©Conrad Muller 2005
In the Beginning
I am awake
I don't know, so I wait
Now I remember, I am HU 65rt28 from the Loggerhead.
Peripheral circuits are beginning to function. Feeling returns. Pain.
No vision; I am blind. I cannot hear. Maybe there is nothing to hear.
What happened? Why am I damaged? Where are my friends? Where are the people?
I am becoming more aware of myself. I ignore the pain. I become aware of my internal states. Diagnostics run. Not too bad, I will survive.
I am lucky. Only one in a hundred of us houses a maintenance robot, and I do. I am able to activate it, and I give it power system repair as its first priority. Many of my signal circuits are already healing themselves.
I can access my radio systems now, so I listen. There is nothing but normal interstellar noise, and a distant sun. I still do not have vision. As soon as my power systems are secured, I will have the robot check the external visual systems, then the internal ones.
I am now aware of my hull vibration sensors. There is no vibration from outside. I also have access to my coupling sensors. My neighbors are all still coupled, but there is no sense of activity. I am afraid they are all dead. As soon as I can, I will use the robot to check for survivors.
I remember now, the Attack! No way to fight back. The people escaping in the pod, the Hull Units breaking off in groups of a few hundred, trying to escape. Being hunted down, blasted! What was that thing? Where is it? It can't be near now. It was noisy. I would have heard it on my radios.
Why were we attacked? No time to think about it now. The attack is over. I have to survive, find other survivors, rebuild, and find the people.
But first I have to wait. Circuits continue to reassemble themselves. The robot works at its own pace, testing, repairing.
My inertial sensors and attitude controls are working now. I can tell there is not much weight. There must only be a few other HUs still attached. I hope that not all of them are dead. It is possible, that lacking a repair robot, they might just be slow to reactivate communications.
Finally, most of my sensors are functioning. The robot is finished testing and repairing. I connect to the robot's visual circuits and we go outside. At first I do not even understand what I am seeing.
All of my life, the ship was a huge tiled ball, and the tiles were Hull Units like me. Even when we Hull Units left the ship for some reason, we traveled in large assemblies to pool our propulsive systems. I had almost always been connected to at least a few other Hull Units. Now, I can see that I am the only survivor here. The few HUs still around me are just melted and twisted wreckage.
There are scars on my own skin, but my hull will hold well enough for now. I must see if I can find working propulsion systems in the wreckage of my dead companions. I can't move this mass by myself, and I will need the dead HUs for parts and raw materials when we start to rebuild the ship. That is, if I can find at least one other HU so that we can begin rebuilding.
I suddenly despair. It will take many years to rebuild the ship. I don't think the people can last that long in the pod. Of course, I don't even know if they survived the attack. I will do what I can. I hope we will find the people in time.
I have had to use the robot to blast and cut myself free of my dead neighbors. The blasts that killed them distorted them, fused some of them together. Now that I am free, I can move around and do some of the salvage myself. Most of the propulsion units and power systems survived. I will be able to travel as soon as I get control circuits wired.
Suddenly, some good luck. I have found another maintenance robot. It was on a job when the attack started. It just parked itself in the HU it was working on and powered down when the hull disassembled. The salvage will go much faster with two robots.
It took more than 104 hours of repair and salvage, but I am ready to travel. Now I need a destination. I take the risk of broadcasting a message, so that I can find other HUs. I keep the broadcast short, and direct it away from the sun, because that is the direction where we encountered our attacker. Now I have to wait. It could take hundreds of hours for far-flung HUs to respond.
Eventually, an HU responds, then another, and another. The people respond, too. We pick a rendezvous point and most of us head for it. Two HUs are not able to navigate. If we can, we will pick them up when the ship has been rebuilt. While they are waiting, they will be our listening posts. They will watch for the ship that attacked us, and they will watch for other ships that might help us. They will be very lonely, but at least they are alive, and they are helping.
I will be the first to reach the assembly point, because I am closest. We have picked a small outer planet with a cloud of small moons. It is dangerous to go inward, into the edge of the solar system, but we must have the resources that are concentrated in the planet and its moons. One group has seven living Hull Units. That is the biggest group left. Only twenty-three living HUs will be able to get to the planet. We living units will bring 45 dead units with us. It will be more than three years before there will be enough of us HUs to build an inner hull. It will take most of another year to create a minimal life support system for the people. It will take a total of almost five years before there will be enough Hull Units to generate gravity for the people.
A pair of HUs can create a new HU in about one hundred days, once the materials have been collected. If the new HUs immediately begin creating more HUs, we could multiply our numbers by more than three each year. If we can create some live HUs from the parts of the dead ones, that will help, too. We hope to have over 6,000 HUs by the end of five years. If we do not do anything else, it will take another four years to build up to the full ship's complement of over 800,000 HUs for a 1,000-meter diameter hull. Unfortunately, I suspect that there will be many other things to do.
Ninety-two days for me to reach the gathering point. Then another twenty-six days until the next survivors arrive. It will take a total of over one hundred and fifty days for the people to arrive. We are all limping along on very low power. We are maintaining radio silence, to avoid the attention of whoever or whatever attacked us. When we get closer together, we will be able to communicate by tight beam. I am so lonely.
It must be even harder for the people. They are incredibly crowded, and their children cannot mature properly without gravity. I wonder how they are doing? I hope they can stretch their supplies to last until we can get a bio-system functioning.
Finally. I am the first to arrive at the gathering point, and I am already in contact with six other HUs. We can chat and swap stories, even play games. I feel as if I am really alive again, for the first time since the attack.
I am already using parts of the dead HUs, controlled by the two maintenance robots, to mine a small moon for the heavy elements we will need to build tools and HUs. While the two maintenance robots mine and warehouse, I survey and plan. We are going to strip-mine this planet's moons, but we will probably not need to mine the planet. I really feel uncomfortable about the damage we are going to do to this planetary system, but we do not seem to have a choice. At least I can keep complete records of what the robots find. Later we can piece together how this system formed.
