This story marks our fifth appearance of Cy De Gerch. You can find all her previous adventures here.
by Rick Kennett
As Utopia Plain accelerated away, Captain Brown switched from aft view to forward where the star field was beginning to blue-shift. On the weapons repeater beside him the Terran ship was sliding into the sights. The repeater’s identification lights were on, blinking insistently.
At fire control Lieutenant Cy De Gerch stared at her weapons screen and said, “Range to targets now four point five million and closing.”
Across from her, Lieutenant Peters flipped back the plastic cover on the I.F.F. override and jabbed his finger down on the sensor panel. It lit with the words Genetic Code confirmed.
“Identification Friend or Foe override operating, sir,” he said.
“Range four million and closing,” said Cy.
A message from Communications flashed up on Captain Brown’s console, a signal from some Earther admiral he’d never heard of, addressed to “most immediate Martian vessel” with orders to decelerate and take position astern his ship. He decided to give the idiot Earther one last chance. For the second time in two minutes he opened a line to Communications. “Repeat the danger warning. Add ‘Star about to nova.’” He thought of also adding that he was prepared to fire on them. Then allowing himself a smile, he closed the line.
The identification lights were dark. On the aft screens the racing silhouette of the St Petersburg was clearing the shrivelling bulk of Doloris B, heading for deep space on automatic pilot. On the forward screens the Terran ship didn’t look like it was going to alter away.
The captain opened the line to Fire Control. “As soon as they’re within range, Cy.”
“Thank you, Captain. Three million and closing.” This, she knew, gave them less than twenty seconds before coming into effective laser range. Just time enough to wonder whether they were being altruistic or used. Time to hope the babies would be safe.
On her weapons repeater the Terran ship dropped neatly into the crosshairs and Cy said, “Fire!”
Utopia Plain had entered the Doloris B system some hours before, warily skipping in and out of dimension, never in 3-D space long enough to present a target as she spiralled inwards. It was a dead end star system of three lifeless pieces of rock and a frozen gas giant, all without colonization or mining potential.
Which in no way explained what the Terran survey ship St Petersburg was doing in the Doloris system, so far off her plotted course. Nor did it explain its garbled distress signal several hours before or why Scanner Room could detect no signs of life aboard the Earth ship as she orbited the third planet.
Utopia Plain stopped a cautious nine hundred thousand kilometres off, lasers fully charged, torpedo tubes open and ready.
Brown leaned forward and studied the undamaged hull lines of St Petersburg on his screen. Although he didn’t consider himself a superstitious man he couldn’t help feeling relieved that as Captain he would not be leading the boarding party. Lieutenant De Gerch would be doing that. He said, “Cy, how would you like to go EVA?”
“I wouldn’t,” came the immediate reply from the young woman watching her own screens. “Will I need my spacesuit?”
Brown chuckled. “No, there’s full atmospheric integrity aboard St Petersburg. Ready port side shuttle. Frank will relieve you at Fire Control.”
As Cy left the control room he consulted the traffic plot for their region of space. The Xenoid war was still active in several star systems in the area, and a Terran warship, the Valentina Tereshkova, was within a two day subspace jump of Doloris B as it returned to Earth from mopping-up operations in the nearby Herschel Alpha system.
Odd, he thought. Herschel Alpha to Earth had been St Petersburg’s course too…
He opened the line to Communications again and dictated an assistance signal to Valentina Tereshkova. It would be four days before either a reply or the ship itself arrived.
Too bad it had to be a Terran ship, Brown mused. Earthers in general were all right, he supposed, but he didn’t like their imperious attitudes, especially when dealing with their colonies or former colonies. Still, Terran or otherwise, the less time he was alone, he decided, the safer he’d feel.
The shuttle had docked and an entry port forced before life readings began to register inside St Petersburg.
“Why now?” Cy said, watching the faintly twitching meter needle.
“I’m not sure,” said Dr Norsk. As Cy was the youngest of Utopia Plain’s crew at eighteen, Ben Norsk was the oldest at a hundred and four, but just as unenthusiastic about being where he was. “If just one person’s alive in there we should’ve picked up life signs by now.” He paused as behind them the boarding party guided the first of the mobile probes through the airlock. “It’s probably because the life signs are so faint, and yet they’re steady, healthy. It may be that whoever’s in there is physically small, and what’s more there’s two of them.”
“One of them is, yes.” He gave the instruments another long look. “The other… probably not.”
Two probes were inside St Petersburg now. One moved on its anti-gravs forward through the control areas, seeing emptiness, hearing silence. The second, gliding aft through the accommodation spaces, was experiencing the same, only here the emptiness and silence was much more human: it filled cabins and lay in beds and sat in chairs and covered personal items.
