The Genetic Menagerie

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Sorcerous Signals, November 2012

“Brent Schweitzer first turned his eyes to Wespirtech, and away from Da Vinci’s leading art colleges, when he learned that his favorite flower, a variant of the terran ghost orchid, had been genetically engineered on his homeworld’s very own moon, at Wespirtech.”

Brent Schweitzer was born on planet Da Vinci, the foremost center of knowledge and learning in the Human Expansion from Earth. The planet was lush and green, with deep blue rivers cut into its surface like veins of gem cut into stone. Warm in the summer, brilliant with fire work colors in both spring and fall, and temperate in the winter, Da Vinci was as idyllic as any of the worlds the Human Expansion had found. As such, Da Vinci was deemed the appropriate setting for the host of art schools and other centers of academia that began to grow there as naturally as the native flowers. For, without scenery, without inspiration, how can there be art and learning?

Brent Schweitzer, growing up on Da Vinci, enjoyed the natural splendors of his home. His parents took him camping every summer. Once, they took him half way around the world to the Chuarian Flower Yards, where flowers native to every planet in the Human Expansion are grown. Brent was enthralled, and as soon as they returned he started his very own flower collection. Brent’s parents approved of his enthusiasm for aesthetics and soon began taking him to visit the many, fine colleges on their planet. Brent was a bright, sensitive, young boy, exactly the kind of student such universities sought.

Brent, however, had other ideas for himself. His eyes had long turned toward Da Vinci’s moon, a barren world without even a name. What the moon did boast was The Western Spiral Arm Planetary Institute of Technology, better known as Wespirtech. Wespirtech had been founded with one goal: to be the single most powerful institute of scientific research in the known universe. It had long since succeeded at that goal.

Visible from Da Vinci on a good night, Wespirtech jutted out of the near side of the moon in an array of straight lines and boxy figures, as gray and dull as the surface of the moon itself. It didn’t look much better closer up. Wespirtech’s inhabitants rarely saw it from the outside, however, for it’s architecturally uninteresting buildings were built directly in the vacuum of the moon’s non-existent atmosphere. The buildings were connected by the occasional skybridge, but, mainly, they were connected by a rabbit warren of tunnels underground, which the research scientists called the Daedalus Complex.

What Wespirtech lacked in inspiration, it lacked in distractions as well: for a beautiful landscape may inspire an artist, but it’s merely a distraction and a waste of time for a scientist. Or so the theory ran. The barren surroundings, however, did have their uses. For one, they made low gravity and vacuum based experiments easy, and they provided the perfect buffer against any experiments gone wrong. Wespirtech was naturally quarantined.

Brent Schweitzer first turned his eyes to Wespirtech, and away from Da Vinci’s leading art colleges, when he learned that his favorite flower, a variant of the terran ghost orchid, had been genetically engineered on his homeworld’s very own moon, at Wespirtech. Brent was good in school and popular among the teachers, so he found little trouble convincing the biology teacher to tutor him in genetics on the side.

By the time Brent sent his application to join the scientists at Wespirtech, he had begun his work on the Keats and had designed a cat whose fur changed color with its moods. The cat was a gift to his mother on her birthday with which both she and the admissions committee for Wespirtech were equally delighted. Although, even more intriguing to the admissions committee was Brent’s work on the Keats. He had been increasing the memory, reasoning, and language capabilities of parrots (whose genetically evolved counterparts were drolly termed Keats by his mother) mainly to increase their desirability as companion animals. Wespirtech admissions, however, immediately saw the Keats’ potential use as translators: hardwire a few languages into the Keats’ memory and send one on the shoulder of every diplomat headed to a heated negotiations table. Wespirtech must have them, it was decided.

Since the rights to Brent’s work came with Brent, his acceptance was dispatched at once. Brent’s parents were a supportive pair, and, despite their early hopes that Brent would be an artist, they could not have been prouder when his acceptance came. Brent left his home on Da Vinci amid a veritable fanfare of hugs, tears, hopes, promises, and expectations. His parents wanted him to be happy, but industrious; to make new friends, but not forget to write; and above all to come home for Christmas. Brent promised everything. He even sincerely promised to miss them.

