Forward Reach is a short story set in the Kapalaran Universe. It occurs approximately thirty years after the events detailed in Gliese 581: Departure.
Desiree slumped in her seat barely concentrating on the vidscreen. Her dark hair was a mass of curls that, when she sat just right, obscured her eyes. It made it hard to tell if she was awake or asleep, a fact she had used to her advantage quite often in the past few months. The camera was two-way and any minute Ms. Tueller would surely bark out a command. Desiree heard it too often to care anymore; after all, her teacher was miles away and certainly would not be coming to visit anytime soon.
At thirteen years and ten months, Desiree was practically a grownup. The Terra United Planetary Government (TUPG) had recently reduced the age of majority to fourteen. Mama said it had to do with reproductive rates dropping so precipitously in the ages 30-40 population. Despite the dedicated work of thousands of scientists, no one could explain why women in their mid-30’s or older stopped having children. They simply blamed it on the ESH virus and shook their heads. The window for reproduction was narrowing and they didn’t know what to do about it.
Mama knew all about it, better than most. She had worked in the Population Promotion center before she transferred into her current position as the charming and beautiful host of Dollars for Babies. Each week she handed out the prizes and showed off squirming little babies and their proud mothers. In a world where less than 30% of second-trimester pregnancies survived to full term, and 50% of those babies died before they were five, motherhood had become one of the most revered professions you could have.
Being the host of Dollars for Babies was high profile, the ratings for the show were through the roof, which made Desiree’s mother one of the most loved faces within the TUPG as well as in the rigidly protected Unaffected Persons enclaves.
“She’s so pretty, Desiree, you are so lucky!” Emma Lynn had raved after Eve Zahtjev had appeared on Dollars for Babies the previous night. Desiree said nothing, Mama smiled oh so nice for the camera, but she never had any smiles for Desiree, not a single one. Desiree was her bad luck charm.
“Eighteen times I have been pregnant, eighteen!” Desiree could hear it now, “I should have at least three alive. Three, Desiree!” Mama’s face could turn hard and cruel, all those pretty lines twisting into something dark and hateful. “None but you made it past their first year. And you, so ugly, so stupid! You are my bad luck charm, you ruined my life!”
How Desiree wished she had known her father. Thanks to the TUPG Population Promotion program, her father’s name was a mystery, hidden deep within the Center’s records; his only contribution to Desiree’s life had been his sperm. Desiree’s request for paternal history had been denied, twice, by the Population Promotion program director.
Growing up in this house had been hard. Harder still, Desiree watched four of her siblings die before the age of two. It had twisted Mama into a monster, pretty on the outside, dark and hateful on the inside. No, Mama was nothing like the person everybody admired on the vidscreen.
Desiree could not wait to get away. She could do it once she turned fourteen. She would go to the Reproductive Promotion center and collect on the sperm donation package DZ-521 reserved especially for her. A tiny handful of men who had passed screening and been picked solely for their health, genetic superiority and intelligence, and of course, their sperms resistance to the ESH virus. They were all carriers, of course, but at least the chances were better. Desiree smirked, Better than Mama’s had been anyway. They hadn’t had as many specialized tests back then, hadn’t known the right markers to look for, to ensure that the resulting embryos would have the best chances of survival, in the womb or out of it.
She would be a Breeder. After all, as Mama had told her repeatedly, she could be nothing more. “Good for nothing, you are, except spitting out ugly little versions of you. Go live like those idiots I give prizes to each Saturday night,” Eve had practically spat in fury, “No thought in their heads but of how to make more replicas of themselves in those nasty squalling creatures they call babies.” She had been especially bitter after handing out the annual Dollars for Babies grand prize. JoJo MacKenzee, mother of eight. “Eight children to survive infancy”” This had not been Eve’s ideal of motherhood.
