Emmett Clarke’s Directive: Humanity’s moral obligation is clear: do not interfere with any other living world.
Betty saw things differently. A middle path between no exploration and exploitation. The Exclusion Agency held too much power. As a Facilitator she met the needs and desires of her clients while keeping to the spirit of the Clarke Directive.
All for the chance to walk free on unexplored worlds.
Betty sighed as the dry wind slipped between the twisty ringed trunks of the trees that made this forest. The wind carried a dusty heat with it that reminded her of ponderosa pines back home, without the crisp ponderosa scent that defined those summer hikes.
These trees smelled more like an herb garden, dried, not fresh. The vivid yellows and oranges of the scalloped leaves overlapping far above rustled with a sound like wheat grass. The ringed trunks were dark grayish and blackened at each ring, naked of any branches except those that held the broad leaves along their lengths far above, creating uneven, overlapping domes.
She’d shut off all ‘paths, trackers and recorders. Nothing but her and the forest, laying naked eyes on sights that no one else had seen. She’d wandered aimlessly, directionless, with no idea where she was right now. It was incredibly freeing not to have her every movement and thought tracked and analyzed.
In the filtered orange light beneath the leaf domes, the forest floor was soft and mounded with the pale yellow shapes of smaller plants and young trees. The colors varied, as did the shapes of the leaves. One bush threw out curving blades with wicked scarlet serrations along the edges terminating in hard blackish thorns. She watched out for that one.
She wore a black isolation and environmental suit that hugged her curves, but she’d overridden the safeties and peeled back the hood to leave her face bare to the planet’s air. Each breath tasted daring, like walking across a high-wire strung between the trees far above. She’d left the gloves on—despite aching to run her bare fingers across the seemingly fuzzy softness of the scalloped leaves of the nearby bushes as if they were clusters of butterflies sitting on a branch—but that would take things too far. She had no idea what chemicals, allergens or other toxins she might pick up by touching the plants. Or what damage she might do to them in the process.
An explosion of white strands blocked the space between trees ahead, like a disorganized spider web, the lines thick and knobby along the lengths. No telling if it was created by some sort of animal or if it was a type of moss or fungus, it had a bit of that look to it.
Betty turned right, picking a direction at random and set off between the safer-looking bushes with the fuzzy yellow butterfly-like leaves rustling in the dry breeze. A cutting might work for her purpose. If she could root it, grow that plant in a small terrarium, it would prove a popular and attractive piece. Except that it was common, the slope rising on her right covered with more of the plants between the trees. Part of the reason her clients sought her out wasn’t only the illicit thrill of owning a piece of an alien world—but a rare and exquisite piece of that world. The risk of simply owning such a piece was high enough that the piece had to justify the hazard to her clients.
There was a sort of path between the bushes. Just ahead a large granite outcrop thrust out from the slope littered with the withered, confetti-like remains of the butterfly-like leaves. The rocky outcrop was taller than her, split down the middle, and the worn path twisted up around the side and confirmed that something on this planet had frequently made this same walk. A large animal by the size of the trail through the bushes. The ground was covered in thick loose dust, mixed with smaller rocks and the desiccated remains of the leaves. It didn’t show tracks in any detail except as irregularly scalloped craters. The dust swirled around her with each step and filled her nose and mouth. Her muscles warmed as she climbed up to the top of the granite outcrop, bending over and getting more dust in her face.
She nearly pulled her hood back down then and resisted. The med review on her ship could purge any of the contaminants from her lungs and sinuses when she returned, scouring the proof of her exposure from the system.
The clear, pure blue sky was cloudless. Far away the land tumbled away into bright yellows and oranges like a fall forest back home, only without any greens or browns at all, and the canopy was flatter, with overlapping circles of leaves. Hills and valleys showed the underlying topography of the landscape. Far away a dark cloud swirled, swooped and dove above the treescape. Birds? Something else? Living, certainly. The cloud didn’t fly much like a flock of birds. It looked disorganized, twisting and turning in among itself but was too far away to make out any details without enhancement.
