It took a great many years for the founders to get here, or so we learnt in our lessons. I must admit I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been as I was gazing out of the window, watching my father giving final instructions to the very first expedition team to go outside and search the surrounding hillsides for minerals.
‘Day-dreaming again, David?’
I grinned at Teacher’s gentle gibe. ‘I suppose so, Teacher.’ I was still half-thinking about the four men setting off on their dangerous task. ‘It’s strange to realise we aren’t the first people; that we’re nothing more than a small seeding colony. Was earth really so terrible that people had to leave?’
Teacher’s normally happy face grew a little sad as he pondered his answer. ‘It wasn’t at first,’ he said slowly. ‘It was a beautiful place, with a great many forms of life. You already know of some of them, but the variety was truly astonishing. It seemed anything that could exist either did, or had in the past. Birds filled the air and fish teemed in the seas. Animals and plants of all shapes and sizes, from huge to microscopic, occupied every space.’ Teacher paused for a moment, staring wistfully off into the distance. ‘And then, when it became clear we had ruined it all past the point of no return, the seeding ships were planned and built and a few humans finally left a world of increasing horrors.’
Most of us had heard Teacher’s tales before of course, but Jake was just six and had only recently joined the daily learning sessions. He was the younger son of our two farmers and sat wide-eyed as Teacher recounted the downfall of human civilisation on earth, ending with the orgies of self-destruction caused by ever mounting population pressures and the awful, widespread realisation that things were only going to get worse.
The seeding ships had all left within the same year, aimed at a number of the nearest star systems. Totally self sufficient and robotically controlled, the ships carried their frozen cargoes across the light years to their new homes … except there was no guarantee of actually finding a home and it was grimly accepted that many of the ships would eventually become lifeless, floating hulks.
Our ship had been aimed at Alpha Centauri, long argued to be a triple star, but as we now knew, more properly a binary system. The third star, tiny red Proxima, was hardly visible at all and was speeding out of the system at what Teacher amusingly called ‘a rate of knots’.
The founders had named our planet Hope, but it was often wryly joked that they should have called it Hopeless. Oh, it looked ideal when they first awoke, seeming to have most of the things humans apparently needed. It had an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere with all the necessary added bits like CO2, and none of the nasties like ammonia or nitric oxide and while the O-tension was only 18%, it was high enough for former earth-life. There was also abundant water plus many forms of vegetation, though to date we knew of only a few which were edible. Of course, if things hadn’t been right, then the robot ship would never have landed and we would probably have become one of the floating hulks.
One problem with Hope is that it revolves around Alpha Centauri A. This in itself would not be such a bad thing. ACA, or Rigil as the Astronomer calls it, is a Sol-like star a little older than Sol itself and easily passes all five tests for ‘human support viability’. Technically, it’s a youngish, main-sequence, stable, G-type star, with at least one heavy-metal-bearing planet within the life-zone. It sounds plain enough, but the astronomer often shakes his head in wonder that a planet like Hope actually existed in the very place humans were likely to look first, simply because it was the closest system to earth at a mere four light-years distance.
However, the problems with Hope begin with the fact that the smaller star ACB itself revolves around the larger ACA. More accurately, they revolve around each other. Luckily, ACB never gets close enough to affect the orbit of Hope around ACA, but if it did, then Hope wouldn’t be here at all.
Teacher had told us that earth seas had tides and that earth often had wild weather, caused by the gravitational pulls of both Sol itself and earth’s single, but very large satellite called ‘Moon’. We don’t have any satellites, except for the signal-drones the seeding ship had placed in orbit, but we certainly have tides and weather, only ours can be a lot fiercer than on earth.
We also have conditions that can vary wildly from day to day. Hope revolves quite slowly on its axis which is inclined at a greater angle than earth’s at thirty-one degrees, but Hope’s orbital period is a little shorter than earth’s, so the days are long and vary widely in terms of day and night throughout the year, while the seasons move very quickly and the year is a bit shorter. Sometimes it can be light for days on end with the light-levels varying markedly as well, depending upon whether yellow ACA or orange ACB happen to be ‘up’, or both, or neither. Teacher says we haven’t been here long enough to see everything Hope can throw at us, as ACA and ACB have a binary rotation period of about eighty earth years, so we’re not yet a quarter of the way through one cycle.
Although we’ve been here for eighteen years, we have yet to encounter any large or intelligent forms of life, though there are reports of people occasionally seeing or hearing things. There are plenty of Hope’s versions of insects, but unfortunately, no birds other than the domestic fowl the founders brought with them. We’ve sometimes seen animals of course; mostly swift-footed, vicious little herbivores which seem to be increasing in numbers from year to year, but if there are any big predators, we have yet to meet them. Hopefully they would be stopped by the wide moat surrounding our hilltop fortress. Teacher says there is probably abundant life in the oceans as well, but for the present, when we need fish we take them from the breeding stocks in the moat or the two fishponds.
