by Melinda Brasher
EDWIN SPOTTED THEM RIGHT AWAY from the open window of the train—if you could call it a train. It ran on tracks and could carry a hundred people, if there were a hundred people to be carried on all the planet. Why a colony of twenty-five needed such capacity was something only Peter and his mania could account for.
Besides, anything going by the name of a train shouldn’t be pulled by eight-foot tall jabbers, who stank like raw meat and burbled constantly. But Peter had dubbed it a train, as if that would make everyone feel more civilized, so a train it was. On work days Edwin rode it to the mine, the only place it went so far. In the evenings he got back into the cavernous car alone and sang until the jabbers started moving. He no longer felt ridiculous about the singing, not even a little embarrassed, and sometimes he wondered if that made him crazy.
Today Elizabeth and Sabine were waiting for him on the platform, Sabine’s practiced beauty more pronounced than usual, Elizabeth’s face flushed.
“What’s the twenty percent club doing here?” Edwin asked. That should have made Elizabeth smile, but she only looked away, like the day he’d caught her trying to teach the jabbers to say hello.
Sabine arched a perfect eyebrow. “The twenty percent club? Clever.” Her tone said otherwise. “Here’s the deal. I don’t think the third wave’s coming. Peter just asked Elizabeth to work out a gene pool stability projection, so he doesn’t think anyone’s coming either.”
“I don’t care what Peter thinks.”
“Perhaps you should. He knows that mating’s more important than iron.”
“Sabine,” Elizabeth whispered, red-faced.
“What are you being so prissy about?” Sabine asked. “You’re the biologist.”
Edwin laughed harshly. “So you girls want to put yourselves on Peter’s little mating schedule with me?”
“It’s not a joke,” Sabine said.
No. It wasn’t. Ever since the computer glitch killed the passengers in the other bays, and the rest of the ships in their convoy disappeared, people had talked about it: could twenty-five people build a successful colony?
When the second wave had to turn back to Earth, and the lone message probe the colony received spoke of the third wave in terms like “pending” and “reevaluation of primary systems,” they wondered if the colony could sustain itself if no one else came. There had been quotas in the selection process: sixty-five percent of colonists had to be stable couples of childbearing age. Fifteen percent were minors, the rest unmarried or too old to have children. Peter and his wife fit the latter category. That left Edwin, Elizabeth, and Sabine. The twenty percent club, he called it: one man, two women. And now even Peter was talking about gene pool stability.
“The colony needs children,” Sabine said. “But Peter’s made it perfectly clear that all children must come from unions registered with the government.”
Edwin laughed again. He’d never met anyone who took himself so seriously. Peter was governor of twenty-four other people, yet he called himself “the government.”
“So,” Sabine stepped closer. Her lashes trapped his gaze in a way he knew he should mind a whole lot more. “You want to register a union?” She’d meant it to sound sexy, but the effect was plain weird.
“You only want me now because I’m literally the last man on the planet.”
“Essentially, yes, but—”
“Oh that’s rich. I wasn’t good enough for you before.”
“I never said you weren’t. I simply intended to wait for a bigger selection.”
“And with that charm, you’d have your pick.”
“This isn’t personal.”
“Call me a barbarian, but I think gene pool stability boils down to something quite personal.”
“Very well. But can’t you see that it’s up to us to carry on the human race?”
“The human race is safe. There are thirteen billion of them in the gene pool back on Earth.”
“But there are twenty-five of us here. We have to start on the future.”
“Your future’s with the third wave,” Edwin said. “And so is mine. They’ll have a ship going home, and I’ll be on it.”
* * *
Edwin stayed late at the mine the next day because he didn’t want to go back to the settlement. Instead he focused on work. Traces of something organic in the microfractures of the rock face were fouling up the displaced matter recompiler. However he configured it, nothing worked. Finally Edwin packed up a sample. He’d have to take it to Elizabeth, have her analyze it in the biolab. If he knew more about its makeup, maybe he could filter it out. But he wasn’t sure going to see Elizabeth was the right thing tonight. Women tended to read so much into everything.
When she opened the door, her face spread into a smile.
Edwin quickly held up the sample. “I’ve got another.”
The smile lasted just a moment too long. “I’ll take it to the lab in the morning.”
“Want a drink?” she asked, before he could escape.
“I just came to drop that off.”
“I even have a bit of ale. Since when do you pass that up?”
She hated the stuff Mirek made. Most people did. But she had it on hand. Waiting for him, probably.
He had to stop this. “Look, I—”
“The jabbers seem healthy.”
He hadn’t seen her with them much lately, though he still thought of them as hers. He’d been on the hunting party that discovered them. They were farther out than usual, justifying it by taking Elizabeth along to identify useful plants. Singing by the campfire one night, they’d heard a noise, like a herd of hoarse goats, the crash of a drunk elephant. They grabbed their rifles and pointed them out into the darkness, blinded by the fire they’d just been staring into, as the creatures whiffled and burbled closer. Then they saw the eyes of flame.
