Science Fiction

Sunchild Blues

By Al Onia
May 25, 2020 · 5,234 words · 20 minutes

From the author: Human transcendence may come in unexpected forms and within unexpected vessels.


     We are born of the stars. Two thousand years removed from the first earthmen to reject the gravity and safety of our birth planet. Yet we are akin despite the distance separating our ship from mother Earth.

     A mere two hundred years ago the lightships escaped the solar system, fleeing man's self-destruction, vowing to preserve a human race not tied to the greed and squabbles repeated through history. We travel the void believing we will become a new human species, but the advances have not come. No telepathy, no mind over matter, no immortality in a machine. Our organic computers are savants in their own fashion, but never with the versatility unique to the human mind.

     The curiosity that drives us to discover and evolve binds us to our past. Each birth on our starship holds the promise for a new race, but never the reality. Each sunchild is one of us, no different from the generations before or to come.

     Solana watches me write in my hospice bed. Smart, precocious, curious, challenging: she is all of those. A normal child. I leave her before my time. Be strong, my daughter.

     My mother's words. I lay the diary on the desk where it has resided for three decades. I know them by heart, but her actual handwriting on foil links us. Beside her diary is my daughter's picture. Mally, I will not abandon you as I was abandoned. The rising anger makes me feel guilty. My mother did not choose to die. The six-year old in me can't accept that, though the adult tries.

     I think of my father. He raised me with more love than any two parents could have. He lost more than I since I have a husband and daughter, while he grows old without a mate. Hart shared so much with my mother, including the hope that we of lightship Ascendant would reach transcendence. If he was disappointed in me, he never showed it, and I cannot show him the truth. He is unaware how large a distance separates us. He would not understand my deeper guilt, my selfishness in giving to him what I could not to mother.

     "Solana? Are you here?"

     "In the bedroom, Argo." My husband too does not recognize the distance between us.

     "Your mother's journal." He picks it up and caresses the leather binding. Argo places it in my hand. "You never tire of her dreams for you."

     I trace my fingers across the page. "The language is only part of it. Each inflection of the stylus reinforces her commitment to seek change." I too look for change but far different from that my mother sought. I believe we must bring change from within, not rely on a savior from without.

     He touches my shoulder. "We all hope, Solana. Even your father carries the expectations of what we will become. I think that's why he taught Mally to read and write when she was three."

     I close the book and slide it into the drawer, its sanctuary. I stand, turn and kiss my husband on the cheek. "Well Captain Argo, have you seen our daughter?"

     "On a ship ten light millisecs long, she could be anywhere. Mally is lightship Ascendant's number one explorer."

     "I remember my youth, traversing Ascendant for weeks at a time. If Dad worried, he kept his concerns hidden."

     Argo laughed. "You mean he would now be two hundred years old rather than one hundred? He's already the oldest person here by decades."

     I nodded. "He's only ninety. But his will fades, and he doesn't want to live much longer with his friends gone. He tells me it's hard arising every day; the routine of shiplife no longer engages him."

     Argo sat on our bed. "You know my feelings on 'The Vision'. Ship life isn't normal. I don't care how we have evolved. I view the ancient histories and I envy our ancestors: planet-bound but constantly exposed to new experiences."

     "And new dangers," I remark. I know them better than he can imagine.

     "Danger and hardship, yes, but challenges and rewards too. They throve in spite and because of it. Our life expectancy in this," he waved his hand at the seamless walls, "cocoon is dropping. I don't fault your father for his apathy. I want to experience planetfall in our lifetime, don't you?"

     "The liaison officer in me says those are words of dissent from the ship's Captain. Don't let the Theocratic Council hear you espousing such impiety against The Vision."

     "Let them. We both want to give Mally a whole world to roam."

     "I agree. A few generations ago we would have been declared heretics. We still have to proceed with caution."

     "The Ascendant won't last forever, Solana. I know it. My officers know it. You have to tell the Council we must prepare for an end to our migration."

     I am to blame for the complacency among the Council. They believe Ascendant will not die. I alone know the fates befallen our sister lightships. It is too dangerous for me to reveal until my own understanding is complete.

