The Modern Prometheus
So private blogging can still get you killed. Word had gotten around about Jaydo, at least inside the project. It was even known someone had found a personal journal of Sarah's, full of crazy ramblings. Beyond that, no one was saying much about her. Edited with extreme prejudice.
Thea Petalas sat against the side of her waiting cryocell, keeping her game face on while frantically thumbing through her PDP. She was scrolling through page after page of scanned images of a paper notebook she used as a teenager. The paper was long since reduced to ash; the original scandisc was powder. This was the only copy of her work, and it spoke of things that she was certain were exponentially worse than anything Sarah could have written.
She was in a secton of Bay 4, originally designed to house livestock cryocells. Then someone decided that was too costly, and they built redundant greenhouse bays instead, so this compartment became bulk storage. Then after contractors changed hands it became miscellaneous storage, with five oversize cells jammed in near the hatch.
Back to us livestock, she thought darkly, trying to pull her mind toward the job at hand. Some engineer's idea of a joke. These were the units set aside for the big members of the crew, the ones who simply wouldn't fit into a standard cryocell.
Bays 4, 5 and 6 were part of this launch, the last Unity launch, and so everything was upended, awaiting escape from gravity. The cryocells were swiveled to accomodate, and movement around the compartment was limited to narrow, cramped platforms. Still, the four giant men managed to somehow keep well apart her, gathered on a small access ledge twenty feet below.
She stood about 2.3 meters tall, but there was one guy there pushing two and a half. The guys were all hanging together, carrying on despite the language hurdles. Like they must have at the base, thought Thea. She barely knew that Mulifi and Gasana were mechanics from Rwanda... Kaylo Washington she knew from his football career. In fact, she knew him from the '44 Olympics, before they disqualified her; before she ran off into the burning streets. The fourth, Ojukwu, well, she wasn't really sure where he was from. She should be studying the manifest, and all their details, but she was on the edge of panic over mistakes she made over a decade ago.
Why do I always get on better with the violent people than with the peaceful people? It wasn't as though she had no devotion to the latter: Pravin Lal's recommendation filled her conscience with a heavier weight than she could lift.
Thea felt she could win over anyone-- as long they remained a casual acquaintance. She was even mildly famous on the project as the "gentle giantess". But Sarah Jaydo was the only person on the base she had really gotten along with. The nasty laugh, the crazy blue eyes. And Sarah is such a delightful misanthrope. We have real laughs toge-- Thea squeezed her eyes shut. Was. Had.
Did Pravin and Pria now suspect the worst of her? She doubted it. The Lals were excellent people, she had known them for years. But they were always going to be kindly princes, somewhere up above the masses. They only had the most refined ideas of how ugly human life really was. Thea was one of their success stories-- how could such a complete rehabiliation fail?
By failing before it began, of course. Still, the thought of letting them down after all the years of aiding children at Pria's behest. The Commissioner knew she had run with the gangs in the forties, and what that meant; what she was capable of in a cold ruined alley when the food ran low.
But Pria was almost like a third mother to her. If she knew this part of the story of my life-- she would never understand.
Her QL was ringing. She hastily switched off her PDP and answered, "Petalas."
It was Ensign Colson in the staging room of the conning tower. "Your men aren't stowed?"
"Um, not hardly. Sorry, ensign."
"Well, are they all present?"
"Well, come on then! Gimme some green lights down here all ready! I need to get aboard, and this is holding everyone up!" she yelled, straining her bayou accent. "Pleeease expedite!" And she hung up in Thea's face.
Hell of a way to run a starship. Still, it was time to finish this.
She looked over the corner of her ledge, clapped her hands and called down, "Okay, okay, guys. Any of you who don't know me, I'm Ensign Petalas. I'm acting as your cryotech, so if you have any questions, now's your chance."
She forced a smile into their silence. Mulifi nudged Gasana with a snicker. And so Gasana said, "Is it true you're the strongest woman on Earth?" She saw Kaylo guiltily roll his eyes.
Ai, yi. Thea kept smiling. "Well, actually, I hold the semi-official human record in powerlifting and long jump. It's called genetic engineering, and thirty-odd years ago they thought everyone would be doing it by now." They were shaking their heads. "Any real que--"
"But no, no," said Mulifi, who had the least English in the room. "Why they make woman so? They would make man strongest, yes? Is easy!"
Thinking of her mothers, Thea's smile was for a moment genuine. "Well, I guess they loved a challenge!"
"Okay!" said Mulifi, and looked at Gasana, and gave him a strong nudge, followed by a rapid sentence in Bantu.
