The Charred Tree

Diaspora: Prickles and Thorns

“Ciyige!” the woman at the metal desk barked. There was so much gold piping and embroidery on her uniform Jon would have thought it gaudy in any other context. Considering he was flanked by BDU-clad military police armed with stun batons, her uniform seemed just the right amount of pomp to balance the dreary circumstances. “Next!” One of his keepers pushed him forward and Jon stumbled before regaining his balance half a step from the officer. The desk’s nameplate was emblazoned with a row of Chinese characters with an English translation somewhat smaller beneath it. He held out the green envelope that had recently replaced his confiscated credentials.

Captain Song Shunsu of the Unified Armed Forces snatched the papers from Jon’s fingers and flipped them open. Her eyes darted left and right as she scanned the particulars. “Hoarding…black market…uncooperative. Exiled off planet…recompense labor. Typical subversive.” She entered information from the documents into the terminal before refolding the papers and handing them back to Jon.

“I hope you gave me a window seat,” Jon muttered. The stun baton caught him across the back just below the ribs and he heard the crackle of electricity just before ozone filled his nostrils. He dropped to one knee and caught himself on the desk. The Captain remained seated and glared at Jon.

“I see your wife will be accompanying you in your exile. Was it her choice or is she guilty of the same crimes for which you were sentenced? Your judge was very lenient, Mr. Hooper. I would have sent you to the mines. In my grandfather’s time it would have been a bullet to the back of the head. Instead you get a long sleep in a slot on a colony ship—a slot that a more deserving citizen should have. I find it hard to understand why such inequities exist. Why should you get to keep your ungrateful life on a new colony?”

Jon gasped for breath and struggled to still the muscle spasms attacking his spine. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he looked at the woman behind the desk. Anger glittered through her eyes.

Captain Song folded her hands together in front of her and steepled the index fingers. “Enjoy your new home, Mr. Hooper.” At her glance the guards lifted him to his feet and escorted him to the cryogenic processing facility.

Able Spacer Leland Barrett exited the barracks of the orbital shipyard Sianphous and took a moment to admire the United Terran Colonial Vessel Acantha silhouetted against the sunlit continent of Asia passing below them. He had to mentally subtract the booms and scaffolding still clinging to the mammoth ship but that would be gone soon enough. Final construction of the coupling hatches and control ports would be completed within the week. During breakfast he had overheard another crew discussing the new umbilicals and camlocks being installed between the main hull, the cargo pods, and command/control. Engineers developed improved components that were already installed; then they wanted the original replaced with the upgrade. Construction crews hated that sort of thing because it always put you behind schedule. This one sounded simple enough, though, since it involved parts built in modules and mounted on the exterior of the ship. Much easier than replacing an engine core, that’s for sure. There was no reason the construction crew shouldn’t be done on time.

But Leland’s crew had other duties today. While the cargo pods being prepared at the lunar facility would attach around the outer perimeter of the ship, the cryo banks holding the colonists would be housed in the main body of the massive vessel. Leland checked his wrist and saw the waypoint indicated below and to his left. He rotated his arms to face that direction and saw the yellow and red strobes of the barges. Damn! That’s a lot of tonnage. The manifest listed over a hundred of the automated barges waiting to be loaded into the Acantha’s hold. Each barge carried ten thousand souls. Leland opened the crew channel in the communications menu on his wrist.

“This is TP0-Barrett. Crew 7-Theta-Phi—roll call.” He spoke clearly and evenly.

The replies came through the speakers in his helmet, “TP1-Barnes check. TP2-Blazer check. TP3-Deng check. TP4-Li check….” As each crewman checked in their name on Leland’s heads-up display changed from yellow to green. “TP40-Zubinski check” changed the last name on the list, TP34-Sellers was still yellow.

Leland frowned. “Where’s Sellers? Your partner, Langston. What’s the word?”

“Medical downchecked him this morning; some kind of virus. Infirmary put him in quarantine. He sent me the message just before we came on shift. I’ll tri-partner with Li and Winslow unless you want to do something different.” You could always count on Langston to be thinking ahead.

