Editor’s Note: I’m including this story, because I’m a science fiction buff. I’ve written reviews of some of my favorite sci-fi novels on amazon.com, the world’s largest on-line bookstore, which graciously provides space for readers’ opinions about the books they carry. I highly recommend Carl Sagan’s Contact, both the movie and the book. I do not recommend the following short story nearly as highly, but you might enjoy it anyway. By the way, the graphic below was designed by Dr. Sagan and installed on the Pioneer spacecraft.


Critical Mass


The smell of gunpowder hung in the air as Jurgen crept around the corner. He pressed against the bulkhead for protection, fear rising in his throat like heartburn. “Christ, I’m a botanist, not a gunslinger,” he muttered, as he nervously fingered the handle of his service revolver.

Just two of ’em left,” he reassured himself, as he passed the door marked “PHARMACY.” He needed all the confidence he could muster, because he also knew that he was the only one of “us” left. When he reached the door to the infirmary, Jurgen stopped and held his breath so he could listen more closely. He heard the faint rustle of fabric gliding across a metal surface.

A dim shadow moved almost imperceptibly on the floor of the infirmary. Nearly hysterical with fear, Jurgen charged into the room and fired wildly.

Sessue’s face showed more surprise than anger or pain. The pistol slipped from his small hand and fell to the floor with a leaden clunk. As if totally exhausted, he slid slowly down the wall until he reached the floor. He was dead on arrival. Blood began to pool around him sluggishly in the weak artificial gravity, like ketchup seeping from a bottle dropped on the floor.

Jurgen checked the magazine on his pistol. Just one bullet left. And only one of the “enemy” still alive. As he turned to leave, he heard a whimpering sound from over his left shoulder. Instinctively, he spun and pointed his gun in its direction. Even as his finger tightened on the trigger, he realized it was a mistake. Myoto was sobbing quietly, and her eyes were glazed. Her hand was at her side, the gun hanging loosely from one finger. Like a faint echo, it hit the ground just after Jurgen’s last bullet slammed into her chest. She collapsed soundlessly to the floor.

He knelt beside her and realized she wasn’t dead, but she would be if something wasn’t done right away. Her shirt was already a sodden mess, and she was bleeding to death very quickly. Not thinking clearly, he briefly considered using Sessue’s gun to finish her off. But even the events of the last six hours couldn’t bring him to murder a helpless woman. Nor could he stand the thought of spending the rest of his life alone.

Cradling her limp body in his arms, he carried her as gently as he could to the medical unit. He placed her in the chamber and lowered the cover. With hands still wet with her blood, he punched in the command “Diagnosis.“ In response to the prompt, “Take All Measures Possible?” he typed a “Y.” The MEDEVAL unit began emitting a low-pitched hum, and Jurgen staggered to a nearby bunk. Later on, he would wonder how he’d managed it, but in just a few minutes, he was asleep.

When he awoke an hour later, the MEDEVAL screen was flashing the message, “Situation Highly Unstable. Probability of Success: 42%.” Jurgen slipped a beeper into his shirt pocket and typed in instructions that he was to be signaled if Myoto’s condition changed. Then he left the infirmary to begin cleaning up the ship.

This was a task he dreaded. Just two months earlier, Jurgen Bloch’s selection for the Venus mission had been announced. He’d stood proudly with his fellow space travelers at the Hirohito-Kohl Spaceflight Center on Okinawa, as the whole world watched on the COMNET. The 14 astronauts — seven women and seven men, seven German and seven Japanese — had posed for pictures, while dignitaries from their two nations gave them a standing ovation. And now it had come to this — dragging the bodies of his colleagues and shipmates to the airlock so they could be jettisoned before they began to rot.

The Einstein been in Earth orbit for six days when the war began. They’d watched the tragedy unfold below them as if it had been one of those 20th Century thrillers about the end of the world. Conventional warfare had spread rapidly from one continent to another, then escalated quickly into the inevitable nuclear holocaust. It was over with in less than three days.

The world had become an increasingly dangerous place in the 21st Century. The Islamic Fundamentalism of the late Ayatollah Khomeini had spread like wildfire when he was posthumously proclaimed the Mahdi by the King of Saudi Arabia in 1999. Calls for a new Holy War seemed to come out of Mecca almost weekly. In response, the Union of Catholic States, which was headquartered in Rome and included all of South America and portions of Europe, mobilized a powerful military presence of its own, pledged to the containment of the Moslem scourge.

In a world already strained to the brink by a population gone out of control, both the Catholic Union and the Islamic states had made birth control an offense punishable by death. The earth’s ecosystem, already taxed to the limit, was soon drowning in the new baby boom. The air in much of the world was barely breathable, the oceans were dying and the acceleration of the greenhouse effect caused famines in Africa responsible for the starvation of tens of millions each year. In response, most of the world competed to see who could produce the most children.

