I met my first human on my fifteenth birthday.
Naturally, I had seen the advertisements over the past two years, when they became available commercially. Better than toys, they were easier to manage than pets, or so my aunt thought. My father had a different view entirely.
They didn’t give her to me during the party, when my friends and I were running around playing games. There was too much risk that she would be damaged during the happy bedlam. Although the law allows for their sale the abuse of humans was and remains strictly prohibited, as I was to learn later.
Finally, after the food had been eaten and the dishes cleared away, my father brought out a large container. “We have one last present for you, Breana,” my aunt said, smiling widely.
My hands were already on the box. “Is it that turtle I saw at the pet store?” Seven days previous, when walking past the shop on an errand with her, I had seen an adorable little turtle in the store window. I had been dropping hints about receiving it for my birthday all week.
She shook her head. “No. It’s something much better.”
“Open it,” my father urged. He smiled, but for once the grin didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Too eager to wonder at that, I tore open the wrapping. The paper did conceal a terrarium, but it was not for a turtle. Rather than a puddle, rock, and twigs, a miniature cottage stood in the center of the glass case. Nearby was a false well and a small windmill. In the back there was the outline of a garden, just waiting to be planted and cultivated.
Every girl in my class could have identified it as quickly as I did. “It’s a human terrarium!” I exclaimed.
But even in my excitement, a chill trickled down my spine. Though they averaged six inches in height and resembled the dolls I had manipulated all my life, I knew humans were not toys. Nor were they pets. They were a sapient species that resembled the Brodin people almost exactly.
And I was just old enough to feel unsettled by the idea of owning another person.
“Yes!” my aunt exclaimed. “It is a human terrarium. It’s self-sustaining, like Brod’s orbital scientific research platform, so she’ll be able to feed and clean herself. She can also use it to manufacture her own clothes and any accessories she wants.”
“She?” I repeated quietly. We had moved to the area a month prior, almost a year after my mother’s death. Though I had succeeded in making some friends, most of them were boys. My female friends were almost exclusively confined to my old hometown.
For some reason I could not fathom, this irritated my aunt. She insisted that I needed to spend more time with my own sex and leave the boys to their own devices. It didn’t matter that I liked science, mathematics, and most of the same sports they did; in her opinion, the boys were a bad influence on me.
Thus, rather than wait for me to find girls I preferred to associate with on my own, she had purchased one for me.
Before I could say anything, my father held a smaller, wrapped package out to me. He continued to smile, but in his eyes there was a warning and a plea. He already knew there was no talking my aunt out of this. Moreover, he understood the dangers which humans living on Brod faced better than I did. Later on I would come to appreciate the exceptional trust he placed in me that day, and every day afterward.
At the time, though, I remained an unaware and insulted teenager. Swallowing my discomfort and anger, I took the parcel and opened it carefully. Inside the plastic package, lying safely in a small cryotube meant to hold her in place and ageless for at least a year or until someone bought her, was a woman no taller than my hand. She had ivory skin, dark hair, and wore a sundress that reached to her ankles but left her shod feet visible.
“She looks just like one of your dolls, doesn’t she?” my aunt said.
Dumb with wonder and a growing sense of dread, I simply nodded. “Why don’t you and your father set up the terrarium and let her out?” she continued. “I’ll finish cleaning up.”
Silently, I followed my father upstairs into my bedroom. Once inside, he set the terrarium down on the bed. Then he closed the door. “Are you all right, Breana?”
I nodded again. He studied me carefully. For the first time I noticed the tension in him; he was worried. And not just about me.
Finally, after a long moment, he gestured to the package in my hands. “You’re a bright girl, Breana. You know that the woman you’re holding isn’t a doll, don’t you?”
Once again, I nodded. At the same time, I consciously relaxed my grip on the package. If I squeezed too hard, she would be….
Don’t even think about it! A panicked part of me screamed.
My father continued. “She has a name. She had a family. She has a will of her own. I want you to remember that. Treat her as you would a sister – someone you have to take care of, perhaps at your own expense. I hope it never comes to that, but you have to be aware it might.” Reaching forward, he put his hands over mine and closed them gently. I realized belatedly that if he hadn’t, I might have dropped her. “Be careful. Be kind. And always remember that she is as much a person as you are.”
Unexpected tears sprang to my eyes and I nodded vigorously. Leaning forward, he kissed me on the forehead. “Good girl. Now,” he wiped my tears away, “where do you want her house?”
