Lazy Luddite Log

5.11.06

Voyage of the Volunteers

Here is a story I had published in 'Diverse Visions' a decade ago. It was written and published in two parts which are both now presented here with some small changes...

Part 1

"I will miss you Mummy" said the adolescent girl with the intense grey eyes, who stood in front of Adele McEwen as she strapped on her life-support sensor-harness. For an instant it was as if Adele had never known her daughter, as though she was still a young childless trainee in the Planetary Space Agency. But then her senses returned to her and she recognised just what was happening here. Sara was saying goodbye to Adele, probably for the last time. Her only daughter, the sweetest thing in her life, and she was leaving her. But she was leaving more than just the most important thing in her world, she was leaving the world itself. Other worlds beckoned...

Adele would have plenty of time to think. Now she had to act. Mother and daughter fell into a deep embrace and stood there together for several minutes. Finally, it was Sara who disengaged from that last final hug. Her mother was the commander of the Matet, a ship that was to be the first to travel to a planet orbiting another star. She was proud of her mother.

Sara knew that what she was feeling now was little different to what had been felt by the loved ones of all the explorers that had gone before, those who had visited the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, those who had established an orbital station around Venus and who had colonised Mars and the Moon, those who had first left the bounds of Earth, those who had charted and united a world which had once been a disparate collection of isolated strangers. This was a personal sacrifice that had to be made. It was Sara who had told her mother that she was free to go. "Daddy and I will be fine" she had insisted. Sara knew that space exploration was her mother's dream and she wanted Adele to fulfil that dream. Sara left her mother and father, Randall, to make their own final farewell. Her last words to Adele were "Look at the beach, Mum, there'll be a message there for you."

The spaceport was situated near the shore in a temperate zone of the Earth. It was a wonderful sunny day, a fine day to be at the beach. Sara walked along the sand till she came to a point that she knew could be seen from the shuttle bay that Adele would be in. Holding a branch of driftwood in her hand, she wrote something in long furrows in the sand. She looked up the hill towards the spaceport. Sara felt that she must be amazingly mature to be fifteen and to willingly let her mother go into the cold dark expanse of space.

Tears began to appear on the face of Adele as she looked through the large glass windows of the spaceport down towards the shore. She could just discern the letters in the sand, which conveyed the simple message of "I love you". On the beach some minutes later, the wind blew over Sara and took her own tears away as the shuttlecraft in which Adele now rode flew into the bluest of skies. The vicinity of the spaceport was restricted to staff and relatives of the volunteers, however the historic departure of the Matet was to be telecast to the entire world. Sara run inside the public reception facility to watch the large video screens with an assembly of many others.

The voice of an announcer proclaimed that "Today, 20 May 2139, will go into the records as one of the most important in the history of exploration and indeed in all of human history. Today the Matet will take its crew of twenty volunteers on an heroic voyage to another star - Barnard's Star - and another world. They will spend most of the voyage in temporal stasis but once they arrive at their destination they will awaken to a new land that they will survey and, if the conditions are suitable, seed with the molecular building blocks of life. Once this is done..." This was all bullshit. Sara only wanted to see the images, the projection of the Matet in which Adele would spend a year of her life. Or rather, she would spend a year of her voyage in consciousness. The rest of the time she would be in hibernation. Meanwhile, for the Earth an entire century would pass until the Matet would return.

Sara could see the Matet now. It looked like the skeleton of a gigantic steel fish. A long spine connected the habitat module (the head) with the fusion engine (the tail). Along the length of that spine were other attachments - most notable being the gas and solar wind collectors which were yet to be unfurled. The shuttle entered into a docking bay in the habitat module - it looked like something being swallowed by the fish. Finally, the solar sails unfolded like exotic fins and the engine began to glow with the power of the stars. The Matet would travel at an amazing speed, and yet that speed was several times slower than the speed of light.

Now, pre-recorded farewell statements from the command crew - including one from Adele McEwen - were playing over the telecast, but all that Sara was aware of was the image of the Matet as it slowly but surely receded into the cold expanse of space, away from the warmth and comfort of Earth, its only home and parent. For Sara it was both the most beautiful and the most horrid sight she had ever seen.

Part 2

"Look at it - it's beautiful!" exclaimed one of the younger crew members of the Matet. It felt as if they had been away from Earth for an entire year, whereas they had in fact been gone for a century. It had taken just under fifty years travel time to the planetary system of Barnard's Star, about a year spent in researching and tampering with the environment of the most habitable world, and just under fifty years spent on the return journey to Earth. The great bulk of all this travelling had been spent in artificial hibernation. Now they had awoken to the sight of an immense sphere of swirled blue, green and white. It was beautiful after the cold harsh blackness of space, or the mottled red-brown of that other world.

