Mythaxis

The Log of the Mustang Sally - Tazio


Gil Williamson


"The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next." Abraham Lincoln

Tazio slid the long card into the wall slot. A multicoloured ribbon cable led from the card to Tazio's handheld device. LEDs flashed. A dull click came from the depths of the white door, and after a pause, accompanied by a sigh of long-unused hydraulics and a crack of silicone seals, the door slid open a few centimetres, checked briefly, then retracted into the wall of the corridor. For a fifteen year-old kid, Tazio was good with keys. Good with electronics generally.

A waft of cold, sharply-flavoured air, smelling faintly of plastic and light oil, issued from the dark space beyond. The air in these pods was somehow refreshing. Only whenever he returned to the main ship did he realise that the Mustang Sally always smelled like a latrine. Yet none of the fifty thousand inhabitants of the star ship were particularly aware of it. The aroma was a side-effect of the constant requirement to recycle everything... absolutely everything.

Fluorescent tubes buzzed and blinked, illuminating a white corridor. A mushroom-shaped button was flashing just inside. With ease born of practice, Tazio retrieved his home-made access card, and entered. He struck the button, and the door behind him slid shut. Motors hummed, his ears popped, then the door at the far end of the corridor clicked, and a green light came on above it. Tazio trotted to the door, which was labelled 'Mustang Sally Pod K6', pulled a lever and pushed the door open. He stepped into the brightly-illuminated space beyond. The room was crowded with white-cased machinery, black acceleration couches, brushed stainless steel controls, and inert display panels. He turned and pushed the door closed, then popped open a nearby panel in the floor and flipped a switch off. The main lights went out, leaving only the faint red glow of emergency lamps and LEDs.

"You don't have to break into a landing pod to see the view."
At the far end of the pod, a circular transparent blister of thick glass would offer a pod pilot a forward view on landing. Currently, it was covered on the outside with a protective iris, so that it would not become eroded by exposure to possible particles of dust. Moving quickly, Tazio attached his Gripsafe camera mount to a convenient grab bar in the viewport, attached the camera, an ancient Panasonic that had belonged to his grandmother, and verified that it could be pointed in any direction.

He pressed the switch to open the viewport cover, and, as usual, experienced a thrill of vertigo at the depth of space. Despite the size of Mustang Sally, the longest internal views were measured in hundreds of metres, rather than light years. He pressed the video start button to make a test. Tazio was currently invading a landing pod destined to be used for the first time in some 190 years. His grandchildren's descendants might one day pilot a landing pod. Until then, the pods were strictly out of bounds.

Starting the second scan, with the camera turning on the automatic drive he had built, Tazio felt, rather than heard, a whisper of air movement, and the lights went on, dazzling him temporarily with the reflection from the curved viewport.

In the doorway behind him stood a compact woman in uniform. Kay-Zee Jones - specifically Master-at-Arms Jones - with whom Tazio was, regrettably, all too familiar.

Brazened it out: "Hi, Kay-Zee, switch off that light, will you? I'm just working on my astrophysics project."

"You know you're not allowed in here. How did you get in, anyway?"

"Door was open."

"These doors are never open, and you know it. What have you touched? Other than two airlock doors, light switches and the viewport cover plate, that is."

"Nothing! Just fixed up the camera here, see?"

"Right. Close the viewport and let's go. Why do I keep finding you in areas you're not supposed to be in? I'm taking you to the Lieutenant this time."

Tazio considered making a protest, but he decided it would be safer to obey orders and hope for leniency. Detached the equipment and followed her meekly from the landing pod. Hoping that no-one would conficate his access card. It'd take a month to scrounge the parts for another.

"Why are you in here? And in the dark?"

"To photograph the stars. I use the viewport."

"You don't have to break into a landing pod for that. You can get an accurate image of the stars from the nav database, adjusted for our speed, accessible from your cabin screen. What's the real reason?"

