The Starlark - 4
Image from Steve Bowers

Galilei 7, 764 AT: Outer system, Epsilon Indi

At last the end of our journey is in sight. The Starlark will shortly ignite the catalysed fusion motors once more, and we will decelerate into the system for six months before making orbit around Indi. I have briefly been outside the ship with the maintenance crew to check the droplet radiator array and the antiproton feed lines. Interstellar space is starting to become thick with the dust and gas that surrounds our destination system; the erosion of myriad microscopic hits has scoured my armoured suit.

Hoyle is determined to reawaken my former skills as a fusion specialist, and it certainly seems to be working. With luck and much hard work, I will be competent again before we finally power these motors down in mid-system. Every night I study, learning a subject that seems tantalisingly familiar.

Sometimes I wonder if Hoyle realises that we specialists are really only needed because we cannot afford to place all our trust in artificially intelligent systems. Every major system on this ship is under Hoyle's control; we would barely be able to take over if ey went off-line, but there is always the chance that this would be necessary. So many of the AI systems back in the Solar System failed, were poisoned or subverted, or went mad in the time of the Nanodisaster, that no-one can put all their trust in any mechanical brain any more. Of course, our human minds have proved even more fragile on this trip, and there are few on board who are entirely unaffected by the cold sleep process.

To dispel my blacker moods Hoyle has awoken one of my clade-sisters; there are few enough of us on this ship, and the one ey has chosen is a younger clonecousin of mine. Ellie is twenty years younger than I, and I barely remember her as a young child. I do remember teaching her how to draw a spaceship, one afternoon long ago; that memory floats unconnected in space and time but seems quite vivid. We both drew with the left hand, with the same tilt of the head, and we both pressed too hard on the paper. Now she is a woman in her twenties, travelling to the stars with a small group of friends I do not remember.

"You are such an ebuk, clonecousin," she said to me today, using that annoying dusty backslang all the young people seem to have adopted. I had expressed mild (and, I hoped, polite) surprise when she told me she was travelling with a group of dusties, non-Parthene Martian refugees from the orbital habitats. I can't say I blame her—there aren't enough of our kindred on this ship to make a sorority like we had back on Hebe. I had hoped that our special ability to replicate ourselves would eventually lead to a new sorority out here in the Indi system; but there are so few of us, I believe that is a vain dream.

So I'm a cube. an "ebuk," eh? I suppose I am. Despite our identical phenotype we are very different. She doesn't even look very much like me, with her long, red, bushy hair and slightly over-the-top make-up; my hair is short, and was once dyed blond, but now the rusty roots show through. Harlan laughs and calls us the "ginger twins," but I see the differences between us more vividly than he does, no doubt.

Galilei 27, 764 AT: Outer system, Epsilon Indi

During the deceleration phase, it is difficult to maintain contact with the colony at Epsilon Indi. A brilliant glowing plume of white- hot exhaust issues from the motors at the bottom of the ship; we feel the vibrations through our feet as the ship creates its own gravity with its thrust. Far below us and off to one side is the tiny spark of the colony planet, Tierra del Fuego. Harlan is engaged in sending medical details of our various casualties via laser to the colony, and in attempting to make sense of their answers.

I have been working with him to tune the message laser so that the signal can be distinguished from the light of the rocket's glare. The best results have been obtained by using drone relay transmitters sent out far from the ship, but each drone falls ahead of the ship rapidly and eventually we lose contact with it, so we have to fabricate new ones and send them out at regular intervals. However the replies we have so far received have been short, vague and lacking in details.

"They probably don't have the facilities to handle the worst cases. Feh- we should plan to be living in temps for the first few years, as we don't know if they can even handle our able-bodied."

"We have better technology on the Starlark than the original colonists took with them," I said. "There are some good temporary habitat designs in the database; all the Indis will have to do is shovel raw materials into the fab and it will manufacture them."

