5 August 2012 - 10:03 am

Swan Song: Part 1

For the last few weeks, I’ve been involved in writing for an anthology that’s being built through a writer’s group on Goodreads. The anthology is charting the genesis of colony on an alien planet, Yuva, from the huge ships leaving Earth, through adapting the planet to human needs, and beyond.

My story comes after the colonisation effort has been started, roughly in the middle of the anthology, and deals with what happens to all those who worked so hard to get them there. It’s now pretty much done! Here’s the first section of the story:


Swan Song

They say there is a swan that is silent for its whole life. It grows and loves and does all the swan-like things, but it does not utter a sound. Then, the moment before it dies, it opens its throat, and not even the vacuum of space can swallow the beauty of its song.


[The image broadcast across the Yuva network is dominated by the great globe of her sun, Gliese 581. Nearing the glow, three shapes track slowly and majestically. Their silhouettes are familiar to every person looking up at them, for they are the great colony ships that carried them from distant Earth to this new colony.]

[Transmission Voiceover]

“It has been ten years since we arrived here. Ten years since we slowed our ships and woke our children. Ten years since we put a stake in this planet and said, ‘this is our new home’. This is Yuva.”


Avicenna, Bridge
Gliese 581 -20 minutes

“Final corrections made. We’re on approach vector.” Pilot Gnana Tanaq slid her hands off the controls. This is the last time I’ll do this, she thought. “Inertia will carry us in, now.”

The first time she touched this console, her hands were smooth and soft, barely out of puberty. Now, sixty-four years later, they were wrinkled and worn, though they still curled around the grips easily. Just as she had worn shiny spots into the plastic, so the grips had worn her hands into control-friendly curves. Pilots’ claws, some people called them. She bore hers proudly.

Behind her, she felt Jackson sigh and tighten his grip on his console. “So, that’s it, then.”


“How long?”

Gnana glanced down at the readouts scrolling before her. “Not long. Twenty minutes, maybe, depending on how quickly the gravity pulls us in.” She turned her chair so she could see him. “You’re the navigator, though.”

Jackson didn’t even bother to check his readings. He shrugged. “Sounds right.”

She smiled at him, dark skin crinkling around her eyes. “I know, I know: it goes against everything you believe in to navigate purposefully into something.”

He wrinkled his nose and his moustache twitched. “I keep wanting to tell you to alter course. Can’t help it.”

Gnana laughed softly, but there was no real humour in it. The forward viewports were unshuttered and Gliese filled the entire view. Its orange glow lit the Bridge as if it was already on fire.

With a sigh, she unclipped the tether that held her to the chair and pushed over to where Jackson floated. She covered his hand with hers and his head dipped slightly in acknowledgement. The sunlight was turning his hair red, like it had been years ago. Gnana used to joke that he was the whitest man she’d ever met, so pale he wasn’t even freckled. Like her, he’d spent his whole life in space behind radiation shielding; his skin had never felt the real touch of a sun. Another twenty minutes would change that.

She turned her attention forward. It was hard to look at the Bridge now; it wasn’t the home she had known anymore. She had expected memories to crowd in here, but instead, gaps were all she could see. The holes where missing stations had been: communications, cryonics, long-range sensors. The stripped-down environmental console and the bare patches of decking where chairs used to be; the only one remaining was hers, because the pilot still needed it for this final journey. Even navigation was stripped to the minimum.

This room used to be busy with bodies, full of shifting console displays and the shadows of the crew. Now, it was just her and Jackson.

Gnana glanced sideways and saw Jackson frowning. “Still angry that he chose not to come?” She didn’t have to say who she meant; he knew.

Jackson’s expression scrunched down. “His place is here.”

“It was his choice.” Gnana’s tone was non-committal; in truth, she wasn’t sure what she thought about the captain’s decision.

Three days ago, she had agreed with Jackson: the captain was a coward who refused the honourable path. They had all known this was a likely end to this journey when they signed on, but he had chosen to stay on the orbital platforms, training the colonists in… she wasn’t even sure what.

Then, the night before they departed on their final voyage, she had seen the captain at a bar. It was the only time in her life she had ever seen him drunk, and it wasn’t pretty. He had slurred goodbye to her and hugged her – hugged her – and she had seen it in his eyes. It tore him up to deny his duty but he wasn’t ready to stand on his ship for the last time; there was still living left for him to do.

She couldn’t begrudge him that. He was younger than the other captains, though his time commanding the Avicenna meant he would never step foot on the planet below. The toll of space on bones and organs meant the gravity would kill him, slowly and painfully. But he could have a life on the orbital platforms, maybe even lead the colonial effort the way he had led the ship.

She had considered staying too, but the only position applicable to her was shuttle pilot. It wasn’t anything like flying the Avicenna, though, and even a short atmospheric stay caused her pain. The last time, it had given her a bone-deep ache for two weeks, making her hands shake so badly that she couldn’t fly at all.