"Yes, I know, but the actual stars themselves are more interesting."

"How can they be? They're just dots of light. Anyway, you don't have to break into a landing pod to see the view."

"I do. There aren't any viewports anywhere else."

He was right. There were no viewports on the main hull of the ship. It had been considered bad for morale to allow the crew to see the void around them. Automatic machinery checked star positions continuously and made microscopic course corrections, without the need for crew involvement. When necessary, navigation officers might engage one of the external cameras if the on-board computers warned of nearby dust or debris.

"You've been into other pods, haven't you?" she said.

"One or two." There were dozens of landing pods attached to the vast interstellar ship, each with a viewport. Tazio had visited many of them, taking his photographs and videos. The landing pods, being set at different angles on Mustang Sally's kilometres-long network of cylinders, offered different views, and Tazio had photographed the starscape from each pod he had visited.

"Come here. Let's go."


HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632044

Made contact with that generation ship yet?


GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663531

Still no response to radio contact on general frequency or MayDay. Nearly two centuries out from Earth orbit, I don't suppose they were expecting a call. It's an ugly beast, all stuck together at random.


HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632045

They were set up to create artificial gravity by spinning corridors and compartments. Makes for strange shapes. Are you sure there's anyone alive on it? Some of those early colony ships developed faults, and everybody died.


GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663532

You could be right, but I can't see inside. They built those ships to last. The hull is mostly thick ferrous metal. They had no force field technology when Mustang Sally set sail. All I can say is that the engines are still running and the temperature of the hull is consistent with human life. It normally shows no lights at all, but I just saw lights going off and on inside what must be a lifeboat or something. I showed myself nearby, but nothing much happened since. By the way, they launched a missile a while ago, but it may have been an auto intended to vaporise inconveniently large rocks in their path.


HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632046

Don't sweat it. They may have mistaken you for a rock. I do that sometimes.


GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663533

Thanks for the vote of confidence. Anyway, if there's anyone there, they may have seen the rock dodge.


HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632047

Why not displace a nice friendly-looking avatar inside?


GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663534

It's a risk. I can't see inside. What if I displace it where it rematerialises into somebody, or an essential piece of equipment?


HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632048

Look for a space at a much lower temperature than the average, and displace the avatar in the middle.

Rather than call an auto-b'n'w, Kay-Zee decided it would be quicker to walk along corridor K until they were below Patrol HQ, and then use the companionway. She set off briskly, pulling Tazio by one arm. He protested and dragged his heels at first, but the pain occasioned by Kay-Zee insisting on her own pace persuaded him to trot to keep up.

"Why are you called Kay-Zee?" he asked. She ignored this attempt at conversation. Tazio stumbled as they crossed the area of warped corridor floor where enthusiastic officers had tried, unsuccessfully, to incinerate one of Turner's 'dwarves'.

"Keep up!" she snapped, irritated with her parents, once again, for having frivolously named her after a 20th century movie actress, Katherine Zeta Jones, for heaven's sake. "What sort of a name is Tazio, anyway?"

"My father named me after a twentieth century motor racer called Tazio Nuvolari."

Annoyed as she was, Kay-Zee would probably have carried out her threat to take Tazio before her superior officer, for the kid's own sake, if for no other reason. He was running wild. Tazio's mother was dead, his father was desperately busy, with countless responsibilities. Mustang Sally was basically an unarmed passenger ship, though under military command, but it was still bristling with levers, switches, handles and buttons that could cause all sorts of trouble for law-enforcement and danger to curious kids like Tazio. A day or two in 'irons' (actually a cabin that locked from the outside, most usually used for brawlers fired up on illicit alcohol) might do him a favour.

As it happened, that possibly laudable objective went by the board when her communicator buzzed in her ear. "Yes!" she almost shouted.

"Where are you, Kay-Zee?" Lieutenant Parsons.

"Corridor K, five minutes from HQ, sir."

"OK. I'm sending an auto-b'n'w now. What're you doing?"

