Excerpt for Omie 17 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


The Forevers Series: book 4

A Novel by G. Michael Smith

Agio Publishing House

Smashwords Edition

The Forevers Series

Book 1: Fixer 13

Book 2: Master Fixer

Book 3: Impostor

Book 4: omie 17

© 2018, G. Michael Smith. All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book. Disclaimer—This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Forevers, Book 4: Omie 17

ISBN 978-1-927755-71-6 (paperback)

ISBN 978-1-927755-72-3 (ebook)

Cataloguing information available from Library and Archives Canada. Agio Publishing House is a socially-responsible enterprise, measuring success on a triple-bottom-line basis. Version 01

To Cheryl Cameron who constantly rescues me from the abyss


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Sprinkles on My Birthday Cake

Chapter 2: Choices

Chapter 3: Biome Central

Chapter 4: Wheeler Dealer

Chapter 5: Under Systems

Chapter 6: Looks Can Be Deceiving

Chapter 7: Second Looks

Chapter 8: Observers

Chapter 9: The Lounge

Chapter 10: Winning?

Chapter 11: Gilly Acts Weird

Chapter 12: Guests for Dinner

Chapter 13: Dinner Surprises

Chapter 14: Smiles and Nods

Chapter 15: Poof – Gilly is Gone

Chapter 16: Monsters in the Jungle

Chapter 17: Gilly’s Monster

Chapter 18: Pandora’s Suspicions

Chapter 19: Weekend Plans

Chapter 20: Sleepover Secrets

Chapter 21: Secret Secrets

Chapter 22: Visitors

Chapter 23: Trust

Chapter 24: Gilly’s Monster Returns

Chapter 25: Gilly Vanishes

Chapter 26: All The Bots Are Dead

Chapter 27: Fizzlers, Feggs and Boys

Chapter 28: The Purge

Chapter 29: A Dome Warning

Chapter 30: The Isolation Room

Chapter 31: Testing

Chapter 32: To the Beach

Chapter 33: Pursuit

Chapter 34: Captured

Chapter 35: Safe But Alone

Chapter 36: Back to Biome 6

Chapter 37: Caught Kissing

Chapter 38: Plans

Chapter 39: Plans Change

Chapter 40: More Kissing

Chapter 41: The Dinner Invitation

Chapter 42: Party Prep

Chapter 43: Listening

Chapter 44: Meetings, Money and Murder

Chapter 45: Nasty Plans Revealed

Chapter 46: Back to Normal

Chapter 47: Mysteries and Confusion

Chapter 48: The End Game

Chapter 1: Sprinkles on My Birthday Cake

The biomes were the last great adventure of human kind. They were built on terraformed asteroids to transport the human race to the stars and beyond before Earth was destroyed by “The Swarm” of intergalactic meteors that was due to arrive in 80 years. Each biome was built to align with the planet to which it was to travel. Some were deserts and some were jungles. They were all combinations of many factors of geology, atmosphere, temperature and gravity. All were carefully designed to encourage adaptation of the inhabitants on the long trip across interstellar space. Upon arrival, the hope was that the biome dwellers would be suited to survival in their new home.

Pandora Sarina Rao was rushing. She was collecting fizzler eggs and her basket was nearly full. She walked softly to ease any ground vibrations that might alert the fizzler squatting in the sand in front of her. Fizzlers were so commonly named for the sound the females made when they dug holes for their nests. It had spun down so that its body was completely buried in the sand and the umbrella-like flange attached to its back was flared out, covering it completely. The umbrella was half covered with sand and nearly invisible, if it were not for the telltale edge. The secretions from the glands around the circumference of the umbrella had literally glued it to the ground. This was an adaptation that this leather-skinned, featherless bird used to protect the eggs, it was now laying, from predators. You had to approach the bird from behind and carefully dig down and under until you felt one of the eggs. You could take only one of the usual three the female laid. Their life span was short and the bird must be allowed to reproduce offspring.

Pandora crept slowly up to the bird and began to worm her hand into the sand. The birds were very skittish and this one fluttered its umbrella. The flutter was the muscles undulating in an effort to keep the umbrella tightly pressed to the ground. If you disturbed one, she would run away, abandoning her eggs. She would not lay another clutch until she came into contact with a suitable male. Female fizzlers were particular about their mates. You could get three eggs but that female would not lay again for some time. It was better to take only one egg and encourage the numbers of laying fizzlers.

Pandora breathed quietly and concentrated on calming images and sounds of wind gusting over sand and sand shifting softly over the bird’s back. The fizzler’s umbrella slowed its fluttering and settled back over the clutch of eggs. Pandora felt her fingers touch one of the warm smooth eggs and she eased it down into the hole she had dug with her hand. She grabbed it and slowly lifted it out and into her basket. She pushed sand back to fill the hole. She stood and tiptoed backwards, away from the bird. It would not miss the egg and would sit with the flesh umbrella glued to the ground until the other two hatched. Pandora reached into her pouch and took a small red flag on a stick and stuck it gently in the ground. This was an indicator to others that this fizzler had been harvested. She had a full basket. Her little brother would have to clean the eggs in her basket and store them away. She walked quickly back and slipped into the kitchen of the small cottage that housed her, her brother, her grandmother and her father.

