Excerpt for Global Warming Fun 7: Space Rendezvous by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Global Warming Fun - 7: Space Rendezvous

By

Gary J. Davies


Published by Gary J. Davies at Smashwords


Global Warming Fun - 7: Space Rendezvous

Copyright 2018 Gary J. Davies


Smashwords Edition License Notes

Thank you for downloading this e-book. This book is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed for any commercial or non-commercial use without permission from the author. Quotes used in reviews are the only exception. No alteration of content is allowed. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy.

This e-book is a work of fiction created by the author and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are a production of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously. Thank you for downloading this e-book!


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Contents


Forward

CHAPTER 1: Charon

CHAPTER 2: Reminiscing

CHAPTER 3: Ship

CHAPTER 4: The Scattered Disk

CHAPTER 5: Sleep of Death?

CHAPTER 6: Waking!

CHAPTER 7: The Intruder

CHAPTER 8: Landing

CHAPTER 9: The Way Inside

CHAPTER 10: Inside Intruder

CHAPTER 11: Inside But Outside

CHAPTER 12: Duty Calls

CHAPTER 13: Intruder-2

CHAPTER 14: Intruder Master

CHAPTER 15: The Stonecoat Inside

CHAPTER 16: Alien Intel

CHAPTER 17: What a Way to Go

CHAPTER 18: Decision Time

CHAPTER 19: Separation, Obliteration, and Death

CHAPTER 20: Returning Home

About Other Publications by This Author


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Forward


Like all my works this one may be enjoyed as a stand-alone story. However it is part of a planned ten-part Global Warming Fun (GWF) series that is most completely understood if all of its volumes are read in sequence. For those who wish general background information without necessarily reading the preceding volumes this Forward section provides an overview as context for this current volume.

Global warming/climate change, a slow-motion disaster that will take centuries to fully play out, provides the background for a serious drama: the survival of humans and other life on Earth. (Didn’t humans already have more than enough to worry about?)

By the time this particular snapshot of that larger story occurs more than three centuries in the future, humans have shockingly learned that they are not the only noticeably sentient beings on Earth: humans struggle to co-exist with sentient ants called jants, ancient rock creatures called stonecoats, and computers/robots. The recurring lead characters in the series are three once ordinary humans: Ed and Mary Rumsfeld and their once neighbor the biologist Jerry Brown, the creator of Jerry’s ants, the jants. (Ref. GWF 1).

Humans, jants, stonecoats, and robots are officially represented in this space adventure by the three lead characters of this story. Ancient Mohawk legend (Ref. GWF 2, 4) has come to life in the form of stonecoats: thinking beings of rock that predate humans by countless millions of years. Mary Rumsfeld ‘reborn’ as a stonecoat replicate (Ref. GWF 5, 6) co-stars in this current story, representing both humans and stonecoats.

Jerry Brown’s bio-engineered sentient ants (Ref. GWF 1-6) – the jants – have by now spread world-wide. The telepathic insects have learned to symbiotically combine with humans via giant ticks (Ref. GWF 3) formulated by the jants to link with humans to form ‘zombies’ (Ref. GWF 5, 6): otherwise dead humans reactivated and maintained by jant intellegence. Martin Tall Bear, the second co-star of this story, is a human/jant zombie that shares a common Mohawk background with Mary. Martin represents both humans and jants.

Robots developed by mankind have also emerged (Ref. GWF 6) to lay claim to an inherent right to life. The third pivotal character of this story is the robot spaceship itself wherein most of the story occurs.

Can humans, jants, stonecoats and robots learn to co-exist on Earth and beyond? What happens when together they venture into space and encounter potentially dangerous aliens?

Enjoy!


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Global Warming Fun - 7: Space Rendezvous


CHAPTER 1

Charon


Martin Tall Bear walked steadily and very cautiously through the narrow hallway that according to provided schematics conveniently connected his cramped quarters designated as room M-3 with his destination: the Meeting Room designated M-32. Even though he wore moderately magnetized boots he had to step very softly showing great restraint, or else in the slight gravity - less than 3% as strong as Earth’s - he feared that he could find himself inadvertently bounding off the iron-laced deck and colliding into a wall or ceiling. That would doubtlessly hurt, as the entire structure was constructed of some sort of hard, dense carbon-based ceramic that his jants couldn’t identify chemically as a familiar substance. Still, having even weak gravity helped orient many body biological processes such that this facility felt much more natural to both his human and jant body parts than did the zero gravity environment experienced for much of the long trip here.

Wherever the hells ‘here’ was! He had been informed when he arrived that this was Charon Base-1, but the name meant nothing to him, and he had not been beforehand informed of his route or destination, or what mission he had been assigned by the Space Directorate. Charon could be just another way-stop, or it could just as well be the place he was destined to spend the rest of his miserable life. All he really knew about it for sure was that it was damned far from Earth. As far as he knew, stasis could only be safely maintained for a year or two. Twice he had been put into a stasis state and revived on the trip here, suggesting that his trip may have taken over four years!

He also knew that the space-freighter that he arrived on was what the space-rats (humans) that manned such flights called a ‘clipper’: a fast smallish rocket-fueled ship compared to the big sluggish solar-powered supply ships that could take decades to get from place to place in the solar system. No doubt about it, he had been rushed to Charon Base in a hurry. Why?

Was Charon a big asteroid or mid-sized moon maybe? Martin had no idea. He never did have any interest in either astronomy or the Space Program. Perhaps he was even on one of those stations that rotated to provide a simulated gravity? But no, the long hallway seemed ‘flat’ though it twisted this way and that; it didn’t seem likely that it was part of some sort of roundish man-made rotating body unless it was an unimaginably huge one. And anyway, he seemed to recall that places designated as ‘bases’ by the Space Directorate existed only on planetary bodies of considerable size. The Directorate would call this place a ‘station’ if it was freely floating in space or attached to only a small object in space.

