HD 44594 – a story

This is the first chapter in a hard science fiction novel I’ve been planning to write for a while. The story possesses a fairly common theme in SF – that of the generational starship being dispatched to seed the human race on a distant world. HD 44594 is a solar analogue star located in the southern constellation of Puppis, near the border with Columba.

October 18, 2880

Henry Draper 44594 shone as a scintillating point of white light. Terry Charles sipped his tea as his eyes alternated between displays and readouts, and the black gloom outside the cupola windows, a blackness pierced only by the blazing sun some seventy astronomical units away.

It was time.

For the last seven months, it was Terry’s call to monitor the seventy-nine other humans aboard Hope 6. At the boundary of the star’s heliopause approximately three hundred AU out, the on-board systems woke Terry up. That’s to say, the sterile perfluorocarbons which occupied the various vessels in his body were gradually replaced by his natural fluids, his body was warmed to room temperature and his heart was restarted. Within ten minutes of that, Terry regained consciousness and was in control of his body and mind. A scientist had described the rejuvenation procedure as “embalming in reverse”. If Terry was asked, he would call the sensation as unpleasant. His extremities tingled as blood surged into them for the first time in centuries and the nerves were given impetus again. Various people had named the procedure a resurrection and some experienced a disconnect between pre- and post-stasis.

For weeks after the process Terry had to eat and drink specially prepared meals to re-accustom his metabolism. He also spent two hours a day in the ship’s gym doing strengthening and aerobic routines. He did a lot of thinking too. Being alone on a generation spacecraft for seven months forced one to go inward and Terry kept himself sane with study and his work.

In his former life on faraway Earth, Terry had been a geologist. That was his formal qualification. In reality, he was a secondary school teacher, preparing young minds for a lifetime of learning and scientific rigour. Those young minds were now long-dead. Anything and everything Terry knew before awakening was either ancient or destroyed. Maybe both. For Terry, and the seventy-nine other very fortunate members of Hope 6, had spent the last 792 years in induced life suspension while their craft coasted through the ether toward a distant solar analogue.

Earth in the mid twenty-first century was a place of madness. First had come the multiple meteor impacts the scientific world long feared, shunted and urged on their way into the inner solar system by a silent and undetected passing brown dwarf. The largest of these, the Cypriot Hammer, was a two-kilometre long hunk of primordial rock that had gone unnoticed until it was seven Earth-Moon distances away. With an albedo approaching zero, and orbiting at an inclination almost perpendicular to the ecliptic, it evaded all conscious attention until it was too late. Its impact in the eastern Mediterranean had spelled the end of cultures and human habitation that had stood proud for six millennia.

Other smaller but still lethal impacts followed in the Hammer’s wake. Most landed in the oceans, as probability determined they should. Some did not. Those that impacted on land usually missed populated areas. Usually.

At the end of this period, the death toll stood in the billions and the Earth was facing its most serious extinction event since Chicxulub, the bolide impact that heralded the end of the dinosaurs. The abrupt cooling of the climate brought on a new ice age and the world began to freeze. Life was imperilled.

The collective heads of government and science gathered. The consensus was reached within days. The Earth was almost mortally wounded, and it was a near-death that would take tens of thousands of years to right itself, to cure.

In the meantime, nearly all land organisms and most of the marine ones, would perish. The Earth would become a gelid, biological desert, home only to the hardiest of archaea and bacteria and from these, a new world would be born.

The decision was easy. Humanity had to leave or face inevitable extinction. The colonies on the Moon and Mars could not support the remaining billions so painful decisions had to be made. Those that could relocate to the Moon, Mars or the orbital stations would do so. Other new settlements would be established on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The long-standing plan to terraform Venus would be put into action and accelerated. Even stark Mercury was earmarked for colonisation.

But other plans were enacted. An exacting survey of the night sky was launched and the catalogue of extrasolar planets was re-examined and reassessed. Parameters were defined, models were ran, probabilities were examined. In the end, twenty-two years after the end of the last bolide impact, science had determined there were forty-seven planets that could theoretically harbour human life. Planets that orbited within their parent star’s Goldilocks zones, planets that bore atmospheres of nitrogen and oxygen. Hopeful candidates to human expansion.

