Authors: Sean Williams,Shane Dix
Heirs of Earth
(The Orphans Trilogy – Book Three)
Sean Williams and Shane Dix
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright 2004 by Sean Williams and Shane Dix
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
For Robin Pen,
Adjusted Planck Units – Time
NB: For more information about Planck Units, see Appendix 1.
Adjusted Planck Units – Distance
THE ALKAID SYSTEMS
Echoes Of Earth
The United Near-Earth Stellar Survey Program dispatches
1,000 crewed missions to nearby stars in an attempt to explore terrestrial worlds identified by Earth-based detectors. Instead of sending flesh-and-blood humans, UNESSPRO crews each mission with simulations called engrams that are intended to behave as, and function as though they in fact are, the original scientists. A core group of sixty surveyors is duplicated many times over to cover all the missions.
Twelve years after the missions are launched, all transmissions from Earth cease. Cut off from UNESSPRO, the missions continue as planned, hoping that whatever fate befell the home system will not follow them also.
2163 Standard Mission Time
Aliens come to the system of Upsilon Aquarius in the form of giant golden spindles that build ten orbital towers around the
target world, Adrasteia. When the towers are complete and connected by a massive orbital ring, the aliens disappear, leaving no clue as to their intentions or origins.
Peter Alander, once a highly regarded generalist but now a flawed engram barely holding onto sanity, is sent to explore the orbital towers by the mission’s Civilian Survey Manager Caryl Hatzis. Within them, Alander finds AIs that identify the towers as gifts to humanity from a powerful star-faring civilization. The Spinners are secretive and mysterious, but their gifts are to die for: a detailed map of the Milky Way, featuring details of other alien civilizations; a surgery containing exotic medical technology, such as a perfectly transparent membrane designed to keep its wearer from harm; a means of instantaneous communication with a range of 200 light-years; a faster-than-light vessel that defies known scientific laws; and so on.
Seeking assistance in studying the gifts, Peter Alander decides to take the ftl hole ship to Sol to see what has become of Earth. What Alander finds there, however, is a civilization bearing little resemblance to the one he left. A technological Spike shortly after the launch of the UNESSPRO missions, 100 years earlier, resulted in a war between nonhuman AIs that led to, among many other things, the total destruction of Earth. A small percentage of humans have survived, in highly modified forms. The posthumans regard Alander’s arrival with suspicion and disdain, since engrams are now regarded as a very poor cousin to the sort of minds that have evolved from the ashes of Earth.
A much-expanded form of Caryl Hatzis, the sole survivor of the original UNESSPRO volunteers, is pressed into service. The expanded Hatzis sends her original with Alander to Adrasteia to attest the veracity of his claims. They arrive in Adrasteia to find the colony and the gifts destroyed. Something has swept through Upsilon Aquarius and erased all trace of the
Stunned, Alander and Hatzis retreat immediately to Sol System, only to find the same thing happening there. All the resources and technology of the posthumans can do nothing to stop the fleet of vastly superior alien vessels. Within a day, there is little left but dust.
Reeling from the double whammy, Hatzis and Alander retreat to avoid destruction at the hands of these new aliens, the Starfish. They have never been friends, in any form, and the tension between them is not helped by the revelation that Alander himself may have inadvertently brought about the destruction of humanity. By following the hails of another colony contacted by the Spinners, they determine that the Starfish home in on the omnidirectional signals broadcast by the ftl communicators provided in the gifts. Alander’s attempt to call Adrasteia from Sol System drew the Starfish to the Vincula.
This pattern, they realize, will only be repeated as the Spinners sweep through Surveyed Space, dropping gifts as they go. A severely traumatized Peter Alander and the original Caryl Hatzis, very much alone without the rest of her distributed self, make it their mission to save what remains of humanity: the orphaned UNESSPRO mission engrams scattered across the stars.