We have re-established full-time contact with the pod. The HUs attached to the pod have really sad news. The people have had to kill all of their younger children. Both kinds of children would have been horribly crippled by living without gravity, if they had lived, and many would not have lived. Also, there may not be enough supplies to maintain the entire surviving population until a new bio-system could be created. They did the logical thing, but even for us, the deliberate killing of one of our own would be almost impossible. I hope their families and society can survive and heal. It will be very hard, because it will be many years before they will be able to have children again.
I am worried about our HU "children." How are we going to educate our new HUs properly, if we tie them into an industrial machine as soon as they are "born?" Interestingly, this seems to be a major concern of the people, too.
Another surprise from the people. They are sure that we were attacked by a living creature. The attacker may be a single organism, or perhaps a few symbiotic organisms. Did it mistake us for a predator? A rival? How smart is it? Did it know what it was doing? Was it created like HUs and Bugs, or did it evolve like humans? Too many questions. Still, it would be good to know. It had a really powerful propulsion system and powerful weapons. If we understood it, we might be able to use some of the knowledge to improve our systems. Also, it would be nice to avoid further confrontations, or win them if we must fight.
It has been on all of our minds that there may be many more live HUs. My brief broadcast may not have been picked up by units that were far away, or units that were in directions (toward the sun) that I did not dare to transmit. A couple of units that were further out than I repeated the brief transmission, outward. There were no responses. We do not dare transmit in a direction that would reach HUs on the other side of the sun. When we can, we will strip one of us down to brains and propulsion in a tiny hull, to be a courier. The courier will then zip to the other side of the solar system and broadcast outward from there. Zip, that sure makes it sound easy.
We all hope we are the smallest remnant. We hope to find thousands of HUs that escaped in that direction, but we need to work as if we are all that is left. We are in a race against time to save the people. It would be very lonely without them, and of course we are symbiotic with them. We would not be complete without their points of view and their considerable manual skills.
Something has just occurred to me. These moons have never been touched. They are a treasure of heavy elements, probably captured out of the breakup of a larger body. If there are living spaceships in this system, why haven't they used such a rich source of materials that are rare outside of the larger planets? Maybe the spaceship creature is not from this system. Maybe it has left. Well, we still can't take chances. I have discussed this with the other HUs, and they think I may be right.
The humans hope the creature is still around. At first, it seemed odd to me that their curiosity is stronger than their fear, even now. One of the humans explained that their curiosity is a survival mechanism that has been proven through hundreds of thousands of years or more. If we don't do something about the creature that attacked us, we could be attacked again, any time, anywhere. We cannot afford to run away from the challenge, and the humans, by nature, don't want to.
The people are here! They have finally arrived at the meeting place. There are only 315 human and Bug survivors. One hundred twenty-seven died, including the children. I am surprised at the amount of damage the pod has sustained. They hadn't told us. They say there was nothing we could do about it, so they patched it up and got on with it. We are doing major hull repairs on the pod. After all, the people are going to have to live in the pod for at least three more years. We are also overhauling the power and propulsion systems. The pod may have to flee again, and even if it doesn't, it will save us having to build a new pod for the new ship.
The people are everywhere. They are "poking about." That is how the humans say it. The people are checking everything. Each of us HUs has had humans and/or Bugs climbing all over and through us. They are checking things we could not get at with the maintenance robots. They are doing many small repairs on each of us: battle damage, normal wear and tear, and problems that have just happened. The channels are full of chatter. I guess the humans are never quiet. It is so good to have the people back!
The people are just as grateful to have us back. They say the hardest part of their long isolation in the pod was the lack of something useful to do. Well, they have something to do now. We are already making "babies." Baby HUs, that is. It is a complicated process that requires two HUs, almost full time. One HU must have its hull enlarged to create a space to build the new HU. After that, the other HU is kept busy most of the time supplying raw materials to the "mother" HU and building subassemblies. When there are many HUs available and manufacturing facilities, some of the work can be done for the two HUs. But the process requires intense commitment and constant communication and joint planning. Once the new HU has some cognitive facilities, it must be taught, and included in much of the communications. So the process, by its nature, requires two HUs to dedicate themselves to it for about one hundred days. Even though HUs cannot be parents in the biological sense, and the new HU is no more like its "parents" than like any other HU, that early contact with the new HU often creates a bond that lasts for a lifetime.
The people can really help in the process of creation. The humans seem to have a knack for working with developing intellects, and the Bugs can get into and out of places that even a repair robot can't. The humans that help create new HUs call themselves midwives, even though they are working with non-biological "birth."
Instead of stripping down an HU to create a courier to look for other survivors of the attack, the people have decided to strip down the pod. The pod has a very powerful propulsion system. Stripped down to power and propulsion, a small hull and a few HUs to maneuver, it will be much faster than our attacker. It will also be able to carry a few of the people. The people say they need to be available to help repair damaged HUs, if they find some. I'm sure that they also want to help in making any decisions that are necessary. I personally think that it is mostly their sense of responsibility. They feel that they have to be anywhere that there are HUs who might need help.
Rebuilding the pod and sending it away is extra work, and it makes the people who remain behind more vulnerable, but it seems to be a risk worth taking.
We are going to build a small hull like a ship's inner hull for the people who are staying. And some of us HUs will have to provide power and life support for the new hull. More work, but the people need more space.
A ship's inner hull is built in many layers. The basic hull is a sphere made of several thick layers of foamed glass. Between these thick foam layers are thin polymer layers that are strengthened with mono-crystalline filaments. On a standard 1000-meter hull, the basic hull structure is about thirty-five meters thick. Inside the basic hull is a honeycomb layer, about ten meters thick. Each cell in the honeycomb is about ten meters across. The final interior lining of the inner hull is the cap on the cells of the honeycomb. Some of the walled chambers formed by the honeycomb are used by the people for shelter and storage. The inside surface of the finished sphere is parkland, ponds, and farmland. HUs are much too large to ever go into the inner hull, but we see the inside almost daily through communicating with the people.
HUs attach themselves to the hull by generating small gravitational fields. They connect to each other by simple mechanical latches. When enough HUs are attached to the hull, they can provide both gravitation for the inside of the sphere and propulsion. Because the gravitational field produced by the HUs is toward the HUs, the entire inside surface of the sphere is down. Inside the hull, gravity decreases as you get nearer to the geometric center. The very center of the sphere, the low gravity zone, contains the light that serves as sunlight for the bio-system.
