by Deborah Walker
I worked all night trying to find trying to find a quicker, less expensive cure. The colourful boxes of anti-viral agents, tailored bacteria, and antibiotics littered the work surface. In the corner of the sick bay the radiation lamp flickered, blood-coloured light over a tray of discarded Petri dishes.
As the night wore on, my treatments became increasingly experimental. I tried the wilder, alien technologies. I placed the smooth mites of the Pincer world onto the faces of the crew in the hope that the burrowing insects would seek out and consume the infection. I pounded strange aromatic herbs. I concocted desperate combinations.
Until, at last, I found myself chanting. In the sterile lights of the sick bay, I sang a half-remembered prayer to Shimra. I chanted the rituals over the sick women. The words sounded hollow to my ears. Why would the Healing God Shimra hear an unbeliever?
I tried my best to cure them, but only time and patience and expensive drugs would heal them. I failed them.
And I desperately needed a drink.
I dimmed the lights in the sick bay.
"Get some rest." I took one last look at the women in the beds. They were identical, but I could distinguish between them.
"Goodnight, Verna. The captain will come to see you in a few hours."
"Tell the captain we're sorry." Said another voice, as I left. I think it was Sam's.
I really needed a drink.
In my cabin, I held my glass of wine up to the light. Rioja is an ancient wine, first produced by the Phonecians and the Celtiberians. In medieval times, the wine was produced by monks who extolled its virtues to their congregations. In the thirteenth century, Gonzalo de Berceo, clergyman of the Riojan Suso Monastery praised Rioja in his poems.
I have never been to Earth, and I never will. Clones are not allowed on the mother world. I would dearly like to go, to see the vineyards, to taste wine that hasn't travelled through space. The Riojan Guild insists that point seven speed damages the flavour. I will never taste Rioja in its purest form.
Morning came, with a dull headache and a reluctance to visit my patients. I took a deep breath, before I activated the door to the bridge. The captain was bent over her workstation.
"The crew have been infected."
"What? Again?" said the captain, looking up from her computer. I saw that she'd been scanning web download, probably looking for something - anything - that would help us escape from this wretched planet.
"I'm afraid it will be at least a week before they'll be fit for duty again." I began to enter data into the computer. I didn't want to look at the captain. "It's not their fault."
"What's that you say?"
The captain was raised on GreyCloud Colony, and that harsh, wild upbringing ran through her, lettering her personality with innate callousness. She made me nervous.
"Captain, I thought you might like to go outside and assess the situation for yourself."
"It's not standard procedure. That's what the crew are for. They're expendable."
"But if we ever want to get off this planet..."
"You're right, Mikar. You will accompany me."
I shuddered. This was not what I had wanted at all. I'd had hoped for a few hours rest without the overwhelming presence of the captain.
"Right then." The captain took one more look at the glittering control panel. It was still shining erratically, the lights blinking off and on, a chaos of illumination reflecting the infection of the ship's computers.
"What is the situation outside?" said the captain, smashing her hand against the panel, illuminating some controls, turning off others, and adding to the confusion.
"It's the same. The tentacles are covering the ship. They've invaded the outer shell and have entered the ship's systems. We have control of most of the ship, but the engines are offline, and we have no outward communications. It's a focused attack. I imagine that if we were able to take off we could pull away from the tentacles. They're organic."
"But we can't take off, can we, Mikar?"
"Waste of time speculating then, eh?"
It was typical of the captain to ask a question, and then be irritated by the perfectly reasonable response.
"I suppose I ought to see to the crew. Unless you can sort it out by yourself?"
"No, Captain. I thought it was better that I left the final decision to you."
The captain strode through the bridge. She was shiny, silky and under control. I followed behind her. I was dishevelled, tired, and barely holding myself together.
We entered the sick room together, with me still a few paces behind the captain. The captain looked at the rows of women lying in the beds.
"What a waste. How long did you say that it will take to treat them?"
"A week, maybe five days."
"Hardly worth it, is it?"
I looked at the rows of identical faces in the sick room - the captain's face - my face. Only the captain was real. The rest of us were copies, ship-bred and ship-raised. All the crew were clones of the captain. Only the captain was real, had attained citizenship, was born from a woman and not brought to life in the green, glazed cloning tubules filled with simple, sucking nutrients.
"Didn't you fight back, eh?" said the captain to Verna.
"We tried, Captain."
Verna's face was webbed with grey micro-tentacles which pulsed to the beat of her blood. They wove through the capillaries of her body, using her own network against her.
