21 July 2012

FGC #20 - "A Gift for Vela"

            Passion is the only reason.  This oxymoron is my mantra.  After all, what else can justify this venture, from which there is no return.
            Gliese 370 is a K-type orange dwarf star, discovered by the primitive sensors used for deep space research two hundred years ago, before the Collapse and the Water War.  But everyone knows about Gliese now.  It’s hard to imagine that once it was known only to a handful of scientists.  Everyone knows about Vela – both the constellation and the planet.  Vela is like paradise, they say.  You have to be reborn to see it.  Most people will never see it, but they will dream about its warm plains and sunny skies, or perhaps ponder the abstract material riches of the Eight-burst Nebula.          
            But a handful of us will not be reborn, and we will see Vela – this threatened paradise, this world so new to our species, yet ancient to its native inhabitants.    
            Our ship, the Halsewell, was constructed for one voyage from the Earth to the Gliese 370 system, thirty-six light years away.  I would make one voyage, too.  Neither Halsewell nor I were capable of making another.  All voyages from Earth to Vela are one-way. 
            I think about all this as I contemplate the enormous array of the magnetic sail from my roundhouse cabin window.  I gaze upon the larger of the two sails, the one that has accelerated us to our present velocity.  Forward, beyond the complicated sensor array, is the foresail, which will decelerate the ship as we approach Vela.  It is packed away in its protective housing for now.    
            But the sails are not what concerns me.  Everything about Halsewell conforms to the design approved by the Directors.  The fact that I know nothing about interstellar navigation is part of the design.  Having someone aboard with that kind of knowledge would be too risky.  So, instead, we have our computer – or, rather, a system of interconnected computers and robots.
            No, the sails are not my responsibility.  They take care of themselves.  My primary job is to make sure the children are ready for the roles they must play, when they grow up.  I also carry out other functions, but socialization and training are the most important things I do aboard the Halsewell.  If that goes wrong, then everything else is for nought. 
            “D’you ever think about it?”
            I glance across the table at Mila.  She is rather severe, and on occasion she talks about the unthinkable in the most casual way.  After you’ve known Mila for a while, you realize that’s just the way she is.  I know she has the same weaknesses that I do, deep down, but like me she is trained to think rationally. 
            “Of course.  How could you not?”
            Mila sighs, running a thin, pale hand through her short, blonde hair.  She has beautiful eyes – exotic, but difficult to read.  Not like me.  She says she can always see what I’m feeling or thinking. 
            “Are you scared?”  She doesn’t need to ask, but she does. 
            “Yes.”  There is no other answer.  “But it’s what we have to do.  We knew that when we agreed to this.”

*          *          *

            The task of preparing the children is becoming more difficult.  The foresail has been deployed for a few months.  We are decelerating, and the children are seventeen years old, at least by the ship’s clock.
            “In about a year, we will reach Vela, and you will begin your new lives as Company servants.  More importantly, you will represent your species to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet.”
            It is a lecture, and the children are students.  I used to be amazed, standing in this cabin, even when it was empty and dark.  I marvelled that here I was, presiding over the most expensive classroom in history.  But now all I think about is the lesson and the kids, these kids who are about to take on very adult responsibilities. 
            “The subject of today’s lesson is balance....”  As I speak, I pay attention to their faces. 
            The classes are small.  There are only thirty children aboard the ship, but even so, we divide them into groups of no more than five.  Each child has to be very closely monitored, but it is better to instruct them in a small group than to provide one-on-one tutoring.  They must learn how to work together, after all.
            “Professor?”  Divya raises her hand, in which she holds her smart-pen, with its blinking lights.
            She intrigues me, Divya.  I like her, and I worry that she is a bit of a favourite, although we are not supposed to make such distinctions, not until the end.  She is pretty.  The boys have noticed that.  Interstellar travel does not trump hormones, and the fact that Divya turns heads means that our acculturation programming has been successful.  It’s all designed... but a few things have gone awry, and Divya is one of them.
            She expresses it mostly in her hair, that wild, tangling, glorious mass of hair.  We did not expect that, based on the files submitted by her parents.  Nor did I ever think the sprite-like spark in her eyes, that I saw when she was tiny, would still be there when she was a young woman.  After all, with Klara it was not like that.  Her spark died, at some point.  Mila noticed it, too, but assured me I should not be worried.  Klara was just a serious girl by nature.
            By nature, I find myself thinking.  Nature is not part of the design.  We are here to cheat nature. 
            “I’m sorry – I spaced out.  Could you repeat the question, Divya?”
            “How can we represent Homo sapiens when we’ve never been on Earth?  I mean, we’ve seen the vids and all, but....”
            “Most people on Earth know less about our planet than you do.  I’ve said it before.  You’re special.”

