I’m writing this account because I want to leave a record about what really happened on Aether.
My name is Thyme. Yeah, you saw that right. I also have a brother named Sage and a sister named Rosemary. We come by it honestly, though. Our dad rediscovered the song on ambergris rods from fossilized twenty-ninth century whale-ships long before the immerso-groups got a hold of it. My dad is frickin’ moons about stuff like that: he built a player for the rods out of specialty parts. We have a vault in our house to store the thing.
The second thing you should know about me is that my family runs Gaia Corp. Yeah, that Family. But before you get too impressed, remember that the corp’s been around a thousand years, and the Family is thousands of members large. We don’t even belong to any of the important branches—Dad works in Product Packaging and Mom’s in Species Monitoring. The closest we get to any of the really important members is walking past their portraits displayed under those of the Family Founders in the lobby of Gaia Corp’s headquarters.
But being part of the Family means quote-having-responsibilities-unquote, which is why I was spending my summer vacation working a crummy gift shop on Aether instead of riding the waves in the sweet-water oceans of Aegis III with my friends.
Mom had been assigned to conduct the bi-decade survey on the rays. You know, keep an eye on their health, psychological stability, any environmental stresses, that sort of thing, since the rays are still in the Guardianship phase of the Sentient Species Recognition program.
Aether’s not a bad planet as far as ice giants go, and the rays reminded me of the cetaceans on Aegis III. After about a month, though, I was bored out of my mind. I’d spent most of my time on the cramped human habitat in the upper atmosphere. I’d taken my fly-suit for a glide a few times, but there’s all these rules about where you can go, how deep you can dive, how fast you can fly. And Mom made me put on ALL the safety gear, including the anti-grav. I was so bulked up I couldn’t feel a thing. It’s no fun without wind on your face and gravity tugging you down.
I have to admit, though, it’s pretty cool when the rays come alongside you, emitting squeaks in the ultra-sonic range and flashing signals in the sub-light. They’re really pretty, all fluttery membranes and translucent bodies. Gaia Corp specially gen-gineered them for Aether. They take in the mix of hydrogen, ammonia, and hydrocarbons in the atmosphere and metabolize them into more useful substances.
A resource extraction company sends a scoop-ship every few weeks or so to collect the nodules of chemicals. They’ll often bring a tourist group on board. There’s nothing much to do on Aether besides take holos and watch the rays dance, so we mostly get retirees.
They’re the sort who go moons in the gift shop. We have your usual type of stuff: educational holos of rays, plushies of rays, the only three books in existence about rays (written by Family members, of course). Two years ago, a famous sculptor came by and made these blobby figurines out of ray excreta. The stuff is a sheeny grey, and the sculptures look like nothing I can put a name to.
They’re easily upwards of five thousand credits, and the tourists love them. Me, well, to me, they’re just ray poop.
Keeping them dust-free is a pain.
There were seven left when I came, and I hand-sold four in as many weeks. I have a knack for telling which blue-haired lady is most likely to buy them, and I focus all my charm on her. Mom says it’s scarily effective.
Now there are only two left. I’ll tell you about the third one in a minute.
So, there I was, bored as usual, in the gift shop, when the man came in.
He’d been around for a while. He’d come in on a real tin can, one of those extractor ships that are basically shells around a lot of robot-run machinery. No group, just him alone. He stayed in one of the four guest rooms we had on the level above the shop and ate his meals at the auto-chef in the tiny snack bar area.
If there was ever a candidate for Santy Klew, it was this guy. He had thick grey hair, bushy eyebrows, and a snowy beard that almost touched his chest. His eyes were that glacial blue that are described as “piercing” in the roms my sister Rosemary reads. He even had a paunch to go along with the whole package, and he spent many hours on the observation deck with his hands folded over it.
This guy had been all over Aether’s upper atmosphere, visiting the colonies and watching the dances. To be honest, the reason why I even went over to talk to him was because I thought he had a ray obsession, and I could fob off another one of the poop statues on him.
You can’t blame a guy for trying. Those things weren’t going to sell themselves. Hey, if you’re reading this, the gift shop on Aether might still have one. [link]Check it out[/link] and see if you want it.
So, I grabbed the most expensive of the three and meandered up to the big windows. I casually deposited the sculpture on a high table nearby and made a big fuss dusting off a vase of fake flowers. One good thing about the blobs is that they’re conversation pieces, if nothing else.
Old man didn’t even look over.
Okay, so he was going play hardball. I can roll with that.
Mounted to the wall nearby was a news-only screen running replays of the Melian flu that had killed over 90% of the dryads on their jungle planet and the programming error that had caused the Hekaton mining disaster in the asteroid belt of Eires IV. Both the dryads and the symbiote-robot Hekatons were Gaia gen-gineered species, so you can understand that the grownups on Aether had been a tad paranoid lately.
Mom had already had a number of hastily-scheduled meetings. She told me not to worry about the Family; sometimes these things happen, but her forehead was wrinkled and worried.
“Nice day out for ray dances,” I commented, nodding at the window as I wiped each individual plastic petal. “There’s just enough atmospheric motion to energize them. If we’re lucky we might see light halos around them. You see, as a byproduct of their metabolic processes, rays synthesize…” And I was off.
I admit, most of what I knew about rays was from the informational pamphlets in the rack at the front of the counter. They were written in factoid style, full of bubbles with headings like “Did You Know…?”
So I blathered on with, “Did you know that rays have no concept of competition, given they are a low population in a resource-rich environment?” and “Did you know rays were accepted into the Sentient Species Recognition program in 4325?”
He didn’t bite at any of these.
Well, I know how to be obnoxious. Sage says I’ve got it down to a science.
“You an artist?” I nodded at the sketchpad, an old-fashioned one of real paper, in his hands.