As if. Living animals of any sort were hard enough to manage with the best resources. Too high maintenance for her clients. Some wanted the preserved remains of alien organisms, but Betty didn’t provide that sort of thing. Even if the penalties weren’t so steep if she got caught by an exclusion agent, she wouldn’t do that. She didn’t want to kill anything. Plants were more portable and adaptable. Plants could flourish in a sealed terrarium, showing that she had at least taken care to prevent any contamination of other worlds with her artifacts. It wouldn’t save her—not entirely—if she was caught, but it might encourage a lighter penalty.
The best things were non-living artifacts. Something created by native organisms. Rare beautiful shells or biological gems that rivaled pearls. Things that the natives had discarded which didn’t harm anything living at all, that could be sterilized and placed in a secure exhibit case. That was the sort of thing that where she could argue that she had merely facilitated the trade and the courts wouldn’t have actual proof that she had violated the Clarke Directive and set down on another world.
Humanity’s moral obligation is clear: do not interfere with any other living world.
Emmett Clarke, the man who simultaneously opened up the way to the stars and in the same stroke barred humanity from visiting any planet that showed evidence of life. Thanks to Clarke’s Directive, even planets with nothing more than rudimentary bacterial populations were left untouched. While he had lived, he had enforced the directive, and it gave rise to the entire exclusion agency that had zealously continued his work now that he was gone.
Betty bent her head and sipped from the drinking tube on her suit collar. Pure chilled water filled her mouth. She rinsed it around to soak up the dust, resisted the urge to spit, and swallowed instead. She didn’t want to recklessly endanger another world, but she also thought that it was fairly unlikely that any of the bacteria in her spit would jeopardize the safety of this planet. She had chosen to lower her hood and just breathing in the dust had subjected her to the native bacterial populations. Not to mention viruses, prions, allergens and anything else that she might have inhaled. She trusted her ship’s med review to take care of any problems.
Another cool sip that tasted less like the dirt as she surveyed the landscape.
Pure wilderness. No columns of smoke coiled into the sky from campfires. Orbital surveys failed to show any evidence of tool-using natives. A pity, given that alien technology artifacts, fetched some of the highest prices—given the obvious risk involved and the steep penalties for both the facilitator and the collector if caught.
The disorganized cloud of flying shapes above the trees suddenly exploded outward in all directions.
Betty dropped down on the granite boulder and slid forward into the meager shadow between the two halves of the protuberance. The dark shapes ripped through the sky in straight lines, weaving only as necessary to avoid taller trees. Three passed nearly overhead on diverging paths. Betty caught a sense of long thin bodies, sleek and gleaming, rounded at the front, narrowing toward the back. Stiff wings stuck straight out from their sides. At the rear end, a blur of something long and thin spinning, propeller-like as each of the creatures jetted through the air. Hard to make out details in that instant. Yellow markings on the bodies might have been eyes, and something like reverse gill-like slits but she couldn’t be sure.
She wasn’t what had scattered the swarm.
Broad scalloped leaves rippled and fell away as a fatter and larger metallic body popped up through the canopy. Sunlight flashed across the opaque dome at the top of the drone. Betty’s breath stirred the dust between the boulders as she shrank farther from view down behind the rock. Exclusion agent. Somehow she’d been tracked to the planet despite shutting everything off. Her freefall dive from orbital space was likely the only thing that had prevented the exclusion agent from finding her already. She’d made a difficult target to track in her plunge. Her ship was long gone before she made her descent, so chances were good that the exclusion agent hadn’t tracked down her cold and dark ship on the third moon—nothing more than a captured asteroid, but pitted with plenty of hiding places for the small ship.
If the ship picked up the presence of other spacecraft, it would remain inactive until she signaled the all-clear.
All she had to do now was avoid the exclusion agent until the agent gave up. Which they never did. They all approached their job like zealots. That sense of a calling was something drilled and ‘pathed into them during indoctrination. She should know.
She couldn’t stay here. The boulder shielded her for the moment, but that wouldn’t last. If she stayed, the drone would find her. Leaving her meager shelter was risky too, but it was her only chance if she wanted to elude the drone and escape the exclusion agent. If nothing else she was done breathing the dust. She pulled her hood up and over her head, activating the systems. It sealed itself to her suit and the displays activated. The environmental system pulled away the dust and gave her clean air to breathe.
