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Authors: Eric Brown

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Slowly,
he’d worked to overcome his rage, his hatred. He’d hired the services of a
private detective, who’d traced her to the headquarters of a back-to-the-soil
cult in Tokyo, the Fujiyama Green Brigade. Hendry had tried to contact her, but
his calls and emails had gone unanswered. He’d even visited Tokyo in an attempt
to track her down, but the cult was expert at covering the traces of its
converts.

A
couple of years later the detective had called Hendry and told him that his
ex-wife had been killed in a terrorist raid on the headquarters of the American
Space Administration.

Hendry
had tried to find within himself some iota of grief, without success. In his
mind, Su had become a different person when she’d left him, an inexplicable
cipher brainwashed by monomaniacs, and not the woman he’d loved and married in
his early twenties.

As
the evening cooled, he stopped weeding and looked up at the looming shape of
the shuttle, dark against the sunset. The sight brought back a slew of
memories.

Hendry
had spent fifteen years working for Space Oceana, a smartware engineer on the ships
that made the short-hop Earth-L5-Mars runs. Then the collapse of ‘88 had
bankrupted Space Oceana and every other private enterprise in space, and the
colonies had been recalled, the L5s emptied, and a flood of refugees had
returned to an impoverished Earth, their expertise of little use in a world
rapidly reverting to pre-technological barbarity... or so it had seemed to
Hendry.

Over
the past seven years, the majority of the world’s population had succumbed to
drought, rising sea levels and resource wars. Many of those who had survived
had fallen, eventually, to plagues both man-made and natural. Terrorist groups,
working on the assumption that it was better for no one to have anything than
for a few to have a little, had released deadly pathogens into the water
supplies of the mega-cities in America and China, killing millions, while
seeding the air with lab-developed viruses. No one knew the present population
of planet Earth. Some said it might even be as low as a dozen or so millions.

Added
to which, the ozone layer was in tatters, and the sea was poisoned, and
plant-life was withering in the rising heat...

He
got down on his hands and knees to remove the weeds the hoe had missed. Minutes
later he found that he was weeping, large tears falling straight onto the soil
and rapidly soaking in.

It
often hit him like this, inexplicably and for no apparent reason. He supposed,
this time, it had something to do with Chrissie’s futile optimism. His own end,
his own death somewhere down the line, he could deal with. But he found
unbearable the thought of his daughter’s inevitable death, in a terrible future
much worse than the present, without him around to hold her and tell her that
everything would be okay.

He
stood up, clapped his hands together to get rid of the soil, and berated
himself for being so negative. For how long had he expressed the philosophy
that he should live for the day, without thought for tomorrow? He had brought
Chrissie up with this ideal. Live for the present, gain the maximum enjoyment
from now, and the future would cease to exist; it would become but an unfolding
series of moments to be savoured.

He
moved back into the shuttle, fixed himself some fish and roast potatoes.

That
night, sleeping fitfully, he dreamed for the first time in years of his wife.
In the nightmare, Su flew to Berne and attacked the Space Agency’s
headquarters, blowing herself up and taking Chrissie with her.

He
woke in the early hours, sweating in fear, and then remembered that his
daughter would be with him at noon.

 

2

He awoke late
. It was
almost ten by the time he rolled from his bunk and showered in the makeshift
cubicle he’d erected under the nose of the shuttle. He breakfasted on the salad
left over from yesterday, then rooted through the storage units for the last of
the coffee. Chrissie loved freshly ground coffee, one of the many rare
commodities in Europe these days.

He
left the shuttle and made his way through the garden, seeing the regimented
rows of produce through Chrissie’s eyes and feeling proud of his achievement.

The
sea was as sluggish as ever, scummed with a meniscus of something oil-based.
Recently his catch of fish and the occasional crab had diminished. There had
been a time when the daily haul had easily fed the community of ten; now there was
barely sufficient for himself. He dragged up the net and inspected the catch.
Two catfish, and a baby snapper, which he threw back. It was better than
nothing, he supposed, and would provide the makings of a decent lunch.

He
checked the desalination plant—it throbbed away contentedly—then made his slow
way back to the starship graveyard.

He
grilled the fish, then fixed a fresh salad. When he looked up it was almost
midday. He went out and sat in his chair beneath the awning, staring out across
the flat, parched landscape and wondering from which direction Chrissie might
come.

He
wondered too how she might have changed in the two years since he’d last seen
her in the flesh; the com-link was no indication, with its distorting static.

It
was after twelve when he roused himself from his daydreams. He looked at his
watch: quarter past. In the old days, when society had been dictated to by
clocks and timetables, he might have worried, but in these days of ad hoc
transport systems a delay of hours was not uncommon.

It
was almost one when he heard the sound of chopper blades stropping the air. He
stood and scanned the shimmering horizon. The helicopter was coming in low from
the north, nose down. He watched it settle about a hundred metres beyond the
perimeter fence of the graveyard. A tiny figure jumped out and ran doubled-up
through the rotor’s downdraught, waving briefly to the pilot. The chopper
lifted, turned and swept away.

Chrissie
began walking towards the dilapidated fence. Hendry went to meet her, something
expanding in his chest and forcing tears into his eyes.

They
stopped and stared at each other. Then Chrissie ran through the gap in the
fence. Hendry grabbed her, feeling her solidity, the reality of the first human
being he’d held since her last visit.

She
pulled away, dashing tears from her eyes. “Look at me... I can’t help it. There
I was, saying I’d be all strong and unemotional! It’s great to see you, Dad.”