He visibly perked up. “An amateur, really.”
“Can I see?” Brazenly, I moved to his side and peered over his shoulder. “Wow! These are really good!”
I wasn’t lying when I said that. He really was good, with a scientist’s eye for detail. As he flipped the pages, I saw diagrams of rays in motion, cross-sections, closeup views of their feeding mechanisms, or more.
“They really are beautiful, the rays. Mom says they’re up there in the best of Gaia’s gen-gineered species.”
The guy pursed his lips and frowned. He didn’t look at all like Santy Klew when he did that, more like my many-great-grandmother Mnemosyne the one time she’d met me and my siblings. I don’t think we’d impressed her. “So-so,” he said. “Their design could be improved.”
He flipped more pages, and I saw sketches of modified rays, larger, bulkier, with prominent mouth parts, and sharp-tipped tails and wings. “You see?” he said. “With these new designs, they can dive deeper into the atmosphere and extract heavier elements. Of course, I increased their aggression so they’d be bolder. Of course, they’ll fight more, so I equipped them with…”
A flicker of movement at the window caught my eye. The rays were arriving. Soon their entire population would be gathered outside the observation deck in an inclusive dance that happened only about once an Aetherian month.
“The rays are fine the way they are,” I said uncomfortably. “Besides, now that they’ve been recognized by the Alliance, no one can interfere with their genetic code.”
The guy said nothing. Still holding his sketch book, he had his arms behind his back. He was utterly involved in the rays.
I was seriously creeped out by the dude. There was a gleam in his eyes that I didn’t like at all, one that reminded me too much of the bordering-on-inhuman elders of the Family. Edging away, I grasped at a way to end this conversation. The statue could wait another day. “Oh, hey. The rays have floating rings to play with today. That’s something new.”
And then I saw it. The small, secretive smile on the guy’s face. The slight movement of his right hand, clenched around something I couldn’t see. And the newsies blathering away, “… a rash of problems with Gaia Corp’s gen-gineered species have some considering if these are the results of malicious targeting…”
Suddenly it all clicked. I remembered the picture in Gaia Corp’s lobby. I knew who that guy was. I knew what he was up to.
My body acted on its own. My hand grabbed the most expensive poop statue. I took a swing at him.
The guy saw it coming, and ducked but not enough. I dealt him a glancing blow.
Then I kicked him in the groin.
I meant to aim for his knees, but I guess I was too excited.
He doubled over, and I finished the job with a final whack to the head.
His head didn’t crack, but the statue did. $10,000 creds lay in shards on the floor.
I sat on the guy and called my mom on the link to tell her that I had one of the Family Founders, my mass-murdering many-times-great-grampa, pinned to the floor and could she please come and help me lock him up in the storage unit?
After that, I got to see the full might of Gaia Corp in action. Two seconds after my mom commed them, we got signal of an incoming gate. We huddled behind the register as time and space bent around us. Lights came on in the grooves in the floor and, with a weird sucking sound, a portal yawned open.
I swear I caught a glimpse of a desert world with twin suns before the gate flickered out of existence.
In its place stood four guys in the sleek skin-tight power armor you know is far more expensive than the bulky standard-issue gear, and a woman in a suit and high heels.
All five of them were the scariest people I’d ever seen. Their eyes said not to mess with them, they’ve been around a few times.
It’s a bit blurry after that, but I had to tell them my story—multiple times. There was a lot of stammering involved while the Immortals—heck, that’s who they had to be—burned their gazes right into my soul. I couldn’t have made up anything if I tried.
I was right. The old man really was my many-times-great-grampa, the original joint owner of Gaia Corp. I wasn’t surprised. After all, Gaia Corp is run by his daughter, Rhea, and she’s—by choice—a brain in a jar at this point. Most of the upper echelon are Immortals, from the time before they banned the immortality serum for its disastrous side effects. These are the ones who’re on all sorts of drugs to keep them going completely psycho.
Mom explained it all to me, later on. You see, Gaia Corp needs Gramps’ genius. Unfortunately, the genius is linked to psychopathy, and he has no compunctions about destroying whole species in order to start over with the upgraded versions. Put him on drugs to control it, and he’s just a doddering old man who likes to watch reruns of My Little Hippogriff and buy things like self-cleaning suits off the shopping channels.
“So, Gaia Corp keeps him in a secure system on a nice planet, away from everybody else, where he can work in peace.”
“How secure can it be if he escaped?”
“Well,” Mom sighed, “he is a genius. But,” she brightened, “they’ve assured me they’re going to tighten their security even more. He won’t ever escape Tartarus again.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Did you know they had Psycho Gramps locked up in this Tartarus place, Mom? Is this one of those family secrets you’re inducted in when you get a job at the Corp?”
“Heavens, no, Thyme. I’m much too low-level for that kind of security clearance. Anyhow, tomorrow is our final deposition and we can put this behind us for good and get off Aether. I expect you’re ready for it.”
“Hmm,” I said again. My parents are great, but they’re the laid-back, free-flowing, trusting types. Gaia Corp had been much more forthcoming than I would’ve thought, even giving Mom the name of Gramps’ prison planet.
Sure, we were Family, but there are limits.
How much are you willing to bet that after our deposition tomorrow, Mom and I will find some blurry holes in our memories?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
So I’m recording this account and hiding it sub-net under a don’t-see-me shell. I’ll have a net-search algorithm running, monitoring the news for mass extinctions of Gaia Corp gen-gineered species. If that happens, this record goes public.
Just in case my genocidal many-great-grandfather escapes his handlers again.
For this Planets Project story inspired by Uranus, I went with a mix of Greek mythology and far-future sci-fi. The best part of writing this, though, was the teenage boy POV. And maybe the ray poop statues. 🙂