The air-handling system did not work properly. The snoring man
next to Sally had eaten something hideous recently. The baby squirming
in its mother’s arms across from Sally desperately needed changing. But
then again, she had not bathed in two weeks herself, so she guessed she
should not complain. The other seat in the compartment was empty.
There were nine similar compartments on this shuttle. Jacob would
have said something appropriate right about this time, but Jacob was
not here. Sally rubbed the wedding band on her finger; a comforting
habit she had picked up since his disappearance.
“I had to sell mine.” The mother across from Sally spoke softly.
“My wedding ring.” She smiled tentatively. “I had to sell mine to
pay for this trip.”
“You didn’t look like you were on holiday.” Sally’s words were
sometimes harsher than she meant them to be. “Have you come far?”
The mother was younger than she looked. Grimy oil exaggerated
the lines in her face and neck. Bitterness had begun to etch vertical lines
in her bottom lip. “I guess you’d probably not think so.” She reddened
and looked at her baby. “I mean — you look like a Spa’Lab — not that
I’ve met any Spa’Labs — but you have red hair and blue eyes and you’re
very short. You look like —”
The baby spit up and the mother busied herself with cleaning it up.
“What’s his name?” Sally asked.
“Gaia. She’s a girl, aren’t you, my darling?”
“She’s beautiful. You don’t hear too many Old Earth names this far
“I’m from Earth.”
“You have come a long way, then. I’m from New Phoenix.”
The young mother began to cry. Just a tear or two at first, nothing
to call attention to, but finally, unable to hold back her sorrow, she
sobbed and buried her face in her baby’s blanket.
When she had dried her eyes, Sally offered her a chunk of bread.
“No water, sorry.”
“Water, Mother yes!” She laughed. “I remember when I could
turn on the taps and water would flow for as long as I liked. I bathed
everyday! My father has a recycling system on his sphere that … Well,
I never thought I’d miss water so much!”
“Is your father a former?”
“My father, a terraformer? No. He’s an Earther to the bone. He’d
never leave Earth. But he helped design a lot of the systems terraformers
use, like his water recycler.”
“I don’t think we’ll need to worry about water on Orchidea. It rains
there every day.”
“It isn’t supposed to do that, is it?”
“It’s an old form; one of the first this side of Talmedia. The formers
got the methane mixture wrong and the planet developed GHS.”
“G. H. S. Greenhouse syndrome.”
Her blank stare encouraged Sally to add, “Too much carbon
dioxide built up, too much heat, not enough oxygen.”
“Oh.” Her confusion had not been erased.
“Orchidea is a very hard place to live, not more than a ghostform,
really, with a couple of squatters trying to raise oolongs.”
“What are squatters?”
“Anyone that won’t swear allegiance to the New Alliance is
forbidden to own land. So, those people who still claim land but refuse
New Alliance citizenship are considered squatters.”
“I didn’t know you could refuse to be a part of us. What are
“Lizards. Great, gigantic lizards. They are not indigenous, but they
do well in Orchidea’s climate. On some planets, they’re sold for meat
and leather goods.”
“People eat them?!”
“You haven’t been away from Earth long, have you.”
“A year and a half. But I’ve never eaten meat. I couldn’t!”
Sally tried really hard not to say something curt to this selfrighteous
child who still believed one could pick and choose food. She
glared at the air vent, wishing it fixed. But Sally never was gifted at
“Are you from Orchidea? I know you said you were from New
Phoenix, and my daddy told me that Spa’Labs are known to travel a
lot.” She had noticed Sally’s expression and spoke softly.
“Have you been there before?”
“How do you know so much about it?”
“I read about it.”
“You can read?” Admiration shone in her eyes. Then she fussed at
herself. “Of course you can read. I knew you were a Spa’Lab! I never
met anyone who could read except my daddy!”
It always surprised Sally that this one fact — being able to read —
miraculously changed her image from ballast tubing to copper pipes.
She would not have mentioned it, if it had not been for the Earther’s
attitude about meat.
“We ought to get some rest,” the young mother said, looking at her
wrist. “We should be arriving any time now.”
“Yes. It’s a Subdermal Normal Digital. My father had it implanted
on my tenth birthday.”
“The day these shuttles run on time — I’ll get a sub-diggy
Normal Digital was pretty much useless anywhere but Earth. It
divided the Earth day into ten equal movietimes, and each movietime
was divided into ten sitcoms, which were each divided into ten
comshells. But on New Phoenix, the solar day was fourteen movietimes
long, and on Dersdarina, the solar day was eight movietimes. Space
Labs were Earth-normal but only because the Spa’Labs did not orbit
any stars. Very few other planets — Alliance or Commonwealth had
exactly ten movietime solar days.