In the United States, the Right-to-Life Party merged with the GOP to win every election in the Third Millennium. They used legislation and the IRS’s own police force to encourage a tremendous spurt in the American birth rate. The media, controlled by the Religious Right, called for increased child-bearing to counterbalance the growth in the “un-American” segments of the world’s population. The American public enthusiastically complied.

Think tanks in the two economic superpowers, the Greater Japanese Pacific Rim Federation and the Reunified Reich Republic, saw the handwriting on the wall and realized it spelled disaster. When the Thais developed RD-666, the ultimate birth control pill, it was quickly licensed in both Japan and Germany. However, it was rejected in most of the rest of the world, going the way of the outlawed pro-choice movement. Like overcrowded mice in a laboratory experiment, the masses of the Earth were approaching critical mass and terminal madness.

The seeds of war had begun to sprout even before the Einstein left the launching pad. The terrorist bombing of an airliner over Brussels had exacerbated tensions between Britain and the Mideast theocracies of the Iraqi-Syrian-Libyan Union. When Israel used the situation to launch a preemptive attack on Baghdad, the dominoes began to fall into place. Just as they’d done prior to World War I, the nations of the earth began aligning themselves based on secret and illegal treaties.

The United States had degenerated into a Fundamentalist Christian oligarchy, rotting in its crime, drug abuse, corruption and debt. The once-great bastion of democracy had neither the moral authority nor the conventional forces required to effectively intervene for peace. However, the U.S. still had a formidable arsenal of strategic nuclear warheads. When President Swaggart, the grandson of a once-famous T.V. evangelist, launched the first strike against Teheran, he used as a pretext the defense of Israel’s capital, the holy city of Jerusalem. This was a little too close to home for the Russians, who launched their own surgical strike against Jerusalem.

The American-Soviet Cold War had long since dissipated, and with it had gone the balance of power. As the influence of the two former superpowers waned, nuclear weapons had proliferated throughout the globe. With his nation effectively obliterated, King Meir Kahane III of Israel called on his allies in India to strike back. A wave of Gandhi FB-127 bombers laid waste to the Muslim republics in the southeastern portion of the former Soviet Union. Like the U.S., the Russian Federation was rapidly decaying, but it still retained enough ICBMs to ravage the Indian subcontinent. Japan and Germany, among others, did their best to mediate an end to the hostilities, but it was already too late.

The doomsayers in the scientific community had been right. It was unnecessary to detonate anywhere near the totality of the world's nuclear arsenal to wreak total destruction. Critical mass had been reached. With only a fraction of the Earth’s surface actually affected by the holocaust, the predicted nuclear winter began to descend on the planet, faster than anyone had projected. Glowing shrouds of radioactive dust spread over the Earth, blotting out the sun and leaving the world in a permanent twilight. The death of mankind would be only a matter of time. Computer projections radioed up from below confirmed that the earth’s population would be virtually nonexistent within a year.

A similar fate had befallen the crew of the Einstein. Even in the low gravity, it took Jurgen nearly two hours to find all the bodies of his shipmates and drag them to the main airlock. When he opened the door to the outside, the 12 slain astronauts were sucked out into the void. Had he wanted to watch, Jurgen would have seen them pinwheel away from the Einstein in all directions, like lifeless, miniature galaxies in the emptiness of the black abyss. Their unseeing eyes would stare down on the corpses of their relatives back on earth, as they orbited like dead satellites around their dying world.

Exhausted, Jurgen sank into his bunk and dreamt of Venus. He saw himself standing on a hill surrounded by a savage jungle. Pungent steam rose from morasses where tropical vines coiled and vicious carnivores lurked, waiting to rip the flesh from his body. He could barely suppress his terror. Alone in this strange new world, he listened for any human sound other than his own ragged breathing. Suddenly, an otherworldly shriek broke the torrid silence. A huge snake with jaws like an alligator’s slithered out of the jungle and headed up the hill toward him. It trailed a viscous slime that smelled like the bodies Jurgen had dragged to the airlock. As it lunged toward him, its animal roar became indistinguishable from his own screams of terror.

Jurgen sat up in bed clutching the sheets. A high-pitched whine continued like an echo from his dream. It took several seconds before he realized it was his beeper, signaling him that a change in Myoto’s condition had taken place in the MEDEVAL unit. Still shaking from his nightmare, Jurgen headed for the infirmary. Ashamed of his irrational fears, he had to remind himself that there was no reason to think Venus would be so horrible.

