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Slow Ship to Proxima

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  • In_Loos_Ptokai
    The other gravitational engineers had had their introductory interviews with her a while before I was called up.

    Then it was my turn. I'd been told by some of the edical staff who had woken us, that since I was the oldest and the most experienced, I was regarded as teh senior gravitational engineer. So I would be interviewed last. My interview would be the most important.

    Innocence is so sweet. I'm not at all sure that I like myself. I should've held out for more.


    "Dr Lewis Robert Stephenson, I believe?" She smiled when she met my eyes. Her hair was dark brown and somewhat curly; her eyes were hazel, and she was the pleasant pale brown people term 'olive'. The hand she extend to me had a dark red nail-polish on neatly-trimmed but uneven-length nails. She must be a guitarist of some sort.

    "The same, and you're Dr Rosemary Luxemberg, the ... CEO? The Mayor?"

    "Yes." She shook my hand firmly, and indicated the seats. The table between us was not so low as to be a mere coffee table, yet it wasn't high enough to be a proper "interviewer's table". I sat down in the seat she indicated.

    She started on the duties I had signed up for, several decades and four light years ago. Everything was unexceptional: I had even managed to automate a good few of those tasks back on Mercury. I even grinned at her, confident that anything she asked, I could manage.

    She grinned back. In the years since then, I have wondered about my self-confidence. My foolish self-confidence, given that my mother's family came from St Helena in the mid-Atlantic, before settling in New Zealand, and my father's family included some of the Bounty mutineers.

    But demographics had never been an interest of mine. the girlfriend I had had before I met and married Anette had been engaged in a PhD in population pressures in the L5 Islands, but my refusal to listen to her discussing those population pressures had been a significant cause of our breakup.

    "Right, we've cleared away the preliminaries", she said, when I had signed - again - the documents that made me one of the gravitational engineers hired from Earth to maintain and improve the Proxima colony's gravitational energy accumulator.

    "Now," she said, "we get to the serious business. I discussed this with the others, and they indicated they were happy with what I suggested, though as a matter of detail, they intended to follow your lead."

    "This 'serious matter' being what?"

    "There's no easy way to say it," she said. "But you've noticed the number of men we have in comparison to the number of women we have?"

    "It has puzzled me, yes. But I had other things on my mind."

    "You know that immigration is not an option for growing our population."

    What was she getting at? At the time I had no idea. I simply did not think this matter was of any interest to me.

    Then she flicked a momentary tear from her eye. "What I have to say is not to go outside the confines of this solar system."

    I decided to throw something into the pot at this point; if she was being confusing, I could demand answers to one question that had been puzzling me for the past few hours. "On my way here, just before the starship went into orbit, a couple of the medical staff asked me privately if I could see to them being raised on the 'Allocation List'. I don't know what that is, but all the same, the did do a good job and they deserve to be rewarded."

    The effect was immediate. "We'll see about that," she growled. "Next you'll be telling me they deserve my salary into the bargain, won't you!!!"

    "Why? What is wrong with relaying a request for some reward for services well done?"

    "You know population dynamics, do you? And population bottlenecks? I mean, we've got some records of your recorded ancestry - you surely must know about that!"

    I shrugged. "I'm a gravitational engineering type of geek, not a demography sort of a geek. What does it have to do with these 'Allocation Lists' those medical staff mentioned?"

    "We're suffering a bottleneck at the current moment. Thirty percent of our men are involved in space projects, including working on our gravitational energy accumulator; another forty percent are involved in maintaining and improving our caverns and tunnels. We had an unusually powerful flare about four , no, five - about three and a half of your Earth years ago. Those thirty percent were all in orbit or transit at that time. And the flare shielding was insufficient. Many of them died before landing: too many of them died in hospital care. If that wasn't bad enough, there have been some ghastly cave-ins recently. Far too many men have died."

    I raised my eyebrows. This sounded like bad decisions on somebody's part, and I wasn't sure I would be happy to be in such a useless person's team, anyway.

    She carried on. "So we have had widows aplenty. I am one: my husband died shortly after landing."

