Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

‘The Companion’: chapter 5

I have infected the main computer at the space lab with a virus emulator, in order to delay the launch date by a few weeks.  The “virus” itself is very benign: all it really does is cause scary messages to pop up unexpectedly, but Kelvin confirms that they are going to have to do a full security audit and data cleanse, which will take a long time.  I have gone to a great deal of trouble to make them think that it originates from Central Asia. 

The reason I needed the delay is that I am tantalisingly close to a breakthrough in my work on the artificial uterus.  I have had all the necessary enhancements made to my vascular system.  I have finished designing my genome, and my ova have been synthesised.  My ovaries and fallopian tubes have been fitted, but they are not yet connected to anything.  The uterus is the key.  We have been gestating rabbit foetuses by the hundred, and counting the number of cell-divisions before lack of optimal conditions causes them to stop growing.  We are still messing about with different combinations of blood composition, amniotic fluid, and lining materials.  It is the lining that is the real bastard.

       Apart from the elusive breakthrough, the main problem I am having is satisfying my academic co-workers when they keep asking me why I am not publishing anything.  The head of department has been talking expansively about a possible Nobel Prize nomination, but I do not care about any of that.  All I care about is developing the capacity to conceive and carry Kelvin’s child before the launch of the Alpha Project takes me away from my research lab. 

       When I am not working, I am hacking.  I have leaked certain details of our findings to most of the world’s major biomedical engineering companies, in such a way that they have each felt compelled to start research programmes of their own.  Every few days, I hack into their systems to see if they have come up with anything useful.  Results so far have been disappointing, because my team (not surprisingly) is always in the lead.

       Kelvin tells me that all fifty thousand places on the Alpha Project have now been filled, after a sudden increase.  He insists on referring to them as “berths” with an “e”, which made me do a double-take at first, because I had “birth” with an “i” so heavily on my mind.  His main problem was that hardly anybody believed he was serious when he asked them if they wanted to drop everything, never see their friends or family again, and start a new life on a new planet (assuming we get there alive).  At first, various government departments made difficulties about letting anybody know about the mission at all.  Kelvin pointed out to them that it was not possible for him to find volunteers unless the volunteers were allowed to know the salient facts about what they were volunteering for. 

       The upshot of these various influences (plus the recent economic downturn) has meant that members and ex-members of HM Forces are over-represented among the colonists.  The downturn came into play because some flavour-of-the-month in the Treasury realised that anybody who went would not be entitled to pension rights.  The new government has recently disbanded a battalion of Gurkhas, all of whom would have been entitled to pensions. 

       Kelvin still refuses to tell me anything about the mission, because of course he thinks that I am not part of it.  I have managed to find out the important points for myself.

       The mission has five phases.

       Phase 1 is the launch of an unmanned craft that comprises two parts: the fuel scoop and the interstellar propulsion unit.  This is initially bound for Titan, one of the moons of Saturn.  It had long ago been established that the sea on Titan (the only body in the solar system apart from Earth to possess  liquid on its surface) is almost entirely composed of methane.  It would therefore make a very good source of fuel for the rest of the mission.  The fuel scoop will fly low over the surface of Titan, scoop up several million cubic metres of liquid methane, and then leave the surface in order to participate in Phase 3.  The fuel does not need oxidant, because it is “burnt” in a nuclear fusion reactor rather than a conventional burner. 

       Phase 2, probably the easiest, is the launch of the habitation and life support module and its journey to the vicinity of Saturn for rendezvous with the other craft.

       Phase 3 is the rendezvous and docking of the two craft to form a single vehicle, capable of interstellar flight and keeping fifty thousand people alive for several years.

       Phase 4 is the journey to the new star, during which observers on Earth will lose contact with the mission.

       Phase 5 is the descent. 

       Phases 1 and 2 are further complicated by the fact that the craft concerned has been constructed in orbit around the Earth.  This means that another vehicle will be required to take the crew and passengers up to the habitation module.  We have to receive training for this part of the mission.  The main part of the interstellar journey is supposed to feel normal (if you call living inside a tin can for several years “normal”).

       The estimated probability of success for the five phases is (I discovered from one of the most secret documents) eighty-five, ninety-five, seventy, sixty, and fifty per cent, respectively.  That means that the chance that the whole thing will work is seventeen per cent, or about one in six.

       It is still overwhelmingly likely that, even if all five initial phases go perfectly, disaster will strike the Alpha Project somehow.  Kelvin appears not be worrying about this, and neither am I. 

       I have started assembling my equipment.  Kelvin has some ridiculous notions about limiting the amount and complexity of technology that the colonists are allowed to take with them, his hypothesis being that the colony will be able to re-invent and re-develop every advance that mankind has made in the last two hundred years.  This is the silliest idea I have ever heard.  Even Kelvin admits that the new colony will be by no means without technology.  There will be satellite communications, computers, and modern analytical instruments.  There will also be a few small nuclear power-plants, but there will be no planes, trains, ships, modern manufacturing plant or state-of-the-art hospital facilities.  Kelvin predicts that daily life for the first couple of decades will resemble that of small-town America in the 1930s.  I can hardly wait.  I have obtained the largest pair of 3D-printers that will fit into my storage container.  The first is mainly to make body-parts for me.  The second is to make parts to repair the first one if it breaks down.   I am taking these along with plenty of raw materials, including some rare metals. I am currently trying to locate a second-hand tunnelling electron-microscope in good condition. 

I have a new pet.  She is called Rosalind.  She is a black rabbit and is the first mammal in the world to be “born” from an artificial uterus.  She was brought to full term, and is strong and healthy (in fact, she is trying to get her teeth through my skin at this very moment).  Her DNA is also synthetic.  She has a biological father, called Zeus, but her “mother” is technology. 



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