In fact, the descriptions of the surface of Venus were still sketchy and puzzling. In the previous century, unmanned probes had determined that the Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor was quite possibly the most hostile planet in the solar system. Surrounded by dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid that caused a runaway greenhouse effect, the planet’s surface was thought to be hot enough to melt most metals.

This was where the conventional wisdom stood until the third Singapore Technologies lander began to send back data. Utilizing the newly developed neutron shield, this unmanned probe was able to penetrate Venus’ destructive atmosphere and land intact in a previously uninvestigated area of the planet’s south pole. To everyone’s surprise, this area was found to support an inexplicably benign environment. Not only was the region’s temperature moderate, but it was covered by an oxygen-laden canopy, ostensibly stable enough to support human life.

As work began in Germany and Japan on a manned flight vehicle for the trip to Venus, computer simulations to explain the peculiarities of Venus’ climate were initiated. Without adequate data (the American-built transmitter on the SingTech III probe failed after only six hours of transmissions), it was impossible to construct a comprehensive climate model, but theories abounded to explain the solar system's newest and strangest mystery.

SingTech Probe V, which had arrived on Venus shortly before the Einstein attained earth orbit, was currently mapping the southern region, sending back data on the apparently habitable continent, which was roughly the size of Texas. It was in this region, which the scientists had nicknamed “Nod,” the land east of Eden, that the Einstein was programmed to land.

The unmanned probes had also confirmed that the rest of the planet was indeed a 370-degree centigrade version of Dante’s Inferno. The atmospheric pressure was crushing, and sulfuric acid rained constantly on molten landscapes swathed in clouds of superheated CO2. But there were few people left on earth interested in conditions on Venus, now that their own planet had become Purgatory.

When Jurgen reached the infirmary, he immediately checked the MEDEVAL unit. The screen was flashing “Situation Stabilized. Probability of Success: 51%.” The plastosteel chamber of the medical device controlled the fate of his only companion for the foreseeable future. She was a quiet girl, tiny and pretty. A climatologist with a musical voice and a perfect command of seven languages, she was barely 24 years old. Previously, they’d had little contact, but now she would be Eve to his Adam in the Land of Nod to which they’d been banished.

He remembered her look of utter defeat as the crew had stood transfixed in front of the monitor screens watching the broadcasts from Earth. As the situation deteriorated, the crew turned almost catatonic. For more than two days, no one slept. They barely left the communications section, as one disaster followed another. When the Bonn COMNET station ceased broadcasting, almost an hour passed before anyone could move or speak. The Einstein’s downward-looking telescope confirmed the spread of the radioactive dust cloud circling the Earth. Finally, without speaking to their companions, the Japanese personnel began leaving the bridge. It was Hellstrom who suggested that someone ought to see what they were up to.

Bormann had gone to the armory to check the weapons lockup. He never returned. What happened after that was still unclear to Jurgen. During the collection of the bodies, he’d found Bormann lying in the hallway outside the armory, a bloodied knife in his hand and a bullet hole in his forehead. He must have used it on Suzie Kaito, the crew’s chemist. She was the only person who’d died of a knife wound.

How it had come to this, Jurgen would never fully understand. Maybe it was suppressed racism, liberated by the overwhelming despair and nihilism they all felt. Utterly alone, more isolated than any human beings had ever been, and with nothing to return to, they had succumbed to a spasm of temporary insanity that obliterated their reason. What else could have turned someone like Sam Hakagawa, the ship’s astrophysicist and a gentle Zen Buddhist, into a screaming killer?

Jurgen was ashamed of what they’d done to each other, but they were, after all, just a microcosm of the human race on the planet below. They’d succumbed to the same human nature — the fears, hatreds, and insanities — that had led their brothers on earth to bring on Armageddon. Thousands of years of self-destructiveness had brought the chain reaction from the Earth onto the ship that circled it.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in the heavens,” Jurgen had said aloud when he pressed the button that sent his companions into orbit. It was the only fragment of prayer that came to mind as a benediction.

He left the infirmary and went next door to the pharmacy storage closet. Looking for a sedative, he came across a bottle of RD-666. He remembered how his father had once told him that the drug would be the salvation of the world, ending overpopulation once and for all. One pill made a man sterile for approximately a year, with no side effects and 100-percent reliability.

At the start of the Third Millennium, the Chinese had mandated the drug’s use for their one-child-per-family policy. Every teenage boy was given the pill until he was ready to father his child. Once that child was born, the government required the father to take the maximum dosage. When five pills were ingested at one time, a man became completely, permanently and irreversibly sterile. This policy was beginning to work when the Islamic Jihad swept through China, and birth control was outlawed. The pills were never even introduced in the United States, where the Christian media had taken to calling them “Satan’s Apples.” Aside from Germany and Japan, the only country to take full advantage of the drug was Singapore, which managed to keep its population stable right until the end. But what good had it done them? Singapore was now being subjected to the same population control as the rest of the world.

