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Playing God

Playing God

by Sarah Zettel

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To save an alien world, a human architect must risk destroying it
For two centuries, the planet of the Dedelphi has been riven by war. Though delicate, swanlike creatures, the planet’s natives are fierce in battle, and their ceaseless conflict has reduced their world to a wasteland. To save themselves and their world, the Dedelphi have forged a fragile


To save an alien world, a human architect must risk destroying it
For two centuries, the planet of the Dedelphi has been riven by war. Though delicate, swanlike creatures, the planet’s natives are fierce in battle, and their ceaseless conflict has reduced their world to a wasteland. To save themselves and their world, the Dedelphi have forged a fragile peace and called for outside intervention. The Earth corporation Bioverse constructs a plan to heal the shattered planet. It’s the most ambitious engineering project the universe has ever seen, and if it backfires, the result will almost certainly be genocide. Hired to oversee the massive undertaking is architect Lynn Nussbaumer. Rebuilding the planet will take decades, and Nussbaumer’s first challenge is to arrange for a generation of Dedelphi to live out their lives in orbit around their home. When old conflicts and fresh violence emerge aboard the station and on the planet’s surface, she finds that it takes more than a talent for design to draft a blueprint for peace.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the future, the Dedelphi, a race ravaged by eons of warfare, contracts with Earth's Bioverse Corporation to save their planet from ecological disaster. Dr. Lynn Nussbaumer spearheads the massive effort, which involves relocating the planet's entire population to orbiting space cities while Bioverse cleanses the ecosphere with its custom nanotechnology, simultaneously reaping whatever rare organisms and bacteria its workers discover. Meanwhile, Praeis Shin t'Theria, a member of the Dedelphia and a fascinating, credible and humane alien character, has returned with her family from exile to her home planet at the request of the ruling Queens-of-All. The matriarchy suspects that the Bioverse effort may be a trick of their enemy clan, the Getesaph, to kill all t'Theria, and so they command Praeis Shin to shore up whatever support she can for the planet's shaky truce. But despite Nussbaumer's and Praeis Shin's efforts, open fighting erupts, with the Getesaph commandeering one of the space cities. Abduction, corporate betrayal and murder ensue, forcing Nussbaumer to choose between abandoning the Dedelphi to a suicidal fate, enforcing a kind of corporate martial law or opening a dialogue to a truly cooperative effort that would help the Dedelphi save their planet and establish a lasting peace. Readers will embrace this complex, multidimensional saga (Zettel's hardcover debut, and the best of her three novels) not only for its depiction of exotic alien civilization and its action-packed plot but also for its pertinent themes of tribalism, intolerance and ecological disaster. (Nov.) FYI: Zettel's first novel, Reclamation, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel.
VOYA - Vicky Burkholder
Given the chance to stop a world war, would you be willing to play god? That is the decision Lynn Nussbaum must make. The Dedelphi have been in a state of civil war for eons-it is inbred in their culture and their blood. In their zeal to prevail, one of the factions uses a biological weapon that goes out of control and unleashes a plague on the planet. Lynn is hired by Bioverse to come in and convince the Dedelphi that they can help. Bioverse will clean up the entire world in exchange for the mutated microbes (for study). What Lynn does not know is that Bioverse plans to take over the world no matter what, and when she finds out, it is almost too late.

Lynn needs to stop the wars and stop Bioverse. She does so by playing god, creating situations where everyone has to play by her rules. It is only when an old friend points out that what Lynn is doing is worse than everything else that she realizes what she has been doing. To atone, she gives one of the warring factions proof of Bioverse's deception. This serves to unite the factions and set up a round of talks that lead to peace. Zettel has the knack of not only telling a good story, but of making it believable. She is a master craftsman and this book is no exception; it is a good buy for any science fiction collection.

VOYA Codes: 5Q 4P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being better written, Broad general YA appeal, Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12 and adults).