Another decision was reached. Twenty huge craft would be constructed, kilometre long behemoths of habitation, entire metal ecosystems adrift in the vastness of space. These ships were designed to be modular and they would break up into reusable pieces once their destinations were reached. They would provide all the material to start new life. Humanity was to be reseeded, eighty crew-members at a time. It was voted they would each be called Hope, as it was hope that was needed the most.

A lottery was held, and young people, 20-33 years old, fit and agile, were invited to put their names in a hat. No experience in spaceflight or science was necessary, as all training would be provided. Those that won the lottery were taken to secret locations and exhaustively inculcated in the numerous disciplines deemed necessary for survival off-world. After three years, the 1600 young winners were ready to leave behind their world and lives forever.

December 15, 2088

The young winners were shuttled out to the waiting massive arks and divided into twenty groups. Farewells were said, sad but hopeful speeches were made. They boarded their crafts, entered the stasis cubicles and their lives were put on hold. Final checks of each of the craft were made and engines were readied. Twenty vessels, Hopes 1 through 20, pointed in the direction of their target stars and slowly began to ease their way out of the solar system. By the time the orbit of Neptune was reached three weeks later, each of the craft had accelerated to ten percent of light speed.

They were now beyond the physical reach of any other human.

Almost eight hundred years later, the sixth of the Hopes had entered its target’s solar system, and with each day Terry’s excitement grew. From Earth, instruments had detected two Earth-likes, a number of Jovians, two of them twice Jupiter’s diameter, and three planets roughly Uranus sized. The reality was more complex. The ship’s systems had detected no less than thirty seven planets orbiting HD 44594. Hundreds of plutinos and other assorted small balls of ice and rock also coasted about the star, at distances near and far. At least ten Mercury-sized planets orbited the star, ranging from 0.6 to 0.04 AU in mean distance. Three of these were co-orbital. Two of the Uranians were co-orbital, spinning about the star a cool sixteen AU away. The two Earth-likes were also co-orbital, the slightly smaller of the two preceding the larger in its orbit 60 degrees ahead in the L4 point. Astronomers on Earth had strongly suspected this from indirect observations, but the limitations of their instruments could not give a definite answer.

Now there was no doubt and from preliminary observations, both were inhabitable by humans with little adaptation required. Or so Terry thought from what he could see in the readings. Planetary science and astronomy were not his forte and he was relieved when the onboard AI gave him the order to rejuvenate five more of the crew, the so-called Pioneers, the first among equals of the eighty on board. Sanjay Gupta, Suzette McGeehan, Colum Bills, Claude Plessey and Melange Banda. Of these, Terry only knew Sanjay as the two of them shared similar scientific interests. The other four he knew nothing about as they’d been trained in French Guiana, away from Plesetsk were he had been stationed.

There were more human reasons to wake the Pioneers. Hope 6 had for a time received a steady stream of signals from controllers on Earth and Mars. For thirty years, the lives and times of the human remnant sent detailed dispatches about life on Earth, the Moon and Mars. Then it ceased. February 14, 2113 was the date of the last message.

October 24, 2880

Six people hovered around the central observation computer in the forward deck of Hope 6. ‘We have a problem,’ Terry said, bringing up the models. ‘Home A is seven percent larger than Earth. Home B is about Venus’s size. Home B has an axial tilt of almost forty degrees, making seasons there a real pain in the fundament. Sensors have picked up only trace water in the atmosphere and lithosphere. No life at all as far as we can tell, not even unicellular stuff. It’s a pristine world, all clean breathable air and stable topography.’

‘You said there was a problem,’ Claude pointed out. Claude was the oldest of the sextet and one of the crew’s physicians, a Walloon Belgian with a broad affable face that belied his aggressive, confrontational manner. As with Colum, Terry developed a near-instant dislike of the man.

‘With Home B there is for sure,’ Terry continued. ‘And Home A too in a way. Let me get Home B’s issues out here first.’ He rotated the image of the world in front of them. ‘There’s no ozone layer, and no magnetosphere worth mentioning, so it’s subject to the full brunt of the solar wind.’

‘Why so much oxygen if there’s no biology?’ someone asked, one of the women.