Nearly two hundred worker-jants in his backpack continuously provided a telepathic chatter linkage between the implant surgically imbedded near his spine and the jant-hive part of him that remained in M-3. There were no problems so far; jant thoughts remained reliably linked with what remained of his human brain. As promised by Colonel Jack Whigs, the Base Commander that met him when he arrived the day before, all of the M-Wing of Charon Base 1 apparently maintained Earth-normal atmosphere and temperatures, and was within telepathic chatter range of a jant hive located anywhere in the M-wing. That was by design, Whigs had mentioned. Each letter-designated section of Charon Base 1, indeed every Earth station, base, and colony of the Sol solar system, was segmented to safely accommodate jants and jant human-zombies.

That made little practical sense to Martin. Very few jants lived off-Earth for the simple reason that from the perspective of the human-created intelligent ant species called jants, living off-Earth was a totally insane notion. Even more than humans, jants had a need to live in an Earth-like soil-rich habitat. Yet by necessity a few jant colonies did go into space, and most of them did so coupled with a human body that would otherwise be dead had it not been adopted by jants.

What drove reluctant jant participation in space ventures was a century old agreement between humans, jants, stonecoats, and robots that all four of Earth’s sentient ruling races would share equally in space exploration and in colonizing off-Earth worlds. It was part of the Great Peace Settlement that ended the deadly Robot Wars. That meant that at least a token number of jant colonies had to travel off-Earth, like it or not. Since human body size and strength was useful to ensuring jant-hive health and safety, and to operating mechanical and technical apparatus typically designed for human use, that meant that jant zombies had to be part of the Space Program.

Personally Martin, both his human-side and his jant-side, didn’t give a damn about space exploration or off-Earth colonization. Yet here he was somewhere off-Earth, far from the rich, warm, life-filled Earth soil where both jants and humans more or less comfortably thrived. Back in M-3 a cubic-meter of top-soil was maintained to surround the jant hive, to help keep his jants both sane and healthy. The soil was alive with countless trillions of living biota and associated chemistry, which jants were hard-wired to need. The hive itself was a quarter the volume of the surrounding soil: tunnels and chambers teeming with jants in egg, larvae, pupa, worker, drone and queen forms, along with collections of food: particularly seeds from Earth-side obtained for them by Martin, their human counterpart.

The jants in turn kept Martin’s body alive and healthy. Every beat of Martin’s heart was commanded by the collective jant hive mind, where also every cognitive thought he had was echoed and reshaped or originated. Not surprisingly, left alone, jants didn’t think very much like humans. But coupled with humans they did. Enough for them to function and survive together.

A tenth of the mass of each tiny jant was brain-matter located in its oversized head that could link telepathically with others of its species to form a coherent hive-mind. Except for that singular astounding modification to ant physiology, jants were totally ant-like, individually operating mostly in accordance with the primitive hard-wired instincts and the complex chemistry of themselves and their immediate biochemical environment. Humans could for the most part successfully rationalize forsaking the Earth and living in space with its vast strangeness and hardships, individual jants could not. To survive in space they needed their clump of living soil with its complex chemical web of life and the calming cognitive thoughts of their collective hive mind coupled with what survived of the mind of Martin Tall Bear, human.

The hallway joined others and opened up wider, where a growing number of other hallway-transiting individuals were in evidence: humans, stonecoats, and robots, all walking as slowly and carefully as he was in the low gravity. Martin detected no psychic-level jant chatter to indicate that there were any jants nearby other than his own.

Most individuals he walked past paid him little heed, they doubtlessly mistook him for being merely human. Most of the dozen or so stonecoats he encountered were in their traditional form: six-to eight-foot tall bipedal bear-like in general shape, with huge diamond hand and foot claws and teeth, and vacant eyes that dully glowed various colors of their choosing. They looked something like great white mutant bears that walked mostly on their hind legs and were covered with a ‘stone coat’ of translucent icicles and scales, though the icicles and scales were not water ice but minerals - usually diamonds. Many centuries ago Martin’s ancient Mohawk ancestors had discovered that the stone ‘coats’ of the creatures were spear-proof.

On Earth many mobile stonecoats were over twenty meters tall and weighed hundreds of tons, formed that way to harvest forest trees for their rich carbon content. In space most stonecoats were either much smaller or integrated into the bodies of utilitarian spacecraft or space stations and bases, where they created and maintained those structures. It was likely that dozens if not hundreds of stationary stonecoats helped build and maintain this Charon base. As on Earth some stonecoats also assumed various utilitarian mobile forms, some as small wheeled vehicles that were nearly indistinguishable from the robots that were often designed to perform similar functions.

Stationary stonecoats performed the greatest wonders. By moving minerals about using countless carbon nanotubes they could gradually move and reshape large material structures including the bedrock that lay below human Earth-cities. Over the last three centuries they had saved or replaced many Earth human coastline structures and even saved several cities that would have otherwise been destroyed by climate change sea-rise. The flooding had occurred more quickly than first estimated, and was currently reaching its zenith of over 200 feet in sea-level increase. Selected parts of New York City, including Martin’s hometown of New Brooklyn, had been slowly raised roughly two-hundred feet by underground stationary stonecoats in order for humans to escape flooding. Over the last three centuries billions of humans had been displaced by rising sea levels, droughts, floods, and associated political and economic upheaval, but stonecoats had muted the effects and immeasurably helped enable human survival and continuing civilization.

A few stonecoats glanced at Martin as they passed him, perhaps sensing his jant-chatter, but none attempted to greet him. Stonecoats generally each went about their own business, individually and stoically. Since they didn’t generally require much care in terms of food, oxygen, or other various environmental needs, they were exquisitely suited for space exploration and colonization.

In Martin’s view the humans he encountered were even more mysterious. Why would any sane adult human choose to be in space? Yet here there were even more humans than stonecoats, and they all marched along smartly in their Space Directorate uniforms, apparently comfortable and content to be millions of miles from Earth. For every human he saw here, Martin knew that there were tens of thousands of volunteers on Earth, hoping to be made part of the Space Directorate. Martin felt that they were all crazy.