Ghost ship. The phrase drifted unwelcomed through Cy’s mind like a sheeted form. She hated this close in work, this mystery and creeping about. Her forte, the specific she’d been genetically engineered for, was to be the integral human in long-range weaponry: where ships were targets and targets were fast numbers in her head. The laser at her hip felt unnatural.
“Audio!” said Technician Yensen at the sensors.
“Source?” said Cy.
“Recreation area, lower deck, aft, ma’am. Sounded like a squawky sort of voice.” She rechecked her monitors, blinked and said, “Computer filtering has it that the words were ‘Who’s a clever boy then’.”
“Did you copy that, Captain?” said Cy.
“No mystery there, Cy,” said her captain, watching and listening several thousand kilometres away. “A squawky voice saying something like that? Probably a parrot or the like; a pet or lab bird. Not unusual with non-combative vessels.”
“Does that mean we’re looking at something that makes people disappear but not birds? Would this be your non-human life sign, Doctor Norsk?”
But before the doctor could reply, Tech Yensen said, “Audio! Forward sections. Sounded like ..” She looked up from her monitors. “There’s a baby in there!”
Cy found the baby boy lying naked on the deck in the forward bio lab, kicking and crying. The boarding party searched, but a parrot and a newborn remained the sole living things aboard St Petersburg.
“Didn’t the Captain call this a non-combative vessel?” said Dr Norsk. He was staring down at the four fat, silver nukes in St Petersburg’s cargo bay.
Cy stepped up beside him with the baby in her arms. “Primed and ready, too,” she said with professional detachment. “Mk IVs, designed for use against surface targets.”
“The sooner this ship’s log is checked the sooner we’ll get some answers.”
“Yes –” he began, then stopped and regarded her with an odd expressions, almost a knowing smile and said, “Where did you learn to do that?”
“Recognition of various classes of weaponry? It’s basic training –“
“No, I mean that,” and he nodded to the baby.
She looked down at the child cradled in her arms. His eyes were drooping shut and he was no longer crying, and she suddenly realized she’d been gently rocking him the past minute or so.
“I never told you how to pick him up,” said the doctor, “or how to hold him correctly, yet you did it and now you’re rocking him to sleep. Ah, Ms De Gerch, I think your maternal instincts are showing.”
“What’s that?” she said, blinking. “I’m doing what?”
“Let me take him back to the ship,” said the doctor, and as he made to take the baby from her Cy surprised herself by pulling away. Then, realizing the situation, she allowed him to take the child from her.
“Be careful,” she said. “I mean… best get him fed straight away.”
The doctor, the baby and the parrot shuttled back to Utopia Plain, leaving Lieutenant De Gerch in charge of St Petersburg with a skeleton crew of five.
Utopia Plain slid into a tight orbit around Doloris Three and began scanning the surface. A few small structures were found dotted amid the rocky terrain, along with a dish antenna array set in a fifty kilometre diameter circle. Repeated calls on the general frequency, however, remained unanswered.
Trying to find answers to other questions, Captain Brown paid a visit to the Med Lab.
“Well, Ralph,” said Dr Norsk, “young De Gerch has transmitted St Petersburg’s personnel log and I’ve been running a check on the crew’s DNA. At first, the way the patterns matched up, it looked like the baby was the offspring of the ship’s chief bio-technician, Dr Pitney Lees. But double checking showed conclusively that he’s not the child of Dr Lees at all. He is Dr Lees.”
The captain leaned through the door to the infirmary where the baby, lying in a makeshift crib.
“Ben, I know this ship’s exec is all of eighteen, but I refuse to believe the Earthers are making biotechs out of newborns.”
Dr Norsk joined him in the doorway. “Pitney Lees is almost my own age. I did my medical training with him on Earth more than seventy years ago. But this has to be him because no one has identical DNA patterns. No one. Not even clones. It’s like fingerprints and retina patterns – which I also checked.”
“Ben! Be serious. No one reverts to a baby. I mean, for a start, where did the extra mass go?”
“I don’t know, Ralph, I don’t know. But take it from me: that newborn in there is ninety-two year old Dr Lees. Because if it isn’t, all we know about genetic science wasn’t worth the trouble of finding out in the first place.”
“And if it is Dr Lees, what does that say? That he found the Fountain of Youth? Out here? Is that why St Petersburg was in this system? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Yes, it doesn’t make sense. But the facts are incontrovertible. We need to know what happened aboard the St Petersburg. How long before its computers are downloaded into ours?”
