Dandelion Seeds, 2nd half

  1. More than the destruction of Earth, more than the razing of the Solar System, more than Tony’s death, the news that we had been found shook us.  Tony’s data indicated that we had three months before it reached us.  Our first impulse was to abandon all pretenses of concealment and go at full throttle, since we had already been found.  Rachel set the launcher to throw out nukes every 15 minutes, any faster and the drive plate would not be able to dissipate the heat and melt.  Without the plate protecting the ship the rear of the craft would melt or be outright vaporized.  As that section contained our main drive section, our power generator, and the life support scrubbers we would be dead in space if it were destroyed.

Our pursuer accelerated.  Our effort had given us no more than two more weeks.

We didn’t want to talk about it.  The only way we felt we could cope was to throw ourselves into our work with even more fervor than before.  And to occupy any spare time studying to fill Tony’s duties.  Even if we weren’t on such a short deadline there wouldn’t have been a reason to bioprint a full-time replacement for him.  We had basic training in each other’s duties and it was unlikely we’d have a major issue in that area in the time we had left.

We largely avoided one another for the next week.  We didn’t want to talk about what had happened.  Rachel spent almost all her time at the bridge, leaving me and Stewart to bounce around the ship between our original jobs and Tony’s vacated duties.  Even then, we barely spoke, we just glided past each other, him simply mumbling “dandelion seeds” under his breath.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at what happened next.  He didn’t even try explaining his actions, we couldn’t find any hints in his cabin or his lab.  All we knew was neither me nor Rachel saw Stewart for a couple days and we didn’t think anything of it until I checked on the life-support logs and noticed that O2 recycling had diminished by a third in the past couple days.  I couldn’t find any mechanical problems that could account for the change, and I didn’t feel any faintness or shortness of breath so I decided to seek out Stewart for his advice.

I couldn’t find him in the Bio lab, or the Rec room, or his cabin, or in Tony’s room.  Finally I went over to the bridge to ask Rachel if she had seen him anywhere.  She was hanging suspended in the middle of the gravity-less compartment staring blankly into open space through the main screen covering most of the far wall of the bridge.  I cleared my throat loudly to draw her attention and the mouse-rabbit turned to face me.  Giving me a serious look of annoyance as I disturbed her reverie.

“Sorry,” I apologized quickly, “but I was just wondering if you had seen Stewart today.”

“No,” she replied dismissively, “have you checked his cabin?”

“I have,” I replied coolly, “and all the other cabins and compartments.”

Her ears drooped and her eyes widened in shock.  “You checked the entire ship and couldn’t find him anywhere?”  She exclaimed in disturbed surprise.  “I’ll pull up all the camera feeds now.”

The stars on the main screen shrank to one corner, with the rest of the giant monitor now occupied by the feeds from the various security cameras scattered throughout the craft.  There was one in each cabin, pointed away from the bed so that one couldn’t peep in on anyone sleeping, but I had already checked all the bunks.  Each of the larger compartments, including the bridge, had two cameras facing in opposite directions so as to cover the entire room.  The central shaft had cameras every five feet and the fore and aft airlocks each had one camera.  The exterior had four at each end of the long ship for observing crew performing extra-vehicular activities, like those we had used to watch Tony die.  About twenty-nine security cameras in total, thirty sections to the monitor counting the navigation feed.  None of the live feeds showed any trace of Stewart, where could he be?

Then Rachel asked me when I’d last seen Stewart.  I couldn’t remember, but recalling the life support data, I told her it was three days ago.  She called up recordings from that day.  We saw Stewart wake up, dress, eat breakfast, brush his teeth, and go in to the lab.  Zipping forward at several times faster than normal play speed we saw him take out a sample cuvette with a sample of gametes for the colony we were intended to start, consider it for several minutes, then place it and several other cuvettes in a bag and carry the bag out to the aft airlock.  We watched in horror as he carelessly shook the bag out into the airlock, then came back through the interior door and grabbed more and more loads of gametes, releasing them all out into the airlock space.  Then, eventually, he gathered up all the cuvettes in the airlock in one large armful, mouthed two words directly at the airlock camera, and opened the outer door.