Leland grimaced at the news. Sellers’s absence meant his crew was a team short for a shift that was already likely to go into overtime. His dad had always said to never get too proud to get your hands dirty with honest work.

“No. Too much mass to move to be handicapped like that. I’ll take Sellers’s place and work with you. Crew, there are one hundred seventeen barges locked onto the yard just aft of the main hull hatch. They are loaded with ten-kay frozen colonists each. Our assignment is to get them stowed in the Acantha’s main hold and tied into her power grid. It’s a big job and we’re in for a long shift but I assume no one will object to overtime. The list of your assigned barges has been sent to the pad in your suits. Any questions?” Silence.

“I’ll be on the team channel with Langston, so break in to me on the high-order receiver if you need me. Let’s get to it.” Leland closed down the crew channel and activated the localized team channel with Langston. “OK, Langston. Driver or pusher?”

“Pusher, Mr. Barrett. Sellers could be a helmsman if he wasn’t blackballed.” Langston referred to Sellers’s Taiwanese ancestry. Society tried to make itself believe that such things didn’t exist—and maybe they didn’t out in the street—but no one could dispute that some people would never get their chance to advance because their grandfather had insulted someone else’s grandfather. That’s just how things work.

“Yeah, well, that’s above my pay grade. I don’t meddle in affairs of state. We start on barge C-86. Let’s go.”

They rotated to face the barges and activated small puffs from their thrusters. Langston was a good worker and communicated well. They were halfway through their fourth barge when the communication channel with dispatch chimed.

“TP0-Barrett.” Leland responded.

“Need you over on the hull, Lee. 9-Omicron-Nu had an accident and one of their techs was injured while installing those new cams and ‘bilicals. Log says you’re certified on the modules.” Frank Costantini growled through the speakers.

“My team’s already short handed because of medical. I’m filling in for my sick man. You got no one else?” Leland asked.

“Yeah, I already know about Sellers and I wouldn’t be callin’ you if I could send some other wrench monkey. Management moved up the schedule and you’re closest. Next closest person who qualifies that ain’t already workin’ is out on Luna. 9-ON has the most critical piece. Overtime and safety waivers are all signed off on. Get yer ass over there,” Constantini spat.

“Rog’ that.” Leland grinned to himself, “And, Frank, either get your old lady to put out or lay off the kaffe. You’re gettin’ grumpy in your old age.”

Constantini’s laugh rang back across the channel. “Will do, Lee. Sorry about that. I’ll be glad when they finally get this behemoth out of here. I’ll buy you a drink when you come off shift.” The link went silent.

Leland switched back to the team channel, “Langston, join up with Li and Winslow like you suggested. I’m being pulled off to help 9-ON.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Barrett,” and he zipped along the safety line toward the pair he would be helping.

Leland flew to the coordinates Constantini had sent to his computer and activated the crew channel for 9-ON. “TP0-Barrett reporting to assist 9-Omicron-Nu with construction.”

“Knock off the bullshit, Barrett.” A very tall spacer with broad shoulders stood up from the module he’d been working on. “I’m Demir, the 0 for this crew. You’re wasting time with that formal crap and the bastiges upstairs have seen to it that we got none left. Constantini says you been trained on these new connectors.”

“Yes. Last year when they changed the design.”

“Good. Wei was injured while installing the new unit with Patel. Get over there and see what you can do. Unlike the baggage handlers, we have a hard deadline to meet.” Demir turned back to the assembly at his own location. Leland bristled at the man’s arrogance and rudeness but couldn’t fault the man for being gruff considering the schedule changes. Besides, he couldn’t be too bad a boss if he was digging into the work with his own hands, too.

Leland made his way to the assembly node Demir had indicated and introduced himself to the spacer working on the module. “What’s the game plan, Patel?”

“We’re replacing the cams and umbilicals on the bottom of the ship. We have three nodes left after this one is done.” Patel grinned, “Hope you didn’t want an easy day.”

