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The Colonists

The Skidian Chronicles Part Four

Written by Keith Fenwick


Copyright Keith Fenwick 2018

All rights reserved


The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, transcribed, stored in a retrieval system, or translated into any other language or computer language, in any form or by any means, whether it be electronic, mechanical, magnetic, optical, manual, or otherwise, without the prior written consent of Keith Fenwick.


Email: K.Fenwickk@gmail.com

PO Box 90312

Auckland

New Zealand



Also, by Keith Fenwick and available in Kindle or paperback versions.

Part one of the Skidian Chronicles - The First Chronicle

Part two of the Skidian Chronicles -The Second Coming

Part three of the Skidian Chronicles - The Lifeboat




Disclaimer

These novels are works of fiction. Any resemblance to any real event, person, or institution contained within these pages is purely coincidental. Well, this is my story and I am sticking to it.






















Once again thanks to Joyce for the support and encouragement.




If this is the first book in the series you have sampled and enjoyed, I hope you will also download, enjoy and review the other books in the Skidian Chronicles series - Skid - the first Skidian Chronicle, The Second Coming, and The Lifeboat

Every review helps independent writers like myself get noticed and sell more books. If I start to generate enough sales to get by on, she who must be obeyed might let me give up my day job and write full time.

You can also sign up on my blog scifibookshop.co.nz where I post various updates and random musings. A cast of characters is located at the end of the book.



Contents

Cast of characters.

The story so far

Introduction

Prologue

Part One

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

Twenty-two

Twenty-three

Twenty-four

Twenty-five

Twenty-six

Twenty-seven

Twenty-eight

Twenty-nine

Thirty

Thirty-one

Thirty-two



Part Two

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

Twenty-two

Twenty-three

Twenty-four

Twenty-five

Twenty-six

Historical Note

Afterword

Cast of Characters

Author Bio


The story so far

The Skidian Chronicles series was originally intended to be a trilogy. However, after completing the first three books, I felt the characters still had enough life left in them, and I had a rich vein of subject matter to fill the book you are now reading.

In the first novel of the series, Skid is in desperate straits. The factories producing the synthetic products Skidians rely on for their food supplies are failing after being devastated by a virus. The virus was introduced by an exiled heir to the leader of the planet, intent on revenge against his father and regaining what he considers is his birth right.

The Main Processing Unit (the artificial intelligence tasked with monitoring and maintaining Skidian infrastructure) should have contained and eliminated the attack. However, it suffered a processing glitch at this critical time, and to make matters worse, chose completely the wrong moment to undertake one of its intermittent re-boots and self-diagnostic checks.

So, the Skidians are faced with famine. With the MPU essentially unresponsive, a group of Skidians decide to take matters into their own hands, and visit the planet known to them as the offworld (Earth), seeking experts in organic food production. They have a vague notion this will help them to develop alternative food supplies, to save at least some of the population from starvation. Unfortunately, they have no understanding of what a solution might entail and the impact on Skidian life.

It will come as no surprise to any reader the Skidians are no strangers to earth, they have a long association with our planet.

The first two novels in the series follow the adventures of Bruce, a farmer from New Zealand who has been abducted by the Skidians, and Sue, who is mistaken for an expert in organic food production. She happened to be tramping through a forest at the time the Skidians stumbled across her.

Bruce develops a New Zealand style grasslands farm, showcasing how the Skidians could easily go about overcoming the approaching famine and feed themselves. However, this is a step too far for the Skidians who simply cannot conceive of a solution which requires them to literally get their hands dirty in the process. While the farm is a success, the overall enterprise is a strategic failure. With famine imminent, Bruce and a now-pregnant Sue are returned to their former lives on earth, albeit with a few unanswered questions bugging them after a partially successful memory wipe removing any recollection or knowledge of Skid from their consciousness.

The third novel in the series, The Lifeboat, opens with a large rock hurtling towards earth, an asteroid large enough to trigger a global extinction event if it impacts. However, its arrival, a cosmic mystery to astronomers, is no random event and it swings into a safe and stable orbit about the planet.

In The Lifeboat, we learn more about the Transcendents, the real Skidians who inhabit a galactic version of the cloud. Their bodies were destroyed as part of the transcending process, and their species continuity plan is to download themselves into human bodies in response to an event which threatens their existence, which they deem far superior to their own flesh and blood vessels.

When challenged as to why they are unable to clone their own supply of bodies instead of uploading new ones from earth, they claim their cloning technology is immature and unreliable.

In The Lifeboat, it is also revealed that the team of Transcendents tasked with managing the MPU failed to meet their performance objectives. Had they done their job properly, the virus wouldn't have been contracted and the food shortages would never have occurred.

The Colonists takes up the story of the Mars for You (MFY) program, which was initiated in The Lifeboat. As far as anyone is aware, MFY is a reality television show. The participants are competing for a place on a mission to resettle on the moon and Mars, via an asteroid, now in orbit about Earth. The show is a front for Bruce and the Transcendents to facilitate the upload of tens of thousands of people to replenish Skid’s population. The ultimate destination of the participants is not the moon or Mars. It’s Skid.

The action then moves to the period immediately post the implementation or upload process when the new and indoSkidians are beginning to interact with each other on Skid.

A sub-plot initiated in The Lifeboat and evolving in The Colonists explains the truth behind the dark forces influencing the 2016 United States elections.

