Preview

Playing God — Chapter One

“WHAT’S THAT?” PRAEIS SHIN T’THERIA straightened up and twitched one sail-​like ear.
Lynn Nussbaumer looked up at the tall Dedelphi, craning her neck as far as the helmet on her clean-​suit permitted. Lynn, Praeis, and Praeis’s two daughters, Resaime and Theiareth, were clustered around a worktable in Praeis’s airy office at the Crater Town Planning Hall. Now, all three Dedelphi turned their ears toward the bank of opaqued windows set into the curving, white-​plaster wall.
Lynn strained her own ears. A moment later, she heard a low, rumbling throb penetrating the windows, despite the sound filters.
“I’ve got no idea what that is.” Lynn got to her feet. The rumble increased. “Room voice, open the windows.”
“Opening,” replied the building’s genderless voice. The silvered windows cleared to reveal a street paved with every shade of red that Martian stone and sand offered. The sudden flood of daylight glinted off Lynn’s helmet and the layer of transparent organic that covered her from neck to boots under her functional blouse and trousers.
Normally, the street outside the Planning Hall held three or four knots of Dedelphi pedestrians and a transport or two. Now, it was crammed with Dedelphi of every age and shade. The rumble pressing through the window glass was the sound of their collective voices, shouting, cheering, arguing, and weeping.
“Ancestors Mine,” murmured Praeis. “What’s happened?”
“I’ve got no idea.” Lynn felt her brow wrinkle. “Room voice—”
“I’ve got it up already, Lynn,” said Resaime behind her.
Lynn and Praeis turned in tandem. Resaime had the wall screen lit up. She and Theia stood hand in hand in front of it, attention riveted on its scene. Lynn stepped around Theia to get a better view. Praeis just stared between the tips of her daughter’s ears.
The screen showed what looked like a theater. The gallery was crammed with Dedelphi: sail-​like ears, leathery skin, round, multilidded eyes, all watching a gathering on a proscenium stage. More Dedelphi filled the stage, crowding around an oval table. Lynn recognized the Io Elath, the t’Therians’ Queens-​of-​All, in their stark, black robes. Directly across from them stood the Tvkesh-​I-​Rchilthen, the Getesaph’s Sisters-​Chosen-​to-​Lead, resplendent in their silver-​and-​gold jackets.
Dominating the entire scene was a view screen hanging on the stage’s back wall. Three soberly dressed Humans—two men and one woman, all magnified to at least three times life size—looked down on the crowd of Dedelphi. Behind the Humans shone the green triangle emblem of the Bioverse Incorporated enclave.
“By the Walking Buddha,” breathed Lynn. “Do you suppose they did it?” There had been rumors on the info-​web for months that Bioverse Inc. was negotiating a bioremediation deal with the entire Dedelphi homeworld, something completely unheard of in all the Dedelphi’s long, war-​torn history.
As if to answer her question, the tallest of the Sisters-​Chosen-​to-​Lead lifted her pen from off the stiff, white treaty board. “It is done,” she said in staccato Getesaph. A host of white-​lettered subtitles flowed across the bottom of the screen.
On the screen above the stage, the trio of Humans beamed like proud parents.
Each of the Sisters-​Chosen-​to-​Lead picked up a treaty board. Their jackets shimmered in the stark light as they walked around the signing table. The boards were symbols, Lynn knew. The real treaties would be tightly bound stacks of paper sealed into courier cases at the sides of aides and secretaries standing in the wings. These were just placards that said everyone had agreed to what was in those books.
The Sisters held the placards out to the Queens-​of-​All. With stiff, jerky motions, each of the three Queens took a copy of the treaty and bowed low over it, kissing the freshly dried ink.
Lynn sneaked a look at Praeis. She had gravitated silently toward her daughters, and now the three of them stood with their arms around one another. Lynn wondered what she could possibly be feeling. Praeis had been a general for those Queens, a Task-​Mother, in t’Therian, and now she watched them receive treaties from their fiercest enemies.
The Sisters handed two more copies over to the Presidents of the Chosa ty Porath, and three to the Speakers for the Fil. Each of them took the placard and did nothing but stare at it, almost like they couldn’t believe what was in their hands.
Behind the delegates of the major powers stood those who spoke for smaller nation-​families, or Great Families, as the t’Therians called them. They were a broken rainbow of colors. Their skin was everything from the t’Therians’ bluish grey to the Getesaph’s greyish pink. Their clothing ranged from jeweled purple to unbroken, midnight black. They received no treaties. Probably, they With stiff, jerky motions, each of the three Queens took a copy of the treaty and bowed low over it, kissing the freshly dried ink.