     Argo spoke. "You are quite contemplative today, dear. Are you responsible for Hart's longevity?"

     I smile and jab his shoulder. "I should have been more trouble growing up. As much trouble as I am to you." I continue to tickle him until he collapses on the bed. I couldn't tell Argo the rest.

     He wiped his eyes. "You forget Mally. What if she should walk in on us, you sitting on me? It could scar her for life."

     I traverse Ascendant in an instant, searching for Mally. She is less than a light microsec away. "Our wayward daughter will be here in an hour or two, I'm certain. Then we can all visit dad."

     Argo squeezed my knee. "He tells me she is more like you every day. I'm going ringside. Chief Rowland called about something unusual with the navitron backup."

     They'd found it so soon. Well, it wasn't the first time, though it grew close to the last. Argo is right, planetfall should be our goal. For us, the survivors, while we still have a choice.

     Argo was wrong about Mally. She wasn't like me: she had not inherited my talent. I was not the first, but I was the last.

     "You should see it, Hart. You too, Solana. It's uncanny. Brand new piece. In fact, better than new. I've never seen anything like it." Argo spoke with his hands expressing emotion words alone could not.

     I grinned, "He's pretty excited don't you think, Dad?"

     My father smiled. "Reminds me of a time, oh, must be thirty or more years ago. Solana was a child, younger than Mally." He stood, I grabbed his elbow to steady him. "I should like to see this."

     "Dad, do you really need to exert yourself?" I sense arthritis in his shoulder and temporally shift the damaged area to a time in the past. He moves easier, the grimace gone from his lips.

     "Yes, Solana, I do. I've long been suspicious of these 'repairs'."


     He started to walk and I moved with him. He said, "Let's examine first, then talk."

     We rode a tramcart to the site, my dad commenting on the various functions of the internals we passed and recalling memories of his experiences with many of them. I seemed to be the only one who noticed not what we passed but whom we did not. We saw no one.

     He leaned in with Argo to view the component. He held a hand close to it and nodded. He knew.

     Argo asked, "You've seen this before, Hart?"

     Dad shook his head. "Not quite the same. Let me see, the first time it was an outer plasma tube. Months could have passed before we noticed deterioration. One of the engineers noticed a sudden improvement in efficiency. When I saw it, I sensed it had been changed. A scan confirmed a better-than-new conversion core lining."

     Argo asked, "Polished by contaminants in the plasma flow?"

     My dad stared straight ahead. "That was the consensus. No other reasonable explanation came forth. I always wondered though, maybe a guardian angel watched over Ascendant."

     "This is not a mere cosmetic upgrade, this is a complete replacement. Better than the drones do."

     My father nodded. "I agree. The guardian angel is back. What say you, daughter?"

     I pretended to examine the piece. "It's certainly looks new. Have you checked the efficiency, Argo?"

     He pushed the scan lights in sequence while I concentrated. "Ninety percent. Not perfect."

     "Not perfect? Of course it's perfect. It's the Vision's way." A new voice interrupted.

     Argo said, "Councilor Rustam. You heard. Or is this a random surprise?"

     The head of Ascendant's Theocratic Council lowered his rotund body for a closer look. "Magnificent! The ship always provides. A good sign."

     Dad said, "Only if you look at it with one eye, Rustam. A realist would recognize the truth."

     Rustam seemed unruffled as he stood to face my father. Dad was one of the few who dared to challenge him. "What do your ancient, weary eyes tell you, Hart?"

     "Ascendant is dying and our chances to preserve our fraction of the human race are dying along with it."

     "No." Rustam's reaction was immediate, punctuated by his walking stick striking the deck. "Mind how you speak, Hart. You are not as immune as you think."

     I pushed between them. "You will not speak to my father so, Councilor. He has earned the right to speak his mind many times over in keeping Ascendant and her people on course. As Liaison Officer, I will bring planetfall agenda forward." I pointed to the component. "Reason enough not to delay any longer." I spoke to my husband. "Captain, I formally request your navigation officers to commence star scans for potential systems. They have full committee authority. I will assist with some research I have already begun."