We gasped in shock as he opened the door, letting the air rush out.  He remained inside for a few more moments, as there was not nearly enough air pressure to push him out.  Then he positioned himself against the inner door, coiled, and leaped out into open space.  Carrying the gametes with him.

Parahumans were designed to live in space.  The first generation had titanium-plated bones to prevent loss of strength from microgravity-induced osteoporosis.  As we of the second generation grew in wombs instead of being bioprinted with fully adult bodies we lacked those bones and needed to spend much of our time in centrifuges, but we still retained our parents’ enhanced oxygen retention.  Our blood and muscles were so filled with hemoglobin and myoglobin as to be almost black in color.  We could remain conscious in an environment completely devoid of oxygen for ten minutes and alive for an hour.  But Stewart had left the ship more than two days ago without any sort of reserve oxygen supply or anything.  It was impossible for him to still be alive at this point.

We watched, helplessly, as the external cameras tracked his flailing body careening out into open space.  His arms kept alternately folding and flicking out, as if he were throwing things.  We were puzzled as to what he was doing until the light from a detonation flashed off a small glass tube leaving his hand.  He was throwing the samples in all directions.  We watched in frozen horror until he was so far away as to be invisible to the naked eye.

Then Rachel asked me if I had checked on gamete storage since the weasel’s disappearance.  I turned and ran, bouncing off the walls in the microgravity, until I had reached the spoke leading to the bio lab.  The freezer had closed automatically, and I had to undo all the assorted locks to open it and check the contents.

It was empty.  The whole compartment had been cleaned out.  He had even taken our own potential babies.  A colony was no longer possible.

  1. I didn’t return to work after that.  I just went back to my cabin, turned out the lights, and curled up in my bed.  For the first time in months I let myself think.  Really think hard.  I wondered, perhaps me and Rachel could clone ourselves when we reached the planet.  The bioprinter was still intact, and even if our gonads were gone our every cell contained a full genome.  I could study how to perform the biologist’s duties and replicate samples of our cells into the stem cells used by the bioprinter to fabricate new parahumans.  There wouldn’t be much genetic diversity in the new colony, even if we found some skin or hair cells from Tony or Stewart and the clones were allowed to breed naturally.  They’d be inbreeding within three generations.

But, we could just keep on cloning, so long as we kept the machines working.  Heck, we could even pull it off with a single genetic template maybe.  There was no need for both of us to survive.

Then it hit me.  There was no way that someone as strong as Tony would commit suicide, and it was Rachel who told me that the launcher was working after all.  And now it was down to just me and her.  Would I be the next one to “kill herself”?  Would Rachel continue on to Epsilon Indi to rule over a new planet full of copies of herself?  She may have even faked the transmissions from Sol, she knew enough about radio to pull it off, somehow.

It was so clear to me now, one of us had to die soon, and I didn’t intend it to be me.  I would have to kill her before she killed me.  And I wouldn’t bother making it look like a suicide, there was no one left to object.  It wasn’t even really murder, when you thought about it, it was self-defense.

There weren’t any obvious weapons like guns or knives on board.  Barely even any eating utensils as we just ate with our hands or sipped it out of the container.  But there were some power tools in the engineering section, and Rachel had neglected to remove them.  I dismissed a circular saw and a plasma cutter as too heavy and bulky to wield as effective weapons, they were probably designed that way.  But I found a cordless drill and the largest, sharpest bit in the inventory, I’d just need to press it against her in the right spot and start drilling.  I took the drill and sprang forth towards the bridge with death on my mind.

The mouse-rabbit was in the same fugue-like state she was in when I’d come to talk to her about Stewart.  Soundlessly, I pushed off towards her with one hand outstretched to grab her protruding ears and the other one holding the drill ready.  Somehow, she heard me and turned slightly to look at me.  Seeing the drill she scrambled frantically to grab something for mobility while yelling “Lisa, what are you doing?”

I got hold of her leg as it waved near me.  She jackknifed back and caught hold of a console, whipping me towards a wall.  I shoved the drill point-first into her other leg and used it as leverage to swing my free hand further up to her torso, where I grabbed her at the shoulder.

