The Star Riders

 

ďStarrider, rider, rider
Show me where you are
Starrider, rider, rider
Take me to the stars

Speed increasing
All control is in the hands of those who know
Will they help us grow
To one day be starridersĒ

 

-Mike Jones and Al Greenwood of Foreigner

 

 

††††††††††† Mr. Hill was training a new apprentice.He showed the young female the control and monitoring station for the project he had devoted his professional life to.The project involved careful alignment of each of the twenty robot spacecraft that were distributed around the sun.Most people did not even know about the project, although it was no secret.Mr. Hill supposed they were simply living their lives on the ground, with little interest in space.Mr. Hill had often wondered if it were a good thing not to have attention.If an uninformed general public took an interest in the project, they might conclude that it was reckless and protest.It had happened with other projects carried out as part of the space program.Even his apprentice had not known what was happening until he had briefed her.She had heard that such an endeavor had been attempted long ago, but did not know that the project had succeeded and was ongoing.

††††††††††† Mr. Hillís job was to adjust the programming for the cogs. The term cog had grown out of a forgotten acronym that described the form and function of the robotic spacecraft, but the word continued to be used because it fit.The cogs were carefully positioned around the sun and consisted of a gravity generator, engine, computer and transmitter.Working together, just like cogs in a machine, they altered the shape of the sunís existing gravitational field, so that the life-giving starís movement could be controlled.It had been much simpler to accomplish than the projectís original founders had anticipated.In fact, the project could be controlled by one person, except during problematic circumstances.If a problem did arise and Mr. Hill needed help, he would simply contact the administrators and they would send people.It was not bad work.He simply had to live in the free housing provided and keep an eye on the cogs. Typically, the job was just a matter of keeping them in their correct position and scheduling the maintenance provided by robotic support craft. The cogs were solar powered and needed to be near the sun, so they did not even need to be re-fueled.The greatest challenge to the project was the time required to complete it.For generations, one person had made a career out of controlling the project and then trained an apprentice and retired, as Mr. Hill was about to do.

††††††††††† Mr. Hill showed his apprentice, Ms. Lightrow, how to use the projectís computer. The computer showed her the position of the cogs and the shape of the sunís gravitational field, complete with vectors indicating the direction and speed of the sun and, therefore, the solar system as it moved through space.It also displayed status and a first-person view from each cog.Finally, there was the alarm program.Alarms would go off if the sun began to travel to fast, or if its turn was to steep, if anyone ever did change the direction of the sunís travel.The margin for error was generous to what seemed a ridiculous degree, until one kept in mind that an error could affect the orbit of every planet in the system, endangering the population of the three that were currently inhabited. Better to be ridiculously careful than to take any chances.

††††††††††† Ms. Lightrow was a sharp young lady, quick to understand.Mr. Hill knew that she had been selected from a number of promising applicants to the space program, based on ability and personality.Having been briefed and now being trained, she observed quietly with a sense of awe.Her excitement increased when Mr. Hill told her what would happen next. The sun and its planetary passengers were on a heading that would take them within half a lightyear of another yellow star, an alien sun that had been chosen because of its similarity to the solar systemís own.Of the inner planets, the third looked promising.Although its atmosphere was not hospitable, robotic probes, sent as part of the space program long ago, had observed that there was water and oxygen below ground waiting to be released.When the time was right, one cog could do the job.A temporary, relatively tiny change in the planetís gravitational field should be enough to allow the needed materials to escape.If it were successful, the planet could be prepared for people to arrive.The use of eaters would be helpful there.Eaters were carefully bred microorganisms designed to eat the sewage and pollution created by modern society.Different strains were used on different contaminants and they had worked quite well at home.The plan was to take them to the target planet and allow them to cleanse the ground and water supply.Eaters had always been quite good at producing fertile topsoil as well as eliminating waste.Finally, when the target planet was ready, volunteers would be recruited to found a colony.As the sun passed as close as the projectís controller dared, colonists could be sent to their new home. The sun would then go on its merry way. Where it would go next was yet to be decided.

††††††††††† Wanting to see his young apprenticeís reaction, Mr. Hill had saved one last bit of information for last.He showed her the schedule on his computer.A shiny new cog was scheduled to be launched in a few years, easily within her lifetime.She understood immediately and could barely talk about it.She was being trained to preside over the establishment of the first space colony, or at least the earliest preparations.Mr. Hill ended the training session there and cooked a meal for himself and his apprentice, showing her around what would be her kitchen when he retired in the process.She was full of questions and observations and Mr. Hill found himself enjoying her company and looking forward to training her.