"Bringing in a juvenile."

"Surprise me. Tazio again?"

"You got it."

"OK. Release him for the time being. You can always re-arrest him. He's not going anywhere. Suspicious death in storage bay 17. Holt's in charge. Attend."

"I hear you. I'll let him go."

Tazio was smirking. He had overheard everything. Kay-Zee glared back, "Keep your nose clean, kid. Final warning."

The black and white autocab was beside them now. Kay-Zee pulled open the cab door, temporarily transforming the huge POLICE label on the vehicle's side to LICE. "Can I come too?" asked Tazio.

"Get lost!" she said, attempting to slam the lightweight plastic door, which failed to make the satisfyingly loud noise she would have liked, but simply clicked anticlimactically.

When she arrived at the entrance to Bay 17, Lazarski was standing outside the closed doors. His hair and uniform were wet. Lazarski didn't address her. He called Holt on his comm unit, and Holt came out looking shaken, which wasn't like him. He was wet, too, his uniform showing dark patches. Holt wasn't telling her anything either. He assigned Kay-Zee to "Move Along, Nothing To See Here" duties in the corridor outside, and went back in with Lazarski. They exchanged a few quiet words. She heard Holt say "They're not going to believe this."

Kay-Zee was irritated at the secrecy, and at the menial duty she'd been given. People seemed to have heard that the death was 'suspicious'. A cluster of the curious chatted quietly nearby. Death was not unusual on the ship. There were tens of thousands of crew on the Mustang Sally. Three or four people died every day, mostly retired crew members taking voluntary euthanasia, tidily. A few suicides, not so tidily. The remainder were diseases of old age, accidents, fatal victims of fights and family violence. She guessed this must be an unsightly bizarre accident that Holt wanted to protect her from, which was both courteous and insulting.

Tazio joined the spectators remarkably soon after Kay-Zee's arrival. "What's happening, Kay-Zee?"

"None of your business. Go home and try to stay out of trouble for an hour or two."

After twenty minutes or so, an auto-ambulance arrived. She called Holt. Holt told her to send it away. "What's going on?" she asked.

"OK. Come in here and lock the doors behind you."

The bay was brightly lit. It was a storage-only bay, and very cold. There was a strong smell of burning, and the floor was wet. Holt and Lazarski were standing talking. She could see the lower half of a body lying on the floor. It appeared to be dressed in a yellow overall.

"OK? Up here. Holt led the way up an iron ladder to the second level. Lazarski followed. On the floor was a bundle of yellow clothes, but a photographer was in the way.

"What..?"

Lazarski said: "Don't go getting sick. It's not real."

"It's real enough," corrected Holt. "It's just not human. It's an android. Sliced neatly in half, one on each level. No blood, just wires, plastic and this jelly stuff, which stinks when it catches fire, by the way. The top half was trying to talk when we got here, but it's burnt out now. The smoke detector went off and the door closed, we nearly choked on carbon dioxide before Jerzy here sprung the entry override and meanwhile the fire sprinkler got us. Fused the victim."

"What did it say?"

"Nothing we could understand. Anyway, we're finished here. It's up to the laboratory to figure it out. It's probably one of their crazy experiments, anyway. They're on their way."

Holt and Lazarski left Kay-Zee guarding the corridor. She let the photographer out and the lab team in, then Lieutenant Parsons sent a cadet to replace her. She wasn't even asked to write a report.

When the auto-ambulance was sent away, Tazio had concluded that nothing interesting was going to happen at Bay 17. He returned to his cabin to check out the camera footage.

His cabin barely offered room for his bed. Cabins for juveniles and unmarried personnel were a standard three metre cube. The area above his bunk was covered in a montage of starfield photos, making a composite image of the visible sphere around the Mustang Sally, lacking only the view to the rear of the interstellar ship, which was obscured by the vast engines and the material recycling chambers, and directly ahead, which was blocked by the debris screen which was intended to stop or slow up any interstellar matter before it hit the ship proper.

