The Gifts of an alien race called the Spinners gave Peter Alander hope for the future of humanity. All the Gifts did, though, was draw down the wrath of the Starfish, another alien race apparently intent on wiping out all forms of competition. Caught between the two, humanity faces the hard decision of evolving into something else entirely simply to survive.
As their new alien allies prepare to leave human space forever, a handful of survivors band together to make one last attempt to communicate with their enemies. A single ship will leap into the very heart of the Starfish fleet, attempting to find reason where none exists…
“Space opera can be a very comforting, cozy mode, with its interstellar empires and royalty and guilds. But when dramatic Darwinian forces are brought into play, as here, space opera can become a kind of bracing, near-apocalyptic tale.” —Paul di Filippo
“A melodramatic (or space-operatic) take on Stapledon, a grittier, bleaker take on Clarke…. a vision very different from the triumphalism of traditional SF adventure, but its darkness seems entirely appropriate to the twenty-first century we actually inhabit.” —Locus
Nominated for the Aurealis Award.
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Rasmussen was a beautiful world: green and temperate around the equator, with an even split between ocean and landmass. Both poles were icebound and surrounded by turbulent berg-filled oceans; the air was high in oxygen, supporting a diverse ecosystem that boasted insects large enough to bite an android in two and tree trunks dozens of meters across. Its primary, BSC5070, was a G6V star slightly redder than Earth's; Rasmussen orbited close to the center of its habitable zone. Marcus Chown, the UNESSPRO mission sent to explore the system, had arrived fifteen years earlier and established an extensive orbital complex from which detailed biological and geological examinations had been made. Under the leadership of Rob Singh, terrestrial contamination of the environment was kept to an absolute minimum. Even during the arrival of the Gifts, the pristine ecosystem had barely been disturbed. To all intents and purposes, it was a paradise, which was what made it so hard for Caryl Hatzis to deliver her pronouncement.
"In five days," she said, "this planet and everything on it will die."
The assembly was silent.
"Three days later," she went on, "Zemyna and Demeter will follow then Geb and Sagarsee. And then--" She paused, allowing a faint echo to underline the significance of the silence with which she presaged her next words. "And then there will be no more colonies left. Everything UNESSPRO strove to achieve will be gone. All that will remain of humanity will be our ash and dust on the worlds we once visited."
Hatzis felt the pressure of eyes on her, virtual and real.
The meeting had been called at Rasmussen to coincide with the arrival ofthe Spinners at Sagarsee, the colony world of the BSC5148 system, the last of five loosely clustered systems known as the Alkaid Group on the opposite side of the sphere of space humanity had explored from where the Spinners had first appeared. Unless humanity's enigmatic benefactors abruptly changed their modus operandi, Sagarsee and the rest of the Alkaid Group would be the last worlds visited by the Spinners--and the last attacked by the Starfish. If humanity was to survive, then this was where Caryl Hatzis and her ragtag band of engrams would have to make their stand.
She forced herself to speak with dignity and poise when all she wanted to do was to scream out her frustration and outrage.
"We have tried communicating with the Spinners, and they haven't responded. We've tried communicating with the Starfish, and they, too, have ignored us. We've tried resisting the Starfish, and that almost got us killed. So now we have to figure out what we do next.
"If we do nothing," she said, "we die. We've seen it happen to the ostrich colonies--the ones who tried hiding in systems that had already been attacked or on worlds the Spinners hadn't visited. They thought they would be safe, that the Starfish wouldn't consider them a threat. But they were wrong, and they paid for it with their lives. To that end, should any colony represented here today choose that option, you will forfeit your gifts and your ftl communicators. This is not open to discussion; if the human race is to have any chance at all, it requires every resource it can lay its hands on."
She paused, half-expecting a reaction to this, but there was none. Everyone was fully, finally aware of the harsh reality of their situation.
"One of the options open to us is to follow the lead of the Yuhl and remain in the wake of the Spinners. We can use the gifts to fashion arks large enough to contain all our hardware, all the processors required to run the engrams and contain our memories of Earth. We can merge the hole ships, and like the Yuhl we can jump from system to system, taking what we need to keep our fleet functioning. According to the Praxis, our new friends have been doing this for two and a half thousand years, so there's no reason why we couldn't do it, too.
"This is a viable option, but for me it's not an attractive one. Many of you, I know, are still grappling with the fact that Earth was destroyed in the Spike, over a century ago. I have shown you what took its place; you've seen what the Starfish destroyed when they came to Sol." On the heels of Peter Alander, she added silently to herself, unable to completely suppress a twinge of resentment, even though deep down she knew it wasn't really his fault. "There's nothing left for us there, but it is still our birthplace. And for that reason I am loath to give up on it entirely.
"We still have some days left, and we have the resources of the gifts at our disposal. There might be something we haven't thought of yet, something that we might yet do to ensure our species' survival with dignity intact. We may yet, at the eleventh hour, find an alternative, a way in which our species could survive and somehow reclaim that which has been lost.