Jurgen poured out five of the orange tablets into his hand and rolled them around between his fingers. It had been decided to include RD-666 in the pharmacy in case anyone got the urge to start screwing around during the long voyage. Jurgen was a recent widower, and it had been a long time since he’d felt any such desires, so he’d had no use for the drug. He dropped the pills one-by-one back into the bottle. Since they would now be making Venus their permanent home, it was unlikely that the drug would ever be needed. Population control had ceased to be an issue.

He found what he was looking for and spilled out six Valiums onto the counter. He knew it was too many, but he didn’t care. The worst thing that could happen would be an overdose, and, right at this moment, that possibility didn’t frighten him all that much. He washed the pills down with a cup of antacid and crawled onto the bunk next to the MEDEVAL.

In less than an hour, Jurgen was snoring loudly. He slept dreamlessly for the next 12 hours. Midway through his slumbers, the main computer aboard the Einstein sent a message to the guidance system that the time had come to leave orbit. With a barely audible increase in power, the ship moved away from the planet of its birth and began its long trip to the New World.


*******************************************************

The ship’s Command/Control Computer screen flashed the message “3 Hours to Touchdown.” Jurgen experienced the same sense of purposelessness he’d felt throughout the trip. The Einstein essentially flew itself, and he’d had nothing to do other than review the mission data in the computer banks and look after Myoto. A week from their destination, she’d come out of her coma, and four days after that, MEDEVAL had allowed her to leave the infirmary. Once she forgave Jurgen for shooting her, and realized he’d also saved her life, they became friends. She was pragmatic enough to realize they’d have to put the past behind them if they were going to make a new life on Venus.

As the ship entered the Venusian atmosphere, they began to feel the first perturbations. Without their neutron shields, the Einstein would already be heating up fast enough to roast its passengers, but even the seething sulfuric acid storms now buffeting the ship were being held at bay. As they reached the thicker lower atmosphere, the spacecraft began to vibrate erratically. Jurgen noticed he was starting to sweat, and the temperature gauge on his wristwatch read 36 degrees C.

The ship lurched once and then began to buck spasmodically. Myoto, strapped down on one of the bridge’s recliners, looked as if she would vomit. Jurgen could hear the straining of metal throughout the hull. After about 10 minutes, the control panel began flashing multicolored warning lights like an old-fashioned video game.

The ship is built to take this, right?” Myoto asked plaintively.

Who knows. No one’s ever done this before,” Jurgen answered.

Don’t you think you should check those warning lights?”

Why? There’s nothing I can do about them. We’re just going to have to ride this out. Hang on, it can’t be much longer.”

In fact, Jurgen had no idea where they were in the descent. What he did know was that the temperature was now becoming unbearable, and, in her weakened state, Myoto couldn’t take too much more of it. He thought of checking the readings on the life support panel, but the heat was making him dizzy, and he was afraid to get out of his seat or even loosen his restraining belt.

A series of shock waves rocked the ship, as if someone was pounding it with their fists. Jurgen looked over at Myoto, but she had passed out. The temperature had risen to 46 degrees C. The ship was wrenched to starboard with such force that Jurgen’s shoulder harness dug painfully into his collarbone. He leaned to his right and threw up violently onto the floor.

Suddenly, the fists switched to mallets, and a rapid tattoo seemed to beat on the entire length of the ship at once. The sound was deafening, and it seemed as if the ship would implode if it didn’t stop soon. Jurgen was sure he would pass out at any moment. Soon, he began to wish that he would. The temperature reading was up to 49, and his entire body was drenched with perspiration. He tried to concentrate on the gauge’s dial, but it swam in front of his eyes.

Suppressing the urge to scream out loud, he refocused his eyes. Fifty-one degrees. He groaned miserably and threw up again. Fifty-two degrees. Gasping for air, he closed his eyes tightly and swore as loudly as he could.

As abruptly as it had started, the hammering stopped. The only sound was the dull groaning of metal and the stream of obscenities that Jurgen realized were coming from him. He looked at his watch. The temperature had dropped to 50. He hoped they were in the clear.

When he finally worked up the strength to get out of his seat, the ship was purring again, albeit a bit asthmatically. Jurgen checked Myoto’s pulse. She was alive, but she didn’t look good. He knew she’d have to go back into the MEDEVAL. The Command/Control screen said “9 Minutes to Touchdown.” Jurgen strapped himself back in for the landing.