Kirkus Reviews
Hardcover debut for the author of a couple of well-received science fiction paperbacks (Fool's War). On planet All-Cradle live the Dedelphi, homicidal humanoid aliens whose numerous clans have been warring for millennia. Humans, however, are toxic to Dedelphi and must wear environmental suits. All active Dedelphi are female, powerfully bonded mother to daughter, sister to sister—-except that when they grow old, they turn male. Now their technology has reached the nuclear and biological danger level: half the population has died from a mutated plague, and the desperate clans have ceased hostilities so that Dr. Lynn Nussbaumer of Earth's Bioverse corporation can help. In return, Bioverse will be permitted exclusive access to the planet's unexploited biological resources. The natives will be evacuated to huge orbiting city-ships while Bioverse deals with the plague. But Lynn finds that only wise Praeis Shin of the t'Theria clan is willing to negotiate a genuine end to the violence. Lynn, meanwhile, has a personal problem: old college flame Arron Hagopian has been working closely with the Getesaph clan and publishes some inflammatory material about Bioverse's true intentions, claiming that it will sooner destroy the planet than let the clans fight it out. Then Arron discovers the Getesaph are planning a surprise attack on the first city-ship. He tries to warn Lynn but the Getesaph grab them both, along with Praeis's daughter Resaime, who, having been deliberately confined with Lynn and Arron, quickly dies. The Getesaph capture the ship, the t'Theria retaliate, and war explodes across the planet. Even if Lynn can escape, how can she stop the carnage? A taut, thoroughlycaptivating yarn, with splendid characters, a gratifyingly substantial sociobiological base, and one intractable problem: Armed with nukes and missiles, how did the Dedelphi avoid exterminating themselves long before humans showed up?

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Chapter One

Arron Hagopian stared down into the lumps of shadows that daylight would change into the chvintz Rvi, the Defenders' quarter of the city. It was a clear morning. The late stars still shone over the balcony. Their light glinted on his helmet. Dawn was just a thin, white line on the horizon. This Earth was a little bigger than the Earth he'd come from, so its days were a little longer. Even after ten years, he still got up outrageously early.

The voices and clatter of predawn traffic filled the warm morning breeze. Getesaph called back and forth to each other, raucous, belligerent, and sometimes mind-bogglingly rude, but peaceful in a very city sort of way.

Should be inside. That data'll be done cooking by now. I need a transmission in the pipe. No sense giving the funding panel extra ammunition.

He didn't move. He gripped the balcony rail with his gloved hands and leaned over it, determined to soak up as much of the early-morning noise as he could hold.

One for the head mechanics. How many cases come in because they've got it bad for a noisy, smoggy, plague-ravaged, glow-in-the-dark planet? His gaze drifted up to the stars again. And what's Lynn going to say about it?

He'd had no idea he was ever going to hear from her again. They'd dissolved into individual silences almost immediately after college. He certainly hadn't expected a hywrite from her. He'd stared at it for so long on the comm screen at the outpost, he'd practically memorized it.

I wasn't sure what kind of facilities you'd have there, so you'll excuse the lack of splash on this. I'm coming in with the Bioverseteam. I'm a manager, and they've got me working on the evacuation. "Relocation" is what we're supposed to call it. Either way. Some brilliance in the stratosphere decided we can't hire planetside Humans, but I could use a brain dump from someone who's been there before you take off for Who knows.
Hope you're willing,
Lynn Nussbaumer

Lynn. Lynn had become a corper, and she was on her way with the people who were destroying his life.

"Scholar Arron?"

Arron turned. The Dayisen Rual, Lareet and Umat, stood silhouetted in the arched doorway.

Arron smiled. "Dayisen Lareet, Dayisen Umat." Dayisen was a rank somewhere around the level of colonel, except that it belonged to the entire family. Lareet and Umat were the tvkesh chvaniff, the outside sisters for the family Rual. Their children were raised primarily by their sisters and their mother. Their job was to make sure the family was fed, housed, and protected. "Morning's light looks good on you."

The sisters stepped onto the balcony.

"We are perhaps disturbing your meditations?" Lareet leaned her elbows against the balcony railing, twitching her ears toward the wind and noise. She was the shorter and pinker of the two. Even by Getesaph standards, her skin hung loosely on her, making flaps around her neck and wrists rather than the usual folds.

A set of particularly vehement blasphemies exploded from the streets. Lareet folded her ears down. "I sometimes worry about what you tell your employers about us."

Arron laughed. "Nothing worse than you tell your Members of Parliament about me, I'm sure." It was no secret that the Rual family agreed to host him because the parliamentary members their family had been assigned to wanted firsthand observations of a man.

"Have you heard from your people yet?" asked Umat from the doorway. Where her sister was short, pink, and loose-skinned, Umat was tall, grey, and gaunt. Even her ears were thin. They were so sharply pointed that Lareet sometimes teased Umat that they could be used as spears against their enemies.

"No." Arron rubbed his gloved hands together. "I'm going to the outpost today to see if there's word. My department head promised to present my staying on to Bioverse as first-rate public relations. So, we'll see." He glanced at the two Getesaph. "You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

Lareet spread her hands. "There are some times when it is easier to remember that you are an alien than others."