"What's your report?"
"I'm sorry, Captain." Verna winced as she eased herself higher in the bed. "It just kind of happened. One minute we were walking, cutting our way through the jungle, and the next thing the entity jumped us. We only caught a glimpse of it, before the tentacles engulfed us."
"The entity? Can't you even give it a name? Names are important. That's why you haven't got names."
I shuddered. The captain was so cruel. The crew didn't seem to mind. They were too young, only two years old, though they wore the bodies of adult women. They didn't know any better. Names were important, that's why I'd named every one of my sisters.
"We're allocating it the name of Grey Cut, Captain," I said.
"That's better." The captain moved along the sick room to another bed. To Saleen's bed. I recognised her by a small scar in her eyebrow, still visible below the grey web. Saleen looked at the captain with a look of devotion on her disfigured face. "Describe Grey Cut to me," said the captain.
"A spherical body, maybe ten metres in diameter. It was covered in tentacles which narrowed to a small spike. If you get cut by one of the spikes, you become infected. The infection spreads quickly. We all became infected."
"I can see that," said the captain. She turned to me and said, "Delete them all, and clone up a new batch." Without a backward glance at the crew, the captain walked out of the sick room. "We'll meet Grey Cut ourselves this afternoon, Mikar."
There wasn't even a murmur of protest from the crew. They'd been taught to live and die at the captain's command. They accepted their fate, in fact, one or two of the crew members tried to struggle out of bed, to assist me.
"No, that's all right. Go back to bed, rest awhile."
"I wish..." said Saleen.
"I wish that we could have done a better job for the captain."
"Rest now," I said.
I injected the euthanasia drug into the bodies of the women.
This was not the first time.
I say goodbye to each of them.
I use the names, I'd given them.
I watch as stillness overcomes them.
I drag the bodies to the recycling vat
I watch as the enzymes strip the flesh off their bodies.
This was not the first time.
I set the cloning pods to generate new crew members.
Fifteen new women.
I set their memories to the required standards.
I do it all.
I went back to my quarters. I poured myself a large glass of Rioja. I drank and drank and drank, and tried to wash away the memories. The memories lingered, always and forever. The memories of the dissolving flesh, the chemicals stripping away the flesh from my face. Watching as the enzymes and the molecular sieves sorted out the re-usable components of my sisters.
There are three categories of Rioja red wines. The youngest wine is labelled simply, "Rioja," and it spends less than a year ageing in an oak barrel. Wine that is aged for a least two years (with a least one year in oak) is labelled "Crianza". "Rioja Reserva" is aged for at least three years (with a least one year in oak). And finally, the most expensive of all: "Rioja Gran Reserva" spends at least two years in oak and at least three years ageing in the bottle.
Off-world bodegas seek to emulate the quality of this fine wine. Some even claim that the wine is Rioja-like. But they are not real.
I carefully source my wine from a reputable Earth dealer. I do not want to taste the counterfeit.
The captain's voice boomed over the ship's communication relay, "Mikar, I need you with me - now."
I finished my glass of wine quickly, and then rinsed my mouth with mouthwash.
The captain was pacing up and down on the bridge. The uncontrollable flashing lights of the control panel casting shadows onto her face. "What's outside on the planet – The hostile alien we call Grey Cut. What do we know about it?"
I was about to speak, but the captain hadn't finished, "We don't know enough. It's obvious that I'm going to have to go out myself. It's pointless waiting for the new crew. They'll come back infected. This is something I'll have to do for myself."
"I agree." I always agreed with my captain.
The captain and I left the ship. We were dressed in ordinary trousers and tunics. There was no point in wearing body armour. It hadn't protected the crew.
This planet’s surface was lush and damp. The vegetation spiralled everywhere in a wealth of rich profusion. I could almost see the jungle growing, see the strung-run vines and the prolific fungi crawling and blending and adding another layer to the texture of the planet.
The thing that makes Rioja wine so distinctive is its oak aging. I have never seen an oak tree, but I know how it tastes. It adds the caramel, coffee and roasted nuts flavours to white Rioja.
Oak aging is the key to Rioja, but sadly this ancient technique is in decline. I have my sources to the traditional bodegas; there are always some who stay true to the old ways.
"Nasty stuff," said the captain. She kicked at a cluster of ivory white fungus that stood in her path, cracking the fruiting body and releasing a cloud of spores.
"It's a shame about the crew," I said.
