Thursday, September 20, 2012

Novel Sample Week: James Herriot in Space

I really hope I cancome up with a better title, but James Herriot in Space pretty much sums it up.  Like the All Creatures novels, the main character is a veterinarian who treats farm animals and the occasional pet.  He deals with quirky people, solves the occasional mystery, falls in love with farmgirls, and so on.  That's where the similarities end.  Farm animals are "spliced" (genetically engineered).  He rides around on a flying car.  Oh, and he's on a half-terraformed, frontier planet.
The Epstein family had worked hard for their claim.  They had endured the ridicule of the local farmers who were all growing the more prolific Tehwi crops (and, perhaps, were more than a little jealous of the Epstein’s holding) and were finally reaping the rewards.  Offworld imports of cheap flour were flooding the markets, already saturated with locally-grown grains.  Rumors abound that the Directorate were paying larger operations to burn their crops rather than completely shatter the market.  Meanwhile the few farmers who had specialized in Nork and Ercii were making a killing.
They didn’t have a bell to ring, so I knocked on the metal gate with my fist.
“Hello,” I called, “Is anyone there?”
I unhooked the gate and latched it behind me.  Officially, of course, I wasn’t supposed to enter a claim without a direct invitation, but there was no way of knowing if anyone had heard me from the distant barn.  A bad chicking could be a serious business, and I hated to waste time waiting around for an invitation.  In any case, I thought wryly, I was a certified company man now; if I got shot, Turabian would pay for my medical care.
There were six buildings on the Epstein farm: two large silos (one for each crop), the farmhouse (where the family lived), three small storage sheds, and the barn.  The buildings were based on Khanish architecture: rounded stone walls made of native rock topped with a dome of rigid silver syncloth.  As with all farms on Thirsk, the only way to tell the difference between the buildings was their proportions: the silos were tall and narrow, the sheds were short and squat, the farmhouse was wide and low, and the barn was the largest.
As I walked to the barn, which easily towered over everything else, its door opened and Mr. Epstein came out.  Brian Epstein was a tall man with piercing grey eyes and a wide-brimmed hat woven of faded blue Ercii-stalks he never seemed to take off.  I hurried over as he waved.
“Glad you got here so fast, Mr. White,” Brian said, his face lined with worry.  “She’s in a bad way.”
“Chick won’t budge?” I asked, shaking his hand.
“Yeah.  Better see for yourself,” he said, and I followed him into the blinding darkness of the barn.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim light from the window slits in the roof.  My patient was a hen sitting on a bed of Nork cob; she could barely look up at me as I approached.  The stalls of the Epstein’s other Gryphons were ringed along the outer wall, surrounding her.  Their heads poked out over the doors and eyed their distressed comrade curiously.
Those of you who have never been to Thirsk are probably unfamiliar with Gryphons.  Gryphons are essential to every farmer’s livelihood on the planet.  After the problem with DropSeed had been discovered, Global Tap called in the best the Splicing Guild could offer to create a new organism to help.
Gryphons, on first inspection, are four-legged birds that stand three meters tall.  Cut one open, however, and you’d drop your scalpel.  While Gryphons are covered in feathers (more efficient insulation than hair), have vestigial wings (to radiate body heat when lifted and to preserve it when folded), raptorial feet (to stop blood-flow when cut by sharp rocks) and feathered tails, they’re not birds.  Gryphons have been spliced from a number of natural species, so it’s hard to say what they are, exactly.
Their heads come from parrots, giving them curved beaks to grab DropSeed plants and pull them up with the extensive, poisonous root system intact.  Once swallowed, the plant is digested in six different stomachs (spliced from goats and cows), each stomach performing a different process in separating out the poisons.  The toxic elements are then transferred to the gizzard where the Gryphons regurgitate them in the form large, yellow rocks (nicknamed “sulfur spit”) to be carted away from the fields.