    She blinked back some tears. "We've gone from having a healthy fifty-fifty ratio of the sexes to more like a seventy-thirty ratio. There was the expected poaching of otherwise married men, and a number of women murdered other women. Crimes of passion ..."

    I think my shock must have showed on my face. In University, the feminist boast had been that women were naturally peaceful, peacable, unlike the ferocious male of the species.

    "I think the threat of nationalizing all men for maintaining the colony's reproductive health may have knocked some sense into some heads. I instead set up a largely voluntary Allocation List, the same that your medical friends so clearly wish to be part of, and made it mandatory for certain positions and tasks. I expect you to play your part in maintaining the colony's reproductive health, now you're part of the colony."

    If my jaw had not been attached to the rest of my face with tendons that though now slightly sore under heavier gravity, were still reasonably strong, it would've hit the floor with a bang and continued on its merry way to the centre of the planet. "Do I have a choice?"

    She smiled. She actually smiled. "Not much. You can agree willingly, or unwillingly. By the way, I was so impressed with some of your accomplishments that I allocated you to myself and will allocate you to other women as necessity demands."

    I got to my feet. "I could walk away."

    "You can't." She wore a smile of triumph. I shattered it.

    "I mean, I could take up nude sunbathing on the surface ..."

    She leapt to her feet. "No!!! I say no, you can't do that. I am your employer, and that would be a breach of contract."

    "But the contract I signed on Earth had nothing about founder effects and population bottlenecks. So the contract may not be valid."

    Quiet. "You will destroy the hopes of far too many women if you refuse to give them what they need."

    "Surely the sperm banks are sufficient?"

    "You're heartless. That's only a part of the equation."

    "No, I was merely accounting for one aspect of the situation. Now you've confirmed that the option exists, we can discuss the rest of the matter ... No?"

    "I am talking about real lives, real women who deserve children and a man to give them those children. But you're just heartless."

    "I'm an engineer," I began, when she interruupted: "I see! Okay, you like to do small-scale experiments first! Fine, you can have your medical girlfriends - and me - for the first few years before I allocate you to the others to anyone else."

    I was dumbfounded, and couldn't find anything to say. She'd got me. Anything I tried to say to claw back ... anything ... would look like mere negotiating tactics instead of the profound distrust I had started to feel for her.

    She clasped my arms, and stood close to me. I didn't look away. What would be the point. "So, Dr Lewis Robert Stephenson, you will be pleased to know I have already had your personal effects moved to my apartments. I will be making the proclamation within the week, that you have accepted your role and responsibilities as my consort and the father of my children; also that I have provisionally allocated you to some deserving women to father their children. I expect to see you in my quarters at daysend.

    Then she embraced and kissed me. She was not passionate.


    Woman is your field. Go tend your field, reads an ancient proverb.

    She calls it love.

    I no longer care that my future descendants may curse me for my foolishness.

    But they, like her, have such beautiful smiles.

    The END

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  • In_Loos_Ptokai
    Outermost has too fierce a climate and too poisonous an atmosphere to permit living oon the surface. When it was settled, it was settled from Midway. Midway took the first settlers, and enabled them to build up a workable mining and cavern-building enterprise on Outermost. Once that was under way, and a cavern emerged together with a pile of ores waiting to be smelted and a civilization started, people shifted from the "Nissan Hut" settlements on Midway and dived underground to the higher gravity of Outermost.

    The shuttle landed on a plateau thirty kilometres from the ice-covered ocean that covers most of the planet. Once the airlocks were cycled, and the transport vehicles emerged from the shelter gates, we dashed across the snow-covered ground and then waited for the transports' airlocks to cycle before we could take our suits off and relax at (approximately) Earth-normal air pressure and temperature.

    The medical staff dragged out the drinks cabinet and shouted us three some stiff drinks. "But you can't have too much," one said, smiling at us and winking at me. "There's time enough for that later."


    I never seriously considered the implications of Proxima being a flare star. I don't think anybody did.

    Innermost's human work settlement was apparently well-protected in spite of Innermost being in so close. And falre prediction is (apparently) a well-developed science.