Pandora was third generation omie (biome dweller). She had been born and always lived on Biome 6 and today was her birthday. Her grandmother was making her a cake. They had been preparing the stevia extract from the garden. Sugar manufactured from sugar beets was expensive and white beet sugar imported from the planet was a luxury that the Rao family could not afford, so stevia, grown in the garden, and extracted from the leaves, was what had been used for baking ever since her grandmother had come to Biome 6 as a child. Her parents – Pandora’s great-grandparents – had won the lottery and been placed in Biome 6, although ‘won’ was a contentious term in the biomes after three generations of seemingly endless toil.

The biomes were designed to be self-sufficient. Imports from the planet below were frowned upon. Some luxury items still made it by the security protocols. In a short 80 years, by last account, there would be no Earth from which to get anything. They would be sailing out to the stars when the interstellar swarm of asteroids and pseudo planets swept through the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy and picked up the few specs of dust that is our solar system. Pandora did not want to think about it. It really was of no concern. She would be, at worst, a very old woman and, more likely, dead. There was even some that said they had heard that the Swarm had been pushed off course by some black holes and would miss the Earth entirely. They said that it would only take a little nudge while the Swarm was so far away, to alter the course enough to miss. It was an Earth government plot to keep them here so they could use the omies for their experiments. That was Gilly’s latest theory. The politicians and the scientists were simply using the biomes as their private laboratories. Gilly was Pandora’s little brother. He saw himself as the first omie to win a Nobel prize. He didn’t know if he wanted the one for physics or the one for mathematics. Lately, he had decided that he would not have to choose. He would accept both. The amazing thing is that Pandora thought he was smart enough to actually do it.

Pandora carefully washed three of the eggs for the cake her grandmother was going to bake for her birthday. The rest she left for Gilly to clean. She checked the pantry and saw that all the other ingredients were there, including berry jam for the topping. She had seen real cakes on the family holo projector. Cakes as big as she was and covered in massive amounts of real sugar icing. What she really wanted was a birthday cake covered with white icing and sprinkles; multicolored bits of sugar all over the top. Pandora had never had sprinkles before and she didn’t even know if they were hard or soft. In the pictures they looked hard. That would be wonderful; fluffy white sugar sweet icing with sprinkles on top. That would be the best birthday cake ever. But she was sure she would have to make do with berry jam sweetened, as was the cake, with stevia extract.

Pandora slipped out of the house. It was her birthday and she wanted to spend what was left of the day doing what she loved. Pandora tiptoed into the jungle that practically grew right up to the house. The narrow path wound its way to the base of a small mountain. It was really just a hill by Earth standards. Biome 6 was the only biome that could boast mountains. When the biomes were formed, the builders towed asteroids into Earth orbit and began the process of sculpting them into suitable shapes. The Biome 6 asteroid had two iron-based hills. At first, the builders were going to remove them, but they discovered that removing the hills would jeopardize the integrity of the asteroid so they left them in place. They used the tallest to support a section of the dome that covered the whole asteroid. It was named by the omies ‘Sky Mountain’ because it looked like it held up the sky. The other was named ‘Far Point’ because it was at the northern section of the biome.

Pandora followed the path behind her house, up the side of Far Point Mountain until she arrived at her favorite spot. A small outcrop with a boulder in the shape of a lounge chair beckoned her. It was covered with a grey green moss just like a blanket. She lay down on the rock and looked out over her home. To the west she could see Sky Mountain. She could see where the edge of the dome met the wall of rock that surrounded the donut-shaped valley formed by the mountain, providing an enclosure from the lethal vacuum of space. The artificial sun was setting behind Sky Mountain. The shadows were long. She was now a year older. One more year and she could make decisions for herself. No more following the plan her father and grandmother set out for her. She could study whatever she chose to study. No more restrictions just because she was a girl. No more gardening. No more collecting eggs. She could actually become something here in Biome 6. She liked the idea of working to become a council member like her mother had been and not a stay-at-home slave to some awful husband. “Yeech!” she said out loud to no one.

Pandora thought of her mother. She was dead. At least that is what everyone had told her since she was a little girl. Her mother was involved in an accident on a trip to the planet. She was killed when something or other malfunctioned. She had heard ten different stories and, as a result, she believed none of them. Her mother had died. That was a fact. Her grandmother had raised her and was trying to make her do and be what Pandora’s mother never would.

“One more year,” she said aloud. “One more year and I am done with it all.” Pandora had no idea what she would actually do, but living in a hut with some ugly, stupid husband was not it.

She sat up. Her shadow was getting long. She did not want to be late for her own birthday dinner. Guests were coming over after dinner for cake. She pulled a handful of her dark hair away from her head and looked at it. She would have to brush it. Jonas would be there. She would like to spend some time with him. Jonas was practically her brother. They had played together for as long as she could remember but lately it was not allowed. Her father never let her be alone with boys anymore.

“One more year! Just one more!” she said and she jumped up and ran down the path to her home on the edge of the jungle.

Dinner was typical and there was no sign of the cake. Her gift was a set of personal gardening tools. She knew it would be something practical, so she simply smiled and thanked everyone. As it was her birthday, she did not have to clean up.

“Gilly. Dishes,” said Grandmother.

He was halfway out the door when Father shouted, “Gilbert Aditya Rao! Do what your grandmother tells you!”

The boy slid to a stop, realizing there was no point in doing anything else. He did not say anything, but Pandora could see the thoughts running through his head. They were not nice thoughts but they stayed in his head. He began to clean up the dinner dishes.

Pandora’s father smiled and spoke. “The guests will be here soon and I have a surprise for you.” He looked at Pandora. She looked back with a bland expression on her face. She knew it would irritate her father if she refused to play the game of ‘guess the surprise’. “Don’t you want to know the surprise?”