* * *

Although lacking in scenery, Wespirtech proved to have its fair share of distractions. For one, the scientists led an active night life of standard and live-action role-playing games (generally carried out in the winding corridors of the Daedalus Complex), replete with the most complicated rules that the most technically adept human minds in the galaxy could construct. Furthermore, though it was kept quiet, a society solely composed of such creative and experimental minds, necessarily given access to whatever cutting edge technologies their hearts might desire, could not be kept entirely drug free. The administration’s policy was to turn a blind eye as long as productivity wasn’t affected and the resulting chemicals stayed on world. The scientists dabbling in drug creation for their own experimentation was one thing; dealing in them would be quite another.

In his first few years at Wespirtech, Brent tried each of the distractions it offered him, including the attentions of a young physicist named Anna. Although she was not especially pretty in the traditional sense, Anna’s face lit up and her eyes sparkled when she talked about physics or advancements in technology. Her enthusiasm made her sufficiently attractive to captivate Brent for more than a few months and make Anna the subject of several of his letters home. In the end, however, Brent found Anna’s failure to be interested by anything other than technology and physics tiresome, not to mention that he discovered his interest in the opposite sex in general to be less intense than he’d expected. Needless to say, Anna was disappointed in her aspirations to become Anna Schweitzer.

All in all, Brent finished his work on perfecting the Keats as translators in good time. The administration was impressed and began encouraging him to work on their pet project. At the administration’s and his colleagues’ urging, Brent began work on genetically increasing the human life span. His progress was promising. Everyone was thrilled, including Brent… at first.

* * *

Officer Cicero put down the worn in, beaten up paperback he was reading and leaned back in his co-pilot’s chair. He knew the story of Brent Schweitzer’s early life by heart. He’d read the wildly successful biography by Gloria van Santen at least a hundred times. He’d dug up every one of the thirty odd interviews with Anna Karlingoff about her one time lover and colleague of many years. He’d done everything short of making the trip to visit Schweitzer’s childhood home. That was probably for the best, however, since Schweitzer’s parents let it be known that they were ready to be done with the press and the public only five years after the big day, the day it all happened.

Cicero twisted his chair around on it’s swivel and chuckled to himself. Officer Hyland, who was piloting their space ship, looked over.

Catching Hyland’s eye, Cicero started to speak what was on his mind: “He must have spent years planning his crime. Do you ever think of that?”

Hyland rolled his eyes. “I think of it all the time,” he replied. “I think of it every time we start to approach a planet and you have to start talking about it again.”

“Well, this planet could be the one!” Cicero replied with excitement. He looked hopefully at the image read out on their sensors the blue, green world hanging before them in space. “We need to be ready,” he added soberly. “We need to be in the mindset.”

“Mindset!?! There is no mindset, Cicero. We scan the planet; we see he’s not there; we go on to the next planet.”

“But this planet could be the one.”

This planet could be the one. The last planet could have been the one. Any old planet could be the one.” Hyland threw up his hands in despair, and then added after a moment: “The next planet could be the one, you know, and we’d just be wasting our time on this one. Did you ever think of that?”

“We’ll deal with that when we get there. If we get there. Right now, I’m just trying to do my job and that involves taking this planet seriously. We could find him here.”

“No,” Hyland objected, deftly running a few scans in addition to verbally fencing with Cicero. “You’re not just trying to do your job. You’re trying to feed your obsession and solve the mystery. You can’t solve the mystery. It’s been analyzed from left and right, top and bottom, up and down.”

Cicero frowned, and Hyland shook his head while perusing the scan readouts: all negative, no signs of the stolen spaceship. With a minor touch to the thrusters, Hyland shoved the ship into a different orbit and started the scans again. Then, muttering to himself, Hyland said: “Every person who ever knew the Great and Infamous Brent Schweitzer has been interviewed, and they all said the same thing: they don’t know why he did it.”

“That’s not true,” Cicero responded, to Hyland’s immense irritation. “Anna Karlingoff had some very interesting theories about why he did it, and Schweitzer’s mother wouldn’t comment, which I take as a sure sign that she knew. Think about it. If he told anyone what he was up to, what he had in mind, it would have been his mother. They were very close. He gave that color changing cat to her.”

