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I lurch upwards, fighting to gulp air, my body trying to remember how. A pressure on my chest prevents me from flying off.
‘Breathe,’ a distant voice commands, and I do.
A warm flannel is passed roughly over my preservative-numbed and gunk-covered face as the tank drains around me, the vacuum pumps gurgling as the last of the fluid is sucked away. If anything, the air feels even colder than the liquid.
Slowly, painfully, I crack open my eyes, light flaring across them.
The room is quiet, the bays to either side empty, as unlike the organised chaos of our departure as anything can be. Am I the last to be awakened or the first?
I peer through a blurry film and keep blinking until it clears. An unnaturally slim girl with close-cropped hair, wearing a plain, grey jumpsuit, rests upside down on the wall above me. That is, if there is an ‘above’ or a right way up, which is pretty debatable in zero-G.
‘Hi,’ she says, her voice muffled by something going pop in my ears, ‘I’m uh, Stella.’
I burp and a small glob of congealed substance breaks off and floats embarrassingly towards the impish young woman, perched like a gargoyle in the corner of the room. I think about making some quip about the name she’s obviously embarrassed by, for all her posturing, but my brain feels like it’s been mashed and I can’t think of anything worth the effort.
‘Are we there?’ I croak instead.
She pouts. ‘Well, and “Hello back!” “Nice to meet you too!” and a hearty “Thanks for bringing me back to life!”’
I venture a smile, though I’ve no idea if the result is even in the right ballpark.
‘I wasn’t dead,’ I point out. ‘I was sleeping.’
‘Yeah?’ she says, her head rocking back in mock disbelief. ‘Had any good dreams lately?’
Of course I haven’t had any dreams; nobody does. But obviously this spacer is on the prickly side of the spectrum. And here I was thinking it’s just me who got out on the wrong side of deep sleep. Or maybe it’s the same mordant wit that has spacers calling their passengers ‘corpses’ and the wake-up area ‘the resurrection room’.
I spread my hands in what I hope is a placating manner. ‘Alright, alright. Thank you, Stella—’
‘Not Stella, Mr. Third-Rating Xenobiologist Brad-ley Harrison. E-stella. Got it?’
I nod, swallowing to try and clear my ears, then wondering what the heck it is that I’m swallowing.
She watches me grimace, then shrugs away her scowl. ‘As to whether we’re there yet, depends where you mean by ‘there’. Come on, get yourself cleaned and dressed. I’ve got something to show you.’
I look down at my shivering, nearly naked body, my fingers and toes tinged with blue, the scrap of sodden fabric at my waist the only thing protecting my modesty. ‘Some privacy, please?’
She laughs. ‘On a spaceship?’ She holds my gaze for a whole minute and then turns abruptly away. I’ve had the best teachers at the Academy—dry academics always trying to push your buttons, waiting for you to give a hasty or ill-thought reply, hoping to get you canned. No spacer is going to outstare me.
She kicks off from the wall, executing a perfect somersault as she flies towards the door, launching a thin towel in my direction on the way. ‘Clean jumpsuits under the medi-bay. You’re probably—nah, definitely—a small. Don’t keep me waiting, Mr. Third-Rating.’
She’s loitering in the corridor outside when I clumsily emerge.
‘We’re not at Perseus 3, are we?’ I ask, rubbing my elbow where I banged it on the door frame. A day’s worth of zero-G training wasn’t nearly enough for the tight confines of this ship, though by all accounts most colonists don’t get even that much.
She shakes her head. ‘No, Bradley, we’re not. And you’re the only cargo we’ve awakened. I’ve got the job of showing you where we are, and why.’
She goes slowly but still has to wait at each junction for me to catch up. ‘See the loops?’ she says, pointing at what, at that moment, was the floor for me, the ceiling for her. ‘You can use them for more than just pushing against. Stick your hand in one at a junction and you can change direction as well. Only don’t push too hard—we don’t want any broken wrists.’
She moves like a fish underwater, effortlessly, gracefully. I move like a drunken hippo. I wonder for a moment if, were I to share that thought, she’d know what a hippo was. Probably not.
‘How old are you, Estella?’ I ask instead as she waits impatiently at yet another junction. The space tug Vesta is much larger than I’d thought, and emptier; we’ve not seen anyone else on it.
‘Just because we’re on first-name terms already, Bradley, that don’t give you the right to ask a lady’s age. Anyhow, which age are you interested in? Earth? Biological? Elapsed?’
‘Um, any of them? All of them,’ I say, ready to dredge up whatever physics lectures I could remember: time dilation, deep sleep ratios, and the like.
‘Hmm.’ She thinks for a second, briefly allowing me to catch up before gliding on to the next intersection. ‘Well, we’re roughly the same biological age, I guess—both 17. Lived, I’m older by a couple of months, since I haven’t spent any of my life as a corpse. Earthwise, there you have the seniority, having been in the tanks five years. Don’t count for nothing, though, Earth age. It’s experience that matters.’