“Not on the floor,” I said. My voice, ragged with pent up emotion, embarrassed me. Swallowing to clear my throat, I nodded to the top of my desk. Since there was an attached bookself, it would offer both security and a measure of privacy for us both. “If we can put her there…”
He smiled, and this time the grin did reach his eyes. Straightening, he went over and pulled out my desk chair before removing the books from that part of the table. I sat down in the chair and watched him stack the volumes neatly on my nightstand.
Once finished with those, he moved some of my school supplies and smaller bric-a-brac aside. After dusting the area off, he measured the open space. Then he checked the terrarium’s dimensions. Nodding in satisfaction, he picked it up and carefully slotted it into place. Uncoiling the plug, he slipped it into the wall socket.
Inside the case, the tiny house lit up. A series of smaller lights awoke near the lid at the same time, providing a gentle illumination for the whole box. The windmill began to turn as water slurped. A moment later liquid trickled charmingly through the terrarium’s internal, underground irrigation system.
“You’ll occasionally have to add water to the system,” my father explained, pulling open a tray near the front of the container. I leaned forward to see it better. “And there will have to be nutrients added to it, to help sustain the interior environment. I’ll see about getting her some poultry at some point, so she has eggs and meat to eat.” He closed the tray with a frown. “This case isn’t big enough to house any of the other animals that came with them when they landed on Brod.”
“So the container recycles waste to maintain the grass and plants at the same time it allows the reproduction machine in the cottage to manufacture items she wants, like paper and clothes?”
He nodded. “Though you might be able to give her some of the smaller dresses your dolls have, if she wants them.” Pointing to the glass, he traced the outline of a door. It had a small brass knob on the outside, but no matching partner on the interior. “You can let her out here, or open the top of the terrarium to lift her out.”
“But she can’t get out on her own,” I said.
“It’s a safety precaution. Earlier terrariums allowed freedom of access, but it led to some humans being maimed or killed by house pets. Others died falling from tables and counters or after being pulled into vacuum cleaners and air vents.” I winced at the images his words conjured up, and he sighed. “Though I agree that it would be better if she could come and go as she pleased, even in our house, it might not be safe for her.”
Carefully, he showed me how to slit the plastic packaging open without damaging the cryotube. I studied the information on the box before pulling her out. There was no name printed on it, as there had been with many of my dolls.
Once free of the plastic, my father showed me the area in the container’s base where the cryotube could be inserted. “You can slip the tube in here and allow her into the terrarium immediately, or let her out on your desk and give her a chance to explore a bit. Just remember that she’s stronger than your dolls, but she bleeds and breaks like you and I do. Handle her with care.”
“Wait. Aren’t you going to stay while I let her out?”
He shook his head. “It’s better if she sees me later. Too many people standing over them make humans nervous, the same way it would bother you and me. She’ll be more comfortable getting to know us one at a time.”
Turning to leave, he paused and looked back at me. “Oh, I almost forgot. Humans know our tongue and can write it, but they have a hard time speaking it. She’ll understand you just fine, but you’ll have to rely on sign language or written words to comprehend her most of the time.”
“Dad,” I said, “how come you know so much about humans?”
A haunted look came into his eyes. “What’s the name of the company on the package, Breana?”
I glanced down at the empty container – and froze. The company name on the cardboard was the same one where my father worked. My father had helped package my birthday present.
More to the point, he had wrapped a person. For sale. In a department store.
And then he helped buy her for me.
“Treat her gently, Breana.”
I turned to look at him, but he was already closing my bedroom door behind him.
For a long time, I sat and stared at that door. Tears ran down my face, but they weren’t for me. They weren’t even for the human woman locked in the cryotube on my desk. They were for the father who had been forced to sacrifice his honor to support me while hoping against hope that, somehow, I could save my own.
After a while I wiped away the tears and turned back to the cryotube. Having used less sophisticated ones in educational experiments, it would be easy for me to open this one. The only question was whether or not I had the nerve to do it.
Taking a deep breath, I carefully hit the release.
Looking back on those first few days, I cannot help but smile. Amelia, the human in the cryotube, was as nervous as I during our first week together. Mute from birth, she could only express herself through writing, gestures, and action. But the fact that I had been crying seemed to help her accept me on sight. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that my father was one of her enslavers, but I did mention his unhappiness.
She sympathized with that, and with how it made me feel. We spent most of the evening developing a rudimentary form of communication before I had to go to bed. Although I could tell she wasn’t happy to leave the freedom of my dangerously enormous room, she did not protest when I asked her to go into the cottage. I could not bring myself to call it a terrarium in front of her.
