In the wake of Earth’s fall, Peter Alander has just one choice: to use the alien Gifts left behind on his distant colony world to warn other missions of their impending demise, a second wave of alien ships, this time intent on destroying everything in their path. Without the Gifts, humanity would have no hope at all--although no one truly understands them, and it is becoming increasingly certain that the very use of them is what draws the enemy on.
Out of the dark comes help from an entirely unexpected quarter. Peter Alander and his fellow survivors are not the only victims of the terrible Starfish. But what if the cost of that help is too high? What if the price is humanity itself?
“This book shines” —Cinescape
“High adventure in deep space for fans of far-future SF.” —Library Journal
Nominated for the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards.
About the Author
Shane Dix is an Australian author who became obsessed with science fiction at the age of twelve after reading Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps.” Dix has had short stories published in or on the likes of Aurealis, Eidolon.net, Twenty3: A Miscellany, and Alien Shores: An Anthology of Australian Science Fiction. He is best known for his collaborative work on the Star Wars: New Jedi Order series with Sean Williams. His accolades include but are not limited to the Aurealis Award in 2001 and three Ditmar Awards in 2001, 2003, and 2006.
Read an Excerpt
Orphans of Earth
The Orphans Trilogy: Book Two
By Sean Williams, Shane Dix
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Sean Williams and Shane Dix
All rights reserved.
EXCERPTS FROM THE PID (PERSONAL INFORMATION DIRECTORY) OF ROB SINGH, UNESSPRO MISSION 639, TESS NELSON (PSICAPRICORNUS).
2160.9.02-03 Standard Mission Time
Everyone has to have a reason to be. Mine, I think, is to appreciate the subtlety of the Spinners' work
Subtlety? From creatures that do in a day what humanity would struggle for decades to do? Who flaunt their technological superiority as we would wave a stick in front of a dog before throwing it to watch him run?
Yes, subtlety. When we retrieve the stick, we find the hand that threw it long gone, utterly disinterested in whether we found it or not. There has to be something subtle at play there, or else the universe truly is incomprehensible—and that is something I cannot believe.
The Spinners have been here for what feels like an eternity, and we have found no obvious explanation for their mysteries. So I place my faith in subtlety, and in my all-too-human inability to see it.
For now, anyway. I guess I'll just have to keep looking.
* * *
Hatzis has gone off to powwow with the bigwigs from the other colonies, and we don't know when she'll be back. That's fine with me. She's so damned strict about system resources. At least while she's not here, I can fast-track to talk to people without inconveniencing them too much.
Ali Genovese has been left in charge. When I spoke to her today, she looked tense. It's understandable. Our current situation is more than a tad iffy. Psi Capricornus is smack-bang in the middle of the hot zone. If anyone's going to be attacked by the Starfish, it's likely to be us. And I'm not just being dramatic, either. Every broadcast brings news of another colony lost. Yesterday it was Balder; tomorrow it could be Inari. I feel like we're sitting on top of a volcano.
"I vote for firing up the engines and leaving the system," I told Ali when she dropped by.
"Leave Inari? You can't be serious, Rob."
"We're sitting ducks here. If they hit us, we'll never get away. Not without the hole ship,"
"Even with the hole ship, we probably wouldn't get far," she said glumly. "You heard what happened to Adrasteia."
Adrasteia was the first on a list of names I didn't want Inari to join.
"Ah," she said then. "It's because you're bored, isn't it? You want your old job back."
"Would you blame me if I did? There's not much use for a pilot around here."
"You're working on something," she said. "I see your data flow. It's all inbound, all about the gifts. Are you doubling up on our research, Rob?"
"Tiptoeing across the cracks."
She pulled a sour face. "Sometimes I think there's nothing but cracks," she said.
"Then I'm not wasting resources."
"No. You have my blessing to keep poking around."
She didn't leave then, although she could have. I had what I wanted, and she had more important things to attend to. But she stood for a moment in the low-maintenance parlor I whipped up for guests, gazing idly into space. She's letting her blond hair grow out—or presenting the illusion of growth, at least. I like it better that way, even though I can never tell what's going on under it.
Eventually, she blinked and returned. "Sorry about that, Rob. Got stuck thinking about home."
I nodded understanding. We all do, sometimes.
2117.2.18 Standard Mission Time (5 November, 2118 UT)
By the time Lucia Benck realized her friends were dead, the blue-shifted photons that had carried the news were already a month old. Although she fought to comprehend what the images were telling her, searching for the remotest possibility that her interpretation of the data could somehow be wrong, she'd had enough experience with distance and relativity to know this was no illusion that she could simply brush aside. Her powerful rejection of what she was seeing had more to do with not wanting to accept her impotence than not believing what she saw. She wanted to reach out across the vast gulf of space and time that separated her from her crewmates and warn them, to save them from the fate they had already suffered.