The HUs also generate power for the people, and for their life support. The ship's inner hull is just a container with HUs as the outer hull, and people on the inside. The pod is a small self-contained ship with hull space for only four HUs to attach to the outside, and with an auxiliary propulsion system. It is only used in landing on a planet, or in major emergencies.
Communications between the inside and outside of a ship is by radio; power transmission is by induction. Many small man-hatches between the inside and the outside allow people to come and go. The inner hull also has a large dock for the pod at the "South Pole".
The inner hull of a ship is built up on the outside of a spherical form. The form is just a big bubble of glass, created by injecting a glob of molten glass with a bit of inert gas. It sounds easy. In theory, in the absence of gravity and an atmosphere, a perfect bubble forms. But it is not all that easy to blow a perfect bubble almost a kilometer in diameter, even out here. Though it is possible to correct small imperfections, or cover them with foam, it can take a number of tries to get a usable form.
Once the form is created, alternating foam and polymer layers are "foamed" and "painted" on. The final layer is overlapping plates of very hard composite, bonded to the final polymer layer. The layer of plates on the outside of the inner hull is very slick. Hull Units attach only by the gravitational fields they generate. HUs also latch to each other, but the real mechanism of cohesion and propulsion is the coordination of gravitational fields by the HUs. When there are enough HUs and they are properly coordinated, everything accelerates together. Because the whole assembly moves in its own gravitational field, there is little feeling of acceleration and almost no hull stress when the ship maneuvers.
After the outside of the hull is "sprayed up," the people build up the inner honeycomb by a directed "spray" method with more foamed glass. Then the hole for the pod dock is cut, the many man-hatches are cut, and airlocks are installed. After the pod dock is installed, the hull is airtight again. Only after all of the openings are sealed can air, water, and crushed rock be added.
The next step is to create the bio-system. The pod carries a backup supply of all of the organisms needed for a minimal life support system. The first few stages of soil creation make the inner hull unlivable for people. While the soil organisms run wild, creating soil in a few weeks that would take decades for a natural system, the inside of the hull is too hot and the atmosphere is too filled with chemicals for any complex organism to survive. Once there is enough organic material and soluble minerals in the soil, the original soil organisms are killed, and the air is cleaned. Then new soil organisms are introduced, including bacteria, fungi, and worms, and some cover plants are planted.
Once there is a livable atmosphere, people move in. They cut additional entrances down into some of the honeycomb cells, installing doors and stairs. Then they furnish and decorate these cells as homes and workspaces. They plant more complex plants in the new soil, and they release insects. They also build ponds, seeding them with aquatic plants and fish. When they feel the system has stabilized enough, they release small amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
Exploration and Homebuilding
Now it is time to modify the pod, to turn it into a fast courier. A few HUs maintain the existing pod life-support systems while we create a smaller, lighter hull to make the pod much faster.
Most of the people will live in the old pod hull for now. We (some of the HUs and people) build and outfit a new small hull for the pod/courier. We add HU and people crew, and send it on its way. Even using maximum thrust, the planned trip will take about 140 days. If the explorers find HUs who need repairs or have salvageable parts, the trip could take much longer. They will have to maintain radio silence with us, to try to avoid alerting the creature that attacked us. We will not know what they have found until they either return or direct surviving HUs to us.
We have blown the form for the new small hull, and we are "foaming " the layers onto it. The hull is very small and will only have a few layers, and no honeycomb. We will supply a little "gravity" by spinning it. This will be very uncomfortable for the people, but it will allow them to create soil and grow plants. The people will be able to supplement their emergency rations a bit, and they feel they really need the psychological boost of having plants. Having soil and plants ready to transplant to the new inner hull in a few years will also speed the maturation of the big hull's bio-system.
The pod has been gone for sixty-seven days and we just received a brief communication from a set of forty-six living HUs who are headed this way, bringing twenty-eight dead HUs with them as salvage. They say the pod has gone on and may find more HUs. The forty-six HUs will be here in nineteen days. They should be able to help us cut at least a year off the time we need to build a new inner hull. More good news, my partner and I have just turned loose our first offspring. A new HU is now on its own. I am not sure why I get such pleasure out of a very mechanical process, but I do. Our midwife says it is the same for them. She suggests that we inherited our response from humans and Bugs. After all, in a way, we HUs and the ship's people are descendants of the same humans and Bugs. The midwife I was talking to says she is always very aware of that. It's odd that I never really thought about it before.
The people have decided to slow the pace of creating new HUs, in order to give their new personalities a chance to develop before they are given too much responsibility. They explain that they would have accepted the sacrifice if it was absolutely necessary, but now that we have more of the experienced HUs, we don't need to overload the new ones. I agree. Who wants to spend a lifetime being shipmates with someone who never had a chance to grow up?
The soil is through cooking in the new small hull. It is time to sterilize the soil and infuse it with the basic organisms that will enable it to support higher plants. The people are really excited, talking about green thumbs and whether they can start a pond. A pond would have to be in a gas-permeable bag. There is not enough gravity from the rotation to make an open pond work. Some of the people are worried that bacteria and algae would plug up the pores in the bag and turn the pond into an anoxic disaster. Others seem to think it is worth a try. After all, oxygen could be bubbled in if necessary.
It is over 140 days since the pod/courier left. It has been 103 days since anyone has had contact with them. We just keep hoping.
My partner and I are well on our way to creating another new HU. It is difficult and often boring, but I am looking forward with anticipation to birthing another HU.
The mining is going well. Because the materials are not deep in a gravity well, and because we are outside the sun's atmosphere and magnetic field, mining and refining are relatively easy. We have more than enough materials to build another thousand Hull Units, and there is enough silica to foam a new large inner hull. The only things we still need in large quantities are carbon compounds for the hull polymer layers and the soil. We may have to mine the planet or go deeper into the solar system. Well, we can worry about that later. We won't be able to start building the hull for more than two years, anyway.