She was staring at the back of her wrist with a look of pride. Pride
in obsolescence, that was a good way to describe most Earthers, but
not to their face. There was never a need to be rude. Rudeness is a
poisonous wound inflicted only to fester. That was a NewPhee scripture
that Sally’s housekeeper Turna said often — usually as a false apology
following a searingly rude comment directed at one of the staff.
Sally took a deep breath. Subdermal digital and veggie-snobbery,
too; she was a long way from home.
The landing ports on all planets are kept up by the New Alliance.
The port on Orchidea looked just the same as any other Sally had seen.
Someone somewhere got a terrific buy on sea foam green paint and
tangerine orange fabric. Every port she had ever been in since the war
was decorated that way. It is supposed to suggest to the travelers that
all ethnicities are the same people now, no matter where they are: One
Earth, One Mother, One Family.
The War for Unification; that’s its name now. Not the War of the
Allied Aggression, as the Commonwealth called it, or the Mother War,
as the Alliance called it, not even Bedina’s War, even though it was her
idea. No, historians now refer to it as the War for Unification. Well, at
least the shuttle ports are all unified.
The shuttlers who were continuing their journey were shown
the communal dorm and got to eat. Depending on their fortune,
they could buy rations, exercise on gravity machines, or sleep in a
hammock. They were kept isolated from the rest of the shuttle station
within hermitically sealed tunnels.
The three who had chosen to stop at Orchidea were blasted with
anti-fungus powder before the shuttle door opened. They blinked in the
light of the customs room. One frumpy-looking guard pointed them to
the customs machine which asked each one to show their travel visas.
Sally placed the aluminum card in the appropriate slot.
Her vital statistics were stored on that card.
Child-bearing Discount: Yes
Occupation: Botanical scout
Communal Status: Monogamous wife, three biological children
Ethnicity: OrionLab native, New Phoenix citizen
Before the war, Alliance citizens could expect to live one hundred
years; Commonwealth members and Mission orphans, one hundred
fifty. Space Lab Nationals often saw two hundred years. The war hadn’t
changed this. So, out of a life-expectancy of two hundred years, Sally
was still of child-bearing years, and eligible for discount travel rates. She
did not mind that. There was one thing that did bother her: Ethnicity.
Anthropologists believe that humans developed into separate races
after their first journey into space. Sally did not consider herself a
Spa’Lab, never did, anymore than she thought of Jacob as a NewPhee
or that lost child as an Earther. All came from the same root stock.
But these millennia of interplanetary emigration and colonization
have hybrid humans. Sally was born and raised on a space lab. She
never ran in open fields, weighted by gravity, so her limbs and muscles
never elongated. She was short and muscular, with bright red hair and
translucent skin that freckled when given the chance. Her parents were
the same, as were their parents before them. The hair and coloring,
previously a recessive gene on Earth, seemed to establish itself firmly
in colonial Spa’Lab DNA. Sally’s Papa used to laugh and say, “Red
heads, like the Vikings of Old Earth, are the true conquering heroes
of space.” Ethnicity was one concept that the late President Lityerses
Bedina had encouraged before and during her two terms in office.
She was the queen of manipulation and “divide and conquer” had its
charm. By pointing out the genetic differences between the Alliance
and Commonwealth worlds and specifically the Space Lab Nations,
she gave the impression that humans were about to split irreconcilably
and only war could bring them back as one people. The concept of
separate races did not disappear after the war’s end.
“Is your visit on Orchidea business or personal?” The customs
computer’s voice sounded exactly the same here as anywhere else.
“Next.” It spit out Sally’s visa and swallowed the man’s next to her.
The three shuttlers staying on Orchidea stepped through the airlock
into steam; pure, wonderful, suffocating steam. Everywhere Sally looked
she saw green: trees soared hundreds of meters above her head, ferns
thick as hills sprawled along the paths, grass and ground cover squished
where ever she placed her feet. Among all the different greens were
browns and whites and touches of yellow, splashes of reds, and a hint of
purple. Watermelon on a hot winter’s day in New Phoenix; that was the
smell. And the scent of real chocolate, like the small cubes of chocolate
Jacob used to bring home to the children. High pitched whirring noises
echoed around her. A locust, larger than her foot, shiny black with stripes
of red and yellow boinged onto the grass in front of her. Orchidea was
beautiful; everything here was wet and vibrant.
How Jacob must have hated it.
