Voices/Future Tense

An Orions’ Arm E-zine

The Starlark: Part One

Steve Bowers


March 16, 645 AT / After Tranquility (2614 Christian era)

The ship is accelerating as I write; a comfortable 0.5 gee, more or less the same as the gravity in Tyr habitat, where I was born.

Tyr is now three times as big as when I was a sprog, and is getting bigger all the time; but it is hellishly crowded with refugees from the Martian surface. Last Martian year one of the rings was hit bad by swarm fever and had to be spaced; the fever has mutated again, and even the Hyperturings can’t develop countermeasures fast enough.

Once again I give thanks that some of us, at least, can escape to the stars.

Down below, at the bottom of the ship, the energy of the Sun’s heart is burning; a steady stream of muons from the annihilation of antimatter provokes the hydrogen atoms to fuse. I am one of the fusion monitor supervisors, working shifts of an hour at a time watching the motors burn. We gather in the control hub and interface with the Ship AI, Hoyle, during our shifts; it takes a certain level of skill to switch between direct neural interface data and spoken language during the shift; but most of us have been doing it for years.

At the end of the day I suspect we are only there to shut the ship down if Hoyle bugs out; there are many subtle viruses are out there in the cybernet and not even the artificial minds can be certain of immunity.

By the way, we call our ship’s brain “Fred”, when we are being informal; our craft is the good ship Starlark, bound for Epsilon Indi.

March 9, 645 AT

Tomorrow the last colonists will enter hibernation. I will be going with them, if health permits, but it will be six months before they store me. By that time we will be at cruising speed and in the cold between the stars. So many have fallen to the fever that we could barely find enough healthy specimens for storage as statics on the Ship. Another twenty hours free of symptoms and free of antibodies in my blood and I will be one of that crew.

I can hardly express my sadness at parting from Elaine, my twin; but she cannot go to the stars carrying the swarmfever. We need reasonably perfect specimens if we are to start anew; the cynical ones amongst us say that we will be trading the most perfect statics with the colonies already out there.

If that is the way it will be then it is better than staying here, in this dying, diseased system staring at the forbidden Earth.

March 15, 655 AT

Finally I have mustered up the courage to start a new entry in this journal. The truth is, I cannot remember writing the early entries – or the start of our journey at all. My memory of the ten years before this ship left the Solar System is a complete blank. It is difficult to explain how disorienting it is to find that I am on an interstellar ship more than a light year from Earth, when the last thing I remember is the first trickle of refugees from that world arriving at our habitat, ragged and in despair.

I still feel cold, chilled to the bone, and my body aches, while the least said about my constitution the better – I can barely stagger to the tiny lavatory. Waking up from freezing is probably the worst thing that I have ever experienced, but as I have lost more than ten years of memory I can’t really be sure.

Gone are the memories of the bad times on Tyr habitat. I can read about them in my journal, the billions of people expelled from Earth spreading out through the Solar system and the thousands that poured into our tiny orbiting worldlet. And the crime, riots, looting and murder that resulted. But it must have been bad, if I chose to lose everything and risk death or worse on this starship.

Strange- I was frozen for ten years – actually, the word is apparently `vitrified’, because the ice achieved a glass-like state inside my cells, supposedly minimising damage.

A despicable lie, of course.

It was well known before I left Tyr that this process was dangerous- many of the frozen ones die, or suffer various degrees of brain damage. Well, that seems to be what I have got now- mild memory loss (doesn’t feel so mild to me) and trauma to my internal organs. This nice guy, Harlan, who is the only living soul I have seen so far since waking up, says that I am lucky. He hasn’t told me how many others have woken up in a worse state, or haven’t woken up at all.

As I was saying, I was frozen for ten years, and I have lost ten years of my memories. Twenty years have passed- a little more, perhaps because of the time thing. What was it again? Dispersal – differential- ah, yes. Dilation. Time dilation. Einstein and all that.

Mild aphasia, Harlan calls it. A slight word-blindness. Could have been worse. He tells me that the AI wakes a small number of people up every month to test how the vitrification process is working; over time everybody will be thawed and refrozen at least once. The ship we are on- my Journal calls it the Starlark- is travelling at a tenth of the speed of light toward a star I know almost nothing about.

March 28, 655 AT

Soon I will have to go back into the ice bath. My memories have not returned to any great degree, and I fear that I will lose my mind completely if they freeze me again. But the ship AI, Hoyle, tells me that e has new techniques e can try, which e says have been tried out on the other ark-ships. Hoyle is apparently in touch with all the other ships as they flee through space. The medical systems will fill my brain with subcellular devices, a new type Hoyle is keen to try out; these will be frozen along with my brain but will maintain a low level of activity, working to protect my cells and my memories even at subzero temperatures.