Besides, she was tired. This was her last flight, and it seemed fitting to her that it was with her baby, her ship, the machine that spoke to her through her hands on its controls.

With a sigh, she lifted her gaze to Gliese burning before them.

“Look on the bright side,” she said without looking at Jackson. “Maybe you’ll finally get a tan.”


“The last ten years have not been easy. We are building a new home here, and overcoming the challenges set before us. But today is not about those challenges or the heroes who deal with them every day. Today is about giving thanks for everything that helped us to meet these challenges. Today, we celebrate everyone who brought us here and everything that allowed us to make this new start.”


Taftazani, Spine
Gliese 581 -15 minutes

“Fifteen minutes, Dave,” the calm voice said through the comlink.

“It’s David, you idiot machine.” Navigator Midori had said the same thing seven times in the last hour alone and he was getting testy.

Synthetics were supposed to learn but Calvin rebelled against that idea. It’s why they’d been stuck with him on this last voyage. Just in case human instincts and weaknesses got in the way of the mission, he was there to take over and make sure their course stayed true. Of course, the buggy synthetic that no-one could fix was the perfect solution; God forbid they should sacrifice something that might be of use to the colony.

The threshold rapidly rushing up on them wasn’t helping his mood, either. “And I’m on my way. Be there in three minutes.”

Three minutes was a long time in the Spine of the ship. The comlink switched off, leaving the crushing silence of space to press in on him, and he couldn’t stop himself from looking out of the viewports as he floated along the tube.

There wasn’t much to see. The Spine used to run through the heart of the ship, but that heart didn’t beat any more. The ship had been gutted, all her useful parts carved away, reformed, and stapled onto a new body. Even many of her bones had been taken, leaving great, gaping holes in her structure. She was a partial skeleton now, bared and broken.

The only things left were the parts that no-one could use. Interstellar engines and maps weren’t necessary if no-one was travelling between systems, and the colony leaders were determined to cut off any chance of people deciding to go back to Earth. It was Yuva or nothing. David didn’t blame them for that. Yuva was not what most had expected, and a lack of options was just as good as commitment, right?

A patch of hull blotted out his view of the starscape and threw a shadow across the Spine. Most of the plating had been peeled off and applied to the orbital platforms, but a hundred years was a long time. Meteor showers, blow-outs, pressure fluctuations, radiation, flaws in the metal; all of these things took their toll on a ship’s skin. Parts of it had been patched over so many times that it was too much work to scrape off the ship’s bones. So they’d taken the cleaner skin and left the Taftazani her scars.

David sighed and pulled himself along by the handrail. He was passing what used to be the arboretum, where they’d grown food and recycled the air. Once upon a time, it had been his favourite part of the ship. He’d seduced Jaspiri behind a clump of orange trees. She’d said that she could drink him all up and, for once, that line had made him laugh. Later, he’d married her on a lawn of lemongrass.

Now, there was a gap where it had been, an open mouth screaming blackly in the middle of the ship. The arboretum had been made part of a biodome somewhere, full of Yuva’s soil and strange plants that hadn’t been named yet.

The smell of oranges still reminded him of sex.

Past the space where the arboretum had been, the ribs that once held thousands of cryo-tubes scraped at the open starscape. Severed tubes dangled in places, tangling with neighbours in an achingly slow, weightless dance, as if time travelled differently for them. David had no time for existential observations, though; he yanked himself onwards, wishing that they’d left the speed-tugs in the Spine to make this transit faster.

He passed into the aft section of the ship with a shiver of relief. The doors to Engineering swished open and three people turned to see him. All of them glanced past him and he shook his head slowly.

“Captain’s not coming. He’s seeing her in, he said.” David’s regret was reflected in the faces before him.

“Thank you for trying, Dave,” Calvin’s disembodied voice said. “Did you offer him candy?”

David frowned and opened his mouth, but an arm sliding around his waist distracted him.

“Don’t listen to him,” Jaspiri said, her warm body floating up against him with the ease of long practice. “He’s just teasing you.”

“Synthetics aren’t supposed to tease.” His voice was testy but he wrapped an arm around her all the same, pulling her close. His other hand steadied them against a bulkhead, automatically correcting their float.

“I know. I’m sorry it didn’t work.”

She was talking about Captain Bellaqua now. He’d been like a father to David, the only male authority figure he’d ever been able to respect. And, though he’d never admit it aloud, love.

“It’s his last duty as captain, and you know what he’s like about that.” David frowned, trying not to miss the old man already.

“Yes.” Jaspiri sighed. “He’s in full uniform, isn’t he?”

“Yeah. No idea where he found it.” He couldn’t help it: a smile snuck up on him. The old man knew how to do things properly.

“Come on, you two,” Parker grumbled from across the room. “We got work to do. Clock’s ticking.”

David nodded and ducked his head to kiss his wife’s neck. Her hair was still perfectly black, even after forty years together, and he would be lying if he said he wasn’t a little jealous. But he smiled and wished there was more time, because she smelled of oranges.

(Continued in Part 2.)

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