Sunday, May 20, 2012

FGC #15 - Ad Astra

Faster-than-light was a dream we were still nowhere near realizing, and if we were patient people, the great dome of Tranq City would eventually have been buried under regolith dust, unpeopled, wouldn't it?

So, as the least patient of us contemplated the great hollowed-out corpses of asteroids being created by the miners who occasionally graced our spaceport (and sometimes contributed to our gene pool), some of us got an idea. Then another got another idea. Soon the ideas overwhelmed us all and hijacked any other purpose we might have had.

It wasn't enough to have colonized Luna. It wasn't enough to have outposts on Mars, Eros, Ceres. Our species would still die when our star did, whether it was after the long wait for it to burn out or in an instant of improbable cosmic disaster catching us with our systemic pants down.

As had been done with the settlement of Luna itself, our mission was best presented as a fait accompli. It was easy to keep the secrets from the Earthbound; all they cared about was power for their gadgets and their medical devices and their amusements, fuel cells to store that power for when they wanted it.

As far as they were concerned, we were the Molochs and they the Eloi, and that was fine with them.

It was fine with us, too.

And so one day the great polar region of Mare Frigoris opened up and discharged its secret contents, great unfathomable rings of metal, dragged clear of Luna's gravity by tug rockets, then linked together and dragged far out past the orbit of Mars. A few Earthbound astronomers noticed this and tried to raise an outcry, but their voices were lost in the din of decadence that Terran culture had become long before Tycho Powe and Spudis Spiegel had escaped it in that home-built tin can of theirs.

I am proud to be a descendant of Tycho Powe's, and while some insisted to me that my heritage should have led to a more exalted role than that I fulfill now, I'm just excited to be aboard, me and my little green friends (some of them lineal descendants of Tomatosaurus rex, actually) and my wife. Our child is due to be the first born in space, in just a few months. I wonder what he – she? -- will be like.

Reedy Powe never tired of reading her ancestor's journal, nor had her predecessors from the look of the thing. Despite the care everyone had taken with it, it was falling apart, smudged, barely legible, treasured nowadays more as a link to the otherwise unimaginable past than as reading material from which something could be learned.

She resisted the urge to give the decrepit notebook a friendly pat and carefully stowed it again in her family's vault, expertly maneuvering there from the reading station despite her pregnancy. Zero gee was so forgiving, not that she'd known anything else, really.

They'd stopped bothering with spinning for artificial gravity some generations ago. Reedy did not know when exactly the decision was taken. No one could, and it was only scholars like her who knew that once the practice had been common, ancestors fearing atrophied muscles and worse.

The bicycles and treadmills they'd also employed against this had long ago been disassembled and cannibalized to build other things, stranger things, things that Marcus Aurelius Powe, the author of the book Reedy had been enjoying, would never have recognized, but which Reedy and her generation accepted as their patrimony along with the enclosed rocky world which was their only home as they hurtled toward their destination.

Reedy worried about all of this, sometimes, in the night cycle. Captain Cross had announced at the last convocation that they were less than a year away from their destination, a small, rocky world orbiting a red dwarf star first seen by the Kepler probe the Earthbound had built and set to looking for exoplanets. With this destination in mind, the lights within the collared asteroids that were the Ship had been tuned to match that of their eventual sun, only for a few hours a day for the generation who had left Luna for the stars and for the plants in the enormous grow houses that had been scraped right off that world's "dark" side and attached firmly to the rock, but gradually for longer and longer as plants and people learned to live in such strange light.

Reedy had known only the red and never the white light, had grown up feeding on plants and animals carefully nurtured to adapt to the new conditions as they had been to one-sixth Earth gravity on Luna and no gravity out in the asteroid belt, had grown up, too, knowing that she and hers would be the first Ship-born humans in hundreds of years to stand (assisted by an exoskeleton, but still, to stand) on a planet's surface, to know up and down, to have to climb and walk and reach instead of merely floating.

And the child kicking in her belly would grow up knowing nothing else. This child would walk upright, would take wind and sky as Reedy had taken rocky walls -- for granted.

This child would be human like those they'd left behind were still human, trapped at the bottom of a gravity well but living just the same.

Reedy stroked her belly fondly, looking out across the vast main cavern of the Ship where against the far wall opposite, a young man fiddled with his prototype exoskeleton. Lowell was one of Reedy's baby's possible fathers -- not that anyone cared about this much, but he was by far Reedy's favorite of her lovers – kind and courteous as all the Ship-born had to be, but also, Reedy thought, a genuinely pleasant person, eager to share the discoveries he made through his tinkering with anyone who cared to ask about them.

