Authors: Christine Pope
Tags: #Science Fiction Romance
Breath of Life
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
BREATH OF LIFE
Copyright © 2011 by Christine Pope
Published by Dark Valentine Press
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Anika Jespers, a homesteader’s daughter on a Gaian colony, thinks she’s destined for a dull existence on her family’s farm. But when her father makes an impossible bargain with their neighbor, one of the alien Zhore, she faces a future different from anything she could have possibly imagined.
The familiar story of Beauty and the Beast takes on new life in this inventive SF romance novella, with the Beauty a homesteader's daughter and the Beast an alien on a faraway colony world.
Breath of Life
My family probably wasn’t the first to be deceived by the Gaia Relocation Corporation’s advertising materials, and I know they won’t be the last. However, that’s little consolation when you’re stuck on a rock light-years from where you were born, scrabbling to make enough to keep your homestead going and maybe put enough aside so that you’ll get something a little fancier than a plain plastic box when it’s time for you to depart this mortal coil.
Homesteading on Lathvin IV sounded great on paper, I guess. At least, my parents went for it as a way of escaping our subterranean existence on Gaia’s moon, and my older sister Libba and I couldn’t do much except just go along for the ride. She was the lucky one, anyway—she’s two years older than I, and got a full scholarship to the university at Epsilon Eridani, and so she bailed out at the first opportunity. By then we were all heartily sick of the constant need for breathing equipment every time we wanted to go outside, and the faint chugging sound of the atmospheric generator, which filtered through all our waking hours and our sleeping ones as well. I used to have nightmares about being trapped in the bowels of some enormous ship where all I could hear was that low-level
boom boom boom
. Sure, you couldn’t walk around outside on the moon without a full suit, but you didn’t need to anyway, as pretty much all of the moon’s infrastructure was located beneath the surface. There, you could just leave your apartment and walk down a hallway to catch the subway or go shopping or to school or what-have-you. Not so on Lathvin, where our nearest neighbors on one side were an unfriendly older couple whose homestead was a good five kilometers off, and on the other…
One minor detail the Gaia Relocation Corporation neglected to make clear was Lathvin’s status as a Gaian-only homestead. Turns out the claim had been disputed by the Zhore, who said they’d discovered the world first and therefore had the only true settlement rights. That hadn’t stopped the GRC from dumping a whole bunch of unsuspecting colonists on the planet about ten years prior to the time my family got there. The whole mess had ended up in the sector’s High Court, which ruled that we had to play nice and share, because there weren’t a whole heck of a lot of worlds out there in the habitable range.
So, the Zhore. No one knew what they looked like. Whenever they went out in public, they were invariably cloaked in heavy black robes and hoods that concealed every inch of their bodies, along with breathing masks that covered their entire faces (which wasn’t really necessary; the standard breather most people used just went over your nose and mouth). About all anyone knew was the Zhore tended to be the same basic size and shape as humans, although they skewed a little taller, and they breathed approximately the same type of atmosphere humans did, as the mix coming out of their atmospheric generators didn’t differ materially from what spewed from ours. But that was about it, even though I did as much searching on the subject in the planetary database as my security levels would allow. Since I, Anika Jespers, was a colonist’s daughter with absolutely zero security clearances, that wasn’t much.
Anyway, our next closest neighbor was a Zhore, even though we’d never seen him. It. Whatever. No one seemed to be terribly clear on gender and the Zhore, either. However, since I didn’t really like thinking of a fellow sentient being as “it,” I always thought of our neighbor as a he, even though I suppose he could have been a she. Or even an it, I guessed, if I put my own feelings on the nomenclature aside. A few alien species were gender-neutral, after all.
The Zhore’s homestead was much larger than ours, both in acreage and the size of the house that had been erected on it. We watched it being built, as the alien had arrived on the scene after we’d been living on Lathvin for about six years. The house was a massive, vaguely threatening pile, made of native dark-gray Lathvin stone. It must have cost a fortune. At least, that’s what my father always said. It had two atmospheric generators and an enormous clear polymer-covered structure around back that he thought might be a greenhouse. All around the Zhore’s house grew fields and fields of moonflowers.
No, that’s not their scientific name, but all the colonists called them that. Native flowers with pale heads wide as a dinner plate, and with the peculiar ability to give off large amounts of oxygen, even after they’d been cut. I asked once why we didn’t just grow moonflowers instead of using the generators, and was told that, while they produced enough O
to keep you from asphyxiating in Lathvin IV’s thin air, there was no way they’d ever make enough to cover the planet in a breathable atmosphere. Okay, fine.
They were pretty, though.
Storms came and went on Lathvin all the time. We were used to them, used to their violence. The engineers always said that was to be expected, that during the atmosphere-building stages wind currents and weather patterns were unusually volatile. But one day, when my father had gone into Port Natchez to pick up supplies, the winds kept increasing in intensity, buffeting our little prefab house and screaming through every chink and crevice. I turned up the heat on our climate-control unit and tried not to think about my father making his way home in that maelstrom. After all, the transport, while not exactly new and shiny, did have geo-locators and all-terrain treads, and would no doubt soldier through this storm just as it had hundreds before.