‘Don’t know. There’s many ways a planet can produce oxygen that isn’t biotic in origin, but none of the models I’ve run match with what’s going on. Not even remotely so more research is needed.’ Turning back to the floating hologram, Terry pointed at various parts of the planet. To the others, it was a dull brown ball. ‘With no appreciable water, we’d need to create it, and that would divert a few of our processes and generally make life difficult for a while. The regolith is sterile too, so that needs addressing.’

‘The what?’ Melange asked. She had one leg hooked across a support beam, her near-naked brown form arched suggestively back over it. Melange, a British woman of Senegalese heritage, was a fitness instructor, and looked every bit the part. She radiated palpable health and energy. Terry glanced at her – she wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes were focused on nothing he could see. Taking a deep breath he went on.

‘Regolith is the loose material above bedrock. It’s the scientific name for it. Regolith includes soil. Home B’s regolith is constantly irradiated and hence sterile.’

‘Meaning we wouldn’t be able to grow crops?’ Colum asked, one of the crew’s three electrical engineers. Colum Bills was from northern California, blond, green eyed and beanpole tall. His large, bony hands flew madly around his chest when he spoke, reminding Terry of an overzealous news presenter relaying some incredible human interest story. He had the manner of something similar too: loud, extroverted, opinionated, and a natural leader. He was certainly Pioneer material.

‘Probably not under the open sky,’ Terry answered. ‘Not until we could engineer them to adapt to conditions.’

‘In other words, Home B is out,’ Claude said.

‘I didn’t say that. It’s quite a hospitable place, equable temperatures through most of its range, a predictable climate, reasonable air pressures, stable landforms and so forth.’

‘But without water and with a naked sun, we’d be fucked until we got things going.’

Terry, always the calm and polite one, only nodded.

‘We don’t know what’s creating the oxygen,’ Colum put in. ‘If it’s not biotic, then it’s a geological process of some kind, and one that doesn’t sound particularly healthy for humans. Sub-surface lakes of acid reacting with rocks, creating free oxygen and water…but there’s no water, is there? That eliminates electrolysis as the origin.’

‘There could be a patina of life on the surface exhaling it that we can’t see from here,’ Sanjay said

‘It’s a mystery,’ Terry agreed, ‘but we’ll work on that one later.’

Suzette, an engineer and a woman that immediately fascinated Terry, pointed at the blue image of Home A gently rotating before them. ‘What’s wrong with this place?’ Like Colum, she was Californian, but a product of the south, San Diego to be precise. A deeply freckled woman, Suzette was tall and solid in musculature, and carried herself like a self-assured Amazon. As Terry thought about it, she was more a valkyrie than an Amazon, as her features, pale skin and silvery-blonde hair, were ultimately products of northern Europe. Terry caught himself a couple of times daydreaming what it’d be like to be in this overtly strong woman’s arms. In spite of this, she spoke with a high-pitched sweet voice that lacked any kind of prepossession or conceit.

‘I’ve already said it’s bigger. We’ll notice the extra size. It’s going to be a struggle to run anywhere until we adapt. Twelve percent above Earth standard gravity. It’s going to be a real struggle. All right, what else…it’s ninety percent water. Landmasses are mostly scattered archipelagos with minimal larger continental locations. I imagine all of those archipelagos are the peaks of what are now drowned mountain ranges. The majority of the land lies in the equatorial zone. See these islands up here? And this Madagascar-sized land there? That’s about it for anything temperate.’ When nobody commented, he went on. ‘OK, the planet is subject to some monster tides, caused mainly by all those moons and probably by Home B in the L4 point. Shorelines recede by up to a hundred metres at the equator at low tide. I haven’t figured out the complete tidal model yet. That’s going to take some serious time to work out, and it’s impossible from this distance.’

‘So Madagascar is going to be our new home?’ Melange asked. ‘Mama Africa is everywhere. She has followed us.’

‘She’s moved to the horse latitudes,’ someone else commented.

‘It’s farther north than the horse latitudes,’ Terry corrected. ‘The southern end of New Madagascar sits at about forty one degrees north. Horse latitudes on Earth are thirty to thirty five.’

‘You said this planet was bigger,’ Melange said. ‘The rules are different. Horse latitudes start at forty-one degrees here.’