“It wouldn’t be a surprise if I knew, now would it?” she said playfully and forced a smile over her face.

“No, it wouldn’t,” agreed her father. “I know you will like it.”

Alarm bells started to ring in Pandora’s head. If her father thought she would like his surprise, she knew she would, absolutely, without a doubt, hate it. Her mind rushed around all the possibilities. What could her father possibly do that she would hate? Nothing came to mind. Maybe she had overreacted and she would actually like it. Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door.

Guests were arriving for cake. It was like they had all gathered outside until someone signaled that the dinner was over and they could now enter. She watched her grandmother head to the door and realized that was actually the case. The three neighboring families were all on the stoop when the door was opened. They flooded into the small kitchen, each wishing her a happy birthday. Jonas reached down and pulled the back of her hair as he passed. He had a huge grin on his face. Pandora smiled back.

No sooner were they settled, than her grandmother entered with the cake covered with white icing and multicolored sprinkles all over the top. There were 17 candles trailing smoke and flame as she walked. She set it down in the middle of the table while everyone sang. Pandora made a wish and blew out the candles. The cake was cut. Pandora received the first piece. She stuck her finger into the top of her piece and scooped up a big gob of sprinkle-covered icing and popped it into her mouth. Hard! She was right. Sprinkles were hard and she loved the sweetness that filled her mouth when she crunched.

The cake was soon being shoveled delightfully into many mouths. Heads were nodding at how deliciously different real sugar icing was when compared to the usual stevia-sweetened stuff they were all used to. Conversation revolved around how her grandmother had obtained it and how her father could possibly have afforded it, when there was a knock at the door.

Her father leapt to his feet, smiling. He spoke. “Ah, the surprise.”

He walked to the door and opened it a crack. He peeked out to ensure that the surprise was indeed on the stoop. He turned to Pandora and spoke in a rather formal manner. “Pandora.” He paused.

Pandora’s heart was pounding in her chest the moment she realized that the surprise was not a thing but a person. The first person she thought of was her mother. Her mother was not dead but had been found alive somewhere and was now here at her birthday party. Her father continued speaking. “I would like you to meet Mr. Esau Malbec….”

There was another pause and he opened the door. Pandora’s heart sped up to what seemed like a thousand beats a minute. Standing on the stoop was an older man she had never seen before. Her heart slowed and she chastised herself for thinking it could possibly be her mother. She tilted her head questioningly toward her father. He continued, “…your future husband.”

There was a crash in front of Pandora as the glass she was holding fell from her hand and smashed on the table, spilling its contents over everything. A wave of thoughts hit her like a hard slap across the face. This had happened before, but she had always been able to refocus before the thoughts became clear enough to read. They were not her thoughts. They came from the doorway. They came from the man her father had brought to her house on her birthday as a surprise. These thoughts held no words. There were images and sounds and smells. They were blurred but clear enough to awaken a wave of guilt. These thoughts did not belong to her. She knew she had no right to look at them. She didn’t want to look at them. She wanted to push them to the place in her head where all such words and pictures and sounds and smells belonged; the hidden place that she thought of as a bottomless pit. Once she pushed something into it, it was irretrievable. Today was somehow different for, as the stream entered the pit, she had an urge to look at it; to identify it and to remember it. The first thought she got from the man at the door was a smell. Stink. The thought that her house was filled with the stink of cheap food and unclean bodies. The second was more of an undercurrent; a seemingly endless stream of time. Days, years streaming like an eternal parade marching backwards. This man was much, much older than he looked. There were so many years, he must be first generation. He had been alive even before the biomes and knowledge of the Swarm.

Pandora shook her head. One of her own thoughts interjected into the stream of this person that was to be her husband. “Impossible!” it said. Suddenly her thoughts were all gone. They shut off like a tap. In their place was a picture of herself. She saw that she was naked. She felt her face flush with blood and stopped looking as the rest of the thoughts passed unseen into the bottomless pit in the center of her mind.

Pandora stood up and whispered to the group, “I’m sorry. I have to go.”

She ran into the kitchen and out the back door. She could hear her father calling her name as the path loomed in front of her and the jungle swallowed her up.

Chapter 2: Choices

Biome domes were opaque. They had a built-in repulsive gravity field and all types of particle and radiation filters. The ‘sun’ inside consisted of a device that would collect energy from the dome’s exterior surface and supply it to the faux sun inside the dome. It rose and set in a way that mimicked, as closely as possible, the day length and year length of the planet to which this biome was heading. Biome living areas were of different sizes but the range was between 150 and 250 square kilometres. Most were oblong in shape. The thickness varied with an average of about five kilometres. The ‘living area’ of a biome was on the outer face under the dome.

There was a hush in the room. Pandora’s father turned and looked at Pandora’s grandmother. She had an ‘I told you so’ look on her face. He smiled and welcomed the man at the door. “Would you like a piece of cake?” he asked. The man entered and sat.

Jonas slipped out the back door of the cabin and ran for the path and into the jungle. The path switched back and forth and upwards to one of the high clearings near the top of Far Point Mountain. He found Pandora sitting on the edge of a moss-covered rock formation they called ‘the lounge’, staring out across the biome. The light was nearly gone. Darkness in a biome was never really dark. Like their destination planet, the biome had two small faux moons that provided hints of light all through the night. Even so, night was not a safe place in the jungles of Biome 6.