Lynn sneaked a look at Praeis. She had gravitated silently toward her daughters, and now the three of them stood with their arms around one another. Lynn wondered what she could possibly be feeling. Praeis had been a general for those Queens, a Task-​Mother, in t’Therian, and now she watched them receive treaties from their fiercest enemies.
The Sisters handed two more copies over to the Presidents of the Chosa ty Porath, and three to the Speakers for the Fil. Each of them took the placard and did nothing but stare at it, almost like they couldn’t believe what was in their hands.
Behind the delegates of the major powers stood those who spoke for smaller nation-​families, or Great Families, as the t’Therians called them. They were a broken rainbow of colors. Their skin was everything from the t’Therians’ bluish grey to the Getesaph’s greyish pink. Their clothing ranged from jeweled purple to unbroken, midnight black. They received no treaties. Probably, they had been ordered by their stronger neighbors to obey, and these grouped here had said they would. Each had presumably decided they had lost enough people to the plagues already.
The copies of the treaty boards distributed, the two Getesaph Sisters turned to the shifting audience.
“The Confederation is in place and will be enforced by all members. The delegates who have included their names and pledges on the treaty of agreement are all empowered to deal with the Humans. We here together will save these lands and islands that hold us all. Save them from this plague, save them from the poisons and pollutions that threaten to overwhelm them.”
A few more ragged cheers rang around the gallery, overlaid by calls of “Do it!” “Save the daughters!” “Find immunity!” in different languages.
“So,” breathed Praeis, visibly tightening her arms around her daughters. “The plague has accomplished for us what nothing else could.”
At that moment, the door burst open. Four Dedelphi, all the t’Therian blue-​grey, two with daughters clinging to their backs and squealing with delight, charged in and surrounded Praeis, Resaime, and Theiareth. The Dedelphi pounded one another’s backs and clasped hands and babbled on top of one another until Lynn couldn’t follow what was going on, but evidently they were happy about the treaties.
“You must speak, Mother Praeis.” One of the t’Therians grabbed Praeis’s hand and hauled her toward the door.
“All right, my Sisters! All right!” laughed Praeis. The hesitations Lynn had seen in the set of her ears and shoulders seemed to have vanished. They probably had, thought Lynn. They were whirled away by the enthusiasm of these members of her Great Family.
Praeis looked back at Lynn, her ears weaving in mock distress and real apology.
“Go. Go,” Lynn said, laughing and waving her on. “Who else should be making speeches right now?”
A storm of approval issued from the t’Therians. They half pushed, half pulled Praeis out of the office with the willing and noisy help of both her daughters.
Chuckling to herself, Lynn crossed back to the windows and looked out at the crowded street.
The Dedelphi were a powerfully built species. Praeis Shin stood a half meter taller than a tall man, even when her flexible, sail-​like ears pressed flat against her scalp. Her adolescent daughters were Lynn’s height. Their leathery skin hung in folds that rippled gently or forcibly, depending on their mood. Perfectly circular, multi-​lidded eyes were set high above the long vertical slits of their nostrils. Thick lines of muscle ran under the milky skin of their lips. Their bellies swelled gently where the pouch protected their mammary glands. The effect was heightened by the stiff belly guards a number of the cultures wore under their clothes.
And right now they were making riot in the street below. Sisters whirled each other around. Mothers tossed their daughters into the air. Cousins stood talking, gesticulating wildly with hands and ears. In a couple of places, sisters had squared off for what might become honor brawls. Several of the clean-​suited Human security guards apparently thought so, too, and edged along their balcony and rooftop stations for closer looks at the potential trouble.
“Room voice,” said Lynn. “Shut off the sound filters.”
“Shutting off.”
With the filters gone, the crowd’s roar pushed at her like an ocean wave. There had to be upwards of two hundred voices out there, all letting loose at full volume, and the noise doubled when Praeis’s escort pulled her out of the Planning Hall.
“Mother Praeis!” voices shouted. “Mother Praeis! Tell us the news! Mother Praeis! Let’s hear your words! Mother Praeis!”
Praeis’s escort shoved her up onto the edge of the public fountain and bundled her daughters up beside her. Lynn folded her arms and nodded approvingly. They made a pretty picture down there; Praeis in her sienna skirt and cream tunic flowing over her belly guard, flanked by her daughters in blue-​and-​gold saris. The sun was still above the crater wall, and it touched everything with gold.
Praeis dipped her ears in respect and agreement to the crowd, and for the first time, the noise level dropped to a murmur.