The remaining space was crammed from deck to deckhead with equipment.

Tazio was looking for a specific star. A star glimpsed just twice moving across the field of view. It made no sense. All the other stars, if they moved perceptibly, moved very slowly backwards with respect to the ship's motion, because the Mustang Sally was now travelling at a speed of nearly 30000 kilometres a second, having taken 185 years to achieve this speed with the relatively tiny but steady acceleration of her efficient ion drive engines. Shortly, she would rotate, and start to slow down by pushing in the opposite direction. Then 194 years after that, she would reach her first port of call - a potentially habitable planet. The journey was an enterprise of hope, which would take generations to complete.

He downloaded the camera to his computer and viewed the vids. The first seemed uneventful, but, to be on the safe side, he ran a comparator program he had written. The program slavishly compared the new vid with a similar one from a different viewport. A couple of apparent anomalies turned out to be reflections from the viewport. The star fields, where they corresponded, were identical, within the limits of camera resolution.

The second vid, the one interrupted by Kay-Zee's arrival, showed a brief flash just prior to Kay-Zee activating the lights. Tazio initially attributed that to reflected light from the corridor as Kay-Zee entered, but, on close inspection, it appeared to occur even before Kay-Zee opened the airlock door. Frame by frame, it was not a flash as such. On three consecutive frames, an object moved across the field of view. Motion blur made it impossible to distinguish details, but it occupied about ten degrees of arc, making it either vastly bigger than any star - an unlikely outcome - or quite close to the viewport. Unprecedented, but unarguable.

It could, of course, have been a maintenance EVAV. They were quite frequent, but if so, they should have been registered with EVA control. According to the EVA control page, they weren't. No-one had booked out today. Didn't mean no-one was out there. After all, Tazio himself had failed to log his own visit to the pod.

He had already planned what to do. He risked paying another visit to the pod with his camera and handheld, and returned later, empty-handed. His father was still not in his cabin next door, so he started to watch a movie and fell asleep in his clothes.


HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632049

Did you try that avatar?
GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663535

Yes. It quit sub-ether transmission immediately. No further result so far. I'll try another in a while. They know I'm here, I think. But we have to consider alternate strategies if they continue to ignore us.


Kay-Zee heard no more of the android case. It was no longer, apparently, a police matter. Her questions to Lieutenant Parsons went unanswered. Further, she was ordered not to communicate any details of the case to anyone, not even to colleagues.

She spent several days investigating thefts from the hydroponic jungle where all of the food for the ship was grown. It turned out to be an inside job, a worker trading fresh fruit for illegal alcohol. The various beer, wine and spirit operations on the ship were tolerated, rather than authorised, as long as they used waste rather than fresh food as their ingredients. It had turned out to be impossible to eradicate man's desire for occasional intoxication.

When that was cleared up, Lieutenant Parsons told her to do something about Tazio. Accordingly, she asked Idoru (who saw everything and said nothing unless specifically requested) to report any landing pod event. Being a computer with a literal turn of mind, Idoru accordingly reported dozens of trivial incidents such as tiny temperature changes or microscopic analyses of air quality until Kay-Zee specified door incidents. She hadn't long to wait. Pod K6 again, the port entry signal accompanied by an image of Tazio advancing through the airlock.

By the time Kay-Zee reached K6 and entered, the pod was empty. Tazio hadn't been there long. She went immediately to Tazio's cabin, but no-one answered the door. She returned to HQ and requested a supervisory view on her vidscreen. The spycam in Tazio's cabin revealed him hunched over his computer.

She got hold of a skeleton card, walked over to Tazio's cabin, and entered. "Well, the look on your face when I walked in was worth the trouble I took."

"No, look, Kay-Zee. I 've caught a spacecraft on camera. Just a little one, see."