Jonas approached Pandora. “Some surprise,” he said softly.

“Yeah! Some surprise. I nearly puked. I still might,” she said and she turned to Jonas. “Who was that guy?”

“I’ve seen him at the market. I think his wife died in a jungle attack last year,” he replied. Pandora started to cry. “If it is any consolation, I heard he was quite well off.” Pandora gave him a look that would freeze a dinosaur in place. “What are you going to do?”

“Do I have any real choices? If I do what my father wants, I will be so unhappy I will die anyway. If I reject this man, then I will be…” she stopped, “I will be… you know what I will be!”

“Your father would never do that to you. He loves you,” Jonas said in consolation.

“You don’t know my father very well. The biggest thing about him is his pride. My life would be hell. I would never get a husband of my choosing,” she quickly spit.

A grin came over Jonas’s face. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I know this guy. He is very cool. He might be interested and I know you would like him,” he crooned and he blew on the ends of his fingers and rubbed the tips up and down on his chest in a ‘god, I am good’ gesture.

Pandora leapt off the rock and ran over to Jonas and punched him on the arm. “In your dreams,’ she retorted.

He grabbed her arm and pulled her to him. He looked into her eyes. “I’m better than some old man, I’m sure of that,” he spoke in earnest.

She put her hands on his shoulders, jumped up and pecked his forehead. “Thanks for making me feel better,” she said.

Jonas’ arms surrounded her shoulders and pulled her closer. There was a sudden rustle in the jungle where the path entered the clearing. They both turned toward the sound and stared.

“Sounds like a creeper,” she whispered.

“Not this high up. They like the wet. It is too dry here,” he whispered back.

“What then?” she replied and snuggled closer to Jonas. The sound of a branch cracked and they both jumped. Jonas broke their embrace, reached down and picked up a stick at his feet. He stood facing the path entrance to the small clearing and raised the stick above his head. Pandora nearly giggled, for he did not look very threatening.

Suddenly Gilly’s face appeared in the gloom. “What are you two doing? Smooching?” he said and he smiled with a mouth of white teeth that caught a hint of faux moonlight. “If I’d been an eight-talon, both of you would be dead.” An eight-talon was a large feline predator with very large front paws. It had eight pads on its forepaws, each sporting a deadly talon as long as your pinky finger. The fauna in the biomes was created to mimic what might be found on the destination planet. The story went that one of the designers thought that a large feline carnivore with huge paws, and the claws to match, was a good idea. At least that was the myth, a myth that many still believed especially the children who had heard the stories of eight-talons dragging naughty children off into the jungle to eat.

“That is just a story to scare silly children. This biome is just too small to house those kinds of monsters. And we were not kissing,” he said and he dropped the stick.

Gilly turned to Pandora. He was still trying to tease them. “What are you going to do? I know you could never marry some old guy from the west side, especially if you were kissing good old Jonas here,” he chided and he poked Jonas in the ribs.

“We were not kissing! And don’t be an ass,” she said, lowering her voice as she spoke. “Go home and tell Father I went for a walk to the village.”

“Shall I tell him you are walking with good old Jonas?” he asked and Pandora gave him a look. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do that. Let’s see. I’ll tell him you were so surprised that you were going to cry and you didn’t want your future husband to see you upset with happiness.”

“He won’t believe a word of that,” she said. “Now go. I’ll be back after I see that everyone has gone.”

Gilly turned and walked down the path. The kissing sounds he was making trailed behind him.

Jonas turned to her. “So, what are you going to do?”

“Nothing. There is nothing I can do right now. But I have a year before any wedding can occur and a lot can happen in a year,” she said assuredly. “What I am not going to do is defy my father until I absolutely have to. I have a year until he can no longer control me. Once I am free, I am sure as hell not going to marry a man who would replace him. As far as any other plans…” she paused.

Jonas jumped in. “I thought you were planning to go to the new biotech school they are opening. You get to learn about the technology of the biomes and how to maintain them on the journey. I thought I might like to do that, too. We could do it together.”

“We will be dead before this biome heads out to the stars. That is at least 80 years in the future,” she said.

“I don’t plan on dying when I am…” he calculated in his head, “17 plus 80 – 97 years old.”

“We may not be dead but we will surely not be fixing the biome,” she replied.

“Then I will teach others. I will be a father of Biome 6 and they will sing songs about my contributions to the success of the lofty project of saving the human race.” He spoke in earnest.

Pandora started to laugh. She quickly put a hand to her mouth and stopped. “You are not serious?” she asked, incredulity creeping out of every one of her pores. He shrugged, as if she didn’t understand and therefore couldn’t possibly feel what he was feeling.

“You know what I want to do?” she asked. She did not wait for a response. “I want to get off this god forsaken rock and travel to the Earth planet and truly see the world where my forefathers crawled out of the primal ooze.”

“You are kidding. You can’t—” he said, as she cut him off.

“I know I can’t. At least today I can’t, but just because something seems impossible today doesn’t mean it will remain so. I can always hope,” she said and she turned abruptly and walked down the path.

Jonas stood and watched her go. After a heartbeat or two he quickly followed. He called, “Hey, Pandora, wait up. It is not safe to walk this path alone.”