I probably look as confused as I feel. Only five years into a 70-something-year flight? Also, how come she hasn’t been asleep?
Then something clicks: she’s a spacer child. You don’t put a juvenile in the tanks; it messes with their development. She must have been 12 and still growing when the mission began, and only now, five years on, had she finally caught up with my biological age while I did the Rip Van Winkle impression, the low temperatures of deep sleep turning her half-decade into my half-year. Poor kid, I dread to think what life on the Vesta must have been like with no one your age around, and almost everyone else asleep.
None of which explains what I’m doing awake now—what anyone is doing awake—when we should be speeding through empty space, the gentle impulse of Vesta’s mighty engines tugging the Electryon towards a decent fraction of light speed.
I notice she hasn’t mentioned any relativistic effects, so I guess we’re still travelling at a snail’s pace. I wonder if she’d get that reference?
‘Here we are,’ she says as the corridor opens up. ‘The lookout.’
‘O…kay…’ I say, doubtfully. ‘Are you going to raise the shields? My X-ray vision isn’t quite up to the task.’
She rests a nail-bitten finger on the control and gives me a look. ‘Promise you won’t freak out?’
‘Promise,’ I say, wondering what I’m about to not freak out about. I know I won’t be seeing Perseus, not as anything other than a bright speck many more light years away than I’d hoped. The Earth, maybe. Perhaps we’ve been turned around for some reason and I’m about to be given a chance to abort my part in this colony mission.
That would be some decision to make. Right up until the final briefing, I’d have known exactly what my answer would be. Now, though, I’m not so sure. It must be that then: the Earth. What else could it be?
What else indeed.
‘What the—’ I gasp and fall silent, the words sucked into the void before me.
Estella giggles. ‘You owe me!’ she says, ‘I bet the Captain a week’s cleaning duty you’d say that! Isn’t it the most beautiful—’
My hearing goes all tinny and Estella fades into background noise. I’d grab hold of something to stop me falling, except there’s nowhere to fall and nothing but a gamine spacer to grab onto. I blink my eyes, certain for a moment that this is some sort of after-effect of hibernation, some optical illusion.
But it’s not. It’s a real, honest-to-god black hole, up close and extremely personal. For a moment I feel like I’m being pulled towards the three-inch-thick viewing window, but I know that’s just my head messing with me.
I’ve seen pictures of black holes before, or at least computer simulations. Enough to know that, from an observer’s viewpoint, they’re very rarely black. Anything that gets sucked in spends a lot of time shedding gravitational energy; accretion disks and swirling clouds of dust heating up and radiating fiercely in the infrared; strange effects like Masers beaming brightly away; eddies glowing wherever the plasma is stretched or pinched; and narrow jets precessing around the spinning poles. I’d never expected to be this close to one and that alone would have been enough to take my breath away.
But I’m not staring at the black hole. I’m staring at something no simulation ever has or ever could depict.
Overlaid against the already spectacular view is a crown of black thorns, a webbed cradle, thick and knotted in some places but in most a barely-visible thinness of dark spun silk. A gigantic, arced limb stretches before us, bent like a taut bow, reaching into the distance. On the near, free end of it, lurking just at the edge of the Vesta’s viewing screen, is a rough-hewn sphere, black against the turbulent cloud beyond, which glows and sparks, sending glints of stellar fire licking over the sphere’s surface.
Estella has been babbling all along, but I haven’t been—couldn’t listen. I interrupt her mid-flow: ‘What the hell…is that?’ My voice comes out husky, alien, as though from somewhere else altogether.
She pouts again. ‘I thought I’d been explaining…’ She trails off, searches my bewildered eyes. ‘I’ll start again, shall I?’
She reaches out a hand and takes mine, grips it firmly, a warm dryness against my clammy cold.
‘We call it a black hole tree. Or just a What-The… tree. It’s mostly iron and heavier metals, with a sprinkling of ice and organic compounds. It collects what it needs to grow from the dust that falls past, and uses what it doesn’t to help maintain its orbit. And, yes, under pretty much anyone’s definition, it has to be considered alive.’
‘What is it… doing here?’ I manage to say.
‘Like I said, they live around black holes. It’s a black hole tree?’
I shake my head, try and organise my thoughts. ‘What are we doing here?’
There’s only one black hole in spitting distance of Earth, and I might not know much in the ways of astronavigation, but it certainly isn’t exactly en route to Perseus.