Leland laughed. “Damn straight! If I had wanted easy, I would’ve stayed a groundhog.” They discussed the particulars of the job for the next few minutes and then got down to work. Patel was friendly and they made good time getting the work completed. Leland noticed that the new camlock assemblies were a different design that made no sense to him.  Patel also admitted to being a bit confused by the change. The mechanism on the new units looked to use much less material than the ones they were removing. “Hell, that’s why I’m not a designer—I can’t think outside the box. If we’re putting it on the ship it must be an improvement,” he commented to his temporary partner. They both shrugged and finished the cams before moving to the connection harnesses.

“What’s this additional wiring on the umbilicals?” Leland asked.

“No idea. It’s consistent with control circuitry but I don’t see what it’s supposed to control.” Patel raised an eyebrow and looked sideways at Leland. “They let you question so much stuff on your regular crew, Barrett?”

Leland laughed. “I boss my regular crew. It’s part of the job description.”

“Well, Mr. Demir discourages that kind of thing. Pretty much a do-as-you’re-told-with-no-back-talk approach. Just because you’re temporarily on loan to him don’t think he won’t chew you another one right through your pressure suit for it.” Leland stopped chuckling and Patel dropped his eyes. “Fair warning is all.”

“Thanks, Patel. Let me know if you see him come up.” Leland took a closer look at the circuitry as he installed the last of the umbilicals assigned to them. It was strange because those control circuits connected directly to the camlocks themselves instead of a control unit. Oh, well, he knew better than to question the mysterious ways of engineers and architechs. As he tightened the last bolt and inserted the locking pin his crew notified him they had completed their work and were headed back to the habitat.


The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major dominated the bridge of the Nellie Cashman. As a cellist, Julia usually listened to classical music while standing watch whether in space or groundside. She spent much of the weeks and months between mining locations in what they called her stateroom practicing on her mother’s cello while Nora played various pieces through the ship’s speakers as accompaniment. The AI had commented favorably on her playing repeatedly, but Julia was skeptical of Nora’s opinion—she was, after all, a computer and computers were not known for their artistic skills. She wished she could play for TJ but the loss of her mother was too raw a wound for her to even suggest it. Maybe one day. The syncopated tones and flowing strings of the piece rose and fell recreating Bach’s musical magic. Julia pretended she had her cello before her and played it along with the music filling the bridge with a bow that was just as imagined.

As the last notes faded to silence Julia leaned back in the seat at the operations console and glanced across the feedback sensor readings for the mining bots working on the surface of 2004 XR190. Buffy, the planetoid’s unofficial name, was shaping up to be quite a find. The monitor above the sensor displayed their payload level—67%. The first few sites they had surveyed upon reaching orbit had been useless, but then they mapped this site and discovered a levels of molybdenum, tungsten, and titanium higher than TJ had ever seen. Nora confirmed that no such concentrations had ever been reported. The bots had been running nonstop since grounding. Julia checked the maintenance records and estimated another two days before the first of the bots had to be rotated offline for servicing.

“Nora, based on the quality of the ore we’re getting, its proximity to the surface, and the bot service cycle in a couple days, I think we should have the hold full in four or five days. That sound right to you?”

“Yes, Julia. Maintaining out current production level I estimate four days and eight hours before we reach capacity.” Nora’s voice came from the navigation and command stations. A chess board floated in the holotank. The pieces moved on their own playing out different game scenarios. Julia did not play but the game was Nora’s passion, if an AI could have a passion.

“Add to that three days to prepare for lift and then how long to get to Io to offload?”

“We should arrive at the Jovian Resource Depot in just over six months. Will you stay awake or sleep for this trip?” Nora was capable of piloting the ship—landing and mining processes as well as the boring long reaches between locations—without human supervision but TJ and Julia rarely took the deep sleep.

“I don’t know. I’ll decide before we lift.”

Thomas Jefferson “TJ” Clarke opened the hatch and entered the command and control compartment. “Ladies. How goes the mining?”

“Everything is fine, Dad. You want some kaffe?” Julia glanced at the time—still two hours before his watch.