Over the next few weeks, we established a schedule. Amelia would spend my school hours in the cottage, setting up her garden and hen house in order to make the bungalow a home. Once I got back, I would let her out, and we would “chat” while I did my homework. She was able to help me with writing and history, but found most of the math I loved confusing. Eventually, she admitted that she had never had an aptitude for it.
After a week or two, I began to feel guilty about leaving her in my room during dinner or when I went out. So I started wearing a jacket around the house, one that had an inside pocket at chest height. Amelia could climb into and out of it, and it was deep enough that I could bend down and not worry that she would tumble to the floor or the ground. Though I dared not take her beyond my back yard, we spent the next six months finding various ways to amuse ourselves without putting her in danger.
I lost some of my new friends over those months. Afraid they might accidentally – or purposefully – harm her in their eagerness to try new things, I kept Amelia’s presence a secret from the other children. No doubt my aunt was happy to see the boys go, but it did me no real favors to rush home from school and, later, summer activities with a hurried excuse about the need to take care of chores around the house. I became “the weird kid” in the neighborhood who never had time for friends.
But even though I lost their companionship, I did gain a sister over the course of those six months. Amelia became both an older and a younger sibling to me. I had to be constantly on the look out for ways she might be hurt, yet I felt the difference in our age whenever she chastised me for whining or told me stories from her own childhood.
So I was quite distressed when, on arriving home earlier than usual one day, I saw her sitting with her knees drawn up under her chin in the terrarium. Though she sat in such a way as to hide her face from the door, she was clearly shaking.
A bolt of fear shot through me as I let my bedroom door click shut. Hurrying over, I realized she was not vomiting, as I had first thought. She was sobbing – hard.
“Amelia!” Rather than open the door in her cage, I lifted the lid. “Amelia! Amelia, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Too overcome, she simply shook her head and continued crying. Instinctively I reached in and gently picked her up. As a mother cradles her infant, I held her to me and let her weep, wondering what was wrong and how I could help fix it.
Finally, she calmed down enough to answer my question in sign language. She was too distressed to use pen and paper, a fact made obvious by her continued trembling. Through hand signs and gestures she explained that before being packaged and sold, she had married another human.
My mouth went dry. Swallowing once, twice, I managed to ask, “What is his name?”
Taking a small scrap of paper and a pen taller than she was, she wrote: Thomas O’Reilly.
I stared at the name, pressing my hands to my forehead. Of course. I should have known. I should have thought of it. She had a family, my father had said six months ago. Why would Amelia, who was in her early twenties, not also have a husband? Knowing her as well as I did now, I rebuked myself for not considering the possibility that she might be married.
At the same time, I realized she could not survive without friends or connections of her own. We were sisters, after a fashion, but even sisters travel in different social circles. They have diverse friends, separate interests, varied talents and loves. Had I fallen so far as those who turned her into a commodity to think she could be satisfied with only a teenage girl as a companion?
Fury swept through me. This would not stand. While I could not grant Amelia the freedom she deserved, I could at least make her bondage a little more bearable. “Can you draw a picture of him?”
Startled, she stared at me blankly for a moment. Then, slowly, she nodded. Pulling out a larger piece of paper for her to work with, I pushed back from the desk and stood up.
While she drew, I went to my bed and dug a catalogue from my father’s company out from beneath it. At the time I put it there I had intended to throw it away. But as the weeks passed I had forgotten the book and left it there.
Now I searched the thick brochure for the section titled Human Terrariums and Play Sets. The corporation regularly advertised the two together, despite the fact that terrariums rarely came with accompanying humans. They were “items sold separately” from the moderate cages like Amelia’s.
Play sets, however, were designed to allow buyers to interact with communities of humans. These terrariums were larger and resembled glass enclosed dioramas. They usually had a theme, one that made them more attractive to imaginative buyers my age. No one younger than fifteen was allowed to own a human because the risks to their safety were too great.
Scanning through the urban, rural, military, medical, and fantasy sets while reading the chirpy promises of how easy it would be to entertain myself with sapient beings almost made me physically sick. But I had to do it. If I could not find Amelia’s husband on the shelf at the local department store, I would have to try a play set.
Either attempt would be a long shot. It was possible that Thomas had been transported to a store hundreds of miles away from my home and sold. Although humans had been on Brod a relatively short time – a thousand years is not long, in the universe’s calculus – they had multiplied to the point that there were now millions available for sale worldwide. More were theorized to somehow be living in the wild, while communities of men had been discovered within the walls of hotels, skyscrapers, and factories.