“My Sisters,” began Praeis. “Sisters of my blood, my near family, my Great Family, and those who are sisters of strangers to me!”
Diplomatic, thought Lynn. The t’Therians had a lot of expressions for those who weren’t in the Great Family. The most complimentary was Other.
“Today we learned of a great thing; our sisters at home have made a bargain that will end the plague that has killed so many of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters!” Reverent silence at that. “Today is the new beginning! Today we may hope for life, for the future, and for, greatest of all, a homecoming!”
Cheers, waving ears, raised hands. Lynn shook her head. Trust Praeis to know what not to say. Don’t bring up the fact that many of the sisters out there fled from the continuous warfare as much as from the plagues that the warfare let loose. Let everyone who wanted to hope that the deal around that table meant an end to both.
Lynn watched Praeis step off the fountain’s edge into the arms of her Dedelphi sisters, and the Others. Mother Praeis Shin the Townbuilder, said those who liked her. Praeis the Cold-​Blooded, said those who couldn’t understand why she didn’t get furious at the drop of the hat in the normal Dedelphi fashion. Praeis, who, unlike the other inhabitants of Crater Town, was not a refugee. She was an exile. The ones who knew that had worse names for her, and some of them might have gone for blood. But—Lynn glanced again at the Human security guards on the roofs and highest balconies—Praeis’s planning had made sure that Crater Town had law enforcement that was beyond the influence of the Dedelphi’s fractious anger, as much for her family’s sake as for the good of the colony.
Lynn went back to the worktable. Obviously, no more work was getting done today. The crowd in the streets would be cheering and debating for hours, and Praeis would be in the thick of it. Lynn touched the keys on the table’s edge to save the city map they’d been working with. She subvocalized the record command to her camera implant and stored an additional working copy, in case she had any brilliant ideas on the way home.
Three waves of the plague had hit Crater Town. The sickness had been brought in by refugee ships, and despite steadily tightened quarantine controls, transmitted through families. Now, between thirty and forty percent of the colony’s housing stood empty. The Building Committee had decided to raze the empty buildings as potential health hazards. Lynn and Praeis had met that morning to try to come up with plans for how to use the empty spaces the demolition would create.
Thirty percent. Lynn closed her eyes against the memories of the mass funerals, the dead and dying in their isolation beds, the wailing of the sisters left behind. Hundreds of Human doctors, armed with the best defenses years of research and biotech could devise, had volunteered themselves to help the fight, but they’d only made a small dent in the death tolls. Praeis had lost two sisters and four daughters, and Lynn had been there to watch.
Lynn’s fingers hurt. She opened her eyes and looked down. Her gloved hands clenched the edge of the worktable like they were trying to break it off. Feeling moderately foolish, she let go and finished storing the maps.
Praeis liked to try to give Lynn credit for the success of the Crater Town colony, but Lynn would just shake her head. “I just helped out with the gardening,” she said. “You’re the one who got people to actually live here.”
When the original Dedelphi refugees had shown up, they weren’t fleeing plague, they were fleeing war. They arrived in the ships of Human mercenary pilots. They stood torn between fear and pride at the customs stations of enclaves, space stations, colonies, and city-​ships—anybody who’d let them land and would agree to give them a berth of some variety in return for work or good publicity.
Then came Praeis and her sisters, Jos and Shorie. They saw the scattered, meek Dedelphi population in the Solar system, and they got to work. They found a crater that the Martian enclaves hadn’t bothered to foliate. They convinced twelve separate boards and committees that it would be an incredible act of public charity to give it to the Dedelphi so the Dedelphi could have a home where they could be safe from the Human poison that was a constant danger to themselves, their sisters, their daughters.
Praeis and her sisters tramped all over the system gathering donations, equipment, and skilled help. The refugee Dedelphi responded tentatively at first, but then with growing enthusiasm, especially since many of them had daughters who had never been out of their clean-​suits.
Lynn’s family, famous for their re-​creation of Earth’s Florida peninsula, were recruited to foliate the crater in a style that would be comfortable for the Dedelphi. It was the work of a number of years. Lynn, her portable screen still warm from receiving her doctorate, had fallen in love with the job, and fallen into friendship with Praeis Shin. When the rest of her family left, Lynn stayed behind. The foliation wasn’t complete, she said at the time. There wasn’t nearly enough variety in the fields and gardens. They didn’t have a trained maintenance force yet.
Her family had nodded sagely at each other, hugged her, and let her stay. Everybody knew what was going on, and approved. Back in Florida, Lynn would be tweaking work that had been completed fifty or seventy-​five years ago. Here, she had her own projects, and they were worthwhile ones. Not one relative said one word to protest her basing herself on an entirely different planet.