“Jabberwock,” Dustin yelled, as he flung himself into the brush away from the noises. The others followed. Edwin and Elizabeth hid behind a stand of trees and watched the creatures stomp into the circle of light, where they placidly fed on the hunters’ dinner while their eyes glowed like demons.
Once fed, the creatures stood around as if waiting to be caught, whining like dogs. Elizabeth inched out, her hand open toward them. She whiffled, and they let her rope them. Edwin helped improvise halters, while the other hunters filtered back into camp.
Dustin’s voice was soft with reverence as he recited the old poem.
“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame
came whiffling through the tulgy wood
and burbled as it came.”
The eyes of flame weren’t eyes at all, but knobs on their forehead, glowing with a chemical reaction like a firefly’s. In the dark they looked like eyes. To scare away predators or help with night grazing, Elizabeth theorized aloud. She was almost pretty then in her excitement. They were by far the most exotic animals she’d found to study.
The jabbers, taller than Edwin by a good two feet, stood like stone by the fire, grunting and braying and purring mournfully. No animal should have such a vocal range. It unnerved him. But they quieted at Elizabeth’s murmurs and craned their necks toward the sound of Dustin’s poetry. At first he’d assumed it was the fire that had attracted them. Or the smell. But maybe it was noise. Maybe he could use that.
“I’ll never forget the first time you sang to them,” Elizabeth reminisced now. “You were so off key. But they thought you were God.”
They’d followed him around like docile puppies, all the way back to the colony. Even now, they still slobbered happily when he sang to them.
“We could take a walk,” Elizabeth said. “Go see them. Their eyes might be on.”
“I think I’d better not.” He didn’t like the way she was looking him. “Goodnight.”
“Edwin, wait. You think…you think I’m trying to grab you for myself. Like Sabine.”
He paused too long to get away with a polite lie.
“I only went to the station yesterday because Sabine knew about the stability projection. I didn’t want her to get you to agree to anything rash.”
“You think I’m that stupid?”
“No. But a woman like that throwing herself at you, and this place being what it is…”
“There’s throwing yourself at someone, and there’s laying out a business transaction. I find the latter a little easier to resist.”
“Look, I’m going home on the third wave. End of story.”
“And if it doesn’t come?”
“I’ll cross that bridge only if I have to.”
“Fine,” Elizabeth said, and Edwin almost believed she meant it.
“Let’s go see the jabbers.”
* * *
Sabine came by almost every night. She even had wine once. He refused at first to drink it. People guarded their few bottles for special events. Edwin was keeping his for when they made contact with the third wave. He didn’t want to give Sabine any ideas about this being a celebratory occasion. But she opened the bottle and then there was nothing to be done. They had to drink.
She wore a very small dress that night. She laughed on cue, tilted her head so her long slim neck showed to greatest advantage, touched his arm with exactly the right amount of pressure. She reminded him of a machine sometimes. All precision of movement and perfection of form, a well-ordered labyrinth of circuits at her core. Even when she spoke French in that low inviting tone, luring him into her web, he could feel the web, and it ruined the effect. After all, the computer could speak French too.
With a body like hers, it might not have been so bad finding himself partnered with her, but Edwin had been with beautiful women before, and too often the anticipation outweighed the reward.
Besides, only one more month remained before the third wave was due. The eighteen-month return journey would feel like only a couple of weeks, waking briefly now and then to exercise before going back to sleep. Then he’d be on Earth with all the women he could want. Women he chose. Edwin had faced longer stints on remote mining operations, places without suitable women. A few more weeks was nothing.
And he wasn’t about to father a child only to leave it here when he went back to Earth.
So he drank Sabine’s wine, but stepped away from her caresses, kept his eyes on her face or the floor, and tried to be polite as he turned down her logically outlined propositions and her calculated physical flirtations.
After two weeks of this, he opened the door one evening, determined to finally put it to her in no uncertain terms, but instead found Peter standing in front of him.
“Alone?” Peter asked. The word sounded almost like an accusation.
“I’m not one to listen to idle gossip, but—”
“You listen to every shred of gossip, Peter. Go ahead. Deny it.”
Peter didn’t. Instead, he pushed his way into Edwin’s module, glanced around, then settled one elbow on the work shelf. There hardly seemed to be enough room for the two of them, between the bed and the narrow desk and the kitchen nook.
Finally Peter spoke. “I hear you’ve turned down Sabine.”
“I don’t see what business that is of yours.”
“It’s everyone’s business. The future of the colony may rely more on the number of children we produce than it does on the minerals we mine or the crops we grow.”
“I thought you were trying to convince everyone to have faith in the third wave. Or is that just one of your lies?”
“I never lie. I encourage optimism. But back to Sabine. If we were to find ourselves alone, you’d have to marry her.”
“I’d have to do no such thing.”
“Unless of course you’re in love with Elizabeth.”
This was ludicrous. The man had probably never been in love in his life. He’d probably married his wife for her money. Yet he stood here and asked that question.
“I’m not in love with either of them.”
“Then why does it matter which one you contract with? Sabine’s a fine, attractive woman. Strong. Still has a good fifteen, twenty childbearing years. Sabine’s older than Elizabeth. So you take Sabine. Ryan gets Elizabeth.” He shrugged as if he’d just solved the problem of which tie to wear with his suit.