"No doubt they'll be getting us to do that for them, we'll be expected to work for a living. We have nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of hard graft on an inhospitable planet, Elanor, old girl. Oh, such joy. I can't wait. Life on the new frontier is always nasty, and brutal, if not necessarily short."

Ania was perched nearby, watching our efforts with some interest; now and then she moved her lips as if subvocalising. I guessed she was in contact with someone elsewhere on the ship, via net implants.

I saw her say something like `I don't know- I'll ask them," then she said (out loud) to us, "How many of them are there? Have they told you that?"

"Well, that's the damnedest thing," Harlan said. "They say they have twenty thousand people living on the planet and a few thousand in orbit. So there are a few more of them than there are of us."

"We could probably squeeze in without too much construction work," I said. "And of course the temps can be put up quite rapidly. But somehow we'll have to nearly double the output of food on that world down there, or we'll all go hungry."

"They must be used to having a rapidly growing population," Harlan said, shaking his head. "They have already increased their population by three hundred thousand percent"

"What are you saying?" said Ania. "Do you mean to say their population is three thousand times as large as it was when they arrived?" She muttered something into mid-air, obviously to the person she was in communication with. "Yes, I know, I'm not stupid." She continued, talking to us now, "There are only twenty thousand of them on the planet. Where are all the rest? The ship that brought them there carried fifty thousand people."

"Like I said, that's the mystery. When I told them that we have hundreds of statics that we can't revive, and many more with memory impairment, they were off-hand. Apparently, out of fifty thousand, they lost all but seven."

"Seven thousand?" That still doesn't add up," I said, calculating in my head.

Harland pulled a wry face. "Nope; seven. Only seven survivors out of fifty thousand. And somehow they've built their population up to more than twenty thou in a hundred and forty years."

"By Astraea!" I exclaimed. "That is some impressive birth rate" I was suddenly reminded that I have never yet had a child myself. As a Parthene, I could self-replicate at will, just by thinking about it. But so far, I had never found the time. After all, the process takes nine Lunar months, just to make a newborn. "How, in the name of all the stars, have the Indi colonists managed to produce so many people in just a century and a half?"

"Perhaps they have genetically engineered themselves so that each woman has ten wombs, or something. I imagine something like a giant human queen ant, with a massive belly and lines of babies on breasts." Harlan gave an evil grin.

Ania threw her hands up. "That's disgusting," and left the comms-deck.

"Actually, the original colonists were sent out by a faction opposed to germ-line engineering," Harlan said, after the bulkhead door flowed shut. "So I doubt we will be greeted by human ant hybrids. As I said, it is a bit of a puzzle; but hopefully we'll find the answer soon enough."

Hippocrates 16, 764 AT: Approaching Tierra del Fuego

We have finally finished our deceleration phase. Hoyle has allowed me to resume my full duties as a drive supervisor, although I get the impression e is watching me closely all the time. Ironic, since our role as supervisors was originally devised as a way of keeping an eye on the supposedly unreliable ship AI systems. Yet in the event we humans have proved to be the unreliable ones. For instance, I have heard today that the ship's captain cannot be successfully revived at this time, so the acting captain (a relatively young Earthman of whom I have few reliable memories) will be in charge when we reach our destination. But the role of captain is relatively unimportant- the running of the vessel is mostly entrusted to Hoyle, who has effectively controlled the ship throughout our voyage of over a century.

After a tiring shift, which was mostly taken up with various shutdown procedures, I made my way to the Comms deck. This part of the ship often gets crowded with onlookers and idlers, like myself, who desire to find out more about the colony we are approaching. Today Harlan was there, once again, sending medical details about our casualties to the main space station orbiting Fuego. He was frustrated, as usual, by the lack of response from the colonists. Also present was Ania, once again muttering to an unseen companion somewhere on the ship, and Ellie, looking discontented, as she often does. With Ellie was one of her fierce companions from the Martian surface, one of the 'dusties' forced off the Red Planet by the nanodisaster. His name is Gusev, a common Martin name.

"That looks like a major impact scar," he said to Ellie. They were looking at an image of Fuego that covered the whole wall, and spilled over onto the ceiling.