     "You are your father's daughter, Solana. You push too far. There will be consequences." Councilor Rustam drew what little height he had to full measure and strode to his tramcart.

     Argo said, "Well, we're all in it now."

     Hart sat in the cart. "The man's a buffoon. A dangerous one though. Solana, you should not have provoked him."

     I was just as angry at myself. I had effected the repair. Once again, too well. "Rustam should not have invoked the Vision for this anomaly."

     Dad said, "Guardian angel?"

     "It's not perfect," I echoed. "Dad, your angel spends too much time dancing on the head of a pin."

     He sat in the cart. "Perhaps he or she doesn't want perfection. Diverts intensive examination."

     Argo got behind the wheel. "I'm grateful one way or the other. We perform more frequent scans of the entire ship now. The news is not good: its lifetime draws to an end."

     We began our return to dad's quarters. I said, "Time for planetfall. We know that's our best hope. We weren't meant to travel the void forever. We are still human, after all."

     Dad spoke, "Solana is right, Argo. Convene a general populace meeting with the Council and as many senior ship officers as possible. This will get the citizens out of their cocoons for once. I may be old but I still wield some influence."

     I said, "It will help if we present concrete options, Dad. In fact, I already have a few potential systems identified. The guardian angel is not going to save Ascendant forever." I could not. I would see my daughter begin a new life away from this ship of decay.

     The awareness of my talent manifested during the first few years after my mother died: a six-year-old trying to return to a time when her loved one was alive. My first success was with her picture frame on the evening of my eighth birthday. I willed the tarnish of time to reverse. I was nine when I induced the repair of the plasma core. It was a primitive effort, which is why they found it so quickly. After that, I made subtler rejuvenations of the failing systems. As my awareness grew, so did my abilities to parcel the components back through time to their initial fabrication. Or nearly enough, although some wear was evident. I had slipped up with the latest, distracted by my vigil for messages from afar.

     As my confidence grew, I kept tinkering with my father's timeline. Thirty years I have manipulated various systems within his body to extend his life beyond normal. I couldn't save my mother because I was too young and unaware of my gift when she died. So I selfishly extended my father's lifeline. Even now, it pains me not to give him more time, but I respect his desires. He doesn't know what I've done. I grow tired along with him.

     I will tell him the truth soon. I am the one he hoped for: the next level of human. The seeds of my talent may have been latent in our family; but none recognized it or suffered the emotional trauma required to use it as I had, before maturity overwhelmed my adolescent imagination. I discovered my gift in time—a final, genetic hail-Mary. Had Mally inherited even a trace, she might pass it on. Without exploitation, the gene has given up. I am the last.

     My awareness grew slowly, triggered by the sudden loss of Mother. My oldest visions involved the Ice People; ancestors so far back they pre-dated writing who scratched their legacy in pictures onto cave walls, sheltered from the glacial cold, to emerge as a species transformed and capable of taming their environment.

The illusory sense of dominion over the physical world was itself transcendent if only for the changes in thought patterns that emerged as a result. Unknowing, these primitive people hovered close to the next step that has taken millennia to occur with me. The internal, temporal-bound stream of cellular memory was the plateau they never reached, distracted by the glorious dominance over their surroundings. Some tried, recording creation myths to pass down through generations while they had a genetic link to the past. Corrupted, those stories became laws to subjugate other tribes and eventually civilizations. They were seduced by desire to exercise dominion over their fellow humans through conquest or annihilation rather than exploring the common ancestry and collaborative future.

     The conscious stream from those primitives to me is not continuous. It breaks and jumps through space and time with no discernible pattern. I have been shepherd, toolmaker, seer, teacher—never without the burden of decision.

     "You're lost in thought, Solana."

     "I didn't hear you come in."

     "Finding us a world?"

     "Aye, Captain. Have a look."

     I initiated the virtual images. Suns and their orbital companions hovered in the room between us. Argo walked among the systems.

     "This is remarkable. How did you find so many in so short a time?"

     "It's something I have been working on for longer than you think." Five years I had searched.

"What's this galactic cluster?"

I hadn't meant him to see it. "Coma-Virgo in old earth nomenclature."

     "We won't make that, must be fifty-million light years."