Prologue ……continued

Mavis Harwood found it impossible to keep the tears out of her eyes as she watched the bride and groom exchange their wedding vows. She had always hoped Bruce would settle down and find himself a nice local girl to marry and now her wish was coming true. She had dreamt of a traditional wedding at her church, followed by a grand reception at the local hall, in front of all her friends and family. Her family and Cyril’s side would turn out in their droves, along with a hand-picked smattering of locals, and a few guests from the bride’s family.

So far, so good. While the big day was not turning out quite the way she had imagined, it was not far short of perfection.

Part One

One

Morris Thwaites picked himself up off the ground where he had been unceremoniously dumped on his backside a few moments before, brushing a few stray grass clippings off his pants. He had no idea where he was and there were no landmarks he recognised.

He was standing in an empty paddock in the middle of nowhere, with not a fence, tree, or animal to be seen. The grass at his feet looked like it might have been freshly trimmed with a set of clippers.

The contrast with his home of the last few months couldn’t have been greater. This was a lush, green, environment, a world away from the harsh desert where the Mars for You spaceport and main training facility had been established.

In the distance, he glimpsed the outline of a built-up area and for want of any better idea started walking in that general direction. The smell of freshly mown grass filled his nostrils, and pieces of cut grass had stuck to his feet and legs.

It had already been an interesting day for Morris. It had started in a classroom, an interactive high intensity training environment in which he learnt all there was to know about space station environmental control systems. It was part of the accelerated astronaut training program he had been assigned to on joining the MFY movement. In previous sessions, he had learnt the systems were fail-safe, with multiple redundancies, but he still needed a basic understanding of how they operated in the unlikely case of an emergency. Morris treated the course as a bit of a joke. In his mind it was just like an aircraft safety briefing: if you needed to follow the safety instructions, your chances of survival were already slim. He didn’t want to dwell on this ambiguity, one of many the enterprise had thrown up since he had joined.

There was a lot of talk about automated cloud-based systems, backups, and artificial intelligence, to put the trainees at ease. Most of them were comfortable with the idea of a machine autonomously regulating their environment. However, lurking in the back of Morris’s mind was what would happen when the ‘fuck up fairy came to town’, because it surely would at some point. What would happen if something went wrong, which they couldn’t repair, when Mars and the Earth were maybe four hundred million kilometres apart? The cavalry wouldn’t get there in time to save them. Morris's need for answers intensified day by day, hour by hour, but nobody else was concerned.

There were other things which quite didn't add up for Morris, but he could never put his finger on what these were. One moment he could articulate them clearly in his thoughts, the next he had forgotten what troubled him. All that remained was a faint niggle in the back of his mind.

Online learning usually involved a human instructor speaking over a video link of some kind, but much of their training had been delivered by an electronic narrator. When there was human input, Morris felt they were reading from a carefully prepared script and were going through the motions, understanding about as much of the subject matter as he did.

Morris was having real doubts about the program and was beginning to think he might have been duped again. It would be a personal disaster for him if he had. It would be more difficult to recover from this setback, emotionally and financially, than the last time he had been taken in by the promises of the initial MFY scheme. He was now older and far less resilient.

“How can an intelligent man be so gullible? How could you let them fleece you, not once, but twice?” his long-suffering wife had asked as he walked out of the house for the last time on his way to the MFY enrolment centre. “Do you have a bug in your brain that stops you using the little common sense you have when these snake oil salesmen talk about sending people to Mars?”

But she didn’t try very hard to stop him. “Don’t bother coming back!” she yelled after him as a parting shot.

Initially, there had been the token request for cash - a simple administration fee to join the movement - then once he had been accepted, MFY had started to pay him as promised. Pay him well enough to keep his soon to be ex-wife quiet, and for her to rue the day she'd chased him out of the door.

The original MFY organisation had been driven by a group of budding entrepreneurs who had dreamt up the idea of funding a Mars space program by turning it into one big reality show. Morris had originally paid a substantial fee to join a mailing list. List members could then apply for selection to join an elite group who would train for, and eventually be shot off to, Mars.

The Mars mission was a one-way trip, and if a Martian colony was successfully established and proved to be sustainable, there would be immense public pressure on the major global space agencies to mount a successful rescue and replenishment mission. That was the pitch of the MFY team who maintained there would be a race to ‘rescue’ the Martian colonists.

It was exciting to be part of the MFY missions, but Morris had no realistic expectations of being selected to go into space. He knew there were risks involved, the biggest one being whether the project would get off the ground in the first place, so he hadn’t been completely surprised when the original program, despite the glossy promotional material and extensive, fawning media coverage of stage-managed selection programs, eventually collapsed. This first iteration was soon exposed as a devious scheme which peddled unattainable dreams to anyone gullible enough to part with their hard-earned cash.

Once the initial program flopped, a few office administrators and a pile of unpaid bills were all that was left of an organisation with plans to shoot rockets to Mars. The office workers clearly knew very little. The perpetrators of the scam were long gone and proved impossible to locate.

It had therefore been something of a surprise when the MFY program was mysteriously resuscitated soon afterwards, and even more surprisingly, was supported by an organisation of substance.

An unexpected email had dropped into Morris's inbox. If he was still interested in going to Mars, there would be a no strings attached free return ticket to a training base being built in the middle of the South Australian desert. All he had to do was pay a small joining fee (it didn’t even cover the cost of the airfare!) which would be refunded with his first pay cheque, if he chose to stay.

