Over 150 years have passed since a devastating plague destroyed an interstellar empire, leaving the people of Nereis to fend for themselves on a barely habitable planet. When the medical re-contact ship Waiora emerges from the star gate — its dual mission to find the origins of the plague and to stabilize surviving colonies — its crew are immediately immersed in the conflicts and intrigues of the troubled planet. The Waiorans superior technology and civilizing values may be the lifeline that saves the people of Nereis — or they may plunge them into a world destroying war.
I first met Alison in the 1990s when we sat on some panels together at the old ConVersion SF convention in Calgary. She was rigorously and authoritatively prepared for the topics and somewhat serious in her approach while I was my usual flippant and improvisational self. I'm not sure she approved. Things have upgraded since then. When Alison approached me in 2013 with a proposed series of books, I was thrilled to agree. In the editing process, I met the same brilliance and rigor in her writing but I also discovered that her serious demeanour hid a sharp wit and a warm heart. – Hayden Trenholm
"A many-layered story of political intrigue and action, with a broad cast of sympathetic characters and a well-thought-out scientific background; glad I picked it up."– James Alan Gardner, two-time Aurora award winner
Alison Sinclair's writing is "a pleasure to read... the kind of intelligent interesting SF we want to be reading and thinking about."– Jo Walton, Nebula and Hugo Award Winning Author of Among Others
"5 stars for concept and originality"– Goodreads review
"Can't we pass over the graveyards?" said Iphigenia Kiriakadis Hiiaka. With her small nose pressed to the porthole of the landing craft, she looked and sounded a fraction of her thirty-one accomplished years.
"No," Eduard Linares said, more patiently than Teo herself would have. "We don't over-fly inhabited areas until we know what kind of taboos and hostilities we might encounter."
Phi sighed, audibly. "We could have overflown the graveyard on that large island to the southwest. It's the only part with any substantial tryptophan signature. Look, there are the windmills!"
In the dawn-shadowed land below, Teo caught a glimmer of white. With augmented vision, the windmills appeared crisp and bright against the dark hillside. Half revolved slowly, the other half were still. Before re-contact, her own colony of Sparta had used chemical cells and combustion for power generation, but then Sparta's seasonless climate promoted riotous, diverse growth. These highlands were by contrast almost barren, wide open to the wind.
This planet would have seasons, she thought. Late spring now, then moving into summer, autumn, winter. She should see at least three of them, if not all; that pleased her.
Through the overhead portals, the early morning sky was clear blue with a glaze of high cloud and a few delinquent stars. To their left, distance flattened the mountains into a succession of greying cut-outs. The western and northern mountain ranges were one of the few large regions on this continent completely unaltered by human effort, while their landing site was in foothills once cleared and now overgrown by an impoverished grassland and scrub. With each cycle of growth, fixation and decomposition, the land would shed more of Earth. Eventually the Nereian forest would return. Nereian proteins lacked three amino acids that normal human metabolism required, and had several socalled abnormal variants. Survival on Nereis required adaptation, or terraforming.
At least humans had managed to survive here. On their last contact, Bahjat, a world with a high background concentration of toxic heavy metals, the last colonist had perished fifteen years before Waiora cleared the jump gate. By the statistics of their missions kept by the Medical Recontact Service, that dead colony was one in five.
Before the plague, humanity had established upwards of two thousand planetary colonies, the strategy of indenturing new colonies to older driving an ever more rapid expansion. The scale of civilization was to Teo, already unimaginable; hardly more imaginable was the rapidity of its collapse.
Records of the plague-years were fragmentary. The epidemiologists thought they knew the index case, a ship found drifting close to a jump, all its crew dead. The combined expertise of physicians on hundreds of worlds had failed to name the pathogen, much less defeat it. The case fatality rate was over ninety-five percent, ninety-five percent of the collective insight and expertise of humanity. Colonies regressed centuries, even millennia, in a few years. The colonies of Hiiaka and Demeter preserved space flight and gate capacity, barely, and became the seeds of the new order.
As Teo, Phi, their ship and their mission were its shoots. Their mission: to re-establish contact with the human colony on Nereis, to assess immediate threats to its survival, to prepare the Nereians for subsequent contact missions—and to excavate their plague-graves for evidence of the infection that had destroyed civilization.
Teo felt a vibration in the pod around her, the final settling to earth. A ridge blocked the windmills from view. Dark hillocks heaved up around them. Something flew past her porthole, like an ill-folded rag. Looking up, she saw birds wheeling against the brightening sky.
If anyone at the windmill farm were in the least vigilant, they'd now know someone had arrived.
The lander's readouts came up on priority, red numbers scrolling before their eyes. Phi muttered in irritation, but review and consensus was mandatory. Teo ran through them twice, as was her habit: temperature, air pressure, atmospheric composition, all the necessities of survival; then hazards particular to Nereis. Then she reviewed the scripting of her physix, confirming its instructions for clearing the toxic amino acids. She was aware all the time of Phi fidgeting like an impatient child.
Not for the first time, Teo wished she could have been frank with her colleagues about her reservations about including Phi on the initial contact team. The woman's abilities might be inarguable, her reputation in plague research substantial, but this was her first primary re-contact; her field experience was negligible.
But she had to acknowledge the objection was largely hers alone, and had to do with Phi's origins and profession. Teo was Spartan, and Phi, born Hiiakan, was Spartan by origin. Phi's great-grandparents had been among those who, to Sparta's shame, had broken quarantine in their flight from the plague. It should not affect Teo's perception of the new pathologist, but it did.
And Phi's part in their mission was to survey the burial grounds. To disturb the sacred, resting bodies of the dead, said fifty years of lived belief before the first re-contact team arrived on Sparta, with the request to do exactly that.
Teo offered a brief prayer for clarity and forgiveness for the parts of her mission repugnant to the Divine, then acknowledged readiness, the last to do so. The pod cracked, letting in daylight and the new planet's breeze, and the clatter of the startled birds. Phi Kiriakadis slithered through and out of sight; a moment later, they heard a yodel. When Teo disembarked, gently pushing aside spindly branches, she found the plague specialist inhaling the breeze with head thrown back and arms flung out. "I've waited years for this!"
Eduard joined them, and then Orpheo. The lander sealed itself and lifted. Waiora would resettle it away from the landing zone, whence it might be recalled at need.
Eduard shivered, though his integ should satisfy his craving for warmth most humans would find intolerable: Penthe was a hot, arid world. Orpheo rubbed surreptitiously at his arm: his fine, dark pelt, adaptation against intense ultraviolet, tended to itch under integ, and he would discard integ as soon as safety allowed.