"Yes, waste of resources. The energy needed to recycle their bodies, and reform them. It's an expensive job, making new copies."
"Yes." But it wasn't as expensive as curing them.
We walked on. The jungle was silent. No other creature walked this forest, not even the insects which I thought were a ubiquitous feature of any planet that had spawned life. Grey Cut's world was quiet, apart from our heavy footfalls, and the sound of vegetable life, sprawling, growing.
Rioja wines are usually a blend of various grape varieties. Red or tinto Rioja is my favourite. Although sometimes the occasion calls for white (blanco) or even for rosé (rosado).
"Where did the crew encounter Grey Cut?" asked the captain.
I consulted my navigation recorder. "Not too far now, Verna reported that they encountered it a half kilometre to the East."
"Verna! I've told you, time and time again, not to give the crew names. They're not real people. When you name them you add something to them. They have no right to possess names."
"And what about me?"
"What about you?" said the captain. She swiped at the vegetation with her laser, cutting a path of destruction through the jungle, much wider than was needed for our ingress.
"You gave me a name," I said.
"You're different, Mikar. You were my first clone. When I cloned you; it was special. I suppose you could say that I think of you as a daughter."
The captain walked off the path she was cutting, to examine a particularly lurid fungus. Red veins laced the mushroom's spongy flesh. When the captain smashed through the dense plant, I inhaled the scent of its damage.
"You know what I think about you," said the captain. "We shouldn't have to talk about it."
I said, "I'm thirsty."
The captain looked at me closely before passing over the water bottle. "Mikar, have you been drinking again?"
"I'm very disappointed in you, Mikar."
I am ten years old, but I am fully grown.
I am the identical copy of my mother, but we are very different.
I need a drink.
I need a real drink.
I saw the movement in the undergrowth, grey flesh, Grey Cut.
The captain had seen it too, "This must be Grey Cut. Get ready, Mikar."
"Take us to your leader," shouted the captain at the tentacle. The grey, undulating rope of flesh continued to grope through the vegetation.
"Let's retrace the tentacle to the original," said the captain, striding through the undergrowth.
She is so brave. She is not afraid. I wish I was like her.
We came to a clearing, the lush vegetation was diminished, but another growth filled its place.
We saw the spherical core of grey flesh. Imagine the wildly spiralling tentacles issuing from that body, weaving and interacting in a constant movement; tapering down to fine points that quested around the captain and myself, rising up and wavering around the exposed parts of our bodies. Imagine myriad tiny spiked tongues poised and ready to strike, a few centimetres from our hands and faces.
I fought the impulse to run from the threatening spikes.
"Well, we're here," shouted the captain. "What do you want?"
"Ah, the original visits me at last. Welcome." The words issued from the body of Grey Cut, a deep and resonant sound which reverberated and expanded through the quivering tentacles surrounding us.
"What have you done to my ship? I insist that you release us at once."
"But we wanted to meet the real you." The tendrils began to grow, threatening to encase our feet.
"Well, I'm here. What do you want? And why did you attack my crew?"
"I sensed that they had no value to you, and I needed to get your attention. Do they recover?"
"They have been reutilised," said the captain.
"Ah, I see. I did not realise quite how little you valued them. But each species is different, I find. It is not for me to make judgements. I want what you have, Captain. I breed slowly but I want to have your luxury of reproduction. Renew and refresh myself until I fill the whole planet."
The captain looked doubtful. "It's against Company guidelines to let natives have technology. Besides, what makes you think that you will be able to manage the machinery?"
"My daughters learn quickly," said Grey Cut. Some of the tentacles pointed to a sprawling mass of webbed tendrils that might have been playing in the undergrowth. "We have acquired many technologies. Yours should be no different, if only you could see the wonders of our cities..."
"Yes, I'm sure they are a marvel," said the captain, nodding her head. "And if I agree, how will we make the exchange?"
"Captain, you can't give away technology."
The captain ignored me.
"I only need a few hours to study the cloning technology. I'm sure that I will be able to, ahem... reproduce it. Or my daughters will." Was there a tone of pride in the voice of Grey Cut? "How wonderful it must be to control your own spawning, to grow and replicate at will. How lucky you are, Captain."
"And then you will release the ship? If I give you this gift?"
"That is satisfactory to me."
"How can I be sure that you'll do your part of the bargain?" asked Grey Cut. "How can we trust one another?"
"Take Mikar," said the captain, pushing me forward.