Jacob hated traveling anywhere that was different from his home
world. Orchidea was nothing like New Phoenix except that they were
both terraformed planets that had gone wrong. New Phoenix was a
desert world with a lot of water, but not enough microbes in the soil to
support vegetation. A desert world that bred a fierce race of man.
“Oh, Mother! Please say this is an unusually hot summer day!”
Sally’s seating companion took out a huge white cloth and mopped
at his face. “Mother, look at this! My jumpsuit’s already soaked right
“Actually, Mr. Ignacio, it is autumn now in this part of Orchidea.”
A man suddenly appeared before them. Dressed to match his
environment, he seemed to step from out of a tree, like a nymph.
“Ah, and you must be Your Majesty Benjamin Haskell!”
“Mr. Ignacio, we follow Commonwealth traditions on Orchidea.
Haskell is my clan name, Benjamin is my familial, so you may address
me as Mr. Haskell or Haskell Benjamin.”
“So, I should not refer to your eminence’s title?”
The Orchidean’s repetition was soft but firm, “Mr. Haskell or
Haskell Benjamin. Either will do.”
The two men clapped the palms of their hands above their heads
in an ancient sign of peace.
“Excuse me, Mr. Haskell.” He turned to face Sally. “Where’s your
He didn’t answer; he just looked at her, like she was an apple
blossom on an African violet. Sally held his gaze and let him think
what he pleased. She watched him as his eyes took her in. He began
by cataloging her hair, eyes and skin. Sally had a lot of freckles, so
Haskell — if he knew much about Spa’Labs — knew she’d spent most
of her life dirt-bound. His gaze moved from her face to her blue and
green striped jumpsuit. He didn’t linger in a leering way, but hesitated
appreciatively. He looked her in the eyes again, acknowledging her
presence, but then his focus dipped to her neckline. Sally could feel the
songbox pulsing against her throat, dangling on a heavy sterling chain.
Haskell knew what a Songbox was — she could see it in his expression.
He had recognized her as a Space Lab National. Sally expected some
prejudicial remark — something born of fear or ignorance. But he
smiled instead and slightly inclined his head. He was being respectful,
reserved, but he said nothing.
His sandy-colored hair was wiry. His nose was big with a shallow
cleft down from the tip to the place it touched his upper lip. His lips
were almost the color of his hair and were surrounded by a closetrimmed
beard and mustache, slightly more golden than the hair
creeping out of his toga. He was head and shoulders taller than Sally.
His well-proportioned body was a pleasing sight.
“The little Spa’Lab was asking about your Talking Wall, Mr.
Haskell.” Mr. Ignacio’s voice seemed to break Benjamin’s observation
and he looked at the ground.
“There isn’t one. Veggies took it over a few decades back. Most
who come here don’t need directions. They were invited.” He turned
his back and led Mr. Ignacio away to the waiting vehicle.
Gaia began to cry as her mother stood at Sally’s side. “Are they
going to just leave us here?” she whispered.
“We’ll be a’right.” Sally slipped her arm around her waist and glared
after the receding vehicle. “Why don’t you change and feed Gaia and
then we’ll be on our way.”
“Honey, we’ll follow the road. Orchidea City must be along it
somewhere. It’s the only road from here.” Sally watched a butterfly the
size of her hand lift off from a bromeliad.
“He was supposed to meet me here. He promised he would.”
“Now look!” Sally put her hands on her hips. “I don’t have any
patience with people who cry, and you seem to cry at the drop of a
helmet. You’ve got things to do, now get them done. I’m going to find
that Talking Wall, veggie-covered or not, and then we’ll be on our
Unable to speak through her tears, the young woman nodded
vigorously as Sally walked away.
There was a thin trail that led from the shuttle port into the forest.
Sally unsnapped her walking stick from her pack and squared her
shoulders. The walls surrounding the port were solid steel, like all
the ports in the New Alliance. Although vines and creepers covered
the ground, none of them dared the wall’s cold surface. A power grid
surged across the metal, too, to discourage foliage encroachment.
If there was a Talking Wall, it would be within walking distance
of the port. A Talking Wall’s purpose was to communicate directions
for travelers. They were programmed in Alliang (Alliance Military
Language — at one time, the most common language spoken thorough
out the universe) but for a fee, could translate into any of the dozen or
so more popular languages: various Commonwealth, Mission, probably
even Earther. Sally didn’t hope it could communicate in Spa’Lab. That
language was a closely guarded secret. She’d taught it to her children of
course, but never spoke a word of it to Jacob.
Spider webs drew her out of her contemplation. She followed the
path as it wove through the jungle around the port and wound up at a
bungalow nestled between the roots of a huge magnolia.
© Evelyn Rainey