"Yeah," Harlan put in. "That happened a billion years ago, more or less. Shocked most of the atmosphere off the planet, they reckon. Looks like the Fuegies are having a bit of trouble putting it back- the planet still hasn't got atmosphere worth a fart."
He swigged at a beaker of coffee, shook his head. "I bet they are really looking forward to our arrival. A ship of amnesiacs and sleeping beauties, on the run from the old worlds they have never seen, bring who-knows-what kind of plagues with us. They'll welcome us with open arms."

"Perhaps not you, Earther, but I know this kind of world. Fuego is not so different from Mars. I can help them put it right." Gusev said.

"Like you did back home," Harlan said, with a wry smile.

I was just about to change the subject, when Ania did it for me. "No, I can't see it," she muttered to her unseen correspondent. "Shall I ask them?"

"Ask us what?" Ellie said, flicking a not-particularly-friendly glance at her. Ania glanced back; her eyes were dark-ringed, as if she hadn't slept for a week.

"Where is the- you know, the space station. All I can see is planet."

"Oh, you can't see it on that scale," Harlan said, flicking a finger at the planet on the wall. "Here, I'll call up a magnification for you." He made no visible motion, but a small part of the image expanded until if filled most of the field of view.

A respectably large space habitat could now be seen, moving against the thin clouds on the planet below; several rings counter-rotating hypnotically. Nearby a disc-shaped spacecraft accompanied the habitat, quite a large one it seemed, but small compared to the station itself.

"Look, they've got a flying saucer," Ania said.

Gusev shook his head. "That's the inflatable heat shield on an orbit-to-surface shuttle. The same sort of trick we used to use on Mars in the early days."

"Uh-huh. That's what you need when your dumb planet has too much gravity for a rocket landing and not enough atmosphere for a lifting body." Harlan smirked.

"Are you calling my homeworld stupid, mud-eater?" Gusev became angry in a flash.

"Don't get snarky, red-boots," said Harlan, but the thin wiry Martian launched himself at the Earthman's head.

In the low gravity created by Starlark's leisurely spin the fight was like a slow ballet, with arms and legs wheeling in space and little contact with the cabin floor. Harlan had the advantage of Earth strength, but Gusev wanted to fight much more than he did.

I decided that this was getting no-one anywhere, so I pushed myself in between the two men and thrust them apart. Perhaps a bit too loudly, I told them "That's Enough!" They were both a little shocked at my strength and anger, and so was I.

I don't quite know where that came from, to be honest; but who knows anything on this ship of amnesiacs, to use Harlan's words.

Later, (a few minutes ago to be precise, just before I wrote this journal) Hoyle thanked me for stopping the fight. "We are all somewhat highly strung at this moment in time, young lady," e said.

"Except yourself," I replied.

"Oh, don't you believe it," e said. "I am on tenterhooks." I have no idea what tenterhooks are, for the record.

"I wanted to speak to you about another thing, by the way, Ms Denley," e continued.

"What's that?"

"The young Earther colonist, Ania. You may have noticed that she often carries out a conversation with someone on her neural interface, even while talking to people who are actually present in the room."

"Yes; but that isn't all that unusual. Some people just prefer talking in cyberspace to talking face-to-face. Plenty of people do that."

"Indeed; certain people have annoying habits, and appalling manners. But I am in control of all network communications within the ship, you know. And I can tell you that there is no-one on the other end of the calls she is making."

"I see. Oh dear."

"Quite. I do feel responsible for you all, in many ways; I only wish I could have prevented so much suffering during the cryostasis process. But since that has not been possible, I feel I must be solicitous of your welfare as far as possible in the coming months.I suspect this is connected with some undiagnosed trauma she has suffered during her period of vitrification; but I do not have time to fully treat it before we reach the planet. I'll administer some appropriate medicines for now, but I'd be grateful if you could keep an eye on her."

"Of course," I said, with a certain degree of trepidation.


Steve Bowers

Episode 3 / Episode 5