According to Amelia, the reason mankind had spread across Brod so rapidly was due to the design of the seven hundred human starships which landed here one millennium ago. The vessels had been on autopilot and their crews of colonists – each ranging in the thousands – had been put into cryosleep. They had no idea where they were going or what they would find when they reached a new world. They would have to make do with what the planet they discovered offered when they arrived.
And here, they have to make do with slavery.
My vision blurred, and I swiped at the tears gathering in my eyes. Unfortunately, given the size of my allowance, the best I could hope for would be to buy a city set. And that was if buying a single human didn’t leave me cash strapped.
No matter. I would find a way to buy it. I had to. If I didn’t, I would never forgive myself.
Just then, my bedroom door opened.
On the desk, Amelia dropped the pen and dove into the space between her cage and my books. I jumped to my feet, preparing to intercept my aunt….
But it wasn’t her. It was my father.
He looked at me, then at the catalogue in my hand. Next he turned to the desk, where Amelia peeked out from behind a book. She didn’t fear my father as she did my aunt, who always treated her like a mindless plaything. On recognizing him, she stepped out into view.
Silently, he pushed the door open and stepped into the room. Closing it behind him, my father walked across to the desk and set a package on it. It was similar to the one in which Amelia had been encased, except that the human inside wasn’t a woman. It was a man dressed in military fatigues.
With an incoherent, wordless cry, Amelia ran out onto the desk. She stopped as my father pulled a knife from his pocket. Carefully breaking the seal, he pulled the cryotube free of the plastic and left it in the center of the table. Then he glanced at me.
Dropping the catalogue, I walked toward it, seeing the man inside more clearly than I had a moment ago. He was about Amelia’s age, perhaps a little older. With dark hair, fair skin, and handsome features, he appeared every inch the soldier promised on the casing.
I looked at the picture that my human sister had drawn. Though unfinished, it resembled the man in cryosleep exactly.
Reaching out, I carefully hit the release on his cylinder. Then I stepped back and stood beside my father.
The tube opened. Puffs of wispy, cold air whispered free as it did. Amelia crossed the last few inches to kneel beside it as the man inside stirred. Moments later, he pushed the lid up and embraced his wife.
A hand landed on my shoulder. “We’ll leave them alone for a few minutes,” my father murmured. Guiding me out of my room, he closed the door behind us and led me down the hall.
“You knew him. You knew them both.” The words hurt my throat, burning it with hot resentment and anger. And defeat. Of course my father knew Amelia and her husband. He worked for the company that had enslaved them.
He nodded. “I knew them. I bought them both, her before him. I promised I would.”
“Thomas asked me to,” he replied. “He asked me to protect her, to find a safe place for her.” Coming to a halt, he looked down at me. “I knew no one would keep her safer than you. And I promised that, if it was possible, I would find a way to bring him back to her. When they sent back a couple of boxes containing unsold individual packages, he was in the top container. I picked him up at once.”
“Without paying for him?”
“Not in cash.” Fire flared in my father’s eyes for a moment. “But the company is recompensed. You can believe it.”
“I do.” I leaned into him and he squeezed my shoulders. As if for the first time, I felt the strength in his body while he held me against him in a one-armed hug. Nothing in my life had ever been so reassuring. “They need more friends.”
“Yes, they do. Especially since they’re married.”
“Why…? Oh.” I blushed. “In that case, maybe we should move them to the spare bedroom.”
“They would probably appreciate that more than you will.”
I smiled, but the grin slipped away as I looked from his face into the future. “Dad, we can’t keep doing this. We can’t keep buying humans and keeping them in our houses. That’s not freedom. It may not be slavery, but it’s still not good enough. They deserve more.”
He sighed. “I know. And so do others. But we can’t send them to live in the countryside, or to inhabit our old houses, either. There might be a way for us to live together as equals, someday, sharing our homes somehow. For the moment, though, this is the best we can do.”
“Maybe.” A thought came to me, and I straightened. “But…maybe not.”
During the course of the next week, we left Thomas and Amelia largely to their own devices. This was mostly for their benefit; they didn’t need either of us hovering over them, not after being apart for six months. And before we spoke to them, we wanted to verify our information.
It took little effort to find most of the material that I wanted. The self-sustaining systems were meant to be reconfigured to new settings and forms with ease, so my idea should work. Dad confirmed surreptiously that the enviroment could be transferred to a naval locale by suggesting a new type of play set. If all went well, the innovative science fiction theme would have more than one use.