After their tortuous descent, the actual touchdown was anticlimactic. The first thing Jurgen did was carry Myoto back down to the infirmary. MEDEVAL let him know she was in no immediate danger, just in need of some rest. To the prompt, “Recommend Sedation. Agree?” he answered with an affirmative. Myoto only awakened for a brief moment. Looking both sleepy and wild-eyed, she mumbled, “Father, I want to see it.” Jurgen assured her she’d be up and about tomorrow, and she promptly fell back to sleep. Returning to the bridge, he requested a structural analysis from the computer. Several minutes later, he got the answer he was expecting. The Einstein was not mortally wounded, but it was unlikely it could withstand another passage through Venus’ violent atmosphere. Even if they’d had a home to return to, they now had no way to get there.

There was nothing left to do but find out just how hospitable their new home was going to be. Jurgen could have put out a remote sensor/camera package first, but what was the point? There were no alternatives to what was out there. He dressed himself in a clean set of fatigues, loaded a rifle, and walked to the airlock. He stepped inside and sealed the door behind him. Then he paused and took a deep breath.

This is it,” he said loudly and pressed the button that controlled the outer door. For half a minute, he stood in the airlock, not daring to take a step forward. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the air that was rapidly circulating in the chamber as the ambient atmosphere mixed with the outside air. After weeks of breathing the ship’s recycled air, the atmosphere of Venus smelled almost overpoweringly sweet. “I can breathe, thank God,” Jurgen shouted. Then he stepped out the doorway and hopped to the soft ground only a meter below.

Jurgen was totally unprepared for what he saw. In whatever direction he looked, his reaction was the same. After leaving Purgatory behind and descending through Hell, the Einstein had set down in Paradise.

 

*******************************************************

Jurgen scooped out the last morsel of what he’d come to call globefruit. Lambchop nuzzled his leg for attention. It had been the first creature he’d met on Venus. Ten minutes after he’d left the ship, the animal had approached him totally without fear and rubbed up against his knees like a large housecat. The nearest comparison he could make was a very fat sheep with pale blue wool and a face like a beagle’s. Like every other animal he was to come across on Venus, it had shown no awareness of the concept of self-defense. Clearly, there were no carnivores in Nod, and the fauna of the planet had no fear of their fellow creatures.

Jurgen had examined dozens of the local animals, and, although he was no zoologist, it was evident from their teeth that they were herbivores. In their first few days on the planet, Jurgen watched what the animals ate and followed suit. There were apples that tasted like cheese and berries that were reminiscent of chocolate. One variety of tuber, when cooked, tasted just like scrambled eggs. And, although the globefruit was the size of a soccer ball, it tasted very much like a grape.

First chance I get, I’m going to try and make some wine out of one of these,” Jurgen said.

Myoto glanced at him over her clipboard and said, “I should think you could find something more significant to work on.” Then she burst out laughing. Since her recovery from the effects of the landing, she’d become a very different person from what Jurgen had expected. From her first day out of the ship, she was transformed. She seemed as happy as a child in an amusement park. She took long walks in the forest and constantly brought back small animals for him to look at. Myoto was as maternal toward them as they were trusting in her.

Her personal favorite was Max, a furry snake with a face like a cat’s that coiled around her neck like a feather boa. Her pockets always seemed to be full of six-legged hamsters, which had also taken up residence in the air ducts of the ship. And then there was “the Hippo.” On her second day out of the MEDEVAL, Myoto had taken a walk down to the river that rushed into a canyon a half mile from the ship. Floating among the yellow water lilies in the shallows was an incredibly fat creature over four meters long and three meters tall. Other than its size, the most unusual about it was its skin. Its entire hairless body was covered with pink flesh that looked and felt exactly a newborn baby’s. This, combined with its cowlike disposition, made it seem soft and vulnerable, despite its enormous proportions.

When it first lumbered out of the water, Myoto had been frightened, but the creature merely purred like a kitten, then followed her home like a big pet dog. Later on, she discovered that the creature’s favorite food was a large nut that grew out of its reach on a species of tall conifers. One day she climbed up and brought a handful down. This made the Hippo her devoted friend. Soon after, it brought its mate for a visit, and the two creatures took to sleeping on the lawn outside the airlock.

Do you realize that you and I are genetically compatible?” Myoto asked, as they watched the two Hippos rolling around together in the tall blue-green grass. “I checked the computer banks. Everyone on the crew was genomically mapped and paired up by genetic characteristics. If we couldn’t leave here, you and I were designated a match for reproduction.”

And does the computer have a simulation of what our kids will look like?” Jurgen asked, half-seriously. He wondered if this was Myoto’s idea of a come-on. She was now nearly recovered from her injuries, and she was starting to awfully look good to him . . . and it had been a very long time.