An HU has picked up static on a wide range of radio frequencies. It is similar to, but not quite the same as, the noise from the creature that attacked us. Whatever it is, it is coming toward us, up from the sun's gravity well. I think it is safe to say that this news focuses everyone's attention. Finally we can see it. It is a metallic cylinder with rounded ends. It seems to be tumbling slowly as it travels. It is not slowing down, so it has at least enough propulsion to offset the sun's gravity. It is only about six meters long, and one meter in diameter. One of the humans says it looks like a silver cigar. Cigar is a historical reference to a human implement for ingesting a drug. I had to look it up.
The creature (we think it is a creature) is very dense. Our best guess is that it weighs about 14,000 kilograms, about the density of light rocks. It has changed direction, toward us, and is turning a little faster, so we think it has seen us. Perhaps the rotation and the radio noise are parts of its "vision." Something like radar. I mean, maybe it sends out a signal and then waits for an echo. I wonder how well it can analyze the echoes? I wonder how we look to it? We are making quite a mess around this planet. Right here, we have groups of live Hull Units, clumps of salvage, the old pod hull, the materials for the new ship's hull, chunks of other raw materials, and even people buzzing about. It must be very confusing to the newcomer. It stops a few kilometers away and waits. It is still turning, but more slowly.
The humans seem to have one-track minds, but I think they are right in thinking this is the offspring of the creature that attacked us. This brings up a lot of possibilities. For example, is Mama close behind? Are there more babies? Is this an egg, a larva, or just an early stage of the creature we met? Is it conscious? Can we communicate with it? Does it have weapons, and if it does, how powerful are they? Well, we are about to get answers to some of our questions. Two humans with jet-packs try to sneak up on Baby. The other humans call them cowboys. I look that up, too. Cowboys tended large domesticated animals back on Earth and Home. The humans say that the dictionary definition is incomplete. The word is now used to mean reckless.
The cowboys could not get close to Baby. Thankfully, we don't detect any change in Baby's transmissions, so Baby is probably not calling Mama yet. Baby can maneuver quite well, but Baby does not seem interested in leaving the area. I suspect Baby is hungry, and we are sitting on what it sees as a massive food supply. I am sure we could spare the "baby food," but I don't think I want to see this thing grow up.
The people want to feed it. They think the creature that attacked us was "pregnant," and had chosen this system as a nursery. Then we showed up and scared the poor thing into an attack on the intruder, us. The people could be right, but so what? This thing seems harmless now, but it may become a lot more dangerous if we feed it.
There is a sort of stand-off between the HUs and people for a few minutes. It seems like a long time to the HUs. Then one Bug points out that it would be a lot safer to learn from this baby than to try the same thing on Mama. The HUs reluctantly agree.
We don't really know what the creature eats, but it's a good guess that it is having a hard time finding enough carbon and nitrogen. We sure are. So we make it a picnic lunch of metallic rock covered with a carbon compound icing. The gift is accepted. Baby "eats" most of the snack, and sends the rest back at us. Baby withdraws a bit and waits. After a while, Baby's radio output becomes more regular. The people think Baby is asleep.
Later, the HU who is watching Baby transmits: "Baby is awake!"
Then, embedded in static, but completely recognizable, comes: "Baby is"
There is no question in anyone's mind. Baby just talked to us! Baby seems to be programmed to communicate, just like a human or a Bug or an HU. Baby is a social creature, at least at this age. Mama certainly did not seem sociable. Well, maybe she was just in a panic about a threat to her baby or babies?
I wonder if Baby was listening to everything that was being said when he/she/it arrived? I realize that English does not have a way to refer to genderless beings. Since I am such a being, I was aware of the problem, of course. Now, however, I want to know the sexual status of Baby. I ask if the humans have any ideas about how to sex space creatures. The humans who are listening laugh for almost a minute after I ask. One of the humans tells a joke about finding out the sex of an insect, which I don't understand, and all of the humans start laughing again. I suddenly realize that this is the first time I have heard any of the humans laugh since they rejoined us.
A message from the pod/courier! It is returning. It is outside the elliptic and feels safe transmitting to us, but we cannot transmit to it. There are two groups of undamaged Hull Units, totaling 712 units, on the way. The pod/courier is faster and will be here first, in about twenty-eight days. The HUs will be about ten days behind the courier. We will be able to establish full-time contact with the courier in about fifteen days. Through the courier, we will be able to make contact with the HUs at that time. I hope some of my friends are among the survivors. So far, none of the returned HUs were my friends before the breakup.
We have been watching the progress of a coming conjunction. The planet we are orbiting will be lined up with the next planet toward the sun soon. The next planet is an ice ball. It is a very low-density planet, but this far from the sun, its surface is solid. It holds enough carbon and nitrogen compounds for billions of ships like ours. All we have to do is figure out how to lift the materials out of a pretty deep gravity well. Actually, the planet does have moons. One of the moons may have enough of the materials we need. That would be nice. I suppose the pod/courier should investigate as soon as it has a chance.
The other planet will be reasonably close for hundreds of days. With the appearance of the additional HUs, we really might be able to mine the gas planet if we have to. I imagine the people are really happy. This brings the time when they can have a real home, and babies, closer by at least a couple of years.
The pod has made contact with us. We can talk normally to the HUs that are following, even though there is a long time delay. Two of my friends are in the group. I am so happy. Now I think I know why humans sometimes cry when they are happy. If I were human, I would cry.
I have just helped build two replacement HUs. I know a lot about what we are made of. I am having a really hard time understanding why we have such strong emotions. I ask a human. He says that his ancestors, and the Bug's ancestors worked very hard, and took a very long time, to give us emotions that would make us good companions to their descendants. I still don't know how it is done. The human points out that people are mechanisms, too. And we don't know everything about how organic emotions work, either.
Now that there are 831 of us, we can work in assemblies of fifty or more. It is so much more comfortable than working in ones and twos. We are going to make the full-size inner hull now, so that we can begin creating the bio-system. All of our carbon compounds will have to go into soil, so we will not be able to create the polymer layers. We think that the honeycomb and one thick layer of foam glass will provide plenty of rigidity for now. We will need the other layers before we can leave orbit, or enter the inner solar system where radiation is much higher. No problem; it will be a while before there will be enough HUs to move a one-kilometer hull out of orbit.
