Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Water Phoenix

by A.M.J. Lawrence





Clarke watched the Kettle waiting for it to hit 85 degrees Celsius, the exact right temperature for the perfect cup of tea. Giles continued to pace around the room, interrupting her concentration with the clack of his hard shoes on her natural oak floorboards.

"The situation is getting quite serious. Indeed one base is under quarantine." He said. "What if the colony is wiped out? What would the Martians say if--"

"I really don't see what the Martians have to do with an isolated mishap on Venus," said Clarke. She lifted the kettle and poured the water into the waiting cups.

"Have you not been listening?" he said. "I mean really, the whole thing is quite--"

"Perfect!" said Clarke.

"Perfect! What's Perfect?"

"The tea." She passed him a cup.

"Could you add sugar?"

"That is not how Oolong is done," she said, passing him the sugar bowl. She watched, lip curled, as he heaped two massive piles of the cursed stuff into her precious china.

"You really don't seem to grasp the situation. I mean what if this gets out to the news? We could have panic across the three planets! You do realize that it's been 100 years since humanity has had to cope with anything like this? And never has so much been at threat, never has--"

"It's getting cold."

"What?"

"Your tea."

"There is more to life than damn tea."

"So I've heard."

"Our actions here reflect on the power and authority of the Planetary Alliance! If we can't fix this then what faith should the citizens hold in us? How can we--"

"I assume you're here to order me to investigate, confirm, and initiate appropriate procedures, as outlined in the 23rd inter-planetary agreement."

"Yes! That is precisely what I'm going to do, I--" He stopped, bewildered that he had nothing to be angry at any more. He took a deep breath, sipped his tea, and tried to make himself look like a more dignified human being. "You are booked onto the next Venusian rocket. Baggage allowances and an updated contraband have been forwarded to your cloud, make sure you read over everything."

"Of course," said Clarke. "I'll look over it whilst you finish your tea." She opened her LectroPad, whilst Giles sipped his drink in silence.

"Oh, god!" Clarke exclaimed. Giles jumped, dropped his teacup, and watched as it shattered on the floor. He knew how much her antique 21st century tea paraphernalia was worth.

"Sorry," he whispered.

"They've banned tea."


* * *

When she came off the ship at the Venus station, Clarke felt like each of her organs should sue her for maltreatment. She loathed inter-planetary travel. It would be fine if it wasn't for the need to leave and re-enter the atmosphere. The intense G forcing down on her organs was, to be frank, repellent. You'd think after the leaps in technology in space travel they'd have found a way to do it comfortably. Apparently not. Gravity had to be felt.

Still, she was finally here, breathing the legendary Venusian air. The freshest in the galaxy and, unlike the air of Mars it didn't need an artificial dome to hold it in place. She was truly outside. The Teraforming of Venus had taken a long time, but here, fifty kilometers above the planet surface, a layer of breathable air had been made. Best of all, the pressure was like walking on the surface of the Earth itself. Her bones almost hummed with relief. Yet knowing that under her feet an artificial floating mass, suspended by a gigantic atmospheric balloon and blown about the planet by atmospheric winds, made her feel anything but safe.

"Clarke?" She looked up. A woman had approached her, smiling, dark skinned and bright eyed, dressed in Venusian linens. Clarke nodded. "Welcome! I'd wish you a good afternoon but given the circumstances it's not exactly good, is it? I'm Rosemary Clint. I originally notified the authorities of the situation. I assume Earth is agreeing to keep everything quiet? Of course, of course. We have tried, though word has gotten out to some. After the quarantine of the Main city, well you can imagine some rumors are hard to strangle." Clint smiled.

Clarke looked up from her notes. "Why is tea not allowed?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Item 578 on the contraband. All types of Earth-grown tea."

"Surely that's your field. I'd assume it has something to do with trying to stop earth diseases damaging our perfect crops."

"You'd think so, but I don't know of any that are carried in dry tea-leaves."

"Perhaps. You can never be too careful though. I thought that's why you're here." Indeed. An unusual case. Probably much over-hyped. Reading the files on the journey over had reminded her of those hysteria headlines that had been big in the 21st century. The human case hadn't even been confirmed, yet the city it had happened in had gone straight into quarantine. No physical items to leave or enter the space. Hopefully she'd be able to diffuse the situation. It had been one hundred years since someone had died of a disease.

They headed through the Port, and came outside. The sky was bright and orange, the atmosphere too thick to see the sun, let alone any stars. Despite knowing that she was on a city floating freely in the Venusian winds, it was claustrophobic. It felt like the Mediterranean, the heat from the sun and the planets surface combine to make a dreamy, warm atmosphere. Clarke could understand why so many colonists thought Venus paradise. However paradise was impractical, and subjective, and the floating cities of Venus were not as beautiful as her study, with her books, her tea, and her antique computers.