His face brightened as Reedy, unconsciously flicking her wrist to get a last bit of propulsion from the guide-ropes joining her area and his, glided across toward him .

“How’s my girl,” he asked, eyeing her belly. “It’s going to be soon, isn’t it?”

“A week or two,” Reedy agreed.

“You sure timed that interestingly, didn’t you?”

“Well, I didn’t time it at all,” Reedy said, laughing a little. “But if I’d known how close we were to – what did Cross call it? Landfall? – I might have shown a little more restraint, yeah.”

“Ha ha, I bet! But hey, this one will maybe do the best out of all of the kids when we hit ground. He – she? – will never know anything else.”

“Kind of what I was thinking!”

“May I?” Lowell was reaching for her belly, exposed and round, poking out of her coverall.

“Of course! You might have earlier. Anytime.”

“Just, I remember someone complaining once, about how no one respected her space while she was pregnant. She was everybody’s property.”

“Yeah, there’s that, but go ahead. No, come on, if you’re going to, do it!” Reedy grabbed Lowell’s tentative hand and pressed it firmly. “S/he’s kicking right now. Feel it?”

Lowell broke away, startled, the motion propelling both of them apart. “Oops!” Lowell spun around to catch his foot on a loop in the wall for an anchor, and stretched out to catch Reedy’s foot before she could drift too far away and crash. It was a movement so natural to both of them that ordinarily they didn’t think about it.

Reedy read the look on Lowell’s face. “Yeah,” she said.


“But so, show me this?”

“Sure! You want to try it on?”

Lowell helped her into his creation, a little anxiously, seeing already more places where the contraption was going to chafe. He grabbed wads of fabric stuffed with who-knew-what and placed them strategically. The frame already sported many such pads.

“Okay, try moving around.”

Reedy did her best to pantomime walking as she understood it, scissoring her legs back and forth as she held on to a loop in the wall with one hand.

“No, it’s more…”

“More what?” Reedy asked, still flailing and trying not to giggle.

“It’s not just your legs.”

“How do you know that?”

“Study.” Lowell frowned, watching her. “We really need to practice with these. Practice properly.”

“Well, didn’t they used to spin these?” Reedy gestured at the rock and metal all around them “To give an illusion of weight? Maybe it’s time to do that again.”

“YES! I gotta…”

“Go. Captain Cross is over in the reading area where I was.”

Lowell bunched up his legs to launch himself across, then paused awkwardly, looking over at Reedy.

“Go! I can get myself out of this. Not completely helpless, you know.”

Lowell smiled and lunged in for a kiss. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Reedy laughed, already fiddling with some straps.

Within a week, Captain Cross had not only got the ancient spinning mechanisms working (with a lot of help from the Scotts, the Melzers and the Lermontovs) but had drawn up a mandatory training schedule, with orders to Lowell and his crew to get more exoskeletons made as quickly as possible.

Weird as it was to have Lowell’s invention caging Reedy's limbs and forcing her spine into a position that felt profoundly unnatural, it was nothing to trying to move with a heretofore unknown force tugging at those limbs and spine -- and suddenly unwieldy belly -- pulling them in a singular direction. The discomfort was extraordinary. Was this what it was going to be like all the time?

“Stop your giggling,” she snapped. Delilah was watching, a bowl of fresh pea pods tethered to her even as it rested in her lap. Old habits died hard, and Delilah was the oldest person on the Ship.

“Oh, let an old woman have her fun.”

“I don’t see you taking a turn in this monstrosity. They building you one special?”

“I take it you haven’t heard,” Delilah said around a mouthful of vegetables.

“Heard what?”

“Us oldtimers ain’t going down.”

“Ain’t going…?” Reedy stopped struggling with the metal surrounding her.


“I’m confused.”

“Ain’t going down onto the planet.”


“Oh, think about it, girl. We don’t stand a chance down there. I have to have help moving around as it is. So does the captain.”

Tears began to pool in Reedy’s eyes. She twitched at the bizarre sensation of their falling down her cheeks. “But that means…”

“Oh, it will be all right. We’ll just stay on Ship, here. Live out our lives, last one’ll take ‘er down into an ocean when he’s sick of being alone.”


“Pretty sure that was always the plan, honey.” Delilah reached over and gave the exoskeleton a pat. She couldn’t reach Reedy herself. “Lived my whole life on this ship, just like my ma and grandma and great-grandma on back. At least I’ll die in sight of the new sun.”

Reedy smiled wanly at this.