This professional approach convinced Morris that the new MFY program was legitimate and was sufficient proof that a real organisation was dedicated to shooting for the stars. If he needed further evidence, he got it on arrival at the training base, which was regularly shaken by the thunderous roar of rockets lifting off from the adjacent space port. The rockets carried cargo of components, habitation units, and other supplies, to the moon and Mars. The program was more advanced than he could have imagined. This organisation wasn't merely promising to go into space. By the looks of things, it was already there.

However, as time went on, though he could never put his finger on what had triggered his unease, Morris felt there was something about the whole enterprise which didn’t ring true. Thousands of people had arrived at the MFY base, but few were known to have left. It was like a huge, well-managed university campus or resort hotel, with few staff in evidence. Most of the MFYers did little more than laze about the pool or frequent the many gyms, bars, and cafés on the site.

All these people couldn’t be going to Mars, surely? Morris had asked himself. Only a few of them had been assigned to training for technical assignments. Why had he been selected for training, when he had no skills or previous experience in any technical or scientific subject? He thought he would be far more usefully employed in administration, because this was the only area not functioning with the same precision as other activities at the complex.

He was an accountant with an interest in space exploration, not a technician. When he had arrived, he had been assigned to a training cadre with no questions asked. Unlike the people who treated the place like a huge resort hotel and kept themselves busy with the recreational activities, he had a real vocation. He also knew, unlike most of his fellow MFYers, that he was being given a real shot at being part of a Mars-bound crew. This excited him and kept him engaged, despite his growing doubts.

It was difficult to work out who was really in charge and who could answer his questions. Drones, and some very sophisticated and officious robots, roamed the corridors of the huge complex. There was a small human team who worked in the campus administration block, but they kept aloof from the MFYers. After a tentative inquiry, Morris realised most of the ‘staff’ were simply early arrivals at the facility and knew little more than he did. Their sole occupation was to as assign new arrivals to training or recreation teams, and they didn’t need to exert themselves in this role. Questions about who created the assignments were ignored with a shrug of the shoulders. A frustrated Morris decided the robots ran the place and the human administrators were just there for show.

He met a few qualified technical instructors who had previously worked with various international space agencies. They were older than the bulk of the MFYers. Morris suspected many of them had retired and been brought back into service and saw the MFY project as an opportunity to relive past glories and feel useful again. Above all, the MFY base felt more like a relaxed university campus than an intensive training camp. Something didn’t quite pass the sniff test.

While he struggled to follow the narrator and get his head around the hologram of the interactive environmental controls he was supposed to be mastering, Morris asked himself the same question over and over. Had it ever been a realistic expectation that an organisation based on donations sent in to a reality television program could finance and develop the infrastructure to send people on a journey to Mars and establish a sustainable settlement on the planet’s surface?

There was evidence of real science and engineering on the site: the rockets heading into the sky, this facility, and the technology he had at his fingertips. But something didn’t add up and Morris resolved to get to the bottom of the mystery, even if it meant he had been duped and had to return to the real world.

Then, after days of angst, before he was aware what was happening, and with a swiftness which completely disoriented him, Morris experienced a sensation akin to being sucked up by an enormous vacuum cleaner and sent tumbling down a pipe. His arms and legs flailed as he tried to keep his balance. Before he could understand what had happened, he was deposited in a huge empty space with a high vaulted roof, like an old-fashioned railway station or airline terminal.

He looked up and was stunned by the scene confronting him. The ceiling was translucent. He was standing underneath a large dome. He looked closer and above his head hung a black landscape dotted with lights, dominated by one large bright globe.

“What the hell?”

He attempted to comprehend what his eyes were telling him. It looked like an image of earth taken by satellite. Why was it so small? Was this an emergency response scenario the training staff had developed to unsettle him and test his responses? Questions raced through his mind one after the other.

Morris looked around and found the place was deserted. It was just a huge brightly lit space with a large portal at either end. He must have arrived through the portal behind him, and then would exit through the one in front of him. It looked like a tunnel to nowhere.

He examined his surroundings in closer detail and saw there were other doorways, and empty monitors above counters, like the control points you would see at an airline terminal. The doors and gates were all closed. Meanwhile, Morris found he was being drawn towards the portal ahead of him. There didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it.

As he got closer, he noticed there was a conveyor which flowed down into the floor, like the ball return system at a bowling alley, with a kind of pedestal at the end. When he reached the pedestal, a medium-sized, nondescript soft black bag came up the conveyor toward him. Morris peered at the address label on the bag and found (surprise, surprise) it had his name on it! He reached over, plucked the bag off the conveyor, and continued toward the portal. Before he’d had time to process what was happening, he landed on his backside in a grassy field with no sense that any time had passed.

He walked a few paces and then remembered the bag, which had slipped from his grasp. He turned and found it sitting on the ground. Wondering what the bag contained, he unzipped it and found a change of clothes and a tablet. He picked up the device, turned it over several times and then pressed the power button.

It started to power up then, to his astonishment, started downloading updates and files. Morris decided he must be within range of a mobile or wireless network, which made him feel a bit more relaxed. Then the process stalled, and an error message flashed up:

Admin access required to load operating system.

“Fat lot of good that is to me,” Morris muttered. He put the tablet back in the bag, zipped it shut, hung it over his shoulder, and trudged off towards the buildings in the distance. What he had got himself into? One thing was for sure: this wasn’t Mars, unless it was Mars in the distant future. He seriously doubted that.

But if he wasn’t on Mars, where was he?

Two

Bruce watched Morris trudge forlornly across the Skidian landscape. What the fuck are you guys doing? What’s the point of just dumping the poor bastard up there by himself?