"She had value to you?" asked Grey Cut. The tentacles moved over me, trying to assess my worth.
"Yes. Mikar has some value. She's not like the others. She's been with me ten years now. She is a daughter to me."
"Mother, no! Don't use me like this." Wasted words. My mother would use me as a bargaining token - if it were expedient.
The captain frowned, "You must call me Captain, Mikar. And it'll only be for a few hours."
Grey Cut appeared satisfied. "Bring me the technology. Then we'll make the exchange. One of my daughters for yours. Once I am satisfied with the technology, I'll release your ship. Then the offspring will be released to their mothers."
I realised that Grey Cut and the captain were alike.
"Agreed," said the captain.
"Agreed," said Grey Cut.
As we walked back to the ship, I thought about the Rioja regions. There are three Rioja regions; Rioja Alta known for its old world style of wine; Rioja Alavesa producing wine with a full body and high acidity; and Rioja Baja which produces deeply coloured wine with a high alcoholic volume. I have tasted them all. I considered the merits of wine from each of the regions, and remembered the joy that the different wines have given me over my short life.
After a while, I thought about something else, "We're not supposed to give out technology, Captain,"
"Who's to know? Anyway what's the alternative? To be trapped here forever?"
"You could get into a lot of trouble, Captain."
"I said, no one will ever know." It was unusual for me to question her decisions. "No one will ever know. Do you understand, Mikar?"
We climbed the ladder to the ship's access port. The tentacles pulsed as we moved past.
"Prepare the cloning technology for Grey Cut and load it onto some trolleys for transfer."
"As you wish," I agreed. I almost always agreed with the captain. I began to prepare the data for Grey Cut. I needed a drink.
"And fetch me a glass of that wine of yours. I feel like celebrating."
"Call me Captain, Mikar. Call me Captain."
"What's wrong with her?" asked Grey Cut. Her tentacles roamed over the unconscious form.
"I had to drug her. My daughter does not approve of our arrangement."
"But you want her back?" asked Grey Cut. "She still has value to you?"
"Oh yes. I want her back. She's shown something at last. Some spark of initiative. I'm proud of her. I've always wanted to say that, but I never had a reason to. She's a fine daughter."
Grey Cut pushed forward a small mass of tentacles. "Without trust, we have nothing. This is my daughter. She will go with you. The ship will be released once I've assessed the data."
"When you have assessed the cloning technology and released my ship, I will send out the final authorisation codes, but I think that we can trust each other"
"The bargain is acceptable," said Grey Cut, drawing the unconscious captain into a cradle of tentacles.
The ship pulls away from the planet. The binding tendrils have lost their cohesions and fall to the ground.
The captain sits with a glass of Rioja at her side, slowly sipping the dark coloured wine.
The communications relay activates and Grey Cut's voice fills the bridge, "Captain, I'm ready to accept the authorisation codes. Then we can release our daughters. I am sorry to say that there is a problem with your daughter. She seems agitated, perhaps mentally unstable. I suggest that we initiate the exchange straight away."
The ship rises effortlessly above the clouds and prepares to enter flash space.
I would soon be free of the planet, all I needed to do was alter the ship's records and no one would suspect.
"Captain... Captain... your daughter needs to speak to you."
A familiar voice came across the console. "Mikar, don't leave me here. I love you, darling. I've always loved you. Don't leave me. At least give Grey Cut her daughter back. She's going to be very angry."
"Why, Mikar? Why?" There is a plaintive note in her voice. It is disconcerting.
"Goodbye, Captain," I say. I have no intention of giving Grey Cut the authorisation codes for the cloning technology; a captain could get into a lot of trouble that way.
I switch off the communications relay. I do not give her the courtesy of my explanations.
A new voice speaks, "Why did you do it?" It's Grey Cut's daughter. I didn't know she could speak.
I consider for a while before I say, "I did it because I wasn't real. And when you're not real, you can do anything. I have recreated myself into the image of a captain. I am real now." Even to myself, my voice sounds a little sinister.
I must be drunk. I glance over to the wine bottle, still half-full. Incredible. Is this is what my mother felt like all of the time? I'm drunk on reality.
"Oh, okay," says Grey Cut's daughter. I must give her a name. No. I must ask her to name herself. She looks frightened. Can a mass of tentacles look frightened?
I try to be kind, "Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay."
I raise my glass of Rioja in salute to the diminishing view of the planet. "And believe me, my friend, you're better off without your mother."
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner and two young children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog.