Science Fiction genetic engineering spaceflight colony ship


By Stephen Dedman
May 27, 2020 · 2,330 words · 9 minutes

Sea Of Stars

Photo by Jeremy Perkins via Unsplash.

Suri had only just learned to walk when the engines cut out.

We’d been accelerating at .5 g for nearly two years and were cruising along at .9 c, but even with time dilation, we had twelve years of cruising – in free fall – ahead of us. It made no difference to the sleepers, of course, and everyone who’d been accepted as crew had spent enough time in microgravity that they were confident they wouldn’t get space-sick. The cryo-chambers were completely computer controlled, so the doc – Suri’s mother – only had to check on a couple at random every few days, unless an alarm sounded, and none ever did, so she had plenty of time on her hands. Maybe that was the problem.

Some scientists sneer at medics, say they’re really just technicians; they don’t use scientific method enough, don’t experiment, they just do what their training and experience tell them should work until they notice it doesn’t. Maybe that’s true. The Roys – Suri’s parents – weren’t like that, though: they’d never have gotten berths on the Chandrasekhar if they were. I don’t know for sure that Suri was an experiment, but the pregnancy was so conveniently timed that I’m more than a little suspicious.

(A month or two earlier would have been even better, of course; left them some margin for error. Not that they were the sort who made errors, or admitted to them.)

Suri was carried to term and born in gravity, of course, without her mother needing to spend all that time in the centrifuge. And she was toilet-trained damn quick, too. If you’ve ever tried to shit or piss in free fall, you’ll understand. I’m glad they re-engineered that part of me: an asshole is a wonderful piece of design, considering the materials you have to work with, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon with some variable-friction memory plastics.

Anyway, Suri was a smart kid, and curious, and she was the only kid around, so yeah, maybe we all spoiled her rotten. Particularly after the gravity was switched off.

Free fall’s probably the best toy a kid could have – not that gravity can’t be fun and doesn’t have its uses. But Suri took to free fall like a mermaid to water, thinking and moving in three dimensions like she’d never had to worry about which way was Down. If her parents hadn’t insisted on her doing exercises in the centrifuge so she’d be in shape when the engines kicked on again and we decelerated...

Yeah, I know. That was just a, what do they call ’em, a thought-experiment. Like Schrodinger’s cat. I’m no physiologist, but I know it’s supposed to be a bad idea; I’ve seen holos of the animals they brought up in free fall from birth. Shit, I used to think I was a mess until I saw those. Some of ’em, I couldn’t figure out what sort of animal they were meant to be, and I don’t know that they knew either. Of course, it wasn’t like they had parents that could teach ’em how they were supposed to cope. Maybe if...

Okay, I know. I’m not a scientist, but you spend long enough with no one but scientists to talk to, some of it rubs off. I guess it rubbed off on Suri, too.

Suri’s mother didn’t much like her spending time with me, though I think that had more to do with my just being a tech, without a doctorate, than with being a hyb or an Outer. But Suri liked me. Maybe it was because I’d had more time in free fall than anyone else, or maybe it was just because I look so different from everyone else, like some toy you can pull apart and put together again. Not a good idea to try that with real people. Yes, I’m joking. Can’t you tell?

Anyway, I didn’t spend any more time in the centrifuge than I had to, either – not that that was all that unusual, a lot of the crew thought free fall was more fun than the shitty exercises we had to do – and even when I did, I didn’t always bother changing limbs. All of my muscles were augmented enough that I could cope with being in a Down. Maybe Vina Roy thought it was bad manners my having four hands when everyone else had two. Or showing off, or setting a bad example... I don’t know. Back when I was a kid on Earth, I know I envied people who had legs, but I didn’t think they should stop walking around just because I couldn’t. At least, I don’t think I did. But no one could make me wear feet when I was in free fall. And since we’d stopped accelerating, I was spending more time Out.

I used to have to go Out – on the surface of the ship – for some jobs even when we were accelerating, but it was a lot safer once we were cruising. Even if something went wrong and my ties broke, the ship was enough of a Down – I mean, it had a little bit of gravity of its own, and we were between stars, so there were no other Downs to worry about – that I didn’t have to be so careful. When the engines weren’t blasting away, I went Out whenever I could think of an excuse.

For one thing, it’s quiet. Even if I turn the gain on my ears down to zero, when I’m inside a ship I can’t really get away from the noise completely. Outside, I can. That much silence used to scare me – I used to play music whenever I was Out – but not anymore. Now, I just enjoy it. Sure, I have to stay in radio contact with the ship, but no one bothers me all that often. The quiet is... it just feels right. You know most of the universe is quiet like that. It’s like the sky. The sky is meant to be black, so you can see the stars – and see them properly, not like on Earth, where there’s so much light pollution and air pollution and noise pollution… I mean, people talk about the beautiful blue of the sky on a day on Earth, but that’s just blotting out what’s really there, trying to forget that most of the universe actually exists. And Mars is worse. It’s like we’re building walls all around ourselves, up and down and...

Sorry. When you don’t have to breathe, sometimes it’s hard to remember to stop talking.

