toxicology doesn’t hold up,” he said. “Heparin is not toxic by ingestion. It is too easily digested.”
Kev pursed his lips, concentrating to hear the soft-spoken, accented words over the growing din. The hope in his chest deflated as Ahmet’s objection sunk in. No, wait. “The muccopolysaccharide I found is more tightly coiled than you’d find in Earth life. Maybe that makes it resistant to digestion. Enough of it reaches the bloodstream to interact synergistically with the salicylate esters.”
Angry shouts erupted from the back of the mess hall. Kev focused his attention on Mandy’s amplified voice long enough to hear her say, “…only a temporary measure. The order will be rescinded as soon as we find a way to make local food sources edible.”
The shouts grew louder. An empty glass shattered on the wall behind Mandy. She flinched reflexively, drawing loud boos from the grunts. They began inching up the aisle. A new fear gripped him. They’re going to hurt her!
He felt a tap on his shoulder. He snapped his head around, prepared for the worst. It was Logan. “We gotta do something.”
Kev exhaled in relief. “Right. Let’s go.” He followed Logan as he forced his way through the now-congested aisle toward the podium. Perhaps it was already too late.
“Get away from me,” Mandy said as Logan approached. He stepped aside and Mandy’s eyes fell on Kev. He saw in those eyes the haunted solitude of a woman betrayed. “Kev?” That meek whisper would haunt him for the rest of his life.
He had no idea what to say to her. But in that moment he knew that her feelings mattered to him deeply. He still loved her. He dropped his eyes and turned to the podium. “Stay calm,” he said into the microphone. His voice emerged from the speakers, unsteady and hesitant. “We…we are working on a way to detoxify the mycowood….”
“Only thing that can save the grunts is a grunt mayor!” Shouts from the crowd grew louder and the menacing workers loomed closer. They began to chant, “Logan! Logan!”
“Hold it! Listen to him!” Logan said, and in a flash he was by Kev’s side. “We can trust him,” he said into the microphone. “I trust him.” The chant died down and Kev stared at Logan in shock. Logan invited him to speak with a wave of his massive hand.
Kev cleared his throat into the microphone, breaking the sudden silence. He realized that every single man and woman on the planet was waiting for him to speak. His hands began to tremble. “I…we, uh, f-found two substances that, when ingested together, inhibit the blood’s ability to clot–”
“Tech-babble,” shouted a grunt. “That’s all they offer. We’re the ones who built this colony! Logan should be in charge.”
Ben reached the front of the crowd and shouted, “No, wait!” A grunt grabbed him from behind, locking his arms behind his back, while two others advanced on him.
“No!” All eyes turned once again to the podium, where Logan’s shout had needed no microphone. “Listen to him.” Ben shook off his attackers and stared at Logan with newfound respect.
Kev realized that he didn’t have much time to make his point. The worker was right; now was not the time for a chemistry lecture. The colony needed action, not words. With his pulse pounding in his ears, he began to speak. “Me, Ben, and Ahmet think we have it worked out. Logan can oversee our work, make sure we’re on the level. If we’re right, we should be able to use mycowood as a food source.”
As one, the colonists stared at him in stunned silence, eyes wide. Someone began to clap. Soon, the mess hall shook with a deafening ovation. Kev stepped back from the podium, his rubbery knees barely up to the task. Logan had pulled Ben and Ahmet out of the crowd and now stood next to Kev, an arm draped over each man’s shoulder.
“I’m afraid I do not see how you intend to make mycowood edible so quickly,” Ahmet shouted over the din.
Logan’s look hardened. “If you’re bluffing–”
Ben flashed a wide smile. “Think about it. The animal-like enzymes are produced inside the body cavity, the salicylates in the bark, or skin, or what have you. It should be easy to separate the two.”
“So we just have to be careful to eat the skin separate from the meat?” Logan asked.
Kev’s head bobbed up and down enthusiastically. “More or less. We’ll also want to find a way to remove most of the mucopoly — uh, the heparin enzyme to be safe. You think that will work, Ahmet?”