Terry smiled thinly at the laughter going on around him. He really did hate people interrupting his lectures. It was his teaching background, he figured.

‘Why not the tropics?’ Suzette ran a finger above the hologram of the world. ‘Island life. Beach parties every day.’

‘The tropics,’ Terry started. ‘Here’s the thing. It’s subject to world-spanning storms. All that water and heat add up to huge hurricanes and they just spin around the planet unimpeded. Small islands don’t stop hurricanes. For most of the year, you’re getting blasted by god-awful winds and rain. At Madagascar’s latitude that’s less of a problem, but down where all those islands are? It’s hurricane season every day.’

Nobody said anything, though Terry became painfully aware of Suzette hovering at his shoulder. Her body scent was unmistakable.

‘There’s life down there, and bigger life than just unicellular too. I mean real life, multi-cellular and eukaryotic life. I’m assuming it’s eukaryotic.’

‘How do you know this, Terry?’ Claude said. ‘How can we detect life from this far out?’

‘Sanjay, the floor is yours,’ Terry said, feeling he’d reached the limits of his expertise.

Sanjay manoeuvred himself down to the holograms. He was a third generation Indian-American, his family originating from Nagpur in Maharashtra. For the last seventy years, they’d lived and worked in Delaware and continued a long family vocational trend of physicists and astronomers. ‘There’s no such thing as a lifeform detector. Instead, we look at the signs there might be life indirectly. Disequilibrium in the planetary chemistry, radiation at certain wavelengths, obvious things like artificial structures and so forth. I’ve seen nothing on either of the candidate planets to indicate there’s intelligent life, or ever has been. Not intelligent life that’s built anything. With Home B, there’s nothing. No signatures, no signs, nothing at all. With Home A…the water is full of life, and it’s everywhere. It’s how I think the planet is getting its oxygen. There are phytoplankton or cyanobacteria analogues down there. The water is teeming with it. You can see it on the models here. The water has a very green tint to it. Huge masses of life. Water, pure water, is pale blue. On Home A…you can see it. It’s green.’

‘That shit’s toxic, right?’ Colum asked. ‘Phytoplankton. Red tides.’

‘Some Earth algae emit toxins, yes. This isn’t Earth algae obviously. They may not even use DNA or RNA to encode their genetics. It’s exotic as it comes. If we decide to settle there, there’s interesting times ahead researching it all. There’s other stuff too. The star has about seventy percent more metallicity than the Sun. What we’ve seen of the terrestrial planets indicate an iron-nickel richness, densities approaching six kilos per cubic metre. Home A is no different. The water has copious amounts of dissolved minerals and salts, particularly iron, manganese, magnesium, cobalt, et cetera. The land shows the same abundance. Raw building materials are not an issue here.’

‘It’s a Dead Sea?’ Suzette asked. ‘Mega-salty?’

‘No, not that way. There are less chlorides and nitrates in the water than there is in Earth’s ocean. The water would not be as salty to the taste, but I strongly doubt it’s potable. But no terrestrial marine animal could live in it. If we cannot satisfy our water needs from precipitation or aquifers then we need to use ocean water, and we’ll need filtration systems.’

‘Which we have,’ Claude said. ‘We’re self-contained aboard this tub.’

‘There’s no contest here,’ Suzette said. She swung around Terry and floated before the holograms. ‘One world is dead, and one is alive. One world has no water and the other is full of it.’ Her hooded eyes turned to Sanjay nearby. ‘I’m for Home A unless…now tell us the flipside of this planet.’

‘There’s the gravity, as Terry mentioned. There’s the equatorial storms, the excessive tides. We don’t know if the life will present any kind of hazard, like anaphylaxis, allergies, toxicity…it’s about seven degrees warmer than Earth on average and its atmospheric constituency is a bit different. Neon rather than argon, and about four percent more oxygen which may cause problems. As humans, we’re adapted to about twenty-one percent oxygen at a thousand millibars. At sea level on Home A, it’s about twenty-five percent and eleven hundred and eighty millibars. That’s not steep enough to cause partial pressure issues – oxygen toxicity, but we haven’t evolved as creatures to be breathing anything more than twenty-one percent. It’s hard to say what the long term effects may be, but I feel we’ll adapt to it all right.’