Foreign substances detected, the suit ‘pathed her in that soft accented male voice she preferred.
Betty ignored the suit and slid further down the slope beside the boulder. She needed to know where the drone was right now. She opened a pouch and pulled out a microdrone. The microdrone stood a chance of not being detected.
She ‘pathed the activation sequence. The pinky-sized cylinder collapsed like wet spaghetti on her palm. The strands spun around the small central core, and the microdrone took to the air. She bifocaled her vision, ‘path-linked to the microdrone.
The microdrones close-up view of the boulder dropped away as it flew slowly above the rock. It cleared the top and gained a view of the forest canopy below. The exclusion agent’s more massive drone floated motionless above the trees. It was in a position to see all of the terrain around.
Betty trusted that it wouldn’t pick up the microdrone hovering over the boulder.
How had an exclusion agent even tracked her to this world? She had been careful. She was always careful. Fifteen years as a facilitator and no one had ever been able to prove that she had ever violated the Clarke Directive.
Obviously, she had someone good on her staff.
She wasn’t sure whether she should feel pride or annoyance. Probably more annoyance than anything else. If word got out that Bethany Walker, Director of the Department of Exclusion, had been living a double life as a facilitator, it would finally bring the conversation about the Clarke Directive to light.
And ruin her life in the process.
As much as she wanted a re-examination of the Clarke Directive, she wasn’t ready to go public just yet, face charges and sacrifice her freedom for the cause. It was that freedom that she valued after all, that made her risk everything for a chance to walk free on unexplored worlds.
An unpopular sentiment.
With a ‘pathed thought Betty sent the microdrone skimming away from the boulder to scout a route beneath the butterfly bushes back to the concealing cover of the trees. The route highlighted in green in her vision. She took a breath and slithered on her belly after the drone. Dust rose around her. The drone might pick up the movement but hopefully would take it as native fauna. She’d know soon enough. Through her bifocaled vision, she saw the path from the microdrone’s view and then followed it moments later in her view, giving a strange sense of déjà vu. She ‘pathed instructions that sent the microdrone up to peek above the tops of the butterfly leaves above her.
As yet the exclusion agent’s more massive drone hadn’t moved. The dark capsule floated above the treetops. The agent was most likely linked and watching too. The drone might not have picked up on her movement beneath the bushes but an exclusion agent seeing anything large in the target area was most likely going to investigate.
If nothing else to rule out the possibility. Human curiosity was powerful. Probably the same trait that had put this agent on her tail in the first place.
Betty sent the microdrone skimming away between the butterfly plants and followed the highlighted green path, hopefully away from the exclusion agent attempting to track her.
A tumbled mass of slimy tree trunks at the base of the slope provided Betty with shelter from the exclusion agent and the bulbous drone. She’d made it down the slope slithering along the dry ground beneath the butterfly bushes until she reached the shelter of the trees and then had sent the microdrone scouting ahead for a path that put as many trees between her and the questing drone as possible. A sharp twist and a snap, and the branch of one of the butterfly bushes came free in her hand. She swept it across the ground where she had slithered out into the woods. The fragile butterfly-like leaves crumbled beneath the branch but it served the purpose of scattering and obscuring her tracks. She swept her way into the relative safety of the tree trunks. The ground was firmer here, and she discarded the stick. Disturbing the forest floor further would leave a clear trail.
She followed the microdrone’s path away from her pursuers, watching her steps to leave as few signs as possible. After a couple kilometers she started feeling slightly safer but still exposed. The ground was dropping away down into a valley. Rocks protruded from the forest floor, and she made an effort to stick to stepping on the worn rocks whenever possible. Through her bifocaled vision, she saw that the microdrone was approaching a rapidly flowing stream several meters across, rushing across worn rocks. A plant with thick drooping scarlet leaves covered the slopes, each glistening leaf looking as if it had been dipped in blood.
Several trees had fallen on the near side of the stream—apparently when the slope had slid down into the stream, ripping up the bulb-shaped root systems. The dark ringed trunks had crashed down across the stream creating a rough bridge and a potential hiding place if she could reach it.