Yeah, a tall, blue-eyed, blond Oriental named Fritz,” she answered. “Seriously, we should start thinking about increasing the size of our little colony. After all, I’ve only got 20 or so good child-bearing years left, you know.”

Well, we don’t need to rush it. We just got here.”

You’ll let me know when you're ready?”

You’ll be the first to know. And it may be sooner than you think,” Jurgen said breezily, as he stood up and gazed off into the distance. “But right now, you should be getting some rest. And I’ve got to put out that climatological sensor for you.”

Yeah, I am feeling a little weak. Maybe, I’ll take a nap. Be careful with that sensor package. It’s the most valuable piece of equipment I’ve got.”

Of course.” Jurgen knew that Myoto was obsessed with finding an explanation for the enigma that was the climate of Venus’ southern continent. She was certain that, with enough data, she could ascertain what weather patterns had produced this habitable region, as well as what kept the protective bubble of air around Nod isolated from the turbulence of the surrounding atmosphere.

Jurgen slung his high-powered rifle over his shoulder. This was more out of habit than anything else, since he had yet to run into anything dangerous in their part of the world. Then he lifted the heavy sensor package onto its skid and began dragging it toward the river. It was slow going, because he had to play out the cable that connected it to the ship’s main computer behind him as he walked.

Trailing 20 meters behind was one of the Hippos. He still couldn’t tell them apart. In fact, he hadn’t yet been able to tell a male from a female on any of the Venusian species he’d examined so far.

About 50 meters from the river, he stopped to unload the sensor unit and then activated its power pack. He turned to go back to the ship and saw that the Hippo had lumbered up behind him.

Hey, Fatso! Be careful you don’t step on this thing,” he shouted, waving his arms at the animal. It stopped in its tracks and then rolled onto its side, yawning loudly. Jurgen knew what it wanted, so he walked over and climbed up onto its enormous belly.

More than anything else, it liked being scratched under its chin, a spot it couldn’t get at with its comically short limbs. As Jurgen massaged its throat, the Hippo purred delightedly. He would have sworn it was grinning at him, except that its mouth was always frozen in a smile, like that of the dolphins that had once lived on earth.

When his hands got tired, Jurgen rolled back onto the ground and said, “I’ve got to be getting back now, big fellah.”

The Hippo lay on the grass for a moment and then struggled to its feet. For a moment, it seemed to be undecided whether to follow Jurgen back to the ship. Finally, it made up its mind to go for a wallow in the river. As it waddled toward the shore, one of its feet got tangled in the sensor cable, but being such a large creature it didn’t notice. The sensor package toppled over and began bouncing along behind it. The Hippo was only 10 yards from water’s edge when Jurgen realized what was happening.

Stop! Stop! Come back here!” he screamed. The animal showed no signs of hearing him. Jurgen started to run after it, but his foot caught the edge of a large rock, and his ankle turned under him. He sprawled on the ground. Rising to his knees, he picked up the rifle. He had only a moment to think. The sensor package was irreplaceable, so he knew he had to do something. He fired once over the Hippo’s head. Unfortunately, hearing was not one of the animal's stronger senses. It had reached the water’s edge. “Oh God, I’m sorry,” he said as he drew a bead on its head. He fired three times.

The Hippo toppled forward, sending up a huge spray when it hit the water. The sensor package was saved, but Jurgen’s friend was dead.


*******************************************************

I feel as awful about this as you do. But you did what you had to do,” Myoto said softly, as she wrapped his sprained ankle.

That’s the trouble with human nature . . . what we have to do is always wrong. We had a beautiful world once. First we trashed it, and then we destroyed it. We had a full crew on the Einstein – the cream of the human race — but we still managed to slaughter each other, like sharks in a feeding frenzy. And now we’ve brought killing here, to a place that doesn’t understand it.

Well, what do you want to do, shoot yourself next? We’ve also brought a new start for mankind. Our children aren’t going to know anything about killing or war. And we can start tonight. Let’s go clean out the armory and throw everything off the cliff.”

An hour later, they stood at the cliffs above the river. Together, they watched their weapons smash on the rocks, then splash into the water below.

There. That’s the last of it,” Myoto said. “Now there’ll be no more killing.”

Cain managed to kill Abel, and he didn’t have a gun.”

What?”

In the Bible.”

I’m a Taoist, so I might be a little foggy on some of those Bible stories.”

Do you know about Adam and Eve.” Jurgen asked. “And the Garden of Eden?”

Sure, even us ancestor worshippers have heard of that one.”