‘Earth in the Jurassic Era,’ Terry commented. Sanjay nodded.

‘Why neon?’ Claude asked. ‘Isn’t neon a rare gas?’

‘Oh God no,’ Sanjay answered. ‘There’s more neon in the universe than there is nitrogen. There’s hardly any neon on Earth because it’s monatomic and light – it’s slowly leaked into space over the eons. Just like helium. Home A is a bit bigger than Earth and has hung on to it. It’s inert. It’s not toxic in the least. At least two of the Jovians in this system have a lot of neon too.’

‘Will the gravity hurt us?’ Suzette asked.

‘It can do,’ Sanjay said. ‘It may mess with our respiration and circulatory systems until we adapt. Falls will be the big thing. Twelve percent higher gravity means falls will count for more. You weigh sixty kilo on Earth, you’ll be sixty-seven on Home A – and your body isn’t used to that kind of heaviness. It’s going to hurt falling over. There will be bone and joint issues too. Extra stress on tendons, your spine and so on. Your heart has to work harder.’

‘How long will it take us to get used to that?’ Melange asked, her mouth open in a horrified grimace.

‘Depends on the individual but I’d say a few weeks to a month maybe. If we decided on Home A, then we’ll start conditioning straight away.’

‘There’s water everywhere,’ Colum said. ‘Buoyancy. If the gravity gives us the shits, we’ll hit the beach.’

‘To be eaten by whatever lives in it,’ Claude added. There was more laughter.

‘You’ll tire quicker swimming,’ Sanjay said. ‘Buoyancy will help, but you have to remember everything weighs twelve percent more. Everything. Even the water.’

‘Both of these planets are fucked,’ Claude murmured.

‘Home A stills sounds the better of the two,’ Colum said. He and Melange were engaged in some sort of game with their feet, and Terry watched fascinated. The more he studied Melange, the more she intrigued him, and the more unknowable she became. Physically, he hadn’t seen a woman with a more perfect body. She was the embodiment of young exquisite femininity and likewise, Terry thought, she was so far away and out of reach of someone like him, as to be almost divine. Even Suzette, a beauty herself, retained the aura of an approachable person, if barely. Melange was something else.

‘We won’t get to their orbital plane for four weeks,’ Sanjay said, ‘but during this period, we’re going to examine both planets in greater detail. In my opinion, there’s no logical choice but Home A. It’s easily the more hospitable of the two worlds. It has everything we need.’

‘If it has water, it’s hospitable.’ Claude said.

‘Well yeah…maybe not. We need water to live, but we’re terrestrial creatures.‘

‘You know what I mean. With available water, the cost of living is exponentially cheaper in productive terms. We don’t need to devote excess energies in creating it.’

‘Can’t we send a probe there?’ Melange asked.

Sanjay shook his head. ‘It’d get there a few days before we would at the most, and it’d have dramas decelerating in time, limited on-board fuel and all that. Shipboard observations are the best way at the moment. Once Hope 6 gets to within launch distance of our target world, we can send down a few probes. We won’t be making planetfall until we’ve done a proper survey.’

‘Why no intelligent life if conditions are ideal?’ Colum asked. ‘I mean, there’s nothing you can see from here except algae in the water. If this star is as old as the Sun, shouldn’t there be some sort of sentience down there?’