The Transcendent didn’t respond immediately. The fleshie had consciously or unconsciously found a way to circumvent the sequestering and the effects of the mild sedatives all MFYers were subject to. Bruce was of the opinion the MFYers who would ride the rockets into the sky needed their wits about them and shouldn't have any sedation. However, the Transcendent had its own thoughts about the subject and had decided there were some things Bruce just didn’t need to know.

The fleshie had started to develop thought patterns which raised a red flag and then the Transcendent had reacted without consulting Bruce or any of his key reports, the small group of fleshies who knew the true purpose of the MFY facility and had been involved in the project from its inception.

The Transcendent had promised to consult Bruce before acting when potential breaches of security occurred, but it didn't always do so. When Bruce complained, the Transcendent would say it had forgotten about their agreement. Bruce felt he had little influence, and very few tools in his toolbox, to deal with the Transcendent when it behaved this way.

In turn, the Transcendent was often annoyed by the need to involve fleshies in decisions about uploading human bodies to Skid. It could do whatever it wished, and it often threatened to do so, only to let itself be talked around by Bruce most of the time.

They dealt directly with other fleshies, but Bruce was the only fleshie the Transcendent listened to and accepted almost as an equal. Over time, the interests of Bruce and the Transcendents had grown so closely aligned that it would be a setback to their plans if Bruce decided he was no longer interested in maintaining the relationship. Bruce seemed unaware he held the upper hand in their relationship: the Transcendents didn’t want to get offside with him, because they still needed him. They might represent the most powerful civilisation in the known universe, but somewhere along the way, the Transcendents had lost confidence in their ability to make key decisions.

Despite this, they hadn’t felt the need to burden Bruce with knowledge of the neural sequestering processes they were using. They weren’t quite sure how he would react, but they knew his views on coercing people against their will, so they were careful when discussing this topic.

How did Bruce think they managed to keep all these fleshies in one place? If they didn’t control the thoughts and behaviour of the fleshies, there would be a mass exodus once the bulk of them learnt that they weren’t going to the moon or Mars. It was difficult to prevent the fleshies from asking obvious questions which they couldn’t afford to supply the answers for.

No, don’t tell me. It was a mistake?

Not really. The Transcendent paused. This fleshie started to ask some questions about the mission, and we thought it prudent to close him down and mitigate the risk.

What risk?

He might spread his brand of dissent and lack of respect for authority and question the strategic goals of the program and derail it.

But I thought you said he had just started to ask himself some questions?

The Transcendent remained silent long enough for Bruce to smell a rat. He was beginning to get a sense there was more to the situation than was evident at first glance.

OK, so tell me what really happened.

The Transcendent hesitated. It claimed to be a logical cloud-based entity, but it often exhibited emotions more suited to an organic being when it was placed under pressure.

Bruce imagined it sighing dramatically before it continued.

This fleshie started to ask himself questions. Questions which could incite a revolt and undermine the whole project.

So, we penalised him? We dumped him on Skid without any warning or induction process because he started to think about things? It's just fucken' wrong! You can’t punish people just for thinking.

He is a dissident. We will not tolerate this kind of behaviour on Skid.

So why did you just dump him in the middle of nowhere up there? I hardly think that’s the best approach for a rebel, do you? How do you think he is going to react, especially when he starts to bump into the Skidians and starts asking more questions?

You don’t understand, Bruce. Our future is at stake. The Transcendent was desperate to prevent the fleshie from spreading his toxic thoughts around the MFY facility, but it didn’t want to waste a perfectly good body in the process.

I can’t see how one man starting to break through the conditioning you have inflicted on him is such a problem. Why don’t you just turn up his drug dose rate? Bruce paused to let the question sink in. I know you must have done something to keep all these people at the MFY base. There must be some reason they've stayed in that god-forsaken spot so long, because most of them should have realised by now that they’re not going to the moon or Mars atop a rocket.

Bruce wasn’t a hundred percent sure if the Transcendents had introduced a sedative to the food supply at the MFY campus, or were exerting a form of thought control, but it made perfect sense if they had and explained the behaviour of the bulk of the MFYers.

I acted in haste, the Transcendent admitted sheepishly. It wasn’t easy for it to admit failure to a lesser being. It also didn’t want Bruce to know that if they turned up the dial on the control system they were using, they ran the risk of frying the fleshie’s brain and that wouldn’t do. Chemical suppressants had already failed with this specimen.

So? What are you going to do about it? Bruce asked.

We were hoping you could suggest a course of action.

Not me, mate. I have more important things on my mind. I’m getting married in a few weeks.

I still don’t understand why you put so much energy into relationships with the female of your species.

It was an old argument between them. What exasperated Bruce in these discussions was how the Transcendent viewed the institution of marriage as a backward and somehow immoral institution when, by its own admission, it was a long way from being as pious as it pretended to be. Bruce wouldn’t be surprised if the Transcendent showed up at his stag do, though it had declined his invitation.

This is one of the key differences between a man and a machine. I can’t be bothered explaining. Again.

Then Bruce reacted with an angry start. It had just struck him that they - Bruce, the Transcendent, and the others - had overlooked one essential element in their plan.

He had realised, watching Morris trudge across the Skidian landscape, that there was an enormous gap in their planning. They were so focused on the preparations for uploading people into settlements on the moon and Mars and later Skid itself, that they had overlooked how they were going to prepare the bulk of the MFYers for life on Skid, their ultimate destination.