Deep down, she knew there really was nothing that could be done for the Andrei Linde. All she could do was watch, accept, and consider what was to be done next.
The first thing she did was return to Chung-5's clock rate. During the approach to pi-1 Ursa Major, she had been gradually accelerating her perception of time from the deep rest she experienced between targets to something approximating normal. Even so, she had been severely behind at that point in the mission, experiencing barely one second for every ten of the probe's. Once she was back in synch with the probe—albeit still dilated with respect to Earth and the Linde—she wouldn't waste days pondering her options. She had the luxury of time, if not resources.
The second thing she did was examine the data in meticulous detail. Could those flashes of light have been the signs of an accident? Was there any chance that the emissions encircling the planet were atmospheric disturbances? Could a sudden flare-up of pi-1 UMA have caused the things she saw across the system? But it was all just speculation, and the absence of any definite answers to her questions only frustrated her further.
While doubt remained, her options were unclear.
Prior to receipt of those images, her mission had been proceeding as normal—or as close to normal as she had decided to maintain, anyway. Chung-5 had been coasting headlong toward pi-1 Ursa Major, where the crew of the Andrei Linde had established a beachhead around the fifth world out from the primary star. She assumed that her crewmates had christened it with the name they had agreed upon prior to leaving Sol—Jian Lao—so this was how she referred to the planet in her own mind. Apart from that, she really didn't know a whole lot more. The Linde and its crew had arrived almost exactly on schedule, Mission Time, seventeen months earlier. She'd seen the braking flare of the ship' s atomic engines reflected off the planet's moon and upper atmosphere, and she occasionally picked up faint echoes of carrier waves not aimed at her.
With Chung-S's main dish expanded as wide as possible, and with secondary baseline dishes spread out in a vast array around her, she had eagerly absorbed the data coming in from the target system. It boasted eleven major planets, six of them gas giants. Two of the giants had ring systems to rival Saturn's, large enough to be just visible to her interferometers. She couldn't detect asteroid belts, but she did discern a comet passing close to the sun, its tail impossibly faint against the deeper darkness of the background.
As for Jian Lao itself, its emissions indicated an Earth-like world. In fact, as she watched it slowly resolve, she realized it couldn't have been more like Earth. From the vaguest suggestions, she imagined its blue oceans and green forests, dreaming of the Eden she was giving up. As with all of the survey ships, the Linde had the capacity to build new bodies for its crew, and she pictured herself standing under an alien sky with the wind on her skin and Peter at her side. It was a reunion she longed for sometimes. How many other couples could boast surviving a separation of not only normal years, but light-years as well? It was hard not to want to complete the circle, to connect the dots.
"The tourists outnumber the truth seekers," he had said back on Earth, the night before their engrams had woken. She was a committed tourist, and she knew it; that was why she was riding a glorified rocket forty-five light-years away from home, alone. But there was a haunting, tempting truth to the image of her and Peter that was hard to deny.
Then had come the flashes from around Jian Lao and its moon, closely followed by smaller disturbances across the system. Each flash had been brief but frighteningly bright, reminding her of an antimatter containment failure she had witnessed once, back in Sol. She'd watched the flowering of small pockets of annihilation across the system, thinking of the work the crew of the Linde would have been doing in the years since its arrival: the satellites that would have perhaps been placed around the moon and the nearest gas giant, and maybe even the solar poles to watch for prominences; the installations on Jian Lao itself; the geosynchronous orbit of the Linde ...
Christ. Geosynchronous orbit is where she would have put the Andrei Linde, and that was where the biggest flash of all, the first, had come from. If the flashes really were explosions, and if that first flash had been the Linde, all hope that she might ever stand in that Eden with Peter was gone forever.
She was surprised by how much the thought hurt her, how much the dream had meant. She might not have intended to go back to him, but it had been important that he was out there somewhere, waiting for her. The source of such feelings had to be other than genetic—since she no longer had any actual genes—but she couldn't rationalize it.
UNESSPRO wouldn't program the desire to reproduce into a machine, surely? Perhaps they would. She wouldn't put anything past UNESSPRO. If they thought something would increase the chance of the missions succeeding, they'd probably do it.
Whatever. The origin of her confusion was just a smoke screen for her deepest concern. Peter was gone, the need went unfulfilled, and she grieved. In the empty spaces of her virtual coffin—she had long ago dismissed all but the most basic conSense illusion in preference to the company of stars—she cried tears that felt real but weren't.
The truth sank in. She was proud of herself for not flinching. It would have been easy to switch off, metaphorically or literally. Instead she reexamined new data obsessively, looking for clues. Although the stray signals from the Linde had ceased with the flashes, there were other signals she couldn't interpret. Over the course of a real-time week, drawing 100,000 kilometers closer with every passing second, she watched as numerous other energy sources flared and died with irregular rhythms across the system. The smallest of the rocky worlds disappeared; the infrared signature of one of the gas giants changed.