Arron smiled and looked deprecatingly down at himself. Years of fishing, farming, and anything else he could lend a hand to, across all the Hundred Isles, had turned him lean, tan, and corded. He'd always thought of himself as tall, but he could hide behind either of the sisters facing him. His thick work trousers and plain green T-shirt were a sharp contrast to their electric blue uniforms with green rank bands around their cuffs.

"Is there something you need?" he asked.

Umat caressed the threshold with one knobby hand. "Yes, there is. Our members have asked us to speak to you."

Arron's forehead wrinkled. "About what?"

"Scheduling difficulties," said Lareet with careful blandness.

"Severe ones," added Umat.

Lareet's ears dipped. "Monumental."


Arron looked from one to the other. "What schedule are we talking about?"

There was now enough light for him to see the intensity of their expressions as they both looked straight at him. "The relocation," said Umat.

Arron tried to see where this was leading, but couldn't. "I thought the Confederation gave Bioverse total say over the relocation coordination." He'd been stunned when it happened, too. He suspected Bioverse had insisted on it.

"Parliament ceded permission to the Confederation by a narrow majority," Umat reminded him. "Now that the main Bioverse team has arrived, they have sent us the relocation schedule. It states that the Getesaph will not be removed until the last segment of the procedure."

Pride of place? Arron wondered. Lareet and Umat were both obviously waiting for him to say something. He just spread his hands and waited for them.

Lareet strangled a sigh. "The t'Theria are going to be among the first relocated. Once their daughters and carrying mothers are removed from all danger of retaliation, what will prevent them from attacking us?"

Ah. "I don't see how I can help with this," he said carefully. "My department of the university has nothing to do with Bioverse."

"But one of their coordinators is a friend of yours," said Lareet.

Arron's brows jumped up. "Lynn?"

Umat considered. "Is that the same as"—she paused, probably to make sure she got the pronunciation right—"Manager Lynn Nussbaumer?"

"Yes." Arron glanced up, as if expecting Lynn to drop from the sky. "That's her."

Lareet nodded. "Our members would consider it a tremendous favor if you would speak with her and ask that the schedule be rearranged so that the Getesaph are evacuated first, or at least at the same time as the...t'Therians."

She'd probably cut herself off from speaking one of the dozen or so insulting terms the Getesaph had for the t'Therians.

Arron's gloves rubbed his clean-suit-covered forearms. "If Parliament is worried about the consequences of the evacuation, you shouldn't go. There's got to be a way the plague can be cleansed with the Ded—" he cut the word off. It was fairly widely known that the word dedelphi meant opossum in an ancient Human language. It was also fairly widely known that an opossum was a poorly regarded rodent. "There has to be some way to cleanse the planet with the Family and the Others on the ground. Humans are a clever bunch." Clever enough that they'll kill what the Confederation has started without even realizing it. Why can't they see that the Families have to shape their future without our interference? Especially our interference on such a world-shattering scale?

Umat's pointed ears sagged a little. "Scholar Arron, I know you do not agree with this plan to house us in human ships while they cleanse the Earth and our blood for us, but that is the agreement we have reached. Our members favor this much of our Confederation agreements, and we do, too." Arron glanced at Lareet, who dipped her ears in confirmation.

"It is only the timing we question," said Lareet.

"It can be taken to the entire Confederation," Umat went on. "But that might—"

"Renew old tensions," Lareet finished the sentence smoothly. "If we speak the truth about the t'Therian intentions, they will claim we are hurling insults to break the Confederation and say we need to be coerced into cooperation."

He might argue with the phrasing, but Arron couldn't dismiss the conclusion. The enmity between the t'Therians and the Getesaph was a watchword. As far as Arron could determine, the Confederation was the first time the two Families had ever cooperated. The plague had accomplished what centuries of lesser threats had not. No one, however, was sure it had accomplished it firmly and finally.

"I can't guarantee I'll be able to convince Lynn of anything," he said, more to the dawn than to the sisters waiting for his answer. "It's been a very long time since we were...close."

"We're only asking you to try," said Lareet.

Arron pushed himself away from the railing. "All right, since you're asking, I'm agreeing."

Umat let out a sigh of relief. Lareet laid a hand on his shoulder. "Thank you."

Umat wrapped her arm around her sister's shoulders. "We'll find out where Manager Lynn is going to be based, so you can plan your trip. It will be somewhere in t'Aori."

"You want me to go from the Hundred Isles to t'Aori?" Arron shook his head. It was easier to get between competing corporate enclaves on Earth than it was to get from the Getesaph archipelago to the t'Aori Peninsula. "Any chance of your members giving me clearance and papers?"