Her decision had won her the gratitude of the Dedelphi, a number of awards from assorted enclaves, and a handful of really bad nightmares from the plagues. But it was real, and important, and she loved it.
And now…And now what comes next? Lynn wondered toward the windows. What if they all do go home? What am I going to do?
She shook her head and laughed quietly. Nussbaumer, you selfish little so-​and-​so.
As it turned out, it was three hours before the crowds in the street shifted enough for Lynn to get through to the monorail that would take her out of the crater and across the rust-​and-​green landscape to the Ares 12 Human colony. On the way, in her private cabin with its opaqued window, she shucked out of her clean-​suit and helmet and stuffed them into her duffel bag. The suits were awkward, but absolutely necessary. Direct contact with Humans caused massive anaphylactic reactions among the Dedelphi. The touch of a Human hand could raise welts on Dedelphi skin. Human dander sent the Dedelphi respiratory system into massive shock. The first encounter between Dedelphi and Humans had lasted three days before five of the Dedelphi died of heart and respiratory failure. There had been confusion and bloodshed on all sides before it was understood what had happened.
Lynn brushed down her shoulder-​length auburn hair. Since she didn’t actually live with the Dedelphi, she’d been spared the necessity of depilating herself to keep her dander to a minimum.
Ares 12 was a residential community. Its homes and stores were built out of native brick and stood glittering a thousand shades of red in the late-​afternoon sun. The city founders had worked hard to get thornless climbing roses to grow in the soil that remained sandy after three generations, but they’d been successful. Roses—pink, orange, red, white, and yellow—grew in riotous bundles everywhere and climbed up walls the way ivy climbed up walls in towns on Earth. Lynn breathed their perfume in as she walked from the monorail station to the house she shared with her partner, David Zelotes.

Unlike the streets in Crater Town, the streets of Ares 12 were empty. If any of the Humans had gotten the news about the Dedelphi, they were discussing it over the info-​web, if at all.
The cream-​and-​burgundy front room of her home was also empty when Lynn walked in, but she heard David’s voice coming out of his study. A strange voice followed it.
Caller on the line, she thought, and went into her own comfortably untidy study. The antique furniture was covered with disks, films, slivers, actual books, maps, dirty dishes, and half-​empty coffee cups. The cleaning jobber sat in a corner, turned off, as usual, with a china mug and half a stale sandwich balanced on it.
“Claude,” she called for the room voice as she dropped the duffel into the corner and herself into her desk chair. “Any messages?”
“One urgent message from Emile Brador, Vice President in charge of Resource and Schedule Coordination for Bioverse Incorporated Enclave.”
“What?” Lynn shot up in her chair. Bioverse were the ones who just signed the deal with the Dedelphi.
“One urgent message—”
“Claude, stop. Claude, deliver message.”
“Vice President Brador asks Lynn Nussbaumer to connect with him as soon as possible. He has an open thread waiting for her and has left his address with her home system.”
What does Bioverse want with me? “Claude, thread me through to Mr. Brador.”
“Threading.” Pause. “Connection complete.”
Lynn swiveled her chair to face her wall screen.
Emile Brador, Vice President in charge of Resource and Schedule Coordination for Bioverse Incorporated Enclave, appeared on the screen. He was a tidy man, slender, but not small. His round, pale eyes were set in a pinched brown face, making him look like a startled owl. His office, or at least its simulation, was a model of antique gentility with a lot of leather chairs and wooden paneling.
“Good evening, Dr. Nussbaumer,” said Brador. “I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Brador,” replied Lynn in her best formal voice. “I confess, I’m a bit uncertain what you wanted to speak to me about though. I’m assuming it’s got something to do with the foliation program for Crater Town?” Bioverse was a biotech corp. They were always looking for new techniques, or new genomes.
“Actually, we’d like to extend you an offer of citizenship.”
Lynn blinked, startled. “That’s very interesting, but I’d have to think about it.”
Brador nodded. “I fully understand, Dr. Nussbaumer. You are a citizen of excellent standing and family in the Miami Environs and Greater Florida Enclave. When you’re not on Mars, you’re living on land your family re-​created from bottom sand and ancient records. There, you have your pick of lifetime employment situations.” He spread his blunt-​fingered hands. “And what am I offering? A chance for you to cut your ties to your family, surrender your allegiances, and leave home for fifty years or more.” He leaned forward. “But I’m also offering a chance for you to help save an entire world.”
Nice opening, Vice President Brador. She looked back at tidy Veep Brador in his tidy office. She felt her back stiffen.