‘It doesn’t logically follow,’ Sanjay said, and Terry was again grateful the man was here explaining this, and not him. ‘About four percent of all stars are analogous to the Sun, including HD 44594 out there. Of those, about twelve percent are estimated to have terrestrial planets. After that, things enter the land of pure conjecture as opposed to inferential conjecture. Life on Earth evolved under exacting conditions. A few degrees either way, or a bit less oxygen, or a touch more ammonia and we wouldn’t be here today. We’d be something else, if there was anything else to begin with.’ He gestured and the image of Home A withdrew, and the outlines of the numerous moons came into view. ‘See all these? Each of these mess with the planet in their own way. Each exert tides, each tinker with the axial tilt, the rotation and everything else of Home A. And they interact with other. The outer four are in what’s called a Laplace resonance. Each have orbital periods that are factors of the others. This has consequences on Home A’s tides and Home B sitting sixty degrees away, co-orbital at the L4 point also weighs in. Compared to Earth, it’s an extremely exotic system. With all these parameters, I’m amazed life evolved here to start with. Humans evolved due to some very narrow and precise conditions. You don’t get those here on Home A. With all of these moons, Home B around the corner and the super-Jovians in this system, my bet is you’d be in for a rough and chaotic time as a planet. Everything has changed, and probably changed in recent astronomical terms – the axis has wobbled all over the place, the orbit gets bent, twisted and re-circularised probably every twenty thousand years, you get strange night time patterns with all the different moons and their light. What a mess. What higher life is going to evolve in all of that?’ He spun several of the moons about on their axis, looking at discernible landmarks. ‘Like I said, it doesn’t logically follow. That’s most likely why there is only life in the seas that we can detect from here. The ocean water has protected life better than the foibles and quirks it’d get on land. Life started in the water on Earth, and there was nothing but chaos on land.’

‘And,’ Terry put in, gliding under the display, ‘the day on Home A is about thirty-eight hours long. Those moons have slowed the planet down and in much quicker a timeframe than the Moon is slowing Earth down. In contrast, Home B’s day in sixteen hours long. It has no moons at all. Not even a Phobos-sized rock floats about it.’

‘Thirty-eight hours!’ Colum cried. ‘Geez. We weigh a ton, the water is full of algae soup, there’s fucking hurricanes everywhere and now you say it’s gonna be daylight for what, nineteen hours a day?’

Terry wondered if a proper character check had been performed on Colum. At the very least, one to determine if he was a drama queen or simply plain overwrought. He reminded Terry – unpleasantly – of a stock character in one of the old American situation comedies, the guy whose sole job was to offer wise-ass commentary and utter semi-funny cracks on cue.

‘Depends on the season,’ Sanjay said blithely. ‘Axial tilt is at around nineteen degrees. A bit less than Earth, but we’re going to get seasons, sure.’

‘I hope none of you expected Earth Jr,’ Terry said. ‘We knew things were going to be different. Now we know how much by.’

‘Shame we can’t turn around and go home,’ Melange said, her foot game with Colum still going on.

‘Nothing to go home to,’ Suzette said. ‘Everyone left on Earth is dead or dying or moved on like we did. We’re eight hundred years gone.’

‘We can’t go home,’ Terry said. ‘This is a one way trip.’

‘I know that,’ Melange said in a bored voice. ‘It’s called “wistfulness”. An emotion we’ll all be having a lot of real soon.’

‘Well, let’s have a look outside,’ Colum suggested.

The six of them hung weightless in the observation cupola, each alone with his or her thoughts. Sanjay, Suzette and Melange beautiful in their near-naked skin, the other three more conservative in ship-pants. Terry especially was self conscious of the flesh before him. He had always been awkward around women, especially pretty ones. Nothing quite brought out inadequacy in many people than being beside someone they considered physically or socially superior. Terry was one of those people. He felt small beside the over-powering majesty of Melange.

Sanjay opened the cupola ports, the only actual windows into space on board Hope 6, as everything else was provided via camera. He dimmed the interior lights and waited while six pairs of eyes adjusted to the dark. The cupola gave them a broad 150 degree view from the port side of the ship. Terry saw the glorious band of the Milky Way rise from the left and pass diagonally up to the right. There was a bright object off to the left, about minus six in magnitude which the atlas identified as one of the outer super-Jovians in the system. Sanjay had mentioned briefly before that the presence of these huge planets was at odds with the remainder of the system and was in violation of currently accepted theories of planetary formation. The eccentricities of the orbits suggested that they may have been captured rather than forming locally.

‘When we wake up the remainder of the crew, we’ll send someone out to inspect the aerogel,’ he said. ‘The AI runs integrity reports on the hull but it can’t quite see the aerogel.’

‘Angelika is assigned to that,’ Terry said.

‘Does it matter now?’ Colum asked. ‘We’re nearly here.’

‘It’d be good to get a grasp on how much of it has ablated over the years,’ Sanjay said. ‘We started out with a barrier 250 metres thick. We’ve travelled what? Eighty-something light years through mostly empty space, but we would’ve run into enough micro-meteorites and detritus for it to wear it away some.’