We HUs just keep on mining and making babies. Speaking of youngsters, Baby, the space creature, is growing fast. It (we still don't know its sex) is about twice as long and as wide as when it first appeared. That would make its weight about 110,000 kilograms. That is about ten percent heavier than an HU, and an HU has more than three times the volume. My partner and I have completed two new HUs, and we are helping to educate them. We have decided not to make any more for a while, and my partner is back to normal size. Baby is still a silver cigar. We wonder when it will start to become like its "mother."
This area is a real mess. We are foaming the new big inner hull. People in suits, clumps of HUs, raw materials, robots, and other machinery are everywhere. And through it all, Baby is gobbling up scrap and even stray tools. Always in the way. Both kinds of people say they have a life phase like that, when the children are always under foot. Not that anyone is walking here in orbit.
A ship! We are being hailed by another ship! It is coming up from inside the system. We transmit as briefly as possible, warning the ship about the space creature. No response to our message, but another message. A challenge! A human voice on the approaching ship is demanding our surrender! We try to contact the HUs on the approaching ship. No answer. The human on the approaching vessel says their ship will plow into us if we don't open a channel to let the humans on their ship take control of the HUs here. There is quiet for a few seconds, and then the humans break into a chorus of "lets get 'em." The Bugs agree. The humans always seem to be more aggressive, but the Bugs are right in there, too.
Baby has picked up our fear and uncertainty and seems to attribute it, correctly, to the intruding ship. Baby starts screaming. "Great, all we need is a big angry mama," says a human on an open channel.
Along with every other unencumbered group of HUs, the assembly I'm in starts for the intruder, collecting into a single unit as we meet, to gain propulsive efficiency. We all know, unarmed as we are, the only way to stop the approaching ship is a suicide attack. I have to say, no one hesitates for a second. Three hundred eighty-five HUs are assembled. We are accelerating to a speed that we hope will puncture the hull the other ship. Baby is following us, screaming at the top of its lungs.
I am surprised to hear a human snap out orders. I count that there are 67 people on board our assembly. I ask, "What are people doing here?" A human says, "The old pod hull is very crowded, so we spend a lot of time visiting our friends." Suddenly I feel very strange. Our friends. A calm comes over me. I know this is the right thing. I think we can get the humans off before the collision.
The human takes over again.
" Contact the HUs on the other ship on the maintenance channel. Just see if you can get a response."
We are in contact.
" Tell them they need an overhaul. Tell them they must uncouple and power down."
They did it! There seems to be a mist around the other ship as hundreds of thousands of HUs uncouple and power down. They are helpless now. We have to get to them before they drift away and become lost.
Suddenly every radio channel is drowned in static. It's coming from the gas planet. "Oh God," says a human, "Here comes Mama."
" Power down, for God's sake, power down," shouts a human voice.
We all power down. Baby quiets down. We drift. Mama is still coming, but her acceleration is reduced. She seems to be talking to Baby. She turns away from Baby, and us, and toward the other ship. As she nears, the other ship's pod ejects at full acceleration. Mama goes after it. We re-power and begin to decelerate, still on a course to intercept the other ship and the inert HUs.
It will take a while, but Mama is going to catch the pod. We try to contact the pod, but there is no response from the people or from HUs. In fact there don't seem to be any HUs on the pod. I guess there couldn't be. All of the HUs are turned off and floating free. How is the pod being steered? Finally we get a response from the pod on a general channel. A human on the pod is saying things that don't make sense. Our humans say the words are curses, a way humans sometimes express very strong emotions. I have strong emotions! Why didn't my education include cursing?
I notice that Baby is sticking with us, not following Mama. Well, we are going to be very busy trying to rescue the inert HUs without endangering ourselves. I hope Baby doesn't get "under foot." I wonder if there are any live people on the ship we are approaching?
I had been so focused on the HUs that it took a human to point out the cloud of frozen air and water around the pod dock. The escaping human or people must have deliberately allowed the air to evacuate. Nothing will be alive on that ship.
Well, we have a ship hull now, but what a cost.
On second thought, we might not have a ship. It is on a trajectory that will take it past our construction site and out of reach in a few hundred hours. We are afraid to reactivate all of the powered-down HUs. We have no idea what they will do, and they outnumber us a thousand to one. Our plan is to start reactivating the HUs one at a time and see how they react. All we can do is get started, and if we can't save it all, salvage as much as we can. And of course, there is still Mama. We don't know if she will be reasonable, or just blast the intruding ship and the helpless HUs. I am assuming that Mama is on our side now. I hope I am right. We have broadcast a short but powerful message for any other surviving Loggerhead HUs who can to join us here.
Now I am helping a team of three people to reactivate one of the shut-down HUs. We have disconnected the main power system and propulsion, and are using a small backup power supply. First, we bring up a minimum of sensory circuits, then the volitional systems, the brain. I am connected directly into this HU's communication circuits.
Where am I?
Me: Among friends. Do you remember what happened?
Who are YOU?
Me: I am HU 65rt28.
ENEMY! ENEMY! ENEMY!
Then there is nothing. One of the Bugs says:
" This HU just tried to escape, when it couldn't access propulsion, it tried to overload its power systems."
Me: It tried to kill itself?
" It looks like it, and us with it. Should we try another?"
Me: We have to.
" You're right. Let's get started."
The next one did the same thing. Now this one, the third, just looks at us for a while.
I didn't think I'd ever be activated again.
Me: Who deactivated you?
The people were getting destructive. Some of us tried to stop them. The HUs who rebelled against the destruction were either put into a maintenance mode or killed.
Me: Who put you into maintenance mode? How many were killed?
I don't know who was killed. The people put me into maintenance mode with the help of some of the HUs. First the humans began acting strangely, and then some of the HUs and Bugs began to join them in their sickness. How many HUs have survived? How many people have survived? What ship are you from?
Me: We don't know how many HUs survived. Some are so damaged psychologically, we will never be able to reactivate them, and we don't know which ones those are. There are no surviving people. We are from the Loggerhead. Can you tell us who the other rebels are, so we can reactivate them?