Well, on our way here, I dreamed about a snake. Not a cute, furry snake like Max, but an awful one, with bloody fangs and slimy skin, waiting in the jungle for something to kill. Now, I’m beginning to realize we’re the snakes in Paradise.”

My, you’re in a cheerful mood tonight.”

Jurgen walked away from the edge of the cliffs. “Let’s go down to the river. We could at least pay our last respects to the Hippo.”

By the time they reached the river, they saw that another mourner was there ahead of them. They watched the Hippo nudge the massive carcass of its mate into the deeper water. When the current caught it, it began to float downstream, and the air was filled with its mate’s tortured lament.

I wonder if it knows we’re responsible,” Myoto said, her eyes moist and red.

Of course it knows. Who else here could have done it?”

No one, I guess. Let’s get back to the ship.”


*******************************************************

That night, they made love for the first time. Jurgen had not really wanted to at first, but Myoto took the lead and he followed. Jurgen recalled that someone had once said that you might be depressed before eating caviar and you could even be depressed after eating caviar, but it was damn near impossible to be depressed while you were eating caviar. He noted this evening that the same could be said of sex. He didn’t realize how much he’d missed it until they’d done it the first time. And he remembered fully how much he liked it when they were doing it the third time.

But by the next morning, he was depressed all over again. It had rained earlier, but now the weather was beautiful, as it nearly always was in their little corner of Eden. The sun was, of course, hidden by the thick layers of clouds in the upper atmosphere, but the canopy of the sky always glowed with a diffused golden light that pulsed with the movement of the clouds. It was something he never tired of looking at. Gazing out at the breathtaking beauty of the rolling blue-green hills and the forests beyond, Jurgen couldn’t help but wonder at their good fortune at finding such a haven from the destruction of their world. During their time on Venus, this vista had often filled him with a profound sadness. This morning, he knew the reason why.

He was standing in front of the open cabinet with the bottle in this hand when he heard her clear her throat.

What are you doing with those?” Myoto asked sternly.

Jurgen turned slowly. “Reading the ingredients?” he answered facetiously.

Why don’t you just give them to me.” It wasn’t a question.

Why?”

Just in case you’re getting any strange ideas.”

Strange ideas?”

Like swallowing a handful. I’m beginning to get the idea you might not be totally committed to colonization.”

You might be right. Which is why I'm going to hang on to these.”

No . . . I don’t think so.” She brought her hand out from behind her back and pointed a silver revolver at Jurgen’s chest.

Where did that come from?”

I put it aside when we emptied the armory. Just in case there was ever any danger.”

I think about the only thing dangerous around here is you. What are you going to do, kill me? That would accomplish roughly the same thing as what I was thinking about.”

Myoto stepped backward two paces. “No. Of course I wouldn’t kill you. You’re going to be the father of my children.” She lowered the pistol slightly. “But I would put a bullet through your kneecap if I had to. So don’t make me have to.”

You sound serious.”

Totally serious. This is the fate of the human race we’re talking about. Now, toss me that bottle.”

Jurgen hesitated for a moment, then he obliged. “Now what?”

You’re going to walk ahead of me out to the cliffs . . . and I’m going to dispose of these.”

Don’t you think we should discuss this a little first?”

You’ve got until we get there to talk me out of it. Let’s start walking.”

They made for the spot where they’d disposed of the weapons. Myoto carried the bottle in one hand and kept the gun trained on the middle of Jurgen's right thigh with the other. Limping along ahead of her on his sprained ankle, Jurgen struggled for a way to delay her decision.

Hasn’t it occurred to you that maybe we don’t belong here?”

No, it hasn’t. We’ve been given another chance. You were the one who mentioned the Bible. I think we’re like a pair of animals from Noah’s Ark.”

So mankind survived the Flood. And what good came of that? We got a second chance, and we blew that one too. Don’t you see? This is a paradise here. What gives us the right to think we’re so damned important we can jeopardize that. The animals here have never known killing. And one day that’s all they’ll know. Our descendants will turn this place into an abattoir. Those Hippos’ll go extinct in a few generations, just like the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon and the elephant.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Yes it does. We think we’re the most important thing in the universe — the crown of creation. And it’s human nature to believe that if two children are good, then 10 are even better. The Bible says, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the Earth.’ That was just our ancestors’ way of saying it’s our job to reproduce like rabbits and swallow up everything that stands in our way.

More is always better. If the environment can support a million people, then let’s have five million! And in a few hundred years, there’ll be factories and pollution. The forests’ll be gone and the water’ll stink. There’ll be crime, so we’ll be strip mining the valleys for stone to build prisons. And there’ll be war, so we’ll dig up these meadows looking for uranium to make bombs. We’ll be killing each other for the love of money and the love of God. And we’ll have all the things that make man what he is and always has been.”

