Voices/Future Tense

An Orions’ Arm E-zine

The Starlark: Part Six

Steve Bowers

March 2, 764 A.T., Tierra del Fuego surface

With one of the Barbaras in attendance, I have been trying out the Fuegan equivalent of the skintight surface suit. This turns out to be quite different to the Martian suit I have been used to. It opens in front, and down both legs and arms as far as the tight cuffs. Once I have stepped inside and manually closed the seals, it tightens and shrinks to fit my body. At this point it feels a bit like the snug Martian suits, which flow around the wearer and close themselves, but feel similarly tight. Obviously these suits are based on somewhat older technology.

The skinsuit has to be tight, because the pressure on the surface of Tierra del Fuego is so low. Currently the pressure is about 70 millibars, and this is much lower than the minimum partial pressure of oxygen which is needed for life support. If I just wore an oxygen mask and no skinsuit, my lungs would fill with a minimum of 200 millibars of oxygen and I wouldn’t be able to breathe out. So the skin suit exerts mechanical counter-pressure on my chest, replicating the pressure of a much thicker atmosphere. The suit covers every part of my body, particularly my ears (too much pressure inside my ears would soon leave me deaf)- but not my hands, which have separate and much lighter gloves with minimal counter- pressure.

This all sounds fine in theory, but the suit is stiff and inflexible without active control, and the joints and groin are particularly uncomfortable. I expect the groin area would be particularly excruciating for a male of the species; this is perhaps why Ellie and myself have been chosen to try them out first. In the Martian suits we were accustomed to back in the old Solar System, the suits were linked via Direct Neural Interface to the wearer’s nervous system, allowing the suit’s nanocloth to move in anticipation of the movements of the wearer. Apparently these suits operate on a similar system, with a network of tensioning chords instead of active cloth. However the DNI systems the Stevens clan uses are completely different and incompatible with the ones we have.

“The link is easy to install; the tip is based on the structure of a nematode worm, but is under perfect control. You will feel no pain,” the Barbara said in a reassuring voice. I was not completely reassured. “The link enters at the back of your neck here; this will not make problems with your present link behind your ears.”

“I’m not sure about this,” I said. “If we wait a few days we will bring the first fabricator down from the Starlark; then we can make suits which are compatible with our neural links. There will be no need for new links.”

“I do not agree so,” said the Barbara, her accent thick. “So many of our devices are controlled by these links; it is better that you have our system installed, then you can make everything work. Yes, and when your machines arrive, some of us can get your links installed too; then everyone will be able to work with both types of technology. Do you not agree?”

After some thought I agreed to have their worm install its little link in my head. Ellie agreed too, although with some distaste. The installation of a new neural link is something I had not foreseen, but I suppose it is inevitable it reminded me of the far-off day when I had my first neural link installed, at the tender age of five. The tiny nanotech filaments that filtered into my skull back then were completely painless- and I hoped that the wormy links that the Stevens were going to place into my central nervous system would be just as unnoticeable.

A couple of hours later I had found out that my hope was misplaced- the Stevens link made me nauseous and my head ache, and I began to regret my decision. But that soon passed, and I feel fine now. Ellie says the procedure didn’t bother her one bit, and I’m just getting too old for all this. I do find that she is capable of being irritating without any effort at all.

May 20th, 764 AT, Atagonia Regio, Terra del Fuego

The worst problem at the moment, here on the surface of Fuego, is the shortage of food. We have put up hectares of inflatable greenhouses, and pulverized thousands of tones of rock in the last week, using the robot earth-movers the Stevens have at their disposal. But those robots are pretty dumb, and we have to supervise them all the time- they’ll dig a few tonnes then just wait for a transport to come and take it away, instead of piling the rubble up and digging some more. If you tell them to pile the rock up that’s all they’ll do- they’ll forget about loading the transport altogether. Sometimes they’ll drive into or over part of the greenhouse, or worse still just stop and wait orders. They do an awful lot of that. And the uncomfortable skinsuits make every movement on the surface of the planet a trial.

But despite all our efforts we remain hungry. I am not too bothered by the deprivations; the pioneer spirit (or something) has been awoken in my heart. But some of the others are suffering badly. Some aren’t too well from the effects of the vitrification process; not everyone has had time to benefit from Hoyle’s dream therapy. Others, such as Harlan, seem to find the pioneering life difficult. Harlan and many others have declined to use the Stevens interface worms; they cannot therefore use the heavy equipment that the Stevens provide. Harlan is busy with medical care for the ill and the undernourished, but he complains bitterly all the time. Particularly about his lack of access to data.

“What do they think I am, a walking textbook? Every doctor has to be able to check the MedCat, or they won’t know what they’re dealing with. That’s what computers are for. This isn’t the Industrial Age, you know.”

At least he gets to wear one of the rare Starlark skinsuits, only a few have made their way to this remote location, and the Stevens are supposedly still ‘testing’ them before distributing them more widely.