Though eighteen years might sound a reasonable time, of the seeding ship’s original complement of thirty-six, four had not awoken from their frozen sleep. Of the remainder, five had died in the first few years, one by accident and the others through diseases caused by dietary deficiencies. The founders were well aware our continued existence on Hope depended upon the establishment of a larger population as quickly as possible, which meant every person was vital, but on the other hand, the colony was only able to grow as fast as it could support itself. We had only recently even begun venturing beyond the moat and then only for essential quick forays to gather fruit or berries. The ore-hunting expedition had been forced upon us by the fact we were rapidly running out of metal to cannibalise from the seeding ship.
Teacher explained that we could have been supplied with all manner of marvels, like vehicles, pumps, mining equipment, automated this and precision that. But what would we do when the tyres wore out or the batteries went dead? For that matter, what would we use for fuel? We had limited supplies of certain things designed to save or prolong life in dire emergencies, but once they were gone, we were on our own. Teacher made it brutally clear that we were essentially a small farming community, eking out a precarious existence and if any of the founders had been told the truth about what it would really be like, many of them might have thought more than twice before they volunteered.
I had mused off again, wondering what lay outside our safe little world and was pulled back to the present by the scraping of chairs and desks, signalling the end of lessons for the day. Not that it was yet free time. Life in the colony wasn’t easy; there was always work to do and not enough hands to do it. Even from an early age, you quickly got used to solving your own problems and just doing what had to be done.
We all had chores to perform, even young Jake, who as usual headed off towards the farm to gather eggs and feed his pigs. We don’t have many animals as those which came with the founders had to be easy to feed and keep in small areas. Mum and Dad often mourned the fact that we had no cows, sheep or horses, but they apparently required whole fields of grass to eat. Not only had it been thought highly unlikely that a planet suitable for humans would also have precisely the right sort of grass, but it would have meant having to control huge areas immediately upon landing, so no grass eaters - or ‘obligate herbivores’ as Teacher ponderously termed them - had been included in the seeding-ships cargos. True; Hope had its own versions of herbivores, but we already knew the sort of grass they ate would not have supported earth’s grazing animals.
That type of thing also affected the humans of course. Jake’s eggs, pigs and chickens and all the crops we grew were vital in ensuring we stayed healthy, so our farm occupied a great deal of the available space and at times, everybody’s energies. Teacher constantly talked about the amazing number of minerals we needed, the four essential vitamins and the eight amino acids and showed us nasty pictures of people suffering from scurvy or wasting away with malnutrition.
I hurried off down the corridor to attend to my own chore. Unlike Jake’s, mine was more technical, in keeping not only with my greater age, but also with my own particular abilities. I had been born two years after the founding of the colony and it wasn’t until I’d reached my twelfth birthday that Dad had at last put me in charge of the three computers in the control room. I suppose the system was really one large computer as the two normally inactive ones formed part of a triple redundancy and one would spring to life in an instant should something go wrong with Fred, as the computer system was affectionately called.
Fred was one of the few technological things we had, having originally been the seeding ship’s main computer and he essentially ran our lives. He told us when and what to plant and which animals to mate, though we were having serious problems in getting things to grow and breed as fast as we’d have liked. Fred controlled the light-shutters, ran the osmosis plant to purify the bore-water and even did all the dusting with numerous, but sometimes annoying little robotic ‘snufflers’ which had come with him when he was removed from the ship.
No matter how often Fred was told, the snufflers never seemed to be able to tell the difference between ordinary fluff and a sock. Two socks were quite safe. Snufflers could presumably tell that two of something was meant to be, rather than an error. I had recently conducted a series of experiments and had conclusively proved that it didn’t matter if the socks were a proper pair or even the same shape or colour … as long as there were two of them, the snufflers left them strictly alone. A single sock however was doomed. It was immaterial where the sock was placed as well. On the floor, in a drawer or on top of a cupboard hidden in a box, it was fodder for the snufflers and would vanish, never to be seen again. As Fred’s cello-loom supplied all manner of disposable clothing including socks upon demand, it wasn’t really a problem. People had learned that if they lost one sock, the other would happily disappear fairly quickly. What I wanted to know was what constituted a lost sock? Surely if there was another to disappear, then the first hadn’t really been lost. I put this to Fred who was quite mysterious about it, implying it was the fault of the snufflers as they were relatively brainless, but I wasn’t convinced.