Hyland glared at Cicero.

“Look, I wouldn’t have volunteered for this job if I didn’t care,” Cicero defended himself. “You don’t seem to care at all, so why did you volunteer?”

“I want to be a hero.”

“Ah, the hero who brings Schweitzer and his long-life tonic back home. You should be even more eager to find him than I am.”

Hyland abandoned his scans and swung his pilot’s swivel chair around to look Cicero in the eye. “The difference is,” he said, “that I don’t care why he did it, as long as we bring him back. He stole valuable technological equipment from the Human Expansion, including that damned prototype spaceship that let him get away so fast… not to mention stealing himself. Think of all the great work he could do… could have already done.” Turning back to his planetary scans, Hyland added, “The men who bring him home will be written down in the history books, that’s for sure.”

Cicero chuckled again. “History books are one thing. I want Gloria van Santen to interview us for her sequel. She’ll write a sequel, won’t she? Her biography of him was so successful, you’d think she would anyway. What a writer. So insightful.”

“So sensational.”

“Yeah, but I like it,” Cicero said. “She makes the story fun to read: all the tension and mystery of the night when he loaded up that ship… wondering if he’d be caught… how he’d carefully gathered all the right security codes by buddying up to his colleagues… and that final moment, when everything’s ready, and he’s about to take off… it’s exciting. Schweitzer would probably enjoy it himself. We’ll have to give him a copy to read on the way home in his cell.”

Cicero fell into a reverie, imagining all the possible plans Brent Schweitzer might have had and what he’d have done with his thirty odd years of lead time, the time it took to build another ship fast enough to chase him and then the last few months spent planet hopping looking for him. He’d be an old man by now, growing older every day that they continued to search for him. “I hope he’s not dead,” Cicero thought to himself but out loud. “I’d like to get a chance to talk to him. Finding him dead would be the worst… what if he crash landed? We’d never know his plans… ”

Hyland’s mouth dropped open. “Oh my god… ” he said. “That’s it… that’s the ship. He’s here.” Hyland turned to Cicero, joy and satisfied anticipation joined by a new anticipation washed over his face. “You’re about to get a chance to find out.”

* * *

Hyland awkwardly nosed the space police ship down into the atmosphere, much as Brent Schweitzer had piloted his ship some thirty years before. Since both ships were prototypes of the new elasti-drive, neither had been designed to land on planets particularly well. Presumably, that feature would be added into later models. Mainly, the first ship had been built to test the new drive, a product of Anna Karlingoff’s work, and the second ship had been built to catch the first.

Anna Karlingoff, following her brief but life-altering affair with Brent Schweitzer, threw herself into her work to nurse her broken heart. The effect was less than impressive in terms of mending her heart. However, the work Anna produced was extremely impressive. A little of the groundwork had already been laid in the field she chose: string theory, specifically elasticity in string dynamics. But, it was Anna’s wholehearted, brokenhearted work that pushed the field to the point of usefulness (a point that much physics never reaches). Work was started on designing the first elasti-drive spaceship. At this point, Brent was still only twenty-three years old.

By the time the ship was designed, built, named the Peter Rabbit (the Principal Elite given the honor of naming it had a three-year-old daughter and a fondness for ancient, pre-Expansionism literature), and sitting on Wespirtech’s airfield, Brent Schweitzer was in his late thirties. Building the second ship, appropriately named the Mr. McGregor, would have been a lot faster, if Brent hadn’t stolen all the design plans and records along with the prototype ship… and if Anna had still been mending her broken heart. Unfortunately for the program, Anna’s productivity had been severely cut down by her meeting a nice chemist, who was better at returning her affections.

Thus, although the police program had moved with as much haste as possible, Officers Cicero and Hyland were still thirty years behind their culprit simply because it took that long to build another ship capable of comparable speeds. With thirty years and all the technology he’d stolen, there was no telling what Brent Schweitzer could have accomplished, or consequently of what the officers would face. Cicero was very excited. Hyland was nervous. Neither of them, after the long months hopping from star to star, checking all the likely, habitable planets for signs of the Peter Rabbit, felt terribly ready for this moment, so close to what they’d sought for so long.

