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CHOICES by Les Johnson

Interstellar flight is the most audacious of human dreams. Barring a Star Trek breakthrough, the voyage will require a high level of technology, and people willing to get on board for a destination so far distant in time and space that most of them will not live to see it. We can only admire the talent of those who might make it possible, and the courage of those heading out for Rigel or wherever. Despite all our efforts, the technology may, at some critical point, break down. So we will of course build in as much redundancy as we can. Unfortunately we cannot do the same for the passengers.

Les recently completed his first novel, Back to the Moon (Baen, 2010), a collaboration with Travis Taylor.

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THE AIR WAS THICK AND PUTRID. Peter Goss slogged through knee-deep water with a broken branch in one hand and a machete in the other. The swamp was brightly lit by the reflected light of the two moons hanging low on the horizon. All he could think of was survival. Mosquito-like creatures the size of small birds dove at him constantly, ignoring his wild swatting. Their sting hurt. Beneath the surface he imagined large creatures watching and waiting for him to slip and fall so they could pounce and enjoy a tasty human delicacy for that night’s dinner.

Relentlessly, he moved forward. No distraction would stop him tonight. There, just ahead and across this last bit of waterlogged purgatory, was the tower. Rising out of the swamp at least twenty-five stories, it dominated the horizon and demanded investigation. Made of what looked like stone, which he knew would have been all but impossible given its size, the tower taunted him.

Goss stopped. And listened. He heard only the sounds of the night, the buzzing of the monster-mosquitoes and the distant splashes of other creatures stirring the waters.

He was only a few hundred yards from the tower, a small distance compared to that which he had already covered, but now it seemed distant. His muscles hurt and he was tired.

The swamp ahead looked much like the swamp behind, but looks could be deceiving. Two of his compatriots were now dead because of this place and he was not about to join them. He whacked one of the oversized mosquitoes with the branch, raised his machete, and started forward.

The tower was dark and quiet. Goss intended no harm; he was there to find out what it held, why it was there, and, if possible, who had built it. For on this water world, the tower was the only artificial structure in evidence.

Three weeks ago, Goss and his crewmates had arrived on this planet because their long-range instruments told them that it had an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere suitable for human life. Though planets seemed to be plentiful everywhere, those with breathable atmospheres and temperate surface conditions were very, very rare. That’s why he and his two colleagues had taken a shuttle from the mothership to investigate.

From space, the world was a brilliant blue that reminded him of Earth. Except that instead of the familiar landforms surrounded by water, the entire planet was covered by water, with only a few islands dotting its seas. It was on one of these islands that they’d spotted the tower, standing alone. It had been a glorious moment, looking down at the structure, the first evidence anywhere that humans were not alone. And of course, still in a state of shock, they’d gone down.

Goss lost the first of his crewmates, Charlie Edward, when he slipped on slick, moss-covered rock, pitched forward, and landed on his head. Not a graceful way to die. It had happened so fast that he hadn’t even had time to throw out his hands. By the time Goss reached him, Charlie was gone.

The other crewmate, Julie Gold, died after her leg was ripped off by an alligator-like creature that had been lying in wait beneath the surface of the water in an area they had mistakenly assumed to be safe enough for a short break. All Goss remembered was the rage that overcame him after seeing his friend writhe in the water, trying to shake off what had attached itself to her right leg. Goss had hurried to her rescue, but the thing had ripped her apart within seconds. He’d brought the machete down on its armored neck again and again until it collapsed.

He’d held Julie in his arms while she bled. And she’d looked at him in the eerie moonlight. “Pete,” she’d said, “what do you think is in the tower?”

They had been her last words.

And he’d gazed across the swamp to where the tower stood. “I’m sorry we ever saw it,” he told her. “Whatever it is, it’s not worth the price.”

He crossed the remaining distance to the tower and the stone-like wall that comprised its base. He was still knee-deep in water when he touched the wall and looked up at the immense structure. The wall was made of a light-colored stone and it might almost have been medieval. Below the waterline the stone was, as one might expect, covered in mildew and moss. Out over the water were the two distinct shadows caused by the twin moons. Every movement Goss made was instantly mirrored by the two shadows off to his side.

That takes some getting used to.

Seaweed clung to his boots and pant legs. He circled the base of the tower. Part way around he came across a door. And an inscription. He caught his breath. It was raised lettering on a metallic plaque. He pressed his fingertips gently on the characters. Wondered who had been here. What it said. Here we came in search of a new world. And found only a swamp.