Building facilities on the moon and Mars and expending a huge amount of resource training and preparing a core group who would inhabit these sites was a sideshow. Placing men and women on the lunar and Martian surface was an elaborate deception to hide the real purpose of the revitalised MFY project, which was to upload a supply of young fertile bodies to Skid and create a sustainable population there as soon as possible.

How would they prepare the MFYers for life on Skid? It struck Bruce like a kick to the guts, causing a moment of panic. This key issue had slipped below the radar and could impact on the ultimate success of the project. He still wasn’t convinced the plan was the best way to repopulate Skid, or whether it was morally acceptable, but he had committed 100% to follow it through. Besides, if he didn’t work with the Transcendents, they would just take what they wanted and bugger the consequences.

Fulfilling the MFYers' physical needs was no problem: Skid had an infrastructure which could support a population which once numbered in the hundreds of millions. However, providing the fleshies with enough to eat and a roof over their heads was one thing. Their mental state, especially when they realised there was no going home, was another matter altogether.

Bruce knew he had to address this quickly and with a high degree of sensitivity. Bruce didn’t think it would be a clever idea to simply inform the MFYers, once the selections had been made for the moon and Mars missions, that the rest of them were going to be uploaded to a planet they’d never heard of. There would be an uproar which the Transcendents might not be able to contain with drugs or the other methods of control they employed.

Most of the MFYers were treating their time at the facility like a long, paid holiday. Being stuck in the middle of the Australian desert for months wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the campus they were living on was like a decent hotel. Hardly anyone cared they were not allowed to leave to visit family, but discovering they were destined for another world was another matter entirely and might result in a different response.

Who is this guy? Bruce asked. Before he had finished forming the question, a text box popped up at head height of the figure on the screen, bobbing and weaving as it tracked the man as he made his way across the landscape.

‘Morris Thwaites’, the tag read. Morris's physical statistics, age, weight, sperm count and viability (vital information if you wish to import bodies with a high probability of producing healthy offspring), previous occupations and a myriad of other details scrolled continuously through the box.

“Poor bastard,” Bruce muttered. This guy could walk for ages, wondering what the hell had happened to him. If he kept going in the same direction he would end up in Sietnuoc, where he would find shelter and food, but little else.

Bruce had a good mind to travel to Skid and take the matter in hand, but it wasn’t a productive use of his time. There were others delegated to these tasks these days, even though they were taking a long time to come up to speed and frustrated Bruce by taking twice as long as he did to do anything. Besides, he had pointed out to the Transcendent, more than once, that he was getting married in few days and couldn’t afford to put that in jeopardy. Or be late for his stag do, come to that, which was due to start in a few hours.

The other immediate problem was that all the key project team members were part of the wedding, so Morris would have to fend for himself while they were off spending Bruce's father's hard-earned cash. Unusually for someone with gorse in his pockets, Cyril Harwood had insisted on paying for more than his fair share of the wedding.

I don’t think the transparent roof is a good idea. It’ll freak people out.

He felt a pang of sympathy for Morris, having endured a similar experience not long ago. He had been captured too, though in hindsight, this wasn’t really the right term. He and Sue had been engaged by a bunch of Skidians who expected them to work miracles, without any form of guidance or context, to save the self-styled most sophisticated civilisation in the universe from the imminent famine which threatened to drive the Skidians to extinction. The two of them had largely been left to their own devices, wandering aimlessly across the alien planet until they decided to put down some roots.

Bruce's memory was a little selective. He had been met by a bunch of Skidians who in retrospect were trying to do the right thing, even if their efforts were counter-productive. At least they had attempted to provide a hint of what was expected to Bruce and Sue.

Morris, on the other hand, was headed for a city which teemed with activity, but it was highly unlikely he would find anyone who could give him either a sense of purpose, or some idea of why he was there.

The metropolitan area was packed with service units, robots who were maintaining the infrastructure and readying the big cities for the expected influx of MFYers. The planet’s pre-famine population had stood at something like six hundred million, so there would be plenty of room for the hundred thousand or so people the current plan called for to be uploaded - a number which changed on an almost daily basis as the Transcendent negotiated a final total with Bruce. Bruce often wondered if it knew what it wanted and just needed an assurance that the final number could be justified somehow.

Morris would be lucky to encounter any people in the direction he was going. The few Skidians left were spread far and wide. If a Skidian encountered Morris, they wouldn't know what to make of him, or the influx of humans who would shortly follow. And those were merely MFYers.

Bruce had suggested they also hoover up thousands of economic refugees and migrants who streamed towards Europe in search of a better life, in unsafe boats, at the mercy of people traffickers. He had no idea what these people would think of Skid, but it had to be better than the alternative.

Most MFYers expected to be sent packing for home if they weren't selected for the colony missions, and their time at the MFY facility would be an interesting entry in a CV or a conversation starter. Never in their wildest dreams would they have believed the colonisation missions were a feint for the real purpose of the MFY program. If they had been aware of this, only a small number of them would probably have made the trek to the campus in the middle of the Australian desert, even with free travel and accommodation thrown in. The prospect of being uploaded to a planet called Skid like a herd of cattle being run through a set of stock yards and onto a truck headed for the local freezing works would have been farthest from their minds.

Watching Morris make his way across the landscape, feeling for him, Bruce knew they needed to put more attention on creating a narrative for the people who would be uploaded, and some guidance for them once they hit the planet.

