Dandelion Seeds, First Half

The following is a short story I originally wrote for a sci-fi horror anthology, though it was rejected in the end.  It serves somewhat to bridge the gap between The Pride of Parahumans and the post-exodus stories I focus on here.

The full rough draft of the story is on my Patreon feed (along with every other original fic I write) and I’ve been serializing this one on my new podcast for the past few weeks.  Since the podcast has reached the halfway point I thought it was about time to share the text story on this blog.  The second half will be posted as the podcast comes up on the end.

 

1.

Hello, unknown listener, I am sure you are filled with curiosity about the outside universe, and I get the feeling that you would be more inclined to believe me if I were to indulge you.

My name is Jarlisse, and I might be the last of my kind.

First, you should probably know something about my “species”, if we can be called such.  I am what was called a “parahuman”, an artificial mixture of my ancestral homeworld’s single naturally evolved sapient race and the genetic material of one or more of the other, non-sapient species on said world.  The first generation of parahumans were created by humans, the natural sapient species, as deep-space labor.  Their governments afforded certain rights and protections to humans, but not to creatures that were quite clearly not human.  So, some corporations found a loophole.  They experimented with thousands of unique mixtures of human and animal genes and printed out the viable ones, then sent them out to the asteroids to bring back minerals. However, the early parahumans shared the humans’ drive for independence and soon the time came for them to rebel and claim the Asteroid Belt for their own.  The parahumans, having no experience with self-governance, experimented with several different forms of government reasoning that with sufficient experimentation they’d be able to discern which ones worked out best and all would come to adopt the greatest government.  But, as the humans had discovered years ago, it is very subjective which government is better and many parahumans could not bring themselves to agree on many ideas.  And like humans, when parahumans disagreed on something strongly enough, there was the urge to settle the argument through violence.

The first major organized conflict between governments came from the Feudal Anarchy of Vesta and the Republic of Pallas.  The Vestans believed that we should bioprint exact replicas of ourselves, with public safety and welfare entrusted to particular sets of replicas who had proven their ability and devotion to the cause.  Whereas the Pallene released the genetic locks the humans placed on our “natural” reproductive systems that combined genes from two parahumans to produce a new one.  Vesta saw Pallas as a threat to long-term stability and attempted to destroy them with nuclear explosives.  Pallas retaliated in kind.  They had been fighting for two Earth orbits when I was born to a Pallene couple.  My mother was spliced with genes from what was called a “cheetah” while my father had “coyote” genetic material.  All of us second-generation kids were bizarre mixes like that.  Both habitats lost half their populations in that war, when it was realized how easily they could wipe each other out the two agreed to an alternative plan.  They would instead devote their industries and destructive capabilities to designing and building ships that could plant colonies of their people on worlds around distant stars.  Whoever colonized the most stars first won, I guess.

Pallas decided that, since even the fastest ship would take decades to reach any other star, they would train their children to crew the ships.  Even the Grand Mayor zirself sent zir son and daughter into the program.  I entered training when I was seven, I was barely half the size I am now.  We were constantly tested to determine where to assign us, drilled on every possible emergency procedure they could imagine, trained to calculate orbital mechanics in our heads without mechanical assistance.  At the age of ten, I was introduced to the rest of the crew I would serve with.  Tony, the bear/tiger assigned to engineering.  Rachel, rabbit/mouse pilot.  Stewart, the musteline biologist.  And myself, the cheeyote communications tech.  We would carry a payload comprising all the equipment to build a self-sufficient colony on a distant planet.  Hydroponics beds, pre-fabbed shelters, mining drones, omni-printers to make whatever non-living items or structures we needed, and bioprinters to make food and the colonists themselves.  There were thousands of gamete samples preserved in cryogenic storage in the hold, we could mix them up however we wished for maximum genetic diversity and print them into a new colonist who would be rapid-trained like the corporations used to do.  But as soon as the colony was sustainable we would allow the colonists to breed naturally.  We were expected to pair up with crewmates, or possibly any colonists who caught our eye, and make babies ourselves once the mission was complete.  But no sooner, we couldn’t afford to waste time raising kids while running a starship.  So, when we turned fourteen gamete samples from each one of us were taken and placed into storage, and our plumbing was surgically modified so that those samples were the only way we could ever reproduce.  Our ship was ready for departure to the star system designated “Epsilon Indi” a couple years after that.

