Voices/Future Tense

An Orions’ Arm E-zine

The Starlark: Part Three

Steve Bowers

July 23 694 a.t. Interstellar space

Today we presented the results of the induced-recollection trials to the rest of the unfrozen people on the Starlark. I knew that there were many worried and discontented individuals among them; some refusniks had been awake for twenty years or more. Harlan spoke first, and was very convincing; his earnest, dark face appeared on every wallscreen in the ship, as well as via direct neural interface for those who preferred the intimacy of innervision contact. I routed the datastream into my temporary exomemory, so I can replay his speech now and transcribe it word for word.

“I know that most of you are concerned about the problems we have been having with the ice-baths,” he said. “Well, you should be aware that the technology of vitrification has been improved over the course of this voyage; Hoyle and our medical team have been working for nearly forty years on this system, and it is now improved beyond all expectation.

“I can say with confidence that medical science can heal the worst of the physical damage that may be caused by vitrification. If damage does occur which the on-board medinano can’t deal with, the doc will keep us on ice till we get to the Destination. Indi system already has enough medical infrastructure to deal with most problems, or so they assure us in their transmissions.

“But we all know that the medinano can’t cure memory loss. So many of us have woken up with great sections of our past missing; I know, it happened to me. Even if we have a good chance of waking up with a sound body, the prospect of the loss of part of our mind is daunting. With stakes this high, what options do we have in such a situation? I really don’t blame those of you who have declined to be refrozen. But I am confident that I can say in all honesty that things are different, now.

“In the past few weeks, a few of us have been involved in an experiment; a trial of a new treatment that Hoyle has devised. I’m sure many of you have already heard something about this; we are a small ship, and a crowded one, and rumour travels fast.

“By delving into the subconscious memory, this new technique can encourage your own mind to rebuild your lost past. I’ve tried it, and it certainly seems to work for me. It is like awaking after a dream that you can remember, a dream that makes sense of your lost past and brings it back to you in a very meaningful way.

“I can assure you that in no way does this technique interfere with your consciousness or personality; I am still the same person that I was before starting the trial. To the contrary, I honestly believe that I am more myself than ever. Thus, I now believe that the vitrification process can be regarded as safe, at least as safe as any other modern medical procedure. We cannot continue to support a ship full of unfrozen people; we must start going back into vitrification or starve. This technique will allow you to enter the ice-bath with confidence that you will eventually arrive at the Destination system with your body, and your mind, intact.”

I spoke next, giving a brief account of the extent of my amnesia, and how the induced-recollection treatment had brought the past back to me; most of the other trial subjects gave a short account as well, then the ship’s brain Hoyle spoke in order to sum everything up. His kindly, bespectacled face smiled from the screens or in our innervision.

“I can now with confidence say that you will be safe if you undergo the vitrification treatment. In fact, I am able to increase the duration of each episode of stasis, so that it should only be necessary to thaw each of you once more before we arrive. Seventy more years must pass before our voyage is over. Go back into vitrification now, and you will arrive in the Epsilon Indi system almost before you know it.”

With very few exceptions, the refusniks have one by one volunteered for re-freezing; a number of new ice-coffins have been constructed for the new generation of colonists born during transit. I will be joining them soon. If all goes well, when I next wake in the depths of interstellar space for the last time before we arrive, the Starlark will be full of quiet sleepers once more.

August 28 694 a.t. Interstellar space

There is a downside to being a guinea-pig for Hoyle’s dream-therapy experiment. Before we go back into the ice-baths, Hoyle wants to monitor us for a few weeks. So here I am, still unfrozen and bored.

As a reward Hoyle has promised to wake Rosie as well next time he wakes me; this should be the last time either of us wake up before the Arrival. But time is weighing heavy on my hands, out here in interstellar space. I do have the other guinea pigs to talk to, at least. Harlan is fun, although he can get a little intense; he’s seen some weird shit back in the Solar System. He lost most of his family in the Great Expulsion; they were resistance fighters, before that sort of thing stopped being a good idea. No-one could fight against the Global Artificial Intelligence Amalgamation, the great synthesis of almost all the AI on Earth that became the Goddess GAIA. Or rather no-one could fight and win; plenty tried. But after hundreds of millions died, the situation was clear – the survivors took up the offer of evacuation and left.

Also waiting with us to be re-frozen is Ania, the Euro colonist who I have mentioned before. She seems a little concerned about the treatment; she says it hasn’t really worked for her. I can understand her concerns, as my own recovered memories are patchy and rather confusing, and the medication we are given to induce nostalgia seems to fill me full of longing for an unobtainable past. But somehow the treatment does give me a sense of my own identity. I am determined to build on this, and what ever happens I intend to be myself, no matter who that may eventually turn out to be.

To take our minds off all this uncertainty we have been immersing ourselves in studies. The ship’s library is mostly functional, with only a few portions lost through cosmic ray damage. I have been learning (or re-learning) fusion drive technology, which does seem somehow familiar, as if my mind still hangs onto the skills involved despite the memory loss. Hoyle says he can give me some basic tachydicatic training before we enter the deceleration phase, so that I can help with the final approach if required.

