Perhaps it was the way the spaceborn children were reared, in neat glass domes attached as needed to the dark side of the main body of the ship, which made them so odd. Perhaps it was the habit of the overseer assigned to look after them to somehow force the poor little mites into an inferiority complex no captain had yet overcome. Perhaps spending the first ten years of one’s life staring out into the majesty of deep space would make anybody weird. However, why the spaceborns were so strange was unimportant. What mattered was that they were strange. This was the first he had had to deal with as Captain of the SS Oranje; in fact, the first one over twelve earth years old that he had met, and she was just as peculiar as any other. Or were all children like that? Surely not. It had only been – he counted carefully – two years since he was last on earth. He couldn’t possibly have forgotten if his fifteen-year-old son Ainslie had looked like a spaceborn.
However, one had been sent with a note from Science to say that as Gray was on leave, ‘would the bearer of this letter suffice as a temporary substitute ADC?’, and he had to be polite to it. It? Her. Obviously. Even spaceborn girls were still girls. Pale skin, pale hair, positively skeletal, most of them, and big dark eyes, the pupils grotesquely dilated. If she had been a normal earth child, he wouldn’t have thought her much over ten, but the soft husky voice from the pale lips was saying that she was fourteen earth years old, adequately qualified to be a bridge assistant for a month, by the end of which passage of time Gray would be back.
“What is your name?”
“I am a Citoyenne of SS Tahiri Sabele, in the colonization fleet. Numerical designation 17.2.2116. Sir.”
The spaceborns always seemed to call themselves by their number, unless you took the trouble to insist on their official Character Designation. So he insisted. It would only tell him the first twenty items in her DNA sequence, but sometimes pronounceable words could be scrambled from the letters produced by the random combination of adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine.
“Gatac, sir. Short forG3A2TAC13. I’m the only Gatac ending in a thirteen, if that makes differentiating my sequence description easier for you, sir. What may I do to assist you, sir?”
“Go to the galley and get me some coffee. Black, one sugar.”
Gatac13 fled off down the companionway and was back within the minute. Why the ships on the exploration and conquest fleets had no communication link to the bridge was more than he could fathom. E&C ships usually had fewer women on board, as well, and therefore fewer of the pale scurrying creatures that all humanity would have looked like without the colonies on earth. God – What a joke. God was illegal in space. The idea of Someone who could destroy the whole ship in a matter of seconds was bad for crew morale, but anyway – God bless the colonies on earth. He thought of his wife and Ainslie, in the colony near the ruins of New York. Ainslie insisting that his father come treasure-hunting with him in the remains of the great library, and weeping with frustration when nobody could decipher the faded phonetographs on the one volume he found. Any others had already been taken by looters. Only a few symbols on the cover remained legible to modern eyes: P-D-J-A-M-E-S, and what that meant was beyond the comprehension of this intrepid explorer of galaxies. He could barely pronounce it.
Gatac13 had been standing quietly, as spaceborns tended to do when not directly addressed. He wondered what she thought about while waiting for somebody to talk to her. Did spaceborns even think? They were, in a manner of speaking, human. Of course they thought. But in any way a normal human would understand?
“Do you want a real name, Gatac?”
“I am perfectly content with my existing designation, sir. If you wish to designate me in an alternate manner for ease of reference, I would also be perfectly content with your choice. Science Officer Kennedy Winter habitually refers to me as Aluminum, sir, as a jesting allusion to the last number in my sequential description. I have also been called Pachycephalinus when I assisted in the Biology lab, in a somewhat slighting comment as to my intelligence levels. However, I understand this problem to have been corrected at the last instance of my cerebral implants being calibrated, so the term Thickhead is no longer appropriate.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of an old-fashioned name. My son found a book in New York last time I was on earth. I could call you by its title.”
Gatac13 said gravely, “I would be honoured by such a title, sir.”
“Fine. You are, until your return to Science, James.”
Cerebral implants? It was odd. Some spaceborns had implants up to twenty gigabytes, but ten was the norm. Some scientists used their assistant as a walking reference book; others were careless and allowed the spaceborn to learn whatever it cared to, cluttering valuable data storage space. He had heard of a ten-year-old male who had filled his entire implant with information on the laws of primitive earth, and flung himself into space when that rubbish had to be deleted to make room for engine part catalogues. You could tell who each one had worked for by its vocabulary. James, for instance, had apparently been assigned to the Tahiri Sabele’s linguistics department before her transfer to the Oranje. Due to some quirk in human nature, spaceborns tended to refer to the ship they had been born on as an earthborn would speak of their homeland. Speaking of homeland… his first trip to earth in two years was due before Gray’s return. It was usual for the captain’s aide-de-camp to accompany him on such trips, but Gray was busy on Zsturm 8 and James would have to come instead.