“Mr. Brador, exactly what do you want me for?”
Unlike the streets in Crater Town, the streets of Ares 12 were empty. If any of the Humans had gotten the news about the Dedelphi, they were discussing it over the info-​web, if at all.
The cream-​and-​burgundy front room of her home was also empty when Lynn walked in, but she heard David’s voice coming out of his study. A strange voice followed it.
Caller on the line, she thought, and went into her own comfortably untidy study. The antique furniture was covered with disks, films, slivers, actual books, maps, dirty dishes, and half-​empty coffee cups. The cleaning jobber sat in a corner, turned off, as usual, with a china mug and half a stale sandwich balanced on it.
“Claude,” she called for the room voice as she dropped the duffel into the corner and herself into her desk chair. “Any messages?”
“One urgent message from Emile Brador, Vice President in charge of Resource and Schedule Coordination for Bioverse Incorporated Enclave.”
“What?” Lynn shot up in her chair. Bioverse were the ones who just signed the deal with the Dedelphi.
“One urgent message—”
“Claude, stop. Claude, deliver message.”
“Vice President Brador asks Lynn Nussbaumer to connect with him as soon as possible. He has an open thread waiting for her and has left his address with her home system.”
What does Bioverse want with me? “Claude, thread me through to Mr. Brador.”
“Threading.” Pause. “Connection complete.”
Lynn swiveled her chair to face her wall screen.
Emile Brador, Vice President in charge of Resource and Schedule Coordination for Bioverse Incorporated Enclave, appeared on the screen. He was a tidy man, slender, but not small. His round, pale eyes were set in a pinched brown face, making him look like a startled owl. His office, or at least its simulation, was a model of antique gentility with a lot of leather chairs and wooden paneling.
“Good evening, Dr. Nussbaumer,” said Brador. “I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Brador,” replied Lynn in her best formal voice. “I confess, I’m a bit uncertain what you wanted to speak to me about though. I’m assuming it’s got something to do with the foliation program for Crater Town?” Bioverse was a biotech corp. They were always looking for new techniques, or new genomes.
“Actually, we’d like to extend you an offer of citizenship.”
Lynn blinked, startled. “That’s very interesting, but I’d have to think about it.”
Brador nodded. “I fully understand, Dr. Nussbaumer. You are a citizen of excellent standing and family in the Miami Environs and Greater Florida Enclave. When you’re not on Mars, you’re living on land your family re-​created from bottom sand and ancient records. There, you have your pick of lifetime employment situations.” He spread his blunt-​fingered hands. “And what am I offering? A chance for you to cut your ties to your family, surrender your allegiances, and leave home for fifty years or more.” He leaned forward. “But I’m also offering a chance for you to help save an entire world.”
Nice opening, Vice President Brador. She looked back at tidy Veep Brador in his tidy office. She felt her back stiffen.
“Mr. Brador, exactly what do you want me for?”
Unlike the streets in Crater Town, the streets of Ares 12 were empty. If any of the Humans had gotten the news about the Dedelphi, they were discussing it over the info-​web, if at all.
The cream-​and-​burgundy front room of her home was also empty when Lynn walked in, but she heard David’s voice coming out of his study. A strange voice followed it.
Caller on the line, she thought, and went into her own comfortably untidy study. The antique furniture was covered with disks, films, slivers, actual books, maps, dirty dishes, and half-​empty coffee cups. The cleaning jobber sat in a corner, turned off, as usual, with a china mug and half a stale sandwich balanced on it.
“Claude,” she called for the room voice as she dropped the duffel into the corner and herself into her desk chair. “Any messages?”
“One urgent message from Emile Brador, Vice President in charge of Resource and Schedule Coordination for Bioverse Incorporated Enclave.”
“What?” Lynn shot up in her chair. Bioverse were the ones who just signed the deal with the Dedelphi.
“One urgent message—”
“Claude, stop. Claude, deliver message.”
“Vice President Brador asks Lynn Nussbaumer to connect with him as soon as possible. He has an open thread waiting for her and has left his address with her home system.”
What does Bioverse want with me? “Claude, thread me through to Mr. Brador.”
“Threading.” Pause. “Connection complete.”
Lynn swiveled her chair to face her wall screen.
Emile Brador, Vice President in charge of Resource and Schedule Coordination for Bioverse Incorporated Enclave, appeared on the screen. He was a tidy man, slender, but not small. His round, pale eyes were set in a pinched brown face, making him look like a startled owl. His office, or at least its simulation, was a model of antique gentility with a lot of leather chairs and wooden paneling.