Orphans of Earth
The original Caryl Hatzis (nicknamed Sol after her system of origin) sets up a headquarters on Sothis, site of an old, failed colony. From there she organizes resistance. All attempts to communicate with both the Spinners and Starfish have failed. Colonies are contacted one by one in order to warn them against using the communicators in a way that will bring the Starfish down upon them. The Starfish themselves are studied from afar to see if there is any way they can be thwarted. With the assistance of many copies of herself, Sol sets up an interstellar network that will obey her every command.
Peter Alander is her reluctant assistant in this effort. The tension between them is rising in direct proportion to the influence she has over the engrams, who regard her, the last surviving human, with something like reverence. As rumors of contact with another alien race spread through the colonies, he agrees to accompany one of her engrams, Thor, on a fact-finding mission.
Instead of aliens, they find Francis Axford (Frank the Ax), a former UNESSPRO cost-cutter and general who stowed away on a survey mission and promptly took it over, killing the remainder of the crew and copying himself many times over in the process. There are now hundreds of versions of him occupying the system of Vega, with access to the Spinners’ gifts. He cautiously welcomes them and illuminates them on the nature of the new alien race, creatures he calls Roaches but which refer to themselves as the
The Yuhl trail the Spinners at a distance, collecting gifts where they are able to and always staying just one step ahead of the Starfish, which, together with the Spinners, they refer to as the Ambivalence.
With the help of two captives, Alander manages to trace the source of the Yuhl migration, a vast concentration of hole ships called the
There he is brought to meet yet another alien creature, the Praxis, who directs the Yuhl in their efforts at survival. Alander is literally eaten by the Praxis, who takes the information derived from his body and creates a virtual model of it, with which he converses. At the conclusion of the conversation, Alander is regurgitated in a slightly different form. He now has a real body, rather than a genetically engineered android body. It profoundly shakes him yet grounds him more firmly in the real world, making his cognition more stable.
Humanity learns ways to tease out new technology from the Gifts and from their new allies. They learn how to merge and modify hole ships, skills that may be lifesaving. As the Starfish front continues to sweep across Surveyed Space, destroying every colony it encounters, including those without gifts, the future of humanity looks increasingly in peril. Additionally, suspicions are growing that the Spinners aren’t entirely what they seem, that strange holes in the Library and the Map Room may hold details humanity isn’t supposed to see.
One system in Surveyed Space, pi-1 Ursa Major, has become a fatal trap for anyone who visits: of several hole ships sent to survey it, none have returned. The Hatzis engram Thor, distressed by the destruction of her home system and at odds with Peter Alander, breaks away from Sol and goes to pi-1 Ursa Major to find out what is going on.
The Yuhl cautiously accept humanity as a possible running partner, should the engrams be forced to abandon their worlds. This decision is not taken lightly, and not without resistance. Plans to confront the Starfish are quashed when it emerges that not even the technologically superior
will attempt it. The Starfish fleet is simply too advanced.
The decision not to fight is taken out of their hands, however, when Frank Axford betrays both humanity and the Yuhl by drawing the Starfish down on the
in the system of Beid and forcing a confrontation. The battle is hard and costly, but the allies do manage to cripple a cutter, one of the mighty Starfish vessels. Damage to the
is mitigated by the sacrifice of many human colonies in an attempt to spread the Starfish attack fleet across numerous fronts. Approximately half the
migration survives. Humanity loses Sothis; Frank Axford loses Vega.
Any hope the survivors can take from their slight victory over the Starfish is overshadowed by the knowledge that there are many, many more cutters where the one they crippled came from. And they are no closer to understanding why the Starfish and Spinners won’t talk to them.
Meanwhile, forgotten on the edge of Surveyed Space, Thor has survived a deadly attempt on her life in pi-1 Ursa Major. Instead of attacking the mystery directly, she manages to track down a copy of Lucia Benck, Peter Alander’s ex-lover and a solo scout pilot who, Thor hopes, might have seen the arrival of whatever it is in the system. Lucia is suffering from the extreme effects of engram senescence and must be uploaded into the hole ship’s processors in order to function. Lucia sees her survival from that viewpoint with a mixture of wonder and dread. Her feelings are similarly mixed regarding her imminent reunion with Alander—and the fact that she might well have seen something very strange indeed in pi-1 Urea Major.