“James!” The quiet footsteps approached from behind him as she came from the radar screen he had set her to watch. “Ever been to earth?”
“No, sir. Spaceborns are not eligible for earth travel permits. If you decide to order me to accompany you, I would have to inform you that it is the protocol of the E&C fleet to discourage any such move on the grounds that a spaceborn would be considered a freak on earth, the distress to said spaceborn causing a detrimental effect on its cerebral implant memory capability, thus inconveniencing any fleet personnel who may have cause to use such memory to the fleet’s benefit. I would then advise you that as captain of the Oranje, you may employ your sole discretion in the decision-making process for such a minor matter and take no notice of the fleet protocols.”
“Do you want to go to earth?”
“The captain may employ his sole discretion, uninfluenced by any outside forces. Yes, sir, I would.”
What had Plato said? A reasoning animal… she’s no different to any other fourteen-year-old human girl. Maybe even spaceborns wouldn’t seem so alien if they had grown up on earth. Maybe even their bizarre looks were entirely because of the fleet’s ‘protocols’. What would Ainslie look like if he had been raised as James had? His pupils would be horribly dilated in a quest to extract as much light as possible from their surroundings, his skin pale and his growth stunted for want of sunlight. Even his voice would have been different, hoarse and quiet like James’s from lack of use. Still, it was human nature to oppress and torment people for the oddest of reasons. Dark skin, small stature, gender, religion, not that that really existed anymore, even hobbies. So surely, if this were basic human nature, it must be right? But it irked him to have human children – and the spaceborns were all children, the first of them having been born in 2115 – creeping about as technologically-enhanced slaves, bowing and scraping to people who could, for all he knew, be their parents.
“Do you mind being a spaceborn?” The question slipped out. He didn’t really expect an answer. Long training had taught him that spaceborns were really nearer to being a species of automaton, incapable of answering a question they were not programed with the response to.
“Not meaning to insult the fleet’s founders, sir, but while I look forward with greatly limited enthusiasm to spending the rest of my life as an enslaved computer, it is rather better than the alternative.”
“Now you put it like that, it does seem rather rough on you, but I didn’t think spaceborns had another choice.”
“Captain, with all due respect, the sooner you learn this the better for your career. There is always another option. It just isn’t usually a very good one. Mine is to hurl myself into outer space to join Taga9, the one who had his law data deleted. Didn’t you ever wonder why spaceborn quarters have separate airlocks? It’s to remind us that that really is the only other option. The doors open very easily.”
“Don’t they tell you your parents’ names?”
“Yes. The overseer tells every spaceborn the name of its parent as early as it can understand. We are also reminded that the only way we will ever meet them is to become captain of our own ship and go to earth – and that that will never happen.”
Even enslaved computers don’t deserve to be taunted. How much less so human children. What if he did take her to earth? The fleet would never need to find out; the captain of a ship is a law unto himself. Probably the muted light in the ships was really the only thing wrong with spaceborns.
“James, can you take your implants out, or are they stuck for life?”
“They are not removable, captain, but if you find any of the information contained therein irritating, I can transfer it to an external memory receptacle.”
“Fine. I find it all irritating. Get rid of it, pack what you’ll need for a week’s journey, and meet me at the shuttle bay. Oh – no. While you’re dealing with implants, see what you can find in the way of ancient literature under the designation P.D. James.”
James’s eyes gleamed. “Do you also, then, enjoy the works of P.D. James? I retain them in my organic memory banks, because they are so interesting, and I would hate to have them deleted. Science Officer Winter says it is good for me to have something to think about when I am awaiting orders. Perhaps that is the designation of the book located in New York by your son?”
“Uh… yes. Go on, now, scoot. Get a move on.”
The shuttle portal let strong sunlight into the ship, and by it he saw, five minutes later, that James was looking remarkably normal. She had changed from the grey fleet uniform into a hopelessly old-fashioned but still pretty black dress, and fastened her long pale hair into two neat plaits that gleamed gold with the sunlight on them. It was just the light, then, the lack of it. Lack of light causes many of the mistakes in the galaxy. Of course, mostly it is a case of lack of light shone onto prejudices to show how idiotic they really are. Let us always pack a flashlight with good batteries, if only as part of our mental furniture.