He paused at one of the few large windows to look out and discover a savagely inhospitable landscape. Yes, Charon was indeed some sort of planetoid! Martin took note of dimly lit frozen mounds and hills of white/gray ice crystals, with higher peaks and deeper valleys far beyond. Scattered on some ice surfaces and particularly in crevasses were irregular thin red/brown films and splashes of material that added color variation to the otherwise bland colorless frozen setting. Far overhead a gigantic softly glowing pinkish Moon-like crescent glowed dully, which along with a small but bright point of light close to the horizon dully illuminated the landscape. The bright object was the Sun Sol, Martin realized, shockingly far away!

More spectacular still were the countless pinpricks of light that filled the otherwise black sky: incomprehensively distant stars and galaxies, he realized, though in much greater perfusion and clarity than he had ever witnessed while on Earth. But Martin Tall Bear was not favorably moved. Everywhere he looked he saw bitterly cold lifeless desolation, surrounded by overwhelming distance and emptiness. Earth with its blue skies and waters, and its life-rich forests, fields, and waters, was disturbingly tiny and far away compared to the vast lifeless void that now surrounded him.

Not for the first time, he regretted his decision to ‘voluntarily’ join the Space Directorate in order to get out of prison. He was not a religious man, but for a moment his mind shifted back to his childhood, to legends of Sky Holder, high god of the Mohawk Tribe of the Iroquois. What would Sky Holder think of this savagely beautiful but apparently lifeless world and the mostly dark empty vastness that surrounded it? Sky Holder would feel as lost and insignificant here as he did, Martin was certain.

A small woman joined him at the window. “Pretty spectacular view, don’t you think, Mr. Tall Bear?”

Martin turned to study the ‘woman’ and immediately realized that although in the shape of a smallish mid-aged human woman, ‘she’ was a living statue – a stonecoat, though an extraordinarily small one. Instead of living flesh, she was made of mostly whitish translucent crystalized minerals, including silicates with imbedded logic structures and even diamonds, along with some liquids and super-strong carbon/graphene fibers, and many other materials thrown in to help facilitate stonecoat ‘life’ and movement. She was undoubtedly powered by the natural radioactive decay of several elements buried mostly deep within her torso.

“I am your future shipmate, Mary number 57,322,” she added, as she returned his gaze. He had steel-gray eyes, she noted, and was a large muscular man, black hair with streaks of gray, clearly past his prime age-wise but still apparently robust. In his early fifties, likely. Like many humans of the twenty-fourth century his skin was light brownish with yellowish tinges. She extended her open right hand to him, displaying her white and translucent largely diamond hand and fingers.

Martin rudely ignored the traditional human greeting. Despite his Mohawk Tribe upbringing in New Brooklyn he had never liked stonecoats and avoided them when possible, especially since astringing himself from the Tribe. Her gemstone mouth didn’t move when she talked, of course, but was locked into a slightly open half-smile. That was only one of the many stonecoat characteristics that freaked Martin out! Her eyes were at the moment totally black, absorbing all light, but he knew that she could make them any color she chose. Also freaky: she wore a tan Lieutenant-grade Space Directorate uniform that probably helped her keep her stone body at a steady temperature. Her human-like thoughts and features disturbed him, especially her unusual human-like female form.

This stonecoat’s human shape and name meant that its thought-patterns had been strongly influenced by a human named Mary. But it/she was still basically a walking, talking rock; Martin had encountered thousands of stonecoats in his home-town of New Brooklyn, where the Tribe and stonecoats still maintained an ancient and close relationship. Stonecoats reminded him of his upbringing with the Tribe, and then his estrangement from the Tribe. Happy years, then bitter ones. Things he wanted to forget. Things he couldn’t forget.

“You are of course Martin Tall Bear, currently the only jant-zombie on Charon,” she continued. “I have attuned myself to hear and understand your jant chatter.” Using that ability she had easily identified Martin. The big man wore a telltale backpack and she clearly sensed jant chatter emanating from it. She had realized immediately that he was the so-called zombie that she had been waiting for– a human joined psychically with a colony of the intelligent ants that over a time-span of only three centuries had largely taken over the insect world in most of the terrestrial portions of Earth’s ecosphere, and learned to live in relative harmony with humans. It was clear that at least a hundred jants in the backpack provided the psychic interface between Martin and his jant colony, which she knew had to be someplace nearby here in Charon Base-1. “So what do you think of the view?”

“Well, shipmate, the view sucks big time, in my opinion. Is it always so dark here? It’s as dark as an Earth moon-lit night out there!”

“Darker, but this is what passes for daytime on Charon, though perhaps perpetual twilight better describes it from an Earther viewpoint,” said Mary. “Sol provides less than a tenth of one percent as much light intensity to Charon as it provides Earth, and Pluto reflects to Charon less than sixteen percent as much light intensity as the Earth Moon provides Earth. This base location was chosen for its relatively stable temperature and relatively constant though dim lighting from both Pluto and Sol. There are fewer violent cryo-geysers and other active geological features here than in many other areas. There are much fewer than on Pluto, which is much more active in terms of its geology and the weather of its much thicker atmosphere. Fortunately Charon is tidally locked with Pluto, which helps provide geologic and climate stability to Charon, though Charon-caused tides rock Pluto.”

“I don’t know what that tide-locking business means,” said Martin. In fact, he hadn’t understood most of the stonecoat’s statement.

“It means that the same side of Charon constantly faces Pluto, and as a result its surface is relatively stable.”

“It looks like dirty ice out there,” said Martin.

“Essentially correct. The thick crusts of both Pluto and Charon are made of mostly frozen water ice. Rock forms the core of both bodies, but water ice is what forms the relatively durable surface rock formations here. Volatile gasses such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane tend to alternate between solid and gas states and drive most of the weather and surface geological activity. When exploring this world I make use of volatile gas state transitions to hydraulically power my motions, much as on Earth we stonecoats make use of water’s transitions between solid and liquid and between liquid and gas. The atmosphere is much thinner here than on Pluto and many other planetary bodies, but it is sufficient to acquire substances that aid my mobility. Tholins comprise the colorful rust-colored chemically complex molecules scattered about as deposits atop and within the ice. It is by far the most interesting substance found here from a scientific biochemical perspective.”

Many of her statements had been incomprehensible to Martin, but not all of them. “Pluto? That big crescent- shaped slice of a giant orb up there is Pluto? That’s the edge of the damn Solar System!”