The only problem we had was how to design a working engine. My father’s skill with mathematics rivaled mine, but neither of us was a mechanical engineer. He finally suggested that, when I discussed the matter with Thomas and Amelia, I should ask if humans had any expertise in the area.
Although I agreed, I decided to take a little risk as well.
Despite hurrying to leave activities with the neighborhood children, I had noticed one of my old friends – a boy named Iver – usually stopped to warm up before joining the others in a race or ball game. The only strange thing about his behavior was how exaggerated his movements tended to be. Although a good looking, athletic youth, I judged him to be far more humble than his overstated poses suggested.
There was also the fact that he would leave a bag of some kind behind when he went off to have fun. It almost never left his side during the day, and he always made sure never to bump or bang it into anything. Since he was one of the biggest, strongest boys around the bullies avoided him and left his possessions unmolested.
The afternoon of the new school day, after we were released to go home, I stayed behind to restart my old friendships. Iver remained as well. Once it began to get dark, however, he bid the others good-bye and set off for home. I followed suit and fell into step beside him.
He was obviously disquieted by my presence. For my part, I wondered how to go about proving my theory without alienating him. Buying time, I raised my arms over my head in a stretch. “How did you do on the math test?”
“Not bad,” he replied. “But not as well as you. You’re a magician with abstract equations.”
I shrugged. “They’re easy to understand. People are a tough read for me, though. My aunt, for instance, doesn’t want me to spend time with you and the other boys.”
“She seems to think it’s your fault that I like sports and higher mathematics rather than girlish pastimes, such as painting and sewing.”
He threw his head back and laughed. “You’re joking. Does she even know you?”
“To be perfectly honest, I can’t help but wonder if she does. I have plenty of dolls and one old tea set at home, but she still insists I’m not behaving like a proper girl.” Looking from side to side with exaggerated care, I leaned toward him. “It’s so bad that she actually bought me a friend.”
“Unfortunately I’m not.” I sighed. “That’s why I haven’t stayed to run races or play ball these last six months. My new friend needed a lot of attention.”
A light went on in the back of his eyes. “Really?” he said carefully. “Has she got special needs or something?”
“Mm-hmm,” I said. “She does. Just like your friends do.”
“These ones,” I said, stopping suddenly. Before he could swing completely out of the way, I reached out and gently brushed one of the pockets on his bag. My finger touched something soft and humanoid, which squirmed away at once. “Hey!” a man’s voice, speaking Brodin, barked.
“Shh!” Iver snapped, glancing at the pocket. Then he turned to me. “You might have hurt him.”
“Not anymore than I could hurt you.” To demonstrate, I reached out again and touched him lightly on the arm. He frowned and opened his mouth. Before he could speak, I nodded toward a copse of trees and walked away. Reluctantly, Iver followed.
Once under cover of the trees and shrubs, I sat down. Sitting down across from me, Iver took his bag off and put it between us. The pouch wriggled a little before unzipping – from the inside. It had been modified to be opened from the interior as well as the exterior.
A human head and shoulders, followed by two arms, popped up through the opening. The man was several years younger than Thomas and wore a camouflaged explorer’s uniform. “Do you mind explaining yourself, Missy?”
“Not at all. I’m Breana, by the way. Do you happen to know any humans named Thomas or Amelia?”
The young man snorted. “About two or three each. Why?”
“I’d like to introduce you to a couple more. And you as well,” I looked Iver in the eye. “You may consider me a magician with numbers, but from what I’ve seen, you’re a genius level engineer.”
“And what, pray tell, does that have to do with poking me?” the human asked.
“Getting you off Brodin.”
Shocked, the two could only stare at me. I explained my idea and what it required in brief. Both remained silent, occasionally sharing glances when I paused. Neither of them said anything for a few moments once I finished speaking. “Have you told any other humans about this?” the man in the pouch finally asked.
“Not yet,” I replied. “I was going to wait until after I had spoken to Iver and confirmed I could trust him.”
“Smart move. She’s a keeper,” he added, winking up at the boy, who rolled his eyes. “When did you want us over?”
“Tomorrow afternoon. Now that she’s satisfied we can take care of ourselves, my aunt is going home this weekend. My father plans to buy a city set from the store after dropping her at the train station, but we’ll be leaving it in stasis mode until we’ve all had a chance to confer on this.”
“Good plan. This is an idea big enough to blow up a planet – even one the size of Brod.”
“Yeah,” Iver agreed. “But it’s a really good idea. Wish I’d thought of it.”
