Campfire Stories

Susan Marshal leaned close over the glow-globes as they flickered like a campfire and cast spectral shadows over her face. The youngest children oohed with frightened glee while she took advantage of her setting and told a quick ghost story. The older merpeople on the beach, even Trask and McCormick, sat in a crescent around Ma Marshal as raptly as the children and nostalgically recalled being younger and enjoying story times in years past. Paul Marshal and the aquaman sat the farthest back. However, Cairo noted dishearteningly that the Stay and Exit parities huddled with their own at opposite ends of the crescent.

“Now it’s time for a history story,” said Ma Susan. She told her version of the tale in terms simple and thrilling enough to delight even the youngest child. But she was telling a story drawn from real events that were meaningful to the older listeners, and filled their hearts by turns with fear, pride, and regret. 

Ma Susan began her story with, “Our forefathers and foremothers who founded our colony were simple, honest, hardworking folk from an oddly-named place called ‘Iowa’…” 

When the Exploration Guild offered an inexpensive and promising extrasolar agrarian world for sale, a group of dirt-poor farmers from the Iowa district of the North American realm on planet Earth snapped at the chance to own their own world. They formed the “Des Moines” consor­tium, pooled their meager resources, and bought a provisional claim. The world they claimed was rich with blue skies, gentle rains, fertile soil, and rolling hills as far as the eye could see. There were only benign plants and non-sentient animals, so that planet was perfect for settling. And yet the planet was affordable because it was so faraway from the usual travel routes connecting the other colony Worlds. 

“Our forebears were scared, but they were brave in spite of that,” Ma Susan said to the children in her version of history. And with little, awed voices, they all agreed.

The Des Moines consortium leased as many secondhand Galaxy-class starships as they could afford, packed their belongings, and then set out to establish a new home in the stars. It was a huge risk for the Iowans to buy a claim that was only provisional, but if they could successfully develop the planet into a self-reliant agrarian colony during their probationary period, the Exploration Guild would award them permanent ownership. All the colonists had to do was travel to a world hundreds of thousands of light years from Earth when no one had yet invented a starship that could travel faster than the speed of light.

“What could they to do?” Ma Susan asked the children gathered close around her, as she feigned despair. “You can’t break the laws of physics anymore than you can break the laws of our colony.”

The solution to the Des Moines consortium’s dilemma, and the key to Humankind colonizing the Milky Way, was the discovery of seemingly natural star-gates, a type of space warp portal, that enabled a space traveler to almost instantaneously hopscotch across the galaxy from one star-gate to another. The only drawback was that between star-gates, the space traveler had to fly through normal space at excruciatingly slow sub-light speed. The journey between closely spaced star-gates might take only several weeks or months; but if the star-gates were far apart, the journey could last years and require the traveler to sleep in hibernation most of the way.

The commander of the armada for the Des Moines consortium was an ex-starship captain who had retired to his Iowa hometown, expecting to do nothing except kick clods down empty country roads while humming a wordless tune with a stalk of hay between his teeth. Naturally, he grew painfully bored with living such a clichéd way of life after a short while. And although he pretended to resist being cajoled into leading the armada, he was never so happy as when he accepted his commission. What he never expected, though, was for his flagship’s artificial intelligence to wake him early from hibernation and tell him that they would never reach their destination because it would soon cease to exist.

The colonists’ new home was a planet in a binary star system where one companion star would soon go nova because of the incursion of a rogue black hole. Just as the armada passed through the star-gate into their new home’s solar system, the commander saw that the black hole was about to devour the companion star. In desperation, the commander managed to slowly wheel the armada around and scramble back toward the star-gate with its tail between its legs. 

The armada managed to enter the star-gate just before the shockwave from the companion star’s death throes began to destroy the solar system behind them. Normally, passage through a star-gate is nearly instantaneous and the destination a certainty, but this desperate passage seemed to last forever. And whatever space, or non-space, or space beyond anyone’s wildest dreams constituted the interior of a star-gate, that space suddenly shook and shuddered around the fleeing armada, and blazed like exploding fireworks reflected in a fun house mirror made of melting glass. 

When the armada finally exited the star-gate—hours? days? months? later; that part isn’t exactly clear—the armada’s commander knew something was hideously wrong because where they had arrived was nowhere on the star-charts. 

The armada was intact, but badly damaged by the fringe of the nova blast. Communi­cation with the rest of the colonized Worlds went silent, and the armada’s mayday distress call had probably never been heard. The armada’s commander was urgently trying to find a safe haven for his fleet and make repairs, when a nearby world—a habitable water-world—was detected in the nick of time. Thanking the universe for the answer to his prayers, the commander put the armada in orbit around the water-world. 

“The brave commander of the armada saved everyone from certain death,” said Ma Susan in her children’s version of the fable. “But it looked as if the colonists had jumped from the frying pan into the fire!”

Taking a deep breath, the commander woke up the leaders of the consortium from suspended animation and told them just how much trouble they were in. They couldn’t turn back because the star-gate was still flickering in and out of existence, and disintegrating any matter that entered it. That situation, it turned out, would last for the next 30 years. The colonists couldn’t go forward because without valid star-charts, they had no idea where to go. But they also couldn’t stay where they were, at least not forever, because they only had enough provisions and resources to get to their original destination of a fertile agrarian planet and survive a few years until they could bring in their first successful harvest. 

But if the colonists couldn’t stay where they were, they also couldn’t directly settle the water-world beneath them. The colonists had been born on Earth, on dry land. They weren’t adapted for water. And more than half the genetic samples aboard the armada were intended for a dry, agrarian world, not a water-world. The colonists were marooned far from home and facing the very real possibility of starving to death long before rescuers ever arrived.

The colonists were clever, resourceful folk from Iowa, however. They had a snapshot of the entirety of civilization’s knowledge in their digital library. They had abundant fusion power for decades to come. They had top-of-the-line medical, biological, and genetic engineering equipment. And they had 3-D printers that could manufacture hordes of construction robots, or any device or part they, or their artificial intelligences, needed to build. If the colonists worked hard and smart, they might survive—that is, until they set foot on the surface of the planet below and drowned. But as has been pointed out before, the colonists were clever, resourceful folk from Iowa.

The consortium’s leaders realized they didn’t have the resources to terraform the water-world so it would be like Earth, but they could use their genetic engineering and medical equipment to “bio-form” themselves; to transform themselves into amphibians that could thrive either in the air of their starships or whatever dry land they could find, or underwater in the world-ocean that covered their de facto new home.

“And do you know what they called that world?” Ma Susan said with mock over-enthusiasm to the young ones listening to the children’s version of their colony’s origin. 

Squealing with delight, the children screamed into the artificial night arching over the artificial campfire next to the artificial lake, “Aquarius!”

“That’s right, children,” Susan said, finishing her tale. “Either because of incredibly bad luck or incredibly good fortune, depending on how you look at it, Aquarius is our home.”

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