Anyway, Suri and I became friends. She used to ask if she could come Out with me, and I had to explain about how she wasn’t vacuum-adapted like me and there weren’t any suits for anyone as small as her and we couldn’t make one – not until she stopped growing, anyway, and she was growing at least as fast as a Martian kid. Her parents didn’t even like her going near the windows, because she didn’t have a shipsuit... but she loved looking at the Out – at the stars.

Yeah, just as much as I did. Bear with me, okay? I’m getting there, but it’s important that you hear my side.

I don’t remember how old Suri was when they told her we were going to another Down and weren’t going to be on the ship forever; five or six, maybe. She was seven or eight when they told her that the skies there would never be bright blue, like those on Earth – cloud cover will be the only thing that keeps the ultraviolet down to a safe level – and I remember how she cried. For weeks after that, she’d spend as much time in the window rooms as she could, which was whenever there was someone else there to watch over her. A lot of the time, it was me.

And she was ten or eleven when they told her that living on Taranis would mean living in .94 gs, and that after we started decelerating in about two years time she might never get to be in free fall again...

Her parents blamed me; said I was a bad influence. Said she picked up spacer terms from me – Down for a planet or any gravity well, Out for free fall – and a lot of other stuff they thought she was too young to know. Maybe she did. Maybe not; she read a lot, and stuff about spacers, or by spacers, probably meant more to her than anything written about living on a Down.

Don’t forget, this was a kid who’d never known Earthian gravity. Or even half a g. I know you’re a Downer, so maybe you can’t understand what this must be like, but I don’t blame her for freaking out; I don’t blame anyone.

But I never interfered with her lessons or her exercises or anything else she was supposed to be doing. You’ve seen her education scores; you know how smart she was. Anything that interested her, like computers or astronomy or biotech, and that was part of her world, she just soaked up, til she could’ve done nearly half the crew jobs on the ship.  Theory stuff, thought-experiments; not so much. She liked to learn by doing.

Maybe she could’ve coped with being stuck on a Down, given time, but she was only thirteen when they switched the engines on again, and teenagers don’t think like us...

Growing up mostly in free fall, even on a shitty shipboard diet, Suri had gotten tall enough to wear a spacesuit by then... and before you ask, no, I didn’t teach her to use one. Like I said, she was a reader, and if her parents tried to restrict what she read, she got around them easy enough, like any smart teenager. Or most of the dumb ones I’ve known, come to think of it. But I digress. Point is, she didn’t need any help from me, or anyone else, to get one out of the locker. Or to open the airlock. Shit, I don’t think there was a manual control in the ship that she couldn’t have figured out, and that was all routine stuff.

Besides, why would I need to know how to check out a suit? Air-tanks and a flightpack, yeah, if I was going to be Out for more’n a few hours, but not a suit.

Anyway, by the time anyone noticed she was missing, the ship had been decelerating for hours at a quarter g, and even with the telescopes we could barely see the suit as it headed further and further Out.

Sure, there would’ve been air left in the tanks, but the flightpack was probably out of fuel and there was no response from the radio.

Her parents would’ve stopped the ship and turned it around if they could, but they knew it wasn’t possible. Even if you could’ve over-ridden the computer, we would’ve been left without enough fuel to make it into orbit. You probably heard her mother say I should go Out after her to try to bring her back, but even she must’ve known that’d be a one-way trip.

Not that I wasn’t tempted, mind, especially when the alternative was another six years on board ship, under watch and under suspicion and with Vina Roy’s hate poisoning the air... I mean, even I have to breathe, occasionally. But everyone knew there was no one else who could do my job. The ones who thought I’d helped Suri get Out probably thought of me as a necessary evil...

Until now, of course. What use is an Outer hyb when everyone’s living on a Down?

It’s not a particularly attractive planet, is it? Even from this height.

I know a lot of people think that leaving me up here on what’s left of the ship is too kind, and the only ones who’re in favour of it are the astronomers. Even though I’d be fuck-all use on a farm; oh, I could probably do some routine tech stuff, or shovel shit, but nothing I was designed for. I don’t know what Vina Roy’s been telling them about me, but I can guess. Stuff about the drugs my mother took, and whether they twisted my mind like they did my body. Stuff about surgical addiction, when I got over that years ago. She probably says I’m a sociopath or something just because I don’t think of other people as being the same as me. Maybe she hopes that I’ll space myself rather than spend the rest of my life on a Down. Come to think of it, given the choice...

But, you see, I know something she doesn’t. If she’d ever bothered looking in her own cryo-chamber, she’d have realized it wasn’t empty. Suri shut herself in there, a few hours after she sent that empty suit into the Out with the flightpack jammed on. And while she’s been asleep all this time, she’s now legally nineteen, and she can make up her own mind where she wants to spend the rest of her life.

Maybe she’ll decide to go Down to Taranis; there’s gravity, sure, but there’ll also be people, some of whom aren’t really that much older than her. I won’t blame her if she does. But maybe she’ll stay up here on the ship, where there’s just me and the Out. At least for a while. You can ask her yourself when they wake her up.

Until then... it’s been good talking to you, Captain. Been a relief to get Suri’s secret out of my system at last. And I must admit, I’m looking forward to seeing Vina Roy’s face when she hears the truth.

No, don’t bother getting up.  I know my way out.

This story originally appeared in Scenes From the Second Storey.