     I shook my head. "No, we won't. It's magnificent though, isn't it? Can you imagine what it would be like to traverse it?"

     He laughed. "You wouldn't know you were in anything special if you were. It would look much different the closer you were. Less spectacular."

     "I wonder. I guess it would depend on your internal perception." Argo could not see what I did. Or sense what I felt emanating from that distant nexus.

     He looked at the planetary systems again. "Six generations have peopled Ascendant; it will be hard convincing the people to scuttle the beast."

     "It is time, Argo. They must think of their children as we imagine Mally. Growing up on a world. Tasting a mouthful of dirt."

     He laughed. "Sounds more like Solana than her daughter."

     I wanted to taste that soil. My impatience grew with each passing day. In the time taken for Argo to speak, I had traversed the thirty thousand kilometer length of the ship, searching for weaknesses to come. "The ship is old. The builder-growers of Ascendant envisioned a future of transcendant humans who would one day no longer need such a construct to brave the cosmos."

     Argo's shoulders slumped. "I know."

     "We need to get back to ground. I don't want Mally growing up as we have. I want her to feel grass between her toes: not a simulation, but real blades that tickle the soul as well as the soles."

     Argo brightened. "Grass, mud, rain, cold, heat. Sounds terrible. When do we land?"

     I took his arm in mine. "That's the spirit."

     "I'm heading for the Committee to discuss your 'finds'. Coming?"

     "No, you go on. I have more work to do."

     I sat alone in our room. I would have gone crazy years ago if I could not project beyond Ascendant. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths.

     My mind focused on Coma-Virgo. I pictured the hazy clouds of stars pinwheeling through time. They spoke to me from sixty million years ago. And to talents like me. Communicating through light waves. Their physical shell so distant in their past that the memory blurred. Growing beyond manipulating the three dimensions of their environment to dismantle time itself.

     Reverse the arrow sideways, back and forward. To create what? A better universe? This mystery I had not solved. I had a sense of kinship, but they were developed far beyond me. The called on me to traverse the unimaginable time-distance, but I would not leave Mally—though my curiosity tempted me. I could not, though it meant missing the chance to commune with those like me. My mission was here, aboard Ascendant to see her safe to journey's end. After planetfall and Mally reaching adulthood, I knew I would not have sufficient energy to survive the long pilgrimage that beckoned to me.

     I changed focus to Ascendant's sister ship, Victory. One other of the original eight remained in operation. The first time I went looking for the others I spent months hunting for their signal. Small against the background of galactic noise, I succeeded in shifting time back until I found them in their initial cluster mere decades after launch.

     The lost six failed before I was born. One by one they had expired, never attaining the grandeur the builders had envisioned. I traveled back to their extinctions, trying to safeguard my ship against a similar fate. Thus far, I had been successful in keeping Ascendant alive. The death rattle of the mighty alloy and obsidian giants cut deep. It wasn't just the cries from the extinguished souls but the end of the symbols the ships were to human aspiration. A drawn and raised sword proving the race could thrive beyond the environment we tried so hard to master. Dominion over space was too great a challenge.

     Mechanical failure took three of the lightships. Collision a fourth. The memories of the fates of the next two I dreaded the most. Those failures were not due to hardware failure or impact: the rot came from the masters themselves. Conflict displaced the will of the builders. Pettiness in all its misshapen forms took sway. Already Ascendant's people too often chose isolation and privacy. The Council and the crew becoming more adversarial. I could defer mechanical failure while I remained aboard though it sapped my resources. Resources needed for my quest. Collisions were within my ability to warn and avert, but civil conflict could not be tamed once the rot surfaced.

     It had been weeks since I had sought out Victory. Searching for a new home for Ascendant and keeping her intact had consumed me in the meantime. I reached out my mind to receive Victory's life signals across the void.

     I found her. I sensed the change at once. Ascendant's sibling was sick. More than sick. Victory was dying. Her life systems worn out, choking those aboard. I imagined the odor of massive death. The same smells I knew from isolated pockets in Ascendant. Victory had no one to repair the worn out innards. No one to guide her to safety.