“Downloading should…” A communicator toning for an outside call interrupted him. “Speak of the devil! Cy?”
“Yes, sir. We’ve just finished transmitting computer contents. Also, while Technician Yensen and I were disarming those four nukes we found a jury-rigged guidance system aiming them at that antenna array on the planet. Which is strange enough, but what I can’t figure out is that if they meant to attack that array why go to the trouble of arming a survey ship? One of their cruisers could’ve done the job much more efficiently.”
“Maybe it’s because one of their cruisers looks too much like one of their cruisers.”
“Point taken. So what’s the array for? Most of it’s made up of high-gain solar collectors, and by high-gain I mean a gathering capacity equal to the energy output of an exploding sun. There’s also four dishes of a different type spaced around the middle, but no amount of close scanning and computer analysis shows what they are. Captain, what if this isn’t a Terran base? What if it’s someone else’s entirely?”
“An enemy installation? This far behind the lines? Unlikely.”
“Who’s ever it is,” said Cy, “perhaps St Petersburg stumbled onto it and the crew were eliminated.”
“Except for Dr Lees, who was turned into a baby,” said Dr Norsk dryly.
“What’s that?” Cy said.
“Ben has this idea –“
“It’s a fact, Ralph, not an idea.”
“ – that the baby you found is actually St Petersburg’s ninety-two year old chief biotechnician.”
There was a long silence from St Petersburg, and Brown had a metal image of his executive officer switching out a moment to laugh. Yet the image didn’t fit. It was childish, and Cy De Gerch wasn’t a child and probably never had been. At last she said, without the least race of humour, “Dr Norsk, did you know Dr Lees is Earth’s leading genetics expert?”
“Is he, by god? That was always his specialty at med school. Though what their best geneticist is doing out here…” He trailed off, seeing another unanswered question looming. “Come to think of it, Ms De Gerch, St Petersburg’s personnel file did seem to have a number of geneticists, anthropologists and dimensional physicists in it.”
“Yes, I thought so too. Doctor, how old do you think that parrot we found is?”
He glanced over at the bird sitting on an improvised perch in a corner of the lab, picking at seed and every now and then squawking, “Who’s a clever boy then.”
“I’m no vet, but he can’t be too old as parrots go. Five? Six?”
“Uh huh. The parrot is also logged in St Petersburg’s personnel file, and its age is given ‘estimated approximately 100 solar years.”
Brown and Norsk glanced uneasily at each other, and as they both turned their attention to the parrot Cy yelled from the radio, “Oh my god! The ship’s sprouting babies!”
Lieutenant Frank Peters sat in the Captain’s chair alone in the control Room, not really relishing his temporary responsibilities as Officer of the Watch and rather relieved the situation was quiet. Then a light winked on and a voice said, “Deep Range Scanners.”
“Deep Range, report,” said Frank.
“Subspace disturbances at seven hundred million kilometres bearing double zero six by zero two zero.”
He switched through to the Deep Range repeater. Something was skipping in and out of subspace at the very edge of the Doloris system.
Valentina Tereshkova? Surely it was still three days or more away.
His hand hesitated over the Battle Stations alarm. Then another intercom voice said, “Analysis Lab to the captain, repeating to Officer of the Watch …” The voice suddenly broke and said, “We’ve just seen what happened to St Petersburg’s crew. It’s incredible!”
Frank slammed his hand down on the alarm.
The babies were materializing on the deck, fetal shapes forming out of shifting jellies, arms and legs sprouting as Cy watched, fascinated and just a little afraid. There were four of them now in the Control Room of the St Petersburg. She crouched down, reached out to touch one, then drew back. They were not yet fully formed, though at the rate they were developing she guessed they’d be ‘born’ within a few minutes.
The general frequency was jamming as her team of five reported the same phenomena from other parts of the ships.
“Stand by! Stand by!” she snapped with unaccustomed anger, and switched a line through to Utopia Plain. “Captain – ” She began but got no further, Brown cutting her off with his voice raised above the action alarm she could hear ringing in behind him.
“We’re tracking an unidentified intruder dimensional skipping into the system. Prepare to break orbit and run for subspace. But wait for my say-so.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” She re-opened the general frequency. “Someone get down to Engineering and power up the drive. The rest of you start gathering the babies as soon as they develop into birth and take them forward to the accommodation area.” She glanced down at the babies around her, sure now at least one of them was properly born. “There’s four in here as well.”
She checked the deep range scanner, but nothing showed yet. On the short range plot she saw Utopia Plain widening orbit and changing position. She wanted to be aboard, closed up at Fire Control. More than a wish or desire, it was almost physical pain not to be there.