*          *          *

            For nearly eighteen years, Halsewell has been home.  I was twenty years old when this mission began.  So was Mila.  We all were.  Kids – but carefully selected kids.  A lot happens over the course of eighteen years.  Even on Earth, any thinking person changes between the age of twenty and thirty-eight. 
            Those of us who form the so-called crew have experienced everything our environment allows.  We can say, honestly, that we have lived, despite our confined existence.  I have a lot of memories.  Sex in zero gravity for the first time – that was hilarious, and I certainly did not expect to try that out with Xiao Yue.  When this all started, I was sure she would be sensible, a moral compass.    
            And then there was the time a malfunction in the electrical system made us think the crèche unit had shut down.  Imagine our panic.  I think we all shared the same dreadful thought during that split second before the backup unit lit up the monitors.  And in the end, Mila, in her usual thorough way, discovered that the crèche had been fine all along.  Only the monitors had been impacted – the foetuses were all just fine.    
            The small asteroid that punctured the acceleration sail, now that was exciting.  Normally, the ship is a remarkably peaceful environment.  We go out of our way to spice things up.  But when an undetected rock as big as that asteroid comes within a few yards of taking out your navigational sensor array, I think you can say, “Damn – that was exciting.”  And, fortunately, you don’t have time to be afraid until the danger is over, when you begin to wonder why the asteroid wasn’t detected.  Why didn’t the ship alter course?  All that is supposed to happen automatically, by design.  Well, it didn’t.   
            We’ve had problems with the hydroponic gardens.  I wonder just how many kilometres I have crawled through maintenance shafts, in hazard gear, looking for a leaking hose or degraded cable.  We’ve all been out on the sails, too, although it’s terrifying.  The robots that do most of the external repairs are very good, but even they sometimes malfunction.  I hate floating at the end of a lifeline.  Over the course of eighteen years, almost everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
            I am beginning to realize that it’s the unexpected that makes up a unique life.  In interstellar travel, at least in theory, you don’t want any surprises.  But out here, this far from Earth, the occasional risky moment is all you really have.  It reminds you how alive you are, the adrenalin and the fast-beating heart, the warm blood pulsing through your veins.
            But no more horsing around.  We must set good examples for the children.
*          *          *

            “Oh, no – this isn’t good.”  Xiao Yue stares into the monitor, her brown face lit up by its pulsating glow. 
            “What’s wrong?”  I hurry to where she is sitting, and she points at one of thirty rectangular vid-feeds on her screen, enlarged with the flick of her finger.
            “Sammy’s at it again,” she says, and I can see it for myself.  I watch him scream and yell, marching round his cabin, hurling things.  Ayesha is cringing, in a corner, instinctively shielding her head, screaming herself – it is muted, but I can distinctly hear her.
            “Go away!”
            “Your call,” Xiao Yue says, but I can tell by the subtle strain in her voice that she’s out of patience where Sammy is concerned. 
            “You know what you’re asking me to do,” I say, leaning close to her, so that only the two of us will hear.
            “It’s got to be done,” she hisses.  “You know that.  We’ve put it off too long.  We should have done it the first time this happened, with Klara.”
            “Alright, then.”  It’s easy to say the words, but I’m not sure I mean them.  Glancing at the monitor, I wonder if we should intervene.  That would be disastrous.  We simply don’t do that.  It would wreck the whole dynamic of the ship.  But fortunately Ayesha is quick, agile, and small.  She escapes Sammy, who is an overgrown, lumbering ball of rage by now.  Not what the Directors wanted – not part of the design. 
            Xiao Yue presses several buttons, his cabin door shuts, and we watch Sammy pound on it, impotently, securely trapped in there. 
            I flick the intercom switch, contemplating what I need to say.  “All members of crew please report to the wardroom.”  It’s simple, formulaic, and fraught with meaning.  I struggle to make it sound matter-of-fact, as if this meeting is going to be just like all the others.
            But it’s not.  Xiao Yue looks at me and takes a deep breath.  Perhaps she’s remembering that silly night we ended up naked, giggling and laughing, trapped on the ceiling of her cabin.  Or perhaps she’s remembering our breakup, later, when I realized she was interested in Sanchez.  We had been confused, angry, maybe even a little scared, curious... but none of us had come from a perfect world.  We solved our problems.  We had time.  No one had ever sat down, round a conference table, to decide whether we would complete the mission. 
            “This isn’t supposed to happen,” was the first thing Mila said, as soon as the wardroom door was sealed.
            “What d’you s’pose the problem is?”  This is Gary, who is in charge of M&O.  He is very concerned.  The only time I’ve seen him more concerned was when there was an unusual build-up of power in the life support system generators.  We all have a favourite amongst the children, and Sammy is his. 
            “Look, we know the donors were screened.  The most extensive possible background checks were made.”  I’m trying to see this rationally – trying to lay it all out and isolate a cause. 
            “How is Ayesha?”  Sanchez looks grave, too, but this is his nature.  He rarely reveals what he’s feeling inside.  He never has.  That’s why I failed to notice what was happening between him and Xiao Yue, all those years ago.
            “Rattled, but she’s fine,” Mila says.  “We talked.  She’s confused, but she says this is the first time Sammy’s been like this.”
            “What about Klara?”  Kumar would have to remind us. 
            “Should we give him a chance?”  Gary is speaking.  He sees in Sammy a little of himself.  I see the same thing in Divya, and I try to imagine what I might be feeling if this conversation was about her.  I like Gary, sadly.
            But Sammy isn’t Divya. 
            “Your call, Doc.”
            Sanchez would say that.  I know I’m not supposed to hate anyone, but right now I hate Sanchez for pushing me like that, the smug bastard. 
            “Executive Order 371.”  I speak robotically, quickly – I know I need to force myself through this.  “Instituting security protocol with respect to Samuel Booker.  Copy and send.”  I hear the beep.  We all do.  It’s done.
*          *          *