Betty ‘pathed the microdrone instructions that sent it soaring up above the streambed to check for any evidence of the exclusion agent or the big drone. Nothing registered. If she didn’t already know better, she would have thought she was alone on this world.
Nothing was farther from the truth. She crouched beside a tree right at the top of the bank and studied the slope below. The glistening scarlet leaves hung in heavy, overlapping mounds, drooping around some hidden central trunk. A few of the pale, fragile butterfly plants grew up in the gap formed around the fallen tree trunks, but most of the slope was hidden beneath the scarlet plants. In a few places, rocks jutted out from between the plants like bones thrust through a bloody wound. An orange-green fuzz clung to the rocks like a thick mold.
Betty ‘pathed commands to the microdrone and brought it swooping back down. She focused on the view from the drone, pouring her attention into the dive and sent it buzzing down along the slope to take a closer look at the unsettling plants.
A blur and snap, and she was jolted out of connection with the microdrone. Her vision popped back to a single focus. She fell back onto her rear in surprise.
Connection lost, the suit ‘pathed.
Replay, Betty ‘pathed back. Tenth speed. A secondary view opened from the microdrone’s perspective. Broad curved scarlet leaves glistened in overlapping mounds beneath it like a cloudscape of blood. As it dipped closer, following the contours, one of the leaves in front of it rose up suddenly, the scalloped underside revealing a long, curved thorn, wet, black and sharp. The thorn thrust right into the heart of the microdrone as the leaf came sweeping down over the top.
Connection lost. The suit ‘pathed again.
Betty considered. The thorn was probably as long as her hand. It had looked hard, sharp and venomous. The leaves were as big as her head and the way it had flared up like a hood and then swept down around the hapless microdrone suggested some sort of musculature or some other equivalent. Predatory plants that thrived on the slopes around the waterway. A hazard for any animal that got too close, maybe like those fliers that she had seen earlier if they swooped down for a drink. Misjudge and thwap—impaled by the thorn.
Including her, if she had continued on this path. Had the exclusion agent met to drive her this way? Had the agent sent the drone bursting up through the canopy, scattering the fliers, as a signal to drive her out of hiding? Like flushing prey the way that you wanted them to go. It’s what she might have done if she was chasing a facilitator on an alien world—especially if she had knowledge of the world that the facilitator might lack.
Like the presence of these plants along the stream. If that was the case, then the exclusion agent was probably coming for her now with a drone network spread out to sweep her up into the net.
Who was it? Betty crouched facing the bank, left knee down on the soft forest floor. Who was it? Who had tracked her to this planet? One of her agents. Someone that had faced her eye-to-eye and kept their suspicions hidden. Unless it was simply a chance encounter with a patrol. Except that she knew the patrol routes. This planet wasn’t on any patrol routes. She was careful to run her own routes. It kept everyone on their toes because they couldn’t be sure when she might show up.
Betty took a deep breath and rocked forward over her right foot, her left knee rising from the ground. Her fingertips touched the light earth in a sprinter’s crouch. She took a deep breath of sanitized cool air. Nothing like the dusty, living scent of this planet’s air. It was the same air that she had breathed her entire life. The air of ships and habitats and domed environments. Even back on Earth people had migrated into domed arcologies and expanded the wilderness areas of the planet in the interest of planet-wide recovery.
She sucked another lungful of air. It bugged her that she didn’t know.
Betty exploded from the crouch into motion. She sprinted forward toward the edge of the stream gully. Her legs strained with each step as her stride devoured the short distance. Her arms punched the air. The edge was there. Fast.
A pit tumbling away beneath her—the gouge created when the trees had fallen. A cluster of the scarlet plants filled the gap like pooled blood.
She saw it all in an instant and she kicked off into space, drawing up her legs.
She sailed over the gap and came down on the rough bulbous mass that had been the trees’ roots. The impact jolted her legs as she rolled forward in a cloud of crumbling dirt. Her arm smacked the hard trunk. She rolled, slipped, slid and caught herself upside down. Water rushed by beneath her face. Her system registered the impacts and flashed yellow alerts on her vision.