2160.9.26 Standard Mission Time
(28 August 2163 UT)
Peter Alander rolled over, blinking in the dim light as he tried
to make sense of his surroundings. The room was narrow with curved walls, and empty apart from himself, the bed he was lying on, and the woman standing to one side with her back facing him. Fabric slid over fabric as the woman adjusted her clothing. The sound it made, he realized, was what had awoken him.
The woman sighed and shook her head. “That’s three times in a row you’ve got it wrong, Peter.” Caryl Hatzis turned with awkward propriety to look over her shoulder at him while continuing to get dressed. “Keep this up, and I might take it personally.”
Alander could only stare at her in bemusement, clutching the small carbon disk around his neck as if this might in some way remove his confusion. He could smell Hatzis on the mattress next to him: there were sense impressions stirring strange intimacies that seemed utterly incongruous. What on earth was he doing in bed with
She faced him fully when her suit was sealed. If she was aware of his confusion, she ignored it
She offered a faint, disappointed smile. “You were talking in your sleep again. You really should look at laying down some new memories, you know.”
“What are you doing—?”
he wanted to add, but let the question go unspoken for fear of insulting her.
“Geb called,” she said. “The Spinners have arrived at Sagarsee.”
His confusion persisted.
Another sigh, as though she was tired of going over the same conversation with him. “It’s time, Peter. We have to act now or lose our last chance.”
Finally some of it came back to him: Earth was destroyed, and the natural order of things had been destroyed with it. What little remained of humanity was caught between the Spinners and the Starfish, unsure whether to run, hide, or fight back. None of the options were particularly attractive; none offered much hope for survival.
He sat up as Hatzis made to leave the room. She stopped at the arched doorway and turned to face him. There was emotion in the stare, but nothing he would have recognized as affection. He supposed he should offer her something: a kiss or a hug maybe, but he wasn’t sure what was expected of him. He wasn’t even sure if they had been intimate with one another. If they had, it couldn’t have been about love, surely. He felt nothing of the sort for her. The closest thing, he imagined, would be ancient hormonal imperatives operating in a tight spot.
He wondered if he even
hormones anymore. Or pheromones. His body consisted of an android drone into which his engram had been distilled; it had also been modified by the Praxis, the alien leader of the
He didn’t know what the Praxis had done to him, only that it had left him changed: the android template didn’t include hair, but now he sported several days’ growth across his scalp and face; the formerly regular lines of veins visible through his olive skin were flexing, shifting by minute increments; he felt stronger somehow, seeming to have more energy; and when, in strange half-memory, he touched Hatzis’s skin—marveling at her own inhumanities, the advanced biomods installed in her by the posthuman regime the Starfish had destroyed in Sol—strange impulses moved through his nervous system, fleeting emotional storms that swept through parts of his cortex he didn’t know he had.
“You’re not going to join us?” she asked, her expression reproving. She was off to decide the course of humanity’s fate. She obviously felt he should be taking an interest.
“I’ll come along once the bickering is over.”
“Your faith in my ability to control the rabble is as strong as ever, I see.”
“Don’t take it personally, Caryl. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
“That makes me feel a whole lot better, Peter; thanks.”
“I will come by later, I promise,” he assured her.
“Make your grand entrance when you’re ready, then. I don’t care. Just make sure you use it to good effect.”
She stood in the doorway for a second longer, as though about to add something, or waiting for him to do so. He said nothing. Her words stung, but he had learned enough about her in recent weeks to know that her scorn and derision hid nervousness, uncertainty. Whatever had happened between them, he didn’t want to add to that. In his present state of mind anything he said was likely to make things worse. He knew the meeting was important, in principle, but he couldn’t bring himself to endure the arguments that would inevitably ensue. He could hear every one of them in advance, map out their ideological landscapes, and follow point by point the routes they’d take to utter disagreement. Maybe there was a chance that the survivors would reach consensus, but he wouldn’t put money on it.