As a group we have also been immersing ourselves in simulations of the new system we are headed towards. Still about six light years away, the star is only a second magnitude spark, not at all impressive; but it is a Sun-like star, about three quarters the mass and diameter of our old sun but similar in temperature. It is, only about one-sixth as bright. That really doesn’t matter too much, as there are at least two planets which are close to the star, and the theory is that these worlds at least can be eventually engineered into something like the Earth

The innermost world is a little like the planet Mercury back in the old system, except it has almost no core. If Luna and Mercury can support colonies- which we know full well they can- then this little world can as well. It has a name; Asencion; given to it by the first colony mission, which arrived more than seventy years ago now. That colony had a very hard time at first, apparently, but now it seems to be doing quite well.

The next world out is called Tierra del Fuego; a large, Mars-like world which could probably be terraformed rather more easily than the red planet back home (No! It is not home! Not any more!). This planet holds a small population of the first colonists, but they still mostly live in orbit in space habitats. Perhaps they lack the man-power to start the terraforming process in earnest, but hopefully we can help there.

The next planet, out at seven AUs is a small gas giant, half the diameter of Neptune. This one is called Neruda, and might be a good planet for gas mining one day when the infrastructure is available. Two more small icy planets, one stained red by sulphur compounds and the other with a thick atmosphere make up the rest of the system.

Way out in the far reaches of the system are two giant worlds, a pair of brown dwarfs (one considerably more massive than the other, though they are similar in diameter). Some faint radio traffic from those objects suggest that the Beamriders might have reached those failed stars recently, but the Riders seem to be avoiding contact for the present. Perhaps they think that everything that comes from the Old Solar System is tainted by the Swarms. That seems to me an overcautious attitude, and I doubt they will ever come to much if they continue to cut themselves off in that way.

October 10, 741 a.t. Interstellar space

Another defrosting, nearly fifty years closer to our goal. After I had been awake for a while, and just starting to focus on my surroundings, I was startled into full awareness by a reverberating thud that sounded throughout the ship. The cabin began to rock, and some small objects were displaced from stowage and slowly fell to he floor in the low, centrifugal gravity. A distant alarm sounded, then cut off.

Finally Hoyle’s faux-English tones came over the public address system, sounding calm and a little amused. “Nothing to worry about, ladies and gentlemen; our little vessel has simply had a brief argument with a grain of interstellar dust. A big one too- it might have been all of a millimetre in diameter. Well, you can rest assured that our triple shield managed to protect us from such a gigantic monster; the outer plate alone was enough to vapourise it, although I’m afraid it did make a bit of a bang.”

My heart was hammering- the presence of interstellar space just outside the walls had never intruded on my consciousness before. Dust grains that big were rare, but a real danger. At least one arkship had ceased transmitting in deep space since the Expulsion, presumably because of a slightly larger collision that did manage to breach the hull. At ten percent of light speed, a dust particle packs as much energy as a respectable bomb.

Eventually a medic came in and gave me a mild sedative- I didn’t know this one, just another of the thousands of qualified personnel we were carrying I made up my mind to ask him his name, but before I could, he addressed me directly in that particular, solemn tone that signals trouble.

“I’m sorry, But I have some bad news.”

“I see. Yes. Well, you had better tell me, then.”

“It’s your partner, Rosie. Some time in the last twenty years, the container she is stored in was hit by a particularly energetic cosmic ray. The damage to the systems was repaired, but not before she suffered some tissue damage. Despite the medical nanotech we have on board, Rosie cannot be restored to a state where she can be defrosted in good health.”

“Is she- I mean – is there no hope? Is she …lost?”

“I have been told that she will have to be kept in vitrification until we reach the Destination; the colony at Indi has better facilities than we have, and there is every chance that she can be revived when we get there. But we cannot give you a guarantee of success, I’m afraid.”

We sat together in silence, for a while; This medic, whoever he was, stayed with me to give me support as the news sank in. Perhaps I disappointed him, as I took the news quite calmly. Eventually I said to him; “The terrible thing about it all is, I can barely remember her. I’ve lost a lot of my own memories, you know, during this voyage, and if it weren’t for the treatment I’ve been getting from Hoyle I don’t think I would remember her at all. As it is, she seems like someone I barely know.”

Something strange passed over the medic’s face, but he quickly hid it. This must be all as new to him as it is to me, I thought. “What is your name, doctor?”

“Not doctor, actually. I’m just a paramedic. Call me Pieter.”

“Thank you, Pieter. I have forgotten so much, but I have enough to keep me going. I do know that I was in love with this woman; I can only hope – I can pray, that some day she is restored to me. But if that is not to be, I haven’t lost everything. Some of my childhood memories are crystal clear. And we have a whole new set of worlds ahead of us. I’m not saying that we should forget the past- but we might soon be able to make a new future.”

Pieter said to me, “We can make a new world, but we can never leave the past behind.” I glimpsed some sadness behind his eyes, but he was difficult to read. At length he left, and I was left alone with my thoughts.