He smiled. Maybe, Martin & Cable, Attorneys at Law.

How long ago had it been?

Would they have welcomed him?

He pulled his hand back and looked at it as if it were the first time he’d ever seen it.

Peter Goss awoke with a start. He was lying on his hibernation bed with his right arm held straight out, up, and in front of him. He was still staring at his hand. For a few moments he drifted back into the swamp and stood before the mysterious tower, and then he was back here, wherever “here” was, again.

He was cold. And he lay naked, partially submerged in what looked and felt like a bathtub filled with raspberry Jell-O. He tilted his head slowly from side to side, as if doing so would dislodge a memory and allow him to remember where he was. These new surroundings looked more and more familiar but he wasn’t yet quite sure why.

He coughed, and raised his head and looked around. This was not the tower. And certainly not the swamp. First of all, the tub in which he found himself was but one of many lined up along the floor. In fact, he saw at least fifteen tubs around him.

And each was occupied. By someone.

By another human being.

A memory was slowly returning.

Hibernation. Sleeping during the journey and being awakened when their new home world was reached. Now he remembered.

Peter Goss was on board the interstellar colony ship New Madrid bound for the Epsilon Eridani star system ten light years from Earth. As in his dream, he was a member of the initial survey team that was to awaken and scout the environment of their new home while the rest of the crew, and the fifteen thousand colonists, were being awakened.

Goss slowly lifted himself to rest on his right elbow. The other people were gone. Part of the dream. Still, he shouldn’t be alone. He wasn’t supposed to be the first to wake up. The ship’s commander, first officer and two medical officers should already be up and about, supervising the awakening of the survey crews to begin their mission. Waking the colonists would come later.

The ship was quiet. The only sound Goss heard was his own breathing and the sloshing of the liquigel in which he found himself. As he pulled his naked form out of the tank, he realized that the liquigel had probably formed the basis for his swamp during the hibernation. Slowly and with great care, Goss sat up and put his feet on the floor. Mindful that he had probably been in suspended animation for perhaps hundreds of years, he wasn’t sure that his muscles and bones would be strong enough to sustain his weight in the simulated fifty percent Earth gravity in which he found himself.

He stood.

To his great relief, he found that the electrostimulation of his muscles and bones had kept them healthy and fully functional throughout his long sleep. Just as the electrostimulation had kept his body functioning, the virtual reality generator had kept his mind from atrophying. His “adventure” on the water world with the tower had been just that. A machine-induced training session to keep his mind functioning through the centuries required to cross the vast interstellar distances between Earth and the intended colony’s destination.

That means Julie and Charlie are not dead! Thank God. It was just a simulation. They were safely asleep onboard the New Madrid.

As he struggled to get his bearings, the weight of nearly a thousand years of dreaming came crushing down upon him. In his chosen artificial realities, he selected a succession of planetary exploration missions—all created by the ship’s Artificial Intelligence to help train him for any eventuality he might encounter in the real world. Before awakening, he realized, he must have visited hundreds, if not thousands, of new worlds—all different, and all created by a computer simulation program.

But this was real and it wasn’t as it was supposed to be. Where was Commander Vasquez? Where were the med techs? Anything could happen upon revival and it was not protocol for it to happen like this.

He moved to the side of the room and opened his locker. Inside, and as perfectly preserved as he, were his clothes. Thanks to vacuum storage, they looked and felt as fresh as the day he took them off and put them there—so very long ago.

How long have I been asleep? Where are we? He had more questions than answers.

After cleaning off the gel and getting dressed, he ventured out of the sleep chamber and into the hallway that led to the ship’s control room. He thought that Vasquez must be there, supervising the orbital encounter with Epsilon Eridani Four, the destination world that the telescopes back on Earth had found to contain an atmosphere suitable for Earth-based life.

During the latter half of the twenty-first century, more and more planets had been found orbiting other stars. Not only were they pinpointed and their masses estimated, but large telescopes optimized to look for certain chemical signatures determined that some of the newly found planets had atmospheres, and that at least two of the nearest worlds harbored atmospheres in which humans could live without wearing masks or other protective clothing.

These were “Goldilocks worlds,” so-called because they were neither too hot (like Venus) nor too cold (like Mars); they had atmospheres with enough, but not too much, oxygen; they were “just right” for sustaining life. It was toward the second of these worlds that the New Madrid was sent with colonists who would settle there and build a new home for humanity.