Hatzis left, fleeing his puzzled silence without a word. When she’d gone. Alander lay back on the bed with his arms folded behind his head and wondered at what he had become.
You were talking in your sleep again
, Hatzis had said. That didn’t surprise him. He’d been dreaming of Lucia, the lover he’d lost to the stars. Specifically, he had been dreaming of the last conversation their originals had had before the engrams left for the stars. The philosophical conundrum that had plagued opponents of the UNESSPRO missions had haunted each of the originals upon which the engrams were based at one time or another during their entrainment. How would it feel to know that hundreds of copies of yourself, echoes of the real you, were heading to places you were never likely to see? And how in turn would the echoes feel, knowing that their originals would remain behind to grow old and die at nonrelativistic rates?
Are we immortal,
Lucia had once asked him, or
destined to die a thousand times?
He still didn’t have an answer for that question, despite contemplating it many times over. He—or his original, anyway, the most copied of all the mission scientists—had an innate flaw somewhere that made his engrams unstable; Of all the hundreds sent out from Earth, none had lasted more than a few weeks. All had suffered breakdowns resulting in catastrophic failure, forcing shutdown and long-term storage. He himself had survived only by virtue of being uploaded into an android body relying on its stability, its physicality, to hold himself together. It had worked, precariously, but subsequent events had shaken his confidence. He wasn’t who his engram told him he was supposed to be. He was changing, evolving. Hatzis had set him free of those internal constraints, and the Praxis had given his body a semblance of natural life. But he still had no idea what he was, exactly, or where he stood in regards to his other engrams, for which he still felt a strange sort of bond.
Out of kinship?
Hatzis had a fine arrangement with her own engrams. They clicked together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or so it seemed from the outside. His own copies rejected him, spurning his offer to take their memories and integrate them into a new whole. This dismayed him more than he was prepared to admit.
“There can be no greater challenge to your identity than being cast out by your own self,” Hatzis had told him after the first time it happened. “It’s more painful than losing a family or a home.”
He found it ironic that she should be the one guiding him through this process. The one person he’d railed against since his awakening on Adrasteia, newly embodied and keenly aware of her resentment of the resources he’d been allocated. But that Caryl Hatzis had been destroyed, along with the
and all its crew, in one of the very first Starfish attacks. This was a different Hatzis altogether, the last true human alive.
“If your engram chose death over absorption, then that’s his problem, not yours. Don’t let his failure drag you down. You’re no longer him, Peter. You’re better than that. Let him go. Whatever you’ve become, you have an obligation to yourself to keep moving on.”
But where am I moving to?
he wanted to ask her.
“The only thing holding us back is ourselves, and they only win if we
The conversation was clear in his mind. It was the first time they’d embraced, again, not out of love or lust but for comfort in the face of terrible circumstances.
“You need to have a clear idea of what it is you’re clinging to,” she’d said. “If your ship is sinking, then you want to at least make sure you’re clinging to a life raft, and not the ship itself, right?”
“And you’re my raft, Caryl?”
The memory of her laugh seemed to fill the hole ship cabin. “Cling to me, Peter, and we may well both go under.”
He nodded to himself. It was true: he had to find his own center of gravity, to haul himself out of his doldrums. And to make the effort worthwhile, he had to help find a way to ensure humanity’s survival. He wasn’t sure that arguing en masse was the solution, but he could see that Hatzis thought it might be. That was her way, her gift. The way she had organized the resistance from Sothis had proved that she was capable of great things and that her ambition was clear. But there were times that he wondered if they might not be better off with someone more like Frank Axford. Until Axford had forced them into it, no one even considered fighting the Starfish.
