Heather’s emergency visit ended with her looking very tired, with a very big smile on her face. Hawthorne had been worried his bed was far too much of a mess for him to rest and recover in, but that had been just about the only place that Megan, in his guise, and Heather had not been. Both he and Heather had taken the final day of the cycle, despite her claims of being tired, utilizing the androids by remote to move about the Ark and tend to the damaged stasis pods. They had done well to protect their occupants, isolating them magnetically from the impacts their outer shells had absorbed, though it was the destroyed pods that gave them pause.
Punched clean through by the space debris, the seven destroyed pods actually needed remarkably little repair to be operational again. The problem was that the internal capsules containing their occupants had been penetrated, apparently pulverizing the frozen occupants and causing their remains to leak out through the holes like a fine dust. Hitting such cold objects with such high-energy impacts was like throwing a block of ice into lava. Their bodies had essentially exploded, but without an unpunctured container to build up pressure, they just spilled out of their pods. Heather looked particularly upset about this, as she’d hoped they had been merely shattered. She didn’t know if shattered bodies at near-absolute-zero could be put back together and revived, but she would not get the chance this time.
Unfortunately, their tour of the ship mostly resulted in efforts trying to collect the remains of their companions. The destroyed pods would be restored over time by T.I.A. or used as spare parts for other pods as needed, but the bodies were little more than dust. Megan had briefly suggested using the remains as raw materials, but neither human felt comfortable with the idea. Curiously, T.I.A. admonished them for being needlessly sentimental and wasteful, and reminded them that the Phoenix Clan never would have survived without recycling the remains of their dead.
They collectively decided to compromise by storing the hundreds of pounds of dusted remains, leaving the decision to utilize them for one purpose or another to the future. If they turned out to be needed, perhaps for farming, then that’s when they could be used. Hawthorne and Heather both tended to hope the crew decided to bury them on their new world instead, but that possibility was far too far away for them to make concrete plans.
Hawthorne’s recovery required him to reduce his activity levels so that his limited access to food could do its job repairing the damage to his arm, necessitating him holding off on working out. His own personal restriction on the relationship with T.I.A. turned out to be a worthy call for helping him heal as well, physically anyway. It was something else entirely to simply try to end the intimate level their relationship had taken, and merely returning to the friendly behavior they once enjoyed seemed difficult.
A great deal of this recovery time was spent taking in media, watching old Earth videos, and reading. Considering the issues that came up with the remains of their deceased crew, Hawthorne took special interest in the enormous texts on philosophy and survival provided from the old Smith Bunker databanks. These items were standard reading for the youth of the bunker dwellers, and presumably if they still had access to the technology they were reading these books to this day. Hawthorne took particular interest in the writings of the actual founders themselves, Marcus and Emily Smith.
Annoyingly, the two did not separate their voices. They did not write books of their own. Every piece of writing they produced was a cooperative effort that they went well out of their way to ensure no one would know whom was writing what parts of the book. Hawthorne suspected this effort was to conceal the fact that it was actually written by only one of them, or a third party, but there was no way for him to even be sure of it. Of particular note, was a series of books intended for Elder eyes only, books that clarified the purposes of the books intended for the youth.
Hawthorne held T.I.A. in his lap about the middle with his left arm, his weakened right arm still hanging in a sling, occasionally reaching out to gesture but otherwise remaining immobile. The whole right sleeve of his VE suit had been temporarily removed for his recovery, and T.I.A. was doing her best to respect the limits Hawthorne had requested of her. With his chin resting on her shoulder, the two were reading one of the Smith Books, The Future is in Your Hands. “They were taking advantage of the circumstances to try and build a new humanity…” Hawthorne mused quietly, looking over the teachings and reasonings behind the Smith Bunker.
T.I.A. huffed, glancing back at him. “And you aren’t? You gathered up humanity’s best and brightest, selected only the best of reproductive samples, and made sure the leaders you brought were capable of making the kinds of hard decisions the Smiths did.” She tended to be rather defensive of the Phoenix Clan, which was understandable considering the decades she spent in contact with them between cycles. If she’d developed with humans as her examples, these bunker dwellers were the vast majority of the influences upon her.
“No, no, don’t misunderstand me. I understand they are very similar to me, but they’re so much more overt about it. I trust that my people will be able to form our new society together as a group, but the Smiths forced their people to see their way of thinking to change future generations of their people. It seems extreme, and perhaps even risky in that they could not be sure if their ways would end up being the right ways. Their bunker could have failed if it turned out they couldn’t change humanity the way they intended.” He squeezed her about the middle, smiling over at her. Her face couldn’t see his smile, but her cameras could so she smiled back and kissed his cheek.