            We made it look like an accident.  That’s what the security protocol manual told us to do.  We had been trained to follow orders, and we did, even though it was the most gut-wrenching thing we had ever done.  Three of us were involved, sharing guilt.  When that airlock door rolled back into position, Sammy panicked.  For all his bravado, despite all his muscles, and all his charming good looks, the freezing radioactive hell of interstellar space just didn’t care.  For a moment, blown outside, he probably thought the lifeline would hold.  He was wearing full protective gear, after all.  You could survive for about four hours in that suit, but not if a robot cut through the lifeline.  Not if you went flying, spinning and whirling, away from the ship like that.  The ship didn’t know, couldn’t care, and in any event was not designed to turn around.
            I told myself it really was an accident.  It was not Sammy’s fault.  Something had gone wrong.  The important thing was to teach our charges that things could go wrong, that they weren’t invincible just because they were young.  We also knew it was important for them to grieve and come to an understanding and acceptance of death.  That, too, had been part of the design, but ideally the lesson was not supposed to be taught by one of the children. 
*          *          *

            I had been staring at the pale blue smudge of the Eight-burst Nebula on the monitor for a long time, contemplating the journey’s end.  Vela sprawls below the fragile structure of our ship.  We float in orbit, completing our mandatory quarantine high above a cream-coloured desert that once was a sea.  Almost done.

*          *          *

            “Are you ready, Divya?” I ask.
            We are in the greenhouse, where we have been working since she was a little girl.  Like the others, she is a specialist now.  I was the one who decided, after careful consideration, that botany was her calling.  She loves plants, and so do I.    
            “How can you be ready for this?”
            “Good answer.”  I smile.  I might have said something similar, at her age, in her shoes. 
            “There’s a lot of work to do,” she remarks, looking through the greenhouse window at the planet’s arid surface. 
            She’s right.  After years of instruction, I know she understands fully what that work entails.    
            “On Earth, we idealize the Mediterranean biome.  It’s pleasant.  Problem is, it’s not good if your whole planet’s like that.  If the civilization here is going to survive, Vela’s equatorial belt needs rainforests again - biodiversity.  That’s our mission.  You can do this, Divya.”
            “I don’t understand the Company’s purpose.”  Divya sighs, glancing at me.  “Why are you doing this?”
            “You’ve heard the lectures,” I smile.  “It’s a little late to be asking questions like that, isn’t it?  You know the answer.”
            “Tell me again,” she says, softly.  “I want to hear you say it.”
            “The Iroquois believed they should consider the impact of all decisions down to the seventh generation.”  I speak in a gentle tone, remembering clearly that lecture, the first time I saw the intellectual spark in Divya’s eyes, the birth of wonder and a new, disciplined, mature curiosity.  “The Directors take a similar view of profit.  This is sustainability – the only way we can survive as a species.”
            Divya takes a deep breath.
            I wish I was twenty years younger, one of the youths preparing to enter the shuttle with her.  But perhaps she would catch the eye of one of the colonists already living down there on the surface, among the Velans?  Divya has never looked more beautiful, although there is sadness in her eyes.  She is crying, I notice, and sniffling.    
            “You’re not sick?” I laugh.
            “No chance,” she says, smiling through her tears. 
            “Well, good.  Now, Divya, here’s a present.  I want you to share it with the Velans.  I hope they like it.  The Council cleared it, so don’t worry.” 
            I hold my hand, in a fist, over her outspread hand and pour tiny seeds into her palm. 
            “Poppies, from California.  They’ll grow best in sandy soil.”
            “Plenty of that.”
            She grins, but tears flow very fast from her eyes, now.  I lay a steadying hand on her shoulder, and she looks up at me, sniffing again, trying to compose herself.
            “Why me, sir?” she sobs.
            “It’s part of your training,” I tell her, taking a deep breath.  “The final step.”  I choose not to say what I’m thinking.  I keep one secret for myself.
            This is by design. 
            You don’t say that to someone who loves you.  Instead, I hand her the hypo, and she takes it in trembling hands.  I nod, and she sobs once more, but curls her slender fingers round the gun-like handle.  A thrill courses through me as I watch her, because I know it’s all paid off.  And then she pulls the trigger, injecting me. 
            The poison is quick, warming.  I smile, satisfied, overwhelmingly numb – kneel, and fall.  Divya holds my hand in hers until the last.       
Challenge word limit:  3,000 words
Actual words:  2,996 words        
© William Lailey, 2012.

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