The nukes, she thought. She’d disarmed them with Technician Yensen earlier. “Ms Yensen, belay the babies and re-arm those bombs.”
“Re-arm…” A touch of impatience in the word, babies crying in the background. “Lieutenant, there are forty… Aye, aye, ma’am.”
Cy looked around. The babies in the Control Room were all born now, but didn’t seem to be getting any older. Their development, which had rushed them into birth, had stopped.
She sat down at Manoeuvring as power came onto the drive and began plotting an escape orbit. Utopia Plain toned in again.
“Our unidentified intruder has turned out to be the Valentina Tereshkova.”
“Three days early, Captain?”
“Yes. It must’ve falsified its stated course, been in reality only hours behind St Petersburg. I don’t like this, Cy. It smells. I don’t know what of, but it smells. It’s decelerating and still far off, but we’re staying at Battle Stations for the time. Keep your drive ticking over. Be ready to break and run.”
Break and run? she thought. St Petersburg was no swift frigate like Utopia Plain. It would need two hours at least to accelerate to subspace entry speed. Looking around herself again at the kicking, squalling babies she felt as vulnerable and nearly as helpless. “Aye, aye, sir,” she said.
The line went dead, then suddenly snapped on again and a male voice said, “I wish to speak with whoever is now in charge of the St Petersburg.”
The unexpected, unknown voice shocked De Gerch out of her whirl of thought. “I am Lieutenant De Gerch of the Martian frigate Utopia Plain,” she said guardedly. “Identify yourself, please.” She re-opened the line to the captain.
“I am Doctor John Mond, head of the Terran establishment whose surface structures you recently scanned.”
“Why out here? Doloris B is a nothing system.”
“Just so. But it has a star, and a star is a source of almost unlimited energy, and that is what we require above all else. You sound very young for the rank you say you hold board that formidable vessel, Ms De Gerch. Are you a child of Milo Gartino’s genetic engineering project?”
“I am a Gartino, yes,” she said, trying not to sound defensive. “Are you behind what’s happening here, Dr Mond? Who are all these children?”
“I would’ve thought that was obvious, Ms De Gerch.”
It is, Cy thought.
“I doubt you’ve heard of Timelines,” the voice continued. “How does the idea of biological time travel along the life span appeal to you? Mark well I said biological, which is why these babies will not be returned to their adult states. Reversion destroys life experience. Their minds are now as when they were originally born. Tell me, Ms De Gerch, are you happy?”
She frowned in bewilderment. “Am I… happy? What the hell has that got to do with –“
“Do you believe any of your breed are? I mean in a real sense. Do you take joy from every day life outside of your duties? Tell me now, truthfully.”
“Is that any concern of yours,” she snapped, caught off guard. “Listen, how about a few explanations here. Why was this ship about to nuke your project?”
“For the same reason the approaching Terran vessel may attempt it as well – because we are now a threat to them.”
“I would’ve thought it was more a threat to you.” She glanced at the deep range scan. Valentina Tereshkova was now just visible as a hard, zigzagging pinpoint.
“Of course it is. All weapons of war are a threat. You are such a thing, Ms De Gerch, and I find you and your like the most threatening, the most frightening thing of all. Do you really think the Gartino Experiment was a good idea? Making weapons out of people built to order? Would you like to see something even more extreme than this proliferate?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean speeded up human evolution, tinkering not merely biologically but temporally. Our object was the reconstruction of the human being, manipulating not only genetics like your own electrobiochemical processes, but the evolutionary process itself. The discovery of Timelines, be that of a bird, a human, a star, was an unexpected, and we see now, dangerous discovery. We have decided that humanity as it now stands is not yet ready for the knowledge, so we’re leaving.”
“’There are things humanity was not meant to know’,” Captain Brown broke in, irony obvious in his tone.
“Crudely put, whoever you are, though very close to the truth. Tell me, sir, what is the procedure during this recent war of yours when items of advanced technology have fallen upon a planet inhabited by uninvolved beings lesser developed?”
There was a long silence from the captain. Cy didn’t feel like answering, either.
“Exactly,” said Dr Mond. “It’s either retrieved or destroyed to prevent interference with the natural development of the peoples of that planet.”
“And you’re saying we’re not sufficiently developed – let’s use the proper word – we’re too immature for what you’ve discovered,” said Brown.
“Yes. Immature. Do I sound superior? If so it’s because I’ve seen the future of the human animal. It’s because I’ve been there, and even in its untampered form I don’t like what it is to be. We’re leaving now. It’s within your power to stop us – your frigate has swifter capacities than those clumsily tacked onto the St Petersburg – but there’ll be nothing gained, and all of us will lose. The process of our departure has begun. I suggest you evacuate this star system and persuade that other warship to do the same.”
