Umbilicus

Umbilicus by Alex Burns Part 2/3

Part 1

Part 3

The agricultural center takes up about three square miles of land outside Clarkeson. On the outside, it’s just as gray and boring as the craggy foothills that surround it. Rob and Weaver strap on their protective goggles before making their way inside to clock in. To make up for its bland facade, the facility’s designers put the grow room on the ground floor, as a makeshift lobby. The ultraviolet overhead lamps that saturate the fields create an Earth-like atmosphere that stands in blinding opposition to the perpetual twilight outside due to the dim light cast by the red dwarf star Gliese 581 and the Zarmina’s tidally locked orbit around it, creating permanent light and dark hemispheres (the zenith and nadir, respectively). As glaring as the light inside may be, the vivid greens and golds of the crops are a welcome respite from the ubiquitous ashen tones outside the facility’s walls. Bobbing amidst the sprawling verdant ocean of crops are field workers clad in white, mostly nons strapped to aluminum cans of specially formulated fertilizer intended to speed growth and ensure maximum yield. The harvesting work is left to Natives and not-yet-infirm nons lucky enough to avoid the uranium mines on the other side of the terminator—the dividing line between Planet Z’s eternal day and night upon which both Clarkeson and Sagan City, along with a few other budding settlements, are built.

Bro grabs!” Weaver says, and throws his arms around Rob before taking off to the cloning department. There, Weaver spends eight hours testing and re-testing the DNA of identical cows, pigs, and chickens to make sure that no duplication errors make their way into the food supply, potentially leading to such pesky problems as diarrhea, cancer, and brain-perforating Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease. To keep consumers in good health and good eats, he commands an army of tiny machines of his own design that mix and match protein strands in the genetic material of gestating animals. Some people micro-manage; Weaver nano-manages.

Rob’s responsibilities are much less glamorous and high-tech. He spends his days filing up and down the rows of the grow room, filling crates with fresh fruit and vegetables, the vast majority of which get flash-frozen and shipped back to Earth to stave off starvation amongst the swollen population, twelve billion and counting. Zarminians do all the work and, as the subtext of sporadic transmissions from the mother planet imply, should be proud of their efforts and thankful for the scraps that they get to keep on-world. Out of the 30 crates Rob loads on a good day, maybe two are shipped up over Zarmina’s North Pole to Sagan City, and one gets sent back to the general store in Clarkeson.

After eight hours, a thorough chewing-out by his supervisor for falling behind on his quota, and precisely zero breaks (not even to piss), Rob meets Weaver outside for a ride back to Clarkeson. Across the parking lot, a small army of hunched-over nons form a line to board the bus back into town. Weaver’s tall, thin frame sticks out amongst the crowd of nons slowly leaking out the exit of the agricultural center. His arms are covered in sticky clear goo up past the elbow. Rob can smell it from a stone’s throw away. “Ugh. What’s that smell?”

Amniotic fluid. I had to get a little more hands-on than usual today.”

Gross.”

It’s synthetic! Don’t be a baby!” Weaver wipes his hands on his pants and hops in the barely-functional buggy that carts the pair to and fro to earn their keep. “We gotta get moving, some big, big shit is going down.” Throwing up a trail of dust, looping around the crowded bus, they speed off to their side job moonlighting as operatives in the Zarminian Independent Alliance.

#

Only as Weaver snakes his way around the suddenly-more-numerous police checkpoints in Clarkeson and on past into the nadir does Rob appreciate the fact that he lives on an alien planet. The constellations taught to schoolchildren on Earth mean nothing out here. Rob traces out his own patterns among the multitude of stars that appear once he’s escaped the half-hearted glow that permeates his hometown. Soon enough, he’s parsed out a few eye-catching shapes and commits them to memory: an AK-47 like the one his grandfather smuggled onto the first shipload of colonists, a pineapple, a silhouette of a steer’s head with long, sharp horns, an enormous pair of breasts. Rob dons a hooded sweater and zips it up to his chin. The view is beautiful, and it’s nice to get away from the glass-and-concrete apartment towers and squat, utilitarian service buildings that make up Clarkeson. But damn, is it cold.

After an hour of navigating through the rough, untamed terrain, a small outpost of civilization sneaks into view. The sepia tone of sodium vapor spotlights betrays a small shack surrounded by a half-dozen cargo trucks, antique motorcycles, and dirt-cheap buggies like the one Weaver’s driving. An old man propped up in a folding chair, apparently sleeping, guards the entrance.

What’s up with the old dude?” Weaver says, sauntering toward the shack.