She
was so like her mother; she had inherited Su’s Japanese features, though
tempered by his Caucasian genes; she was taller than Su had been, but carried
herself with the same confidence and assurance.

He
took her hand. “Come on. Let’s get inside. I’ve fixed lunch. Catfish and
salad—with real coffee.”

“Real
coffee? Dad, how on earth did you manage that?”

“Well,
I know an exclusive supplier in town...”

He
took her through the garden, proudly showing off the potato plants, the
beanstalks heavy with pods. She smiled, suitably impressed.

She
looked around at the derelict reminders of humankind’s dream of conquering the
solar system. The ships hulked against the blue sky, massive and ugly and yet,
for some reason, oddly beautiful. Over the years the sun had excoriated their
paintwork, continuing the work started by solar flares and hard radiation during
the vessels’ long service between the inner planets.

“And
you’re here all alone?” Chrissie asked. “What happened to... I forget their
names?”

“O’Grady,
Greg? They left, moved on. Stella died.”

“I
worry about you, you know?”

“Don’t.
I’m old enough to look after myself.”

She
laughed and they climbed into the shuttle.

She
looked round the long lounge. He wondered if she was comparing it to her
luxurious apartment back in Berne.

She
said, “I only have an hour. I’m sorry. They’re pretty strict.”

“That’s
okay. We can talk over dinner.”

She
helped him prepare the food and carry it outside. They sat beneath the awning
and sipped the freshly ground coffee.

“Okay,
now. Out with it. What’s it all about? This mission, the training.” He shook
his head. “You look, I don’t know... like the cat who’s got the cream.”

“Do
I? I hope that doesn’t mean smug, self-satisfied.”

“No,
just contented. What’s going on?”

She
took another sip of coffee, sighed with pleasure. “That’s good.” She paused,
then went on, “I’m glad you think there’s hope, that we aren’t doomed to repeat
our mistakes. I think we’ve learned from them, so that we can move on, build a
successful society that doesn’t consume resources.”

He
thought he knew where this was leading. “They’ve tried colonies, Chrissie. Look
what happened on Mars, Luna. Neither of them could sustain themselves. They
were both dependent on Earth.” He looked at her. She was smiling at him,
blithely. “You are talking about a colony, aren’t you?”

She
nodded. “Of course. Where else could we start again, anew?”

“Chrissie...”
He was aware of the despair in his tone.

“Listen,
Dad. This is different.”

“One
of the moons of Jupiter, Saturn? Harnessing the power of the planet’s
radiation...?” He stopped, realising how improbable this was.

She
was shaking her head. “Try further out.”

“Further
out?”

She
leaned forward. “Dad, the European Space Organisation has developed a starship,
a colony ship, to take four thousand specialists out of Sol system.”

Staggered,
he opened his mouth to say something, finally managing, “Ah... And to where,
exactly?”

“Another
star system, in Ophiuchi to begin with. The mission will last hundreds of
years, maybe even thousands, travelling at around half the speed of light.”

He
said, “A colony ship? What do they call them, generation starships?”

She
shook her head. “Not a generation ship. The colonists won’t be conscious.
They’ll be in cold sleep, suspended animation. They’ll be awoken at journey’s
end, when a habitable planet’s been found.”

“That’s
some undertaking.”

“A
last, desperate measure.” She shrugged. “I was approached over a year ago by
the ESO. They wanted people with my specialism.”

He
felt something surge through his head, rocking him. His vision blurred. He
tried to pull himself together.

“Dad,”
she said, “you don’t know how hard this is for me... When they asked me... at
first I said no. It felt like treachery, deserting a sinking ship: Why me? Why
not thousands of other people? I had an okay life in Europe... But then I began
to think about it. A new beginning, a chance to start again, and this time do
it right. They wanted me, and thousands like me, because we were at the top of
our fields. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to go. Then I
thought about you.”

Despite
his fear, despite the inner voice saying that he didn’t want to lose his
daughter, he found himself saying, “You have to go. If you didn’t... you’d
never forgive yourself. I can’t hold you back—that’d be selfish.”

She
nodded, tears sparkling in her eyes. She looked up. “I knew you’d say that. I
know I have to go. But it’ll be so damned hard.”

He
stood and moved around the table and took her in his arms, wanting to break
down himself but instead rocking her and reassuring her that she was doing the
best thing.

They
resumed their seats. Hendry ate without tasting a thing and Chrissie told him
about the training she’d been doing for the past nine months. “Basic stuff,
survival in extreme conditions, medical procedures. I’ll be specialising in
plant biology when we reach a habitable planet.” She stopped and shook her
head. “I get an odd feeling whenever I say that.”

“When
do you... when’s the launch?”

“Well,
we board the shuttle next week and ascend to the starship. Then we’ll be put
into the deep freezer, or rather the cryogenic units. But the ship itself won’t
be launched for six months after that. The techs need to iron out the bugs,
check the systems.”

“So
after next week, for the next six months, you’ll be in suspended animation.” He
tried to think about that, his daughter frozen in orbit high above the Earth.

“And
then for... who knows how long? Certainly hundreds of years.”

He
would be long dead by then, and Earth would be a wasteland by the time she
awoke, no older than when she had set off.

He
said, “I didn’t think they had the technology.”

“It’s
been developed over the past ten years, when it became obvious that things were
getting bad here. The ship was constructed in orbit. The fact wasn’t
broadcast.”

Hendry
smiled. “The Fujiyama Green Brigade would take a dim view.”

“They’re
suspicious, which is why they bombed the ESO headquarters.”

Hendry
shook his head. “They were always fundamentally selfish,” he said, and wondered
if by that he meant that Su was too.

BOOK: Helix
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