    Midway is maintained as an observation platform.

    Outermost's human population apparently works on the ancient division-of-labor format: the medical staff insisted on us signing up for regular donations to the settlement-wide sperm banks. They were cagey on the existence of ova banks. But then, that was something we'd also encountered on Earth. But the format there was simple: sperm bank deposits are the property of the state; ova bank deposits are the property of the woman concerned, with occasional donations to a needy woman deemed worthy - but only after prolonged discussion ...

    Women in general stayed home to care for the children; men moved around to work and pay for the children.

    No different from Earth. Anette would've felt at home, I thought. There were not that many men on view as we took the public transport's special carriage to the welcoming ceremony. First we would have the welcoming ceremony, then we would be briefed on the particular aspects of the job that had changed since we signed up. We were expecting technical details by the score, machinery gotchas and shortcomings and unexpected strengths and expected and unwated weaknesses.

    The ceremony was short, and consisted mostly of introducing ourselves to the TV channe cameras, all "manned" by women: I amused myself by thinking Anette would've be delighted by this. She'd been very firm on issues like that when we had met and married. I had offered to teach her the maths I used to diagnose gravitational environments, but her certainty that women could do anything hadn't extended to actually wanting to do anything herself.

    I even smiled at the woman who now styled herself the "woman keeping this colony together". I think I made a mistake.

    Afterwards, we gravitational engineers got gloriously drunk, and were dragged to bed by our host and employer.

    Innocence is so sweet.


    The meeting. That first meeting with the person running the show. The CEO of the colony corporation, the mayor of the city, the Head of State of Outermost, the Queen of Proxima! I've long since given up wishing it had never happened, that I had not woken from that first drunken sleep on planet.

    But that's a futile wish. I have to work with her; I have to do other things with her, and for her, and for everybody else. I just have to think of that first time we saw each other, and smile. She is truly beautiful when she smiles - but not otherwise.

    She smiles whenever she sees me again. And I smile back.

    It's better than ... the other options.

    It's always a warm, happy smile.

    I'm not sure that I like myself.

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  • In_Loos_Ptokai
    My "guesses" - I suppose you could call them that - were accurate. Anette had died - of cancer, as it turned out. Roseanner was now a great-grandmother. Alex ... Alex, it turned out, had won a surfing competition at Surfers Paradise to surf from Near Earth Orbit into the atmosphere. But his surfboard had been faulty and he had burned up. Both his girlfriend in Surfers and his girlfriend in Honolulu had been traumatized by his death, globally viewed by millions, but as it also happened, both discovered they were in the early stages of pregnancy ... and Roseanne had "adopted" both of them as "sisters". So I was now a great-great-grandfather. Several times over.

    And Alison had never married. She had become a musician, much to everyone's surprise, and the stories of her lovers had been staple news media footage for most of her life. Mostly her lesbian ones. Her male lovers had been few and far between.

    News several decades old is by definition old news. But when you're hearing it for the first time, it's very new news.

    Did I travel 76 years into my personal future just to learn that?

    I had come here to do a job. It was high time I started getting my mind prepared for that.

    One: three times 24 hours it takes for Innermost to orbit Proxima. It is tidally locked to Proxima, turning one face to it for all time. Human installations are on the Day-Night Border, which wavers. I had signed up to work on the gravitational energy accumulator after all.

    Two: Midway is the name of the middle planet. It takes three months to orbit Proxima. It's a mini-Mars - the instruction texts stated it had an atmosphere. It was smaller than Mars, and human installations were dotted around the poles. But the Proxima colonists aren't much interested in it anyway. It's mostly useful for Proxima weather.

    Three: Outermost is where the Proxima colonists have settled. It takes seven and a half months to orbit Proxima. It is way outside the Habitable Zone, but then, it's the largest, and has only one and a half times as much gravity as Earth, so it is, in effect, home-like.

    Outside Outermost's orbit is only an Oort Cloud of sorts. Interesting for the Deep Space pioneers, but count me out. I prefer to sunbath in the sun's own atmosphere.