"I don't think so," Umat said. "They want this request kept as quiet as possible."

I can understand that. "All right. You find out where I've got to go, and I'll get there."

"We will owe you all thanks for this, Scholar Arron." Lareet gave his arm a final, friendly shake. "Many times over."

The sisters left him there. Arron turned around and faced the city again. Clouds obscured the stars now, but he stared at the sky anyway.

Lynn. He remembered hours of debates about everything their separate concentrations held. He remembered eclectic midnight feasts, way too much alcohol, and laughing at whatever occurred to them. He wondered what had happened to her, and what had happened to him.

Arron turned around and went back into his room. The university had paid for the double-thick filter doors and windows so he could have a place where he could take off his clean-suit without contaminating the entire house. The room had originally been a closet, so it was small by Getesaph standards. For a Human, though, it made an adequate apartment. A thick mattress lay next to the personal fountain Lareet had given him, saying she couldn't understand how anyone could concentrate without the sound of water nearby. A desk and chair had been shortened to a more Human height by having twenty-five centimeters of their legs sawed off. His flat, shiny portable lay on the desk, surrounded by the paper notes he'd learned to keep. The walls were covered with flat pictures of snowcapped volcanoes, boat-clogged harbors, and portraits of families he had worked with. The wall next to his desk was taken up by a big, full-color, hand-drawn map of the Hundred Isles of Home.

Arron lifted the lid on his portable. DATA CONFIGURED AND SLOTTED INTO REPORT THREAD FORMAT, read the screen. He closed it down and put it into his backpack along with three old clean-suits to take to the outpost recycler.

Most of the house was still asleep. Arron moved quietly past the second-floor sleeping rooms and down the central spiral staircase, which was closer to a Human's idea of a ladder than a Human's idea of stairs. It had taken a long time to get to the point where he could climb down it without going backwards and using his hands. The task had been made more difficult by the fact that the rungs had been spaced for longer legs than his.

Outside, morning light filtered through the layers of cloud and smog, turning the eastern sky into a furnace of orange, pink, and gold. The city was hot, crowded, smelly, and strangely three-dimensional. Rather than flattening the nearby cliffs or just building on top of them, the city builders had carved them. Natural caves had been enlarged and regularized to form compartmentalized buildings with ladders on the outside linking their terraces the way the streets linked the buildings on flatter ground. Suspension bridges ran from hill to hill, and cliff to cliff, allowing what motorized traffic there was to have a path, jostling alongside pushcarts or animal-drawn wagons, the Getesaph's wide, clunking, four-wheeled pedal cars, flocks of fowl, and cattle with their herders.

Mothers and sisters with baskets or daughters on their backs avoided the bridges. They swarmed up ladders instead, crossing roofs and climbing down into narrow, winding streets full of garbage, vendors with carts, or baskets making deliveries or hawking wares, their neighbors, and their cousins. A father, restless, engorged, and strangely graceful, flitted through the crowds.

The vital traffic—military, public health, and anything that had to be rushed between islands—was not on the streets. That traffic drove through the network of concrete-lined "security" tunnels that ran even deeper than the sewer pipes.

Arron squeezed through the crowd, saying "hello" and "the light of day looks good on you" about every three minutes to somebody who called his name. Occasionally he was able to call a name back to a recognized face.

His notoriety had sneaked up on him. In addition to his research, he'd done lectures and talks for assorted Getesaph schools and government departments. Copies of his less formal pieces, modified for paper, got reproduced all over the Hundred Isles. He was Human and he was a man, so of course he was a curiosity, but somewhere along the line it had turned into more than that. He had to admit he enjoyed it. It wasn't every field researcher who got to have fans.

Arron started up a broad, much-braced metal ladder that slanted over a grocery. A shortcut over three roofs that would save him a half hour of threading through crowds. He slid sideways for a mother who carried three infant daughters on her back. A fourth peeked over the rim of the linen-swaddled pouch.

On the roof, a loose crowd gathered around a dry fountain in the northwest corner. Mothers, sisters, and daughters talked, exchanged items out of baskets, or just stood together holding hands. All the public fountains and pools were dry since the plague hit the city. They had been places for bathing, drinking, and laundry washing, and had spread disease even faster than the dirt and animals in the streets. Looking up the island's slope, Arron could see the chvintz Thur, the Dead quarter. The edges of the city had been deserted as the population shrank and huddled in on itself.