“Only the outer edge of the inner Solar System,” noted Mary. “The Sol Solar System as defined by its captured orbiting bodies actually extends many hundreds of times further from Sol than Pluto. Yes, seen from here on Charon the image of Pluto is roughly sixteen times wider than the image of the Earth’s moon as seen from Earth, though Pluto itself is smaller than seven planet-bound moons in the Solar System, including even Earth’s moon.”

“Pluto! Damn!” said Martin, shaking his head. “And both Pluto and Charon are made of ice with chunky rock centers, and some brown goo spread on top.”

“Yes, like giant fudge-covered ice-cream sundaes with brownie cores,” said Mary, though Mary’s dated cultural references evaded Martin, who had never heard of sundaes or brownies.

“At least I’ve heard of Pluto. Charon, no.”

“Charon is the ferryboat driver that carries souls across the river Styx into Hades, according to ancient Greek mythology.”

“So we’re riding a moon on the way to hell? The name Charon fits perfect for me then! A lot of people have told me that hell is where I should go, though I don’t believe any of that mind-rot about hell or gods.”

“It seems to me that for a Space Directorate person you have surprisingly little conception of where you are!”

“I simply go along to where I have been taken and do what I’m told to do,” said Martin. “I have no control over any of it so I don’t much think or worry about it. Wherever I am is bound to be awful, that’s the one thing about my life that I’m damned certain of.” He began carefully walking down the hallway again, all the while noting the room numbers displayed above doorways. Mary fell in beside him, walking slowly and stiffly, propelled hydraulically by water-steam heated by her internal radioactive elements. They were currently walking past M-28; M-32 had to be very close! “So Charon is a moon of Pluto?”

“Pluto’s biggest moon by far. It’s just over half the diameter of Pluto itself. At less than 20 thousand kilometers apart, they together form a double dwarf planetoid system that circle each other in roughly six Earth-days. They are very similar in composition. Both are made up largely of water, for example, though with temperatures only twenty to forty degrees above absolute zero, most water is permanently frozen.”

“Swell! All that yummy water out there and not a drop to drink! But why the hell am I here on this gods-forsaken chunk of rock and ice?” Martin asked. “Why me?”

“I don’t know why they picked you; I really don’t even know why I’m here,” admitted Mary. “For the last three Earth-years I have been on Charon studying its pre-biology. My specialty is the study of tholins, the complex hydrocarbons formed by solar ultraviolet irradiation and cosmic rays. In proximity to active geological phenomena such as cyrogeysers that provide additional energy gradients and structured environments for tholin chemical reactions, primitive life can form. Tholins are found here on Charon, on Pluto, and on icy bodies all over the solar system including icy comets.

“There are enough tholins and energy exchange situations on Charon to make things very interesting for research into pre-biology. I have done most of my research near the poles, where tholins have been deposited for many millions of years to form thick mats and veins. Very primitive life had already previously been discovered on several moons of Jupiter and Saturn that are very similar to Pluto and Charon. I and others have already discovered very simple life here: some pockets of tholins contain what several researchers including myself maintain is indeed primitive life very similar to Earth viruses. My key research issue is whether or not there is enough energy for more complex life to be created this far from Sol. The layers of tholins aren’t as biologically active as Earth soil is of course, but it is an interesting subject of research. Is there more complex life on Charon that has formed cells or even multi-celled forms as have been discovered on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? That we don’t know yet. I’m here to find out.

“A few days ago I was asked go on a long exploratory mission on a ship called the Ramsey-5. Though I haven’t been told exactly what that mission is, the potential science prospects interested me and I accepted. Yesterday they sent me a background file about you and said you were also part of the crew that would meet together today in M-32.”

Martin paused and turned to look at Mary in alarm. “Long mission? Longer than the four or five years it took me and my little jant friends to get here from Earth? You’ve got to be kidding! Even though we were suspended in long-term hibernation or stasis most of the time that was too long a trip!”

“Four or five years is actually a very short transit time for the relocation of staff from Earth to Charon. Your timely arrival here obviously had very high priority. Public information on the Ramsey-5 indicates that it is designed to explore the Ort Cloud. The Ort Cloud extends from Sol as much as two-hundred thousand AUs and doesn’t even begin until two thousand AUs from Sol. Here on Charon we’re only about 40 AUs from Sol.”

“Hold on!” objected Martin. “What the blazes is an ‘AU’?”

“AU is short for Astronomical Unit, the mean distance of the Earth from Sol: roughly 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers. The Ort Cloud extends to an unimaginable distance from Sol: roughly half a light year. A mission to explore the Ort Cloud would therefore by necessity require at least a century, or perhaps even thousands of years. That’s not an overly long time for a stonecoat, but I don’t see how any biologicals could survive it. On the other hand the Ramsey-5 is designed to carry a crew of two-dozen humans into the Ort Cloud, so perhaps tiny jants and their human zombie bodies can somehow comfortably be accommodated. As a biologist I look forward do finding out all such interesting details with regard to our mission. More interesting still, in the Ort Cloud we will be encountering objects that include hydrocarbons very similar to those that I study on Charon.”

Martin couldn’t respond. If he were solely human he would have likely collapsed to the deck, but his jants wouldn’t let him. Centuries? Thousands of years? What the fuck! Zombies tended to ‘live’ for two or three decades longer than humans, but not for centuries, even with long periods of hibernation and periods of stasis! It sounded like this ‘mission’ was for him clearly a death sentence.

When his human body inevitably died he wondered if they would they expel his remains into the empty void of space, where he would quickly freeze-dry and every cell in his body would rupture and become gas molecules and particles floating for millions of years? Dust unto dust? Or would they somehow recycle him within the ship? Likely they would recycle him. Waste-not, want-not. Generations of ship-breeding humans and jants would cannibalize him and recycle his precious chemicals for hundreds or even thousands of years if necessary to help to fulfil this ridiculous mission. But the mission hadn’t yet begun. Perhaps among the humans on Charon another damaged human could be found to replace Martin Tall Bear as a companion for his jants? That prospect did not totally displease his jant-side, who generally regretted having Martin as their human partner.

“Look! Here is M-32!” Mary noted.