Cicero and Hyland disembarked the Mr. McGregor, holding standard issue, police elasti-blasters in their hands. They looked around, cautiously. It was a beautiful world. Neither of them had been to planet Da Vinci, both having been born on poorer, less scenic worlds, or they would have noticed the similarity. As it was, Cicero from the dusty, red world of Glencora, and Hyland from a small, colony on Isleydora’s sterile moon were both awed.

The sky of Schweitzer’s chosen planet was a blue so deep that, like a sun-kissed ocean, it hinted at green. The trees in the distance swayed, bending in the breeze, and Cicero suspected he could hear music carried in the air, emanating from the breeze drawn bends and fluttering leaves of those distant trees. Perhaps more impressive than the hint of music, or at least more noticeable to Hyland’s less discerning senses, were the colors flushed through the trees’ leaves. One moment, the whole forest was green like any other, then at the behest of some unknown source, crimsons and scarlets chased each other from tree to tree, as if the trees were blushing. A moment later, the same repeated but with purples, yellows, or blues. It was inspiring, and it was clearly Brent’s work.

Walking across the grassy ground from the Mr. McGregor to the Peter Rabbit, Cicero noted that the grass blushed around his feet, similarly to the way colors chased each other across the trees. Cicero was very excited. Reaching the Peter Rabbit’s main hatch, Cicero and Hyland took flanking positions on either side of the door. Then, Cicero reached out and pounded twice on the door. He called out, “Schweitzer? Are you inside?” He expected to wait and receive no response. Why would Schweitzer be waiting for them? Nonetheless, and to Cicero’s great surprise, although the hatch didn’t swing open, a voice called out: “I’m around back!”

Cicero and Hyland looked at each other, their faces mirrors of each other in surprise. Eventually, regaining his composure, Cicero shrugged, and started heading around back, blaster still in hand. Hyland followed. The sight that greeted their eyes, as they rounded the bend and arrived behind the ship, was a man lying on the grass in the shade, hands folded behind his head. “Hi,” the man said as he heard them approach. “Welcome to my planet.”

Cicero took a moment to size up the man: trimly built, approximately six feet tall, clean shaven, and his head topped with white hair. The man was believably Brent Schweitzer, and, furthermore, his face matched the picture on the cover of Gloria van Santen’s biography… oh, and the pictures in the police report as well. Cicero remained professionally calm. “Brent Schweitzer,” he said, “we’re here to arrest you on charges of grand theft and treason.”

“Hmm,” Brent observed. “You know, I rather expected you to land in that field over there… ” he gestured ahead of him. Then, looking up and noticing the elasti-blasters in Cicero and Hyland’s hands, he added, “I’ve never seen those before. I wonder if they’re Anna’s work. May I look at one?”

“Of course you may not!” Hyland blurted out, surprised and bemused by a prisoner asking his apprehenders to simply turn over their weapons. Then Hyland’s surprise was pushed to shock as his commanding officer, who should have known better despite his preoccupations and general foolishness, did flip the blaster around in his hand and merely render it to their culprit. Hyland was annoyed.

“They stem from the same principle as the elasti-drive,” Cicero said to Brent, ignoring his inferior officer’s outburst. “We call them elasti-blasters. I think they’re pretty much the next thing Ms. Karlingoff worked on after you left.”

Brent looked the blaster over and handed it back. “I’m glad to see she kept getting such good work done, but how do you come to know so much about it? Last I knew, the general public wasn’t much interested in keeping up on who invented their technological progress for them.”

“Officer Cicero here is your biggest fan,” Hyland said dryly. “Can we get on with this?”

Spurred by Hyland’s reminder, Cicero informed Brent that he would show them the ship and all the technology he had stolen, so they could take inventory. All of it would have to be returned, or else it would add to the charges hanging over Brent’s head. Brent complied, and every piece of technology was still intact, in working order, and already loaded onto the Peter Rabbit.