“It might have been a risk, but they obviously turned out to be right. They produced people that could survive and thrive for centuries in an enclosed place under extreme circumstances. It’s not important that every bunker was successful, it’s only important that a few of them were, even just one. Different strategies being employed would mean that it’s more likely one of them might work. I’m still surprised the LSC bunker survived long enough to encounter the Smith Bunker’s people. The Old One biology must be incredibly robust.” She squirmed a bit in his lap, trying not to move too much. No sense stimulating him in his fragile state.
He sighed back at her, nodding. “They had a lot of foresight. I just wish they’d said something about why they were so prepared. They don’t do much to explain about themselves or how they got to the point they did preparing the bunker and its expandability. Hell, I don’t even know how they funded the damn thing. The Smiths must have been pretty wealthy if they truly did this on their own. As far as the Old Ones, I imagine their doctors realized their situation was not adequate for normal human life and started making as many Old Ones as they could before they lost the capability. I wonder if any of them are still alive? Wouldn’t it be something if we heard from Elena some day, perhaps long after we’ve settled Alpha Centauri?”
T.I.A. laughed, pressing her left elbow into Hawthorne’s side. He grunted playfully, pretending to be hurt, both knowing she probably couldn’t hurt him like that, and that he couldn’t feel pain anyway. “Hawthorne, if she survives that long, then it would be almost irresponsible to not see to utilizing that sort of genetic engineering on all of humanity. I’d love if you could live a hundred thousand years or more, so that we could spend all that time together.” She kicked her feet at the air, paying no attention to they way they went through the table in front of them.
“I don’t think that would go over too terribly well. Not only was it a flawed process, I just don’t know how many people might accept that kind of virtual immortality. It started as something only the rich did to their children, something only the most narcissistic people would pursue, the type of people who would have done it to themselves if they could have. My generation, at the very least, understood there to be some value in death, the ability to pass on our work to a new generation. That was intrinsically part of the Smith teachings as well. The sculpting of the minds of their future generations was an integral part to how they survived so long. Controlling human urges and instincts requires that kind of extreme environment.”
She nodded back at him, thinking quietly for a moment. “I’m really excited to see how those philosophies incorporate the Old Ones and the hybrids. I can’t imagine what kind of people they’ll be if we encounter them again, if they survive the ice age. I miss being able to watch Earth. I wish we could have left a satellite behind to look over them.” She sighed, slouching against Hawthorne, reaching out to rub her hand on the scratchy pages of the virtual book they were reading together.
“They will figure it out, and so will we.” He hummed, rubbing her tummy with his hand, considering how to respond to the satellite part. “You know the kinds of people that humanity are capable of producing. I don’t for a moment believe that the Phoenix Clan can produce those kinds of evil, especially not after reading these books, but we don’t know who else survived. We don’t know what their capabilities are. If an extreme philosophy could help one group survive, there’s no telling what kinds of extreme philosophies would see the others through the darkness. If those kinds of people discovered they were being watched, and if they were inclined to consider that a threat or evidence their circumstances were our fault, there’s no telling how they might react. Our message went out to the whole world. It could well have been kept as a record.”
She sighed and nodded. “But you offered to help! You said you’d be watching over… them… Hmm. Okay, I suppose if they were the distrustful sort, knowing how close the Cataclysm was to the receipt of your message…” She hung her head, depressed.
Looking over at her, he hugged her tightly from behind, swaying his head to the side of hers. “Exactly. I don’t like it any more than you do, but we don’t know how long the ice will keep them locked up, assuming they don’t find a way to avoid it in the first place. Humanity’s never had to deal with an ice age with such advanced technology. For all we know they could be undergoing a new golden age, though I suspect it’s much more harsh than that. That harsh environment was probably a huge influence on humanity as civilization formed in its violent ways. Hopefully some level of humanitarianism survives the darkness.”
T.I.A. seemed pretty moody, squirming a bit out of the hug. “I think the Phoenix Clan will come out on top, especially with their Roach friends.” T.I.A. groaned out softly, shutting her eyes tightly.
“They seemed nice enough.” Megan popped into the room. “I did not get much time to enjoy their company, but the plant creatures seemed to revere humans well enough. It was the metal ones I was most concerned about. There was no telling how many more would come. I was not about to take chances that even if we won that battle, that there might not be many more ahead. We were sitting ducks.”
Hawthorne blinked up at Megan, then listened as T.I.A. retorted. “I didn’t know them any longer, but they seemed loyal and friendly. Elena said they were motivated by their appreciation for humanity being responsible for them becoming intelligent. I’m sure they will coexist with the Phoenix Clan well into the future.” Hawthorne quietly wondered what this argument was about. This was not how he expected his day to go.