"Yes. You've been caught on camera, too. Entering the landing pod again. That's it. This time you are going to be dealt with. Lieutenant Parsons has been in touch with your father, who agreed that you have to be punished for messing about in the landing pods."

"Please, Kay-Zee, I've got the proof. Look at this."

Despite herself, Kay-Zee looked at Tazio's screen. It was clearly a spacecraft, but what a spacecraft! It looked like every boy's dream of a spacecraft, its basically streamlined body surmounted by blisters, pods, weaponry, aerials and, especially, insignia - huge black symbols and numbers on its creamy-coloured hull.

"How?"

"I put the camera on time delay, taking a frame every fifteen seconds until the chip was full. I've got ten or more pictures of it, but this is the best!"

"Good try, Tazio. Very realistic. It's a model, right? Now, let's go. We have an appointment with Lieutenant Parsons."

"No, Kay-Zee, it's real! Wait till I show Dad."

"In your own time, Tazio. I won't ask again. I seem to spend half my life chasing after you."

Kay-Zee left Tazio with Lieutenant Parsons. The Lieutenant had devised what he felt to be a suitable punishment for Tazio. He was to be given a sharp lecture, then locked up for twenty-four hours in a landing pod. Kay-Zee privately considered that Tazio would regard this as a reward, but she said nothing. She offered to stay for the interview, but she was near the end of her watch, and by the next day, a body had turned up, this one impaled on a metal pipe in recycling.

This time, Kay-Zee was first on the scene, with Wally Khan as backup. Liquid Waste Distribution 1 was an odorous chamber, cold, badly lit and echoing. A metal pipe ran from a bulkhead into a cylindrical unit, which presumably separated liquids and gases that flowed into half a dozen different exit pipes.

"You had better make sure your boy keeps his mouth shut."
The apparently male victim, bland-faced, dressed in an orange overall, was held in place by the pipe passing through his abdomen, oozing the jelly she had seen on the android in Bay 17, but it appeared singularly composed under the circumstances. There was no conceivable way in which he could have been threaded on to the pipe - one end of the pipe was attached to the bulkhead, the other to the processing cylinder. What's more, according to the shocked recycling tech, the pipe was blocked internally. It was as though the body had materialised in its current position. Kay-Zee reported via her comm that it was another android. The android was talking after a fashion, very quietly. The language was clearly English with a peculiar accent, the delivery was confused, and the content included a desire to make contact and offering help of some kind.

Kay-Zee switched on her shoulder cam to record as much as possible, but the flow of words became quieter and more garbled, and, by the time the lab team arrived to cut the android loose, all signs of animation had ceased.

Even while she and Wally were preparing their report, the lieutenant, despite the late hour, appeared on site.

"No report on this, Kay-Zee, Wally. I have been instructed from the highest authority to keep the lid on it."

"Highest authority?" said Kay-Zee.

"The captain, OK? No reports. No discussion with colleagues, family, friends. Forget it. Completely."

"Got it," said Wally.

"Got it. But what is it? Some experiment?" said Kay-Zee.

"When I said 'No Discussion', it includes asking me. In fact, I have no idea. Unlike you, I obey orders. Can I impress on you that it's a secret, and no-one needs to know."

"Aye, aye, sir."

But, of course, Captain Raymond needed to know, and what he knew or suspected was that aliens were attempting to invade the ship, probably to kill everyone, and certainly to divert the Mustang Sally from her objective. The following morning, he was impressing the need for secrecy on his second-in-command, Commander Rydell.

Rydell was not so sure: "But, Captain, there are scores of people who know part of the story already. The police, half of the lab staff, Navigation. And here's the worst. That craft Navigation detected? My son managed to take photographs of it."

"What?"

"It's OK. I convinced him it was a scout ship of our own. Top secret. He'll not tell anyone."