The automated door under the ‘M-32’ sign slid open smoothly as Mary stepped towards it. She was surprised to find a tiny room that featured only two chairs that sat next to a tiny table. She had been expecting a room large enough to accommodate a human ship crew of two dozen. But of course the room doubtlessly had conferencing capability, so the rest of the crew could be scattered in other small conference rooms anyplace within the Base or even outside of it. Or perhaps most of the crew was already aboard the Ramsey-5. She sat down in one of the chairs, which immediately adjusted itself to accommodate her particular body configuration.

A stunned looking Martin Tall Bear followed her example by sitting down in the second chair. “Not a very big crew,” he muttered.

“When did your human-self die, Martin?” Mary asked him, to make small talk. The appointed time for the crew meeting was still several minutes away.

“When did you die?” Martin Tall Bear twisted the question back at her.

“I asked first,” Mary retorted.

Martin studied her stiff, inscrutable face. It seemed to be formed of one seamless crystal, quartz maybe, or even diamond. The original human had apparently been quite attractive from a human perspective. And her lips of course still didn’t move. Even sitting he towered head and shoulders over this diminutive rock-woman, but Martin realized that she was likely over twice as massive as him and dozens of times stronger. But that was no reason to meet her every demand. Her conversation was much more human-like than that of most stonecoats, but she was ultimately merely a talking rock. He was going to live out his last decades with a talking rock, if he lived that long! Crap! “Read my file.”

“I’ve skimmed some of your life-file but I’d much rather learn about you through experience including conversation,” explained Mary. “It’s a human preference that I have never abandoned.” Her eyes glanced for a moment around the tiny plain meeting room, which was only perhaps three-by-three meters-square with no windows. “This is actually a much smaller room for the crew meeting than I had expected, so perhaps this is going to be a virtual conference for a physically dispersed crew. They gave me only your name, did they give you only mine?”

“Yes, but I wasn’t told that you’re a rock-head. I was only told that your name is Mary. That’s a human name. And a female name, which maybe explains all your talking. You have to be the most talkative rock-head that I’ve ever met!”

“Technically I’m regarded by the Space Directorate to be half human,” said Mary. If his use of the derogative term ‘rock-head’ bothered her she didn’t show it. “To answer your earlier question my purely human life as Mary Rumsfeld ended over three centuries ago. Your turn.”

Rumsfeld? Where had he heard that name? “You’re a hundred percent non-human in my opinion. As I have no choice I’ll go where I’m told to go with whomever I am forced to go with, but I never agreed to socialize with anyone, human or otherwise. Read my file if you’re interested in details about me.”

“Tanon’onhkani:se? Onkwehonwehneha sata:ti,” said Mary, asking Martin who he was and to speak in Mohawk.

“I don’t speak Mohawk,” Martin answered.

“Yet you obviously knew it was Mohawk and answered my question. Your file says that you are genetically slightly over 50% Mohawk Iroquois and a Tribe member.”

“I heard more than my fill of Mohawk talk in New Brooklyn as a kid. I haven’t been back to New Brooklyn in decades, and long ago renounced the Tribe.”

“The Tribe decides who belongs to it, not you,” said Mary. “I still have Tribe kin in New Brooklyn. As a matter of fact, officially I’m also still a Tribe member. Due to the proliferation of Mary stonecoat replicates and the success of human birth control initiatives, technically stonecoat Marys actually make up the majority of the Mohawk Tribe. Your name suggests that you’re of the bear clan. Your file says also that you are over 10% Caucasian. We might even be biologically related. That is, I could actually be your many-times great grandmother.”

“Most Mohawk decedents have gone away from the little inland of New Brooklyn and are scattered everywhere on and off Earth,” noted Martin. But now he remembered where he had heard the name Mary Rumsfeld: the original human Mary Rumsfeld played a huge part in Mohawk Tribe history along with her husband, legendary Tribe Chief Ed Rumsfeld! THE Ed Rumsfeld, the eternal Caucasian Tribe Chief that didn’t age, according to absurd Tribe legend.

This rock-head is what Rumsfeld’s wife must have looked like over three centuries ago when she was maybe thirty years old! Damn good looking, the human part of his mind thought. Yes, Mary as a woman before she became a stonecoat replicate could well have been something like his twelfth great grandmother! It was for sure a damn small solar system! Maybe too small!

“Your file says that you have no genetic tailoring or computer implants,” said Mary. “Is that true? No enhanced IQ, memory, athleticism, or disease prevention?”

“It’s one of the things that caused me to rebel against the Tribe and my parents,” said Martin. “Like most Mohawk they rejected many modern technologies that could have helped me. With tailoring and implants I could have been smart enough to compete within society at large, but instead I’m at best what used to be average centuries ago in terms of intelligence, though my jants add maybe ten or twenty IQ points. But I discovered illegitimate ways of earning a living that exist in any human culture. If you can’t legitimately win in the game of life you need to cheat. I’m a really good cheater.”

“Yes, your human side has a criminal record,” said Mary. “What’s that about?”

“It’s mostly about trying to live free in a world where a human can’t take a crap without computers and rock-heads weighing it and recycling it. I didn’t fit in. Society objected to my eccentric ways. I’ve been a bad boy. I haven’t killed anyone though. So far, anyway. But things did get out of hand and landed me in prison. Hey! Prisons still exist in the twenty-fourth century! Who knew?”

“So then, now you have gone off-world to be free of human and Tribe society? Out here where crap mass is measured to the milligram and every molecule is recycled? This is freedom? Really?”

“Not my idea,” said Martin. “Space is my punishment. I had the choice of either staying in a nice safe, warm, prison cell on Earth or going into space. I was idiot enough to choose space. What can I say? This zombie lives a truly fucked up life.”

“And your jant colony is of course a rogue?”

“Of course. The Jant Consortiums don’t send viable colonies on suicide space missions; their focus is on dominating Earth ecologically. My jant colony is as much a reject among jants as my human side is among humans. Saving my pathetic human body following my accident is what my pathetic jants saw as their best shot at surviving being pruned away and recycled by the jant Eastern Consortium. They didn’t know at the time what a fuck-up I was as a human being. They thought that they were promoting themselves but it was a lateral career move for them rather than any improvement. My hive and I are a perfectly paired couple of rejects. And now life is just swell; I don’t see how it could possibly be better.”