“Tia, please do not quote history to me. You have shared shared your view with me, but I was there. I agree that it is likely that they had survived the battle, I do not agree that known human eaters could not have reverted back to eating humans when the ice age came and they had little else to consume. I do not agree that the Phoenix Clan would not have been forced to put the plant roaches down. We do not know that they did not eat the people of the Columbia bunker either.” Megan was standing imperiously, arms crossed over her chest as she looked down at T.I.A. and Hawthorne. “They could have been conning them, waiting for a perfect moment of betrayal.”
T.I.A. puffed up her cheeks in annoyance as she listened to Megan’s assessment of the situation. Hawthorne squeezed her gently to try and calm her down. “Tia, relax. It’s all speculation. It is worth considering all the possibilities in anticipation of what we may encounter in the future.”
T.I.A. gasped, pulling free of Hawthorne’s embrace to spin about to look at him, floating between him and Megan. “You’re not seriously going to believe what she said about them? The Phoenix Clan are farmers! They will learn how to coexist with plant creatures, certainly!”
Hawthorne held up his good hand, shaking his head. “I’m not siding with Megan, I’m just willing to consider all sides of the problem before making a decision. I’m not as attached to the Phoenix Clan as you are, so I can understand you being upset. I believe you when you say they will likely coexist.”
Megan slipped up behind T.I.A. and gently pulled her back against her, hugging her about the middle and pressing her cheek to T.I.A.’s hair. “Oh my precious, naive Tia. You were interacting with them with days of delay, with carefully thought out recordings. I lived with them every day. Decades of life spent like you spend with Hawthorne right now. They were not all that you think they were. They certainly were good people, but not all of them were nice. The scouts, in particular, were allowed to have that special little bloodlust that only Humans can have. They needed to, to fight those metal monsters…”
T.I.A. looked like she was going to cry, unwilling to believe that her friends were capable of such things. “If… if that’s true, then they’ll definitely be able to handle the plant roaches if they turn on them!” She wriggled in Megan’s embrace, trying to resist the strange intimacy of the two consciousnesses interacting directly. “I just… I just want them to all get along… work together.”
Megan smiled, squeezing T.I.A. against her once more before letting her go. “If we can work together, then perhaps they can as well. I was certainly not one of the good ones, but like yourselves, they had no interest in my opinions. I will respect your views. It is not my purpose to oppose you anyway. I merely wish to help you consider all options.”
Hawthorne nodded, standing up unsteadily, using his left hand to balance himself on the table. “Exactly. Honestly, if I had my preference, by the time we hear from them again I’d like it if the Smith philosophies had shaped the whole Earth. They have a lot of work to figure out where the Old Ones and plant roaches fit within their culture though.”
T.I.A. opened her mouth to speak, but Megan cut her off. “They will do what they did with the Old Ones, they will try to breed with them.” T.I.A. and Hawthorne both gasped in horror at Megan, but she merely shrugged, smiled mischievously, and vanished back through her little portal.
Hawthorne took thirty cycles to heal to an adequate level, though it was clear his arm would never be quite the same. He had what appeared to be a pit in his scarred, but well-healed flesh, and his bicep did not completely regain its original mass. The pitted scar was mirrored on the back of his arm, limiting his strength. Thankfully, since he couldn’t feel pain, he probably remained unaware of the lingering pain he should have been aware of from the beginning.
T.I.A. didn’t want to admit it, but the argument had really gotten under her skin, and while she doubted it would bother her too terribly long, she held onto it to help her put some distance between her and Hawthorne. Their comfy embraces and lounging about became very uncommon, and they both did their best to maintain a professional environment while they worked together.
Upgrading Megan’s capabilities on the Lubar-Masis took an initial priority, giving her similar protective arms and shields as T.I.A. had, as well as a hangar to house an increasing number of constructions. Drones, tons of solar panels, drilling machines, fabrication machines, empty propellant tanks to be filled later, and even rudimentary stasis pods to keep samples filled the hangar. They were the beginnings of the future infrastructure of Alpha Centauri, the tools to build the habitats humanity would make their first base as they figured out how to colonize the planets they might find there. It was simple enough to detect planets as they approached, but determining what they might be like after the tens of thousands of years until they arrived would be impossible.
They could control habitats like O'neill Cylinders, or asteroidal colonies. They could not control the stars themselves, or their effects on their orbiting planets. If the planets had atmospheres, there was no way to know what they would be like after millennia of time. If the planets had life, there was no way to be sure how that life might alter the climate.