“I anticipated your coming,” Schweitzer explained. “I knew someone would come after me someday, so when I finished my original work here, I put all the machinery back. Once I had my world running, I didn’t need it anymore.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the well-packed ship as Brent and Cicero both struggled against asking the questions they wanted to ask, hoping the other would ask first. Schweitzer wanted to ask if they’d like to see his world, and Cicero wanted to ask if he’d be willing to show it. Hyland just wanted the tension to break, so he asked Brent in Cicero’s stead, “Would you like to show us around, and get a last look yourself, before we have to take you home?” Brent replied that he’d be pleased to.

* * *

When Brent first landed the Peter Rabbit on his new world, it was already a beautiful one. Brent chose it, during his long years of silent planning at Wespirtech, because of its likely similarities to Da Vinci. On his arrival, he was not disappointed. A temperate, virgin planet awaited his artistic, scientific touch. After thirty long years, the young planet had evolved and matured, under Brent’s directing hand, into the fantastical menagerie which greeted his police officer guests’ eyes. Cicero was delighted, and Hyland was awed in spite of himself.

The first creature the three of them met, on their walk through Schweitzer’s fairy land, was a glittering, golden butterfly. Brent hadn’t changed it much from its original genetic design, but as it flitted closer, Cicero could just make out what looked like writing on its wings. Schweitzer smiled, and explained that the writing was poetry. He’d written the poetry into their genes, and all the butterflies emerged from their chrysalises with snatches of the psalms emblazoned on the glory of their wings.

Hyland watched the butterfly glide away, towards the edge of the rainbowing forest, and was struck to the heart when he saw the butterfly land. As a child, Hyland had cherished a secret love for unicorns, that had gotten him teased when discovered more than once. The butterfly landed on a shining, white, perfectly real and corporeal unicorn’s horn.

From cloven hoof to clockwise twisting horn, the unicorn was exactly as Hyland had imagined them. The eyes were deep and enigmatic, too deep to clearly be a specific color. The face was thin and framed by the curly locks of a flowing mane. The tail was long and tufted at the end like a lion’s. And every inch of the unicorn, except for its piercing, dark eyes, was the softest white.

When Cicero saw the charmingly mythical beast, he laughed outright from joy. Perhaps on another world, in another mood, the creature might have looked merely silly, but here, in such a forest, it looked beautiful and perfectly in place.

“I made them from a combination of deer and mountain goat genes,” Schweitzer said. “And the horn is like the horn on ancient Earth’s narwhales.”

Even knowing the unicorns’ genetic sources couldn’t break the tiny, elegant beast’s spell. Cicero and Hyland watched raptly, dumbstruck, until the unicorn grew tired of watching them back, turned tail, and sallied away between the trees.

Brent watched his guests’ faces, enjoying their reactions. After giving them a moment to recover from the mystical vision of a real, live unicorn, Brent led them after it into the trees. Walking among the trees, the faint music Cicero had earlier perceived grew clearer, emanating, in stereo, all around them. The music of the trees, for it plainly came from them, sounded much like the discordant, yet oddly pleasant sound of an all strings orchestra tuning up, or of a choir preparing to sing, each choral member warming up his voice separately. The effect was soothing and naturally unobtrusive like the sound of a distant waterfall.

Brent and his guests emerged from the forest on the edge of a small village. Columns of smoke rose from the chimneys of small, hut-like buildings with thatched roofs. Villagers busied themselves among the buildings. A woman tended a central fire; a man sat, leaning against a building, shucking husks from an unusual looking, blue fruit; a few children chased after each other, ducking behind buildings, in and out of each others’ sight.

Coming from their months on a gleamingly new space ship and their years in the technologically advanced and overly machined society of the Human Expansion, Cicero and Hyland might have been tempted to view the scene before them as squalid, a horrifying way to live. Yet… the villagers all looked so happy… and they were all so strangely beautiful…

The woman, kneeling before the fire, particularly caught Cicero’s eye. Her hair was long and fell like a cascade of glass over her shoulders, framing her triangular face. It was so fine and blonde, so blonde as to almost look clear. Her ears, peaking from behind her nearly fiber-optic hair, were gracefully pointed, as any elf’s should be, for elves were clearly what Schweitzer had created here. The woman, like all her fellow elfin-folk, was small, her total height bringing her still short of the policemen’s shoulders.