††††††††††† Ms. Lightrowís training went according to plan.She had no trouble learning the job and when the time came, Mr. Hill felt quite comfortable leaving the project to her and retiring.Under her supervision, the cogs held their position, causing the sun to stay on course.Years went by before she received a message from an administrator.The only contact she had had with them consisted of requisitioning and receiving the things she needed to live.The unexpected message notified her that the traveling cog was ready to launch and asking her to give the go-ahead when the target planet was close enough.Although she knew that the alien sun was a little over two lightyears away, she used the computer to check on it anyway.When she answered the message, she included its distance and her estimate of the travel time it would take for the cog to reach the target planet.She also organized her thoughts into a brief paragraph on the cogís chances of success in adjusting the alien planetís field and releasing its resources, including the effect of a long journey on the automated craft.She concluded the message with a recommendation that the cogís launch be delayed until the two suns were closer to each other.In her mind, she pictured another person in a position much like her own, overseeing the building and launch of the traveling cog.If she were in that position, she knew she would be brimming with anticipation but also cautious.She had not expected it to fall on her to choose a launch date. Too soon and the worn-out cog could easily malfunction.Too late and the two suns could pass each other before the planet was ready to receive colonists.She knew quite well that her project would be unable to decelerate the sun artificially and that letting it drift and slow to a chosen speed required years of advance notice.

††††††††††† Eventually, she received an answer to her message that let her know the proposed plan and asked for her recommendations.The traveling cog would be launched as soon as possible, but several back-up craft would be ready in case it failed.Ms. Lightrow felt a little silly for not having thought of back-up cogs.She knew there were several at her disposal, in case a cog involved in the project were to fail entirely. She voiced her enthusiasm for the launch and the next message she received did announce a launch date.

††††††††††† On launch day, Ms. Lightrow watched the event on the project computer.The round, metallic cog seemed humble to her, as it looked like any number of cogs she had seen in operation.Launching it was quite simple.The machine had been programmed to act at the appointed time, to turn itself on and activate its gravity generator.When working, the generator would create its own gravitational field, shape it so that up would become down and then fall upward, away from the ground and into space.For the time being, Ms. Lightrow looked it over as it sat and waited.It had a section that the project cogs lacked and she was reasonably certain that it carried its own power source, so it did not have to rely on solar.Her trained mind pictured the sequence of the machineís programming.Launch, change course, accelerate to a pre-determined speed, drift, locate the target planet, examine its gravitational field, determine a position, re-adjust generator settings and, finally, transmit the results.Hopefully, on the planet below it, water or ice would be vaporized and vented into the planetís useless atmosphere, to rain down onto the surface.

††††††††††† Ms. Lightrowís anticipatory musings were cut short as the traveling cog suddenly accelerated straight up and out of sight.She worked the computer, carefully checking the cogs and their fields. She knew that would be it, for years. The traveling cog would be unable to receive new programming, so it would simply follow its instructions and send reports.She, and everyone, would know only then if its mission were a success.She also knew that five more traveling cogs were to be launched.Each one would arrive at the target planet and analyze the effect of its predecessors before either making another attempt at releasing the water or landing on the planet and shutting down.Ms. Lightrow also knew that the automated probes carrying eaters would be sent in the same way, ready to back each other up if the eaters either failed to survive the journey or were unable to multiply and create topsoil.

††††††††††† Uneventful years went by.Ms. Lightrow easily maintained, repositioned and occasionally replaced the project cogs as the sun above her closed in on the alien solar system with the imperceptible slowness of cosmic events.She found herself daydreaming about what would happen next.The barren, brown hunk of rock and dust would become a fertile, blue and green globe like her own planet.She envisioned people, a few at first, and then a whole new civilization. It had been so long since the world had had an empty place for the frustrated, bored and restless of society to travel to and start a new life.She knew that the new planet would be open to future generations, but she still dreamed herself into the roll of a simple colonist, molding a world for her grandchildren.

††††††††††† After years of travel, that first cog reached the target planet.Its programmed brain examined the planetís gravitational and magnetic fields and modified its instructions.It was a simple adjustment to add its generated gravitational field to the planetís own, creating a slight shift.The cog eased into orbit and worked.Inside the planetís core, the change manifested itself as a subtle acceleration of the circular currents within that ball of molten metal.The planetís magnetic field grew and shifted into a protective shield against radiation from space. Also, pressure shifted as the cogís gravity combined with the influence of the altered magnetism, which settled around two poles nearly aligned with the planetís existing rotational poles. As planned, the planetís surface cracked open and vented water into the air.The cog slowly reduced its field as it adjusted its orbit.Following its program, it carefully recorded the changes below, watching as rain fell on the surface and settled over all but the high ground, dividing the globe into a vast ocean and a single continent.It also recorded a shift in the movement of the target planetís only moon as its orbit changed so that one side always faced the planet.The moonís gravity also influenced the target planet, forming a pattern of currents and tides in the new ocean.Waves crashed on the rocky shores of the lone continent and the moving water began to absorb minerals from what had been exposed ground.The cog transmitted its report, which would reach its destination years later.