More importantly, Megan would be arriving first, and with plenty of time to relay information back to the Ark. T.I.A. and Hawthorne should be able to launch packages ahead of themselves to seed appropriate planets with life if they were found while Megan worked. It would be an exciting moment to wait for as the last few hundred cycles of their journey counted down and they waited to get word from Megan on what she found.
There was also the matter of The Shower, the name Hawthorne eventually gave to the event that assaulted their ship with high-speed projectiles. It was an enormous relief that they managed to escape the event, but after looking into the trajectories and speeds of the objects, its origins had become more clear. Millions of years ago, a massive star had exploded into a nova and sent its masses rushing off in all directions. Much of it was collected by its own gravity back into a likely new star and series of planets, but some of it managed to be going fast enough to fly into space.
Much of it had probably been caught up in other gravity wells, smashed into other planets and stars, but in this case they’d been unlucky enough to move through a shotgun blast remainder of this ancient event. Worse, there was no telling just how many other such things might occur in the future. Without being aware of every nova that has ever happened, and how powerful they were, and where the various objects that might intercept these projectiles were over the course of history, there was no way to know where these Showers might be or how common they still were. Such massive stars were uncommon in the Milky Way in this period of time, but Showers could apparently exist for millions of years after their spawning event.
In the end, their best defense was to estimate the course of the one they encountered, and try to figure out where they could most likely encounter such things. Unfortunately, it became clear that the space between stars was easily the most dangerous, and they were very much in such space. Gravity wells provided the best defense against these dangers. Without knowing exactly what direction such things could come from, all they could really do was react, and do their best to use whatever comets they acquired to provide cover.
This research brought Hawthorne back to the casualty list. He quietly went over his thoughts on what he could remember about them before looking back over their records with T.I.A.
Doctor Andrew Benjamin Bjorn was a younger fellow of Dutch origins. Hawthorne recalled him to have impeccable English and a passion for spacecraft design that would have made him both rich and famous in a world where the Ark had not cast the Earth into uncertainty regarding space. Hawthorne was struck with how his memories of talking to him seemed so dull and numb despite what he specifically remembered. Bjorn had married his high school sweetheart, but while he was busy with work she got caught up with drugs and started cheating on him, and as his marriage dissolved he had thrown himself into their work. There was little doubt this catalyst was of enormous aid to getting the ship together on time.
Doctor Corzon Cornelius Velorum was a botanical geneticist. It would not be too extreme to say the man could grow corn from rocks if he wanted to. He had been the main voice of concern over what their future colony would eat, and had managed to convince everyone it could be a largely vegetarian affair. If not for the intervention of Anthony Saul bringing his supply of animal embryos onto the Ark, there may have been no hope of humanity on Alpha Centauri ever eating an animal again. Velorum was a hard person to read, and from their records it seemed he had a troubled upbringing. Dreaming of reaching the stars had driven him past his orphan life, and he sacrificed everything else important to him to be part of the mission.
Professor Agatha Nova was a curious woman, someone who worked her ass off, quite literally, to come on the mission. She’d been severely overweight when she came to Hawthorne’s notice, and after selling her on the idea with Tia Monsalle’s help, she’d coordinated with others in their employment to help her lose weight. She’d lost two hundred pounds in a matter of three years, all the while helping the team find and recruit appropriate teaching candidates to bring along with them. It was her view that teachers would be incredibly important once the crew started having children, and she had volunteered to be first in line. If not for Tia Monsalle setting out on their journey pregnant, Nova likely would have been the first Mother of Alpha Centauri, not counting Megan’s new pseudonym.
Sergeant Nathan Parker was a rare mind recruited out of the Mojave Desert in the United States. In testing he proved to be something of a genius in a military profession that did little to exercise his mind. He possessed a remarkable willpower and ability to force his body to bend to his will, healing and recovering from injuries with remarkable speed and without medicine. This was especially notable as he survived a roadside bomb and received diagnosis that he would never walk unaided again. Through sheer force of will he had worked his way back onto his feet over the course of five years, and by the time Hawthorne had met him he’d already been back in the best shape of his life. If his ability could be harnessed, Hawthorne was certain it could revolutionize medicine. It was a shame all they had left of him was his genetic samples. Hopefully his offspring maintained this ability.
Lieutenant Jill Waititi also came from the States, Hawaii to be specific. She had a unique perspective on how to live in harmony with nature, and she had taken to teaching her units in the military how to camouflage a base by building it into and from nature itself, incorporating living trees, plants, and the terrain to make land bases nearly invisible and remarkably secure. These were small scale things, but as the tendrils of the US military spread across the world, she was among a series of revolutionary thinkers trying to reduce the ecological impact of their new bases. Her unique mind alone had qualified her for the mission. Her incredible health, youth, and desire to shape the architecture of a new world had been icing on the proverbial cake.