“Good evening, Dr. Nussbaumer,” said Brador. “I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Brador,” replied Lynn in her best formal voice. “I confess, I’m a bit uncertain what you wanted to speak to me about though. I’m assuming it’s got something to do with the foliation program for Crater Town?” Bioverse was a biotech corp. They were always looking for new techniques, or new genomes.
“Actually, we’d like to extend you an offer of citizenship.”
Lynn blinked, startled. “That’s very interesting, but I’d have to think about it.”
Brador nodded. “I fully understand, Dr. Nussbaumer. You are a citizen of excellent standing and family in the Miami Environs and Greater Florida Enclave. When you’re not on Mars, you’re living on land your family re-​created from bottom sand and ancient records. There, you have your pick of lifetime employment situations.” He spread his blunt-​fingered hands. “And what am I offering? A chance for you to cut your ties to your family, surrender your allegiances, and leave home for fifty years or more.” He leaned forward. “But I’m also offering a chance for you to help save an entire world.”
Nice opening, Vice President Brador. She looked back at tidy Veep Brador in his tidy office. She felt her back stiffen.
“Mr. Brador, exactly what do you want me for?”
She meant to shock him, but Brador’s mouth just quirked up. A good sign, probably.
“As of yesterday,” he said, “Bioverse Inc. has a contract with the Dedelphi—”
“Yes, I untied the web knot,” Lynn cut him off. “Impressive. I thought getting all the Dedelphi Great Families to agree on something was impossible.”
“That’s what I thought.” Brador nodded, and, for the moment, the vice presidential mannerisms dropped. “The Getesaph and the Fil actually contacted us over a year ago, but what they want…It was decided we couldn’t make a contract without a worldwide agreement.”
“What exactly are they asking you to do?” Genuine curiosity prompted Lynn’s question. There’d been so many rumors, and she’d barely skimmed the first thread of the knot in the office with Praeis.
“For a start, we’re going to contract a biomedical team and put a stop to the plague they’ve unleashed on themselves.” For a second, Brador’s smile seeped into his eyes. “That is what my colleague is speaking with your partner, Dr. Zelotes, about.”
“That’s ‘for a start.’” She made quotation marks with her fingers. “What’s after that?”
“We are also being asked to perform full-​scale bioremediation efforts to clean the planet up after two centuries of extremely dirty warfare.”
Lynn sat back and rested her elbows on the chair’s arms. She knew a fair amount about the world that Humans called Dedelph. There were places on that world that glowed in the dark. There were places you couldn’t see from space because of the industrial haze. The Dedelphi never developed anything like the bio- and eco-​tech that had allowed Humans to repair Earth and build themselves some brand-​new homes on other worlds. To clean and repair a whole world after all those centuries of eco-​disaster…Something warm surged through her.
With a little difficulty, Lynn set that feeling aside and looked back at Brador again.
“What are we going to do about the anaphylactic reactions?” she asked. “You can’t drop thousands of Humans, and it is going to be thousands, right?” Brador nodded. “Thousands of Humans in the middle of a population they can kill by breathing on them.”
The vice president overshadowed Brador again. “That is an exaggeration.”
Lynn shook her head. “Not by much, it isn’t.”
Brador reached over to his main desk and touched its surface. The upper right-​hand corner of the office scene cleared, replaced by a simulation of a ragged archipelago of space stations on a field of night and stars. “The center of our operations will be space-​based until we can evacuate the population—”
“Until we what?” Lynn gripped her chair’s arms. A couple of implants beeped in protest.
Brador folded his hands in front of him. “We’re going to move the population onto city-​ships and go to ground with nanotech and biosculpt.”
For a second, Lynn remembered she was in the middle of a very high-​powered job interview with a representative of a huge corporate enclave.
In the next second, she decided she didn’t care. “Are you out of your corporate mind?” she demanded. “We’re talking about a billion people!”
“One point three billion, by the most recent estimate,” replied Brador. He touched his desk again. The space simulation was replaced by a population-​distribution chart.
Lynn stared at it without reading it. “One point three billion people who, despite what we saw today, have a long history of hating each other’s genomes and going for blood when they can.” She threw up both hands. “You’re going to move them onto city-​ships—” She stopped and did a quick calculation. “There aren’t that many city-​ships in existence!” Lynn turned away for a moment, staring at her window. The evening sun turned the stone veranda a brilliant scarlet. She faced her interviewer again, somewhat more in control of herself. “Vice President Brador, you can’t be thinking of jamming these people into a bunch of retooled freighters! This…project…is going to take at least fifty years!”