It sounds like a slow process, but a healthy, adult Gryphon can clear a hectare of DropSeed a day.  Since the root systems of the plants are tough and spread over a large area, the Gryphons effectively till the soil as they go.  The average farm has five to ten Gryphons a piece, so the process of decontaminating the planet has gone incredibly fast.  The experts say we might be finished in a couple of generations.
The Gryphon hen sitting before me strained for a moment -- her tiny wings lifted, her head rose, and she made a small groan -- then lowered back down to the Nork cob in resigned defeat.  I knelt by her side, running a comforting hand over her flank, and she regarded me plaintively.  Although her eyes were open, her nictitating membranes still partly covered them, a sure sign of fatigue.  Her feathers were ragged and dirty.  I ran my hand up her neck to her massive head, leaving a trail of ruffled feathers.  She made a faint, appreciative noise deep in her throat.
“How long has she been like this, Mr. Epstein?” I said, not breaking eye contact with the hen.
“About three hours.  I would have called you earlier, but I didn’t realize it was so serious.”
I nodded and stripped off my jacket and shirt.  Three hours was actually a reasonable amount of time.  Since veterinary service was free on any Gryphon under contract, most farmers called us within seconds of finding the slightest scratch on their animals.
As I sprayed myself liberally with sterilimist, Mr. Epstein asked me something in a low voice that I couldn’t hear over the hiss of the applicator.
“What was that?” I said, applying a thick lubricant to my arms.
“I asked if Choco was going to be okay,” he said.
It took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about, but then I noticed the row of Gryphon stalls all had words stenciled over their doors.  The names “Winslow,” “Tinsdale,” “Lefty,” “Righty,” “Brandy,” “Thor,” and “Rusty” glinted in the dim barn light.  An empty stall labeled “Choco” stood at the end.  It wasn’t common practice for farmers to name their Gryphons (preferring, instead, to give them labels like APA-Male-3).  Most in the Youdin community felt spliced animals were soulless.  Others thought of Gryphons as organic machines.  I figure it’s easier to subject an animal to hours of difficult labor if you can think of an excuse.  Still, there were a few holdouts like the Epstein family who treated their Gryphons well, giving them the best conditions possible.
“Difficult chickings are unusual, but not unheard of,” I said.  “It’s a well-documented procedure.”
“It’s only that Choco is one of my favorites, you see,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard me.  “She’s a gentle old girl.  I’d rather put her down than see her suffer.  I’ll pay the contract penalty.”
I nodded, placing sensor nodes around the hen’s abdomen and trying to think of something comforting to say.
“Well, let’s just take a look, shall we?” I said, kneeling down into the cob, pressing the primary node into place, and switching it on.
The nodes flickered into life and projected an image of the chick inside the hen.  It was fully formed, with a healthy bone structure and beak.  I waved my hand, and the image panned out, showing the positioning.
“Hell,” I said, whispering.
“Problem?” Brian said.
I sighed and rotated the image so he could see.
“I’m afraid it’s a breech presentation, Mr. Epstein.  The head and legs are on the far side of the uterus.  What’s worse is the position of the neck.”  I pointed to the twist of the head around the body.  “An unborn chick has a very narrow carotid artery.  It’ll have been choked off by the contractions.  I’m very sorry.  It must have died hours ago.”
Brian lowered his eyes.  I slowly removed the nodes as I searched for something good to say to him.
“I can save the hen, that’s no problem, but I will have to dissect the chick before I take it out.  Then a quick cleansing of the uterus, and she’ll be on her feet in no time.”
Brian nodded his head slightly in a gesture I assumed was assent.  I quickly took the spool of saw-wire out of the equipment pack and cut off a three-meter length.  Mr. Epstein obviously cared about his stock as if they were pets; there was no need to prolong his anguish.
“I wish I had listened to Jeff Snow,” Mr. Epstein said, as I slid the wire inside the uterus and looped it around the chick’s neck, “He went with MLA stock because they’re egg layers.”