    Just before we were to land, a couple of the medical staff came up to me with a most peculiar request. "We've registered our interest in the allocation list," they said, without explaining what an "Allocation List" was. "We've asked for our allocation to be raised to high priority. We like you, you see, and you like us. We surely deserve some reward for the work we've put in to you."

    As I say, most peculiar.

    "So could you please request that our allocation be raised? It's not too big a request. And the risks have not been minor, either. Proxima is a flare star, after all."

    Some minor bribery? It sure sounded that way to me. How was I to know ...

    Some minor bribery, my foot! How indeed ... what a fool! What a useless bloody fool! What a dimwitted fool, indeed.

    Some minor bribery!?! Huh!!!

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  • In_Loos_Ptokai
    A much greater time later - much, much later as people measure time while in cryo-hybernation - I heard some distant noises. Very, very faint at first, like something being shouted at you from across the Waikato or the Murray. Then increasingly louder.

    Tick, tick, tick, tick ... whoosh, whjoosh, whoosh, whoosh ...

    My toes and fingers tingled. My arms and legs ached. I think my head ached. Then again, it might not have. But my lungs hurt, both from the cold and the fact that they were now gasping for breath, though the air was chilly that was being pumped into them. My nose itched. I sneezed.

    Tihei mauri ora, as an ancient Maori expression had it: a sneeze, there is life!

    It is superfluous to add that my gut was sore, and I desperately needed to go to the loo. My nostrils were assailed by a stench that informed my hardly working brain that I had pissed myself.

    Great. Just great. A spacecraft that can cross four light-years without breaking down, and we humans still are prone to slack bladders when we wake from cryo-hybernation! What bloody use are we?!?

    The noises - did I tell you about the noises? - grew louder, but at the same time, less invasive. I opened my aching eyes, and blinked away 76 years of sleep. No sleeping beauty I! If Cinderella or whoever it was, had had to kiss a sleeping beast like me, she would've run in terror screaming all the way. Anette never had had to face such a monster I surely was!

    Anette?!? My god, had she rung to tell me she was dead? No, she couldn't have. Then how the hell did I know she was dead? Roseanne would be a grandmother by now, and how did I know that? Alex!!?! What had happened to Alex!?!?

    It was fortunate that some of the crew came through together with some others who I didn't recognize, to unlock the hybernator lids and help me out. Though the wheelchairs they were pushing along the velcro-lined corridor did not inspire confidence in my recovery.

    But soon I was relieving my bowels of the hybernation plug that had slowly but surely built up over 76 years of a metabolism running at next to zero ...

    Then into the bath and the exercises, while my muscles screamed at the very idea of shifting their own weight ...

    Anette? Alex?!? I didn't have time to think. But tears came to my eyes when their names came to mind. One of the newer medical people, from the spaceship that the Outermost had sent to meet us while we were decelerating, laughed when tears came. "They're a sign of life, caro,"she said. "You're luckier than your young friend. His heart had stopped. What a tragic waste. Still, you won't have time to do much mourning. Your crew aren't the only lot to suffer."

    But she never added anything to that, and when I tried to ask for further details, she shut up, as did the rest of the Outermost's medical crew.

    The rest of the time, we exercised outrselves back into some image of health, then they brought us into the high-grav exercise regime. Outermost has a gravity a third greater than Earth's.

    It took us six months before our spacecraft swam into orbit around Outermost. Six months of watching a tiny grey dot on the screens slowly grow to a crescent, then a gibbous phase then a full world below us. All grey, water ice and dry ice and methane ice on the landscape that greeted our eyes.

    "I suppose it's a bit late to want to go home?" I asked.

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  • In_Loos_Ptokai
    I have no way of knowing when the first thought that intruded into my unconscious mind, intruded itself.

    But I remember distinctly feeling as though Anette's arms were around me and she was comforting me - somehow. And it wasn't the time Roseanne had broken her arm climbing gum trees in the Blue Mountains. This wasn't that holiday, I was absolutely sure of that. Though how I could be sure with practically zero brain function, I do not know.