‘Hitching a lift,’ she smiles. ‘All that stuff they teach you about space travel…did you never stop to do the math? You really think plasma wakefield reactors could get us there? Carrying the reaction mass that we’d need to slow down again at the other end? Carrying a great lummox of a colony ship? We’ve burnt everything we had in our tanks getting here and only managed a pitiful two-and-a-bit percent of light speed before reversing thrust. At that rate, we’d take—oh, something like 500 years to get to Perseus. Whereas—’ she points towards the sphere lurking at the periphery of the view screen ‘—see the dirty great blob on the end of the arm? That’s our ride. Every manned interstellar journey ever made has been made in one of them. We hollow out a nice cavity, slide in the Vesta and your bloated colony ship, and then we sit tight and wait.’
‘Wait? For how long? And for what?’
‘Lift off. That arm is millions of kilometres long. It should take almost a week to fully flex out, at which point the tip—where we’ll be—is travelling at approximately 1/5th light speed, around 60,000 K a second. That’s after an acceleration averaging about 20 G but peaking at 100 Gs at the crack of the whip. Which is why we’ll all be in the coffins for launch, even me, with everything on-board tightly strapped down, whether that launch is in half-a-year’s time or three. Not usually longer than three, though—not when the arm is bent as much as this one,’ she says, regarding it critically, as though an expert in the matter.
‘I don’t understand,’ I say, fumbling for my hand, trying to free it from hers, but she won’t let go. ‘What—’
She peers into my sweating face, waits to see if anything coherent is going to emerge. When all I can do is gape like a goldfish, she nods slowly and equally slowly begins talking again.
‘We think—and think is really all we have—that the ejected mass is a seed. Or a spore, or pollen, or whatever. Hence, most definitely alive. Self-organising, reproducing—alive. It’s not actually aimed at Perseus. We’ll drop the Electryon off along the way, with enough solid matter to slow itself down again, while we continue on to—we hope—a black hole not so very far from that star system. Every blob at the end of every arm is aimed at a black hole, as best we can tell, with the longer arms pointing to farther-away destinations. We’ve already been to and returned from some of the shorter ones. So, if there’s a black hole near enough to Perseus, and it’s got a tree, then we ought to be able to get back this time as well.
‘Otherwise’ she shrugs, ‘no black hole, no black hole tree. It’s a one-way trip, and that’s the end of the ride for you, me, and for the Vesta. We’ll have no choice but to join the colony at Perseus and no other ship, colony or otherwise, will ever be sent this way again.’
She smiles, scratches her free hand at the tip of her nose. ‘If there’s just a black hole, but no tree, then maybe the blob we ride in on will become one, eventually. But no one knows how long that will take. Millions or billions of years, probably.’
‘Oh, and the other useful thing about all that metal the seed-thingy contains, besides being free reaction mass for both ships and very useful colony-building material to boot, is that we’re going to be pretty much shielded from anything shy of a gamma ray blaster. Which is a lot healthier than the tin can we’re currently sitting in, especially over nearly-a-century’s worth of exposure to interstellar radiation. Neat, huh?’
While she’s been talking, I’ve been fighting the vertigo, the dizzying sense that I’m looking down into a pit, a bottomless void. My mind tries to work through what she’s said, snagging at the vagueness, the unknowns, the wild conjecture of it all.
‘Why…why don’t we already know about… about…?’ I gesture helplessly towards the impossible thing beyond the viewport, and start spinning away in response, until Estella gently tugs at my outstretched hand and brings me back.
‘We do! But…well, there’s an idea that your average god-fearing colonist might baulk at hitching a ride on an alien seed the size of a largish asteroid from the friendly neighbourhood black hole. So while spacers know, the captain of your colony probably knows if he wants to, and a few planners back on Earth certainly know, we don’t bother telling everyone else, and everyone else is happier that way. You’re not god-fearing are you, Bradley?’
I shake my head. ‘Fundamental Atheist,’ I mutter.
‘Atheist. I have faith that there is no God.’
She looks at me goggle-eyed. ‘I’ve never heard—ooh, I like that! I might have to convert. Though my ancestors won’t be best pleased.’
I try to smile. I’m still having difficulty with my facial muscles, but I suspect that’s shock more than anything deep-sleep related. I take a couple of deep breaths.
‘Ok,’ I say, almost steadily, ‘so we’re in orbit around a black hole, about to burrow into the gigantic seed of an impossible half-plant-half-sentient beast, which will fling us roughly in the direction of Perseus?’
She nods, smiling, like a schoolteacher proud of her student.
‘I’ve got a lot of questions about that, but here’s the big one: why am I seeing this?’
She frowns. ‘Don’t you want to?’
‘No…I mean, yes, absolutely, but that’s not the point. Why did you wake me up?’
She rocks from side to side. ‘We thought you might like to join the crew.’
‘As a…as what?’ I cough up.