She screamed in pain as the drill punctured her leg, black droplets of blood streamed out as I removed it and swung it up towards her head.  “Why are you doing this?”  She begged as I brought the drill up against her eye.

I didn’t give her the satisfaction of my reply.  I depressed the trigger of the drill and the bit began spinning and whirring loudly as I thrust it towards her.  She swung her head to the side and I only grazed her on the first pass, so I took hold of her head in my free hand and adjusted my angle so that it bored into the side of her cranium.  Rachel bit down on my hand with those long rodent incisors of hers, but my drill was already tearing chunks out of her brain and in seconds her body went limp.

I let go and cast aside the corpse, the drill bit still in her head.  I had won, I thought, I had survived.  Now, I would need to figure out how to clone myself so as to fill all the empty crew positions and soon.  Maybe I could find enough DNA traces of Tony and Stewart to clone them, and then I could print off some new ovaries for myself and bear their children.  But I certainly wouldn’t be cloning this psychopathic bitch who had murdered them, her genes would be flushed out into the void never to live again.

But, doubt struck me and Rachel’s body turned to face me, her blank eyes staring past me and seeing nothing ever again.  What if I’d made a mistake?  What if the monsters were real?  It was ridiculous but that small part of my brain would not let the idea go so I went back to the telescope controls and calibrated them to find the so-called pursuer that Tony had supposedly detected.

It was there, and it was getting closer.

I kept Rachel’s body with me for the next week.  I couldn’t bring myself to dispose of her like some piece of garbage now that I knew I’d murdered her for no good reason.  I covered the hole in her head with a bandage and placed her on her barely used bed, which I came by to visit every day before going to work.  One day I found myself getting into bed next to her and snuggling up to her corpse like it was a large stuffed animal, but I had to rinse off the fluids that were leaking out as she decayed the following morning.  The deterioration reminded me that she couldn’t stay there, it would stink up the entire ship and spread bacteria all over.  Reluctantly, I decided to take her out the airlock after that moment of weakness.

I didn’t bother with a space suit, I wouldn’t be out long, as I carried her carcass out into the aft lock.  I closed the inner door behind me and triggered the decompression cycle.  My eardrums popped and I got a headache from the sinus pressure as the air was sucked out, but I held on and kept going.  I opened the outer door and looked out into the depths of space.  Inky blackness, with only a few distant pinpricks of light for illumination, it seemed to call to me as I stood there on the threshold to oblivion.  I pulled Rachel out to the edge of the doorway and straightened her out to throw her away.  I gave her one last look into those glassy eyes and mouthed the word “goodbye” before gently pushing her out into space.

I considered leaping out to join her, but I couldn’t, something was still holding me back.  I watched her float away into the endless night until my vision began to swim from lack of oxygen, then I finally closed the outer door and started the compression cycle just before I lost consciousness.

I dreamt fitfully as I lay there in the airlock, my brain acting up as it slowly regained enough air to function.  I found myself kneeling in a dark room before a trio of podiums where my dead friends stood.  They accused me of killing them, not by drilling a hole in Rachel’s skull, but by leading the Destroyer to the ship with my automated messages.  I tried to explain that with the time delay it could have been any of the messages sent out before I received the notification of the Earth’s demise but they kept shouting me down.

I woke after too long a period of unconsciousness in the airlock.  I scrambled to the inner door and glided back in, shutting it with a start.  My friends would be back the next time I slept, I just knew it, would they be there waiting for me if I killed myself now?  Maybe if I made an effort to ensure their deaths meant something they might leave me alone.

That was when I started recording these messages.  It’s been two weeks since I started telling my story to the stars.  In that time I have slept six times and contemplated suicide twice as often.  They visit me in my dreams again and again, always telling me that “I haven’t paid yet”.  What else can I do?

The Destroyer creeps ever closer.  Two and a half months before it catches up with me.  Unless its weapons have extremely long range like what they used to destroy Earth.  The computers are set to transmit the message the instant they detect anything approaching within a light-minute of the ship.  