“Small, mousy, and stupid,” had been Eve’s description of JoJo. Nonetheless, JoJo had received a lifetime recognition award for service to the TUPG’s Population Promotion Program as well as five million credits to lavish on her eight living children and to date, two young grandchildren. One daughter, now seventeen and the mother of two healthy babies of her own, seemed intent on breaking her mother’s record.
Desiree had let the words roll off her. She knew how jealous Mama was, how barren and insignificant she felt, seeking repeatedly to make more babies and failing so miserably. She had taken the job at Dollars for Babies out of some twisted sense of penance for the trail of dead and unborn she had begat out of her failing, then diseased, and now long removed, womb.
“Desiree Zahtjev!” Ms. Tueller’s stern voice broke through Desiree’s daydream of a passel of pretty, fat little babies. “You have not submitted your application for Forward Reach testing with the TUPG yet.” Desiree jumped, realizing she had daydreamed through the end of class. She was the only student remaining in the virtual classroom.
“I, uh, sorry Ms. Tueller,” Desiree managed to emit a reasonably apologetic tone as she touched the vidscreen and read over the assignment Ms. Tueller had given them.
“Not that, Miss Zahtjev,” the teacher was annoyed, “That is your assignment for this weekend. I’m referring to the email I sent last week outlining the requirements for all students who,” her mouth turned down in disapproval, “are approaching the age of majority.” Ms. Tueller had been quite vocal regarding the TUPGs decision to reduce the age to fourteen years.
“I read through that, Ms. Tueller, I did, but I’m going to be a Breeder.”
Desiree saw Ms. Tueller’s sigh, “Miss Zahtjev, there were ten attachments to that email. The Breeding Program was only the first attachment. Did you bother looking at the rest?”
“Yes, ma’am, I read through most of them. I just…” Desiree stopped, she had not and she knew Ms. Tueller would know if she had been lying. Ms. Tueller knew many things, and vidscreen and miles of distance notwithstanding, she knew Desiree better than most. She had been her teacher for the past six years. Ms. Tueller had seen how Mama treated her, seen the babies come and go, and watched Desiree retreat into her current holding pattern, anxiously counting the days until she would be of age. Ms. Tueller knew how badly Desiree wanted out of this toxic house.
“I’m sorry Ms. Tueller. I just stopped when I got to Breeder. I mean, the babies might not be pretty, but it pays really well. I’m just not for government or the likes of that, and I’m not pretty or smart like Mama and I really don’t want to end up in the Service Industry.” The Service Industry was a broad field, including everything from street cleaning to wait staff, and even high paid positions like the Go To Girls, which despite its name included men, but who chose prostitution, even in this day and age?
“Oh, Desiree,” Ms. Tueller shook her head sadly, “You are not ugly or stupid. You aren’t any of those things, child.” She smiled at Desiree wistfully, “You once told me that you wanted to travel to new places and meet new people.”
“Well, yes, ma’am. But I’m not pretty like…”
Ms. Tueller cut Desiree short, “You are beautiful, inside and out, Desiree Zahtjev, a far sight prettier than your wretched mother. I will not hear another word. Look at the Forward Reach attachment, fill it out and submit it. I will expect a copy of your application on my interdesk tomorrow.” Her eyes were sharp and angry, “And don’t let your Mama tell you different. You do what I say, Desiree Zahtjev, I have seen your scores and I know your capabilities. Someday, I hope you will recognize your own worth.”
A New Life
The Forward Reach Academy campus was beautiful. The clean lines of the buildings rising from the ground carefully designed to encourage the vision of a new future rising from the ashes of the plague-ridden planet. Less than one percent of the world’s population had survived the plague. And since the plague, the population had continued to plummet – few were able to bear children successfully.
There were other survivors, pockets of humanity that were still being discovered and then isolated from contact if they had not been exposed to the ESH virus. The Forward Reach Division of the TUPG handled all initial contacts of Unaffected Persons (UPs), appraised the situation, and issued edicts of inclusion or quarantine.