October 15, 741 a.t. Interstellar Space

The ship is very quiet, these days; the crowds of colonists and children that filled these tiny quarters are gone. Only a few people are awake at any one time, a few colonists, fewer medics, and a few specialists checking the systems. I might have been one of those specialists, but I need more retraining to replace the skills I seem to have lost in the ice. Most of the time I’m alone, trying to make sense of the jumble in my head.

I’m recording this entry in my favoured spot in the forward hold, floating in microgravity between the cargo shuttlecraft and the outer hull. This is the only place where you can get near a real window, and see the stars with your own eyes. The window is no more than a circle of glass ten centimetres across, just enough to glimpse the Pleiades, or the Southern Cross, or Orion. The Destination, Epsilon Indi, would be an unimpressive star dead ahead, if I could see it. We are now only two light years away but it still isn’t very bright – and the angle of the hull makes it impossible to see anyway.

I shouldn’t stay here too long, as the cosmic-ray shielding is very thin here, although I am not entirely sure I care.

I tell myself that I am missing Rosie, I just can’t be sure of my real feelings in this matter. To tell the truth most of my memories of that woman are gone. Of course I do remember the dreams, which were vivid enough; and maybe some other, less dreamlike but more reliable recollections are clawing their way to the surface of my mind. Most of my recent life, and most of what I think I should be, has gone, blown away like smoke.

I have read over my journals and diary entries for the last however-many-years to try to answer that for myself. I believe that I started this diary with the express intention of recording my impressions for posterity; in that case I would expect other people to read it too, one day, Yet reading the pages I realise that I haven’t given many details about myself- this is particularly frustrating for me now that I am trying to re-imagine and reconstruct my life. For several reasons, I realise that I haven’t even mentioned my own name, my ancestry or even my sex. Such as it is.

Someone chancing across this journal might think I was a man; they would be wrong. But then I am not currently much of a woman, either.

So who am I?

My given name is Elanor Denley; I am a member of the clade Parthene. Perhaps this clade will be unfamiliar to my hypothetical future readers; there have never been that many of us, even among the asteroids where our clan began. All Parthenes are female. Our biology has been changed quite subtly to give us control over our own bodies; we can regulate our hormones and when we so desire, we can give birth without sexual contact. Yes, we are parthenogenic, when we want to be. Perhaps I should explain that too- although it is so basic to our nature that it seems impossible to think that any hypothetical reader might not know what the word means. In short, it means we clone ourselves without outside help.

I could have a child at any time, and that child would be a perfect copy of myself. I am a perfect copy of my mother, and my grandmother. For obvious reasons only women can do this little trick. There are no boy-children in the clade Parthene.

Most of the time we Parthenes do not let our hormones rule our lives. The geneticists who developed our race centuries ago gave us fine control over our bodies; we can adapt ourselves to freefall just as well as most planetary gravities, and much of the time we suppress our female cycle. Right now, for instance, I have practically no secondary sexual characteristics of any kind; a stranger might mistake me for a slightly built young male. The great plan was that we would become dispassionate, creatures of logic, and in some ways it has worked; but I can assure you I most certainly have a temper, and I will not suffer disrespect. If those far-off and long-ago geneticists thought they were creating emotionless automatons, they were very wrong.

I was born in the year 601 a.t. on the asteroid habitat 6 Hebe. My mother was killed by a swarm infection when I was in my teens. My aunts and I were relocated to the Tyr Habitat orbiting Mars, and I trained as a fusion plant technician there. Most of my life I have been working on the surface of Mars or in orbit trying to maintain the power generation equipment. First the surface of Mars became too dangerous for colonisation, then the habitat itself was relocated far from the planet for safety reasons. I can still remember the news of the Great Expulsion from Earth, but after that, my memories have become unreliable, thanks to the low-level damage caused by the effects of cryostasis on board this ship.

Many of my skills have been lost because of this trauma, and bizarrely, I have also lost the ability to speak Esperanto, which I clearly remember knowing well at college.

Somewhere in my lost years I hooked up with Rosie, also a Parthene; neither of us has reproduced, but there should still be plenty of time for that when we reach the new system.

If we do.

*****

More about the author, Steve Bowers, here.

3 Responses to “The Starlark: Part Three”

  • cumhur cemal özmen says:

    Story is just fine.But I have question about genetics of Parthenes (superior women)?Arent they supposed to degrade, degenerate by time (Like vice versa of Alpha Centauri)?The advantage of sexual breeding is to overcome to degenerated genes of the partners.Parthenes somehowhave to sort this problem out without using sexual breeding.Moreover giving to a birth to yourself is deadly static, dull in such a extremely dynamic, creative, everchancing universe of OA ! (I love OA I keep reading it everyday for a couple of hours :) )

  • Steve Bowers says:

    Parthenes can take gene therapy treatments which allow them to breed with baseline humans; unfortunately the parthenogenic abilities are effectively recessive, so are often lost in the hybrid.

    Also available (but expensive in this era) is female/female breeding where two women can merge their genetic material; the fertilisation stage would have to be carried out in vitro.

    I suspect that a few hundred years from now, many children will be born with genetic material drawn from a wide range of sources. In a hi-tech society, the normal rules of parental inheritance need not apply.

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