Terry craned his head and looked forward, trying to see the aerogel barrier, but it couldn’t be viewed against the backdrop of space. He remembered seeing it upon arrival at Hope 6, a vast but barely visible pale blue cone attached to the bow of the ship. Despite its huge size, it only weighed three tonnes, such was the nebulous nature of the silicate aerogel. Strong but light, and extremely resistant to heat and abrasion. Good enough to prevent space particles from colliding with the ship at almost relativistic speeds.

‘Eighty light years,’ Suzette said, her freckled face pale in the wan light of the Milky Way. ‘Can we see Earth or the Sun from here?’

‘The Sun we can,’ Sanjay answered. ‘It’s about magnitude seven from this distance…let me bring it up.’ He operated one of the consoles and the cupola windows became overlaid with lines and notations. He gestured at a faint star almost astern of them, highlighted in blue by the planetarium program. ‘There she is. Magnitude six point nine, G2V, approximately 83.7 light years behind us, in what humans once called the constellation of Lyra.’

‘We are in the wide blue yonder.’ Colum remarked.

‘Wide black yonder,’ Sanjay corrected. ‘We’re in one corner of Puppis, near the border with Columba. We’re in Canopus country here. That’s Canopus down there, just off to the right. Brightest star in the sky in this part of the universe.’

‘You love your astronomy,’ Colum said appreciatively. ‘Yes, yes, I know – it’s what you do. So what’s the vote? Do we decide which planet to settle or do we wake up the crew and put it to everyone?’

‘The decision was given to us,’ Claude said. ‘We were made Pioneers for a reason.’

‘Yeah, but I don’t want to be responsible for seventy-five other people if our choice turns out to be the shitty one.’

‘Um, the decision wasn’t made for us,’ Melange objected. ‘Nobody on Earth was 100 percent sure there were two habitable worlds here. They were only sure there was one. Home A looks the right one to me. Life, air and water. The only thing that other world has going for it is air. There’s no doubt in my mind. Home A is the go.’

‘I agree,’ Suzette said. Sanjay and Colum murmured support.

‘What about you Terry?’ Claude asked. ‘You’re the most stable person on this ship. What’s your choice?’

‘Home A, but you should put it to everyone. If you don’t, and people think you’ve made decisions for them, then there will be resentment.’ Terry had to smile inwardly at Claude’s assessment of him. It was true, to an extent. The psychological evaluations done on each of them before embarkation had shown Terry to have the most equable personality type, someone who was quite capable of being by himself for months on end without developing any real kind of emotional stress or disorders. A plain ordinary man with no hidden demons. It was why he was woken up first. It was also why he was not one of the Pioneers. He was too ordinary. No leadership ability, no spark of initiative.

Melange nodded her head. ‘There you have it. Wake everyone up.’

Suzette let out a deep breath and was going to propel herself away when she stopped. ‘Has anyone checked for messages?’

‘I was going to get to that,’ Terry said. ‘There’s weekly updates from Mission Control, at least until the turn of the 22nd century. After that, we received news from Schiaparelli One on Mars. Contact ceased in 2113.’

All five Pioneers stared at him. ‘Was there trouble?’ Sanjay asked.

‘No, actually. Nothing that was relayed. But most of them sounded automated. Sterile. “We’re all counting on you” type spiels. There was little of substance communicated. No personal messages. None at all.’

‘That’s crazy.’ Colum took in a deep breath. ‘We’ll listen to them when we wake the others up. I wonder what it means though. Just stopping like that.’

‘Nothing wrong with our antennas and stuff, is there?’ Suzette asked. ‘The comm systems?’

‘It’s all good.’ Terry said. ‘Everything’s working. We just haven’t received anything.’

‘Signal attenuation,’ Sanjay said. ‘The signal may not have been strong enough to reach us once we got too far from Earth.’

‘No, the strength was good. We were getting the broadcasts loud and clear. They just stopped, that’s all.’

‘That’s all,’ Claude echoed. His glum face stared at the representation of Sol. ‘More like “we’re all”. It’s us and the other ships now.’

‘They’re out of reach too.’ Melange said.

‘It’s up to us now,’ Suzette said. ‘We are truly alone. Wake everyone up Terry.’

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