The line crackled and closed, leaving open the line to Utopia Plain where Lieutenant Peters could be heard counting off decreasing ranges in the background. Around Cy the babies were crying and kicking.
“Captain?” she said.
“Yes, Cy,” he said quietly. “Set the ship on an automatic course to exit the system, then gather your people and the babies. You can trans-ship directly. Prepare for docking.”
The general frequency opened. Tech Yensen said, “All four nuclear weapons re-armed and ready, ma’am.”
“I’m sorry, Ms Yensen,” said Cy, “but we don’t want the Earthers hurting themselves when they salvage this ship later. Disarm the bombs.”
The line hissed with a long, drawn-out breath. “Disarm… aye, aye, ma’am.”
Long before Utopia Plain had undocked from St Petersburg, forty-five babies making a nursery of Norsk’s Med Lab, the dish array on the planet had began to angle towards Doloris B. Almost immediately afterwards there followed increased disturbances deep within the core of the star. Slowly, gradually, Doloris B began to shrink, to collapse in upon itself, changing colour as it grew steadily hotter, passing from yellow to violet to a burning, glaring white.
Utopia Plain broke orbit and accelerated out, gravity rings rippling down her hull. Four million kilometres away and closing came the Terran cruiser Valentina Tereshkova.
Lieutenant Peters flipped back the plastic cover on the I.F.F. override and jabbed his finger down on the sensor panel. It lit with the words Genetic Code Confirmed. He reported this to the captain.
On rear view screens the racing silhouette of the St Petersburg was clearing the shriveling bulk of Doloris B, heading for deep space on automatic pilot. On the forward screens the Terran ship didn’t look it was going to alter away.
Brown opened the line to Fire control. “As soon as they’re within range, Cy.”
“Thank you, Captain. Three million and closing.” This, she knew, gave the cruiser less than twenty seconds before coming into effective laser range. Just time enough to wonder whether they were being altruistic or used. Time to hope the babies would be safe.
The forward lasers howled out half-power beams, smacking the Earth ship dead on their nose.
Disorientated, their forward sensors temporarily blinded, Valentina Tereshkova changed course away. Utopia Plain belted past, powering for deep space.
Thirty seconds later Doloris B nova-ed, a deep and sudden glory of hard white light pushing out of the star and growing in a silent, slow explosion thirty million, fifty million, a hundred million klicks across. Engulfed, the inner two planets flared and vaporized, followed by the gas giant flashing into a miniature, momentary sun, glowing, gone.
Later scanner replays showed the third planet vanishing before the blast reached it. There was uncertainty whether it hadn’t vaporized like the others, yet no one could say where the planet had gone or how. However, there were those who would later ponder Timelines and make educated guesses.
Some hours later and ten billion kilometres out from the exploding star, Utopia Plain neared subspace insertion. For the past thirty minutes they’d been eavesdropping on the Valentina Tereshkova somewhere on the far side of the ever-growing supernova, as it transmitted coded messages back to Earth while trying to catch the St Petersburg. The code hadn’t been broken, but Captain Brown had a fair idea what he was being called.
Down at Fire Control Cy De Gerch was coming to terms with the intricacies of a baby bottle, helped by Doctor Norsk and encouraged by members of the crew. The parrot perched on the shoulder of Frank Peters gave him a faintly piratical air.
Cy had asked for a chance to feed baby Pitney.
“My baby,” she’d said, laughing.
Brown thought she looked happy enough, her genetic origins notwithstanding. And although it was true she was a manufactured weapon, she was also a human being. Perhaps Dr Mond had been too pessimistic. Maybe his research to find the ultimate had taken him so deep into human darkness he could no longer see the light. Perhaps.
The captain was the only one in the Control Room to notice the screens go blank as Utopia Plain slipped into subspace, heading home to Mars. The others were watching a girl of eighteen patting a baby gently on the back.
The baby burped. Cy smiled triumphantly around the Control Room and let Pitney’s tiny fingers grab hold of the bottle.
“Who’s a clever boy then,” said the parrot.
About the Author
Rick Kennett has had horror and SF stories published in several magazines, anthologies and podcasts including Dunesteef, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. He won two Parsec Awards for podcast stories in 2013, a year that also saw the publication of his novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. One of those Parsec Awards was for Cast of Wonders Episode 71, Now Cydonia, one of the several Martian Ranger Cy De Gerch stories.
When not toiling at the day job in the transport industry, he can be found wandering cemeteries – necrotourism – or working as the podcast reporter for the Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.