No! It has to be different for us this time. We know what went wrong. We’ll teach our children to be different.”

We knew right from wrong before, and we couldn’t help ourselves. We’ve always known right from wrong, and we could never help ourselves.

When people talked about birth control in the old days, someone would always say, ‘You can’t do that, because the child you prevent could be another Galileo or Christ or Mahatma Gandhi.’ Well, we had one of each, and what good did it ever do us? Do you really think a couple of extra saints and few more geniuses could have saved mankind?”

It’s possible. Maybe the person who could have saved us just wasn’t born.”

Stop it! You sound like one of those crazies who kept telling us to have more children when we couldn’t support the ones we already had. Don’t you realize, for every Buddha that’s born, there’s a Hitler . . . not to mention a couple rapists, a dozen petty thieves and half a dozen lawyers to keep them all on the streets. For every Isaac Newton, there’s a hundred illiterates and morons. The average human being is a moron, and half the population is even stupider than he is!”

Look, neither of us know what’s going to happen, but I choose to be an optimist. You can be a pessimist if you like, but I’m the one holding the gun.”

Holding the gun . . . you’re such an optimist you couldn’t even throw it away, not even in paradise. Well, I’m a realist — I remember my history lessons and I choose not to repeat them.

You keep forgetting — you’re in no position to choose anything at the moment.“

They had reached the cliff. “We’re here, and you haven’t changed my mind,” Myoto said with an air of finality. She stood at the edge and deftly flipped the top off the bottle with one hand, while keeping the gun pointed at Jurgen with the other. The lid disappeared below. The future of mankind hung on the edge of the precipice. Jurgen looked on as she poured their supply of RD-666 over the edge.

You’ve just sealed the fate of this planet,” he said.

Someday you’ll thank me for this,” she answered, tossing Jurgen the empty bottle. “Imagine just the two of us living here for the rest of our lives . . . without any purpose for our lives. Eventually, one of us would have died and left the other alone to go slowly insane. I think we should go back to the ship now.”

Is that an order? You planning on shooting me in the foot if I refuse?”

No, I’ve given my last order. You’re the boss now.” With that, Myoto flung the pistol over the edge of the cliff. “I’m going back now. I’m sorry it had to come to this. But you left me no choice.”

As Myoto walked off into the distance, Jurgen looked over the edge. “It’s a long way down,” he said, tossing the empty bottle into the river below. “I guess I’ll walk.”

He thought of what it would be like to strike out into the wilderness on his own. But he knew it was hopeless. He’d know where Myoto was, and he knew he’d return like a salmon swimming up river to spawn. It was inevitable. What they had done last night was as ingrained in his nature as it was in hers. Her scent would follow him wherever he went, until it pulled him back to her bed or drove him mad. He was left with only one choice.

Lost in thought, he paid little attention to where he was going and found himself back at the river’s edge where the Hippo had died. Its mate was floating out in the shallows. As Jurgen approached, the creature must have caught his scent. It waddled out of the water and looked at him quizzically. Then it trumpeted like an elephant and began galloping directly at him.

Jurgen was frozen with fear. The creature was obviously capable of a lot more speed than he would have thought possible, based on its appearance. Caught in the open, he had nowhere to run. His only chance lay in dodging the animal’s initial onrush, then heading for the water before it could reverse direction. Jurgen crouched, shifting his weight from one foot to the other like a wrestler. Suddenly, his injured ankle buckled under him and he toppled to the ground. He made it to his knees and looked up into the eyes of the onrushing beast. He knew he was about to die.

At the last moment, the Hippo veered to its left. Its enormous hooves thundered by only inches from Jurgen’s kneeling form. The animal slowed up quickly and stopped 20 meters away. Turning around, it stared at him for a full 10 seconds before it made a low guttural sound and headed slowly for the forest.

Over a minute passed before Jurgen was able to breath normally again. He struggled to his feet and limped to the river. Wading in up to his knees, he splashed a handful of the water on his face. Then, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the five orange pills he’d slipped in there just before Myoto had discovered him in the pharmacy.

You’re one devious bastard,” he said to himself. “But, I guess that’s just human nature.”

He put the pills into his mouth and reached into the river with a cupped hand. He washed down the RD-666 with a mouthful of the cool water.

Satan’s Apples,” he said with a laugh. “I guess I can go back to bed now.”

Deep within his body, the drug was already beginning its chain reaction. Jurgen walked back toward the first morning of the rest of his life.


*******************************************************

Deep within her body, the twin cells reached critical mass almost simultaneously, split and became four. It was only the first step: side by side, male and female, X and Y, they nestled safely in the sole ark of their race.


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