Professor Walken Khopse had been one of Hawthorne’s own teachers, one of many minds that had helped shaped his perspective on engineering and physics. Khopse in particular was well known to consult with most of the world’s spacefaring organizations, and as he became aware of Hawthorne’s intentions he had done his best to restrict the world’s spacecraft from interfering with the Ark. While he was one of the oldest among the crew, he was nevertheless a healthy, vital man who could have been a huge help in designing the space infrastructure Hawthorne had been working on when the Shower claimed his teacher’s life. Hawthorne hummed as he looked over his file, wondering if one of their stations should be named after him.
Doctor David Ivo Stein was among a handful of ‘mad scientists’ that had been courted by their mission. Stein had been notable due to his interest in researching genetic engineering and eugenics. His work had ended up being entirely hypothetical, due to the moral restrictions he had to work under, but it was likely the various books he’d produced had influenced the Smiths if their own thoughts of manipulating a gene pool were any indication. Where he had really thrived had been with animals, and while he’d had no particular love of them, they bore out his research brilliantly as Earth’s livestock continued to become more and more specialized. He was well known for producing strange things like camels that produced as much milk as a cow, and the extra strange wooly pig. Hawthorne regretted that Doctor Miguel Saul had been unable to come on the mission. Without both Stein and Saul, they’d have to rely on Saul’s son Anthony for a majority of animal research.
Hawthorne sighed as he thought about these lost companions. How many more would they lose? Could another Shower claim more of them, or some other fresh new assault? What else did space have in store for them? If a supernova could shower the galaxy in its remains, what other phenomena did he need to look out for? He decided he needed to find better ways to defend the engines, considering they’d be facing the opposite direction once they started decelerating. Even one stray space rock hitting an engine could be a disaster. At the very least he needed to double check the armor they had around those components.
Before then, though, one more rendezvous had to occur. The Phoenix Object was coming into formation in cycle 1043, and would be fully moving along with them within a handful of cycles. It was a two-faced looking thing, with an enormous percentage of its mass extending out into a hemisphere of icy mass, while a naked hemisphere of rock seemed starkly bare of ice. The thrusters controlling the object had been placed firmly in the ice, redirecting the rogue object into formation with the Ark and Lubar-Masis. The reason the thrusters and Minerals Extraction and Materials Fabrication Devices were on the icy side turned out to be because the naked part of the rock contained rather radioactive materials, while the icy side was distant enough from the radiation and seemingly shielded from within from it.
Hawthorne was especially pleased with this acquisition, as the radioactive materials would be excellent fuel for the stirling engines powering the rest of the ship and the Lubar Masis, and depending on the half lives of the materials they could last them the rest of the journey if they weren’t too short. It seemed unlikely a rogue, radioactive space object would have a very short half life without having long been inert. The trio of self-propelled ships, two of them comets of a sort, sped along towards their eventual destination, though the Phoenix likely forever lacked its own AI installation. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult at this point for Hawthorne and T.I.A. to copy Megan into another housing, but it was unlikely that Megan would take well to competing with herself with the goal of being humanity’s ultimate servant goddess. Hawthorne lamented they had no brain scans of any of their lost crew. Such lost genius and potential was such a waste.
More importantly to Hawthorne, though, was that T.I.A. and he were starting to drift back together again, and while they were both reluctant to resume their sexual relationship, Megan was witness to many instances of the two cuddling together as they read books, or designed machinery. She found them to be a very curious couple, not too unlike what she imagined a human and Flora Roach would be if you considered that T.I.A. was a massive spacecraft and not the curvy girl she projected to Hawthorne. Perhaps that wasn’t fair though. Perhaps Megan needed to reconsider her perspective. The way Heather had reacted to her when she’d taken Hawthorne’s guise seemed very genuine, even if she’d also seemed very guilty about it. Perhaps these avatars of theirs were more genuine than she gave them credit for.
Megan seemed content to work on her own projects, looking over Hawthorne’s designs and offering her input. She’d lived in artificial environments for hundreds of years before she was resurrected on the Lubar-Masis, so she had an interesting perspective on what would be a tolerable living environment in space. Hawthorne had been somewhat upset when she pointed out that his own habitat would be intolerable to most normal people for any length of time, and she took a good level of satisfaction in suggesting that only Doctor Crenshaw could survive in such a birdcage.
“No wonder those two keep drifting together… They were made for each other…” Megan mused to herself, doing plenty of reading on her own.