Jarry lives at -50C in an atmosphere of exotic gases, with a body shape responsible for the nickname ‘Coldworld Catform.’ He was altered at birth to be like this, so he would be perfectly adapted to live on the planet Alyonal, “which had recently been purchased by General Mining for purposes to mineral exploitation. Wisely, [the parents] had elected the option; that is to say, they had signed a contract on behalf of their anticipated offspring, who would be eminently qualified to inhabit that world, agreeing that he would work as an employee of General Mining until he achieved his majority, at which time he would be free to seek employment wherever he might choose (though his choices would be limited). In return for this guarantee, General Mining agreed to assure his health, education and continuing welfare for so long as he remained in their employ.
“When Alyonal caught fire and went away, those Coldworld Catforms covered by the option who were scattered about the crowded galaxy were, by virtue of the agreement, wards of General Mining.”
With the destruction of Alyonal, this leaves Jarry and twenty-eight thousand other like him without anywhere in the universe they can live, leaving them trapped within their temperature-controlled units. But Jarry has a talent for stock market speculation, and after amassing a fortune he discovers that if all the Catforms pooled their money, they would have enough to terraform a planet they could live on.
They buy a planet, one with rivers and forests and all sorts of strange animals. They buy the terraforming equipment that will transform the planet to their liking in three thousand years. They buy coldsleep bunkers for all twenty-eight thousand Catforms that will allow them to sleep for three thousand years and wake up in their transformed world.
Jarry wakes every quarter millennium to check the progress. The first time he still sees some of the forests, though the animals are fewer now, and the local caterpillars have evolved thick hairy coats. The next time the caterpillars’ coats are thicker still. But a bipedal species has also survived. Although not intelligent when Jarry bought the planet, the bipeds have since learned how to make coats out of furs to cope with the cold.
And while Jarry has so far viewed the death of the planet’s former biosphere as a necessary loss, he feels much greater qualms about a species that might have become intelligent thanks to his terraforming.
There’s a lot going in this story, but it’s always clear and not a word is wasted. It balances vast world-changing forces with the personal perfectly.
The Keys to December by Roger Zelazny
Availability: print only
Word count: 8,700
First published: New Worlds, August 1966
Where to find it: Explorers: SF to the Far Horizons, edited by Gardner Dozois, 2000, St Martin’s Griffin
Worldmakers: SF Adventures in Terraforming, edited by Gardner Dozois, 2002, St Martin’s Griffin
The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth, collection, 2005, ibooks
Power & Light, collection, 2009, NESFA Press