"Good"

"Tazio is just one witness. Rumours are already circulating, sir. Tazio was just outside Bay 17 when the first android was discovered. Now we've had a second. And the same Master-at-Arms was present at both. She even videoed the second one. We extracted it, and the lab are checking it out. It's deleted from the mainframe. But we can't keep it confidential much longer. What we can understand of the android's message seems peaceful."

"No, no. They'd be sure to tell us that. For all we know, they've already invaded Earth. We may be the only hope for mankind. If they were actually human, they'd have sent a human emissary, not a robot pretending to be a human. In any event, there would be panic on board. Just think. Their technology must be vastly superior to ours. Look how they completely ignored that missile. There are thousands on the Mustang who expect to spend the rest of their days in relative peace. Including me. How would they react if these aliens suddenly appeared among them?"

"I think they'd handle it pretty well, if they were warned in advance. They don't get much excitement in the normal course of events."

"No, Commander, I think there's a good chance these aliens will lose interest if we don't react. It's just a small craft. We are huge. They have no idea what we're capable of."

"Not a lot, from the military point of view, sir."

"Granted. But they don't know that. It's not worth their while to challenge us."

"It encourages me that they send humanoid robots that speak English. That doesn't sound unfriendly."

"That's enough, Commander. You have my orders and you had better make sure your boy keeps his mouth shut. No-one is to speak of it. Understand?"

"Aye-aye, sir." The expression 'Aye-aye', infrequently used these days, had come to mean 'I obey, but I don't like it'. If Captain Raymond noticed the potential insubordination, he made no sign of it.


HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632050

Any progress?
GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663536

I displaced another avatar. This one transmitted some positional information, and reported brief contact with a uniformed female before expiring. I fear the avatar may have disrupted their recycling machinery. Therefore, I am disinclined to try any more of these blind displacements.
HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632051

Suggestions?
GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663537

I'll keep hovering around. They can't be human if they don't get curious about me.

Tazio was, as Kay-Zee predicted, entirely comfortable in the landing pod. It was hardly a prison. Had he chosen, Tazio could have used his experience with pod electronics to escape. Instead, he opened the viewport, sat in the pilot's chair, and searched the firmament for spacecraft. He had just perceived a twinkling reflection at extreme distance, when he heard a woman's voice behind him. He swung around and jumped up with a guilty start. Surely Kay-Zee hadn't followed him here. But it wasn't Kay-Zee. He had never seen her before. She was tall, thin, dark-haired, dressed in a simple one-piece overall.

At first, he couldn't make out what she was saying. A strange accent, he couldn't quite...

"What did you say?"

"My name is Lem. What's yours?"

"I.. I.. Tazio Rydell? What are you doing here?"

"What is your age, Tazio?"

"I'm fifteen. Who are you? I don't think you should be here. I'm supposed to be locked in." He was not precisely alarmed, but confused and worried.

"I need to speak to your captain. Can you take me there?"

"No. I'm not allowed out. Well, I could, but I'd be in trouble. If you've got a key to get in, you can get out again. I haven't got a key."

"I haven't got a key either."

"Well, did someone lock you in, like me?"

"I didn't come in by the door."

"It's the only way."

"No, it's not."

Tazio began to suspect the woman was deranged, like the mother of one of his school friends, who had run around the corridors with a knife screaming that the devil was inside her, until she was led off to the hospital. Deranged people, he had heard, could be dangerous. There was no other way into a landing pod. "How did you get in, then?"

"I was displaced. From another spacecraft."

"The little one that I've seen? What is 'displaced'?" Input overload.

"It's a method of moving an object from one location to another by... by a complicated method using quantum physics." She pointed out of the viewport. The craft Tazio had photographed was holding position nearby. "I'm from that one. It would be more true to say I am that craft. The Stanislaw Lem. The Lem has no crew as such. It is operated by an AI. I am the avatar of that AI, a robot which has the personality of that AI."

"An AI - Artificial Intelligence! There are games about AIs."

"Are there really?"

"I can call my father. I'm allowed to do that."

"Who is your father?"