Sudden thunder split the morning open. The roof shuddered underneath him. A gust of hard, hot wind knocked him flat against the smooth tiles and smashed all the breath out of him. Something thunked against his helmet. Screams, tearing stone, rattling dust, and more thunder poured over him. The tiles under him seemed to tilt.

His ears rang painfully. Arron lifted his head and saw a dust cloud folding in on itself. He lowered his gaze to the roof and swore. The tilting sensation hadn't been an illusion. The roof sagged dangerously in the northeast corner across from the fountain.

Around him, Getesaph gingerly raised ears and heads. They saw the dust cloud and the sag in the roof. The sound of shouts, swearing, and bloody protracted curses against the t'Therians penetrated the sharp ringing that engulfed his hearing.

Of course it was the t'Therians. It was always the t'Therians, whatever it was. Amost always. Enough times.

Arron's fingers felt a vibration under the tiles. He was pretty sure he'd have heard a low creak if his ears were working right.

Down. We need to get down.

Mothers and sisters with daughters clutching their backs or held tight against their chests, crawled or walked in a half crouch up the slope. Some leaned against one another. A number were cut and bleeding. At least two limped.

"Scholar Arron!" exclaimed a sister he didn't know. She peered closely at him, almost pressing her nostrils against his helmet. "You are hurt? You are hit? Someone help me with Scholar Arron!"

"I am fine! I am fine!" he protested as half a dozen hands lifted him to his feet and settled him in the approved crouching position. There was an idea running around that Humans were delicate, just because they were smaller, and not as strong, and were very bad swimmers, and couldn't stand up again immediately after a bomb blast without their vision blurring and their knees wobbling.

Arron let himself be gently led to the southwest edge of the roof. The ladders on that side had been sheltered from the blast. Sisters hung back, and Arron with them, to let the carrying mothers pick their way down first. The streets below were a stew of milling, shoving bodies and, to Arron anyway, unintelligible voices.

When Arron's turn came, he abandoned pride and climbed down backward, using both hands. His escorts followed solicitously beside him. Once they reached the ground, the sisters stood him in an undamaged doorway.

"Rest yourself, Scholar Arron," one admonished. "Public Health will be here soon to see to you."

With that, they turned and joined the river of mothers and sisters heading for the blast site.

Arron leaned against the arched doorway just long enough for his knees to stop trembling. His ears still rang, and his balance wasn't too certain, but he forced himself into a shambling run toward the devastation.

The missile, or bomb, or whatever it had been, had turned a pair of buildings into mountains of rubble. Nearby buildings stood without faces or roofs. Some slumped as if not certain whether to stand or fall.

The rubble was alive with Getesaph. They clambered over the ruin, digging with their hands. A few had gotten hold of shovels. One party lifted out a broken beam and passed it down the side of the mound to other sisters, who carried it out of the way. More sisters arrived every second. Many carried buckets, shovels, or jacks. What hoses there were got turned onto the dozen fledgling fires that sprang up like orange-and-gold weeds. Bucket brigades formed to help douse the flames and to soak down the nearby buildings. The wounded were carried to the sidewalks. Mothers, sisters, and daughters crowded around the victims, even if they could do nothing more than sit with them. No one was left alone or without a hand to hold.

It should have been chaos, but it wasn't. The Getesaph worked together without flaw, panic, or hesitation. Whoever saw something that needed doing first was in charge until someone with more skill or better equipment arrived. Seniority was yielded without argument. There were no spectators. Each new sister who arrived fit herself into the rhythm of the work, like an expert singer joining in on a chorus.

Even the two fathers lurking around the edges seemed to know something important was happening. They stayed where they were without seeking to touch anyone or find what they needed to satisfy themselves.

It was incredible to watch. No group of Humans could have worked like that without years of training. For the Dedelphi this was simply the way it was. For Arron it was the ultimate contradiction. How could they work together so seamlessly but still fight so viciously? There were a million theories, of course, from hormones to pheromones to telepathy, but no one knew for certain. A professor of his had once said, "God introduced us to the Dedelphi to show us how ignorant we still are."

Meet the Author

Sarah Zettel is the critically acclaimed author of more than twenty novels, spanning the full range of genre fiction. Her debut novel, Reclamation, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her second release, Fool’s War, was a 1997 New York Times Notable Book, and the American Library Association named Playing God one of the Best Books for Young Adults of 1999. Her novel Bitter Angels won the Philip K. Dick Award for best science fiction paperback in 2009. Her latest novel, Dust Girl, was named as one of the best young adult books of the year by both Kirkus Reviews and the American Library Association. Zettel lives in Michigan with her husband, her rapidly growing son, and her cat, Buffy the Vermin Slayer. 

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