“No thanks. I just had some in the galley.” He made his way to a station not monitoring the mining operations and pulled up the probe data. “Nora, have you come up with any more theories for the Adjan information?”

“Regarding the monetary value data? Thirty-two years matches with the dates that a series of deep exploration probes were launched, but it does not explain why it is there in the first place. Government collected data never references financial figures or economic impact. Therefore, the Consortium of Consolidated Corporate Interests had to have their own AI on board the probe or, more likely, a hidden subroutine to operate in the background. It would then perform its own analysis of the data based on the Consortium’s interests. The amount of data in the message is larger than anything I have ever encountered. The standard survey methodology is to summarize the data collected before sending it back to Earth. However, the Adjan 172 report contains comprehensive data—every sensor reading from every probe and rover—from the thirty-eight months the probe was in the system. It is an unusually rich system. The subroutine must have a decision-making command structure to determine how much information to keep.” As Nora spoke, the chess board vanished from the holotank and was replaced by side-by-side examples of a typical government survey report and the one they had acquired for Adjan 172.

“That’s like comparing a children’s book to an epic novel.” TJ stared at the data displayed in the tank and chewed his thumbnail. “Wait a minute. What if we’re looking at this all wrong? What if this isn’t a case of the Consortium pulling shenanigans against the government? What if they are working together? Is it possible the Consortium and the government are in bed together? I wouldn’t think it was possible thirty-two years ago, but times change. Neither the Consortium nor the government cares for anything but their own comfort and power. Corruption is rampant in both and if they are working together then it’s bad news for everyone—they kill anyone who gets in their way just like they did to Rachel…”

STOP!” Julia shouted and slammed her hand down on the console. TJ’s face was an odd mixture of pain and surprise. “Don’t go any further, Dad. I know you blame the government for Mom’s death but this is stretching credibility. You hate them—I get that—but you have to stop this obsession. Please. You lost the woman you loved and I lost my mother but nothing we can do will change that. Stop building a case that only hurts both of us and accomplishes nothing. Let it go.”

TJ balled his hands into fists and looked as if he planned to pound them into the console. He did not. Instead he looked at Julia. She looked so much like Rachel that sometimes it was almost painful. “I know, Julia. I know I should let it go…but I can’t. Not yet.”

Julia pulled herself over to where TJ stood and hugged him. “I just hate to see you go through this every time something comes up that reminds you of what happened to Mom. I’m afraid that one day it will make me lose you, too.”

Nora’s voice came from the speakers above their heads. “This is interesting, Boss. The governmental newsfeed is mostly the normal news items you would expect—droughts in North America, wildfires in Ukraine, the Congo drying up and disappearing into the Sahara—but the last item is unusual and you will want to hear it.”

“Replay it, please.”

The image shimmered into view within the holotank. The newsreader AI’s projected body sat behind a desk with a monitor seeming to hover over his right shoulder. “President Zhou Changtai announced today the launch date and destination of the latest colony mission. He was joined by the Minister of Exploration, Dr. Lafe Bernard, who provided the details. The UTCV Acantha is nearing completion and will launch within the next two months. Suitable colonists have been chosen for the mission to establish a self-supporting colony and supply Earth with raw materials. The colonists have boarded the Acantha and are settling into their accommodations for the ten-year journey. Dr. Bernard told those gathered for the announcement that the mission has been in the planning phase for many years in anticipation that a suitable system would be found. Discovery of such a system recently reached researchers at the Bureau of Settlement and Ministry of Exploration. The system surrounding the star Adjan 172 has a large habitable planet with abundant life in its oceans and plenty of land suitable for agriculture. The age and condition of the planet, designated Adjan IV, is similar to Earth approximately seven millenia in the past. All reports indicate the expedition should have few, if any, problems. We here at Unified News Corporation join the people of Earth in wishing our brave brothers and sisters, sons and daughters a safe and prosperous journey to their new home.” The image in the holotank faded to black. For several long moments no one said anything.

TJ broke the silence with the question that was uppermost in Julia’s mind.

“What the fuck?”


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