She was too far away to tell who might be responsible. A hostile Earth government, perhaps, much advanced in the decades since the Linde had left Sol? The possibility that someone would break the light-speed barrier and beat them to the target worlds had been one seriously considered by the UNESSPRO bigwigs, but out here it was pure speculation. It could just as easily have been aliens. All she knew was that, whoever it was, their talent for destruction was startling, and the more she saw, the more nervous she became.
Then, without warning, everything stopped. The energy flares faded and died; the small, rocky world reappeared, and the gas giant returned to normal. It was as though nothing had happened, as though everything she had watched had been an illusion, after all—or perhaps a glitch in her instruments.
But there was one small difference: there were no longer any human signals coming from the system.
"Okay." She imagined herself pacing to and fro in a small room. "What have I got here?"
Not much, she told herself. It looked like someone had flown into pi-1 UMA and blown up the Linde, but she had no way of confirming that.
"And then what?" she asked herself.
Someone might have screwed around with the system for a while afterward, but she couldn't be sure about that, either.
"So what now?"
Everything was back to normal, no different than it had been a month ago.
Except for the Linde.
The silence from the mother ship was complete. No echoes. No stray beacons. No engine flashes.
"Shit." She stopped pacing and worried at a virtual hangnail. The only way to confirm what had happened was to get closer, which she was already doing. In twenty days, whether she wanted to or not, she would flash across the system at a sizable percentage of the speed of light. If there was anything there, she would see it clearly enough. But it might also see her, and that was the problem.
She had a bad feeling that had nothing whatsoever to do with genes. But what was she supposed to do? Her options were limited. If she was wrong about her gut feeling and she went out of her way to act on it, what was the worst that could happen? She might feel foolish. Whereas if she ignored her gut feeling, then whatever killed the Linde and her friends might kill her also.
The thought was a sobering one and made the argument pretty clear cut, from her point of view. No one else had to know if she was wrong. And if she was right, she would still be alive.
The problem was that the only way to be sure she wouldn't be noticed was to switch herself off.
She thought back to her days on Earth spent training for her mission to the stars. In reality, she was going on many missions at once, since she consisted of over 200 duplicates all kitted up in nearly identical probe vessels, each craft little more than engines with instrument packages attached. While the main missions would go directly to the target systems, the various versions of herself would make a flyby of the numerous smaller and failed stars along the way, surveying brown and white dwarfs, protostars, and stellar remnants, seeking out curiosities rather than Sol- like environments. She was proud to have been chosen for these missions, since they were the dangerous ones—both physically and psychologically. She would be alone for the entire time, completely out of contact with Earth and her crewmates. If something went wrong, there would be no one to help her.
That thought had never bothered her before. She had learned to rely on herself and was as independent as a person could be. In the end, on this particular mission, she had come to like it—being alone on the new frontiers, seeing things no one else would see. The thought of going back had in fact filled her with a kind of dread. Once the novelty of watching sunsets with Peter wore off on Jian Lao, what would she have to do?
Risking suicide wasn't something she'd planned, though. Shutting herself down certainly hadn't been on the agenda. She could build a simple molecular timer and switch that would power herself back up again, but nothing was perfectly reliable. What if it failed to restart the systems? What would happen to her then? The question was meaningless. Frozen in time like an old photo, doomed to decay into stardust, she would no longer exist. She would never even know what had happened to her. But who was she, anyway? The solo missions incorporated three hard copies of the driving personality into the hardframe, in case of degradation or damage, and she knew that at least one of hers had been compromised in the past. At best she was a piecemeal version of herself; at worst, a completely new template seamlessly taking over where the old one had left off. Not even her memories of life before the program were really hers in the first place.
Try as she might, whichever way she looked at it, she could come up with no reasonable argument against disconnection. She didn't believe in God, so the idea of suicide certainly didn't pose any moral dilemma for her. And on the balance of things, surely it was better to go that way than at the hands of some interstellar murderer.
And that was that.
Decided, she didn't waste any more time. She started immediately with a detailed inventory of the Chung-5's system and resources. Although she had left Sol sixty-seven years earlier, relativity meant that the probe had only aged about forty. (She herself had aged barely a year, which made it hard to remember, sometimes, how long it had actually been.) Radiation had damaged a thousand little things in those forty years, and she needed everything to be working when she shut herself down.
What she could do without, she switched off, concentrating all her resources on several key areas and letting the rest lie dormant. Nanorepair systems could look at those later. If the engines never started again, that was a fair trade to ensure that she didn't die.
Excerpted from Orphans of Earth by Sean Williams, Shane Dix. Copyright © 2003 Sean Williams and Shane Dix. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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