Integrity intact. The suit’s ‘pathed comment almost sounded amused.
Her environmental systems hadn’t been breached. It was made for tougher environments and harsh conditions. Within gravitational tolerances, it could handle extremes of heat and cold, help her withstand pressures she couldn’t manage otherwise. Which was good. She was going to need her suit for the plan to work.
Even though it wasn’t necessary, Betty took several deep breaths and then slid off the tree trunk and dropped into the rushing water beneath.
Betty kept her arms stretched out ahead of her as the stream carried her along. She pushed off rocks that came too close, kicking when necessary. Water rushed over her, buoyed her, and carried her along. It should have felt cold but didn’t because of the environmental suit. Thanks to its systems she could be equally at home in the stream as on dry ground. She swam with the current, following the twist and bends fish-like.
The hood gave her a clear view of the churning waters. Rocks and underwater plants slid past her. She left the banks of scarlet plants behind for rockier sections with yellowish and orange plants clinging to the crevices and nooks along the gully. The stream wasn’t more than two meters deep and fast. It rushed along, foaming and churning with exuberance.
Drops appeared unexpectedly. She slipped down some. Splashed down others. Each time tucking herself into a ball and hoping that the fall wasn’t too far to survive. She couldn’t always fend off rocks and logs caught in the stream. A numbing blow hit her left leg. It didn’t breach the suit. Another blow caught her right shoulder against a rock with pain that momentarily darkened her vision. A possible fracture? The shoulder screamed when she extended her arm. She gritted her teeth and swam on.
How far, she couldn’t tell. The suit might know.
Hopefully, farther than the exclusion agent would have expected. Her tracks led to the logs. It’d take time for the exclusion agent to decide if she had crossed the stream and continued on into the forest on the other side, or if she had in fact gone down stream.
She couldn’t stay with the stream. She had to get out at some point, but the rushing water had her and wasn’t going to let her leave easily. She kicked and angled as best as she could in the frothing water towards the far side of the stream. The banks were low here with trees growing right down into the water. The orange-yellow canopy of flat leaves created glowing umbrellas over the stream and dimmed the light. It also prevented prying eyes from above.
It took several long minutes of angling through the water before she came within reach of the far bank. A tree trunk rose at an angle out over the water. Betty grabbed at the trunk. Her right hand hit the smooth wood and pain flared down her shoulder. Her grip slipped away, and she sank beneath the surface. As the water swirled over her hood a sense of panic boiled in her gut. She thrashed and kicked for the surface. Her feet churned the water and stirred up mud that obscured her view.
Her left side hit something hard, smooth and curved. The current threatened to force her down deeper. She threw her left arm up and over the obstruction. The water pulled at her legs. She scrambled on the smooth surface, and her hood broke the surface, water running in muddy streaks out of her vision. She clung to a tree that had fallen in the water. The section of the trunk she clung to was slick with slime, but it rose from the frothing water at an angle to the shore.
Panting in her hood, Betty kicked her right leg over the trunk and held it between her legs. Her left leg and right shoulder throbbed. For several moments it was all she could do to hang on and not slip back into the water. Her mad leap and trip down the stream wasn’t the best plan she had come up with. Hopefully, it was enough to get her away from the exclusion agent. She gritted her teeth and started inching up the trunk.
Betty crawled up low bank between the trees. Several shorter trees grew over the decaying trunks of fallen trees. The broad flat leaves created an umbrella of coverage. She slipped beneath and rolled on her back. Overhead the leaves filtered the light to a soft, warm yellow. She ached from the battering in the stream. She ‘pathed commands to the suit asking for an assessment.
An augmented overlay appeared in the air in front of her, displaying a translucent view of her own body. Her knee was tinged orange and scarlet. Yellow swirled around her arm. Suit functions reduced 15%. Medical care recommended.
Great. The suit’s capabilities for medical treatment only included basic life-saving measures. Stopping bleeding. Applying pressure. Adjusting atmospheric mixtures. Defibrillation. She needed the med systems on her ship, only she couldn’t bring it down without revealing it and herself to the exclusion agent. The agent wouldn’t give up, wouldn’t stop until they caught the facilitator that had violated the Clarke Directive.