Desiree stared at the perfectly manicured lawns and the graceful spires of the Academy, shifted her rucksack to the other shoulder and smiled for the first time in weeks. She had turned fourteen two days ago. There had been no celebration, no words. There had been one lone bag sitting by the door when she returned home from picking up the travel documents that would take her to Forward Reach in two days. The house had been dark, the furniture gone. Every belonging had been stripped from the rooms.
Of course, Mama would have had to leave. The house was roomy, five bedrooms in all. Five empty rooms, soon to be filled with a smiling, happy family. The house, only five years old, was state of the art, full of every bio-security feature the TUPG could offer a family just starting out in the world. By now, Mama had undoubtedly thrown out every treasure Desiree owned. She was still angry that Desiree had lived when all of the others died and furious that Desiree had been accepted into the Forward Reach academy.
Not even a goodbye note. Desiree had gone to the refrigerator and it had been empty, not a single slice of cheese or carton of juice left within it. Desiree had headed for Jaycee’s house next door and they had taken her in, Jaycee’s mama just nodded wordlessly and made up the couch. She had watched Eve call in the movers the moment Desiree had left the house that morning.
Desiree had done as Ms. Tueller asked that day, weeks before, unsure of why the old teacher’s insistence had struck her so deeply. When the test results had come back, accompanied by a letter stating she had the highest interpersonal and evaluative scores the Academy had seen in years, she had been stunned. Ms. Tueller had merely smiled and nodded when Desiree had announced her graduation intentions to the rest of the class. Later an email had appeared, “Perhaps someday, Desiree, you will be able to come and visit me.”
Desiree had held that dream close in the trying weeks that followed. Eve had been less than pleased. “You? A Forward Reach Ambassador?” Her beautiful face had twisted in a sneer, “You must have cheated on the test.”
“But Mama, you always say I’m too stupid, so how could I possibly have been smart enough to try and cheat?” Desiree figured she earned the hard slap that followed that remark. The weeks until her birthday had been dreadful. Now she was free, free to live, travel and meet people, as an Ambassador, no less! Somehow, she would make Ms. Tueller proud. That old woman was probably the only one in the world who actually cared about her, anyway.
The thought that Desiree could never meet her, never even shake Ms. Tueller’s hand, caused an ache deep in Desiree’s chest. Ms. Tueller was one of the UPs, the Unaffected Persons, one of the few humans on earth not exposed to the deadly virus. Desiree did not even know where Ms. Tueller lived, those details held strictly confidential, lest ESH survivors attempt to contact, and thereby accidentally infect and kill the remaining unaffected. Of all that Desiree would do, and all the places she would travel, she would never be able to meet Ms. Tueller or shake her hand. To do so, would be to condemn the old woman to a horrible, painful death.
She couldn’t help but know a little about her, though. Over the years, you glean little facts, such as that Ms. Tueller was in a different part of the United States, probably at least two time zones away. The dawn through the windows had come at different times from Desiree’s and projected a fierce glare over the vidscreen until Ms. Tueller adjusted the shades. Another time there had been a severe thunderstorm and Ms. Tueller had commented on how fierce storms could be in the mountains. Desiree couldn’t help but remember little tidbits like that. Her teacher’s home was in the mountains, in a fiercely guarded colony of Unaffected Persons, probably on the western coast of the United States. Desiree wondered if there were many people there. Were they happy? Did they love their children?
She shook her head a moment and stood on the sparkling white pavement in front of the main entrance. She could see men and women, dressed in the blue and yellow Forward Reach uniforms, passing back and forth in the front lobby. Did she really belong here? Desiree took a deep breath, hitched her rucksack higher, and strode into the building. Behind the vast, white granite desk, an elderly woman smiled kindly at her. “How may I help you, dear?”
“My name is Desiree Zahtjev,” she told the woman, “I’m here to join the Forward Reach Ambassador program.”
A Not So Simple Choice
The tall willowy blonde-haired woman gave Desiree a thorough once over from across the desk. In her hands, she held a folder with Desiree’s name imprinted on the spine in glittering black letters. No doubt, it held her test scores and her grades from Intermediate school as well as her classes to date here at the Academy. Ms. Pereault set the folder down, and smiled broadly, “Desiree Zahtjev, your scores in Interpersonal Relations and Evaluative Reasoning Skills are higher than I have seen in years. And your recommendation by your Intermediate teacher, Ms. Tueller, was stellar.” Her smile faltered slightly, “I see you had considered work as a Breeder until just recently. Do you still feel a yearning for the occupation of Breeder, Desiree?”
Desiree had not really thought about it since admission to Forward Reach. Before her application, before Ms. Tueller had encouraged and well, commanded her to apply to the Ambassador program, an occupation as Breeder had always seemed…expected. When Ms. Tueller had explained the test scores, Desiree’s world had opened up. The possibilities had staggered her. She could travel, meet others, and perhaps even be one of the Forward Reach ambassadors to reconnect safely with the remaining untouched Unaffected Person populations.
For once she felt…important. She shook her head, “No, Miss Pereault, I don’t. I thought it was all I would be good for until I heard from Forward Reach.” She grinned, a huge wild grin that stretched her face in a once unfamiliar pattern. After six months of training, the grin seemed to be a permanent fixture on her face, “I want to travel and meet others and help bring more survivors back. Others can rebuild our population, and I’m happy to let them.”
That was true. Even if she were better at it than her mother was, she dreaded the heartache. To bring life into the world also meant watching children die. No one escaped it. Even the most successful Breeder, that silly, round bubble-headed woman JoJo MacKenzee, much honored and now finally ‘retired,’ had birthed fifteen, fifteen live children out of more than 30 confirmed pregnancies. Of those fifteen, only eight had survived to young adulthood. It was no small wonder Desiree’s mother had become so bitter and hateful, her pain and disappointment and loss had increased with each death.
Miss Pereault leaned closer, “We have completed testing on a serum that will successfully contain the ESH virus and render Forward Reach ambassadors safe when interacting with Unaffected Persons. If the serum works as our tests predict it will, we will finally be able to approach the UPs without repercussions.” Desiree knew well what ‘repercussions’ meant – a horrible, painful death for each UP encountered and infected by TUPG citizens. Anyone who was a citizen of the TUPG carried the ESH virus within him or her. It killed most of the unborn, up to 75% of children under the age of one year, and it was absolutely and unequivocally lethal to any Unaffected Person.
Her face turned solemn, “But Desiree, it carries a large price with it. It will render you sterile, and you will no longer be able to bear children. Once you take the serum, there is no turning back; you can never be a Breeder.” She took Desiree’s hands in hers, “Can you live with that, child? You will never know what it is to feel life growing within you. It isn’t an easy decision, but it is one I must ask you to make within the next few weeks.”
She pulled back, releasing Desiree’s hands. She tapped the folder with one slender, manicured nail. “You have what it takes to be one of our best Forward Reach Ambassadors. Nevertheless, it is a high price to pay. Think about it, and get back to me.”
Call Me “Pincushion”
Five days later, Desiree had returned to Miss Pereault’s office and signed the paperwork volunteering to be one of the first Forward Reach Ambassador Trainees to undergo the Inoculation Program. For two months it was delayed while they stimulated her ovaries and collected healthy eggs. Desiree’s decision to not become a Breeder did not exempt her from Egg Donation Service, compulsory for all TUPG female citizens over the age of sixteen. Desiree was quickly approaching her fifteenth birthday, so it was early, but according to Miss Pereault, the delicate timing of the inoculations required they begin work now, instead of waiting until she approached the optimum age for egg harvesting.
Her eggs would be fertilized by the DZ-521 packet, implanted in a Hostess, someone who had failed the TUPG genetic tests for becoming a Breeder, and any living children would be raised either by a Foster or the Hostess. Desiree couldn’t help but wonder who that woman would be, and if she would be good to Desiree’s babies and love them as her own.
