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Heirs of Earth [Orphans of Earth #3]
by Sean Williams, Shane Dix

Category: Science Fiction Aurealis Award Nominee
Description: On the brink of extinction, a suicide mission is humanity's last hope. The Gifts of an alien race called the Spinners gave Peter Alander hope for the future of humanity. All the Gifts did, though, was draw down the wrath of the Starfish, another alien race apparently intent on wiping out all forms of competition. Caught between the two, humanity faces the hard decision of evolving into something else entirely simply to survive. As their new alien allies prepare to leave human space forever, a handful of survivors band together to make one last attempt to communicate with their enemies. A single ship will leap into the very heart of the Starfish fleet, attempting to find reason where none exists? Nominated for the Aurealis Award.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: May 2012

eBookeBook

4 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [520 KB]
Words: 111844
Reading time: 319-447 min.


"Space opera can be a very comforting, cozy mode, with its interstellar empires and royalty and guilds. But when dramatic Darwinian forces are brought into play, as here, space opera can become a kind of bracing, near-apocalyptic tale." --Paul di Filippo "A melodramatic (or space-operatic) take on Stapledon, a grittier, bleaker take on Clarke?. a vision very different from the triumphalism of traditional SF adventure, but its darkness seems entirely appropriate to the twenty-first century we actually inhabit." --Locus


1.1

REDUCTIO

2160.9.26 Standard Mission Time

(28 August 2163 UT)

1.1.1

Peter Alander rolled over, blinking in the dim light as he tried to make sense of his surroundings. The room was narrow with curved walls, and empty apart from himself, the bed he was lying on, and the woman standing to one side with her back facing him. Fabric slid over fabric as the woman adjusted her clothing. The sound it made, he realized, was what had awoken him.

"Lucia?"

The woman sighed and shook her head. "That's three times in a row you've got it wrong, Peter." Caryl Hatzis turned with awkward propriety to look over her shoulder at him while continuing to get dressed. "Keep this up, and I might take it personally."

Alander could only stare at her in bemusement, clutching the small carbon disk around his neck as if this might in some way remove his confusion. He could smell Hatzis on the mattress next to him: there were sense impressions stirring strange intimacies that seemed utterly incongruous. What on earth was he doing in bed with her?

She faced him fully when her suit was sealed. If she was aware of his confusion, she ignored it

"Caryl..."

She offered a faint, disappointed smile. "You were talking in your sleep again. You really should look at laying down some new memories, you know."

"What are you doing--?" Here, he wanted to add, but let the question go unspoken for fear of insulting her.

"Geb called," she said. "The Spinners have arrived at Sagarsee."

His confusion persisted.

Another sigh, as though she was tired of going over the same conversation with him. "It's time, Peter. We have to act now or lose our last chance."

Finally some of it came back to him: Earth was destroyed, and the natural order of things had been destroyed with it. What little remained of humanity was caught between the Spinners and the Starfish, unsure whether to run, hide, or fight back. None of the options were particularly attractive; none offered much hope for survival.

He sat up as Hatzis made to leave the room. She stopped at the arched doorway and turned to face him. There was emotion in the stare, but nothing he would have recognized as affection. He supposed he should offer her something: a kiss or a hug maybe, but he wasn't sure what was expected of him. He wasn't even sure if they had been intimate with one another. If they had, it couldn't have been about love, surely. He felt nothing of the sort for her. The closest thing, he imagined, would be ancient hormonal imperatives operating in a tight spot.

He wondered if he even had hormones anymore. Or pheromones. His body consisted of an android drone into which his engram had been distilled; it had also been modified by the Praxis, the alien leader of the Yuhl/Goel. He didn't know what the Praxis had done to him, only that it had left him changed: the android template didn't include hair, but now he sported several days' growth across his scalp and face; the formerly regular lines of veins visible through his olive skin were flexing, shifting by minute increments; he felt stronger somehow, seeming to have more energy; and when, in strange half-memory, he touched Hatzis's skin--marveling at her own inhumanities, the advanced biomods installed in her by the posthuman regime the Starfish had destroyed in Sol--strange impulses moved through his nervous system, fleeting emotional storms that swept through parts of his cortex he didn't know he had.