In recent days Ellie has turfed me out of our shared accommodation; she has started sleeping with Gusev, the Martian. A man. I’m not entirely surprised; she has always been very closely involved with the young Dustie radicals from the old red planet. But it gives me much to think about. I am supposed to be genetically identical to her; well, there is no ‘supposed’ about it, I am well aware of my, and her, genetic make-up. Never in my life have I ever considered relations of that nature with a man. At this moment in time, with all my hormones tightly controlled, and the hunger pangs in my belly, I can barely consider relations with anyone. But if she is genetically identical to myself, does that mean that I could also be attracted to a male if the situation arose? Perhaps it is just my culture that has always stopped me. But I don’t think so.

In any case here I am, in the shared dormitory, with a dozen other exhausted and undernourished colonists, including Ania. I can only marvel at my clonecousin’s determination, since I have no energy to spare for such exertions. At night we all sleep like babies, and in the morning we awake with what seems to be a surprising amount of optimism. We will conquer and shape this new world, even if it kills us.

July 15, 764 AT, Atagonia Regio, Terra del Fuego

Today we are cowering underground to escape the comet-rain. We’ve deflated the greenhouses until they are nearly flat, just barely clearing the crops inside, and tied them down tightly so they won’t blow away in the storms that are coming. Elsewhere we’ve been digging drainage ditches and channels to control and retain the expected floods. For all the time we have been here, a large icy object has been silently falling toward the planet from the outer system, and today it will hit. Behind that object is another, and another, and another, each one months or years away. These objects will impact in the undeveloped Eastern hemisphere of Fuego, with the power of a hundred thousand hydrogen bombs, and cause rainstorms all over the planet. And worse than rainstorms; secondary impacts might occur anywhere on the surface, so we are in deep shelters for our own safety.

The time for impact came.

“Damn,” said Ania; “Did you feel that?”

“No,” I said. She paused, talking to her mysterious, imaginary confidante perhaps.

“Isn’t it? I would have thought-“

She looked at me. “Apparently the impact wasn’t really big enough to be felt on this side of the planet. In any case, it would take several minutes for the shock wave to move through the core. Or so I’m told.”

Interesting; her imaginary friend seems to have more common sense than she does. Is that unusual? I wish I knew more about this sort of thing. The Stevens database is not as comprehensive as the library on the Starlark, and much of it is denied to me. I’m used to just thinking about a query in a certain way, and that action would open a search engine in my neural interface, allowing me to draw on hundreds of years of electronic data. Here all I get is the unfriendly House Stevens library, which blocks half of my enquiries. Ania’s imaginary friend seems to be a more reliable source, in any case.

July 16, 764 AT, Atagonia Regio, Terra del Fuego

Ellie came running to me as I supervising the reinflation of one of the domes. She fought her way through the hanging loops and billows of transparent material, oblivious to it all.

“Gusev has been lost. Oh, Elanor, help me find a landcraft! I must go to help.”

“What do you mean, lost?” I held her as she looked wildly around, perhaps expecting to find a landcraft here in the dome.

“There was a flash flood. Gusev and one of the others were working on the edge of the arroyo. They were washed away- the water has spread out over tens of square kilometers. We must find him- find them – they have oxygen and masks, they can’t drown- can they?”

“Is anyone else looking?”

“Yes, yes, of course. But we must help them. I can’t just sit around and wait.”

We managed to flag down the last landcraft as it went out to join the search. An all terrain vehicle with huge wheels which could change shape in a most useful way, we found ourselves battling through the wind and rain towards the floodplain. The large winged aircraft that the Stevens use could not fly in this wind, which was blowing at a hundred kilometers per hour at times, but with less force than one might expect because of the thin atmosphere.

Even before we got to the plains we heard on the radio that Gusev had been found. The other colonist had survived, but Gusev had not made it. Apparently the mask had been torn from his face by the boiling water. (Quite literally boiling, as the temperature and pressure means the water is near the triple point where it boils and freezes at the same time). Ellie was inconsolable. The search party returned to the camp, our landcraft full of people trying to lend their support to my cousin for her loss. Perhaps the best support came from a medic, not Harlan this time, but the other one in our party, Pieter. He gave Ellie a shot of sedative, which calmed her down.

Later we talked for hours about her relationship with the Martian refugee, and the other Dustie radicals. Ellie said that she had only wanted a casual, even experimental affair with the man; until he was gone, she hadn’t given a thought to the meaning of their relationship. Now he was dead, and she would never be able to work out where she stood with him.

“But everyone else knows,” Ellie said. “You saw how they all rallied round to comfort me in my time of loss. Everyone knows everyone else’s business in this camp. I’m going to be stuck with being the bereaved partner- but he was just my friend. I don’t know what to think- I wouldn’t say this to anyone else, Elanor, but you of all people might understand. We just hadn’t had time to fall in love yet- that’s what’s so unfair.”

“Shush, now. You don’t need to worry about that. If he was your friend, then grieve for
him as a friend.”

“But I don’t know, you see- I don’t know, if I would have fallen in love with him or not.

How can I ever know now?”

*****

More about the author, Steve Bowers, may be found here.

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