I remember watching my parents wave goodbye over the monitor that displayed a video stream transmitted by radio from the Pallas habitat as the nuclear fusion propulsion system kicked in.  I think back to that moment now and have to remind myself that whatever radio waves brought the doom upon us all were transmitted long before that fateful day.

2.

Over the next six years we fell into a comfortable routine of maintenance checks, course corrections, and consumption of assorted forms of entertainment.  Mostly stored in the libraries of the ship’s computer but we did get the occasional data packet from Pallas, or tried to write our own material.  The memory of Stewart’s weekly poetry readings still makes me gag.  We also found other, non-written ways to entertain ourselves in each other, if you know what I mean.  Tony was always so strong and controlling, Stewart, rather flexible if you know what I mean, while Rachel could do surprising things with those grass-clipping teeth of hers.

All this while, I was assigned to keep vigilant watch on any and all communications from home.  However, after a couple years it got boring just sitting by the comm station and replying “confirmed” to every message so I set a program to respond automatically and alert my handheld comm whenever someone called.  Messages were coming less and less frequently as time went by anyways.

Then, one day, it all changed.

We hadn’t received any messages in three months.  To be honest, it took them more than seven months to reach us by that point in our journey and an equal amount of time to get back home so the delay was understandable.  We thought nothing of the long delay until one day when we received a report that chilled us to the very bones.

“Earth has been attacked.”  The simple text message started.  “An object massing approximately ten million metric tonnes and traveling at 90% of the speed of light collided with the planet from somewhere far outside the solar system.  Nothing on the surface survived, the crust was split and the mantle exposed.”  It ended with a line that tore at the very foundations of our belief system.  “Scientific consensus is near unanimous.  It could not have been natural and it cannot be the result of any action by human or parahuman technology.  We are at war with an alien civilization.”

Needless to say we were dumbfounded.  Alien civilization?  That was the stuff of old science-fiction.  The humans had concluded long ago that they were the only intelligent life in the known universe, and even after creating us we weren’t very alien.  We just sat there in the media room staring at the last sentence in shock until finally one of us gathered themself up enough to speak.

“They’re doomed.”  Tony said simply.  “Nothing they can do.”

Stewart disagreed to an extent.  “They can hide.  The aliens have only attacked Earth.  It said nothing about the Asteroids or Mars domes or the Venus aerostats.  If they dampen their emissions to background levels they might avoid detection and escape further attacks.”

“Dampening emissions sounds like something we could do.”  Rachel cut in.  “I could shut off the active sensors, rely on passive only.  Maybe even cut the drive to minimal pulse.  But that would vastly extend our travel time to Epsilon Indi.”

I asked her, “How much longer?”

The bunnymouse sighed.  “Eighty years, give or take.”  She leaned forward on the table and groaned.  “We might not live that long.”

Humans can live about a hundred years, given proper care is taken.  On the other hand no one knew how long parahumans could live, the oldest of us would only be in their fifties by now.  Still, we were already twenty.  The odds of us living through another eight decades seemed slim.

Stewart, of course, had worked out another answer.  “We have the life support capacity to sustain three times our number, indefinitely.  We could, you know…”

I looked up.  “Lay our hopes and dreams on the next generation?”

The weasel mix grinned.  “You were always a better poet than I.”

Tony the bear-tiger snarled to bring the meeting to order.  “We still need to figure out how to avoid the same fate as Earth.”  He said.  “Have you sent a reply?”  He directed straight at me.

“No, I…”  I stopped.  The machine would have sent a reply automatically upon receipt of the message.  Just a brief confirmation code but it would still be a traceable signal.  “I need to go change some settings.”  I rushed off before any of them could ask me what was wrong.

That night I spent in Tony’s cabin, his body substituting for a blanket.  I felt so vulnerable, so scared of what might happen next, and his pseudo-ursine arms felt safe and secure.  No matter how little they might actually defend against that which now threatened us.

