The Forbidden Zone
When Julian's mentor urges him to accept an invitation to study the dying sand of Valeria, all he sees is another assignment. Valeria's ban on romantic and sexual unions seems a trivial price to pay in the name of scientific progress; even the constant supervision by the Sisters, the advanced A.I. that runs Valeria, seems a negligible point.
When the situation proves to be more difficult than anticipated, Julian finds a lifeline in Saidan, a warm, emotional individual who has somehow survived a world of passive expression and uniformity. As they work together to try and solve Valeria's degradation problem, they learn the Sisters had a much more sinister reason for inviting Julian to Valeria, and the two of them may not be able to save themselves, let alone an entire planet...
I remember the last day before my extraordinary journey like it was just yesterday, though it feels like it happened in another life. I was walking with my mentor, Professor Lankis, across the courtyard of the Science Foundation. I can still recall the way the sunlight reflected off the mirrored surface of the various research towers, each dedicated to their own particular discipline. There was a pristine, white stone walkway beneath my feet, preserved by automatic maintenance. Flowerbeds and patches of grass grew in perfect squares across the garden, not a single blade of grass growing over the borders. The robot gardeners always took such good care of the courtyard in a way that seemed to reflect their synthetic personalities; all straight lines, no deviation from the program. No soil across the line. No overhanging grass. I was much the same way, back then. I operated within the rules I had created, scorning those who spent time on frivolities such as romance.
Lankis was looking a little older than usual, the angry scars from his fatal KEVAC Syndrome standing out in the harsh sunlight. His white hair and neatly-trimmed beard seemed to reflect the light, creating the image of a God-like figure walking across the courtyard. He could still keep pace with me, but it was a leisurely plod to begin with, with neither of us in any real hurry to get to our destination. I knew that even with modern science, that might be the last time we ever saw one another. I would soon be going to distant Valeria on a five-year science exchange, and he would be entering the hospice to live out his final days without the pressure of the Foundation’s constant need of his mind.
“You’re really okay with this?” Lankis asked, turning to me with his trademark skeptical gaze. I knew that look; I’d seen it a thousand times in his classes, back when I was one of his students. He really didn’t believe I could stick to the Valerian rules, and I didn’t blame him. Ten thousand years of human nature told him that it was impossible for a sexual man to abstain for five years. I should have known back then that he was right, but I was arrogant. I believed that love and attraction were simply matters of behavior control on my part. I had even convinced the Foundation, who had favored bypassing the issue entirely by sending the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, asexual, aromantic Elly Sanders. If Sanders had not failed the medical due to a previously-undetected arrhythmia of the heart, I would have willingly bowed out. The only scientist I knew who held a candle to her was Lankis, and I may have been biased in that regard by my affection for him.
“I can do it,” I said. “I’m going to Valeria to conduct research, not flirt with the other scientists.”
“Obviously,” Lankis said. “The human spirit often has other ideas, though. You are not an island, Julian, no matter how much you want to believe it.”
“Well, the threat of a death sentence for dating will have to keep me in my place, then.” There was an air of smugness to my voice that I regret now, an aura of superiority, as if I was above Lankis’ record of failed marriages and sordid love affairs. If he was hurt by my words, he never said a thing, but that skeptical look in his eyes remained. I can still see it when I close mine. It’s the look of a man who knows better and has the research to prove it. He understood the human mind in a way no other man did.
“Well, just be on your toes,” Lankis said. “Valeria is a surveillance society with a tight hold on its citizens. It’s not exactly a holiday resort.”
“This isn’t a vacation,” I said. “I’ll have to spend five years in cryogenic sleep just to get there. I’ll probably be sick as a dog when I wake up.”
Lankis smiled: a sad, wan upturn of the mouth that others might have missed. It was his way of understanding that our chances of meeting again upon my return were negligible; he would likely be long dead by the time I reached distant Valeria.
“It has to be me,” I said, almost defensively. “I have no attachments. No family. What I bring back from Valeria could change the future of this world. Somebody has to go. Why not me?”
“The Council decided you were the best choice, yes.” Lankis stopped and sat down on a bench, short of breath from KEVAC Syndrome’s internal scarring and looking every moment of his one-hundred-and-two years of age. “I do have faith in you. I just know that underneath that hard exterior, you are more human than you let yourself believe.”
“Are you ready for the Galileans to send an envoy first? Besides, it would have been rude not to accept the Valerians’ invitation.”
“They plan to learn from us as well,” Lankis said. “The road goes both ways. Don’t act like you’re doing them a favor; that’s the kind of thing they’d like you to think.”
“I’m sure they would.” I fell silent, my hands folded together in my lap. For the first time since I’d been chosen, I felt a certain sense of apprehension at the task before me: a sense of doubt that I really could pull this off and return to Earth with new knowledge.
Lankis detected this, of course, and placed a wrinkled hand on my shoulder. It was shockingly intimate: an action I wouldn’t have allowed from just anybody, but Lankis had been by my side for most of my adult years. I was thirty-five years old, still pretty young by human standards, and yet, most humans had felt intimate contact by that point. I had not. Lankis had been the closest thing I’d ever had to a friend or lover, and yet, this action was the warmest thing I’d ever felt from him. His hand almost seemed to burn through the fabric of my Foundation uniform.
“If anybody can do it, Julian, it would be you.” Lankis withdrew his hand as fast as he’d put it there, and suddenly I realized that was his way of saying goodbye. He knew anything else would just embarrass me, pushing me past the limits of what I deemed acceptable. I was such a robot back then. I could have made a good gardener, trimming the grass in perfectly straight lines. But the human equation is far more complex than any algorithm we could write, and people truly come into their own when taken from safety and placed into extraordinary circumstances.
Extraordinary didn’t even begin to describe what I would find on Valeria, or to quantify its value. The value of love, of life, of civilization, and of society. All the things I had taken for granted up until that last day on Earth.