“The wind? You won’t even notice it after a few days,” Dan Watt said as he stuffed his few possessions in his duffel bag. He reached into a file cabinet drawer and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and waggled it in the air. “For emergencies,” he said slipping the amber liquid back into its hiding place. “There’s more in the locker if you run out.” He came over then and shook my hand. The official transfer of the weather station on Ciphon was done. I was the new man.
Like lighthouse keepers of old, I’d be on my own for the next two years. Dan clapped me on the shoulder and pulled me close. ”When the wind stops is when you have to worry.” Then he was out the door and up the ramp of the shuttle. I could barely hear the shuttle take off the wind was so loud. Shrieking like an angry woman at some unfathomable insult.
I closed the station’s outer and inner doors. The noise was reduced to a low roar. I looked around my new home. A few spare rooms, a bedroom with a cot and a dresser, the instrument bay, a small kitchen, a bathroom and the locker which contained the rations, spare parts and survival gear including, I gathered, a supply of booze—the one thing I was desperately trying to avoid. I made a vow to myself right then that no matter how bad things got, I would never again seek solace in drink.
The station is fully automatic. I’m only here in case something goes wrong. Instruments measure the atmosphere and send regular reports to distant computers where it is stored and analyzed. Ciphon is undergoing a radical terra-forming process slated to take a century or more. That process is about half way through. I am the 23rd steward on Ciphon Six and the first to see measurable results. I’m a steward. That’s what they call men like me. Men who can stand the crushing isolation. Men who seek that isolation for one reason or another. I am the only sentient being on an entire world. That’s not a statement many can make.
Profound isolation can do curious things to a man. Steward number six lost his mind; numbers twelve and nineteen wandered into the wilderness. Most stewards enjoy the experience and consider their time here one of spiritual growth and enlightenment. I hoped I would be as good a steward as my predecessor, quietly competent. He used his two years to write a novel and study the remarkably diverse plant and animal life this planet has to offer.
Ciphon teems with life. Unfortunately the atmosphere is all wrong for agriculture and human settlement. There’s not enough O2 and too much nitrogen and CO2. A man can breathe on Ciphon but just barely and though the native plants and animals have no trouble whatsoever with the air, things have to change to suit human needs. This planet’s ecosystem is in big trouble. Nothing on Ciphon will survive our intrusive meddling. Huge banks of scrubbers are slowly but inexorably altering Ciphon’s atmospheric chemistry to something more to our liking. In another fifty or so years, Ciphon will be ready for colonization. Until then, I have the planet to myself.
Originally I had little desire to explore. I had to force myself to go outside. I hated the wind. It’s thin, reedy voice buffets me and cries in my ear, but I forced myself to go outside. Being cooped up for too long is not recommended for one’s mental health. So I made it a point to walk every day. As a result, I have learned to appreciate the beauty of this place. The native trees and flowering plants are truly beautiful. The trees are huge, ancient things. I’m starting to enjoy my outings and while the wind is a constant presence, I’m finding it more of a companion than an annoyance.
We’d been taught that terra-forming was man’s right and that making a world habitable for human beings was a good thing. It was a hard lesson to swallow in the fields and forests of Ciphon. Here was a planet that was doing just fine on its own. We were told that changing the air would eventually affect the wind itself, causing it to moderate, to be something manageable even useful. So far there was no sign of any of that.
On my daily walks, however, I could already see signs of change. The first Earth plants were beginning to take hold. I even recognized some of them. Eventually, we were told, this planet would become another Earth, an Eden for humankind. I’d been to Earth once and saw how poorly we managed that Eden. Maybe we needed to keep trying until we got this God thing right.
I was born on Keppler, one of the first terra-formed worlds, and I can attest to the fact that we still have a great deal to learn. Maybe things will be better on Ciphon. I hope so. One thing is certain, the untold billions of creatures living here now are doomed. None of the native life forms can adapt to so drastic an environmental change in fifty years. How did I feel about that? I tried not to think too much about it. It makes me sad and depressed and depression is not a good place for me.
I began to wander further and further from the station. I marveled at this planet’s beauty. I took an oxygen bottle with me on my walks but noticed I didn’t need to use it nearly as much. By the start of the second year I began to notice obvious signs of stress on the native flora and fauna. One time I came upon a swarm of dead insects in a grove of dying flowers. Later I saw the ground littered with dead birds or what passes for birds on this world. It made me uncomfortable to see the changes happening. The great trees around the station began to lose leaves. The wind blew them into drifts. The wind, I noticed, took on a more mournful tone or was I imagining things?
One day it began to rain. It rained for eleven days straight. That was something unprecedented. The wind whipped the rain against the windows. Drops ran down the glass like tears. When the rain finally stopped, I was only too glad to go outside. Unlike on other Earth-like planets, the rain did not make Ciphon greener. The rain had stripped the remaining leaves from the trees and the landscape looked sickly. The forest trails were littered with small corpses. Death was everywhere.
I was sickened to see what we were doing to an entire world. Supposedly everything on Ciphon had been collected, cataloged, and sequenced somewhere by the bio teams that spent the first years here, but how could you possibly collect everything in such a rich and complex biological system? The bio boys classified Ciphon as “pristine” meaning Earth-like with no dominant intelligent life form, no signs of technology or civilization. Nothing but continents and oceans filled with plants and animals. Nothing but life, wind and opportunity.
To my ears the wind sounded more mournful than ever as if lamenting the planet’s fate. With all the leaves down, I could see the scrubber farm through the trees. They were huge machines working single mindedly day and night. Were they bringing life or death? Both I guess. The scrubbers did their work. The wind babbled in my ear one minute, moaned and cried like a demon the next. Was this right, this thing I was a part of? It wasn’t my call. The fact that I was part of this genocide ate at me. I could feel my resolve crumbling with every passing day. I had not forgotten those bottles of booze in the locker. Ciphon was choking to death and I was aiding and abetting the process.
I returned from this realization shaken and lay down on my cot and wept for the first time in years. Getting drunk would have brought me some relief but it would not have done either Ciphon or myself any good. When I next opened my eyes it was a new day. Ciphon’s two suns shone bright and clear. I went outside. I knew what I had to do. I set out for the scrubbers with a feeling of purpose. The wind, I noticed, had stopped.
One by one I threw the switches that turned off the big machines, then I took a hammer to their delicate electronics and then to the turbines. I made sure they could never be repaired, at least not for years. I hoped I had made a difference if only a temporary one. I left the station far behind me and found shelter in the deep and forgiving forest. As I walked away from my post, I felt the wind caress my cheek. For the first time in my life I felt a part of something. I felt like a steward.