As the three men walked by, the elfin-woman rose and looked at Brent questioningly. “Not now, Kylani,” he said. “I have visitors. They and I must talk.”

“Brandon’s out checking on the carnivorous plants,” the woman said, in a tonal voice, “so your hut is empty.”

“Thank you,” Brent replied, “we’ll be there.”

By the time the three men found themselves safely inside, door closed behind them, Cicero was nearly bursting with questions. Yet, in Cicero’s indecision as to which question to ask first, Hyland was the first to speak. “You chose an inhabited planet? What have you done? Set yourself up as God here? Preying on an innocent, pre-technological race?”

Brent looked surprised for a moment, then said, “No, no, you don’t understand. I created them, but they don’t think of me as a god… merely an elderly, sometimes forgetful storyteller… perhaps something of a grandfather. I seem ancient to them.”

Hyland looked at a loss, and Cicero seemed only moderately more illuminated.

“You know the inventory of technology I brought,” Brent continued. “It was more than sufficient to create the first of them… they were only babies, and I had to raise them myself, but they grow up fast. They only live about twenty years.”

Hyland looked surprised. “You were working on extending life… ” he said.

The following silence was extremely uncomfortable as each of the three men pursued their own and very different thoughts. Brent was reminded of the plague he’d pushed far from his mind: the years of studying life extension, trapped in the steel box known as Wespirtech, on a barren moon. Twenty years, he thought, was plenty for a happy life time… he’d lived more than twenty good years, between those of his childhood and the thirty years spent here. But he would have traded the extra ones to not be faced by the years he imagined stretching out before him. He would have been happy to die there on his own world, surrounded by his people, his children.

Hyland was too young to understand Brent’s thoughts. He tried, but couldn’t fathom why a man with immortality almost in his grasp, for such had been the promise of Brent’s research, would willingly choose a life surrounded by death… and, worse, the deaths, the frequent deaths, of such beautiful creatures. Hyland wished he could return home, bringing not just the infamous Brent Schweitzer, but also bringing the end to the end of life as well. What a waste Brent Schweitzer had made of his life, a life that held such promise. Perhaps, returned to the society of the Human Expansion, and faced with the choice of ending his life in prison or returning to his work, Schweitzer would make the right choice.

This time, Cicero was the first to speak: “Can we meet them, talk to your people?” he asked.

“Certainly,” Brent said, heavy with the weight of time. “You can stay and explore while I go find my son. I’ll want to say goodbye to Brandon before you take me away.”

* * *

Brent set off towards the grove of carnivorous plants, where his son Brandon was last seen headed, with a heavy heart. Hyland and Cicero stayed behind with lighter, yet still troubled, feelings. Hyland stood stiffly by as Cicero approached and began talking to Kylani. She was, at first, reluctant, due possibly to being shy, but eventually her curiosity warmed her demeanor. After asking about Cicero and Hyland’s uniforms, blasters, ship, and lives back home, she suddenly looked pensive. Her brow furrowed, and she bit her lip. “What will happen to Brent when you take him back?” she asked. “He said you’d probably take him away… but he never told any of us what you’ll do with him.”

Cicero smiled warmly. “You have no need to worry,” he said. “He’ll be well taken care of. He’s already turned over everything he’d stolen, so the courts will go easy on him. Probably, he’ll just return to the work he was doing before he came here.”

“What did he do?” Kylani asked, with a simplicity that was disconcerting. Had he really never told them?

Hyland stepped forward to answer this question. “Brent Schweitzer was trying to discover a way to extend human life. It was a noble cause.”

Kylani looked surprised. “But, Brent’s already lived so long,” she said. “Brent was there when my mother was born. He outlived her, and he says he’ll outlive me, as well as my son. Why would he want to live any longer?”

“Wouldn’t you like to live longer?” Hyland asked, feeling a spark of outrage, deep down, at what Schweitzer had done in creating such a short-lived race.

Kylani frowned. “I’m afraid of dying, if that’s what you mean. But… is running away from it the answer?”

“What about your son?” Hyland pressed, beginning to express his outrage in his voice. “What about when he dies?”

