The Starlark - 5
Image from Steve Bowers

Imhotep 12, 764 AT, Prima Station, Epsilon Indi orbit

Well, we have finally made contact. I am recording this in a temporary dormitory on the Prima, the Indi space station. The Stevens (that is what they call themselves) have moved us to the outermost ring, where the gravity is highest; tomorrow we go to the planetary surface, and we must get acclimatized to having weight again. I think it will take more than this, but we shall see.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Our ship is connected to the non- rotating hub of the station by a long inflatable tube. The Stevens sent us the specs for the docking equipment, but it still took two hours to connect the tube successfully. The equipment they are using is many centuries out of date; this is not surprising, since they left the Solar System in 499 a.t.. But after two centuries in interstellar space, the Starlark itself hardly looks like an example of modern technology.

The acting captain Ralph Konrad and a couple of other officers boarded the station briefly, and came back with two of the Indi colonists. About a hundred of us were collected in the forward hanger, our view obstructed by the Starlark's stowed shuttle; but I was close enough to see them when they emerged from the tunnel. A tall dark haired woman and a shorter, balding man. A slight pressure difference brought some of their station air with them; it carried some strange smells with it. No doubt our ship would have smelt pretty bad to them, if they could have smelt it. But they both had very thin, slightly shiny membranes inflated over their heads. Obviously they did not want to be exposed to any infections we might have brought with us; for our part we were taking no such precautions. If the Indis have any communicable diseases we will have to accept the situation and either find treatment or otherwise. We can't live inside plastic bubbles on this world for ever.

Acting Captain Konrad said loudly "I welcome you on board our ship, the Starlark. May our meeting bring benefits to your people and to our own."

The tall woman said "Greetings to you all, whosoever you be." At least that is what it sounded like. The plastic helmets they wore made it difficult to hear them. Additionally, their accents and phrasing were strange, they sounded like they had stepped out of an historical drama set a couple of centuries ago, with an overlay of something entirely new.

"Come now with us into our habitat, Prima, those who would." She turned tail in the microgravity and scuttled back into the tunnel, leaving the male behind. He gave a slight smile, beckoned and followed her. The hundred or so people in the hangar looked at each other more or less in silence, baffled and surprised.

Hoyle had not spoken until this point, but now that the Indis were back in the tunnel, he said "Well, I think that is an invitation to follow them. All those chosen to be in the First party should make their way down the tunnel now; take care please. Acting Captain; perhaps you would like to take the lead, as you have already seen the lie of the land, so to speak."

"Yes, yes, come along now. Don't want to keep the natives waiting," Konrad said rather tetchily. Yes, I do think I remember him now; a rather bad tempered but competent individual. We bounced down the tube, Ellie just behind me with two of her Dustie companions. "Phawg!" I heard her say. "What a k-nits!" Yes, I thought; it does stink. Strange cooking, new plastic, a hint of latrine; the station was a rough and ready place, it seems.

We entered a large inflated vestibule area, lit by bright clusters of cold white diodes. That makes the place look out of date by itself, I thought. Lighting technology has moved on since their ship left Earth; on the Starlark the thin walls themselves give a soft glow, when they are not displaying images or data. Because of the glare from these lights it was difficult to see the Indis as they floated at all angles against the far wall of this space. But I began to notice similarities between them. Too many similarities. There were only two types here; a tall thin, dark-haired or grey-haired woman, and a shorter man, displaying various stages of baldness.

I looked at Ellie, who had noticed the same thing. We had seen this sort of thing before; back in my childhood on 6Hebe there were many gatherings like this, and on rare occasions since that time whenever the Parthene clone families gathered together. For that is what the Indis were; a clone race, with only two phenos that I could see. There were younger and older versions of each type, but they were all one or the other. Ellie and I drew together and linked arms. In some ways it was like coming home.