Goss had volunteered for the journey. He was fed up with the crowded cities of Earth and found the Moon and Mars colonies, with their cramped below-ground living areas, simply too dark and unforgiving for his tastes. The idea of being a pioneer, of having the chance to build a new world or die trying, was just the sort of challenge for which he had longed his entire life.

Are we there yet? If not, then why was I awakened? He tried to keep these thoughts at bay as he walked down the long, curved corridor toward the control room.

Midway there, he stopped to look out one of the windows that the engineers had been so loath to include. Dangerous, they’d argued. Maybe so, but the view was worth it. Before him was the majesty of the New Madrid; home to thousands of colonists eager for a new beginning. He gazed back along the hull at the central core of the starship, which housed its antimatter power plant and propulsion system as well as many of the supplies they would need once their new home was reached. His eyes drifted out from the core along one of the many half-kilometer-long spokes that supported the habitation ring in which he had spent who knows how many years in hibernation.

Without a decent fixed reference point, it was virtually impossible to discern that the ring was completing one rotation every minute—though he felt the comfortable one-half gravity acceleration caused by the slow spin as he walked through the ship. Humans evolved in a one gravity environment on Earth but scientists had determined that only half that was needed to maintain their health in deep space. And since one can’t tell the difference between acceleration caused by gravity and acceleration caused by spinning, the engineers had found a way to provide the “gravity” people needed to keep them healthy in deep space—spin the ship.

He continued past the window and down the corridor toward the control room. There, he opened the door, expecting to be greeted by Commander Vasquez’s booming voice. Instead, there was only silence and the steady hum of the circulation system keeping the breathable air moving throughout the ship.

The room was empty.

The commander’s chair was vacant as were the duty stations for the ship’s command crew. The room seemed somehow unreal to Goss. It isn’t supposed to be like this.

He entered, approached the commander’s chair and sat in it, pulling the console on the mechanical arm forward so he could see what it had to say. One word was flashing on the display panel as he pulled it into view.


Recalling his training, Goss activated the ship’s Artificial Intelligence by speaking the command phrase, “Command Authorization Substitute Five Zero Three.”

“Five Zero Three recognized,” came the reply from the ship’s speaker system.

Goss was relieved to hear the AI’s voice. Maybe now he could find out what was going on.

The AI was programmed with a voice that sounded, except for its rather stilted diction, completely human. Studies had shown that people reacted more favorably if the computer at least sounded human. Gone were the monotone computer-generated voices that had preceded it.

“Five Zero Three, do you require a status?” asked the AI program, following procedure.

“Yes, please provide our location, navigation history, and overall ship status.”

A holographic projection appeared above the navigation console in the middle of the room. At the center was Sol, the Earth’s star, and around it were the nearest star systems stretching out to a distance of about fifteen light years. As Goss watched, a curving line appeared, slowly being drawn from Sol outward to Epsilon Eridani, their primary destination. But instead of stopping there, the line curved by the star system and toward another—Tau Ceti. Again, it didn’t end there but curved yet again toward another star, Epsilon Indi, and then stopped one quarter of the way toward it.

The AI spoke, “After finding the primary and secondary star systems unsuitable, Commander Vasquez ordered that we continue toward Epsilon Indi. I awakened you, Mr. Goss, because we encountered a mission-changing event and Commander Vasquez and Deputy Commander Herndon are both dead.”

Goss’s mind was racing. How long had he been asleep? The antimatter drive of the New Madrid was to have made the voyage to Epsilon Eridani in nine hundred years.

The New Madrid was the second of five such ships to leave Earth for the stars. Each of the five ships targeted a different set of star systems deemed to have a moderate to high probability of providing planets that could sustain human life. Humanity was reaching for the stars and the New Madrid was part of the first wave.

They had reached Epsilon Eridani, and, for some reason, the commander had found the fourth planet, the destination the smart people back on Earth said would make a good home, unsuitable. He must have restarted the engines and set out for the secondary destination, Tau Ceti. The clear second choice. The deep space telescopes and interferometers back near Earth had collected data showing that both of these systems were promising future homes for humanity. But that star’s chosen world had also been deemed not suitable and they were now bound for still another alternative.

“I’ve been asleep for twelve hundred years!” Goss said aloud, speaking more to himself than the AI.

But the AI responded, “Incorrect. You have been asleep for one thousand, nine hundred and fifty-nine years, ship time. We are now approximately half-way to the Epsilon Indi system.”

“Okay, we’ll deal with that later. You said that commanders Vasquez and Herndon are dead and that there has been a mission-changing event. Please explain.”