Betty closed her eyes. The agent was following training. Training that Betty had developed, which should give her some idea of how to handle the situation.
Who might have suspected her? Yan? Riddle? Painter? All top exclusion agents with excellent records, much to the dismay of the exclusion agents that they had caught. She’d trained them all. Trusted them to follow their calling.
What could she do?
Ambush the agent? Then what? Flee the system? Give up everything and her life? She didn’t want to hurt anyone for following her training.
The leaves rose and fell slightly as a breeze rippled across her shelter. The decaying trunk behind her was comfortable. A scarlet and blue segmented bug crawled out of a crack in the wood and squirmed away in a corkscrewing motion on multiple legs. Worth a fortune to the right buyer, though difficult to keep alive. A preserved specimen would still fetch a high price.
Betty watched the bug corkscrew away along the trunk. Not her sort of thing. She didn’t become a facilitator for the money. It helped to have off the books income to plan her expeditions. Otherwise, she wouldn’t bother. As an exclusion agent, she visited alien worlds in pursuit of facilitators and others that violated the Clarke Directive. She hunted down violators, arrested them and assessed the damage done by the intrusion. In most cases, the damage remained minor, temporary and self-correcting. So what was the harm? Clarke demanded absolute adherence to his directive. No interference of any kind. He didn’t trust humanity to visit alien worlds without causing damage, intentional or unintentional. He argued that humanity had no right to visit those worlds and a moral imperative not to interfere in any way.
In her youth, she agreed with him. She watched recordings of his speeches with the launch of the first starships, the whole doing the hard, right thing business.
What was the hard right thing now? Surrender? Go on trial and argue for changes to the Clarke Directive? She’d be found guilty no matter what, her violation clear, but maybe it would open up the discussion. Pry the door open enough to allow at least some scientific exploration of inhabited worlds.
Betty sighed. She lifted a hand and ‘pathed the command to unseal her left glove.
Action not advised.
She ‘pathed the override. The seal peeled open around her wrist and along the back of her hand. She pulled the glove free.
The air was cooler beneath the trees. Another command and she peeled back her face plate. It rolled back. She inhaled the dry, herb-garden scent of the forest. She reached out her bare hand and ran her fingers through the dry litter on the ground. Castoff leaves, dried and translucent that rustled like dried snake skins, crumbling under her touch. More contamination, but what did it matter now?
She wasn’t ready to give this up, to sacrifice her freedom, except that she didn’t really have any freedom. No one did. Everything tracked, recorded and logged. Watched all the time. Except on these alien worlds. It’d given her a taste of true freedom. More than most ever experienced.
Maybe she had to sacrifice her freedom so that others might have more freedom in the future.
Dried leaves crinkled to dust between her fingers.
“Open a channel,” she said. “Send out a contact ping to the exclusion agent.”
A bright tone announced the connection. “Director Walker, I think we need to talk.”
Painter. Not a surprise. “You were always one of my best agents. I’ll reactivate my trackers. I’ll need help getting back to your ship.”
She ‘pathed the command to activate all trackers and recorders. An alert flared in the corner of her vision, highlighting the bare hand and open face plate. She dismissed it and leaned back, looking up through broad flat alien leaves, enjoying the last moments of her violation.
Everyone turned out on deck when Sarah Painter docked with the Director. The whole trip back Sarah had struggled with conflicting emotions, confused that Bethany Walker was a facilitator. She hadn’t denied it and still seemed calm, almost serene.
Interior Agents met her on the deck and took charge of the Director. Just before they left, she turned and smiled at Sarah. “You did good, Painter. Just as you were trained.”
Doubt rose in Sarah’s chest. The other agents on deck swarmed around her, speaking and ‘pathing all at once. She answered the question they all wanted to know. “Yes, the Director violated the Clarke Directive, admitted to working as a facilitator for violators.”
A person appeared at her elbow. Dark formal suit, generically attractive face. “Agent, please refrain from further comments. I’m to take you for your statement and debrief.”
Sarah nodded. That part was routine. Expected. It might be one of the few things that remained routine anymore.
This story is the 105th short story release, written in November 2015.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page.
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.