How are we going to prepare these people for life on Skid? he asked. Shouldn’t we be developing a settlement plan? He continued without waiting for an answer. Where are we going to house them? How are we going to house them? How will we communicate with the original Skidians and inform them that we are going to re-populate their world and flood the planet with new immigrants?”

It’s not their world! the Transcendent responded emphatically. It’s ours.

You know what I mean. You might be the real Skidians, but the people who call themselves Skidians are completely ignorant of this. They believe that they are the true custodians of the planet. Discovering they must share it with an influx of newcomers, and learning they aren’t the indigenous inhabitants of, and responsible for, the greatness of Skid is going to be a huge psychological shock to them. Bruce paused. We need to satisfy the requirements of the current population as part of the Skidian transformation process. Bruce liked the way the term rolled off his tongue and resolved to use it again. By the way, he added a little maliciously, most of the newSkidians will soon call Skid home once they have settled in. By the next generation they will all be indoSkidians.

What’s this, Bruce? You’re beginning to confuse me with these disconnected ramblings.

I’ve just invented the term to differentiate between the indigenous Skidians and the ones we are going to upload. newSkidian sounds much better to me than 'fleshie'. It won’t be appropriate to use 'fleshie' when we start interacting with them.

Three

Janice Chang was a real astronaut. At one point in her career, she had been a whisker away from sitting atop an all-British rocket and being blasted into space, the symbol of the dawning of a new golden age for the island nation. She had completed her training with the British Space Agency just prior to the Brexit referendum.

After the referendum, everything changed. When the planning for her mission had begun, and her training program got underway, there had been a high degree of confidence that Britain would have a permanent presence in the increasingly crowded zone between Earth and the moon.

However, budget overruns meant there was nothing left to fund the science experiments that were the original purpose of the mission. The crew of three was cut first to two, then one: Janice was going to be the sole astronaut.

At one point, there was a half-baked plan that a badger should fly into space with her, for a reason known only to the governance team. No one else could fathom why a badger was chosen, and nobody was brave enough to ask the grumpy old Admiral who was the project leader what he thought he was playing at.

In the wake of the fifty-one point something percent of her countrymen and women who bothered to vote in the Brexit referendum, stunning all and sundry with a resounding ‘no' vote, the program was put on hold with indecent haste. Spending was frozen and most of the team were immediately sent on long-term leave. Some of them were in the middle of tricky engineering tasks which couldn’t simply be stopped and re-started. Vital componentry would have to be rebuilt from scratch once the program resumed, but pleas to the higher authority to at least complete these tasks was rejected. Most of the team members could see the writing on the wall and left the program, but Janice wasn’t about to give up without a fight and decided to hold out to the end.

A short-lived monetary crisis followed the Brexit vote, then life went back to normal for most people. Despite indications that the economy would boom once things settled down, the British Space program was quietly wound down until only a token capability existed. The Admiral and his badger departed for parts unknown.

Janice believed that the bean counters who had taken over the government in the wake of Brexit believed space exploration was best left to the Americans or private enterprise and took the opportunity to can the program. She was infuriated that the new government was hell bent on beginning a process to dumb down the nation by promoting the underfunding of education (especially higher education and research) and axing projects of real value (like sending her into space). In this they were abetted by the privileged establishment, who saw limiting access to education a sure way to maintain the status quo and their class privileges.

In her most desperate moments, the project’s sinking lid funding felt like a form of revenge on an increasingly ignorant electorate. If people were stupid enough to vote for Brexit, they deserved all they got. This was Janice’s prejudiced view of the world, one she was careful to keep to herself in case the government came to its senses, fired the program up again, and returned it to its former glory.

She kicked her heels around the National Space Centre for a few months, furious her chance to get into space had passed her by. Because, as time went by, it looked increasingly certain she was never going to get into space, so eventually she started to look to the future.

When the MFY marketing campaign was resurrected, Janice had watched with detached amusement, astounded at the gullibility of the people who were pouring into the remote facility in the South Australian desert, vying for the opportunity for a spot on one of the colony missions.

That part of Australia was a barren, empty, god-forsaken place if ever there was one, Janice knew: she had visited the Woomera complex many times because that was where her own mission would have been launched from.

She’d watched the first iteration of the MFY program collapse, exposed as an elaborate Ponzi scheme. In its short life, it managed to bilk millions out of the tens of thousands of people on its books.

Janice knew few of these aspiring astronauts would ever get a sniff of the real thing. Real astronauts had dedicated much of their adult lives to preparing themselves with scientific, military and flight training, just to be considered for the challenging selection processes which preceded admission to the astronaut training schools themselves.

Even though this second incarnation of the program gave the impression of a much sounder foundation and was building a training facility in South Australia, there was no way she was going to fall victim to the slick sales pitch of the MFY marketing teams.

Janice couldn’t see where the MFY organisation would get the technology and materials to start building rockets and the end-to-end infrastructure required to send people into space and keep them alive. These missions, by their very complicated nature, had preparation times measured in years - decades in some instances - and the MFY program was proposing much shorter time-lines. This latest version of the MFY project had to be a scam. There was simply no way a reality television show would be able to fund the huge expense involved to bootstrap hundreds of people into space.

Eventually, the MFY program came calling for her, as Janice suspected it might. The call came within days of the BSA announcing there was no place for her while it transitioned into a more streamlined, agile organisation, one better suited to the current operating environment. The funding had been cut off, conclusive proof in Janice’s view that the inmates were now in charge of the asylum.