"He's a Commander. He works for Captain Raymond."

"Your father sounds exactly the person I should speak to. Can you call him now?"


GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663538

Success! Or, at least, so far so good. I have an avatar aboard the Mustang Sally. A male juvenile was inside one of the landing/rescue units with the viewport open. With visibility, I was able to displace an avatar into the unit without hazard. The avatar took the form of an adult female. I thought that would cause less alarm. In the event, the child was quite sophisticated and has called the authorities on board.


HTW Iain M Banks to GQ Stanislaw Lem
5024008263632052

Well done. Keep me posted. Don't mention me until you have to. Remember what happened with Blue Suede Shoes. Don't reveal our full purpose until you're sure they won't panic.

GQ Stanislaw Lem to HTW Iain M Banks
5024008298663539

Yes. As agreed. We assert that we are here to help if they need it, with stores, repairs, medical assistance.


Captain Raymond was looking haggard. Two weeks of conversation with Lem, or, rather, with the avatar of Stanislaw Lem and still he didn't trust it. "I know you have been very helpful over these last few weeks, and we thank you. These repairs and the updated electronics will prove very useful. One thing puzzles me."

"And that is?"

"You know very well that you have constantly avoided explaining why you are here, apparently alone."

Commander Rydell added "He's right. You say you came from Earth, yet there are no human personnel with you. And the Stanislaw Lem is too small to have sourced all the equipment and the robots that converted the shield to a force field."

"I had expected to explain all this to you in due course. I have been advised to be cautious in what I reveal."

"Why? Is there some hidden agenda here, as I suspect? said Raymond.

"You should know that Earth is no longer inhabited."
"By no means. It's just that we approached another Earth star ship in a less than diplomatic fashion, causing considerable distress to them, and precipitating what amounted to panic, then what amounted to civil war within the ship. A particularly extreme faction eventually forced the ship to self-destruct with the loss of all the colonists."

"I see you used the expression 'we'. And that is supposed to reassure us?"

"I feel it would be a terrible shock to you and your people if I were to announce everything I have to say in public."

"Well," said Rydell, "The whole ship now knows you are here. There have been guided tours to see the Stanislaw Lem from Tazio's viewport. Many of the crew have now met you. I think you can, at any rate, depend on the good impression you have made, except that you adroitly avoid any discussion of your origin and intentions."

"Answering your questions in what I consider to be the appropriate order, I shall be more open with you. I hope I have proved my good intentions, and you must trust that I shall continue to speak and act in your best interests."

"I suspect you would say that, whatever your motives. I have never fully trusted you," grumbled Raymond.

"I agree with the Captain," said Rydell, "I was more prepared to trust you at first than I am now. You must be aware that your adopted persona, as an open, attractive and friendly female, has tended to turn away hostility and suspicion in a way a male avatar might not have done."

Lem smiled. "All right. This may be a shock, though probably not a surprise. You should know that Earth is no longer inhabited. Its climatic collapse was expected before you left on this mission. Indeed that fear was the main reason for the star ships."

"And I suppose everyone is dead," said Raymond.

"Not so. The vast majority were re-housed in a suitable space habitat in approximate Earth orbit. There were casualties; stay-behinds, panickers, rioters, people too sick to survive, but most are safe and have been settled for half a century. We arranged the necessary transport."

"A space habitat?" asked Rydell.

"Effectively a planet, but a different, more convenient shape. A ring, rather than a sphere. I can offer details, but I have more news."

"What now?"

"I am, as you correctly guessed, not alone. We are accompanied at a distance by what you might call a mother ship, a Heavy Transport Workshop called Iain M Banks. The Banks is mother to a thousand or more smaller vehicles, of which the Lem is the smallest type. The docking hold alone of the Banks is large enough to accommodate several craft as big as the Mustang Sally. It carries armaments that could vaporise a planet. Indeed, the sight of Iain M Banks caused the initial uproar in the generation ship Blue Suede Shoes. Therefore, we decided, on this occasion, to conduct a modest approach."