"This is the most perfect place in the entire universe," said Clint proudly. She caught Clarke's eye. "But it's under threat." Clarke nodded. Just then, a movement in the air caught her eye. A bright-blue bird landed on one of the streetlights. Clarke's breath escaped her: it was the first time she'd seen an alien.

Not that the Venusian Water Phoenix was a true alien, but it could never have survived on earth. The beautiful crane-like bird had been engineered for the Venusian skies, a bio solution to the on-going problem of water and oxygen on Venus. The bird was a soft blue, like the Earth skies on sunny says, and on it's back was a strange, large mass, made of many thin translucent sheets like petals. The huge flower-like complex was made of sheets of enzymes. Using the heat of sunward facing planet surface, the phoenix's flower catalyzed the air from a poisonous mess, to oxygen and water. The bird could breath the air of Venus, and could withstand the extreme temperatures closer to the surface of the planet. It flew through the entire sky, metabolizing the gases as it went. Slowly the bird was increasing the amount of breathable air, allowing the livable zone to naturally spread over time. More importantly, it stored water in its neck balloon and released the water wherever it saw green.

"It's beautiful." Said Clarke.

Clint spat at it.

"It's vermin." Ah, right yes, thought Clarke. The disease. The second known alien, although unlike the first it hadn't been designed by humans in the lab. Instead, it seemed evolution had messed up the bird's biochemistry by turning some friendly bacteria into not-so-nice ones.

"Surely it can't be that bad?"

"Not that bad? This entire civilization floats through the air, the birds fly from city to city, unchecked, unrestricted. The disease could pop up any where, any time."

"But it's a bird disease--"

"Which has already mutated to infect humans!" Clint took a deep breath. "You don't understand. One disease here could wipe out the entire population. We don't have the resources to fight this sort of thing. It's not like on Earth, where you have that great bank of life to concoct a cure from. Here everything is perfectly balanced, resources cannot be wasted, because, well, life shouldn't be here. Once death gets in, there's no corner for life to fight from! We as living, breathing human beings don't belong here. We're defenseless. We need an all out attack now." Clarke watched her guide carefully. Her hands and arms moved with the rhythm of her speech, as if she was trying to underline every key point, only Clint thought they were all key points.

"I thought they hadn't confirmed the human illness came from the birds?"

"No, not yet, but where else could it have come from? Do you not understand? Everything in this atmosphere is accounted for, the entire biology is known inside and out, and it is balanced, monitored, and perfected, but then birds start to drop dead, and now a human is unconscious, quarantined in a hospital. Venus is a disease free zone! No one had been ill here since it was first colonized." Clarke nodded. She'd been a student when the colony was first founded, and had been part of designing the sanitation procedures to make it so.

"Right. Well, I'll start my report immediately. Where can I find some tea on this floating city of yours?" But Clint's face was stormy.

"What good will another report do? We've told Earth everything we know, and all they've done is sit on it. You don't know what it is like, living somewhere where life is so delicate! No, what you need to do is approve immediate action to exterminate the entire population of Phoenixes. Whilst there is still time."

"Don't you think exterminating them all is a bit extreme? I mean we could just eradicate the microbe."

"Unfortunately that would kill the bird. The microbe in question is key to their biology."

"But surely we could affect just the sick birds by targeting the mutated--"

"Which would take months! We don't have that long. Don't you understand? The birds started dying last week-- in numbers that immediately raised suspicion. We found 3 dead birds in this settlement alone, who knows how many birds are simply falling to the Venusian surface? Less than a week later we have a young, healthy human falling unconscious on a disease free planet, running a temperature that might actually kill him. Of course, he's been immediately quarantined, but these birds, these disease vectors, are free to fly from city to city--who knows how many of them are infected with the human strain? You're a hygiene officer, you know how weak our immune systems would be to attack--we haven't had to face a deadly disease for 100 years! Without immediate, swift action we could have a pandemic that could wipe out the entire Venus colony." Clarke considered this. People cried pandemic easily. They'd studied them in history growing up, heard how microscopic horrors were capable of slaughtering millions, even of wiping a species out. Defeating them was haled as the greatest human achievement, but the fear remained.

Still, Clarke could see Clint's point. There were thousands of people on Venus now. They couldn't evacuate them all if a pandemic hit the planet. It would be the biggest human death count in a thousand years-- and it would be her fault.


* * *

Clint drove Clarke from the Port. Much to Clarke's discomfort, they took the scenic root. Clint loved to drive right up to the border, where you could look over the edge of the city and see the swirling clouds bellow. Occasionally you could see black peaks of Venus's mountains. It made Clarke feel nauseous. Nothing so big should look so fragile. Flashes of blue broke the yellow sky as the birds flew by them. They didn't look so beautiful now. If Clint is right, they could wipe out the entire planet.

They pulled into a nice-looking suburb where the streets lined with edible plants. Clarke loved the efficiency of the idea-- although there were a few beautiful plants blooming with large, colorful flowers that were just there to be pretty.