    But Anette was broken-hearted. It was as if she was calling out my name, and saying that Jang Lao was dying. Several malignant cancers competing at eating him alive. And so she had turned to me for comfort.

    I reached out to her, somehow, as if I was giving her a hug, and ... I felt that giving and receiving comfort for a long, long time.

    It faded into blankness, as it should've been for the duration of the voyage.

    Again, I don't know when or how, but I felt a surge of joy. Roseanne was overflowing with joy.

    And then a deeper flow of joy from Anette. How I differentiated between the two of them I'll never know. But I could tell between the effervescent joy of my daughter and the happiness of my former wife. I knew when I woke up, I would find that my oldest daughter had married.

    Again, with next to zero brain function. I don't know how that happened.

    Later, and I'm not sure how much later, I felt words forming in my mind. Slowly, as if the person thinking those words was in great pain and found concentration hard.

    "I love you, and I've loved you forever, it seems. Even our quarrels ... I had to leave you, you know. Our kids ... I loved you for accepting it without hatred. I wish I had told you earlier. I'm dying, and I love you ..."

    If I had been able to, I would've wept. But then the blankness came down and nothing happened ... then a stab of delight and fear, and then a long dying scream of pain ... from Alex.

    You are not supposed to dream when you are asleep at about two or three degrees Centigrade.

    You are supposed to be like the dead. But Morpheus is also the god of delusions, delirium, nightmare ...

    What had happened to Alex? I knew he had died, but how?

    You are not supposed to dream when you are asleep at about two or three degrees Centigrade.

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  • In_Loos_Ptokai
    Saying goodbye to my other relatives and friends was not so fraught with unspoken expectations and ... everything. I went to the space elevator terminal in Kenya and made my way skywards with little fuss.

    Then into the shuttle taking us to the Proxima Starcraft that would link to the Rigil Kent Starcraft that was taking extra settlers to the Alpha Centauri colony. Along the way I got back in touch with the other gravitational engineers and we no doubt mystified some of the other passengers with exotic jargon.

    Then the injections to slow down the body functions and test our capability to endure the medication. (Hibernation platforms are big business for interstellar travel companies. The funding for their research would've paid for a good-sized continent-wide war in previous centuries. It's why most of the richer countries - China, South Africa, Brazil, Iran, India and Singapore - have such longevity. It gets fed back into their health systems.)

    Quarter of a year isn't that long when you're half-asleep most of the time.

    Then we docked. Off the shuttle and floating into the Proxima Starcraft.

    Then further injections to slow us right down, the various biochemical antifreeze defenses against freezing to death, finding arteries while our blood was still flowing fast enough to make veins and arteries stand out, then fitting us up to the blood oxygenators and blood scrubbers, and then, the final injections and down the lids came on our hibernators.

    You are not supposed to dream when you are asleep at about two or three degrees Centigrade.

    It is supposed to be impossible.

    So they say. So they say.

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  • In_Loos_Ptokai
    The long and short of it was I was invited to one final meal with my children. "They'll miss you terribly," she said. "You owe it to them to see them before you leave."

    I admit I didn't expect much of that evening. I managed to get along with Jang Lao, Anette's new partner, but that was because we were both geeks, and found geeking out on the topics of computer-enhanced perception - me on gravitonics, him on neurosurgery - irresistable, with Anette getting frustrated and finally calling us down to earth ... Jang Lao on one occasion brought his sister along with him, with it seems the intention of matchmaking, but that was not a pleasant evening. Xiexie was pleasant, and made the effort to keep up with us, but Anette got jealous and was cold and distant, and made her displeasure plain to Jang Lao, poor chap.

    We had then gone for six months without talking, the longest we've ever been like that, until the kids complained and drove her to call me up and apologize. (Later I found out that Xiexie had accepted a job at the Developmental Psychology section of Sydney Hospital, way out of the way, and so Anette had probably felt she was safe. Ex-wives aren't supposed to be jealous of other women taking an interest in their ex-husbands, but clearly I didn't know much. Poor poor pitiful me.)