“Commander Vasquez killed Deputy Commander Herndon while we were orbiting and surveying the fourth planet of Epsilon Eridani. He re-entered suspended animation and remained there until we entered orbit around Tau Ceti’s third planet. After a short survey, he once again re-entered suspended animation shortly after our primary propulsive burns targeting Epsilon Indi. After hibernation began, Commander Vasquez’s body began rejecting the suspended animation drugs, leading to his real-time aging and death.”

Goss, who had been standing motionless during the debrief from the ship’s AI, sat in the command chair. The chair was cold.

“Continue,” he said.

“You are next in line to command the ship and I was not going to awaken you until we reached Epsilon Indi’s third planet to begin your assessment of its habitability. However, when the mission-changing event occurred, I thought it best to awaken you early for a command decision.”

“What was the nature of the event?” Goss knew that a mission-changing event was one that as its name implied, was something so fundamental that it required a complete alteration of plans.

“Shipboard sensors have determined that none of the planets in the Epsilon Indi planetary system can sustain human life. We need a command decision as to whether the ship should continue toward Epsilon Indi or divert to another destination. You should be aware that there is only sufficient shipboard antimatter to divert to one alternate stellar destination—and that would be back to Tau Ceti. And that will only be possible if we divert before we reach the half-way point.”

Goss felt the weight of the AI’s latest pronouncement as if it were a blanket made of lead. They were headed toward an uninhabitable star system and he had to decide whether or not to change course back to a star system that the commander had decided was unsuitable—for some as-yet unknown reason. There was not enough fuel to go anywhere else.

“Please explain in more detail the fuel situation.”

In response, the AI projected a graphical representation of the ship’s trajectory toward Tau Ceti, showing how its antimatter reserves would be depleted in the propulsive maneuver that would send them back there and into orbit around one of its planets. It then flashed a series of potential trajectories that would change the course of the ship to any number of nearby stars and the fuel required to both change course and to stop at the new destination. In each case, the ship ran out of fuel before it could slow and enter into any other planetary orbit.

“Can you tell me why we didn’t remain at either our primary or secondary targets?” Goss asked, thinking that perhaps both worlds were inhospitable for life, causing the captain to push for yet another possible destination. But why had he killed Herndon?

“Commander Vasquez did not log an explanation for rejecting either planetary destination. The orbital assessments were completed as planned and both worlds were found to be habitable by humans. Neither showed any evidence of intelligent life.”

Goss was stunned. They’d passed up two habitable planets in two different solar systems. Now they were approaching a third that was uninhabitable and they didn’t have enough fuel to try a fourth alternative. The commander had killed his first officer, for some unknown reason, and they’d all been asleep for nearly two thousand years. Hello. What the hell is going on?

Goss rose from the command chair, feeling totally uncomfortable with the burden that was now on his shoulders. Looking around the eerily quiet room, he felt painfully alone. For a moment, he seriously considered returning to the comfort of his VR-induced dream world.

He, and every member of the crew, had preprogrammed into the computer system their general wishes for the type of virtual reality scenarios they’d wanted to experience during the long voyage. The liquigel and the regular neuromuscular stimulation that went with it had kept their bodies alive and in peak condition while they slept. The VR scenarios had done the same for their minds and right now Goss wished he were one of the crew, blissfully unaware of the impending crisis, living out some extended adventure in a dream-like stupor. But it was a fleeting thought. He’d always preferred reality to the VR sims—that was one of the reasons he’d volunteered for the trip to Epsilon Eridani. Goss had to get away from the existential existence that was slowly creeping across the Earth and sapping the lifeblood out of the people there.

Now that’s a thought. I wonder what’s happening back on Earth? I’ll check on that after I’ve figured out what to do and what prompted Vasquez to commit murder.

“Did you record the murder of First Officer Herndon and what led up to it?” Goss asked the AI.

“Yes. Would you like to view the recording?”

“Play it.”

The images of the local stellar coordinates and potential ship trajectories blinked off, and were replaced by a holographic representation of the control room, the same room in which Goss was now standing, only this time it was occupied by both Vasquez and Herndon. In the bottom right corner was the clock displaying both ship time, taking into account the time dilation effects from traveling at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, and Earth time. Goss was momentarily fixated on the clock, not yet paying attention to what Vasquez and Herndon were saying.

When this conversation was taking place, nine hundred years had passed on Earth. And these events happened over one thousand years ago. Goss held his breath while he thought about his friends, his brothers and sisters, and all that he knew—now probably totally forgotten by anyone and everyone at home.