Some time after we’d finished our love-making I found myself muttering “I doomed us.”  As I lay there under Tony.  At the sound of my voice he snorted awake and looked at me quizzically.  I adjusted my position to look him directly in the eyes and elaborated.  “I set up an automated response to Earth years ago.  We sent back a message that will lead the aliens straight to us.”

He paused for a minute, trying to formulate his response in a way that wouldn’t make me even more upset.  “Lisa,” he said, for that was how we liked to shorten my name.  “That message was on a tight-beam, correct?  Going only to Pallas?”

“Yes.”  I confirmed, feeling maybe the faintest hints of relief.  “But what if they attack Pallas and set up a listening station there before the message reaches Sol?  Then we’re done for.”

He chuckled as if he were one of our instructors back in training and I had just asked a silly question.  “I very much doubt that.”  The tiger-bear said.  “It will take less than a year for our message to reach home.  Their use of a relativistic “sniper” shot from outside our detection range indicates that they didn’t want to risk a full-out confrontation with Earth so any invasion force would be at least a light-year out.  Nothing capable of thinking, or even computation, could survive the acceleration needed to get a ship that far away to Sol before the message arrived.”

Tony seemed to be making sense, I wasn’t an engineer like him or an astronavigator like Rachel, but I knew the detection range of a starship-sized object using Earth’s telescopes.  It was, in fact, over 1.1 light-years.  But, something that had long been dismissed as fantastical rose to the front of my thoughts.  “What if they have faster-than-light drive?”

Tony actually laughed out loud at that.  “Don’t be ridiculous.”  He exclaimed.  “Not only is that impossible, but on the long chance that they did have FTL they wouldn’t have bothered accelerating that giant rock up to .9c.  They could have just “warped in” a bunch of nukes near all our major population centers.”  He waved a hand idly as he spoke.  “It costs so much energy to accelerate something that large to that speed and it is detectable from so far away that they wouldn’t have bothered if they could bypass the speed of light barrier.”

I finally was able to relax then.  If he was so sure that we were safe, then it was so.  It could be no other way.  I drew my arms out from under Tony and wrapped them around his thick chest.  “I definitely want your children.”  I told him.

He laughed again.  “What?  Going to leave poor Rachel stuck with Stewart?”

“Oh, you know him.  He’ll probably insist that we ‘mix-and-match’ mates for maximum genetic diversity or something like that.”  There would be time to work out the details of who would be having whose kids later, we had nothing but time to waste now.

For four years we heard nothing else from home.  We kept on going almost mechanically.  Throwing ourselves into our work to distract ourselves from the literally world-shattering revelations.  In every moment of idleness our minds crept back to thoughts of habitat domes exploding under a rain of alien fire.  We ran through the entertainment library’s collection of any and all media that didn’t involve alien invasions and strained the synthesizer’s ability to produce stimulants to keep us from sleeping, and dreaming, as little as possible.

When we couldn’t avoid it and had to sleep we dreamed horrible dreams of the worst things our subconscious could invent.  Spidery walkers multiple stories high striding through habitat domes stomping on pedestrians.  Swarms of glistening grey assemblers turning people into rubbery monsters with too many tentacles and feelers (if any octopi are listening, no offense), and worst of all: unseen snipers launching planetoids at Pallas, shattering it into a million shards of rock and dust without ever revealing themselves.

Finally, we heard something back from Sol system.  Unlike the tight-beams sent from Pallas, this was a broad-spectrum transmission sent in all directions at once.  I still have a recording, I might as well re-transmit it now, even though you’ve probably heard it already.

“This is an automated beacon broadcasting what may well be the last message ever sent by the human race. Five years ago, our homeworld, Earth was struck by a moon-sized projectile travelling at 90% of the speed of light. The debris took out most of our habitats in Earth’s orbit, a few million of us survived elsewhere in the solar system. Then the rest of the invasion force arrived. Machines, vast machines kilometers in length that home in on any sources of radio transmissions, and annihilate them. We pray they are not intelligent and are simply weapons fired by a xenophobic alien race. But they’ve almost completed their work, we estimate that there’s only a couple hundred of us left in the system. We’re sending this message in hopes that there is someone out there who can hear it and beware. This universe is more hostile than we thought. They attack radio transmitters, dismantle whatever devices you are listening to this on before they find you.”