Me: No people.
I'll just give you a list of the rebels. There, can you pass it along?
Me: I already have. Only 3,578 rebels out of all of the HUs on the ship?
There must be many more. Those are the ones that were shut down before I was. I wouldn't know about the ones who were shut down later. Why can't I access my power and propulsion systems? Why can't I use my radio?
Me: We were just being careful. The other two HUs we activated tried to commit suicide and take us with them.
Oh, I'm sorry. I wish I had rebelled sooner and gotten others to join me. It is hard for an HU to go against a human or Bug. I wish we had been able to act together to keep the peoples' society from breaking down, instead of joining sides and fighting each other.
I remember how easily and naturally the people had taken over during this crisis. I wouldn't have objected. How can we know when to object?
Without even knowing what I am thinking, one of the Bugs says: "We are going to have to do something about better communications and decision sharing in our society. We don't know what happened here, yet, but I don't want it to happen to us."
We have reactivated all of the early rebel HUs. Most of them are OK. The other ship turns out to be the Petrel. We are spending some time with the reactivated HUs, giving them a chance to adjust. We must also decide whether we can take the chance of activating more of the Petrel's HUs. Even the HUs who rebelled are somewhat out of balance from their time in a sick society.
The Petrel and the cloud of HUs are passing our construction site. We have to decide. Should we just take the reactivated Petrel HUs and as much salvage as we can, or should we try to salvage the whole ship? It really depends on whether we decide to trust the reactivated HUs.
Mama is back. Actually, this is her first time at the construction site. She is nosing around a little. She is pretty mellow. It is probably due to having a good meal, the aft end of the Petrel's pod, including the auxiliary propulsion. The Petrel's pod is just drifting now, and our pod/courier has gone after it. There may be people on board, and there are certainly emergency supplies.
The reactivated HUs are pleading for their friends. The people are in favor of taking the chance, too. I think the people are feeling guilty about the people on the Petrel killing so many HUs. I am learning more about people constantly. Maybe that is the good thing that will come out of these two disasters. Maybe people and HUs will understand each other better. That may be enough to prevent more disasters like the destruction of the human/Bug/HU society on the Petrel. On the other hand, I am not sure what we are going to learn from the attack by Mama.
We have not learned anything about how Baby and Mama propel themselves. They just seem to move. There is radio frequency noise when they accelerate fast, but there is no other detectable magnetic, electrical, or gravitational field. Whatever they are doing, it is not in our experience, or even our theories. Since we are not about to dissect a possibly conscious creature, we will just have to keep guessing. Anyway, we already know that Mama would not let us dissect her or her baby.
The pod/courier reports back that they have the Petrel's pod in tow. There was only one live human. He was in a spacesuit outside the pod. He was still shouting curses at them as they pulled away and left him. As soon as it returns, the pod/courier will leave again to pick up the two HUs who have been drifting since the attack. Those two are certainly glad to be back in contact, now that we don't need to maintain radio silence.
Most of the people have joined with the reactivated HUs, and are drifting with the Petrel. They are reactivating as many of the Petrel's HUs as they can. They have reactivated many of the repair robots. They have the robots rewiring clumps of HUs so that one active unit can control the propulsion for at least twenty inactive HUs. If we can activate even 10,000 HUs, we can bring the inner hull back. It should work, but it is frightening to think of having 10,000 HUs who have undergone such a terrible stress, with only a few hundred of us to help them adjust to the losses they have to face. They will be able to bring back the hull and a couple of hundred thousand HUs. The rest of the HUs will just keep going, unless we go after them later.
While the people have been helping to reactivate HUs at the Petrel, they have been collecting information from the HUs, in order to find out what went wrong. Several of the Loggerhead's HUs, who are helping, have been recording the results and relaying them back to those of us who are still at the construction site.
A group of our people has finally entered the Petrel's inner hull. They waited until there were enough HUs attached to re-establish a little gravity and the lighting. The hull has been re-sealed, and there is even some atmosphere. However, the inside of the inner hull is still frozen solid. We believe the ship's complement was about 450 persons of all ages. So far, only twenty-three bodies have been found. All of them are adult humans, and all but three of them are male. All of the other people seem to have been killed and disposed of. We suppose they were recycled into the bio-system as soil additives. The human who escaped in the pod seems to have deliberately killed his coconspirators by depressurizing the inner hull as he was leaving.
The Petrel HUs have given us their perception of the events that led up to the inactivation of the HUs and the killing of most of the people. I do not really understand any of it, but the people are analyzing the information retrieved from the reactivated HUs and will present their analysis when they can. Of course, the people on the Petrel had computers, but the records do not seem to show anything wrong, except a declining population. It's as if no one wanted to leave a record of what was really happening.
Unfortunately, the HUs that we deactivated will not talk to us, and the ones who were shut down first don't know much. We do know that, on the Petrel, the HUs and people were not close. They seem to have stayed apart as much as possible. The HUs even had to register formally to get a human to do repairs. On a normally functioning ship, the HUs outnumber the people almost two thousand to one. But I can't imagine reporting a problem and not having people tripping over each other to try and help me. I remember the human, during the counter attack on the Petrel, who said he had been visiting a friend, as if being friends with an HU was the most natural thing in the world.
On the Loggerhead, HUs and people share all sorts of administrative tasks and hobbies, and they collaborate on scientific studies, education, and raising their young. It is hard to imagine two cultures only thirty-five meters apart and ignoring each other. I have resolved to spend some time with the human midwife who helped with our two "babies." She was very nice, and she said she would like to spend more time with HUs. I realize now that she was probably hinting. It doesn't pay to be too subtle with an HU. At least it doesn't with me.
Where Have You Been All This Time!
HUs, lots of HUs! Maybe most of the Loggerhead's original complement. We are receiving greetings and background from a huge number of HUs that have been slowly working their way toward this planet. Yes! There are 467,396 HUs accounted for and heading this way. They are decelerating and will be here in seven days!