Rob hoists his duffel out of the buggy’s trunk and jogs a few paces to catch up. “Beats me. You’d think with TUG troops hitting the ground, Anton would be a little more diligent when it comes to security.”

You’d think so. Grunts are multiplying like vat-grown rabbits these days.” The old man produces a revolver, out of production for more than a century, the chrome of its barrel looking as if it had never fired a shot. He cocks back the hammer and aims it directly at Rob’s crotch. “Password.”

Rob looks at Weaver, who just shrugs. “I’m a Pepper.”

You sure are. In you go.” The old man relaxes once more, and the two shove their way through the weathered metal door of the shack, containing a single fluorescent light bulb and a staircase leading underground.

The weekly meeting of the western contingent of the ZIA is sparsely populated. The newer recruits, cradling all manner of firearms, fill in the front row of chairs that populate the cavernous concrete bunker, eager to show their commitment and enthusiasm. Sitting at a finely-constructed wooden table before them is one of the more zealous members of the council, Anton Zizek. The heavyset, salt-and-pepper bearded man adjusts his wire-frame glasses and clears his throats. He rarely speaks at these meetings, but his politics and methods are commonly understood by ZIA regulars to be among the most confrontationally radical of the group. He addresses the congregation in heavily-accented English. “You may notice that our meeting, this week, is rather more smaller in attendance than usual. But before we begin, please, Mister Weaver—“Anton gestures, and Weaver produces from his knapsack what looks to be a heavily modified flashlight and places it on the dust-covered floor of the bunker, holding down a button at the top of the device. A buzz fills the room steadily, and crescendos in a shrill tearing sound, before winding down to a sizzle. Every ear in the room rings for a good thirty seconds.

Just a localized electro-magnetic field to disable any attempts at surveillance. Sorry about your phones,” Weaver chuckles.

Thank you. Such measures, unfortunately, have become necessary. Twelve hours ago, Sagan City was bombarded from orbit by a Terran military ship. Seven members of our council, present in the city for the purposes of organization of local opposition to mount a sort of resistance against the oppressive government presence, what-have-you, have been killed. The remainder are seeing to the safety of the citizens of Clarkeson, leaving me to speak with you this evening. This, of course, may come as quite a shock to you who are familiar with the distances involved in sending troops from the Earth to our home here on Zarmina. Apparently, the Terran Unilateral Government has had access to modes of transportation denied to civilian vessels. I apologize, my English is not sufficient to go into the technical details of this discovery, and I will now defer to our resident science expert—“ Anton again gestures to Weaver.

Thanks, Anton. About six hours before the attack, an astronomer friend of ours aboard the Sagan City orbital elevator picked up a burst of Hawking radiation from the other side of Gliese 581, followed in short order by a Terran ship taking up residence in our orbit.” Weaver speaks now in a serious tone reserved only for shop talk. “This is weird. And for two reasons: Hawking radiation emanates only from black holes, which, as far as I know, are not in the habit of popping in and out of existence; and, through the normal run of things, we would have been able to spot this ship coming at us from quite a ways away.” Weaver waits, expecting something to click in the minds of his audience.

No bells are rung.

So, this points to the artificial manipulation of a singularity on the part of the Tuggers. They’ve got a wormhole. Specifically, a Morris-Thorne wormhole. They hid it on the other side of the sun, but they’ll be able to drop thousands of troops right on top of us, no matter how badly we gum up the works in Sagan City or Clarkeson.”

This covert keeping of tabs by the Terran government is, clearly, a violation of our trust, and stands in the way of any hopes of sovereignty and independence that we may harbor. The only way we can keep the situation from escalating into full-scale war is to destroy this means of transportation ourselves.”

Not to mention the eye in the sky,” Weaver adds.

Rob, struggling to come to grips with this cascade of information, speaks up. “Destroy it? How can we do anything from down here? Are we supposed to wait for the fucking thing to fly over us and shoot at it with our guns while it hammers us from a hundred miles up?”

We must get into the air as soon as possible.”

Oh, perfect. Twenty troops touched down in Clarkeson this morning! Who knows how many more have come since then, or have been here already! The rest of the council’s probably in custody, if not dead!”

The rest of the council has surrendered to the Terran forces on the ground at Clarkeson. A contingent of soldiers is on their way here to place the rest of us under arrest. They should arrive in about twenty minutes.”

The crowd breaks into a burst of worried mumbling. Rob, however, is livid. “What the fuck?! We’re all going to die!”

Enough!” Anton snaps to his feet, slapping both hands onto the table in front of him. His interjection echoes throughout the now-silent chamber.

Dudes,” Weaver interjects. “Relax. As always, I have a plan.”

… continued in Part 3