“Now you get back to your exercising.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Must be hell with that belly of yours. When you due, now?”

“Any day, I think.”

Delilah tsked.

Reedy’s next turn in the exoskeleton was more eventful. She was getting better at moving around in it, and with a liberal application of some aloe vera gel at points of contact that chafed despite Lowell’s padding, was more comfortable doing so.

She was alone in the collar when chaos erupted. Voices called out, hooting and cheering, and there was the sound of applause.

“What’s going on?” Reedy shouted. And, when no one answered her, “Hey!”

Lowell came, laughing, through the darkness. Without explanation, he began helping her out of the exoskeleton.

“Come on,” he said when she was free.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t want to spoil it for you.”

Tugging on the guide-ropes to follow him, Reedy approached the crowd gathered around one of Ship’s few portholes.

“Hey, let her through? She hasn’t seen yet,” Lowell said. The crowd parted obligingly and soon Reedy saw the source of the commotion.

“Our sun,” she said. “That’s our new sun, isn’t it?”

And a moment later, “Ow, ow, fucking ow!”

The newest addition to the proud Powe line had a fine sense of drama. Reedy had just gone into labor.


“You’re getting good at this!” Lowell explained, watching a slim-again Reedy going through her paces in the exo.

“Watch this,” Reedy said. “Here, chuck that apple piece onto the ground, would you?”

Lowell complied, and with pride Reedy bent over, exo and all, picked up the fruit, and popped it into her mouth.

“Wow!” Lowell said. “Really good. Did you see that, Astra? Did you see your mommy pick up the apple?”

Reedy’s daughter, all of six months old, was more interested in Lowell’s finger than in her mother’s accomplishments. To Reedy’s disappointment, she looked more like Mikhail than Lowell, but that meant Reedy was still perfectly free to enjoy as much of Lowell’s company as she wanted, in every way she wanted -- and Lowell was far more interested in the child anyway.

“Now we’re spinning, we can’t play ‘toss the baby’,” Reedy noted. “That’s always so fun.”

“Astra’s got more interesting things in store for her, yes she does,” Lowell said, smiling at the baby. “And we can still do this. Astra likes this, don’t you, Astra?” Lowell was now holding the girl by her underarms and swooping her around. The baby gurgled happily.

“Here, give her to me,” Reedy said, reaching out with exo’d arms for her daughter. The harness squeaked at the motion. The baby began to cry.

“She’s scared of the harness,” Lowell observed.

“Well, she needs to get used to it,” Reedy said, more sharply than she’d intended.

Lowell wrapped the baby in blankets she didn’t really need for warmth, trying to pad her against the discomfort of being held by a mother in a metal harness, and passed her over. Reedy peeled down one side of her coverall top to feed her daughter, pivoting at the waist awkwardly to rock her. The exo squeaked more.

“Here, I’ve got some oil,” Lowell said. Soon the squeaking and the crying had both stopped. Reedy began to pace back and forth in the small space laid out for exo practice.

“Wish there was somewhere to sit down in here,” she said.

“Well, this area is supposed to be for exercise.”

“It’s supposed to be for practice.”

“Same thing.”

“No, not really. Shh, Astra. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“She knows,” Lowell said. “She’s a lot easier to calm down than my little sisters were. Than any baby I’ve seen, really.”

“You know, I think you’re right. Huh.”

“I think it’s because she’s the first one who’s been born to something normal for us.”

Reedy smiled. “Good point. The first,” she whispered to her daughter, “But not the last.”

Lowell’s eyebrows shot up.

“No, that’s not what I meant, stupid.”



Astra was far less calm when the most momentous moment of her little life – of any of the Ship-born’s lives – took place a few weeks later. The Melzers and the Hudocks had done their best to make the shuttles they’d built to bring the Ship-born to their new home as comfortable as possible, but quarters were close and the excitement made everyone sweat, which made everyone stink, which made toddlers whine and parents speak sharply and Astra cry and cry even before the shuttle carrying her and her mother and her father and any number of other father-like figures down to the surface of Home fired up its engines.

“It’s going to be okay,” Reedy cooed anxiously.

“Shut her up,” Mikhail said from the pilot’s seat at the front of the shuttle. “I need to concentrate.”

“He does not,” Lowell muttered. The shuttle’s course had been carefully programmed by Captain Cross; Mikhail was just there in case the terrain at the landing site wasn’t as smooth as it looked from orbit.

“Shh,” Reedy said.

Delilah floated into the passenger area. With departure imminent, the spin had been shut off forever for the comfort of those who would be staying behind.