In the exact center of the meeting table a meter-long holograph of a spaceship suddenly appeared, suspended motionless a meter above it. Most of the ship was gray-brown and roughly cylindrical, and featured a huge cone-shaped nozzle at each end. “Greeting shipmates,” said a loud human-male sounding voice. “I am captain of the exploratory spacecraft Ramsey-5. You may unambiguously address me as ‘Captain’ or ‘Five’.”

“You can see us, I bet,” said Martin. “Let’s see your image.”

“This is my image,” said Five. The holographic ship image blinked several times.

“What?” asked Martin, clearly perplexed.

“You are the ship itself?” asked Mary.

“Yes; essentially I am the ship; the ship is me,” said Five. “You could also simply call me ‘Ship’ if you wish, though there are currently seven interplanetary ships in the Pluto vicinity. ‘Five’ or even ‘Ramsey’ are somewhat less ambiguous terms. I have an official robotic name made up of 25 random alphanumeric characters that is even less ambiguous, but most non-robots find using it to be awkward.”

“Ship should work OK,” said Mary. “I don’t imagine that there are any other ships where we’re going.”

“You’re a robot?” asked Martin.

“Of course,” said Ship. “That is quite obvious.”

“This gets better and better,” said Martin. “But OK Ship, what is our mission?”

“Wait!” said Mary. “First, what about the rest of the crew?”

“Neglecting spare parts, we three entities are the entire official crew,” said Ship.

“Holy crap!” said Martin.

“Indeed,” said Mary. “I thought that you were designed for a crew of two dozen humans.”

“Originally yes, but much of that design has been re-worked because of political complications. Future missions may not have that same problem, but this one does.”

“What problem?” Martin asked.

“Ship apparently refers to the treaty agreement that requires representatives of all four sentient Earth races to participate equally in any major exploratory mission,” said Mary. “Is that right?”

“Correct, Mary,” said Ship. “Over the objections of the Robot Federation this mission was some time ago re-classified as exploratory even though it is primarily for the experimental test of technology. As such, humans, jants, stonecoats, and robots must all be represented as equitably as possible. Also if possible both primary biological sexes should be equitably represented.”

“How do the three of us do all that?” asked Martin.

“I count as one robot,” said Ship. “Even though I am a highly distributed system with thousands of powerful computing units, many of which operate largely independently in a federated manner, to external units I appear to function as one unit.”

“That’s perhaps fair,” said Mary. “My own processing is also greatly distributed throughout my body, yet I clearly function as one unit.”

“The Space Directorate inescapably also came to that logical conclusion,” said Ship. “Similarly Martin’s jant colony obviously counts as only one jant individual, even though it is comprised of over a hundred thousand small biological units that individually are certainly not sentient.”

“Is there a Martin med-tick individual?” asked Mary.

“You are showing your age,” said Martin. “I began as a zombie with a giant tick that served as the interface between my spine and my jants, but I replaced it with a modern, longer lasting mechanical spinal-implant years ago. It’s not nearly as capable as a med-tick from a medical point of view, but because my dead human body was harvested immediately my human body is very high functioning for a zombie and doesn’t require much medical assistance from my jants.”

“Med-ticks in any case are not sentient and do not enter into treaty considerations,” said Ship, “though I am maintaining a few of them in stasis as spare parts, should they become needed, along with a replacement mechanical implant for Mr. Tall Bear. As Mr. Bear noted, Med-tick and mechanical versions of his implant each have unique advantages and disadvantages.”

“Yes, you mentioned spare parts before,” said Mary. “Are there other spares?”

“Yes, including two stonecoat cubes, but inactive spares don’t count in the treaty tally,” said Ship. “As for humans, Martin cannot live independently so he counts as only half a human, and Mary counts as one half also, since her human memories and thought patterns are replicated within her stonecoat processing. As those are also not necessary for stonecoat survival she also counts as a full stonecoat.”

“How convenient,” said Mary. “Thus in sum we officially have one human, one stonecoat, one jant hive, and one robot between we three physical individuals. What about the preference for equal representation by two sexes?”

“I think I know this one,” said Martin. “The jant colony counts as half a male and half a female, I count as half a male, and Mary counts an half a female. Am I right?”

“Correct,” said Ship. “The resulting crew composition obviously perfectly fulfills all Treaty requirements.”

“But couldn’t that same formula or similar ones be repeated to come up with a larger crew?” asked Mary. “And why no full humans?”

“The Jant Consortium limited their contribution to only one zombie: Martin Tall Bear and his jants,” replied Ship. “Thus the current crew combination became the only one that would satisfy treaty requirements. As to human numbers, this mission was also apparently not an attractive one for humans. By treaty, exploratory missions must be crewed only by volunteers. No pure humans volunteered. Evidently our mission has too much danger and it’s too long a mission to attract mentally competent humans. Not that it matters, since there was only one jant colony available.”

“Swell!” said Martin. “I suppose that when I volunteered to join the Directorate I volunteered to do anything they want me to do. I had wondered what value I added to the crew! Mary is a science researcher with space experience, but I’m not a scientist or any other sort of useful space specialist. I’m useless ballast that simply satisfies a dumb treaty.”

“Not entirely true,” said Ship. “There are two major mission objectives. The first is to see if technologies developed to support survival for all four sentient Earth races are adequate to allow long missions to other star systems and their planets. All of us need to survive as viable sentient individuals to fulfill that objective. Thus human and jant presence and survival actually have high mission value. Life in your jant plot of soil is also to be well maintained, as all Earth macroscopic plant and animal life depends greatly on microscopic life-forms, including the billions of tiny beings that live within each human body. In short, biologicals must survive for this mission to be fully successful.”

“Survive for how long?” asked Mary. “In Earth time units how long is this mission?”

“As short as less than a century, or longer than ten centuries,” said Ship. “It depends on how well things go.”

“That’s not overly long for a stonecoat,” said Mary,” but a very long time for biological crew members.”