"We are here to decide whether to take the chance or not. We are the sole survivors of the human race; it is upon our shoulders that the future of our species rests. You must think long and hard about what you wish to do now. We must reach consensus, or we must divide.
"I ask you to consider this: to live as the Yuhl do now would mean that our future descendants, whatever they may be, will inherit nothing from us but our fear and obeisance. We will have run from our greatest challenge, and that will be our only legacy. But if today, together, we can find an alternative, then perhaps our descendants will inherit something more. If we can live through these next few days, then we could reclaim Sol System and rebuild our species, and our descendants may be heirs to a new Earth."
With that, as the echoes of her words filled the virtual meeting hall, she stepped back from the spotlight, glad to remove herself from the decision-making process. The sentiments she'd expressed were genuine, but in truth she didn't know for certain what was the best thing for humanity right now. Abandoning Surveyed Space for a life roaming the galaxy, caught between one alien race and another, sounded a lot like a prison sentence to her--one with no chance of parole. But was it worse than the death sentence humanity might face if they attempted to fight back?
Sol understood Alander's point all too well; she, too, was tired of endless spats, constant claims and counterclaims, petty ascendancies and power struggles. She wished her higher self, the one destroyed with the Vincula in Sol System, could magically reappear and take over. She would know what to do. With the resources of a post-Spike, twenty-second century humanity behind them, maybe the engrams would have had something of a chance at least.
Then again, she reminded herself, it hadn't really helped the Vincula. The Spinners had cut through its defenses like a hot knife through butter. The memory of the destruction of her home was indelibly burned into her mind, and like a recently formed scar, it itched terribly.
"We can't leave here," someone was insisting. "This is our home!"
"Then we must find a way to contact them--to reason with them," said another.
"The Starfish don't care about that," came the instant reply. "If we stay here, they'll destroy us as easily as they destroyed Sol."
"But who says Sol was actually destroyed?" said a third voice, entering the debate. "All we have is her word for that. It could be a fake designed to make us leave, to empty the colonies to allow her to take over!"
And there it was in a nutshell: all three possible responses to the situation. The engrams could refuse to accept the harsh reality and die; they could bite the bullet and leave; or they could doubt that it was even happening. The last was particularly symptomatic of newer colonies, especially those who'd been skipped by the Spinners and had yet to see any evidence of alien activity beyond the hole ships. And she could understand that. Conspiracy was so much easier to accept than the harsh reality of humanity's genocide.
Fortunately, though, survivors of Starfish attacks significantly outnumbered the newbies. Of the 1,000-odd remaining engrams attending the meeting, approximately 800 had lost homes and missions to the aliens. While they may not have seen the destruction firsthand since few had and managed to do so and survive, they were left in no doubt as to the desperate nature of humanity's plight.
Run or die, she thought to herself. It's not a choice; it's an ultimatum.
"I have to say, I've never been one for ultimatums."
The voice intruding upon her thoughts, reading her thoughts, startled her. She knew immediately to whom the voice belonged, and it was this more than anything that surprised her. She quickly sent her senses through the assembly, trying to find the source of the voice, seeking out the owner. Try as she might though, she couldn't find him.
"That's because I'm not there, Caryl," Frank the Ax said with amusement. "The others can't hear me; I'm speaking only to you, because right now yours is the only opinion that matters."
"And I'm supposed to be flattered by that, Frank?"
She heard a low chuckle. "Is that animosity I detect, Caryl?"
"I don't know. Why should I harbor any ill feelings toward you?" She couldn't restrain her sarcasm. "That stunt you pulled back at Beid didn't hurt us at all."
While she spoke, she ramped up her internal processing speed to its fastest setting, determined to outthink the man who'd brought so much death and destruction to humanity and its allies. But he was telling the truth: he wasn't at the meeting. There was no sign of him in the assembly nor in any of the networks attached to it. The array of hole ships docked in the upper orbits of Rasmussen was empty of his spoor, as were the gifts themselves. The only other possible place in orbit around the planet was the Marcus Chown, looking boxy and antiquated against the superior technology of the Spinners. It hung innocent and isolated at a lower altitude, glinting brightly in the sunlight.
"Got you," she said. His transmission was coming from the gutted survey ship, the relic of Earth that had been abandoned as soon as the Gifts arrived.
"You think I'm that stupid, Caryl?" Axford replied. "It's just a relay. I could be anywhere in the system."
"You can't be far away: your transmission lag is low."
"And what would you do if you found me, Caryl? Take me out? I'm only one of many, remember? You'd still be left with hundreds more Frank Axfords to contend with."
"That sounds like a threat, Frank."
"Listen, Caryl: either you're going to hear what I've got to say, or I'm going to leave." His voice was cool behind the amusement.
"And why should I--or anyone, for that matter--care if you stay or go? You've done nothing but hurt us in the past: stolen from the colonies, used the Starfish to cover up your thefts, sent the Yuhl almost to their deaths--"
"And saved your collective ass," he interjected. "You just don't know it yet."