Chapter 3: Biome Central

Each of the 12 biomes that were orbiting the planet had a few things in common. They were built on the surface of an asteroid after it had been towed to high Earth orbit. The asteroids had been sculpted to fit the dome cap that was placed over the far side. The first construction after the dome was in place was a Biome Central. This was where the fixer construction and tech workers were housed while the rest of the biome was built. It contained a flier port as well as all that was required to maintain and update the biomes during the trip to the stars. After construction of the biome was complete, Biome Central housed the Liaison Officer and those personnel required for basic maintenance. He or she handled all communication between Earth Central and Biome Central.

Before first light Pandora lifted her head from her pillow. She would be gone before her father woke. Today she must plan for the confrontation she knew was coming. There was no avoiding it. She would be expected at dinner. It would happen then, and she knew she would have to make sure she could pacify him. She must not give in too easily or he would suspect she was not being honest. She felt a twinge of guilt. She loved her father but that would only carry so far. She had to lie and make the lie especially plausible; especially believable. She would start with a wailing complaint that he was not fair. She knew he would counter, that fairness had nothing to do with it and, as long as she was his daughter, and living under his roof, she would do what she was told. She would counter with something about moving out on her own. She would tell him of her new plans of going to biotech school. In the end she would capitulate and agree to marry this strange man on two conditions: first, her father must get an agreement from the man that he would support her in completing the biotech course after they were married, and second, that no one would speak of it in the final year of her youth. At 18 she would agree to marry the man. In the mean time, she would live her life as usual and attend biotech school. If she could get him to agree with these conditions, she would have a year to find a way out.

She headed out of the village on her way to Biome Central. That was an installation at the far end of the biome that housed a contingent of fixers and the liaison officer for Biome 6. It also housed the new Advanced Educational Center of the biome. Pandora planned to apply for the two-year biotech program sponsored by the planet government. As a third-generation omie, she would be considered first for any of the advanced programs, but she would still need her father’s permission. She was underage. The age of consent was 18. She intended to have the consent papers in hand. Her father would sign them that evening after the confrontation. At least that is what she hoped.

The walk was long. Five kilometres along the winding paths of Biome 6. Jungle was everywhere and the paths took the easiest route but definitely not the shortest. Down in the lowlands, small rills crisscrossed the landscape requiring the construction of bridges. Pandora stopped on one of them and looked down the small stream flowing into the dense jungle that was her homeland. The biomes were small when compared to the planet below but it was really all relative. You never got any sense of the smallness unless you had been down to the planet and experienced its vastness. Pictures did not give you a true sense, and that is all Pandora had of the planet below; pictures, videos and the occasional holo.

She heard a whoosh of air and the hum of a floater approaching the curve in the path behind her. She leaned back against the railing, lifted her left foot up and hooked the heel of her boot over the lower rail. She rested her elbows over the upper rail. She wanted to look relaxed, sexy even, because she knew what was coming up the trail and heading to Biome Central. Floaters were common in the biomes. They were compact transport machines containing a small anti-gravity unit and an air thruster. They were used by fixers and rich omies to move people and equipment around the biome. The one approaching was more than likely a fixer coming off shift. She undid the top button of her blouse and hoped the driver was a male. She really wanted to get to Biome Central before much of the morning was gone. She wanted to hitch a ride. Technically it was against the rules but it was very common to see omies riding on fixer floaters.

Pandora quickly undid her hair, gave it a swirl and resumed her position on the bridge. The floater came into view. She smiled what she thought was her sexiest ‘come hither’ smile. The floater came into view and slowed. As she’d hoped, the driver was a young male fixer coming off of the night shift. He smiled and slowed to a stop beside Pandora.

“Hi,” he said, “you’re up early. Where you headed?”

Pandora unhooked her foot from the lower rail, swirled her hair and let it fall in front of her face. She peeked through it and coyly said, “Biome Central. Care to give a girl a ride?”

“Hop on. I will have to drop you off a half a kilometre from the main entrance, but it will get you close. That OK?” he asked.

“Great. A lot better than walking,” she said and climbed in beside him. She had the ride and felt a little guilty about her behavior. Sexy was not really her thing and now that she had a ride she pulled her hair back into a pony tail and did up her top button. The young man driving did not seem to notice. She was relieved. She furtively glanced over at him. Fraternization of fixer and omie was frowned on but it did happen.

He spoke without looking at her. “What is your name? Mine is Rory. Rory Drake.”

“Pandora…” Pandora hesitated giving her full name to a stranger.

“Pandora who?” he asked.

“Just Pandora for now,” she said and she smiled when he glanced at her.

“Well, Just Pandora, what are you going to do at Biome Central?” he asked casually.

Pandora stared at Rory Drake for a few seconds as he drove the path to Biome Central. She felt a lightness from him, as if he were floating in the tops of the trees growing a few metres from the edge of the path, and decided he was not a danger. His body held no tension. She spoke, “I am going to find out how to apply to become a biotech.”

Rory whistled, “That’s very ambitious. I have heard that the course work is tough and the field work even tougher. It is a two-year course but most people take four years to complete it. I know a couple of fixers working on it as we speak.” He turned to her. His face was puzzled. “You are an omie, aren’t you?”

The question made Pandora scrunch up her face. “Yeah, so what! We are not idiots. We may not have access to some of the HUB schools but we can hold our own.”

“That’s not what I meant. I am sure you are as smart or smarter than…” he paused. “What I meant was that a biotech does not just study on one biome like Biome 6. A biotech has to be knowledgeable of all the biomes. That’s what makes the course so tough. I don’t think omies were allowed to travel to the planet surface much less to another biome.” He opened his mouth to continue but he had nothing left to say. The path to the floater garage was on the right and Rory turned into it and stopped. “The main office is just up ahead,” he said.