“Ryan’s a kid.” He was seventeen. Eager and muscled. A farm boy. Elizabeth was thirty. With two degrees. Ryan probably couldn’t tell the difference between a mitochondrion and a lysosome.
“Seventeen’s nearly a man.”
“You can’t play God with everyone’s lives.” Edwin stepped forward as he said it, but Peter held his ground.
“This is a big module for one person,” he said, completely unruffled. “I don’t know if we can justify the energy it takes to run it, just for a single individual. Combining living space may be the only alternative.”
“The company prepaid my expenses.”
“Yes, but everyone has to sacrifice. For the good of—”
“Enough about the good of the colony. That’s not what you care about. And I’m not going to marry Sabine.”
“If you don’t, I’ll have to find energy cuts elsewhere. I’ll have to let the jabbers go.”
“They’re helping the energy problem.” The train they pulled could have run on electricity from the geothermal plant, but there wasn’t a lot of power to spare, and since the Jabbers wouldn’t leave even when set free, the colony had decided to harness their muscle power.
“They pull the train, but they eat a lot of grain, which takes energy to grow and harvest and prepare.”
“They won’t go. We’ve tried to set them loose.”
“Then I’ll have them shot.”
For a moment Edwin couldn’t understand what he’d heard. “You wouldn’t dare,” he whispered.
“I would do many things for the good of the colony. But if we were wasting less energy on these extravagant single living quarters, the jabbers could stay. Sabine’s a beautiful woman, Edwin. Be a man.”
The moment Peter left, Edwin slammed his fist on the door switch and stumbled over to the cabinet where he kept the ale. The man was crazy. But that only made him more dangerous.
* * *
That night, when the whole colony should have been sleeping, he shoved the ale bottle into his coat, grabbed his flashlight, and crept over to Elizabeth’s. He knocked softly until she answered.
“I need your help. Go check out one of the carts. Peter will probably have locked me out.”
She didn’t even ask why, but pulled on work clothes and followed him into the darkness.
“Meet me at the station,” he said.
He had already untied two of the jabbers by the time she arrived, the tractor cart’s lights off.
“Peter threatened to shoot them,” Edwin whispered.
“I’m not going to risk their lives on that.”
“No,” she whispered back.
He sang quietly, but still they followed. Elizabeth drove while he dangled his song in front of the jabbers. When Elizabeth grew tired of wrenching the wheel back and forth, they switched places.
It was nearly dawn when they stopped. Elizabeth stroked the Jabbers’ noses, stared at the glowing knobs above their clueless eyes. They burbled contentedly, which made it so much worse.
Edwin cursed Peter.
“They’ll be safe away from us,” he said. But he was powerless to comfort her.
He drove back fast, into the sunrise, while Elizabeth cried. All she knew was that Peter considered them a waste of good grain. He hadn’t wanted to tell her the rest. But as he drove, he fumed. He was done letting Peter control things. Peter wanted him to marry Sabine? Well, Edwin would show him.
“Elizabeth, we’ll find the jabbers again when it’s safe.”
He pulled to a stop and offered her some ale. “I’ve been thinking. If the third wave doesn’t come, would you marry me?”
“Are you serious?”
“Of course I’ll marry you.” The early sun played on her face, and when she smiled it made him sick inside. He didn’t love her, but he feared she loved him. He was doing her no favors here. And if she ever found out he’d done it to spite Peter, she’d be crushed. But at least he’d have the last word. Peter wasn’t king.
He and Elizabeth grabbed some food. Her obvious happiness, the way she fussed over him as he ate, only added to his guilt. He was using her, really, even if this was what she wanted right now. It made him so uncomfortable he had to escape her company, and he wondered if he’d already killed their friendship.
He said goodbye and went to find Peter. He’d foiled the man’s plans for him and Sabine, for the poor jabbers. And if he and Elizabeth were to pay the price for what he’d done, at least he wanted the satisfaction of rubbing his victory in Peter’s smug face.
“I heard the good news,” Peter said when Edwin finally tracked him down. “You and Elizabeth. Congratulations.”
The carefully-worded gloat Edwin had planned stuck in his throat. “What are you so happy about? You wanted me to marry Sabine.”
“You were divvying us up like work assignments. Edwin, you can have Sabine. Ryan’ll get Elizabeth. Be a man. Take the beautiful woman.”
“Merely a suggestion.” Peter’s smile was cruel in its serenity.
“You threatened me,” Edwin sputtered.
“I don’t threaten.”
“You were going to shoot the jabbers.”
“An idle idea. One possible solution to both the energy problem and the need for child-bearing unions.”
Child-bearing unions. That was all Peter cared about
“But I see you’ve solved both problems, Edwin. How very community-minded of you.”
Edwin clenched his fists. But even as he raged, he knew he wouldn’t break his word to Elizabeth. Exactly as Peter must have known he wouldn’t. He’d never felt as much the fool as he did now.
Peter, it appeared, was king after all.