The man frowned thoughtfully as he looked between us. “Don’t get your hopes up too high, kids. There are several factors to consider here, but we’ll handle them later.” He nodded at me. “It’s almost dark. You scoot on home, and we’ll meet you at your house tomorrow afternoon. Deal?”
“Yes. Oh, wait.” I looked at him closely. “I don’t know your name.”
“Call him Smartmouth. I do,” Iver joked.
The man threw him a mock glare. “It’s Simon Bullock. Do me a favor and ask your friends if they know of me when you get home.”
“Certainly,” I promised.
After dinner, while my father helped my aunt pack, I went upstairs and entered the spare room. Thomas and Amelia were on the cottage lawn in the terrarium, lying on a blanket. The scattered remnants of a picnic nearby explained their position out in the open, after the six or seven days they had remained indoors.
They looked up as I closed the door. “May I come in?”
Amelia smiled and waved me forward. She and Thomas sat up as I crossed to the desk and settled down in the chair. They seemed so comfortable that I left the terrarium sealed. “How are you doing?”
“Fine, thank you,” Thomas replied.
“You speak Brodin?!”
“Not as well as others, but yes.”
“Wonderful! Do you know a Simon Bullock?”
He laughed. Amelia, on the other hand, frowned and shook her head. “I know a Tristan Bullock, who tended to complain about a rather rambunctious younger brother named Simon. It’s possible they’re related. You’ve met someone by that name?”
“Yes.” Outlining my earlier meeting with Iver and Simon, I quickly delved into the more important matter: building engines that would take space ships and their human passengers back into the galaxy. “It’s going to take time, but I think Iver can design a good engine, and my people have a workable formula for faster-than-light travel. Since we couldn’t find a planet our size, we never tested it, which may slow us down. Do you have a similar equation?”
“Perhaps the rest of our race does by now,” Thomas replied. “It has been a thousand years, maybe more, since we arrived here. No human on Brod possesses the knowledge, though. I can assure you of that.” He studied me for a long moment. “Have you considered the possibiliy that some humans may not want to leave Brod?”
I started. The thought had never occurred to me. “But why not? You’re at terrible risk here! You’re little better than slaves, being sold to amuse children and collectors. And what about – ” I stopped short.
“What about the experiments?” Thomas finished gently, sympathy evident in his eyes. Amelia pressed against him and he gave her shoulders a slight squeeze of reassurance.
I winced and hunched in my chair. Months of learning how to care for Amelia had finally cured my ignorance of the brutality “enlightened” members of my race were capable of inflicting on mankind. I had never talked to Amelia about it, for fear of upsetting her. She had to know the horror stories better than I did.
Thomas did not dwell on them either, probably for the same reason. “Speaking for myself and Amelia, we will be quite happy to take this opportunity to try and find a safer home in the galaxy. But you have to consider the likelihood that we may be in the minority. Many humans live pretty handsomely here on Brod. Despite being trapped in these,” he gestured to the terrarium, “we have the assurance of at least the possibility of three square meals, safety from the elements, and no need to fight to survive, as those of us who remain free on your world do.”
“It’s still a cage,” I whispered.
“A gilded cage is better for some than the freedom to live – and die – as a result of their own choices.” He sighed. “I don’t understand it any better than you do, but the fact is that I am sure some people will choose to stay and take their chances with your scientists or sadistic youths rather than face an unknown future in the galaxy. You have to understand and accept that fact.”
I scrubbed at my eyes. “My dad already knows this, doesn’t he?”
“He would have to be as innocent as you not to. Or he would have to be a fool. I would not accuse him of the latter, and unfortunately, the former is always lost as sapients mature.”
I sniffed once, then took a deep breath. “Well, then, we’ll just have to find other ways to protect the humans who stay on Brod. Assuming this plan works, of course.”
Later that night, while my aunt showered in preparation for her journey, I told my father about my meeting with Iver. He wasn’t happy about it at first, but he relaxed when I described Simon. Though the man was unknown to him, my father said that any human that comfortable with a Brodin boy had no fear of him. While he still didn’t approve of my going behind his back, he seemed to find the prospect of having a real engineer on our side more exciting than I did.
As I climbed into bed that night, I thought over Thomas’ words. I felt certain we could succeed in this plan, even though it would take time and testing. But once that was complete, what would be the next step? What could we do for the humans who wouldn’t leave Brod?
The question dogged me until exhaustion finally drew me into sleep.