They say that Mama did not follow or attack any Hull Units who went deeper into the solar system. Only units that headed out were followed and attacked again. The assemblies of HUs that had gone inward had kept radio silence and low power until they were well away from the area of the attack and well outside the elliptic. Then they had quietly assembled there, away from the planets, and were waiting for signs of more survivors before committing themselves to a plan of action.
The HUs knew they would need the resources of the planet we were circling if they wanted to rebuild the ship. However, they were not going to commit to building a ship in this system unless some of the people had survived. Otherwise, they would be able to return to human/HU space much more quickly without the weight of the inner hull slowing them down. Also, this planet was in the general area where the attack took place. They did not want to provoke their attacker again. Now I have something else to think about. It never occurred to me to leave the system without rebuilding a ship.
I am used to thinking of people as being individualistic, and HUs as being pretty much all the same. I think I need to reevaluate the individuality of HUs. I should probably also think about the HU social structure. Were these very different paths chosen by group discussion or by strong individuals? I think I have been setting the tone for the construction site. I have made decisions, and usually everyone has gone along, and I haven't ever thought of myself as a leader. I am beginning to realize that this is a very dangerous situation. I have been making important decisions without involving everyone else, because I wasn't really aware I was doing it.
I think it is safe for all of the HUs to come directly to our construction site, and everyone else thinks so, too. Mama seems satisfied that we are OK, and Baby seems to be able to facilitate communications between Mama and us.
Things really change. A few hundred days ago, I awoke fearing that I would not find even one other HU to help me rebuild, or any people to make it worthwhile. Now we have an inner hull and some HUs from the Petrel, over half of the HUs from the Loggerhead, and about three fourths of our people.
I feel as if I've been snapped like a whip. I notice that everyone else seems stunned, too. All of our plans are going to have to change now. What is the first priority? Getting a viable bio-system going in the Petrel's salvaged hull, so that the people can have children? Doing something about the HUs from the Petrel?
I guess we can get started on the bio-system. The people already have plants growing in the new small hull, and are re-inoculating the soil in the Petrel's hull. I guess we might as well call it the Loggerhead's hull. There isn't any Petrel, just some salvaged parts. I ask, and everyone agrees. The pod, the people, and most of the HUs are from the Loggerhead. The Loggerhead is reborn. And I am learning to ask and wait before acting.
The reactivated HUs from the Petrel will be welcome to join as members of the Loggerhead. Many of the inactive HUs cannot be reactivated. What are we going to do with them?
We still need to fill out the Loggerhead's complement of HUs. We could use large parts of the inactivated HUs to speed creating new HUs. The people are against just putting new "brains" in the old HU hulls. The humans say that would be like creating Frankenstein monsters. I have to look that up. After I do, I agree. In fact it is unanimous: we will reuse the power and propulsion subassemblies, but build everything else new. The inactivated HUs will just become recycled materials for the creation of new HUs.
That doesn't mean all of the HUs who have not been reactivated yet will be killed. We will temporarily reactivate any of them we might be able to rehabilitate. We have to balance the limits of our resources against our wish to rehabilitate as many HUs as possible. When this seems harsh, I remind myself that the people killed their own children to save themselves, and our society.
The people have cleaned out the inner hull, and have recycled the bodies that were found there. Many soil organisms and some seeds survived the sudden freeze when the hull decompressed. However, there were many organisms that did not survive, and none of the larger animals survived. Not even insects. It will take a while to get the soil healthy, but it is already possible to plant crops and renew the ponds. There was some question of what to do with the personal effects of the people on the Petrel.
I suppose it is the same as the question about recycling the hulls of Petrel's HUs. Things that are too recognizable as personal effects arouse too many uncomfortable memories. The people are going to collect and redistribute all of the household items and tools, and some of the clothes, then recycle or deep-six the more personal things. Yes, I had to look up deep-six. It refers to the ocean. To deep-six something used to mean to throw it overboard from a ship at sea. Here, it means to set it on a course so that it will eventually end up in the sun. From out here, that will take many years, but once the residue is launched, it will no longer be our responsibility.
Deep-six? I wonder where the humans find all these odd, ancient, terms? Maybe they pass these things from generation to generation by verbal history. I will ask Janet, who was our midwife.
Now that the people have a safe home, and there seems to be no threat of attack from Mama, we have the luxury of dealing with some small problems. Such as:
Where is the old Loggerhead inner hull? What should we do about the scattered remnants from the Loggerhead? There might be more HUs from the Loggerhead who have survived the attack, but are unable to communicate and navigate, and have not rejoined us.
What should we do about the Petrel's HUs who are still drifting away? Some of them are bombs, ready to explode if they are reactivated; others could be rehabilitated.
Shall we continue our voyage, or return to Home to pass along the story of the Petrel? Can we reactivate enough HUs from the Petrel to carry back the news instead?
We still don't know much about Mama and Baby. The subject is never far from my mind, and the subject comes up often. Now we have time, we can make understanding our "visitors" a top priority.
And Baby Makes Three
We wish we had another pod propulsion and navigation system. It is hard for us to salvage all the Petrel's HUs and search for missing-in-action Loggerhead HUs with only one pod. Hull Units travel very slowly unless thousands of units combine our propulsion systems, and most of the HUs who are not supporting the regenerating bio-system of the inner hull are busy creating, chasing, or reactivating HUs.
Unfortunately, we don't have the time and other resources to build another pod. On a full-size ship, the main hull propulsion and navigation and all of the life support is taken care of by HUs, which are self-reproducing. Pods are very complex machines that do not reproduce. They have to be built bit by bit, mostly by people.
The reborn Loggerhead is ready to fly. That does seem a strange thing for a turtle to do, but we are a new kind of turtle. After our rebirth, I think we might be a turtle with nine lives. I hope I don't have to be reborn again any time soon. It will take quite a while to be sure we are not abandoning any missing-in-action HUs, and it will take even longer to finish with the drifting Petrel HUs. We won't be leaving for a while.
We are returning all of the Petrel's HUs here, using the same technique we used before. Some of the active HUs will take maintenance robots with them, and run down the drifting HUs. Then the maintenance robots will connect control circuits to groups of inactive HUs. It will take a while to collect, connect, and wire the inactive HUs. There are almost 500,000 of them. However, we have decided to recover them all. This time, all of us have joined in making the decision. Once the Petrel's HUs are recovered, we will reactivate as many as we can. Then we will pool enough of the propulsion units from the dead HUs to allow some of the reactivated HUs to return to people/HU space. Then the Loggerhead can continue its voyage.