    Roseanne was now a diffident twelve-year-old going on eighteen but showing signs of developing loveliness all the same, while Alison was an argumentative ten. Nine year old Alex insisted on sitting on my knee for most of the time before and after the meal in the lounge of the Yacht Club. Hence the arguments with Alison, and, I suspect, Roseanne's diffidence - she it seemed, also wanted to sit on my knee, while proclaiming loudly that all that was kid's stuff, and she was much too old for that. One of the waitresses started giggling when she heard that, and said something privately in Roseanne's ear: Roseanne blushed.

    "This is going to be like those three occasions you were on Mercury: nerve-wracking for us," Anette said. "Still, there's not a lot you could do, is there?

    "I would not advise going into storage here," Jang Lao said. "Rates could hike quite easily, and then you'd be decanted, out on the street, out of pocket, and still out of work. If I wasn't married, I'd consider it myself."

    "That'll be enough of that talk!" Anette said, rather sharply. "You've got responsibilities now!"

    He laughed. "I'm not likely to forget, dear."

    Turning to me, he then asked, "How did you get this job?"

    "Gravitational engineers aren't exactly common. One day a few years ago checking out the jobs wanted, and there it was: 'Gravitational Engineer wanted. Enthusiastic gravitational engineer needed on Proxima Centauri's Outermost to maintain the gravitational energy accumulator on the Innermost.' I sent away for more information and it came back eight years later: with my qualifications and experience I was automatically accepted. Three others also applied, and I knew all three - we'd worked on the current Mercury power station, and we'd been cross-referenced, so they were accepted as well. Fortunately there was a starship going to the Alpha Centauri system, so it's dropping us off when we get to within cooee of Proxima."

    "I wish you weren't going, Daddy." Alison had come up after playing - and losing - a game with Roseanne, and tried to push Alex off my knee.

    "Hey, wait on," I said. "There's room for you both. You just need to ask nicely, sweetie."

    Just then the maitre d' came to inform us that the first course was being served and would we now take out places ... holding on to two children while a third stuck close behind me, I managed to get to the table. Anette looked on with pride.

    The only other thing noteworthy about that meal, was that Xiexie came in slightly later, and took her seat next to me, dislodging a much-disgruntled Roseanne and earning a fierce glare from Anette. "I've been working late," she said by way of explanation. "One of the children's suffering a badly diagnosed neurological disease and I only remembered this farewell dinner at the last moment. It's heartbreaking. By the way, Anette, congratulations on your next child!"

    I haven't seen Anette discomforted often. This was a rare occasion.

    "She hasn't told you? Now I'm going to be a real aunt, not just an adopted one!" Xiexie said proudly. "Three cheers all around - and I wish you were staying on Earth. You'd make life so much more interesting for ... us."
    Last edited by In_Loos_Ptokai; 08-15-2015, 03:01 AM. Reason: fix the ages

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  • In_Loos_Ptokai
    started a topic Slow Ship to Proxima

    Slow Ship to Proxima

    All space flight is cutting loose from the time and place of one planet and moving towards the time and place of another planet. All space flight exists between the here and now of one place and the here and now of another place. In between the two places, you exist in another here and now ...

    So it was, on a December the 23rd of Earth's year CE 2205, I left for the (most likely) Day 12 of Year 195 Since Arrival of Proxima Centauri's Outermost.

    Duration of voyage: 76 years. 76 years during which I would be dead to the world. Most of that travel would be spent in suspended animation. 76 years, during which my daughters, Roseanne and Alison, and my son, Alexander, would grow old and die, and the news of my grandchildren and their grandchildren, would be old news by the time I was woken, decanted from the bottle, at Proxima Centauri's Outermost.

    So why was I going? Overspecialization. There is now no market for gravitational engineers inside Mercury's orbit, and no tenure for lecturers in anything so specialized outside that orbit. Give the big corps another twenty years, and they'll be begging for subsidies to train new gravitational engineers, but for the time being, they'd rather have me rot.

    My ex-partner, Anette, heard through the grapevine, and rang me up to curse my luck, and offer some condolences.