Years ago, Global Tap opened up their Gryphon splicing operations to competition.  MLA was one of four corporations (along with Turabian, APA, and Chicago) that still created and sold Gryphons on Thirsk.
“MLAs don’t have a good chick survival rate,” I said, grunting as I tightened the loop.  “The eggs are brittle and can crack before hatching.  Sometimes the hens become egg bound.  MLA said their next generation of Gryphons will have live births.”
I didn’t mention the rumors that MLA was going to live births to stem the black market trade in Gryphon eggs.  A chick immediately imprinted when hatched or born, making it impossible to sell to another farmer.  The companies had spliced that behavior in to force settlers to buy Gryphons from the company instead of breeding their own.  Whatever the reason, a rumor was a rumor, and my contract to Turabian forbade me from spreading gossip.  I kept silent.
The loop of wire tightened perfectly around the neck of the chick, and slowly slid my hand out of the uterus.  If I extended the teeth of the saw-wire while my hand was still inside, I’d lose a finger.  My hand brushed past the beak of the chick on the way out, and I felt a nip.  I sat up in surprise than hunkered back down on the Nork cob, reaching back in for another feel.  The beak opened a little more this time, and a tongue came out to explore the tip of my finger.
“Brian!” I said, shouting as I unhooked the saw-wire from around the chick’s throat. “We need help in here.  Someone strong.”
“What for?” Brian asked, dumbfounded.
“It’s alive!  The chick is still alive, but not for much longer.  Getting it out without hurting the mother is going to be a bit of a struggle.  We need another pair of hands.”
By the time I had sterilized the ropes and hooks, Brian returned with a dust-caked young man.  He couldn’t have been more than thirteen and wore overalls and a driver’s cap which held his curly, dark hair.
“What’s he doing to my Gryphon?” the young said in horror as he ran over to the weak hen.  Choco turned at his voice and nuzzled him.
“Yours?” I said, puzzled at the Gryphon’s reaction.  The corporations had spliced out the traits for affection; it was best if the farmers didn’t form an attachment to their stock.  Sure, a Gryphon would enjoy being petted now and then, but I had never seen one nuzzle a human before.
“Mine,” the boy muttered into the silver and blue feathers on Choco’s neck.  The Gryphon muttered back from deep inside its throat.
“My eldest,” Mr. Epstein said.  “Don’s been studying offworld.”
I smiled in greeting, but Don stared angrily at me, cradling the giant head in his arms.
“Studying offworld, eh?” I said as I tied the hooks to my chicking ropes.  “That’s pretty good for a boy your age.  What have you been studying?”
“Music performance,” he said, with resentment in his voice.  “What are you doing with those hooks?”
“The chick is facing the wrong way.  I’ve got to put the hooks into its beak so we can pull it around.”
Don’s eyes widened with horror.
“You’re going to put hooks into her uterus?  Are you crazy?  You’re supposed to give her Motorinithol to make the baby tumble into the right position.  Dad, where did you get this quack?”
I felt my neck hairs bristle.
“Now, hold on,” Mr. Epstein said to Don, holding his hand up warningly.  “Mr. White is a—”
“You hold on,” Don yelled.  “I don’t care if Turabian sends whatever pretty-boy vet is in the area.  I don’t want this milk-tongued idiot touching my Gryphon!”
At that, the hairs on the back of my neck rose so high I thought they would catch fire.
“Now you listen to me, boy,” I said, furious.  “I don’t care what school you went to, you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.  Motorinithol causes muscle contractions.  In Choco’s weakened state it could cause a heart attack.  Is that what you want?  To kill her?”
Don stared at me angrily for a moment and lowered his eyes.
“I’m not a boy,” he whispered.
“Then stop acting like one,” I said, still fuming.
Don’s whole frame seemed to shudder at my words, and I regretted them instantly.  I opened my mouth to apologize but decided it would be better if I just shut up.  Instead, I grabbed one of the hooks and pushed it inside the Gryphon.

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