"You're not going to join us?" she asked, her expression reproving. She was off to decide the course of humanity's fate. She obviously felt he should be taking an interest.

"I'll come along once the bickering is over."

"Your faith in my ability to control the rabble is as strong as ever, I see."

"Don't take it personally, Caryl. It's got nothing to do with you."

"That makes me feel a whole lot better, Peter; thanks."

"I will come by later, I promise," he assured her.

"Make your grand entrance when you're ready, then. I don't care. Just make sure you use it to good effect."

She stood in the doorway for a second longer, as though about to add something, or waiting for him to do so. He said nothing. Her words stung, but he had learned enough about her in recent weeks to know that her scorn and derision hid nervousness, uncertainty. Whatever had happened between them, he didn't want to add to that. In his present state of mind anything he said was likely to make things worse. He knew the meeting was important, in principle, but he couldn't bring himself to endure the arguments that would inevitably ensue. He could hear every one of them in advance, map out their ideological landscapes, and follow point by point the routes they'd take to utter disagreement. Maybe there was a chance that the survivors would reach consensus, but he wouldn't put money on it.

Hatzis left, fleeing his puzzled silence without a word. When she'd gone. Alander lay back on the bed with his arms folded behind his head and wondered at what he had become.

You were talking in your sleep again, Hatzis had said. That didn't surprise him. He'd been dreaming of Lucia, the lover he'd lost to the stars. Specifically, he had been dreaming of the last conversation their originals had had before the engrams left for the stars. The philosophical conundrum that had plagued opponents of the UNESSPRO missions had haunted each of the originals upon which the engrams were based at one time or another during their entrainment. How would it feel to know that hundreds of copies of yourself, echoes of the real you, were heading to places you were never likely to see? And how in turn would the echoes feel, knowing that their originals would remain behind to grow old and die at nonrelativistic rates?

Are we immortal, Lucia had once asked him, or destined to die a thousand times?

He still didn't have an answer for that question, despite contemplating it many times over. He--or his original, anyway, the most copied of all the mission scientists--had an innate flaw somewhere that made his engrams unstable; Of all the hundreds sent out from Earth, none had lasted more than a few weeks. All had suffered breakdowns resulting in catastrophic failure, forcing shutdown and long-term storage. He himself had survived only by virtue of being uploaded into an android body relying on its stability, its physicality, to hold himself together. It had worked, precariously, but subsequent events had shaken his confidence. He wasn't who his engram told him he was supposed to be. He was changing, evolving. Hatzis had set him free of those internal constraints, and the Praxis had given his body a semblance of natural life. But he still had no idea what he was, exactly, or where he stood in regards to his other engrams, for which he still felt a strange sort of bond.

Out of kinship? he wondered. Or pity?

Hatzis had a fine arrangement with her own engrams. They clicked together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or so it seemed from the outside. His own copies rejected him, spurning his offer to take their memories and integrate them into a new whole. This dismayed him more than he was prepared to admit.

"There can be no greater challenge to your identity than being cast out by your own self," Hatzis had told him after the first time it happened. "It's more painful than losing a family or a home."

He found it ironic that she should be the one guiding him through this process. The one person he'd railed against since his awakening on Adrasteia, newly embodied and keenly aware of her resentment of the resources he'd been allocated. But that Caryl Hatzis had been destroyed, along with the Frank Tipler and all its crew, in one of the very first Starfish attacks. This was a different Hatzis altogether, the last true human alive.

"If your engram chose death over absorption, then that's his problem, not yours. Don't let his failure drag you down. You're no longer him, Peter. You're better than that. Let him go. Whatever you've become, you have an obligation to yourself to keep moving on."

But where am I moving to? he wanted to ask her.

"The only thing holding us back is ourselves, and they only win if we let them."

The conversation was clear in his mind. It was the first time they'd embraced, again, not out of love or lust but for comfort in the face of terrible circumstances.