††††††††††† Ms. Lightrow received the report and it fueled her daydreams.The target planet became a comfortable place in her mindís eye.Colonists reaped the bounty of a new ecosystem and lived easy, independent lives.Families spread over the surface, each with a place to call its own to explore and settle in.Her dream took a hot erotic turn.Like most people, she had had herself sterilized, had taken responsibility, as the authorities called it.There were too many people on her own planet and it had created problems, but it would be different on a new world.She amused herself with happy dreams of the other extreme.

††††††††††† The traveling cog continued to document the actual target planet from orbit. A salty, active sea pounded shores of bare rock, beginning to shape them.Rain fell, making the beginnings of a cycle of rivers and lakes on the continent and scattered islands that made up the land, flowing and evaporating to rain down again.The cog sent back images of a blue sky, complete with clouds and a weather system, over a pristine sea.One by one, the back-up cogs arrived and used their programming to determine not to act, but simply to record and transmit.Following them, the series of automated probes programmed to deliver eaters arrived with mechanical regularity.Each created a set of automated observations, used it to find a target area, descended to the lifeless planet and released its cargo. The immigrant microbes were released into lakes, rivers and the ocean, with the hope that they would multiply and spread.These immigrants were not the humble workers that managed waste at home, but were something new.They were specialists, carefully altered to find shoreline, devour any mineral that could sustain them and excrete soil.There was also a wide diversity provided, organisms made to try different methods of survival with the belief that some ways would work.Some had to stay in the water while others could make their way onto land and different types had different diets.

††††††††††† In orbit, the traveling cogs observed this as well.Years went by and change was as slow as any geological event.As one sun moved through space on a controlled course, the other, alien sun moved naturally as it shone down on a changing planet.As the cogs continued to record and transmit with automated diligence, the news they sent was alarming.The eaters had not survived and neither had the hope for a successful colony.It seemed the air was contaminated with nitrogen, a development that had not been anticipated.In fact, there was more of it than oxygen in the atmosphere.In her home, Ms. Lightrow read the reports that she received after they had been analyzed and interpreted by her employers.Her dream of a colony burst like a bubble.She had grown old and now felt even older. She knew it was time to retire, to train an apprentice and move on.The project would continue.Other target planets had already been found, so it was simply a matter of changing course, of gently steering the sun.That task would be her apprenticeís life work.More traveling cogs and automated probes would be built, more specialized eaters would be bred and much had been learned from this failed attempt.

††††††††††† Ms. Lightrow decided to move her home closer to a vender, so that she could have a new home custom built.If she planned ahead, her new home would be ready in time for her retirement.Her home was mobile, like all the homes her species lived in.Her species had evolved from a crustacean that moved into the discarded shells of large mollusks, which were common on her world.As their society had advanced, her species had gone from carrying all they owned on their backs to living in small homes on wheels and then had developed floating homes, as the gravity generator came into widespread use. As modern as they were, the crustacean people would still leave their homes only in an emergency, or to visit another personís home, in which case the homes were moved together so that a door on each nearly touched.They felt instinctively uncomfortable outside, a sensation of being naked and exposed.Robots were also crucial to the development of their society, as automated machines extended their reach into the outside world.

††††††††††† As Ms. Lightrow worked on her computer in the comfort of her home, all of her soft parts were extended from the calcite shell that her species has. Her eyestalks bobbed unconsciously as her gaze shifted over the screen.Her retractable fingers, which resembled the legs of a starfish, extended from the holes at the end of her armored arms.She rested on her soft tail, which resembled a snake in the way she was able to move about by crawling but was much thicker in proportion.All the soft parts could be retracted into her dark-gray shell, which was more or less a cylinder with arms, much like a lobsterís, but with openings where a lobsterís tail and claws would be.For her species, when one was startled or facing a sudden danger, all the soft parts would be pulled suddenly inside the shell, including the three fingers on each hand, tail, eyes and mouth-tube.

††††††††††† The crustacean people approached problems very differently than a human being would.Throughout their history as an intelligent, technologically advanced species, it had never occurred to them to build an immobile structure, or even to make alterations to the outside environment beyond minor adjustments carried out by robots.Even when it came to growing food, they had scattered seeds without coming all the way out of their homes until the invention of robots and floating homes large enough for indoor farming.It was this way of thinking that had led them to their unique method of space travel.Bringing their own sun and solar system along as they went was what seemed normal to them and the idea of putting a person inside a spacecraft and sending it into the outside universe for any longer than was necessary seemed ridiculous and dangerous.

††††††††††† So, one sun passed another and gently steered away.In the alien system, the target planet continued along its orbit, unsuitable for colonization but with its nature changed forever.Unknown to their creators, a tiny portion of the eaters had survived.These few multiplied and spread along the shore of the planetís only continent, eating into the living rock even as the surf washed relentlessly over their habitat.They would be left alone to adapt and developed for billions of years and they would evolve.Eventually, after a nearly unimaginable length of time, a rich variety of living things would populate land and sea.One day, long after the single continent had split into seven, the target planet would be known to its inhabitants as the Earth.

 

 

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