“All right, honey, give her to me,” Delilah said, taking the baby into her arms.

“She’s going to be all right, isn’t she?” Reedy couldn’t tamp down the anxiety, the near-panic.

“Better than if you just held her in your arms, certainly,” Delilah said, settling Astra into a seat specially fashioned for her and strapping her in tightly. Astra liked Delilah, so had been happy to go to her, but had protested at being put into the safety seat until Delilah turned it around so she could see her mother and Lowell.

“There she is, there’s momma,” Delilah said. Astra struggled in her tiny restraints, finally giving up with a frustrated little grunt.

“It’s going to be fine,” the old woman said, turning to Reedy. “You know that.”

“I know, grandma. Just…”

“I’d come if I could, but I’m just too damned old. I waited too long to have yer ma and then…” Delilah trailed off, wouldn’t speak of it, and neither would Reedy. “Good bye, honey. We can still radio after all, so it’s not really good bye, is it?”

“I guess not.”

“You take care of them, Lowell, you hear? And make sure this girl has more babies. Lots more babies. Us Powes are good breeders, with a little help.”

“I’ll do what I can, ma’am,” he said. “And, uh, so will everybody else, of course.”

“See that at least one of her babies is yours,” Delilah said sternly. “I want a red-haired great grandchild.”

“Everybody’s hair is red now,” Reedy said, sticking her tongue out.

“Some’s redder than others,” Delilah said. “Now I gotta git. You take care.”

The other oldtimers crowded into the shuttle said their last good-byes and floated out one by one, until it was only the colonists, who would soon be struggling to start a new life on a new world, were left.

Without any further ceremony, the rocket fired, and for the first time, Reedy and Lowell and the other soon-to-be colonists saw their home from the outside, the first humans to do so in hundreds of years. Five huge rocks, joined together by enormous metal collars, drifted silently away from them in the shuttle’s windows, until the craft turned away to enter Home’s atmosphere. Soon nothing was visible through those windows but fire and light.

Astra cried at the rumbling, the vibrations, the shaking as they made their descent. She wasn’t the only one. Reedy and Lowell clasped hands, squeezing tightly. Generations ago, they might have prayed, but now they simply clung to each other and watched Astra, anxious and afraid and sick to their stomachs, profoundly glad they’d obeyed Captain Cross’s orders to fast the night before this launch.

A lurch. Another. Earthbound humans who flew from place to place on their limited little world were accustomed to atmospheric turbulence, but that commonplace was a frightening new reality for the colonists who had never known rollercoasters or cars or anything but floating gently, insulated and safe in a cocoon of rock and metal and long-recycled air. Many screamed; many wept; all retched.

And then, with a mighty thump, they touched down. And bounced. And touched down again. And skidded across the ground of Home for hundreds of kilometers. Later they would discover, to their extreme distress, that one of the shuttles had gone over a cliff and plummeted hundreds of meters, killing almost everyone aboard, but now, right now, there was just the sense of gradually decreasing velocity and the tug of gravity that both was and was not like what they’d managed to simulate in space.

At last the craft came to a stop.

“Are we all all right?” Mikhail bellowed from the cockpit.

Variations on “Yes” sounded all around. Even Astra was silent, round-eyed and still, paralyzed with fear and panic but somehow sensing that, as her mother always liked to tell her, things were going to be okay.

Reedy and Lowell struggled out of their safety harnesses, exos already donned in preparation for the moment, coming very soon, when they would be needed on the surface of Home. Opinions differed as to how soon – if ever – these could be discarded, but for unloading cargos and building shelter (such a foreign, old-fashioned word) and starting their new lives, the Ship-born’s frail, unhabituated bodies would need the support these ungainly things provided, replacing never-developed muscles and supporting spindly, fragile bones.

Lowell hoped that in time his and Reedy’s bodies would get used to their new burdens. And as for Astra…

Reedy’s tears streaked down, down, down her face to see it as the hatch opened and they took their first squeaky steps onto the surface of Home, Astra struggling in her arms.

“Put her down,” Lowell said. Reedy shot him a funny look, remembered what “down” was, and shrugged.

And then her tears renewed to see her daughter crawl.


  1. Three words: Awesome, awesome, awesome! I love everything about this. You have to sub this thing out- Azimov, Clarksworld, etc. I was totally hooked the whole way through. Everything worked, the tech, the world, the ship (brilliant idea). Have I gushed enough?

  2. I loved this! I love how you put this in a completely new generation, so that while linked to your former pieces, it still stood as its own story.

  3. This was amazing. I was completely drawn into a whole other world well done :)


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