Kigeri Gasana made a decision, then looked up into Thea's eyes. "Yeah. I challenge you!"
For several seconds there was no sound except the thrum of the spacecraft around them.
Clenching the smile, Thea broke out a gesture of exasperation. "What?!"
"You say you're the strongest." He shook his head. "I say, no way. Not possible. Not scientifically possible. So now we fight and decide, eh?"
"We'll use arms!"
"Arms?" she asked quietly.
"Yes! Wrestle with arms!" Grinning, he shook his right fist at her.
"Arm-wrestle," corrected Kaylo.
"No, Gasana, if I twist your wrist, it won't have time to heal before you're in cryostasis. Taking on cell damage before cryo is bad, maybe very bad--"
But she couldn't make herself heard over their shouts in the echoey chamber. "Yeah, go to it, Gasana!" "Go on, man!" Kaylo tried half-heartedly to talk Gasana down, but wound up clapping with the rest. The only signal he gave to her was a not-so-hepless shrug as the chant of "arm wrestle" filled the bay.
They began to suggest other challenges. She could order them, but. "All right, gentlemen, all right. You want your pre-game show? Fine." Cheers from below. "But not in our multi-million-credit pressure suits. Gasana, strip and stow it. Let's go."
Gasana was quick about it, his suit was off in three seconds. His torso was covered in a mesh of cuts, some ritual, some merely not fatal. His tats were a travelogue of East African camps and prisons, and his face was happy and defiant.
And now it was her turn. Eight brown eyes aimed up at her.
They knew they weren't about to experience the SI swimsuit edition, and she knew they knew. Their anticipation was that of a holo audience waiting to be entertained by the clever creature animation. All Earth is a circus of freaks, but somehow, I still take center ring.
The UN planning teams had found a way to mass-produce generic pressure suits, in only a few sizes, to outfit the crew, but the people in this room were the exeception. Theirs were tailor-made the old fashioned way. Thea's form-fitting suit had been hiding very little of her true bulk, and the men saw a body emerge that was a match in breadth and thickness to their own. They were silent, which she appreciated.
Even Kaylo saw something new: She had several scars that weren't there in '44. One was plainly a bullet wound. And across her back was stretched a symbol of two interwined moons crossed by an arrow. As she tossed her suit into her waiting cryocell, she made sure they all had a good look at that symbol. She also made sure her PDP was safely under her suit.
She started down towards them. "Okay, we'll use that pressure platform below. It's good enough as a table." She took a jump down to their space.
Her pink body landed in their midst. They all pulled back, which was quite a feat on the little ledge, like she was bad luck. All except Kaylo. But he had something to say.
"Y'know, Thea, you don't get like that without taking some steel-tipped meds."
"Now, Kaylo, of course it wasn't drugs, you know that," she smiled, hiding her failing struggle for camaraderie. "I said. I'm engineered. They couldn't approve that anymore."
For the first time, Ojukwu addressed her. He looked angry. "They should have not have chosen you for a mission like this. A woman like you cannot bear children."
It's like they're quoting from a script. "Oh you'd be surprised, Crewman Ojukwu, just how fertile I am," she smiled as she climbed down to the platform. But they didn't get any closer.
Gasana was finally beginning to feel a little ridiculous, standing about without his clothes. He climbed down to face Thea.
Putting her elbow on the raised panel between them, she presented Gasana the mass of flexors and sinew that was her right arm. Only her wrist and hand were more slender than his, and those, not by much. She kept smiling.
Gasana looked at that for a moment, then tried to act magnanimous. "Perhaps you are right, we should not damage one another before the sleep. There would be no offense if we could say truce, and call a draw." He shrugged. "We fight after we arrive?"
She asked if he came out of the backend of a chicken, and made no reference to eggs. This refreshed his attitude, and he put up his arm. Once in each others' grip, Kaylo rushed down to ref them.
Arm wrestling was a terrific test of an opponent. You got to study their face, feel their whole spectrum of upper body strength, watch them think. Thea remembered the many times she let kids in the hospital beat her at this.
She also could not help but be reminded yet again of just how well made she was. The massive reserves of energy in her cells, the perfect nerve response time. Gasana's struggle was proof again: She was unlike others.
She waited through Gasana's every test and twist, keeping him to dead center without her breaking a sweat. Finally, she felt felt his big push, and knew this would be as easy as every one before. She gave a tiny bit of ground, just to make him max his effort. Still with her easy smile, she arced him back, and pinned him square. Then, since she could, she slammed him an extra bounce off his wrist.
"Ow! You did not have to do that!" He pulled back his stinging arm.