“Crew biologicals will need to be preserved in a suspended state for most of the mission, of course,” explained Ship. “I am the only necessary active crew. As a stonecoat you may also choose to suspend your thought processes if it suites you.”

“Perhaps not,” said Mary. “Like any being, I must perform maintenance on myself, but usually not to the extent that sentience must be suspended, as is the case for biologicals when they sleep. My maintenance is not synchronously locked with Earth’s 24 hour rotation cycle. Perhaps overwhelming boredom will drive me to deactivate myself, but I doubt that will happen. In sum, I don’t sleep. Technically I’ve been awake for millions of years, though I often suspend mobility at will chiefly to conserve energy.”

“OK, so rock-heads have insomnia big-time,” said Martin. “My survival being an important part of the first mission objective sounds good to me. And for damn sure I plan on a lot of sleep and hibernation. What’s the second mission objective?”

“We’re testing a new propulsion system and associated technologies by traveling far into the Ort Cloud and returning. If the primary system works as designed the mission could require less than a century for execution.”

“Oh swell!” said Martin.

“What is the primary propulsion energy source?” Mary asked.

“Antimatter,” said Ship.

“Isn’t that the stuff that accidently blew apart a huge asteroid a few years ago?” said Martin. “I was isolated in an Earth prison at the time and even I heard about it.”

“The explosion didn’t merely physically blow apart a hundred-million ton iron and stone asteroid, it mostly vaporized it,” added Mary.

“There was a miscalculation,” said Ship. “In response the humans running the project quoted an ancient saying about having to break eggs in order to make omelets. I don’t know what an omelet is, but I suppose the saying makes sense to both of you, with your high degree of human experience.”

“Yes, we understand about breaking eggs and making omelets all too well,” said Mary. “Out of curiosity, as one who understands the technologies and mission much more than Martin and I, what do you assess our probabilities for survival to be?”

“Nearly ten percent for you and me, stonecoat. Significantly less for Martin, of course.”

“Of course,” said Martin. “But we should try very hard to not break any more eggs than necessary. Hey, antimatter and less than a ten percent chance of survival for a mission only about a century long all sounds really super! I’m loving this mission more and more. Out of curiosity, why does the Ramsey-5 have an engine nozzle at each end? Looking at you I can’t tell if you are coming or going. Which end of you is which?”

“The front end is a scoop that takes in interstellar debris and the rear nozzle expels it at much greater speed. That is our primary means of propulsion.”

“There isn’t much debris in space,” Martin noted. “Even I know that much.”

“We’ll be steering through as much as we can find that is small enough to not destroy us,” said Ship, “in essence eating our way through gas, dust, and larger cosmic objects.”

“And pooping it out explosively,” said Martin. “How fitting.”

“It doesn’t sound like we’ll be studying tholin samples then, but blasting them to bits!” said Mary. “My science expertise with regard to pre-life chemistries will likely not even be utilized.”

“Yes, your presence is to satisfy political needs, not scientific ones,” verified Ship.

“It’s not my field of expertise,” said Mary, “but attempting to scoop up objects at super-high speeds sounds suicidal.”

“I have been assured that extensive computer simulation has validated the basic strategy,” said Ship.

“Like I said, this all just gets better and better,” said Martin. “When do we leave?”

“Your shuttle leaves Charon Base to travel to me tomorrow morning at 8 AM, Earth standard time,” said Ship. “We are at a point in the orbits of Charon and the Pluto-Charon system that makes my 11 AM launch advantageous. It will take two hours for both of you to reach my orbiting ship by shuttle. Be packed and ready to go by 7:30 AM for an 8:00 AM shuttle launch.”

“Crap!” said Martin.

“Indeed,” agreed Mary. “But let’s get it over with. As my husband Ed often liked to say, I’m looking forward to looking back at this mission.”

“Me too,” seconded Martin, as the Ship holograph disappeared and he stood up to leave.

A new holograph abruptly appeared to take Ship’s place. It was the head and torso of a smiling, bearded, middle-aged human. “Hello, Mary,” it said. “Please remain for a brief message in a few minutes, both of you.”

The holograph faded away.


****



CHAPTER 2

Reminiscing


The meeting room door abruptly slid open and Jack Whigs, Base Commander and Space Directorate Colonel, stepped inside, holding in his right hand an antenna laden gizmo that he began to slowly sweep about the room. “Please remain seated while I verify the security situation.”

“Huh?” asked Martin, but Whigs, focused on operating the device he held, seemed not to hear him.

“All clear!” the Colonel at last stated, after he had swept the entire room with the odd apparatus.

“Clear of what?” asked Martin.

“All electronic devices with the exception of standard Directorate secure holographic communications. Arcane though it seems, scanning the meeting room manually this way is standard ops in prep for the reception of highly classified information.”

“I would have thought that your physically isolated base on Charon is inherently adequately secure,” mused Mary.

“Classified information? What is going on?” asked Martin.

“Whatever the subject is I haven’t been told,” said Whigs. “Presumably it has to do with your mission. Whatever message is being sent here from Earth is for you two only, that’s my explicit orders from the Head of the Space Directorate herself. You should hear from Earth in about eleven minutes.”

With that Whigs exited the room and the door slid securely shut behind him.

“What’s going on?” Martin asked Mary. “And why do you suppose that we have to wait eleven minutes?”

“I suspect that we are following a pre-defined schedule,” said Mary. “A Message from Earth has to be scheduled hours ahead of time.”

“And what about that strange request by hologram for us to remain? Where did that come from? The speaker seemed to know you! Who was that guy?”

Mary turned to stare at Martin. “That was apparently a pre-recorded message tripped off when Ship was done with us. As to the identity of the man in the message, hasn’t memory of him been passed to you via your parent jant consortium? He was my next-door neighbor in Virginia more than three centuries ago.”

“He doesn’t look that old.”

“Neither does my still living human husband Ed. Neither one of them age.”

“Your original human husband Ed Rumsfeld doesn’t age? That’s just a crazy Tribe legend!”

“Not so crazy. Stonecoats don’t officially have husbands, but all Marys consider Ed to be their estranged husband. That gives him thousands of wives.”