“Duh! I have only lived on this piece of rock for 17 years,” she snapped as she leapt off of the floater. “How would I know where anything is?”

Rory shook his head, “I didn’t mean anything by that.”

Pandora ignored him and turned to walk the path.

Gee, thanks, Rory. The ride really was appreciated. You are welcome, Pandora. It was a pleasure giving a ride to such a fine young lady. NOT!” he mocked speaking in both Pandora’s and his own voice.

Pandora felt her face flush with blood. She did not turn around. Pictures flooded her head.

Rory’s mind was filled with images of anger overlaid with fascination and attraction.

She had planned to turn around and thank him for the ride and smile coyly but now that was impossible. Her face and the backs of her hands were blood red with embarrassment. She walked quickly forward until she could no longer hear the whirr of the floater. She turned quickly and glanced along the path. Rory was gone. She sighed and slowed.

The doors to the Biome Central were only a few metres in front of her. She pushed them open and thought, “What if Rory was right? What if I can’t be a biotech on the biomes because I am not allowed to ever leave…. Well, maybe I could specialize. Maybe Biome 6 could be my specialty.” Her confidence returned. She strode up to the counter, filled with the assurance that she could do whatever she wanted to do.

There was a woman in a fixer uniform sitting on the other side of the counter staring at a small holo video. She was watching a game being played on the planet below. The signal was obviously pirated. Earth entertainment transmissions were blocked on the biomes. It was a Pro GravBall game. Pandora knew what GravBall was and had actually seen some old games on the teaching holos, but this was a live game in which the outcome was not known.

The woman looked up and Pandora caught a wave of guilt and fear. The woman quickly shut the holo down and turned to Pandora. She saw who was in front of her and the fear was replaced with arrogance.

Pandora smiled her best smile and spoke, “My name is Pandora Rao and I would like to become a biotech who specializes in the ecological systems of Biome 6. How do I register?” Pandora folded her hands in front of her and smiled again. Pandora felt the woman soften. She knew she had successfully introduced herself.

“How old are you, dear?” asked the woman.

“I am seventeen,” responded Pandora. She would not babble. Babblers often made themselves look silly and childish. She would politely answer the questions asked and no more.

“And you want to be a biotech who specializes in the ecology of Biome 6. Is that correct?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” said Pandora.

The woman looked at her and a small smile crept over her face. She turned, touched some keys, flipped on the holo projector and tossed the image up. The GravBall game was gone and an image of a multicolored tetrahedron floated in the space over the desk. She looked up and spoke, “Can you manipulate Iconese?” she asked.

Pandora nodded.

“Good. I will send this to a portable holo and you can peruse it and talk it over with your parents. It will explain everything.”

“My parents? There is only my father. Does he have to agree? What if he doesn’t?” Pandora asked in a rush.

“If you are only 17 he has to agree or you will have to wait until you are 18,” she stated flatly.

“There is no other way?” she asked knowing the answer but asking anyway.

“I’m sorry, dearie. Problems at home?” she asked.

“No,” she responded, “I’ll take the holo.”

“Good. I will need some information. You can recycle the portable holo when you are done. It is good for…” she glanced at the device and continued, “five views. Now. Name?”

Pandora gave the woman her particulars and leaned down and picked up her knapsack. She would view the holo later. Right now she needed to plan.

As she stood up she looked past the receptionist and through a glass wall into the rooms beyond. People were working at desks and viewing holos. Then she noticed his face in a glass-walled office speaking to someone out of view. Her future husband was in an office in Biome Central. She stared. The sign above the office door read ‘Biome 6 Liaison Officer’.

“Can I help you with something else?” the woman behind the counter asked.

Pandora heard the words, felt a wave of impatience and saw flickers of GravBall players and team names jump from the woman into her head. She let it all slide down into the pit in her mind. That happened sometimes when she was unaware of a stress. The automatic filters didn’t kick on in time. It was like suddenly hearing the beating of your own heart and thinking of your own mortality. Most of the time you automatically filtered it out. She knew that seeing him was the cause. She shook her head. “No. Thank you.” She exited the building and tried to make the thoughts of the man who was to be her husband disappear.

Chapter 4: Wheeler Dealer

Family values and gender roles varied from biome to biome. They were really an indicator of the dominant value system that was adopted by the persons who originally populated the individual biomes. All the societies were basically agrarian. They had to be in order to survive the trip to the new planet. Some of the societal mores had changed with each generation but much remained constant.

Pandora returned home. There were no floaters available to catch a ride. She was not sure she would have accepted one even if one had been offered. Her mind was focused on what she would say at dinner to her father and how she would react to all the possible responses. She stopped on a bridge and caught the odd animal mind from the jungle. The bigger the animal the stronger the mind. Most of what she was feeling was a mish mash of hunger and fear. She felt her own stomach rumble and directed the noise in her mind down the pit. It disappeared from her consciousness like the rustle of wind through trees or the babble of water in a rill.

For Pandora, the ‘reading’ of the emotions and thoughts of others was no different to her than seeing or hearing. There was always something available to her sensory pathways. It was just a matter of choosing to attend or not to attend. Mental chatter from others was easy to shut out, just like the sound of a crowd could be shut out. In order to remember what was perceived one had to attend to it. For Pandora the majority of what her mind perceived from others went straight down into the pit without so much as a glance by her conscious mind. It had to be that way. There was so much she would overload in a few seconds if she paid attention to all that was available. Especially in a crowd. The pit was perfect. Once something entered the pit there was no retrieving it. It was gone forever unless she watched it go. The act of watching a sensory flow into the pit was like a side tap tuned to the brightest images and sharpest emotions. Pandora could hold on to some of the flow as it was diverted into her own memory. It became a holo in her head and she could review it again and again. Occasionally she would mix things up. She had a few memories from when she was a small child. They were very mixed up. She suspected that they were not hers and had arrived before she had control; before she created the pit.