     Even if I left now, it would be too late to save her. Then what of Ascendant in my absence? Time control taxed my endurance even now; I could only control tiny corners. Perhaps those in Coma-Virgo had strength enough to reverse the tragedy. But they would not come to me, the message beckoned me to them. A trial?

     I returned to Victory. My talents were not sufficient to save her from death at this distance any more than I could save my mother when I was a child. No, I must save Ascendant's people. I must lead them away from this artificial construct of metalglass and delusion.

     The pain coming from Victory pummeled my heart. I wanted to tell them they were not alone, not forgotten. They were a hundred light years distant, but I seemed to know these people as well as my own shipmates. They were doomed, their magnificent lightship a morgue. I should have known. I should have sensed it sooner. I curse the distracting minutiae that haunt my existence.

     I will not allow Ascendant to suffer the same fate. I will locate more than a refuge. A real world.

     Argo's intercom voice startled me. "Solana, Mally’s with me."

     "I thought as much." I located them in an instant. "What does your navigation committee think of my suggestions?"

     "How did you know where we were? Never mind, I shouldn’t question your intuition. They think two of the systems have potential. Trouble is they’re not aligned for a single easy trajectory."

     "Time won’t be an issue." Yet. "Which two?" I opened my mind to the space-time flow.

     "Options two and five. We’re closer to five but will have to initiate a more severe course change than two."

     I traversed the void, stretching my skills in both directions. Two's star was increasing its variability. More risk. "I have a better feeling about five, dear. Ascendant can withstand a course change, though I would recommend as gradual a tangent as possible. Time is still a luxury we can afford." It looked acceptable and I knew the lightship had enough spark to make it.

     I said, "Send Mally home. I want to hear what she's been up to."

     "I will see you for dinner."

     The planet holds promise. The only way I can be certain is to project there. My weakening physical shell cannot sustain many more absences.

     I study Mally across the table. She is absorbed in an old paper book, a luxury my ancestors allowed themselves.

     "Mom, why don't we write anymore?" She held up the book.

     "I don't know, Mally. Perhaps there is little left to be said."

     "I bet I could say lots. I could write a history of Ascendant."

     "What a marvelous idea. Your grandfather could help you." Dad needed reason to live a little longer. All my energy would be consumed in shepherding Ascendant.

     "I'm going to ask him. Do you want to come?"

     "No, dear, I have work to do."

     "Okay, see you tonight." She stood.

     "Just a minute, Mally. Come here."

     She stepped close and I pulled her to me. She didn't have my gift, but she possessed a strength far greater than mine. Mally was a throwback to the blood ancestors I knew in my cellular explorations. To those who struggled out of their ice-age refuges, afraid to go on but more afraid to stand still; spirit that would take them to the New World; then a half-millennium later to cross the void and set foot on Earth's moon. She was a pioneer. She would make a new world thrive. Her penchant for inquiry and seeking answers could tame a world and revitalize a society grown stagnant.

     She stepped back and gave me a puzzled look.

     I stammered. "A daughter needs a hug now and then. Indulge me?"

     "Sure Mom, I understand."

     I watched her disappear around the corner. I whispered, "You make it hard to decide what's right, Mally."

     "This plan is an abomination." Councilor Rustam wasted no time in opening his attack.

     Argo would not be cowed. He cut a commanding figure in his dark uniform. "The ship crumbles around you, Councilor. An abomination would be to ignore reality until you collapse to the deck, poisoned by your own exhalations in a powerless, drifting ghost ship."

     "Where is your proof?"

     Argo opened his datapad. "Failure records over the past six months."

     Rustam raised a palm in protest. "You're in league with the dissidents."

     "Now just a minute." I stood, my fists tight to my sides.

     Rustam leveled a finger towards me. "You have betrayed your position as liaison. Seduced by your husband's opinions, you are no longer neutral."

     I struggled to control my anger. "Standing on the side of reason is not opposing the Vision, Councilor. I believe the evidence, and I believe my intuition. This ship was not built to last forever. It was built to escape the destruction of the Earth and to preserve human life to start again. Not to drift forever in space. Man belongs on the ground. We need roots."