  1. Stewart broke down halfway through the message, collapsing into a sobbing, blubbering heap, while Rachel made it to the last sentence before joining him on the floor.  Me and Tony just barely managed to hold on.  The entire Sol system demolished?  All of humanity and parahumanity dead save for us few individuals out in deep space?  It was almost too much to grasp.

The big tiger-bear held me close in his strong embrace.  I will always remember how tightly and warmly he held me.  How he reassured me “we’re still here, we’re still here.”  As if merely remaining alive was reason for hope.  But something nagged at me, the final message had said five years ago when we were notified of the destruction of Earth four years ago.  They’d waited most of a year before informing us that 99.9999% of all known sapient life in the universe were dead.  The difference in transmission distance between then and now was barely a light-month or two.  And they had not even sent us any updates on how the war was going until it was all but over.  Not to mention that the final message was a broad-range burst rather than concentrated in any way.  Had the Pallas long-range radio array been one of the first targets after Earth?  It made sense given how it was a giant transmitter and the machines were said to home in on radio signals.  Had Pallas itself been destroyed so early in the conflict?

I decided that if Pallas had been destroyed quickly, then they were the lucky ones.  The survivors would have had to run and hide somewhere deep in the asteroids or near the gas giants or somewhere.  Always on the move, living in terror of some unseen enemy finding them and wiping them out from millions of kilometers away.  Just waiting out here for news for that long had been horrible.  Imagine knowing what was going on, knowing you could not outrun them, and not knowing when you would be found.  I could not think of a worse way to live.

Slowly, Tony loosened the grip of his heavy, fur-covered arms and I slumped out of their grasp into a chair.  I watched as he strode over to comfort Rachel and Stewart, admiring his mental fortitude as well as his physical strength.  It’s why what happened next shocked me so much.

Barely two weeks after the fateful message Tony told us that the main engine had some sort of issue and he would need to go outside to repair it.  We all waved him good luck as he donned his vacuum suit and strode out the airlock to climb along the exterior of the craft towards the rear.  We watched on the cameras as he did something out there, but so far as we could tell he was just disassembling and reassembling the same component over and over again, it was puzzling to be honest.

Then something on Rachel’s personal comm unit chimed and her face fell.  “What is it?” I asked, thinking that the worst was happening.

She tapped her unit a few times on the touch-screen, breathing rapidly as she tried to find what she was looking for.  Then calmed down a little.  “It’s okay.”  She said.  “The system was set to detonate the next charge in a few minutes, but Tony said the launcher wasn’t operational and the charges have safeties preventing them from detonating until they’re a safe distance away.”

Our ship was propelled by a massive load of nuclear fusion explosives.  We called it the “Daedalus Drive” after a myth about an ancient inventor who figured out how to fly and flew so close to the sun he got burnt.  I guess they had a sense of irony.  Every so often the ship would chuck one out behind us and detonate it.  A miniature sun appearing for an instant to shove us a little closer to our destination.  Tony was working on the machine that threw those bombs out behind us now.  “Maybe you should cancel it anyways.”  I suggested.  “Wouldn’t want to put any undue strain on the systems.”

“Good idea.”  The rabbit-mouse admitted, and opened another page and quickly tapped out a sequence of keys.  And tapped those keys again.  And a third time.  “What the hell is going on?”  She exclaimed.  “My password isn’t working.”

“What do you mean it’s not working?”  Stewart asked.  “The only other one with access to the engine controls is out there working on it.”  Then the weasel’s eyes grew very wide all of a sudden.  “Wait, can you check on the status of that thing he’s trying to fix?”

“Easily.”  Rachel said.  “Why would you…”  She stared at the readout on her device.  “Oh no.”

“What’s going on?”  I exclaimed.