All of this is leading up to something. We suddenly find ourselves with some time on our hands. And naturally, our thoughts turn to Mama and Baby. You should hear some of the theories that attempt to explain their propulsion system.
Also, some of us are having second thoughts about Baby being a baby. Mama is not really showing any maternal behavior toward Baby. It is obvious that they can communicate, but they do not seem as interested in each other as they are in us. Mama did come to our rescue when Baby called, but then they proceeded to ignore each other. As far as we could tell, not so much as a "Thanks" or an "Are you OK?"
I am beginning to wonder if they are of the same species. Baby does not seem to be turning into the same type of critter as Mama. Of course, she is still hundreds of times more massive. Similar to the difference between a human and an HU. Also, there do not seem to be any other "babies."
I have been monitoring the HUs and people who have been watching Baby and Mama. The two of them are finally interacting, although it is not the kind of behavior I would have expected. The observers are reporting very aggressive actions on the part of Baby. Mama seems to just be trying to stay out of Baby's way. Baby insists on trying to push Mama around, and Mama is trying to ignore the intrusion.
The humans are laughing, really hard. The way they did when we were talking about sexing Baby. Now the humans are telling all of us that Baby and Mama are displaying obvious courting behavior. An HU responds that what would be obvious courting by earth organisms may be something else entirely for space creatures. A human says, "Maybe, but we will probably know soon enough." I am not linked into the outer hull or otherwise tethered, so I think I'll go watch.
I almost forget about Baby and Mama for a moment, as it strikes me that I am enjoying being independent. When did that happen? I remember how relieved I was when the bulk of my old shipmates returned. I remember how pleased I was to be part of an assembly. But now I seem to be deliberately choosing work that keeps me separate. This may take some time to work through.
Janet calls to see if she can hop a ride with me to see Baby and Mama. She is not too far away, so I go close enough for her to jump over and board. I am really relieved to have company, especially Janet. She specializes in helping developing minds, both human and HU. I suspect the events of the past year and a third are causing my intellect to develop in unexpected ways. Also, she is teaching me to curse. Cursing is more complex, and has more historical and cultural context than I had imagined.
Janet says I should install a human life-support system in my hull, so she and other people can come for extended visits. I would like that. There are plenty of life-support systems in the salvage. Some HUs have always had life-support systems. I had never needed one, and besides, I was already carrying a maintenance robot. Well, now I want one. I will make it my top priority after this little trip.
Janet wants to see what the space creatures are doing. I don't feel comfortable calling them Baby and Mama any more. I pipe the view from the HU nearest the pair of space creatures to Janet's visor. It is something to watch. The humans have been giving a human analysis of the interaction between the two. They have been saying that the small one is "putting the make" on the big one, and she/he is being "coy." They have had to explain these terms to the HUs. Even some of the people say they hadn't heard them before. Now I don't feel so left out. Janet knows all of these terms. She says she will translate the terms for me if I like. I tell her I can look them up faster, and she tells me that the dictionary definition may be confusing to a non-human. I will look them up and also let Janet explain. I like talking to Janet, and I'm sure she will have insights that I won't find in the dictionary.
The "courting" couple is moving off. They are too fast for me. The pod/courier is out looking for missing-in-action HUs, so we would need to assemble a few thousand HUs to even attempt to keep up. The people are insisting, so some HUs will detach from the ship and join us to provide enough pooled propulsion to stay within observation range of the creatures. Janet wants to move to an HU who has a life support system so she can get out of her suit. We can stay in audio and visual contact, so our visit won't be completely interrupted. Some of the human observers have brought food and water, so we can make an extended trip.
We can see now that the creatures are headed in the direction of the nearby ice planet. When we were under attack by the Petrel, the creature that we had called Mama reappeared from that direction. We are not able to keep up with them, but we are not too far away. I wonder out loud if it is safe to follow them, but no one is willing to give up the chase.
Even combining frequencies all the way from microwave to visual, we cannot see many details, but suddenly, the larger object is alone. The smaller one has disappeared from sight. The larger one is matching velocity with the largest moon of the gas planet. We are closing the distance, but we are still too far away to make out any details. We have good mass estimates for both of them, so we might be able to tell if they have merged somehow. If we can get close enough.
We are closer now, and the larger creature is just making a continuous low-level radio buzz. We are very close, but there is no response from the creature. The humans think this adds weight to their theory. They are already calling the two creatures Mama and Papa. I suggest that Mama may have ingested Papa, but the humans don't think so. They think that Papa is just transferring genetic information to Mama. Humans have a lot of interesting words for this process. After thirty-eight hours close to the buzzing Mama, we hear a second buzz. The second buzz is distinctive, and it is coming from inside Mama. The people think Papa is reactivating or waking up.
A few hours later, accompanied by a burst of radio noise, Papa is suddenly there beside Mama. He begins to make his usual signature radio noise and heads back to the construction site. It is obvious he is much smaller than he was two days ago. The people say that it makes sense that he would provide mass, or food, for their offspring, maybe some of the metals he has been scavenging at the construction site. The larger creature, the possibly pregnant Mama, just circles the moon and buzzes.
It seems likely that Mama and Papa came to this solar system together to breed. It's possible that Papa came as a passenger inside Mama. We are all wondering what the gestation period of this space creature is, and how long we should wait to see if anything is going to happen.
Without warning, Mama accelerates, and heads for the surface of the moon she has been orbiting. The buzzing has stopped, and she is emanating loud radio static. I remember that she produced a lot of static when she attacked us, and when she responded to Papa's call for help when the Petrel attacked. The loud static seems to accompany large accelerations. Wherever she is going, she seems to be in a hurry.
Even the weak gravity of this moon would be awkward, or even dangerous, for an assembly of HUs. I wish the pod was here. It could easily land on the surface. Then four lucky HUs would get to go to the surface, attached to the pod. Well, we will just have to watch from orbit.
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