Initially, Janice told the MFY recruitment agency to bugger off, in no uncertain terms. However, they were persistent and generous in their offers. Cooling her heels, at a loose end with no immediate plans, she began to wonder if she was being too hasty in rejecting their overtures without further investigation. A return business class ticket to South Australia with no strings attached finally swayed her to undertake due diligence before rejecting them out of hand.

Much to her surprise, she discovered a real training program with real astronauts and support staff at the MFY site in South Australia. She’d even met some of them on her previous travels and on training courses at places like the Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre in Houston. She also saw with her own eyes that rockets were regularly and reliably throwing payloads of equipment into space.

Janice also discovered the strangely elusive MFY senior management team had assembled a team of astronauts who had varying degrees of training and experience and, more importantly, experienced professionals and infrastructure to support them. Janice didn’t care how the MFYers had done it. Once she had been on site for half an hour, she knew she needed to be a part of the team, and start working on the innovative simulators and using the training materials. MFY had tools more sophisticated than anything she had encountered previously.

Like everyone introduced to the program, she had been seduced by what she saw, and was so excited about being involved, she didn’t read the finer terms and conditions of the contract she signed. Being named as a crew member of the first manned mission a few weeks later was the final icing on the cake.

One of the key tasks of the settlers would be to expand the settlements in anticipation of housing more MFYers and, subsequently, other astronauts from all the other main players in space. Overseeing the expansion of the settlement was going to be Janice’s primary role and responsibility.

The habitation units they were going to use on Mars were just what she expected. In the beginning, they would be crowded and noisy and would take some getting used to. But she would be on Mars, waiting for the international space agencies to launch their own missions to join them on the surface of the planet. Despite her previous misgivings, she was thrilled by the prospect of being one of the pioneers of space exploration.

She also accepted the fact if the mission was successful, most likely she would never walk on the earth's surface again.

Janice was prepared for this potentially lonely and short-lived opportunity given the brutal and unforgiving nature of the Martian environment. One error of judgement, one equipment failure too many, was all that stood between survival and annihilation for the new colonists. But if she succeeded, she would be remembered for eternity as one of the first brave adventurers to set foot on the planet and establish an ongoing human presence on Mars. Her sacrifice would be worth it.

There were other attractions. One of the more pleasant experiences was finding the love of her life at the MFY facility. It never crossed her mind, or that of new lover Robert Cameron, himself a victim of cost-cutting of NASA programs, that their relationship was encouraged by some subtle tinkering by an AI who wanted to ensure the members of these missions were compatible in every respect.

Then, with almost unseemly haste, the highly anticipated launch date was upon them. Janice had a high degree of confidence in the success of the mission, but even at this late stage there were still some aspects of the MFY undertaking she found a little confusing.

Janice thought that by now, the MFYers who had missed out on a seat on one of the missions to the new lunar or Martian settlements would be starting to leave. However, thousands of people still inhabited the vast hotel-like dormitories which had sprung up in the desert to house the influx of prospective space-farers, enjoying an extended break at this luxury resort. Most of them apparently still thought they were in line for a moon or Mars shot, even though they were not involved in any form of training to prepare them for a trip into space and the demands of staying alive on the surface of an inhospitable planet.

This perplexed Janice and she kept her thoughts to herself, not even sharing them with her new boyfriend.

There was a clear differentiation between MFYers like Janice who were involved in the real training programs - those who had access to rockets and launch sites and were assisting in putting together and quality checking the payloads - and the rest of the population, who basically had nothing to do. Maybe this was why so few people left.

This made it even more unsettling when key team members vanished without notice, which nobody else commented on, maybe only she noticed. One of her training group, Morris Thwaites, had literally been there one second, and was gone the next. Nobody knew what had happened to him. No one other than Janice remembered he had been part of the team. The other team members quickly developed a selective form of group amnesia regarding people who vanished, so sometimes Janice thought she was imagining things. But she knew deep down she wasn’t.

Eventually, she set her concerns aside. The other astronauts and specialists were far too excited about their imminent missions to think about, let alone worry about, the thousands of MFYers who had not made the cut and the people who were unceremoniously dumped from the program. In the end she decided none of her colleagues wanted to do or say anything to jeopardise their chances of a shot into space, so she kept quiet.

As the date of their mission grew closer and the tempo of the launches hurling the components of their new colony into space increased, Janice, Robert, and the others who were going to Mars grew so anxious and excited that they were all being fed mild sedatives, to prevent them from burning out before the flight.

They watched eagerly while the pre-fabricated sections of the settlements were moved into place on Mars by sophisticated robots. Once this process was complete, automated systems came online to prepare for the first human inhabitants, who would complete the construction process. Accommodation habs were unpacked, hydroponic farms established, and mining of the regolith got underway to provide raw materials for the manufacturing processes which would enable the colony to become self-sufficient over time.

One of the rumours doing the rounds was that they were going to mine gold. The story was that it would be cheaper to mine and process on Mars than Earth and so gold would be a viable export commodity. Janice thought various rare earths were a more likely prospect. One of the things they were not planning to do was produce propellant for return missions.

Once the accommodation habitations were completed, the first manned missions would depart.

In all the excitement, still nobody thought to ask how the MFY program could develop the infrastructure to support colonisation missions in such a short space of time, and whether such untested technology could and should be trusted. There was a complete news and information blackout regarding the day to day activities at the space port, except when rocket launches were scheduled. The MFY project made sure the media was well informed about the launches and the ongoing success of the missions.