Iver arrived the next afternoon, as promised. Along with Simon he brought two other humans with him. One was a dark-skinned physicist and technician named Isaac Hoyer. The other was a blonde engineer called Marlene Conners. Both wore military uniforms like the one Thomas had, signifying their choice of profession.
We brought them upstairs to the spare room. After a round of introductions the six of us, plus Thomas and Amelia, went over the copies of ship schematics which my father had brought home from work. Iver and Marlene studied them carefully, muttering to one another and occasionally jotting down notes in the margins. Meanwhile Isaac peppered me, my father, and Thomas with questions.
Simon added a question or two occasionally, but for the most part he simply listened. Amelia sat on an empty spool of thread and watched the conversations. Most of the technical details were over her head, but leaving her out of the meeting would have been cruel.
Eventually, Marlene addressed us all. “All right, from what we can tell, this ship design should be compatible with the style of engines we used to get to Brod a thousand years ago. There is, however, a three-fold problem. First, you say this faster-than-light equation is a theory. You’ve never actually used it.”
“Second, the engine designs I’ve studied are a millennium out of date and fundamentally incompatible with FTL travel. Third, as we figured out ourselves years ago, we need an industry capable of supporting whatever engine blueprint we eventually settle on. Although we’ve got factories in the cities, they can’t support building more than one engine – and a small one, at that.”
“There’s another dilemma, too,” Isaac said. “We can’t just pick a direction and fly there. Doing that might throw us into a star or a planet. In order to travel, we’ll need a navigation computer – one significantly more advanced and fine-tuned than the devices that brought us here centuries ago.”
“Oh,” I whispered. Suddenly giddy, I excused myself and went back to my room. It took a few minutes of rummaging, but I eventually found the papers I sought. Bringing them back to the spare room, I showed the string of programming directions to Isaac. “What do you see?”
For a moment he squinted at the numbers, murmuring under his breath. Then his eyes widened and he looked at me. “When did you come up with this?”
“Almost two years ago, during math class. I was bored and didn’t want to fall asleep waiting for everyone else to finish their work. So I decided to play with the concept of interstellar navigation to keep myself awake.”
“So you devised this navigation algorithm in…an hour? Two?”
“I did half of it before class ended, but became so engrossed that I finished it after dinner later that day. Can you use it?”
He looked at the program, then at me. A gleam of professional respect moved in his eyes. “If you’ll allow me to copy it, I can give it to the computer boys and see what they say. They may want to double-check it and run some tests, in case you missed something. But it looks more than feasible to me.”
Laying the papers down so he could see them, I watched him begin copying the program in his notebook. “And your aunt said it was a waste of time to let you read science fiction,” my father murmured. He shook his head. “Brilliant, Breana.”
“See? I told you!” Iver crowed. “She’s a magician with numbers.”
Feeling my cheeks heat, I changed the subject. “What are you drawing, Iver?”
“Well,” he said slowly. “Marlene’s right. The engines mankind used to get here are too big and out of date. But why does the engine that pushes the ship off Brod have to be an FTL drive, too? Why not have two engines, with two separate fuels, to do each job?”
Putting down the half-finished draft for everyone to see, he pointed to two separate, faint sketches. “If I understand the anti-matter equation right, the FTL drive should be able to function for a year, maybe more, without being refueled. So it wouldn’t need to be very big.”
“But the engines that would allow a vessel to take off and land do need a lot of fuel, and they would have to be large. So why not build two separate engines – one to travel faster than light, the other to take off and land?”
Thomas smiled and Simon laughed. “You had that figured out last night, didn’t you?” the latter asked.
“Partly,” Iver admitted. “At least, I knew it would be a problem we would have to deal with. The idea only coalesced a minute ago.”
“We still have to build these, though,” Marlene pointed out. “And as I said, we don’t have a lot of supplies. The factories in the city terrariums let us construct quite a bit, but they don’t have the capacity to create more than an FTL drive piece by piece. Even if we recycled a skyscraper or two, all we’d get was one engine, large or not. To lift off of Brod and reach the atmosphere, we would need two large engines, as well as the FTL drive.”
“Yes,” my father murmured. “That’s right. But what if there were a way to produce these designs using our materials?”
Amelia suddenly stood up from the spool. Gesturing too rapidly for me to translate, she said something to Thomas. He turned to my father, electrified by understanding. “You mean you would let us use your personal replication devices to build the engines?”
I smacked my forehead. “Of course!” How could we have missed it? “The food and material producers regularly recycle whatever waste we put in them to make new items. All we would have to do is find the right material, input Iver’s designs into the producer in the garage, and activate it. In a few hours we would have working prototypes to test!”