“Probably more like seventy-​five.” His pinched face and round eyes were absolutely sober and serious. “And no, we’re not putting them in retooled freighters. We are going to place them in fully functional city-​ships, many of which will be custom-​built.” The graphic changed to a construction blueprint. “Our engineering teams are already at work in the Dedelph system asteroid belts. We expect an eighty percent need fulfillment within the year.”
“How are you planning on scheduling an evacuation for a billion people? Do you have any idea of how many a billion is?”
“Generally: It’s a thousand million.” His expression did not waver.
“And what,” said Lynn, looking him directly in the eye, “are you going to do with the plague victims during this evacuation?”
Brador remained unfazed. “Each city-​ship will be equipped with a hospital quarter capable of holding ten thousand patients. Again, we hope your partner, Dr. Zelotes, will be helping with their relocation and care.”
Lynn rubbed her forehead. “You’re going to have to keep a billion Dedelphi, sick or well, housed and fed and comfortable during the evacuation. You’re going to have to have a responsive grievance team, a clear, concise schedule, a comprehensive crisis scenario…” She broke off, running her hand through her hair. “If you’re not careful, this cure is going to be a whole lot worse than the disease.”
“Yes. That’s why we need you.” Brador leaned forward. What Lynn had thought was poor lighting on his face turned into a full day’s worth of five o’clock shadow. Whatever he’d been doing lately, it hadn’t even left him time to depilate. “Are you aware of the reputation you possess, Dr. Nussbaumer? Not only for your ability to work with the Dedelphi, but for your massive success in coordinating and directing their colony’s foliation and agricultural efforts.”
“I had a lot of help,” said Lynn, refusing to let herself be flattered. “And you still haven’t said exactly what it is you want me for.”
Brador’s eyes glittered. “I want you to organize and coordinate the relocation. For a start.”
Lynn opened her mouth and shut it again. “And for my next trick?”
“Coordinate and manage the southern-​hemisphere microreconstruction teams.”
Lynn just sat there for a moment. To give a whole race their lives back, give them their world back, alive and clean and new…
“You’re going to be allowing time for a complete life-​web survey, right? Micro- and macroscopic?”
Brador nodded. “We have some teams down there already, and we’re shipping out more this week. The bases will be up and running by the time you’re there to help coordinate activities and information.”
Twenty years’ work right there, mapping the ecosystem of an entire planet so they could take it apart and put it back together again. “And we’ll be customizing the bioremediation tools based on the local ecostructures, correct?”
“We’ll be designing them from the ground up, if we have to,” said Brador. “If you and your colleagues decide we have to,” he added. “We will go over the entire planet one inch at a time with every nano we can breed.”
“Why not just drop a couple of asteroids on the place and start from the ground up?” she asked half-​facetiously. “It’d be faster, and cheaper.”
Brador’s face remained impassive. “The Dedelphi are hoping we can do this without completely destroying their civilizations’ infrastructures. We’ve agreed to try. Several of our teams are going through what archives and libraries there are, trying to find out what exactly conditions were like two hundred years ago.”
There probably wouldn’t be much. None of the Great Families had much time or many resources for pure research. That was just one of the reasons why, despite the fact that they were at least as old as Humanity, their technology was at late-​twentieth-​century levels, at best.
Brador wasn’t admitting it, but a lot of the bioremediation was going to be guesswork. They could interview the oldest Dedelphi they could find and hear what their mother’s mother’s mother had said the world was like. Maybe they’d find a record or two about some extinct creatures, but, as far as determining exact ratios of, say, rain forest to grassland, or the proportions of bacteria in the soil of a specific area, or the original extent of a coral reef, the teams would have to work from simulations and educated speculation. They really would be building a whole new world…
A thought struck her. “What are the Dedelphi giving Bioverse in exchange for these miracles?”
Brador’s smile slipped back into place. “Anything useful we find.”
Lynn sucked in a breath. Except for a handful of isolationist enclaves, all the worlds in the Human Chain ran on nanotech. Nanotech ran on proteins and DNA. For all the talk there’d been once about microscopic fans and gears, the really useful technology turned out to be tightly controlled biochemistry.
Bioverse had been offered a planetful of untapped biochemistry.