‘As a xenobiologist. Every spacer crew has one. Collecting information on the What-Thes. Helping to map the pods, working out where they’re going and when they’re likely to be released. Studying them. Especially when we’re heading for one we’ve not been to before. Think of it: a whole new tree to map! And it’s not just about the trees; we think we might not be the first species to use them to go interstellar.’ She shrugs again. ‘Just tunnels, so far, strange markings, but you never know. Maybe you’ll be the one to discover the evidence.’
I rub my chin, dislodging a smear of encrusted hibernation fluid, wiping it hurriedly on my sleeve. ‘Won’t the colony miss me?’
‘What, a xenobiologist, third class?’ She arches her eyebrows. ‘We have an agreement, a condition of carry, if you will. We can poach anyone we feel we need as long as it’s from the junior ratings, and as long as that person says yes. So?’
I stare out of the thick plate window. When I was young, and maybe as an escape from the harsh reality of growing up as a geeky orphan, I dreamt of setting foot on strange, undiscovered planets, of exploring new, wonderful environments. It was why I’d joined the Academy, why I’d opted for the xenobiology programme. It was all I’d ever wanted, ever aspired to.
Only, that wasn’t the way it worked. I glance sideways, then back to the turmoil beyond to avoid her watching eye. Did Estella know? Did any of the spacers know? Or, like the black hole tree, was everyone else happier being kept in the dark?
I’d only found out myself in the final pre-sleep briefing, when I was already off-Earth. One last test. Flunk it, and I’d become just another unskilled colonist, to be woken long after the dirty work was done, or maybe left behind altogether.
The Perseus colonists, like, I guess, all our colonies, intended to terraform their target planet. Which meant—after a grace period of perhaps two months for the xenobiologists to collect and study specimens—wiping out any and all indigenous lifeforms and replacing them with Earth-based organisms.
I hadn’t been told exactly how they did that, just that it was something they called a nano-vax, an engineered supervirus or nanotech machine that turned everything organic it touched into more of itself, until a time-triggered self-destruct left nothing but denatured proteinous gloop ready for reseeding.
So, sure, I’d have samples to study for the rest of my natural life, albeit via tighter controls than you get in any bioweapons lab anywhere on Earth. But at what a cost. I’d have had my hand in sterilising an entire alien planet.
Which meant I was already hoping there would be nothing there to kill when we got to Perseus 3. A xenobiologist hoping not to find life. Go figure.
Estella is still waiting for an answer, but I have a couple of more questions first.
‘You say every spacer crew has a xenobiologist on board. Why aren’t I getting the sales pitch from yours? Am I not important enough for that?’
She blows air and shakes her head. ‘Dr Kenzei got old. It happens to us all, even spacers. There’s a couple of satellites around the Earth, effectively spacer retirement villages, and a thriving colony of us on the moon. Old spacers can’t go Earth-side, not after that long in space: weak bones. But Dr Kenzei took one trip too many. Deep sleep doesn’t work so well at either end of your life, and he didn’t make it. Dead on arrival, his coffin actually a coffin.’
‘So no, he’s not here to greet you. He sent me instead, if you like. I’m his granddaughter.’
I wince. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be. Just say yes.’ She looks at me, her eyes wide, her head haloed by the black hole behind her, encircled by a tree the size of a solar system. ‘Seriously Bradley, it’s going to be a hell of a lot more fun than being a colonist.’
I glance at her and then away. ‘I’m interested, of course I am,’ I say, lamely. ‘But I need to think about it.’
‘Sure.’ She nods and then points at the door in the bulkhead behind me. ‘I’ll be in there, in the mess hall along with the captain and the rest of the Vesta crew. Everyone’s awake right now. It’s all hands to the pump until we’re snugly burrowed in. Might be a few days before we can put you back in your coffin if you say no. Medical checks and all that. Or you can wait until we’re ready for the launch before you decide if you’ll go in with the colonists or come in with the crew.’
She gives me that long look again, before frowning and turning away. ‘Anyway…’ And then she’s at the door, levering it open and herself through.
I almost call out after her, blurt out yes, yes, of course I’ll do it, anything to chase away the look of disappointment, of hurt.
But this is the biggest decision I’ll ever make in my life. To be a founding member of a brand-new colony on a brand-new world (though with the taint of alien blood on my hands), or to spend my life as a spacer, flitting between the stars, never actually able to set foot on either a colony planet or the Earth ever again for fear of being crushed by the gravity, but with wonders like black hole trees and places like Earth Satellite One for compensation.
And spacers like Estella for company.
I float in front of the viewing window, staring into the abyss, turning impossible shapes over in my head and waiting for them to settle down, to start making sense.
If I had a coin, I’d flip it. Heads or tails. Let fate, or blind chance, decide.
But then, if I had a coin and flipped it, it’d never come down. Neither it, nor me.
I drag myself away from the lookout and go in search of the rest of the crew.