Kylani looked at a loss. “Leave her alone,” Cicero said. Then, more gently, he added “I think my subordinate and I need to talk alone. I’m sorry if we’ve upset you.” Then, turning to Hyland and roughly grabbing him at the elbow, Cicero withdrew. The two officers removed themselves from the village, as far as the edge of the forest. Hyland leaned, nonchalantly, against one of the trees. It’s leaves fluttered and sang in objection, but Hyland didn’t mind.

“What were you trying to do?” Cicero asked, looking back towards the village. “Did you just want to upset her?”

Hyland looked down at the ground and scuffed his feet, kicking an unusually star-like pinecone. “I don’t like what he’s done to them. He should have used his brilliance to save lives, not end them.”

“Schweitzer isn’t the one that kills them.”

“I know,” Hyland said. “But he made them that way. He made them to die.”

“They die because they live, and they only live because Schweitzer bothered to make them at all.”

Hyland and Cicero stared at each other levelly for a few minutes. “You’re such a fan,” Hyland muttered to himself to break the tension. Then each of them turned to watch the village. Kylani was still at the fire, but a young boy, who must have been the son she mentioned, had joined her. He was smiling and clapping his hands.

“They seem happy,” Cicero said. “That’s all anyone can ask out of life. Some people live scores of years without ever being as happy as the people look here.”

Hyland looked around with the corner of his eye, as if saying he wanted to be convinced. He wanted his mind to be made easier.

“We didn’t come here on a quest after some magic elixir,” Cicero said. “We came because we’re police officers, and a man stole a spaceship and a lot of expensive equipment. That man happens to be brilliant… he may even hold the secret to human immortality… but getting it out of him is not our job. Our job is to bring back what was stolen.”

Hyland nodded. “I had hopes… ” he said.

“I know you did.”

The next few minutes passed in silence, but it was a much easier silence than the last. Cicero and Hyland watched Kylani playing a game with her son, in front of the fire. When Brent returned, he was with another, younger man, who looked just like Brent had back when he’d been researching at Wespirtech. The younger man was clearly Brandon, the son after whom Brent went looking. Cicero theorized that rather than a normal son, Brandon was probably an exact clone, raised as a son.

The older and younger Schweitzer joined Kylani at the fire. As they talked to her, others of the elfin-folk began to gather. There were hugs, warm handshakes, and sad smiles passed around. Brent was saying his goodbyes. Kylani’s son, before so happy, now broke into tears, and she tried to cheer him. Finally, Brent gave a long hug to his own son and went back into his hut, apparently to gather his things to leave.

Cicero, still at the edge of the forest, was deeply moved by this display. He turned urgently to Hyland, and said “I want to let him go. I want to let him stay here.”

“Let him go… ” Hyland repeated with astonishment. “You were just talking about our job… ”

“We’d bring the ship and the machinery back… everything he stole. We’d just leave him.”

Hyland continued to look surprised, and Cicero was clearly agitated.

“We’d say we couldn’t find him,” Cicero said, “… that he must have left the ship, that he must have died.” Cicero looked earnestly at Hyland. “I want to do this, because I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Hyland, still recovering from his hopes of returning with an elixir of life, or at least a scientist likely to create one, looked skeptical. “He’s a criminal,” Hyland said.

“He’s a thief,” Cicero agreed. “He set back the Human Expansion’s space program at Wespirtech by a solid twenty years… but he belongs here. I know why he left now… and I don’t want to be the one to take him back.”

Hyland perked up for a moment. “You know why he left? Why did he leave?”

“Have you ever talked to a Keat?” Cicero asked.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Have you?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“They’re quite amazing conversationalists,” Cicero said. “I talked to one once. I was waiting in line for a spaceflight home. There was an Anathoran diplomat waiting too. I’d have talked to him with the Keat translating, but he’d fallen asleep. The Keat talked to me anyway… ” Cicero looked ponderous, like his thoughts were a hundred million miles and twenty years away.

“And so?” Hyland prompted.

“The point,” Cicero concluded once recalled to his senses, “is that no one knows how interesting the Keats are… no one ever talks to them. We just use them. If I were Schweitzer, I wouldn’t be happy with that. To create such beautiful things and to see them go unappreciated… ”

Hyland frowned. “You’re quite a romantic for a police officer,” he said.