I find it a little hard to believe, myself, but the AI seems very confident. E also tells me that I was once a valued member of the crew, and I once had useful skills that e thinks e will be able to restore to me. My journals say that I was a fusion drive supervisor- this skill won’t be needed till we start to decelerate. Perhaps Hoyle will be lucky, and e will make me remember somehow. And myself of course; I think I need luck at the moment.

One other set of memories I would dearly like to recover are my memories of my partner, Rosie. I have pored over the journal entries dealing with our life together, but without success. She seems like a complete stranger to me. Perhaps I could feel just a suggestion of familiarity when I tried really hard; she certainly looks like my type, and I can imagine us together. The story from Tyr habitat of how we hid from armed gangs for ten sols without food seems so real, that I can almost persuade myself that I remember it.

But I won’t get to meet her this awakening; she is still frozen, still vitrified – still ‘still’ in the hold of the ship, and I won’t be around when they wake her up in a couple of years time. If, of course, they manage to wake her up at all.

April 15 672 AT

This time, the waking was even worse. The waking room was noisy, people walking round, bumping the cot I occupied, clambering over the equipment; I felt piercing pains and nausea, and couldn’t make anyone understand me for hours. Eventually, with some sedatives and painkillers in my blood, I could relax a little; and then I realised that I could remember where I was. I could have whooped for joy if I’d had the strength.

Waking a little more, the picture was not quite so rosy; I realised that I had not recovered any of the memories lost when I awoke last time; but at least I wasn’t getting any worse. Turning my sore head to either side I noticed a couple of sleeping colonists sharing the room with me; they weren’t recovering from hibernation, just sleeping normally. They seemed cramped and uncomfortable. A little later I got to talking with one of them, a colonist named Ania. She told me that she had been unfrozen a month or so before, and found a ship full of other colonists who were refusing to be refrozen. So many of the thawed statics were suffering from loss of memory, dyspraxia, paralysis and organ failure that no-one was keen to be refrozen. Alia said that the ship was now full of refusniks, determined not to go back into the ice- coffins and risk irreparable damage.

“I did lose some memory myself, last time” I said. “But this time it looks like I’ve got away with it. At least, as far as I can tell.”

“I’m very pleased for you, I’m sure. But one awakening without… problems… is no guarantee that the next one will be okay. You just don’t know; it’s like playing Martian roulette.”

In the background I could hear a constant murmuring, a ship full of fretful and bored people most of whom had declined to be refrozen.

“You can’t stay awake for the rest of the journey,” I said to Ania. “We are still more than eighty years away from our destination. You will die before we get there.”

“The ship has some medical facilities; we can cook up anti-aging treatments. I would be over a hundred when we get there- but I’d still be fairly healthy. A hundred isn’t all that old these days.”

“You’d probably be too old to have kids; a colony is never going to survive without children.”

“I might be able to cope, even at that age. Besides, I could have kids on the ship. What else is there to do? We’ve already got a dozen or so children on board.”

Right; that explains one thing, anyway. I had been hearing babies crying in the general hubbub; I thought I was imagining it.

“This ship is far too small to become a generation ship.” I said. “There isn’t enough stored food on board, for a start.”

“The fab-lab can make some more. Recycle the waste and all that.”

“There won’t be enough organics on board to feed a growing population. I hate to think about where we would get more organic feedstock from; the seedstore? Are you going to eat the statics when you run out of food?”

“Is there any reason to keep them? We can’t thaw out anyone else; there isn’t room on the ship. They say that if the statics aren’t thawed out every couple of decades they lose all the information in their heads. I’m not talking about just losing some recollection, the whole lot goes.”

This is something I vaguely remember, but just as a disjointed fact in all my shattered memories. In vitrification the cellular material is locked in place; but over time quantum level effects randomize the information that makes up a person’s memories. If the ship wakes you up every couple of decades your natural cellular repair mechanisms can sort things back into place, much of the time. I suppose that explains a lot of the memory loss and other bad stuff. But after ten decades? The repair mechanisms just can’t cope, even with the best help nanomedicine can supply.

If they don’t get thawed out regularly, Ania seemed to be saying, we might as well just convert them into organic feedstock and eat them.

*****

More about the authors, Steve Bowers, here.

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