"Oh what the Sun is he doing here?" hissed Clint. Clarke looked up to see who she was talking about. A middle-aged man (with a middle-aged belly) stood in front of the white-painted villa they'd pulled up in front of.

"Who is he?"

"Peterson, one of those Eco Nuts. Thinks we have no right to kill the damn pests," said Clint. She pressed the door release switch, and the two women climbed out of the car. "Peterson, what the hell are you doing here?"

"You can't do it!" said Peterson jubilantly. The grin on his face looked set to shatter his skull.

"Wrong again. Clarke here is from Earth, and she has the clearance to authorize the whole process."

"But you can't!" he said, shaking his head, still grinning. Clint glowered at him.

"I can. So if you'd just--"

"No! Because you can only cull or eradicate a species if there is a direct threat to human life, right? I mean after the 22nd Century's Green Contract, you have to be able to prove there's a link--"

"Unless a threat to human life is imminent," pointed out Clarke. "I can override the clause if there is threat of a pandemic."

"Exactly!" said Clint.

"But surely you need to know for certain, and I can conclusively show that there is no way--"

"Not really, I just need to think there is just cause, that's all."

"But I've run the lab tests-- I've looked at every combination of the microbe and human cell and it has no effect at all!"

"I don't care what your science says, this thing is deadly," said Clint.

"You've got no proof!" said Peterson. "This would be the extinction of an entire species. The bird is Venus, it's the first animal designed for a non--Earth planet. It's a piece of our legacy, you can't just destroy it!"

"What's worth more, this stupid bird or the humans it could end up killing?" asked Clint.

"The bird is a piece of history!"

"And if we wipe it out it would cost billions to make a replacement. Without a replacement, the whole settlement will be doomed," added Clarke. She imagined trying to justify to her bosses why she'd allowed for something so expensive to happen, they'd want to understand what part of limited resources she didn't understand, and they'd ask her if she had some hitherto unknown ability to make something from nothing. That was one conversation she'd rather not have. "The main city hasn't even confirmed the person has contracted the bird bug."

"But there are no other diseases here," said Clint. "There are no other possibilities. First this microbe mutated to attack the birds, and now it's mutated to attack us. Besides, the birds are doomed any way. They're highly genetically similar, which likely means they are all vulnerable to the disease. Wipe them out before they wipe us out, they'll die anyway."

"That's not true." Said Peterson. "We could vaccinate them! Design a microbe to fight it off, isolate a population of healthy ones! There are options other than killing them." Clarke had a headache, probably tea withdrawal. She wished she could make a cup right now, it always helped her think things through.

Truth was she rather liked the birds, they looked elegant, like the cranes on Chinese teacups. She knew that shouldn't weigh on her decision, but it did nonetheless. She was human after all, and beauty was important. Wiping them out was too extreme. No, they'd just have to try to cure the birds instead before they died out.

"Ok, here's what we're going to do."

Just then, her LectroPad buzzed. So did Clint's and Peterson's. It was a message saying that Patient 0 in Main City had died. The first person to die of a disease in 100 years. Clint swore and turned to Clarke.

"This is what we're facing. What will you tell the family of the next person to die? That you allowed them to get infected because you thought their child, their sibling, their spouse was worth less than some stupid bird?"

"You're right." Clarke took a deep breath. "I'm sorry Peterson, the threat's too big. I'm going to authorize protocol Pandemic Control, we're going to have to put the birds down."


* * *

She didn't stay to watch it happen. She didn't have the stomach for it. Besides Venus had no tea, whereas the shuttle home did.

The birds had been genetically designed so that their muscles would completely seize up if they heard a certain series of notes, which were now being broadcast across the skies of Venus even as she left. Out of the window of her ship, she could see streaks of blue falling from the life zone to bake of the sun-facing rocks on the surface.

In her cabin, Clarke stretched out her legs, opened her LectroPad, and decided she had to put it all behind her. She had a cup of tea (too hot, the leaves had been burnt so the delicate flavor was marred horrendously) and she had a book. For now, at least she could be at peace. A notification told her that a new shipment of Tea had arrived for her to review back home. She wondered if it would be her last freebie once the press released the story of the Water Phoenix's extinction, but it was, after all, her job to stop Pandemics. Besides she couldn't do anything about it now, the process was irreversible.

Her LectroPad buzzed again. It was a message from Clint. Clarke tapped on the attached file, it was the autopsy report to confirm cause of death.

"Oh, Sun." Shocked, she jerked her hand holding the tea. The sepia liquid splashed onto her pad, but she could still read the text through it. It was all too clear.

CAUSE OF DEATH CONFIRMED: Peanut Allergy.


THE END


2017 A.M.J. Lawrence

Bio: Ms. Lawrence is a Manchester (UK) based writer who was born on the Isle of Man. Her garden-obsessed mother gave Alice a love of biology, which she explores in her work; dreaming about what weird things biotechnology is capable of. Follow her on twitter @amjlawrence. This story is dedicated to her mum, Barbara Lawrence.

E-mail: A.M.J. Lawrence

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