With good reason, too,
Alander told himself. The outcome of that skirmish had left 40 percent of the
scavenger fleet destroyed, along with six human colonies, Sothis and Vega included. The Starfish had lost just one of their massive cutter vessels, disk-shaped behemoths that made anything humans had ever built look paltry in comparison. That small victory might have meant something in terms of morale building had it not led to the appearance of an entirely new class of Starfish craft, one so large it made the cutters look as insignificant as motes of dust.
Despite the heavy losses, though, Alander couldn’t help but wonder if it hadn’t been worthwhile. After all, they now knew more about the Starfish than they ever had before, which was undoubtedly why Frank the Ax had done what he’d done. It took a military mind to understand that to determine an enemy’s capabilities, one had to make sacrifices; one had to be prepared to enter into battles that couldn’t necessarily be won. When the Starfish were unknown, they were vast and terrifying. Now, though, there was a sense that maybe this faceless enemy had limitations, after all, which was something of a comfort, even if these limitations were still incomprehensibly vast.
Alander’s thoughts turned increasingly to Axford, wondering what the ex-general might be up to right now. Ever since the Battle of Beid had gone so badly, there had been no sign of the man, in any of his incarnations, and his bases on Vega were in ruins, probably by Axford’s own hand to cover his tracks.
“I have a message for you, Peter,” the cool voice of the hole ship interjected into his thoughts. The hole ship AIs were degrees of magnitude less sophisticated than the Gifts who maintained the legacy of the Spinners, but they were still smartly sophisticated. “The transmission is coming from the hole ship you refer to as
Alander recognized the name immediately. “That’s Thor’s ship, isn’t it?”
“I believe so, Peter.”
“Well, if it’s Sol she’s looking for, tell her—”
“The message is addressed specifically to you,” the AI cut in.
Alander frowned. The copy of Caryl Hatzis from the colony world known as Thor had been missing for days. If she was back, she should have reported to the Caryl Hatzis the engrams called Sol, not him. Maybe she was worried how Sol would react, given that she’d gone off on her own crusade without consulting anyone shortly after her colony had been destroyed. Alander could understand how she felt. He, too, had experienced the emotional trauma of seeing the world of his own mission on the
destroyed, along with all his crewmates. But he doubted that Sol would be as understanding, given the limited resources available to humanity.
“Then I guess you’d better put her through,” he said, climbing to his feet.
He expected a screen to form in the wall to reveal a video image: in that fashion, the hole ships normally enabled their passengers to communicate with one another. What he got, though, was something entirely different.
The walls, floor, and ceiling retreated around him until he and the bed seemed to be hanging in a vast and giddying void. Through the darkness he sensed black shapes moving, strange limbs touching, complex senses interacting in an arcane, private dance. Then a woman stepped out of that darkness, her movements steady and assured, the smile on her face gentle and affectionate.
The shock of recognition that rushed through him was like a physical force. She was wearing a green UNESSPRO shipsuit. Her hair was highlighted in gold just the way he remembered. Her skin had a similar honeyish hue that shone in nonexistent light. Her brown eyes stared at him out of that impossible space, no less powerful for being virtual.
He climbed slowly to his feet, his jaw hanging hopelessly open as he struggled for words.
“Hello, Peter,” said Lucia Benck. “It’s been a long time.”
Rasmussen was a beautiful world: green and temperate
around the equator, with an even split between ocean and landmass. Both poles were icebound and surrounded by turbulent berg-filled oceans; the air was high in oxygen, supporting a diverse ecosystem that boasted insects large enough to bite an android in two and tree trunks dozens of meters across. Its primary, BSC5070, was a G6V star slightly redder than Earth’s; Rasmussen orbited close to the center of its habitable zone.
the UNESSPRO mission sent to explore the system, had arrived fifteen years earlier and established an extensive orbital complex from which detailed biological and geological examinations had been made. Under the leadership of Rob Singh, terrestrial contamination of the environment was kept to an absolute minimum. Even during the arrival of the Gifts, the pristine ecosystem had barely been disturbed. To all intents and purposes, it was a paradise, which was what made it so hard for Caryl Hatzis to deliver her pronouncement.