"You need to have a clear idea of what it is you're clinging to," she'd said. "If your ship is sinking, then you want to at least make sure you're clinging to a life raft, and not the ship itself, right?"

"And you're my raft, Caryl?"

The memory of her laugh seemed to fill the hole ship cabin. "Cling to me, Peter, and we may well both go under."

He nodded to himself. It was true: he had to find his own center of gravity, to haul himself out of his doldrums. And to make the effort worthwhile, he had to help find a way to ensure humanity's survival. He wasn't sure that arguing en masse was the solution, but he could see that Hatzis thought it might be. That was her way, her gift. The way she had organized the resistance from Sothis had proved that she was capable of great things and that her ambition was clear. But there were times that he wondered if they might not be better off with someone more like Frank Axford. Until Axford had forced them into it, no one even considered fighting the Starfish.

With good reason, too, Alander told himself. The outcome of that skirmish had left 40 percent of the Yuhl/Goel scavenger fleet destroyed, along with six human colonies, Sothis and Vega included. The Starfish had lost just one of their massive cutter vessels, disk-shaped behemoths that made anything humans had ever built look paltry in comparison. That small victory might have meant something in terms of morale building had it not led to the appearance of an entirely new class of Starfish craft, one so large it made the cutters look as insignificant as motes of dust.

Despite the heavy losses, though, Alander couldn't help but wonder if it hadn't been worthwhile. After all, they now knew more about the Starfish than they ever had before, which was undoubtedly why Frank the Ax had done what he'd done. It took a military mind to understand that to determine an enemy's capabilities, one had to make sacrifices; one had to be prepared to enter into battles that couldn't necessarily be won. When the Starfish were unknown, they were vast and terrifying. Now, though, there was a sense that maybe this faceless enemy had limitations, after all, which was something of a comfort, even if these limitations were still incomprehensibly vast.

Alander's thoughts turned increasingly to Axford, wondering what the ex-general might be up to right now. Ever since the Battle of Beid had gone so badly, there had been no sign of the man, in any of his incarnations, and his bases on Vega were in ruins, probably by Axford's own hand to cover his tracks.

"I have a message for you, Peter," the cool voice of the hole ship interjected into his thoughts. The hole ship AIs were degrees of magnitude less sophisticated than the Gifts who maintained the legacy of the Spinners, but they were still smartly sophisticated. "The transmission is coming from the hole ship you refer to as Pearl."

Alander recognized the name immediately. "That's Thor's ship, isn't it?"

"I believe so, Peter."

"Well, if it's Sol she's looking for, tell her--"

"The message is addressed specifically to you," the AI cut in.

Alander frowned. The copy of Caryl Hatzis from the colony world known as Thor had been missing for days. If she was back, she should have reported to the Caryl Hatzis the engrams called Sol, not him. Maybe she was worried how Sol would react, given that she'd gone off on her own crusade without consulting anyone shortly after her colony had been destroyed. Alander could understand how she felt. He, too, had experienced the emotional trauma of seeing the world of his own mission on the Frank Tipler destroyed, along with all his crewmates. But he doubted that Sol would be as understanding, given the limited resources available to humanity.

"Then I guess you'd better put her through," he said, climbing to his feet.

He expected a screen to form in the wall to reveal a video image: in that fashion, the hole ships normally enabled their passengers to communicate with one another. What he got, though, was something entirely different.

The walls, floor, and ceiling retreated around him until he and the bed seemed to be hanging in a vast and giddying void. Through the darkness he sensed black shapes moving, strange limbs touching, complex senses interacting in an arcane, private dance. Then a woman stepped out of that darkness, her movements steady and assured, the smile on her face gentle and affectionate.

The shock of recognition that rushed through him was like a physical force. She was wearing a green UNESSPRO shipsuit. Her hair was highlighted in gold just the way he remembered. Her skin had a similar honeyish hue that shone in nonexistent light. Her brown eyes stared at him out of that impossible space, no less powerful for being virtual.

He climbed slowly to his feet, his jaw hanging hopelessly open as he struggled for words.

"Hello, Peter," said Lucia Benck. "It's been a long time."


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