"No, crewman, you didn't have to do that," she said as calmly and pleasantly as she could. The smile had yet to leave her face. "Don't change the past. You asked, you got. As for your future? That wrist will ache on rainy days, if the planet has any, and if you're lucky. No, it will never heal properly." She smiled around at the rest. "Now are we done? All the little boys and girls to bed, to bed!"
Far above, she heard the muffled buzz of her quicklink ringing. All she could do was laugh. "That sound means 'Run'!"
The Africans made their way to their cryocells; Kaylo stayed behind a moment. "Hey look, I'm really sorry," he said. "I didn't do enough to stop that--"
She kept on smiling. "You couldn't have stopped that. You could have shut up about me, and not started it. But once they felt challenged, that was the only direction it could go. Now as a pampered pretty-boy ballplayer, you didn't realize how close to bloodspilling that really was." Kaylo started to object, but blinked instead. "Yeah. Don't worry, nipio. We'll teach you all about the big bad way of the streets. In forty years.
It still took another twenty minutes to get them all in place, but she wanted to take the time. She reminded them of their resuscitation sequence carefully and thoroughly; explained everything until she was sure they had no doubts. One by one, she put her charges away.
Gasana was sitting in his cell, rubbing his right forearm down to the last moment. "Can't-- This can wait a few hours! My arm--"
Thea leaned over him. He was the last one, and she was done with smiles. "No. There's a countdown. Settle in, or get off now." Gasana met her hard glare, but then lay back into position, muttering something in Bantu. She fitted his breather, IV and EEGs. Then she set the internals and activated the cell.
As the lid whirred down, she reached in and gently stroked his twinging wrist, saying coolly, "Take this with you. As a reminder." She was already clambering up to her place as Gasana's cell pressurized and filled with gel.
She removed the quicklink from her suit. She lifted the suit to fold it properly, and there was the PDP lying there. She imagined it asking her, in Sarah's voice, What are you even doing here?
Before Jaydo's removal had begun to reignite old doubts in herself, Thea had felt nothing but honor that she was valuable enough for the project to take the extra effort to include her. But she knew human folly was still at work-- was having large people along supposed to ensure a diverse genome? No corresponding cells for midgets? she mused.
Thea knew it to be a huge mistake not to bring the young along. Civilizations had always expanded with a rising generation accompanying the settlers. The danger to the kids dwarfed the importance of their presence. The danger of extinction if you miss a generation--
But who would listen to her on such an vital manner? She was assigned as the mission's physical therapy officer, not a pop planner. She wasn't that important.
So she put her pressure suit and away, and the PDP. She did a final check on the men. They were stable. The gel had knocked them out like lambs.
She could finally report in. But the QLs were so jammed, she actually had to leave voicemail for Colson. "Ensign Petalas reporting in as cryotech for crewmen Gasana, Mulifi, Washington and Ojukwu. Cryostasis entry sequence complete for same. Awaiting cryotech for self. Acknowledge?"
She waited ten minutes, her skin getting very cold before a text popped up in her quicklink: "Acknowledged. Conclude solo."
A text, not a voice. No cryotechnician would come to spot her.
What, no one else wants to come see? Her laugh at that thought pressed into tears in her solitude.
It was starkly obvious, suddenly. It didn't matter if she lived or died. If the Unity pods made planetfall at all, she'd wind up a heavy labor drone or one of Zakharov's most valued dissections. Maybe both. Sarah was right. Dead right. Earth is throwing us away to make their own death more bearable.
She tore into her compartment and dragged the datapad out again.
There it all still was. The formulae, the projected vectors, the evil little corkscrew she had built with her mind. And the teen manifesto.
These notes, this guerilla research, was no more than a record of how deadly and brutal she could be. She was the wrong hands. Any villain to find it afterward would be a plagiarist and an also-ran.
But one hell of an also-ran. She thumbed through the menus till she reached ALL ERASE.
It would lead to more breakthroughs. Maybe save the colony. The Lals were so impressed with her skill in undoing the ravages of radiation and plague. A wizard with a retrovirus. Learned so much from her parents. Surely somewhere in these furious notes there was a key to a cure that some kindly man, years and years from now, would need to rescue his people.
A scene from the old Nuweiba field base returned to her mind. The stick-like woman, laughing and dancing on one foot at her. You saved my daughters! You saved my daughters!
Thea backed out of the menu, and switched off the pad. She locked the dangerous thing away again in the dark.
Anyway, it was all up to others now. The odds were, she would arrive dead, and have nothing else to say. She lay back into the cold of the waiting cell.
"Fear not that I shall be the instrument of future mischief," she muttered, wiping the last tears as she pinned herself to the slab.