My mother stayed home that day as well; I’d begun to notice a disconcerting tendency in her to do almost anything she could to avoid going outside. True, Lathvin could be pretty oppressive. Clouds given birth by the atmospheric generators roiled overhead almost around the clock, and it rained a good deal. If you saw the sun twice a year, you were lucky. Most of the time it didn’t bother me too much, as we didn’t exactly engage in a lot of outdoor activity when we lived on the moon, either. True, when my sister Libba would send us a vidmail where she looked conspicuously bronzed, and then waxed a little too rhapsodic about sitting in outdoor cafes on Epsilon Eridani or swimming in an actual ocean, of all things—well, then, of course I’d feel little green spikes of jealousy. Who wouldn’t? Otherwise, though, I tried to see some beauty in the shapes of the bruise-colored clouds that swirled across the sky, or in the pale faces of the moonflowers and the odd, blood-colored ground cover that was the only other thing that seemed to grow on Lathvin. Some days I was more successful than others.
The minutes and then hours ticked by with no word from my father, and at last I didn’t bother to make even a pretense of studying. I logged off from the university’s site and turned away from my workstation. My mother had a tablet computer in her lap and wireless buds firmly lodged in her ears; I guessed she wasn’t paying any attention to me. She could have been working, or maybe not. It was hard to tell with her sometimes. She was connected to that tablet more often than not, and I sometimes wondered if she used the excuse of having to push little electronic bits of data around so she wouldn’t have to deal with her family.
“It’s nineteen hundred,” I said.
She didn’t blink.
I got up from my chair, crossed the room, and stood directly in front of her. “It’s nineteen hundred,” I said again, this time a little more loudly. All right, a lot more loudly.
Then she did lift her head, although her dark eyes still looked unfocused. “What?”
“Dad should have been home two hours ago.”
“Oh?” she said vaguely, and glanced around the shabby chamber that served as our combination living/dining room. “Well, he’s been late before. Are you hungry?”
“No, I’m not hungry,” I replied, and tried to quell the little flare of exasperation that rose inside me. “I’m worried about Dad. This storm is brutal.”
She shrugged. I didn’t know whether the shrug meant she was indifferent to his fate, or simply that she knew the situation wasn’t worth getting worked up over. My parents didn’t fight—at least, not so I ever heard them, no mean feat in a house as small as ours. But I’d sensed an underlying unease that had been building for years. Resentment over coming to Lathvin IV. Bitterness over being stuck here with no chance of escape. It wasn’t as simple as just walking out, either. Married couples had to sign a joint contract, or they wouldn’t get the homestead. If she left Dad and tried to go back to Gaia’s moon, he’d lose the house and everything they’d been working toward for the past ten years.
Even though I knew all that, something about the negligent little shrug made me want to slap her. My own mother. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to walk away and look out the window. I was just tired. All this online studying, and for what? So I’d have a certificate to show people, so I could get a job shoving bytes around the way my mother did? They acted like my schooling was important, but I knew better. The only one of us who had any chance at all was Libba.
The view outside the window didn’t do much to improve my mood. Rain came down in heavy curtains, and the only reason I could see even that much was because of the security lights we had installed along the outer perimeter of the property. I told myself that my father had driven the route between Port Natchez and the homestead a thousand times, that he could probably do it blindfolded if necessary. Or maybe he was late because the storm had hit while he was still in town, and he’d decided to ride it out there in the Filling Station, the local pub, or maybe in the commissary. No point in waiting for a call, as the storms made civilian communications more than erratic. Oftentimes it was easier to just head where you were going rather than wait to get a clear signal.
After a while I turned away from the window. I knew I couldn’t stand there all night, so I went into the kitchen and pretended to be useful by making a pot of tea and power-defrosting some soup I’d put together a few days earlier. Some time during the past several years I’d taken over most of the cooking, and somehow I hadn’t even noticed. At least it gave me something to do.
Neither of us ate much. I cleared away the dishes but left a bowl of soup to warm in the kitchen’s heating unit. Maybe I was using that bowl of soup as a shield against uncertainty—after all, how could anything be wrong with my father when he had hot soup waiting for him back home? Stupid, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I went back to the computer, not because I thought I’d retain one single fact, but simply because I had to pretend I was doing something. My mother reinserted her ear buds and started typing away on her tablet.
Another hour crawled by, and then another. I knew exactly how much time passed because I kept staring at the little clock in the lower corner of the computer screen. At the moment it seemed far more important than xenolinguistics.
The front door banged open. My father stumbled inside, rain cascading off his all-weather poncho and pooling onto the floor. At once I jumped up from the computer station and ran to him. My mother took out one ear bud and sent a halfway inquiring glance in his direction.
As I reached up to help him with the water-soaked poncho, I noticed how he was shaking, his face almost white above the dark gray polymer-impregnated fabric. And for some reason he wouldn’t look at me, even as I undid the snaps and tossed the poncho into a corner. At least I didn’t have to worry about all the water hurting the close-pile carpet underfoot; it was designed to soak up moisture and was pretty much impervious to dirt.