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Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc.
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Shalea woke out of coldsleep to a sickening sense of dread partly neuro-induced and partly spontaneous. She could have been woken in lieu of two eventualities. On the one hand, the starship Lyra might have found a Gaian-type planet that her crew could colonise. A landing party would then set up a surface colony. Once settled they would begat daughters. Lyra’s semenivacuole held spermatozoa from a hundred million genetically healthy human males, so the colonists could reproduce exponentially, as if they were asexual. In this case, Shalea should be waking as one with the thousand pseudonatally naked women in Lyra’s nucleus, filled with excitement for their future. She had woken alone, meaning the present situation must be the alternative eventuality, Lyra’s acrosome was malfunctioning.

 The acrosome was needed because, past 0.9c, interstellar space was more dangerous than most sentient enemies.  Supernovae had laced it with sleeting cosmic rays and the stellar wind of four hundred billion suns filled it with a smattering of atomic nuclei. At near-light speed, these would scour away Lyra’s hull and fry her biomass. There was a more substantial hazard. Grains of dust and ice wandered between star systems. A collision with one of these would send Lyra nova. The acrosome stopped all this from happening. First it sheathed Lyra’s teardrop head in a magnetoplasma membrane to deflect a relativistic wind of atomic nuclei and supernova debris.  Second, it neutralised incoming dust and ice grains, one by one. It targeted them with a vision system and shot them with blast lasers. These were controlled by an Ultra Fast Response Network which functioned analogously to the ganglia of biological organisms. If one part malfunctioned, it would try to repair itself. If it couldn’t repair itself, Lyra woke the human acrosomists. They had to fix the acrosome, since Lyra could miss exactly one target…

 Shalea stumbled out of her pod, brushing blue hair out of her eyes. Lyra was feeding system holos into her retinal display and their varicoloured phosphorescence threw the dark of the coldsleep rack into sharp relief. Shalea ignored the holos.  She asked Lyra, “are the others alive?”

Lyra said, “all of them. They are awake and leaving their pods.” The mission planners had put five acrosomists on board Lyra for redundancy, in case some of them died in coldsleep. Shalea gave a leap in the half gravity and tapped her intercom. She cried, “Shimeeth, Kahleth, Talithea…”

Shimeeth and Kahleth’s voices burst through. Finally Shimeeth said, “we’ll dress, and then meet in the ACR.”

 The ACR, or acrosomic control room was a well-lit hexagonal cell with IT equipment on various walls. Lyra had powered down the drive tail, leaving the five women in zero-g, where they floated, holding onto one another at odd angles. The ACR was half body temperature so the women had partially undone their bodysuits for biophysical comfort. Sometimes, skin brushed against skin, creating human comfort. Shimeeth took off the VR unit in which she had been analysing flight data holos and turned to speak to the others. “One of the bits that repairs the other bits has uh broken, and so the acrosome is developing blind spots. Vision sensors aren’t being repaired when they go out of action and you can see the effect in Lyra’s compound magnifications. The rest of the system is going out of wack trying to compensate for the increasing loss of elements.”

Lyra chimed in, “it’s going out of equilibrium,” and less than helpfully said, “fix it!”

Lyra honey,” said Helath attempting to be soothing, “we’re doing our best.”

“It’s going out of equilibrium. Fix it!” Lyra repeated. The five women instantly pulled each other closer together.

 Talithea brought up a holo of the UFR net and the women peered closely at its red and violet pinpricks. Shimeeth narrowed her eyes and said “yes. You can see how its equilibrium is disturbed. The UFR self-repair functions are effectively homeostatic so the system should resist attempts to move it from its optimal configuration. However it’s now being driven wholesale into a new stable configuration. We need to shift it back with some artfully chosen perturbations.”

“Like what,” blurted out Talithea.

“Intelligent ones,” replied Shimeeth wryly, “that’s why Lyra needs us. Isn’t it Lyra!?”

“This is not about me. This is about the crew”, said Lyra sincerely.

 They continued to work, growing tense with the continual expectation that they would be vaporised at any moment, and tenser with every second that the vaporisation failed to happen. Kahleth abruptly brought the subject off work. “We spend our last moments…”

“Not our last moments!” whispered Shimeeth in a cracked voice.

“staring at holos of neural networks when we never even made love!” She swung through the air, brushing Talithea and Shalea with inept sensuality before bumping her lips against Shimeeth’s cheek and mumbling “what does it matter? Every moment alive proves the thing works and if it doesn’t there will be nothing anyway…”

Suddenly, Kahleth’s retinal display flashed a blinding white and she fell away, uselessly covering her eyes with her hands. Through it all Lyra quietly said, “fix it!”

“Let Kahleth express her feelings!” cried Talithea.

“She’s no use to you blind Lyra!” Shimeeth burst out.

Lyra said, “there are five of you so that if four of you die, the last may still fix the acrosome. I do not need her.”

Shimeeth suddenly smiled wryly. “But Lyra, if you only need one of us to fix the acrosome, the other four can surely do as they wish?”

While Lyra paused to consider, Helath said quietly “or we kill ourselves!”

 The women beamed at each other, realising at once that none would defect. “I had better continue,” Shimeeth remarked. “The rest of you…”

Suddenly, the ACR turned right over and there was an earsplitting roar. Shalea grabbed Shimeeth and cradled her waist, pressing her mouth to Shimeeth’s hair. As the adjacent coldsleep rack ruptured and she saw the blueshifted stars, she knew they would all die making love.


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