     Rustam leveled a pudgy finger toward me. "The lightships were constructed to house and preserve us until the new transcendence became manifest. We have waited six generations and we will wait a hundred more if necessary. When we evolve as the Vision demands, then we can be certain it is safe to return to an existence away from the void."

     Argo said, "This is not a matter of fulfilling destiny or rejecting it. This is a matter of survival." He held up a star field image. "Here is our chance. We cannot wait for a transcendent savior. The navigators change our course while we engage in this futile debate."

     Councilor Rustam shrieked, "The other lightships will carry on. We will be damned."

     A child's voice broke through. "The other lightships are dead."

     I turned to see Mally.

     Rustam's face shone red. "What? Who let this child in here?"

     "She's with me," I said.

     "She speaks blasphemy. How can she know of the other lightships? I would be the one to sense anything amiss."

     Mally ran to my side. "It's true, my mom talks in her sleep."

     I looked at Argo. He shook his head. Not me, he mouthed.

     Rustam's gaze became cold, absent of the fire of moments before. "What do you know, Solana?"

     Argo and the others stared at me. I closed my eyes to recall the images I feared. "I saw Victory die mere days ago. I witnessed the passing of Bohr, Chandrasekhar and Provocant half a century ago. Triumph, Tunguska and Zedong were a long dead memory when I found their remains. Ascendant is alone. We will die along with her if we don't make planetfall." My legs weakened and I rested my full weight on Mally's shoulder. She trembled for a moment, then straightened, supporting me, strengthening me.

     Rustam found his voice first. "You? Transcendent? Rubbish. Prefect, I exercise my charter as chief Councilor for the Vision and order this woman be put into my protection. Take her into custody."

     "Stop," I ordered. I stared at Rustam. "Examine your arm, sir." I concentrated my will. I could cripple as well as heal. His flesh lost its soft resilience as muscles aged and withered.

     "A trick," Rustam whispered. Then he dropped to the deck with pain. "A tri…" He fell prone weeping and clutching his arm.

     I moved the arm back to its present. I stood above him, Mally behind me. "You have your proof, Councilor."

     I can help my family no longer; the effort to convince Rustam forced me to another existence. My body can no longer entomb what my mind has and must become. I have to find those calling from Coma-Virgo. Those entities are the past, the present and the future as one. My own memories and visions blur and I must join those who understand. For once in my lives, I will be the student.

     I struggled with my note for Argo. In the end, I simply wrote, Listen for me. Then I lay down and prepared myself for the long journey: first to the New World to see where my daughter would live, then onward beyond the Milky Way to Coma-Virgo.

     Hart gave the Benediction. "My daughter." He cleared his throat. "Our daughter, mother and citizen, Solana, has left us. We grieve for the loss of one we loved and who did so much for us. May she find peace."

     The machinery whirred, then the metal cocoon was gone. Mally and Argo stood beside the reinvigorated Hart.

     The girl spoke, "Did she find us a home?"

     Hart answered when Argo remained silent, "She did, Mally. A wonderful home."

     "Will she come back?"

     "Your mother transcends us, Mally. Her spirit is in our hearts, her destiny is greater than we can comprehend."

     The girl looked into the viewscreen for a last time. "Goodbye, Mother. I miss you."

     I miss you too, Mally. I have not abandoned you. I will be everywhere you look on your new planet. It is all we hoped. More than a sanctuary, it will be the future.

     Father, you must see the Ascendant through to her rest. You always looked for humanity's next step with every child born on the ship. You should have looked inside yourself. You have my gift. It has been in our genes since the ice retreated, perhaps even before that, before language developed enough to express it. That is why I could prolong you, we shared a link. You will need it now.

     I appreciate your final words though I will never be at peace. I do not seek peace. I seek a forgotten destiny. When I meet humankind's descendants, one hundred million years from now or more, they will have discovered how to share my freedom.

     Argo, dear husband, listen for me. Ascendant's new world is your future. Treat it well. Share it; do not seek to dominate it. Seek instead to instill serenity among our companions. Then shall you all transcend.




Al Onia

Al Onia concentrates on Science Fiction, mostly from the hard to the hard-boiled.