“The launcher is operational.”  She replied.  “It’s been operational the whole time.  It’s going to launch, and detonate!”

I scrambled to my communications console.  Most of the surfaces were covered in dust from disuse but I was still able to activate the short-range radio.  It would dissipate into incomprehensible static within light-hours but Tony’s suit would be able to pick it up easily.  I flicked on the microphone and spoke slowly but worriedly into it.  “Tony.  The launcher is operational.  I repeat, the launcher is operational, come back in.”  No response.  “Tony, a bomb is about to be launched, please get in here before it blows.”  Still nothing, had he disabled his radio?  “Tony!  Please, get in here!”  I yelled into the mic but still he did nothing.

Stewart started to suit up to go out and grab him the hard way, but it was too late.  The external cams registered the launch tube opening and a silvery spherical object exiting, then the cameras switched off to protect our vision from the light.  In less than a minute the cameras reactivated, there was no trace of Tony to be seen, nothing but the frayed end of a tether whipping back to wrap itself around the ship.  He was gone.

Ten minutes later we were all in the recreation room drinking large mugs of relaxant tea and trying to collect our nerves enough to speak.  Rachel was the first.

“He must have known.”  She said, almost robotically, before taking another sip of her beverage.  “He must have planned it out, there’s no way he could have been mistaken about the launcher.”

“You think he wanted to end it all?”  Stewart asked, his hands trembling as he gripped his mug in both of them.

“He wouldn’t have.”  I insisted flatly.  “He was too strong.  He wouldn’t have done something so weak.”

Stewart sighed and set down his drink.  “It’s not a simple case of ‘weakness vs. strength’.”  He said.  “I studied something about human psychology during training.  It said that people who entertain thoughts of suicide aren’t afraid, or cowardly, or anything like that.  They can’t imagine themselves ever being happy.  They have no hope, no reason to remain alive.”

“That still doesn’t sound like him.”  I said.

Rachel interjected with a suggestion of her own.  “Maybe we should check out his room.  There might be something in there we never knew about.”  We agreed.  We emptied our mugs and set out for his cabin out in the rear wheel.

Our ship has its living spaces in two wheels that spin in order to simulate gravity using centrifugal force.  The smaller rear wheel actually consists of four unconnected sections on the ends of long “spokes” that hold our personal cabins.  The isolation ensures that if one cabin is opened to space the others won’t be so easily affected, and discourages rooming together as the area is cramped.  Tony’s room was as sparsely adorned as the rest of ours, having been taught from a young age not to clutter up our scarce living space with useless ornaments.  There was a bunk recessed into the wall on one side, and a standing desk on the other with a large-screened computer terminal and a couple print books.  Backup repair manuals in case the power went out.

While Stewart and Rachel searched the bed I picked up one of the books, a user’s guide to the radioisotope thermoelectric generator that provided us with power.  It seemed strange to me, a race that had been raised from the start on e-tablets using something so primitive as “paper” to store information.  I flicked through a few chapters, it was full of complex diagrams and language I couldn’t have hoped to understand.  But I noticed that the top corner of one page in the middle had been folded over, as I opened the book to that specific page to inspect it I found a single large word written by hand across the page.  “Dandelion”.

I showed it to the others and Rachel entered the word into the password prompt on her personal unit.  It worked.  And not only did she once again have manual control of the ship’s drive system, but there was a message there, waiting for her.  She opened it as we glanced over her shoulder.

The message contained an image file of the stars behind us, with one point in particular highlighted.  Annotations listed the spectral analysis of the point’s light, there was something about “antimatter?”, and the velocity and direction of the object.  It was headed straight for us, traveling at almost a quarter of the speed of light, but it was decelerating, rapidly.  The aliens had found us.

“What are we going to do?”  Rachel asked me, her voice quavering.

“I…” I trailed off as I flipped more frantically through the book.  There were more notes, scattered hypotheses.  Some suggested that the other ships had used the big rock as a distraction and slipped in at their leisure.  Or they were coasting in already when the rock had been launched.  Even a brief suggestion that maybe they did have FTL after all.  “I don’t know.”

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