The change in the humans was instantaneous. Instead of exhaustion and doubt, hope moved across their faces. “Maybe not that soon,” my father admonished. “It would be better if Iver, Marlene, and Isaac ran simulations with their friends. They might see problems with the design that we have missed.”
“Good idea,” Marlene said. Despite her business-like tone, I could tell she was still energized. “We’ve only got an outline and a program. Before we start blowing things up, we should run some tests and refine the schematics.”
“But we have a working theory,” Isaac said, snapping his notebook shut. “So we’re already halfway there.”
We spent the next few hours refining plans and discussing options. At the end of it, Iver had three or four complete blueprints for the two different engines, and my father had a list of amenities and necessities to suggest to the science fiction set designers. I, meanwhile, was tasked with hunting down recyclable materials that would survive the stresses of liftoff, landing, and faster-than-light travel.
It was decided that we would keep most of the humans we knew in the dark until we had perfected the plans. Nevertheless, Simon insisted on staying to visit the new city set my father had bought. He wanted to see if anyone he and the others knew lived there, while surreptitiously seeking candidates for future space exploration. “Besides,” he said. “A lone stranger in the city is less likely to draw attention than a couple of farmers.” He winked at Thomas and Amelia. “It’ll let them know they should expect more guests soon.”
As dusk fell Iver departed, Marlene and Isaac in his bag. While my father started dinner, I set up the city terrarium and deactivated the stasis setting. Simon waited until the miniature metropolis began humming with activity before entering. I made sure he, Thomas, and Amelia were safely inside their separate habitats before heading downstairs to eat.
It took us a year to build the prototypes and test them. By the end of that time, however, we had a pair of models that actually worked. A few weeks later Simon captained the crew of the first ship to venture into deep space.
He returned less than a month afterward, full of triumph, pride, and wonderful news. Mankind had indeed discovered a way to travel faster than light, setting up numerous, thriving colonies. Several were within a month’s travel from Brod. I think most of Simon’s crew would have stayed behind on these worlds if they could, but with their families still waiting on Brod, the majority returned with him to report their findings.
Thomas had been right to warn us that many humans would choose to remain among the Brodin. About half the denizens of my city terrarium voted to stay with me rather than go out into the unknown. Two-thirds of the people in Iver’s care opted not to depart as well.
But the rest were hungry to leave, to test their souls and bodies in an unforgiving galaxy. While we acquired more ships to modify for space travel, dozens of humans climbed aboard Simon’s vessel and took to the stars. What they would find no one knew, not even those who had already visited man’s farflung outposts.
Amelia and Thomas waited until the initial fervor had died down before announcing their intention to leave. I think they did it largely for me, as other families had not hesitated to depart before their first child was born. But my friends wanted me to know that I would not be forgotten, and so they stayed until their son Brian arrived.
I waved their ship off. Tears prevented me from following its journey skyward, but that was just as well. In the dark, the pinprick of the engines’ light was lost amid the backdrop of stars. My father held onto me for an hour after they had gone while I tried to regain my self-control.
Several years have passed since that night. During those years human experimentation was banned, and the penalties for those who transgress the law have been increased. Because they are a sapient race, it has been decreed that no one can legally or physically stop humans from setting out to the stars on their modified ships.
As yet, no one has discovered our part in mankind’s inexplicable ability to build FTL engines for their vessels. The humans who volunteered to be repackaged and sold by my father’s company in order to spread the knowledge to other enclaves have apparently never revealed our identities to anyone. Considering the possible backlash we might face from some, I’m grateful for their silence.
Last week Iver got a job at an engineering firm, one which allowed him to buy a three story house. We plan to stay on the lower floors and cede the top one to as many humans as possible. Though most don’t return, Simon and several of his crewmen visit my father’s house regularly. They plan to drop in on us as well, once we are settled.
The last time he came, Simon brought me a photograph. My father had it blown up to proportion so that I could see it better, and I had it framed to keep it on my desk.
In the center of the photograph Amelia and Thomas sit beside each other. Behind and between them stands Brian, who appears to be at least ten years of age. Two younger children, a girl and a boy, stand before their parents. All smile at me through the camera lens.
A note came with the gift. It’s about the size of a bookmark, and it is made of some kind of cloth. I had to unroll it like a scroll when it arrived. As with the photograph, I had it framed. Decorated with various pictures (and footprints), it holds a short, simple message:
From Thomas, Amelia,
Brian, Jenny, and Abraham.
Who would have thought two brief words could convey so much meaning?