Desiree dreamed nightly of babies through the weeks of hormone stimulating injections, imagining small laughing girls with her hair and face, falling away from her, from bridges, from mountain tops, into the arms of strangers. The dreams vanished after the egg collections, and Desiree hoped she had made the right decision.
Over the next few weeks following the egg collection, she again endured daily injections. With each injection followed hours of testing and blood work. Desiree felt as if she were a living, breathing pincushion. She began to dread the daily trips to the medical wing.
Her roommate, Hadley, a lively redheaded and freckled beauty had decided against Inoculation. “I’ll stick to working with the Spotter teams and the supply dumps and interacting with the UP camps we have satellite links with.” She shook her head and the red curls flew in all directions, “I just can’t imagine never having kids. I mean, my Mama had four living children out of seven born alive. Our family was huge! But Stevie was an only after his two other sibs died.”
Stevie was Hadley’s boyfriend. Attached at the hip since they met on Day One of training four months ago, they were planning on marriage soon. “His mom and dad were ‘onlys’ too, so they are desperate for Stevie to give them grandbabies.” She grinned and leaned close to Desiree and whispered, “They did a test swatch for us and he’s a 96% match for genetic compatibility! How can you argue with numbers like that?”
Desiree hugged her roommate, smiled and wished her the best. There were three others in the Serum Program, two young men, and one other girl, but she did not know them very well, they were all Second Year students.
The third week of injections and testing stretched on interminably. Twice she had returned to the medical wing after dinner, dizzy from the effects of the injections and slightly feverish. Twice they had sent her back to her dorm room with assurances that all was proceeding quite satisfactorily. Then, at the beginning of week four, she had arrived at the medical wing and instead of an injection or blood draw Desiree found herself pointed to the Director’s office.
Within the black and steel gleaming, immaculate office sat three individuals, Miss Pereault, and two older men. The one behind the desk was obviously the Medical Director, Dr. Price. He introduced himself first and then nodded to a tall, lean man sitting to his right, “This is Jonas Lagunoff, the Director of Initial Contact. Mr. Lagunoff, this is Miss Zahtjev, whom you have heard so much about.” He smiled broadly then, “Miss Zahtjev, the results of your latest blood work have come back. I am pleased to say the Inoculation Program has been a success. You will not receive any more injections, although we will do regular weekly blood work. We will also be moving you into the Isolation Wing with the other Ambassadors who have successfully passed through the inoculation regimen.”
Desiree did not know quite what to say to that. She would not be staying in the dorm with Hadley. That was unexpected. Then the first words sunk in…no more injections. “No more shots? Really?” She grinned with relief and the adults in the room laughed.
Jonas Lagunoff, who had been watching her intently, suddenly leaned forward, “Desiree, how would feel about meeting Ms. Tueller?”
Desiree’s heart leaped. She began to ask how he had known, how any of them could have known how much she wanted to meet her teacher. Then she realized, they had each read her file, they had dozens of psychological tests and piles of test scores, of course they knew. They probably knew her better than she knew herself.
She gathered her emotions together, tamped them down in a nice, neat pile as she had done so many times when dealing with Mama. She managed a small, professional smile, “I would like that very much, sir.”
The flight to Mountain Home was bumpy. Desiree fought nausea with every lurch and her fingers clawed at the upholstered armrests. The flitter was small, it could hold up to twelve passengers and a cargo of 1,500 kilograms, and the storm clouds currently covering the mountainous area made flying a jumpy, jerky affair. Simon, the oldest of the team was at the controls. Emma and James were holding hands across the aisle. For nearly six months, the small group of four had trained and lived together, day in, day out. All of their clothing, food, equipment and even their living spaces subjected to stringent decontamination procedures in order to protect the UP camp they were approaching from any possibility of contamination.