She walked on and her thoughts turned again to dinner time and all that might occur. She had an important choice to make. How would she approach her father? Would she be the sweet daughter who practiced feminine wiles on her father or would she be the young woman who knew what she wanted from life and made it clear to her father that she was in charge of her future? Both had potential in helping her get what she wanted. The sweet daughter who had her father wrapped around her little finger had the advantage being much less stressful but it was based on manipulation and deceit. Things based on lies tended to fall apart easily. She needed something built on a strong foundation if it were to last. If she was truthful with her father, she could expect truth in return. In the end Pandora decided to use both. She would disarm her father first by making him laugh and then hit him with the reality of what she wanted. She figured that this approach was the most likely to be successful.

She looked up and saw that she was within sight of her home. She quickened her pace. She knew she was late with her chores. Her grandmother was an important ally and she must keep on her good side. Her afternoon consisted of gathering and preparing food for the evening meal. As she worked she knew she could not do this the rest of her life and also remain sane. She listened to her grandmother’s thoughts, feeling only a little guilty for spying. What she heard was always the same. The details were not important. It was the satisfaction her grandmother felt with her lot in life that never ceased to surprise her. When she was very small she would tune into her grandmother. Her satisfaction was very relaxing to Pandora. It ebbed stress away. But lately that satisfaction only made Pandora feel irritated. She wanted more from life that just gathering food and making meals and waiting for others to come home and partake. Pandora blinked and sent her grandmother’s thoughts down into the pit without so much as a glance. She knew she had heard them all at least a million times before.

Pandora decided she would make her father’s favorite dessert. This would make him smile. She would start her pitch just after he had taken his first bite. She would be blunt.

The rest of the day flew by. Work always became easy when she kept her mind busy on something of importance. She was dreaming of what life would be like as a certified biotech. She would be able to explore the entire biome. Things were evolving. The flora and fauna had begun some unforeseen changes. She wanted desperately to document them. Above all she wanted freedom.

Dinner held no surprises. Gilly babbled about the latest tech and how much he would like to get his hands on it. Grandma talked about the garden and the insect infestation that was destroying her root vegetables. Her father nodded to reassure Gilly and Grandma that he was indeed listening. Occasionally his brow furled. Pandora knew he was not really listening. Pandora ate quietly. She read her father’s thoughts. He was thinking about the night before and was preparing in his mind to confront her about the impending marriage to that stinky, weirdly ancient man.

Pandora felt that her ‘husband to be’ must be incredibly old. Some of the memories she had looked at were from before the Swarm and the biomes. They were actual memories in his head not something he had read. They were personal experiences. She knew that was impossible. He was no more than 40 years old. He was born on this very biome. She shunted the paradox aside and focused on her father. He was very nearly finished.

“Would you like some dessert, Father?” she asked formally and picked up his plate. “It is your favorite.”

“Yes, please,” he responded.

Pandora quickly turned to the kitchen when Gilly called after her. “I’ll have a double helping.”

Pandora’s voice was melodic. “When you finish what is on your plate, darling brother of mine.”

Gilly turned to his father, “Do I have to?” Father nodded and Gilly dropped his fork and whispered to himself. “I’m going to encourage those new insects to eat all the vegetables in the garden.”

“You will do no such thing!” Grandma said sternly. “Now eat your vegetables.” She paused and looked at Gilly. “Pick up that fork and eat your vegetables.”

Pandora entered with two plates of mango upside-down cake, smothered with sweet cream, and placed one in front of her grandmother and the other in front of her father. She sat down, placed both elbows on the table, rested her head in her hands, stared at her father and smiled. He looked at her and smiled back. Pandora looked at his thoughts and saw the phrase “Here it comes” flicker across his consciousness. She would wait until he took the first bite before she spoke. He father cut a large piece with his fork and slowly brought it to his mouth. Pandora smiled at him again. He chewed and swallowed. He cut a second piece and lifted it from the plate. Pandora spoke. It was not a question, as he had expected, but a series of flat statements.

“I will marry him when I turn 18. I will spend this year studying at Biome Central to become a biotech. You will sign the permission papers and agree to this. My husband-to-be will agree to support me in finishing my schooling after we are married. He will also support me in working in my chosen profession after I have graduated. This must be part of the marriage contract.” She stopped and breathed a large deep breath. Some of the tension fled with the air.

Pandora read him. She started again. “Yes, I know you are my father and I must do what you say, but I also know you love me and want me to be happy. I do not think this is too much to ask. This will make me happy.”

Gilly was poking his vegetables with his knife. He had cut them up into very small pieces and was surreptitiously slipping them off of his plate and hiding them under the rim. He only had a few left. He glanced at his father and quickly slipped the last group off of the plate and under the lip. “Sounds fair to me,” he said coming to his sister’s aid. She would be a good ally when it came to clearing the table and dealing with the vegetables hidden under the plate. Father gave him a ‘butt out of this conversation’ glance. “I’ll just get some dessert then,” he said and slipped off his chair.