Six weeks before its scheduled to reach me and the Destroyer is just entering visual range.  It’s… huge.  My ship is bigger than any skyscraper ever built on Earth and this thing looks like it could swallow me up and have room for the rest of the colony fleet.  I can’t really make out much more detail, it seems like just a massive block of metal with a constant nuclear flare at the far end.  How could it store so much fuel?  What does it use for fuel?

My friends haven’t let up on their nocturnal haunting.  Stewart’s shade has taken to mumbling that one phrase he kept repeating in the week before he jumped out into eternity.  “Dandelion seeds.”  I couldn’t imagine what it could mean until I remembered that Tony’s new password was “dandelion”, I looked it up in the encyclopedia.  Dandelions were a kind of flowering plant native to Earth that were considered a weed by most cultures.  The leaves were covered in spines but the little yellow flowers looked kind of pretty.  However, it was their lifecycle that fascinated Tony and Stewart.  The flowers closed after a day or two, then in their place grew a sphere of seeds with white wisp-like parachutes.  The wind blew on the seeds and they’d be carried away to land in distant field and grow until some gardener found and uprooted them.  Over a hundred seeds per plant, only a small fraction of them would take root and an even smaller percentage would have the opportunity to produce their own seeds.

Was that what Stewart was thinking when he threw the gamete samples into space?  It makes no sense, he must have known they’d never grow without a uterus or bioprinter to sustain them.

Oh well, I suppose the strain must have gotten to him.  Like it did to me.

I’m so sorry Rachel.  I wish you were still here to keep my mind off the inevitable.

Three weeks left and now the Destroyer is clearer in my view.  It appears to be unfolding somehow.  The front end is separating into eight long sections that are spreading out like arms.  Does it mean to grab me?

Why doesn’t it just shoot me and get it over with?

Less than a week left and I can see the spaces between the arms filling with some kind of foamy substance.  Radar pings indicate that it’s soft, but very strong and dense.  It may somehow even be capable of stopping and securing an object travelling as fast as myself.

Does it want to study me?  That makes no sense.  If they wanted to dissect parahumans or put them into a zoo they would have had plenty of opportunity when they were burning the Sol system to the ground years ago.  Analyze the computer banks for information?  Everything there is public domain, it would have been in the system-wide internet when they got to…

Oh shit, they’re after the coordinates to the other colony expeditions.  Only the ships and mission control back on Pallas would have known the exact trajectories and destinations of each craft.  Mission control would no doubt have erased the servers, even vaporized them, as soon as Earth was destroyed.  So I might be their only way to discover where the other remnants of parahumanity have hidden themselves.

I need to stop talking and wipe the databanks.

I may have wiped the servers but they could probably reconstruct the data from the molecular traces on the solid-state cards.  I would need to vaporize the very same computers that the ship requires to stay functional.

I’ve given Tony’s words some more thought.  Those samples weren’t the dandelion seeds he was talking about.  We, the entire ship and its crew, were just one seed.  A seed ship, a shot in the dark, a long chance.  So long as one seed ship plants a colony and develops enough to build its own seed ships the parahuman race survives.  If one or two never make it to their destinations it doesn’t matter.

And we were just a failed seed.  I can die, knowing that my civilization can continue without me.  With this final act to ensure that my friends may even forgive me and let me rest in peace.

That is why I’m sending this warning.  If you’re hearing this, your civilization is in grave danger.  You can detect long-wave radio, so I’m assuming that either you have already developed the technology to generate radio waves, or you will soon.  If you’ve just started producing radio, then congratulations, you have maybe 10 generations left if my people are any indication.  I don’t know if you’re human, parahuman, or some bug-eyed alien race we never had the chance to make contact with.  But no matter what you look like my advice is the same.

Shut off your radios and get working on escaping your solar system.  Fast.

If the machine pursuing me can capture a vessel travelling at my speed I can’t do anything to harm it.  Not even if I detonated every propulsion nuke on board simultaneously.  But I could easily reduce this ship to its base atoms.

Static

This has been a recording from the archives of the New Alexandria Library, Secland capital arcology, Alpha Centauri A, the Interstellar Federation of Parahuman Species.

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