The ESH virus was a doozy, after all. Not only did it lie dormant inside of each TUPG citizen, but it also had an active viral shed, dispensing copies of itself through every flake of skin, every exhalation. This was why the TUPG citizenry could never be in direct contact with UP populations, it was simply too easy to spread. It had mutated enough to allow the TUPG citizenry to survive it, and to reproduce enough to ensure its own survivability in humans, but it was still completely virulent to the Unaffected Persons. Time would not change that. Eventually the TUPG would send the UP populations to the colony on Gliese 581g, Zarmina’s World. Calypso had landed there in 2020, according to the transmission that Earth received a few years before Desiree had been born. Regular updates had proved the colony was thriving.
It would be plague-free, safe forever from accidental infection, which still regularly decimated UP populations despite strict precautions by the TUPG. However, even this option was not without dissent. Many Unaffecteds did not want to leave, despite the danger. Nothing was simple, no answer was a perfect match.
The flitter gave another large lurch and then they broke through the clouds. Rain battered the windows. The landing area, despite the rain, was lit up like Christmas. Actually, it was quite reminiscent of Christmas since the residents of Mountain Home had used every possible strand of Christmas lights they could find to outline the landing pad. The lights blinked a green, red, blue and white against the dark, rain-filled skies.
The landing was gentle, despite the violence of the storm and Desiree sighed with relief, finally she was on solid ground again. She suppressed a rather miserable laugh, of all of the tests that Forward Reach had performed in the past year of her life; they had not bothered to test her responses when it came to flying. Her tolerance of it was nonexistent, in good weather or bad. The airsickness bags were testament to this fact.
James opened the hatch and Desiree could see one lone person standing under a sturdy picnic shelter. It had taken months to convince Mountain Home that the residents would be safe when the TUPG Forward Reach Ambassadors arrived. There had been other settlements in earlier years that had trusted, only to discover the particular serum worked ineffectively or only temporarily. Three large settlements of UPs fell to the ravages of the ESH virus because of inadequate vaccines. Those catastrophic losses had caused both sides to be extremely cautious about trying again.
Desiree quivered with excitement. After all this time – the six years in Intermediate school, seeing Ms. Tueller’s lined face five days a week, 48 weeks out of the year – and then this past year without Ms. Tueller – spent at Forward Reach, Desiree would finally be doing what seemed so impossible a year ago, in a moment she would meet her teacher in person. She would finally meet the woman who had taught her so much, believed in her, and showed her a bigger world was open to her.
Simon emerged from the cockpit and nodded to Desiree. As Ms. Tueller’s student, the others had bestowed the first contact upon her. Desiree ignored the rain, ran down the flitter steps, across the open field, and jogged to the shelter. Ms. Tueller was tiny, really, barely five feet tall and her small frame appeared even smaller when swallowed within the TUPG standard issue raincoat. She seemed older in person, or perhaps it was the dreary weather.
“Desiree Zahtjev,” she smiled then, and Desiree’s heart jumped with a joy she had never felt towards her own mother, “I am so glad to see you. You are taller than I imagined.” She reached out her arms and pulled Desiree close, “Welcome to Mountain Home, my dear.”
Desiree closed her eyes, hoping beyond hope that Dr. Price and all the others had been right and that she and her three fellow Ambassadors were truly not a threat to Ms. Tueller and the other residents at Mountain Home. She felt more at home than she had ever felt before in her life. Ms. Tueller had always been there for her, guiding her, reminding Desiree of her innate worth, the direct opposite of Mama. However, she was unprepared for what her former teacher said next as she stepped back and assumed a formal stance.
“Desiree Zahtjev, daughter of Eve Zahtjev and Michael Tueller.” The old woman smiled, unable to keep the formal tone in her voice, “Welcome home! I’ve waited a long time to meet you, my dearest granddaughter.”
Desiree felt the tears gathering. Finally, she was truly home.