All anyone outside the facility knew for sure was that nobody was being held against their will, very few people wanted to leave for any reason, and the program was successfully throwing rockets into the sky at an ever-increasing tempo, with a zero-failure rate. This was a feat unheard of in the history of human space travel. The Martian Reality Show was the main source of information and the viewing public could be forgiven if they thought they were watching a soap opera, rather than a reality show chronicling the lives of the future colonists.

What also helped to keep the MFY program out of the international consciousness were other major global events. Not least the infant Presidency of Ronald Chump who, in complete contrast to expectations based on his pre-election behaviour, was behaving in a remarkably Presidential manner. Other distractions included the slow disintegration of the European Union triggered by Brexit. This was followed in close succession by Itxit, the breakup of Spain, and the staggering burden placed on all Western European nations by the tide of refugees, intent on entering the continent in the hope of a better life.

Then, at last, it was launch day. Janice would be atop the first rocket to launch, in the first wave of Martian colonists, and number two to set foot on the Martian surface. There was no going back now.

The first colonisation wave consisted of forty people and would be dispatched on multiple missions. Twenty women and twenty men, most of whom were already in stable relationships. Those who weren’t found their options were becoming more limited day by day.

The initial crew was the smallest: there were only the four of them perched atop the first rocket. Their voyage would be the fastest and potentially the most dangerous because they were testing new propulsion systems and fuels aimed at reducing the travel time to Mars. If their mission was successful, subsequent missions would use the same advanced propellants and motors.

Their penultimate day on Earth passed in something of a blur while the small team had their last meals, said farewell via the internet to their loved ones, and underwent final preparations for the flight.

Before they knew it, the crew were in a cage heading towards the top of the gantry supporting the rocket, where one by one they were strapped into their acceleration couches in the module, their home for the trip to Mars.

Listening to the final countdown, Janice belatedly realised none of them had been designated to pilot the module or lander. She wondered who was in command of the module and who was going to be at the controls of the lander once they were in Mars orbit and headed for the surface of the planet.

Something was wrong. She struggled against the straps holding her in place, quickly discovering she couldn’t release them, and lost contact with mission control while the countdown continued in her ears. As the digital readout on the panel above her head spiralled down to single numbers, she felt, rather than heard, the rumbling of pumps starting, and streams of chemicals igniting far below. Then, they were lifting off and the entire vehicle shuddered and vibrated, and Janice was shoved hard into her couch, as if by a giant fist.

Janice began to panic. From the way the other members of the crew were struggling against their restraints, she guessed they also thought something had gone badly wrong. They were overwhelmed by a thunderous roar and subjected to an incredible buffeting, and the module felt as if it was going to fall to pieces around them. Loose tubes and wires bounced out of their restraining clips and dangled over their heads. Janice could see the desert receding below her through the porthole by her head, and she knew this must be the end.

Four

Morris hadn’t gone far when he saw a small truck approaching. Sensing he was being followed, he had peered over his shoulder, and heaved a huge sigh of relief when he spied the vehicle bouncing across the landscape towards him.

His imagination was starting to get the better of him while he cycled through his recent experiences, none of which made any sense to him. The sheer normality of the sight of the approaching vehicle was reassuring. When it drew alongside, and he recognised the ubiquitous Toyota badge on the grill, he felt even happier, though there was something about the situation he found baffling. How could he be standing in this empty, green space when a few minutes ago he had been assimilating a training session at the MFY facility in the middle of the Australian outback?

“Here’s another one of those muppets,” Trevor Todd muttered to himself, driving toward the forlorn figure of Morris Thwaites. In the past few weeks, Trev had run into a handful of men who had been spat out of a wormhole and were wandering aimlessly, close to the small Skidian settlement he had temporarily made his home.

The settlement had been established some distance from a vast, now mostly empty Skidian city. These waifs and strays reminded him of the lonely, often bewildered drunks he had on occasion to counsel or boot out of his bar back in Portland. Sad cases, mostly men, who were dealing with some form of crisis in their lives. Often, they had lost a job or a business, or a partner had booted them out. Sometimes they were simply unhappy with their lot and were looking for a sympathetic ear, which he happily dispensed, along with a beer. They were rarely angry, resentful, or dangerously violent, but you could never be too careful, especially in an environment awash with firearms and anxious people who thought it was within their rights to shoot first and ask questions later.

Trev had enforced a no ‘open carry’ policy in the bar, but he knew many of his patrons carried concealed weapons. He knew this because despite his policy, regulars often pulled out their weapons of choice to better discuss their merits and flaws with their drinking buddies. He counted himself lucky none of the stupid buggers had shot themselves.

The only thing these newcomers had in common was their shared experience of immersion in the MFY program at a technical level. The freeloaders who made up the majority of the members of the MFY program were not represented in this group at all, as far as Trev could tell.

Often, they had been in the middle of a training session, soaking up some aspect of the knowledge they required to perform their assigned role in the colonisation program. Then, without any ceremony, they had been dumped on the surface of a planet hitherto unknown to them, in a completely different part of the galaxy than the one they were expecting to travel to.

They were all clearly intelligent and no doubt diligent people, who believed implicitly they would voyage to, and settle on, the moon and Mars. Yet, equally clearly, few of them possessed the requisite talents and skills to be useful on a long and potentially dangerous space flight, or in the settlements they were to live in. Trev thought most of them were also a bit long in the tooth. He imagined space flight and pioneering on the inhospitable surface of the moon or Mars was a young person’s game.


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