Shades of grey was all that Adele could think of for a moment. Had she stayed on Earth she would now be dust and bone, just like her husband Randall, just like her daughter Sara. As it was, to all intents and purposes she was just over 45. Who knows what had come to pass on Earth since their departure? Her native curiosity was momentarily quashed by a sense of futility. This was no longer her world. Anything that had once given her comfort must now be gone. All she had now was this mission, and that too would soon come to an end. Then what? She could take some administrative or academic position and become something of an isolated recluse in an ivory tower. She could become a media personality and be surrounded by a succession of friendly and insufferable strangers. Neither of these options were appealing. Her sombre mood soon changed. It had to. Adele was still the commander of the Matet and she had the morale of the crew to consider. "Well crew, we're home... get read to unpack your bags" said Adele, successfully mimicking confident cheerfulness.

A flotilla of ships, some old and some new, had come to meet the Matet. The crew took a shuttlecraft to another ship, a huge sleek silver-white craft that looked more crafted than constructed. It seemed that, in a century, technology had advanced to such an extent that spacecraft architects could now attend to aesthetics as well as functionality. The Sektet took in the shuttlecraft and its crew were escorted to a reception facility.

"Welcome home, Commander McEwen" said a strangely familiar looking mature-aged man. "My name is Sebastian Ramos. I am the executive officer of the Planetary Space Agency. Would you like to come to my office to discuss the results of your mission and the reculturation of your crew into Earth society?" Adele nodded agreement. In the office they sat. The decor was different in this century, but still recognisibly human. "You are all heroes, you know Adele... may I call you Adele?" "Yes, of course" came her reply, "but tell me, what has happened while we've been away?" Sebastian smiled and went onto tell Adele of the completion of formal unification of the political structures of Earth, well underway at the time of her departure; of further colonisation of the solar system; and of the development, in just the last 18 months, of a successful faster-than-light drive. "Oh, that makes me wish I was born a century later than I was, exploration will be that bit simpler... I could still have my old life" Adele trailed off sadly. "I'm so sorry, Adele, I wish things could have been different" said Sebastian, "but there is something I can tell you that may be of interest..."

"What, have we made contact with aliens?" remarked Adele with a wry smile. "Well, unless you did on your expedition, then no, extra-terrestrial life remains a mystery. It's something else". Sebastian paused, and seemed to compose himself to say something difficult. "Adele, I am your great grandson". This man, who looked somewhat older than she, was her great grandson? Adele, visibly affected, said "Oh, oh... tell me how, um, tell me about... about our family". Sebastian went onto tell Adele that Sara, at the age of 30, had a daughter of her own in 2154. Adele had been the same age when she had given birth to Sara. Sara became a successful journalist and wrote a number of popular texts on the history of exploration. Her daughter, Crescensia, became an aerospace engineer, designing, among other things, the Sektet, and had a son, Sebastian, in 2184, also at the age of 30. It was in that same year that Randall died at the age of 85. Sara lived for another 33 years after that.

"I remember Grandma very well. She was the one who inspired me to go into space exploration, though in the end I only became an administrator. I've never been further than the Moons of Saturn. Still, it has allowed me to be the first to meet you now that you have returned to us. After we've dealt with some official matters, I'll take you to Mum, your grand daughter. At 85 she's getting on and she's determined to meet you since, after all, she's been waiting a while..." Her grand daughter Crescensia? How would she cope with being called 'grandma' by that old woman? Sebastian interrupted her thinking, saying "then we can have you meet my children, and the grandchildren and great grandchildren of your husband..." So, Randall finally did remarry. She had told him he could. He had doubted it at the time, but now she was happy that he had changed his mind in time - all the more relatives for her to meet now.

This was all too much to contend with at once. Adele looked into the eyes of Sebastian and now knew why he had looked familiar. They were the grey eyes of Sara, strong but tender at the same time. After a moment Adele averted her gaze and looked at the wall of the office. There was a picture there on the wall, a photograph, an image of a beach, so long ago and yet so fresh in her memory. That beach... that message in the sand... Sara seemed so tangible still. But there were others to meet now. Adele had a century of life to catch up on. She had better get started.

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4 Comments:

  • Your Space Program is *much* sexier than any existing one. Bring on part two!

    By Blogger Jac, At 11 November, 2006  

  • How so sexy? It is much more advanced but then it is an SF set some decades into the future.

    I should add that the whole story was originally inspired by the Queen song '39 written and sung by Brian May.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 18 November, 2006  

  • I do believe that the spacegoing activities of 2039 will be far short of those described in your story. I didn't make the connection to '39. - in that context, it makes sense that you set the tale in on Earth and in the relatively near future. Doing so does set up a natural comparison with reality, so looking at what I know of existing space programs, even plans to get humans to Mars are barely embryonic and rather frail. If we manage that before three more decades have passed, I will be pleasantly surprised. So I suppose it's little wonder that I like your descibed space program so much more.

    By Blogger Jac, At 18 November, 2006  

  • You approve of a massive expansion in the space program despite the resource useage that would ensue?

    (-8}

    The story was written in the mid-90s so that makes its setting a decade more futuristic than it seems. Also it was deliberately written in the tradition of classic SF. Space the final frontier and all that.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 20 November, 2006  

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