Hatzis laughed at this. "I must have missed that part. I guess I was too busy fighting off the Starfish you set upon us."
"You seemed to do all right."
"Christ, Frank, do you even know how many people we lost because of you?"
"Of course I do. I was watching. The data I gleaned were exceedingly valuable."
"I'm glad the massacre gave you some amusement."
"Oh, come on, Caryl! Put your hostilities to rest and just listen to what I have to say. We're all in the same boat here. If we go down, we go down together."
"So your threat to leave was empty?"
"I need you nowhere near as much as you need me," he returned. "In a few days, we're all going to be on the run from the enemy, and from that point on, there'll be no turning back. Trust me, I'm your only shot at deflecting the Starfish."
No turning back, she echoed in her mind, tasting the notion and finding its bitterness appalling. The Yuhl had run, and were survivors as a result--but they were also scavengers, slowly devolving to the status of superstitious pirates. They practically worshiped the Spinner/Starfish migration, which they referred to in combination as the Ambivalence. Did a familiar fate now await humanity?
"Okay, Frank. I'll listen."
"But are you open to suggestions?"
She sighed to herself. "If you're going to suggest that we attack the Starfish again--"
"Fighting back is our only chance of survival, Caryl."
"You saw what happened when you forced us into doing that before."
"Look, I'm not stupid, Caryl. I know you won't stand any chance at all if you try going head-to-head with the big guns. I mean, that new ship of theirs--the Trident--that thing's so big you could use it to skewer the Moon! There's no way we'd be able to take one of those things out with anything we've got. A solar flare might do it, but there's nothing in the gifts to show how we might generate one--or how to get the Starfish to bring one of their Tridents close enough for us to even be able to use it."
"Whatever you're trying to talk me into, Frank, you're doing a shit-poor job of it. And you're not telling me anything I don't already know, either."
"If you already know it, then why bother with the big meeting? Why waste time debating over options as if you really have any choice in the matter?"
The scorn in his voice stung, like salt in an open wound.
"Because the decision can't be mine alone to make."
"But it can't be left to them. Christ, they're idiots, Caryl! Half of them seriously believe that, regardless of what happens, the human spirit will prevail and overcome any adversity. But you and I both know that the Starfish will storm through this region and completely remove all trace of humanity as it goes--and they won't even stop to check their heels to see what it is they've stepped in, either."
A great weariness fell over her. The fatalistic certainty of her insignificance was something that confronted her on an almost hourly basis.
"So what do you suggest we do, Frank? What's your great plan to save humanity?"
"We make them notice us, of course."
"We've tried that, remember? It didn't work."
"Then you didn't try hard enough."
"Easy to say, but do you actually have something more than just hot air and criticism to offer here?"
"I do have an idea, but I don't think you're going to like it."
"Try me anyway."
"Very well," he said. "You've already tried broadcasting messages to the Starfish. You've left satellites in vulnerable systems, radiating in all frequencies, using all known codes and media. You've sacrificed hole ships to transmit via ftl. And despite attempting to get their attention, you've never once received a reply.
"I think the reason for this is that you've been hailing the wrong people. The cutters are nothing more than drones; they're just doing a job. They're deaf to anything but their orders, and those orders are to take out any sign of intelligence in the systems they've been allocated. Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing, but that's what I see when I study their behavior. They're simply front-line soldiers, grunts, cannon fodder--nothing, Caryl.
"We need to speak to the people giving the orders, and I don't think we've even come remotely close to seeing them yet."
"What about the Trident?"
"It's possible, but at this stage there's no way of knowing one way or the other. All I do know is this: they probably have no idea that we even exist and no reason to suspect it. They're as blind to us as we are to the insects in the soil over which we used to walk. They're not looking for us, so they don't see us."
"So what's your plan, then?" She wished he would hurry up and get to the point.
"To be honest, it's not my plan," he said. "I was contacted by someone with an intriguing idea."
She wanted to ask who this person was, but she didn't have time--the engram assembly was quickly breaking down into a morass of arguments and personal insults, and she needed to get back to it--so instead she asked: "And that is?"
'It's quite simple, actually," he said. "If the Starfish won't come to us, then we'll just have to go to them."
-- from Heirs of Earth by Sean Williams and Shane Dix, Copyright © 2004 Sean Williams and Shane Dix, published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A thrilling finale to the 'Orphans of Earth' trilogy. By now, I was thoroughly engaged with the characters and emotionally involved with the race for humanities survival. In this book the war with the starfish is resolved - does it end with humanites destruction, or will the mysterious starfish be defeated? Not telling ;-) . I will tell you that I was very interested to learn just where the starfish and spinners, known to many as the 'ambivalence', originated. I recommend reading this trilogy - the authors definitely have talent. I got such a thrill from these books, I have decided to chase up more works by these authors as well as other Science Fiction books!
Im board so i might read it