“Think about it.” A light shone in Brador’s round eyes. “They’ve fusion-​bombed whole islands, and yet there’re still living organisms on them. Bacteria that are radiation-​hardened. We can turn those into assemblers that can’t be interrupted by a fluctuating electromagnetic field. They’ve got huge pits filled with untreated inorganic debris, and there’re living organisms in there. We could make those into disassemblers of incredible efficiency. They’ve got algae blooms big enough to turn a whole bay colors and tough enough that all that industrial pollution can’t wipe them out. That’s a whole new way to eat gaseous toxins next time we want to convert a gas giant.” He waved his hand. “We had all this on Earth once, but we bulldozed it to clean the place up.” He must have caught something sour in her expression, because he stopped himself. “I know, I know, to be fair, we didn’t know what we had, or how to handle it. We had to bulldoze it.” The light returned to his eyes. “But now we have a second chance.  “We’ve got four conglomerates and six enclaves planning their economies for the next century around this project, Dr. Nussbaumer. We’re going to save a world. Want in?”
A billion people. A billion people to transport and shelter and accommodate in all the billion ways each of them would need. Negotiations and treaties to begin and maintain. They’d have to cap wars that had smoldered for centuries. They’d have to clean out and rebuild an entire world.
“I’ll need to consider it,” she said with what she hoped was an appropriate blend of aloofness and cautious interest.
Brador’s smile was merely polite, but Lynn had the distinct feeling she hadn’t fooled him for a second. “Of course. Your room has my direct address. You may contact me at any time.”
They said polite farewells, and Lynn cut the connection. She sat dazed at the enormity of the project Brador had just offered her. Finally, she shook herself and returned to the living room.
David was there, his long frame stretched out on the couch. Three of the windows were clear to let the end of the Martian day shine into the room. The fourth showed the treaty signing. The Queens-​of-​All were just receiving the treaty boards from the Sisters-​Chosen-​to-​Lead.
She crossed the thick, burgundy carpet to stand behind the sofa and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Look at that.” David’s voice was soft as he gestured toward the view on the screen. “They actually did it.”
“I know, I saw.” Lynn watched the scene replay itself. “You wouldn’t believe the scene in Crater Town.” Lynn shook her head without taking her eyes off the screen. “I always knew they had it in them, but I never thought I’d live to see it.”
Suddenly, a familiar shape caught her gaze, and she squinted at the shadows on the right of the stage.
A recorder stood on its tripod legs, panning its double lenses slowly to take in the audience packed shoulder to shoulder at the foot of the stage. A Human held its leash. Lynn leaned forward. A man. Old memories rang in the back of her head.
“Screen, zoom in on male Human figure on the stage.”
David cocked a questioning brow at her, but Lynn said nothing. The image repositioned itself so the thin, tan, bald man in his clean-​suit was the only person on the screen. Involuntarily, Lynn gripped David’s shoulder.
“Arron,” she whispered. Arron tracked his recorder’s path with his own gaze. From this close, it looked like he was searching their living room for something.
“Arron?” asked David. “Not Arron Hagopian?”
Lynn nodded. On the screen, Arron thumbed the recorder’s leash box. It turned its lenses back toward the delegates on the stage. His gaze followed the lenses. His face was tight, unhappy, and years older than it should have been.
What’s the matter, Arron? Arron had once filled her life. She had always thought that someday, when she had the time, she’d find him again, and they’d be friends. She’d introduce him to David, and they’d get along great. But the time had never materialized, and without even thinking about it, she’d lost track of him.
David looked from Lynn to the screen and back again. “Do you want to talk, or do you want to keep watching?”

Lynn felt a smile forming. “Jealous?” she asked, tousling David’s neatly cropped hair.
He raised his right hand. “I am not now, nor have I ever been jealous of Arron Hagopian,” he announced seriously. “Although I have occasionally wanted to beat him senseless for not appreciating you.” David lowered his hand to let it rest on top of hers.
She squeezed his fingers gratefully. “Screen off,” she said, and Arron winked out of sight, replaced by blackness.
“Well,” said David, wriggling around so he could see her better. “What’d you hear?”
Lynn opened her mouth and closed it again. What did I hear? Not a word about salary, or staff, or citizenship conditions. I just heard about helping to save a whole world, and I didn’t think to ask about anything else.
David watched her face, listened to her silence, and nodded. “Yeah, that’s about what I heard.” His eyes shone with a cold light. Lynn ran her knuckles along his chin and nodded.
David was an epidemiologist. He’d come to Crater Town shortly after the first wave of the plague did, when it was realized there wasn’t one-​tenth the number of doctors among the Dedelphi needed to deal with the crisis. Since then, he’d watched thousands of patients die, sometimes literally under his own hands. If Lynn had a handful of nightmares from the plague waves, David had a lifetime’s worth.
Bioverse had offered Lynn a chance to rebuild a whole world, but they had offered him the chance to save lives.
“Okay.” Lynn squeezed his hand one more time. “We’re going.”
David brought her hand to his lips and kissed it gently. “We’re going.”

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