Vasquez’s angry voice roared out of the hologram.

“Herndon! We can’t do it. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m forty-eight years old and outside of VR, with good medical care, I might live to be a hundred. But down there it will be a hard life these next fifty years. How could we have been so stupid as to think we could come to a primitive world and build a new civilization?”

“Commander,” said Herndon, “with all respect, we knew what we were signing up for when we left Earth. We’ll have our technology and our medicines to get us started, but, yes, it’s inevitable that we’ll slide backward technologically. After all, we won’t have the infrastructure to make the computers, the fusion power plants, and all that would be required to replace the gear as it wears out. But if we work hard, and if we get some luck, we can leapfrog to an early twentieth century technology base that’s sustainable. Our descendents can then bring things back to where we are today. After all, they’ll have the library and the knowledge. All they will lack is the infrastructure and they can rebuild that!”

“Okay. Let’s say you’re right. We work hard for the next fifty years to establish a colony that will someday mature to the point that our children’s children will have won back what we will have lost. Great. But we’ll be dead in fifty years. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve already lived almost a thousand years and we can live another thousand! And that thousand won’t be hard! We can continue to live like kings. I enjoyed being in VR. It sure as hell beats what we’ll face down there.”

Up to this point, Herndon’s part of the argument had been more intellectual than emotional. With Vasquez’s last words, his demeanor changed. He leaned forward and stared at his commander with intensity.

“Commander, are you suggesting we not wake everyone up and just go back to sleep? You think we should just forget about why we’re here and go back to our VR dreams? You can’t be serious. That’s not living! That’s why most of us left Earth in the first place!”

Vasquez stared at Herndon, then at the deck. He slowly raised his head.

“No, Mack, you’re right. We’re here to colonize and colonize is what we’ll do. I don’t know what I was thinking. Let’s get the ship ready and then start waking everyone up.” Vasquez nodded and appeared to accede to Herndon’s argument.

“Thank you, Captain,” Herndon said. He turned away, probably to return to a duty station. Vasquez stared after him and the look of accommodation changed. His features hardened with rage. Rage and determination.

Goss watched in horror as Commander Vasquez reached inside his tunic and withdrew what looked like a piece of computer cabling or a wire harness. He wrapped both ends around his fists, keeping a good foot of bare wire between his outstretched hands. He slowly walked up behind Herndon, who was now totally engrossed in his own thoughts, and garroted him. Took him down where he stood.

Herndon collapsed almost without a struggle. For Goss, who to this point had only seen death in virtual reality, it was both gruesome and captivating. He couldn’t avert his eyes until after Vasquez let the lifeless body of his second-in-command fall to the floor. Vasquez showed no remorse. He strode back to the command chair and spoke to the AI.

“Plot a course to our next destination and prepare to leave orbit. Prepare my sleep chamber and upload VR set twenty-seven. I rather enjoyed that one.”

Horrified, Goss watched Vasquez work from his command chair for another five minutes, apparently performing all the routine systems checks required for the ship to begin yet another long voyage between the stars. Vasquez never again looked at Herndon’s body.

Goss stopped the holographic playback and stared at the floor where the corpse had lain. Herndon had died about a thousand years ago and Goss wondered where the body had been put and what Vasquez must have been thinking when he disposed of it. Had he done it before going back to sleep or had he removed whatever had remained of the body when they arrived at Tau Ceti three hundred years later?

After all that time, the body might have still been there, relatively intact, since the ship powered down all the life support to subfreezing temperatures during interstellar cruise. Or it might have been nothing more than dust that the maintenance robots had long-since cleaned up and recycled. Goss might never know.

It’s tempting, Goss thought. A thousand years of simulated living versus only another fifty of real life. But that’s not really living. Goss now knew what he had to do.

“AI, can I reprogram everyone’s VR sims? Can I overlay something or weave into what they’re experiencing some sort of theme or plot?”

“Yes, as the new commander, you have the authorization to make such changes.”

“Good. Overwrite every single VR simulation, even my own, with a series of real-life, day-by-day experiences of the average person, beginning around the year 1500. Use the historical databases. Don’t make anyone absolutely miserable, but let them experience real life, real work, real love and loss. Let them experience the progression of life from one era to the next until they get close to the time in which we left Earth.”

With any luck, when we reach Tau Ceti and wake up, we’ll be ready to keep living a real life—and to start a new one.

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