Despite my apparent fascination with socks, being the son of the two chief scientists had equipped me with quite a good brain, even if Dad had occasionally called me ‘dunderhead’. For years I’d thought he was referring to my copper-coloured hair and up until just after he’d put me in charge of Fred, I hadn’t thought to ask him what it actually meant. When I did, he’d grinned at me, ruffled the aforementioned hair and said it meant he loved me very much. I remember I’d gone away with a warm but somewhat embarrassed glow, only to feel mortified when one of the two older children told me what it really meant! I resolved at that point not to continue to be a dunderhead and spent every available minute with Fred, learning about anything and everything. Then one day I overheard Dad telling Mum that he couldn’t understand it; that almost overnight I had turned into a right little sponge.
I was terrified! At the time, I had absolutely no idea what a sponge was and I’d thought there must be something horribly wrong with me. It took a whole day before I thought to ask Fred. I got even more worried when he told me it was a marine invertebrate animal, common in the seas of earth, which spent the majority of its life anchored to a rock by its head, sucking stray food in one hole and blowing its wastes out of another. When I finally plucked up enough courage to ask Teacher the same question, I got roughly the same answer, except where Fred had said ‘wastes’, Teacher said ‘shit’. I suppose he must have seen his explanation hadn’t helped me very much and to my eventual relief, he asked me why I wanted to know and had laughed long and loud when I hesitantly told him what Dad had said.
It was funny later, but at the time it only increased my resolve never to be caught like that again, which was one of the reasons Fred became my constant companion. The other was that Mum had difficulties during my birth and wasn’t able to get pregnant again, so I didn’t have any siblings to keep me company and adopted Fred as a replacement brother. Fred had helped me construct an almost human interface and he and I now talked as if we were two good friends. He had even imitated my appearance so he looked like my blue-eyed twin, right down to the freckles, cheeky grin and the ever-unruly red locks.
As much as I’d have liked to, right after learning I had no time to chat to Fred but had to perform the system checks and feed my electronic friend with all the daily data gathered by everybody else. For instance, Jake would sometimes tell me about the pigs; how each of them was, how much they weighed and how much they’d eaten. He always reported how many chicken and duck eggs he’d found and even where he’d found them. Fred wanted to know everything and in return, would provide us with interesting information, sometimes even the most astonishing stuff. One day for example, he informed me he’d concluded something interesting about the chickens and asked me if I’d like to know what it was. Fred was like that; never pushy or presumptuous. In fact he was sometimes downright reticent, but at least he didn’t sound the warning alarms when he’d finally figured out something quite trivial. That time, he’d told me the hens needed fifteen percent more space, at least four more small bushes and that their diet was low in selenium. Little Jake was all agog when I’d told him of course and rushed off to talk to his parents about wire and bushes and where could he get ‘selemium’.
Jake was a nice boy, really open and friendly and although it was already apparent he wasn’t going to win any competitions based upon thinking, his father swore Jake could speak pig. And chicken too for that matter. The few animals we had all responded well to him.
However; it wasn’t Jake who concerned us all later that day but his brother, Peter. Like Jake, Peter wasn’t overly blessed with brains but was already becoming a really good carpenter. He was almost a year younger than me and was my closest friend besides Fred. We had recently celebrated Peter’s fifteenth birthday by getting slightly drunk on fermented redberry juice and engaging in some tentative sexual exploration in the little copse bordering the silage pit. Unfortunately for both of us, it was just starting to get really interesting when Peter toppled over and fell in.
I had just begun entering the daily figures when Fred interrupted me. This time he did set the alarms off and everyone rushed to the main hall to hear what he had to say. He waited until all thirty-nine of us were present before continuing. It wasn’t good news. In fact, it was just about the worst news we could possibly get.
‘Good day to all,’ Fred commenced as usual. ‘I have some worrying information.’ He waited until the murmuring had died down and then carried on. ‘I have questioned all my sensors and all appear to be in working order. I’m afraid that I cannot detect the presence of Peter Carrow in or around the compound area.’
I felt a nasty hollowness forming in my stomach as Dad’s voice rose above the immediate hubbub.
‘Is this a drill, Fred?’
‘It is not a drill, Martin.’
‘Have you any suggestions?’
‘I have managed to reach the mining expedition sent out earlier today and have asked that they return and commence sweeps on hillsides two and three.’ Fred paused while Mum and Nurse ushered Peter’s crying parents and a bewildered Jake out of the hall. ‘I suggest we send out a second team to sweep hillsides one and four. I recommend the following personnel for the search.’
I was rather surprised when Fred included my name among the four people to look for Peter. My appreciation at being trusted for such a serious and possibly dangerous task was quickly tempered when I recalled from earlier discussions with Fred that he would always base such choices not only upon who might be best equipped for such a task, but equally, who might be the least loss to the colony if killed.
I felt a slight chill down my spine as I hurried off to be prepared for my very first trip outside.
Centauran - available in book or download format – What had happened to David’s friend Peter, and would David himself suffer the same fate? There was something out there – something nasty … but something wonderful as well. Buy Centauran, and follow David’s adventures with the Ifshiri.