Commander Rydell looked dubious. "I don't believe Earth technology can have advanced so far."

"You are correct. The race that created us a very long time ago were not human. We AIs are effectively their descendants. They are not extinct; some are aboard the Iain M Banks, as are a few hundred humans. But none of them take any part in guiding our operations. This particular fleet is dedicated to the well-being of the human race. It is a kind of hobby. Every craft is named after an Earth-origin science fiction author."

"So you've been running around helping all the generation ships?"

"Most, I'm afraid, were beyond our help by the time we found them, but yes."

"So you will nursemaid us to our destination?" asked Captain Raymond.

"If you wish, but we have other proposals to offer you."

"I'm not sure I like the idea of any change to our mission."

"Even although its original purpose, to preserve the human species, has been achieved with the space habitat? You could turn around and return home. Alternatively, you could abandon the Mustang Sally and load your crew on the Iain M Banks, which is essentially a world in itself. I can assure you of a full and attractive life for all your people."

Raymond did not hesitate. "My orders were clear. The duty of every successive captain is to preserve the ship until it reaches its destination, and then to colonise the planet we reach. What would we do otherwise?"

"Then, if I tell you that the planet you currently appear to target, which may have been superficially suitable when viewed by Earth telescopes, is not, it fact, a viable colonisation planet, what will you do?"

"If we so determine, we have a list of alternate destinations. We simply collect what water and minerals we require from the asteroids and moons of the star system we have reached and redirect to another destination, however long it takes. The ship and its mission are essentially immortal, even if we individuals are not."

"Wait a minute," said Rydell, "With your technology, we could reach our destination much more quickly!"

"You anticipate our offer. In principle, we could load the Mustang Sally aboard the Banks, and convey it to a suitable deserted planet within a few months."

Raymond exploded. "Under no circumstances! That is not what we are here for!"

"Oh, it's a great offer, Captain," said Rydell. "Think. You could be the man who starts the colony. Something you never even hoped for."

"Neither hoped for nor wished!"

Lem said quietly: "This is what we feared. It was clear that most of the crew of the Blue Suede Shoes found the change to their expected existence and lifespan too much to comprehend. The result was chaos, aggravated by the fact that discipline on board was much inferior to your own."

"Please," said Raymond, "Leave us alone to continue our mission. It was generous of you to offer assistance, but we do not need it."

"As you wish, Captain, but may I offer the following compromise? We could convey the Mustang Sally to within, say, 30 years travel at your current capability, from a suitable planet. Further, we would offer to accommodate on Iain M Banks a number of your crew to supervise the early terraforming of the colony, and convey them there to anticipate your arrival. This would save many generations of your people the drudgery and continued risk of your slow approach to the new colony, while averting the psychological upheaval that would be occasioned by doing the journey all at once."

Raymond was silent.

Fleet Auxiliary Doctor E E Smith, on indefinite loan from HTW Iain M Banks, orbited the green and blue sphere that was to become a new home for mankind. Lieutenant Kay-Zee Jones, chief police officer on the Smith, was still having trouble with Tazio, who, armed with wonderful devices beyond even his fantastic dreams, managed to irritate the serious-minded terraforming crew. His latest prank had been to release a swarm of tiny flying eyes which penetrated every corner of the ship and relayed live video to his handheld. E E, the AI that was the guiding personality of the E E Smith quickly disposed of them with a spray of tiny laser cannons. Kay-Zee was irritated that E E had clearly been amused by Tazio's game, and was further inhibited from serious action by the fact that his father, Captain Rydell, was the senior human officer aboard.

Having taken this momentous step, to break away from the Mustang Sally with a crew of forward-looking personnel, she reflected that life was not going to be all that different after all.

© Gil Williamson 2014 All Rights Reserved


Date and time of last update 13:48 Thu 27 Nov 2014
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