His owl-eyed glasses sparkled and a broad smile split his face. “I’ll clone another litter of rats right away. We’ll have an answer in a month.”
Every colonist on New Hope, save one, was seated in the mess hall for the big day. Kev noted with a touch of disappointment that they sat in clumps, a tech table here, a grunt table there. It will take time, he thought.
Ben, sitting next to him, leaned over and whispered, “Couldn’t talk Mandy into coming?”
“Doc Pearson said I shouldn’t push her. She needs time to get her confidence back.”
Ben nodded and lowered his eyes. “She’d been standing between us and death for more than two years. Anyone would’ve cracked under that kind of stress.”
“She never wanted to be mayor,” Kev said. “But we idolized her for keeping us alive long enough to get here. How could she refuse? She has — we have a lot to work out.”
Ben hung his arm over Kev’s shoulders and smiled. “Buck up. She’ll be fine, like the shrink says. Today’s your moment in the sun. I think it’s time to get this celebration started.”
Ben was right. Kev clapped him on the back and put on the best smile he could muster. He stood and the murmured conversations faded to silence. He ceremoniously lifted the lid from the large pot sitting on the table before him. His action was mirrored at every table in the hall. A warm mint aroma climbed the short distance to his nose. A rich, textured bouquet lurked beneath the mint, earthy and perhaps a slight bit fruity. He drew the aroma deep into his lungs and the colonists erupted in cheers.
“I never wanted the job, and I’ll be glad to turn the reins over to a real leader once we find one,” he said, and the cheers turned to chuckles. The colonists’ good humor was contagious. “But for now, here I am, your interim mayor and M. C. of this incredible celebration. Who would have thought two months ago that we would be sitting here today in peace, about to share our first native meal?”
“Ahmet thought it would be one month!” Logan shouted, prompting a second round of chuckles. The Turkish man stood and took a theatrical bow.
“We’ll give him the extra month,” Kev said. “In the weeks and months ahead we’ll be able to add many more local food sources to our diet. We’ll have recipe contests, create dishes unique to New Hope. I personally can’t wait to try scuttlebeast meat. Ben here tells me it probably tastes sweet. After all, it’s little more than the fruit of the mycowood, like an apple that can go out and find its own mate.
“But for today, let us give thanks for the first native food guaranteed to be safe — mashed mycowood bark, or skin, or whatever you want to call it.” Kev picked up a serving spoon and thrust it into the pot. He lifted a heaping spoonful of the steaming yellow-green mash and dumped it onto his plate. It had a pasty consistency, like hummus. He dipped his fork into the warm paste, lifted it, and popped it into his mouth. The colony cheered as one as New Hope provided its very first sustenance to a human guest.
It tasted like a whole new world.
About the Author
Jay Werkheiser teaches chemistry and physics to high school students, where he often finds inspiration for stories in classroom discussions. Not surprisingly, his stories often deal with alien biochemistry, weird physics, and their effects on the people who interact with them. Many of his stories have appeared in Analog, with others scattered among several other science fiction magazines and anthologies.
About the Narrator
A fan of Science Fiction from an early age P.C. Haring has always been one of those who looked up at the night sky and wondered “what if…”
P.C. Haring made his debut as a writer and podcast novelist on 01/01/10 with Cybrosis. This production met with a strongly favorable response that propelled it to number four on the Podiobooks.com Top Ten list when it was re-launched there that October. His audio fiction can also be heard in Scott Sigler’s The Crypt: Book 1 — The Crew and in Philippa Ballantine’s Chronicles of the Order anthology. His contribution for Tales from the Archives, co-produced by Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, won him the 2012 Parsec Award for Best Short Story. This momentum propelled P.C. Haring into publishing Cybrosis as well as his latest project, Slipspace: Harbinger independently.
When he isn’t developing new projects for podcast and publication, P.C. Haring works as a corporate accountant in the Chicagoland area and as a husband to his beautiful wife.