Cicero chuckled at that. “Schweitzer’s quite a romantic for a scientist,” he said. Then, returning to his point: “I want to do this, but I can’t do it without you.”

“I don’t know… ” Hyland muttered without promise.

“If you won’t go along with it… ” Cicero began, but didn’t finish, knowing that Hyland knew full well his power to deny Cicero’s treasonous plan. Furthermore, it was at this point that Brent emerged from his hut, a small bag slung over his shoulder. Thus, Cicero and Hyland’s argument, already dying, was put to a complete stop by Brent and Brandon joining them.

Brent smiled weakly to the policemen and introduced his son. “This is Brandon,” he said, as Brandon reached out and shook each of the officer’s hands. “I cloned myself twenty years ago to create him,” Brent explained, looking proudly at his son. “I made him so that he could stay here and take care of my world when you came… I knew you’d come… ” Brent trailed off, losing his composure. “I’m ready,” he said. Then, looking a last time at his son, Brent said, with passion tingeing his voice, “Take care of my world, Brandon… and enjoy it.”

Brandon made an almost entirely successful effort not to look like a child who’d been given clothes for Christmas, leading Cicero to suspect Brandon was less thrilled with his father’s world than Brent himself was. He smiled, patted Brent on the back, and said “Take care, Dad.”

Cicero gave a last, imploring look to Hyland, before giving up his hopes. Cicero, Schweitzer, and Hyland turned to leave, two of them more reluctantly than the third. After the first few steps, their departure was interrupted by an unhappy cry from behind. Hyland turned around to see Kylani’s son, having run after them, wrapped, clinging, around Schweitzer leg. Kylani stood a few paces behind, looking embarrassed. “I’m sorry… ” she said. “I tried to catch him…   He says he won’t let you leave… ” The boy’s elfin face was buried in the crook of Schweitzer’s knee.

Brent prepared to speak, but Hyland’s conscience could support him no more. “You can stay,” he said. “We’ll let you stay.”

Years of weight dropped from Brent’s shoulders, and Cicero smacked Hyland heartily on the back. “I knew you’d come around,” he said.

“Come around?” Hyland said, returning to his usual dryness. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This man couldn’t possibly be Brent Schweitzer.”

“That’s the spirit,” Cicero said, and then, turning to Brent, Brandon, Kylani, and the small boy, Cicero explained the plan. As soon as the idea sunk into Kylani’s boy’s head, a broad grin broke across his face. Hyland had never felt more like a hero than at that moment.

* * *

Cicero and Hyland walked back to the Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor, thinking about the wonders they’d seen and feeling good about the choices they’d made. As the two of them stood, between the ships, arguing over who would get to try flying the Peter Rabbit, and who had to go back to the Mr. McGregor, Brandon came running up. Breathless, Brandon stopped before them. “I want to come,” he said in huffs, while regaining his breath. “I want to come.”

Cicero and Hyland exchanged a glance, but before either of them could speak, Brandon continued. “I’ve never seen another world. I know it’s beautiful here. I love it here. But, I want to see what else is out there… this is all my father wants, but… ”

“But you’re not him,” Hyland finished for him.

“We’ve already said our goodbyes,” Brandon said. “I can leave immediately. Can you smuggle me back? Will it raise too many questions? I could say I saw my father die… ”

“We’ll figure it out,” Cicero said. “For now, the question is whether you want to ride with me on the Peter Rabbit, or go with Hyland on the Mr. McGregor...”

Hyland glared his objection at Cicero, and the ensuing argument took some time, but ended satisfactorily for Hyland. He got to fly the Peter Rabbit. Brandon stowed away with him, planning to hide among the many extra pieces of technology when they returned, so that he could slip away while it was being inventoried. Slip away and find his way among the many, confusing worlds of the Human Expansion…

The ships took off from Schweitzer’s idyllic little world, powered their elasti-drives, and barreled their way home. Even the sun that warmed Schweitzer and his village receded into the distance. Brandon was excited, but he realized that he would sincerely miss his father and his home. And, yet, there was no telling what he could create when he joined the scientists of the Human Expansion.

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