“Take your plate,” his grandmother said glancing at his empty plate. She looked up at her granddaughter.

Pandora caught her emotion. She knew her grandmother felt pride.

Gilly saw that no one was looking at him so he quickly slid his plate to edge of the table, caught all the pieces of vegetables in his hand and smoothly turned to the kitchen.

Father looked at his mother and saw a whisper of a smile deepen the wrinkles of her face. He looked again at Pandora and then down at his plate. Both of their emotions were washing over Pandora. She could not stop them. They were good.

“All right. I will allow you to go to school. Your mother would have wanted that. I will talk to Mr. Malbec to see if he will agree, but I promise nothing,” her father said. “Can I finish my dessert now?”

Pandora rushed to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Father. I will get you to sign the permission papers after dinner,” she said.

Gilly entered with a huge piece of mango upside-down cake smothered in sweet cream. There was a mass of sprinkles on the top. He was walking carefully, holding the dessert in both hands as if balancing the tower of cream was crucial. He sat and picked up his spoon.

Pandora turned and walked toward her room. As she passed Gilly she leaned down and whispered in his ear, “You volunteer to do my dishes tonight or I tell about that vegetable trick you just pulled.” She stood up and smiled a warm smile. Gilly’s eyes grew wide and he nodded.

Pandora left to gather the papers and congratulated herself for a job well done. “Malbec – Shmalbec,” she thought. “What he agrees to or doesn’t agree to was not relevant.” 

Chapter 5: Under Systems

The sculpting of the asteroids that made up the biome base involved hollowing out sections of the underside and fitting the space with all the machinery, electronics and power sources required to sustain the biome. Room was also left for the to-be-developed, star travel propulsion systems. The initial propulsion system’s purpose was to maintain orbit and to adjust attitude of these large orbiting rocks. Special care was taken to ensure none of the asteroids came crashing down on to the planet below. Rocks that size could hasten the end of human kind even before the Swarm arrived.

It was early. Faux sunrise was in an hour, but the light was slowly creeping upwards as if there actually was a horizon and a real sun. Pandora had promised she would keep up with her morning chores while she was in school. Today was the first day of classes and she was apprehensive. She had two more fizzler eggs to gather and then she would head to Biome Central. She would buy a pass to the transport system that went around the perimeter of the biome twice a day. She could catch it in the morning and the late afternoon to get to and from her classes.

Pandora parted a large frond and peered through the morning mist. She looked down on a sandy shore where three small rills joined to form a larger stream. They carried sand and had formed a small sandy beach that the nesting fizzlers loved. There were three untouched nests and she needed three eggs. She stepped gingerly onto the wet sand, trying not to disturb the birds. The closest umbrella rippled and sucked hard to the sand. The bird had sensed her presence. She knelt and slowly worked her hand into the sand. She blew softly over the umbrella of the fizzler. The rippling stopped. She caught a safe satisfied feeling coming from the bird. She blew again as she reached up and exposed an egg. Her fingers gently freed it and it slid down into her hand. She took it and placed it carefully into her basket. She filled in the hole and stood. She knew that changes in pressure on the wet sand would spook the other birds so she slid as if skiing and slowly knelt behind the second bird. She quickly retrieved an egg and started to ski to the last bird. The ground began to vibrate. The fizzlers were spooking. Their umbrellas were undulating. The vibration continued and the fizzlers slowly calmed to the new norm of vibration.

Pandora stepped backwards off of the sandy shore. She knew what was happening but had never experienced it. The earthen material that had accumulated on this shore had been washed down by the small rills. In a closed system like the biomes this material had to be returned to its source if the illusion of normalcy was to be maintained. The ‘Under Systems’ would gather some of the material from the underside and redistribute it to the higher ground and allow it to be washed down again. This was done in as unobtrusive a way as possible and at a time of day so as to cause little noticeable disturbance. She watched as the shore surface dropped slowly to a level 30 cm lower that what it had been. The vibration stopped. Pandora slipped back onto the sand and retrieved the last fizzler egg and marked the nests as harvested.

Thoughts of her first day of classes filled Pandora’s head. She could hardly wait and was excited and afraid at the same time. She moved quickly up the narrow, almost invisible, side path that lead from the main path to the fizzler nests. Pandora was careful not to make this path any more obvious than it already was. The location of fizzler nests must be kept as secret as possible.

Suddenly she stopped. Anxiety flooded her. It was not hers and she automatically let it flow down into the pit in her mind. Someone was nearby. A whooshing singing sound of material sliding past itself; rubbing together and snapping with a tension made her crouch down closer to the ground. It was an automatic ducking reaction to the sound of something moving overhead.

Crouched on the narrow path, Pandora realized it was just sound echoing from the rocky outcrop on the far side of the main path. There was only dense jungle between her and whatever made the sound but down low to the ground one could creep and crawl forward without much difficulty. Pandora remembered discovering as a child that she could easily move through dense jungle that an adult would find difficult. She wormed her way now toward the outcrop she saw from the path. She had only travelled a short distance when a clearing appeared in front of her. She peered out and blinked. All she could see were sets of boots and floating above the boots were tinted faceplates. She blinked again trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Her mind filled with a miasma of anxiety. It was so strong she nearly wretched. She sucked in moist jungle air and pushed the whole mess down into the pit. She looked carefully and noticed that when the boots moved she could see forms of jungle shift where their bodies should be. If she squinted her eyes she could see the edge of where the actual background ended and the men’s bodies began.

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