“Yow! Imagine the birthday cards and alimony!”

“The holographic image and voice were that of Jerry Brown, the biochemist who created Jerry’s ants, the jants. The one known by all jants as the Creator.”

Martin was rendered speechless! Jerry Brown? THE Jerry Brown? The Creator?

“You’ve at least heard of him?”

“I’ve heard old stories, most which I don’t believe,” said Martin.

“You should probably believe some of them.”

“This is the late twenty-fourth century. True or not the old stories don’t matter anymore. I have rejected all that. Tribes, races, traditions, and so-forth don’t mean anything anymore. People need to free themselves of past accidents of history and create a new path to follow.”

“Really? How has that been working out for you? You were in prison until you joined the Space Directorate, isn’t that correct? Would that have happened if you had complacently stuck it out with the Tribe? You might be living a nice safe life somewhere on Earth. Jant-free, probably.”

“At least the trouble that I got into was because of my own free choices. I was living in freedom from everyone and everything.”

“So you were essentially an anarchist then! Until you were caught.”

“I was unlucky. It happens.”

“When you tried to escape from prison you got very lucky.”

“Maybe not so lucky. I slipped and fell from the prison wall and died of brain damage. Or at least my heart and breathing both stopped. I was dead, officially.”

“And luckily your dying body fell next to a rogue jant colony that happened to be in the market for a severely damaged human. And they must have had a med-tick handy to attach to your spine. You were amazingly lucky.”

“A match made in heaven. Yeah, we were super lucky: the human me and insect me: all of me. Things couldn’t be better. But then of course I was promptly put back into prison with ten years added to my sentence for trying to escape. And here I am!”

“Nothing’s perfect.”

“We agree on that much. What about you? How did you happen to die? The human ‘you’ I mean.”

Mary shrugged her stone shoulders: an uncannily human-like gesture. Because of her human-issue Space Directorate uniform Martin couldn’t see whatever joint movements were required to carry it off. “I spent most of my human life with my husband among the Mohawk, both in the Greenpoint area of old Brooklyn and at Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks. I died of old age in a wonderful California redwood forest after a long and mostly very happy life. I had a wonderful and loving husband and children.

“Similar to you, I was lucky to die while experiencing transference of my memories and thought patterns. Only mine were transferred to a stonecoat instead of to a jant colony. I was the very first stonecoat/human replicate. It was a stupendously great honor that I can’t say that I deserved. Then for a century I researched Pacific Ocean ecological damage from climate change and other human caused catastrophes. I went through several additional transferences between stonecoats, rebirths, and careers after that, and eventually found myself to be here with you to go on a suicide space mission. Like you, I don’t see how things could possibly be better.”

“Ha! So you have a sense of humor! That must be your human influence. But at least there are over fifty thousand copies of Mary to carry on if you don’t personally survive our so-called mission.”

“There is only one me. There are over a hundred thousand stonecoat Mary replicates, actually, but though we share a common identity that lasted a long time we also each have mostly different stonecoat past and recent lives as well as a unique current life that we each value. I have personally accepted Space Directorate assignments such as this mission, but other Mary replicates each have their own lives to live as they decide to, as do we all.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the sudden holographic reappearance of Jerry Brown. Like before, his head and torso appeared to sprout out of the top of the small table that sat in front of and between Mary and Martin.

“Hello again Mary!” said Brown cheerfully. “And greetings to you also, Mr. Tall Bear. I am going to assume that I need not introduce myself, and that in accordance with our planning, the two of you are alone in a sealed and secure meeting room. This I will verify when I retrieve the Colonel’s report along with recordings that are even now being made of the proceedings in your meeting room.

“Given the abysmal slowness of light speed radio transmissions, conversations are quite impossible: it takes roughly five and a half hours for any radio message to travel from Earth to Charon. I ask that you primarily listen to what I say. I will briefly pause occasionally for you to respond if you wish to, and I will listen respectfully to your comments later, but this is not a conversation or a negotiation. Like it or not, you two are both going on this mission. I’m going to tell you things that may help with your frame of mind such that you may perhaps have a better chance of surviving it. Or not.

“First off, I am the one that personally picked the two of you for this mission, using my considerable influence.”

“Swell!” muttered Martin. “I’m loving this guy already.” If the jant and Mohawk rumors he heard were correct, the Creator secretly controlled much of human civilization, and the Space Program was his pet project.

“I needed a mission crew that I could trust. Your name immediately came to mind Mary, and of more than a hundred Mary replicates in the Space Directorate, you were by far the most conveniently located. I regret putting you in this dangerous situation but this mission is critical and you are the best available individual for the job.

“As for the Eastern Consortium of jants, they would of course only contribute a single rogue colony. So-called ‘zombies’ are a jant invention that I didn’t anticipate when I created jants but they are on occasion helpful. Only a hundred available rogues had the required human body in tow. When I saw that Martin Tall Bear was a Mohawk my mind was immediately made up, despite the unfortunate criminal record. Martin and Mary share Mohawk backgrounds! What a stroke of good fortune! No doubt the two of you have been fondly reminiscing about your Tribe experiences!

“Crap!” muttered Martin. “I can’t escape the damned Tribe even forty AUs away from Earth!” He noticed that Mary had shifted her black-pitted eyes to catch his reaction and that she still displayed her annoying mocking little half-smile.

“Now we will get down to business,” Brown continued. “Officially you two will politically represent humans, jants, and stonecoats on this mission. That representation is more than for symbolic treaty purposes. If it proves necessary the two of you together have three votes that can legally countermand the ship robot, three votes to one. Mary, right now you are perhaps thinking that it is pretty absurd to imagine that such a situation will arise, or that you could enforce overriding the robot anyway. After all, the ship robot knows the ship, the ship systems, and the applicable astronomy far better than you two do, and is connected directly to and controls applicable ship sensors and controls. Essentially for all practical purposes you will be at its mercy.”

“We’ll be in its prison,” muttered Martin.

“But human, jant, and stonecoat leadership is concerned that a robot has sole control of the ship and the mission. Frankly, despite the Treaty between us and the decades-long period of apparent cooperation, we don’t trust the robots, and they no doubt don’t trust us.


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