The oldest of the female Indis moved forward slightly, then stopped. She was attached to a thin dexter-arm, the same silver colour as the walls, which held her in place in the microgravity. Now I noticed that the other clones, about twenty in number, were each held in place by similar equipment. On the other hand we newcomers were drifting and jostling each other, grabbing each other's arms and bouncing off the walls. Not a very impressive sight, it must be said. The woman looked at Ellie and myself, with a small flicker of interest, before addressing us in a loud voice.

"People from Sol, I greet you. I am Barbara-Prima Barbara Stevens, of the Stevens family. Your arrival is unprecedented and unexpected; our family had thought the Old System dead. Still, you are here, and this is as it must be. With your help we can start to make this system into a new home for our people." The plastic membrane she wore vibrated when she said certain words. Something in her manner seemed dismissive, perhaps even hostile, but she seemed to address her remarks mostly towards my clone cousin and myself. Acting Captain Konrad was fretting nearby, apparently unhappy at being ignored.

"Greetings to the Stevens Family, on behalf of all of us, of course. I am Acting Captain Ralph Konrad of the Arkship Starlark. Yes, I am sure we can help you in this effort, er, Barbara-Prima Barbara Stevens; we have much to give you, I believe. All we ask is the opportunity to build a home in this system."

"We will consider the details of such things later. For now I suggest we eat together. The Prima habitat has only limited fare, I regret; but we can manage to keep you fed until you are transferred to the surface."

The Stevens clones all moved as one on their dexter-arms, towards a large door in the far wall. They helped us move out of the large space, passing us from had to hand like parcels. We were taken into a smaller cylindrical space, ringed with open doors leading into elevator cars. Once inside the cars- aligned carefully with our feet pointing outwards- we moved out to the rim of the rotating habitat. As we did so, gravity returned, increasing until the pull was several times greater than that inside the rotating sections of our own ship.

Feeling heavy and somewhat uncomfortable we ate a meal of uninspiring vatgrown food, handed to us by the male and female Stevens. Once by chance I saw a different type behind a bulkhead door, a tall curly-haired cook preparing our food. He looked at me with an expression of surprise and what might have been fear or even disgust, then slammed the door.

"I suppose you've noticed that they are all, well…" the Acting Captain said to Ellie and myself, as we ate. He was seated at the same long table as ourselves, together with Harlan and Pietre the two medical officers, and some other crew. He had made a point of inviting us to his table.

"Clones, Acting Captain, that's the medical term," Harlan said, lightly.

"Yes, yes, I know." Konrad had a dark look about him. "I'd like you and Ms Denley here to act as liaison officers; we haven't many clones on this ship, and I have a feeling that they might feel more comfortable talking to you two. There's something cold in their attitude towards us, it seems to me; perhaps you can warm things up a bit."

"Ho Yoj," said Ellie, but I said, "Of course, Acting Captain. Anything to help relations between our people and the Indi colonists. The Stevens Family, I suppose I should say. If they really are an all-clone family I should be able to help. I was brought up in a very similar society many years ago."

"A couple of hundred years ago, now," said Harlan. "We are none of us getting any younger."

I ignored him. "Perhaps their society is not too different from the Parthene sisterhood. We will have to see."

Imhotep 14, 764 AT, Tierra del Fuego surface

Ellie and I have been assigned quarters in a spartan inflatable dormitory on the surface of Fuego. We descended yesterday in the flying-saucer shaped re-entry vehicle along with ninety-five other colonists. A rough ride, with alarming creaking noises as the disk slowed down by aerobraking in the thin atmosphere. Most of the others are bunked in dorm rooms of six or eight, with a small amount of room for their personal effects. Fortunately Ellie and myself have a double room all to ourselves, although there is only one bed. Our two small bags, containing lightweight clothes and a few essential memory brickettes, were brought to us by a silent and unresponsive humanoid robot; the other colonists had to retrieve their luggage themselves from the hold of the ship.

"Looks like we are getting special treatment," I said.

Ellie lowered herself onto the bed carefully; the planet's gravity was quite a bit more than we were used to. "Do you see me complaining?"

"The Captain wants us to take an active role in the liaison process with the Fuegans. For whatever reason, they see us as a class above the other refugees; somehow we have to capitalize on that perception."

"Uh, huh, revetaw, revetaw."

I translated this to myself. "I'll give you `whatever', Ellie. We have to take this seriously. This world is our new home."

"Yeah. Great, isn't it," she said. I listened to the sounds of the other colonists filtering through the inflatable walls; they didn't sound too happy. "We'll have to start by trying to sort out the accommodation arrangements," I said. Somehow I didn't look forward to sharing my quarters with this prickly young woman for the foreseeable future. Especially as I can see so much of myself in her.

Imhotep 19, 764 AT, Tierra del Fuego surface

Today we have started our basic training, learning various safety procedures and how to work with the Fuegan technology. The Stevens rely heavily on non-sentient robots and automated systems, obviously based on prototypes from the century of their departure but quite often modified in ingenious ways. The colony has been developing independently for a century or so, and their tech has moved on somewhat. Luckily they seem to have some pretty good engineers among their number, although the modifications which have been made are all strangely uniform. I think I can understand that — a group of cloned engineers would all think alike, no doubt.

The two phenotypes we had already met in orbit were the only two examples of the Stevens clones who were involved with our training. The females all had Barbara as part of their name; the males were all Ivans, but they each had a different first name which they answered to. Confusingly, the most senior Barbaras often had the first name Barbara as well, and the senior Ivans were similarly named. On occasion I noticed one or two other clone types, but they would not speak to us directly. At all times the Stevens wore the thin plastic hoods that protected themselves from our infections.

One of the Barbaras showed us the emergency exits and the general layout of the habitat cluster, while demonstrating that almost all the equipment was controlled by specialised neural interfacing.

"This will not work for you, unhappily," she said, showing us an electric surface buggy in a utility shed filled with similar devices. "Soon this problem we will fix."

The Martian Dustie, Gusev, was not convinced. "l bet I could get it to work, he said. "Your interfaces are pretty basic stuff compared to what I'm used to- no offence, like," he added, awkwardly, but he was concentrating on the mental interface now. After a minute or so the machine started to run, hesitantly. "There you are. Elpmis," he said. The buggy immediately stuttered and died.

"No, it is not possible, sorry; the controls are protected," the Barbara said smugly. "We have special software which will let you control this. Tomorrow we download for you."

Later, while we were having our communal meal, another meal of unidentifiable vatgrown processed foodstuffs served by the mindless robot servants, we were joined by a dozen or so Ivans and Barbaras. The two clone groups sat separately, and the Ivans rarely spoke to the Barbaras and vice versa. However within their clone group they were animated, jovial, intimate even. I saw a couple of the younger Ivans with their arms around each other's shoulders, and two of the Barbaras shared a kiss. The oldest Barbara, however, was watching Ellie and myself closely. I turned to look at my cousin, who turned to me at the same time with a look of realization in her eyes. "Oh, my, God," she said quietly, for once avoiding the annoying backslang.

Later, in our shared bed, she said, "That explains a lot. They put us in here together because they expect us to shag each other."

"It's unbelievable," I said. "Their culture must have taken a completely different turn from our own Sisterhood. They started off with, what, seven different genotypes; that is all that survived the cryosleep. They must avoid interclone relations because of the risk of inbreeding. They quite simply keep all their intimacies within the clone groups themselves."

"That's appalling- like some kind of incest or something. Well, if they think us two are -like that — then they are dead wrong. Astraea on a bike!" She rolled her eyes.

"Hmm. It looks like setting up a liaison with these people might be a bit more problematic than I expected."

"Well," Ellie said," One thing's for certain. We can't give up and go home."

I thought about the old Solar System, and the life we had left behind, and the empty space which was my half-remembered relationship with Rosie, who still slept in the hold of the Starlark four hundred kilometers above our heads.

"No. We are here and that's that. We will have to make our home here now, somehow."


Steve Bowers

Episode 4 /Episode 6