Seven Ships by Liam Hogan [sci-fi]

Imprint - SciFi Imprint Logo 200wSeven Ships by Liam Hogan

Seven ships set sail into the starry skies.

The Earth was dying. It had been unwell for a while, truth be told, but now the malaise was obvious to even the most blinkered of its inhabitants and it was deemed terminal. Indeed, there were those who said it was already dead, it just hadn’t realized it yet. Each attempt to eco-engineer a solution seemed to only make things a thousand times worse; it was as if the Earth itself had given up.

With a last herculean effort, and consuming much that was left to be consumed, seven mighty spacefaring vessels were built with the desperate intent to launch these seven life boats towards seven stars around which seven near-Earths had been detected.

But what to fill these mighty space arks with?

Only the best would do: the finest wonders and most precious treasures that mankind had accumulated over the millennia. The most stunning art, the greatest literature, the noblest science.

And people? These ships, massive though they were, could still only carry a fraction of a fraction of the multitudes that teemed on the Earth’s now barren surface. A scant one in a million was all that could be saved. Who was worthy of such an honor?

Earth was dying at mankind’s cruel hand and it was imperative that only those who would never repeat that mistake were permitted to leave, to start anew. Only the healthiest bodies, the keenest of intellects, the most virtuous of souls, could pass the strict tests that were set. Although the tests were open to all, very few got through even the preliminary rounds.

Most failed to recognize exactly what was being tested.

Sure, there were written papers of knowledge and wisdom, physical tests of strength and agility, of reaction times and stamina, medical tests that scrutinized every part of the body, right down to the DNA. A single blemish, the merest hint of an imperfection, was enough to rule you out.

But there was also an interview that you would be asked to wait for. And having been kept waiting for three hours, would you wait for another five? Or, if you passed this test and reached the final stages, would you turn down an offer of a million dollars, tax free, simply for letting someone else take your place?

Many fell at this final hurdle and left, clutching bundles of cash that the administrators of the exhaustive selection process were more than happy to pay out, knowing that they had preserved the moral fortitude of what was destined to become the new (and improved) human race.

Finally, the candidates were ready. Finally, they bid farewell to their not-quite-so-blue-as-it-had-once-been planet. Finally, seven gleaming teardrops rode seven towering columns of flame up out of the poisoned atmosphere, before unfurling sails the size of Luxemburg to catch the solar wind and help push the last, best chance for mankind towards their distant destinations.

They never made it, of course.

The SS Chastity was probably the most successful—that ship did indeed reach its intended target of Kepler-186f, though by then there was no one left to slam on the brakes. Faster-than-light travel—along with a carbon-neutral lifestyle and clean water for all—being the stuff of fairytales, these were generation ships, taking multiple lifetimes to travel the vastness of space and, alas, the crew of the SS Chastity singularly failed to procreate their replacements. Perhaps some future alien race will find their desiccated skeletons and wonder why so many of them have their legs tightly crossed.

The SS Charity stopped to help the SS Diligence, whose captain had fallen asleep at the helm after a watch lasting 96 straight hours. Noble though this rescue attempt was, these spaceships did not have enough fuel to change course and stop in this manner, and they certainly did not have enough to start their epic journeys once again. Both ships now float powerless and lifeless out somewhere in the icy wastes of the Oort Cloud, dancing a slow waltz around each other, occasionally disturbing the frozen comets that are their nearest neighbors.

The crew of the SS Temperance starved itself to death, the SS Patience never seemed to find the right moment to unfurl its sails and the SS Humility was…humbled by smacking straight into Pluto, which was mysteriously absent from their star charts, having somehow fallen between the cracks of classification as neither a planet nor a trans-Neptunian body.

As for the SS Kindness? We don’t talk about the SS Kindness.

And the Earth they left behind? How did it fare?

Well, it was still dying. If anything, it was dying all the quicker—when the best that mankind had to offer ascended into the skies, those left behind responded in an unbridled orgy of sex and excessive consumption, thankfully free of anyone to tell them that such behavior was in any way morally reprehensible. Oh, there were still priests, of course. Lots of them. But if they hadn’t managed to secure a berth on one of the seven ships of the truly pious, just what sort of frauds were they to tell you what was right and what was wrong?

Food piles that had been expected to last another decade were consumed in week-long contests of gluttony, held in museums emptied of their ancient splendors, or in echoing art galleries, their walls stripped bare.

Roaming tribes of the disenchanted, the disaffected, the seriously pissed off, rampaged through the massive complexes where they had been denied their rightful place amongst the stars, wrecking them in blind fury.

But most people did nothing. Nothing at all: just sat and watched the chaos unfold in glorious high-definition 3D TV.

Oddly enough, it was the reports from the Seven Ships that slowly changed all of that. As, one by one, they failed, as their beamed status reports, meant to give hope, to promise some ethereal future for the race they were supposed to preserve, as these reports became bleaker and bleaker, the wrath and envy that had been felt towards these do-goody departees slowly diminished.

And when the last and final message dissipated into the solar static, mankind bucked itself up. Sure, their planet was doomed. Sure, the best and brightest among them had left long ago (though look where that had got them). Sure, lots of those left behind were so obese they would have had a heart attack if asked to leave their homes, never mind their planet, but hey, screw that. Can we fix it? Yes we can!

Well—they couldn’t fix the Earth, not even by all dying off overnight. But they could still build spaceships. They weren’t pretty—far from it, they differed as much from those seven lost ships of virtue as their occupants did from the idealized demi-gods who had been the first to leave the planet. These ships were monstrosities born of necessity and whatever was closest to hand. Once you knew that there was nothing to come back to, you could put everything—every bridge, every car, every Canary Wharf—into building as many and as varied spacecraft as you could imagine. And there were lots of people with some seriously messed up imaginations; it comes from watching endless reruns of Battlestar Galactica, I shouldn’t wonder.

Many of these ships never got out of the solar system. Many never even left the ground, except for parts of them, brightly colored flaming parts screaming through the air. But you can’t make an omelet—well, you haven’t been able to make an omelet since the last chicken was smothered in ghost pepper sauce and used in the deciding bout of an extreme hot wings eating contest. (So, if you ever wanted to know what came last, the chicken or the egg, it was the chicken.)

Survival is a numbers game. Seven ships never were particularly good odds, not over interstellar distances, but how about 70 ships? How about 700? How about 700,000, some no bigger than a VW Camper van. Some were VW camper vans, though they did have a rather unfortunate tendency to leak air like a sieve. When the last craft—constructed from the salvaged shell of the Sydney Opera house—blasted off, it left an Earth drained of its oceans, its forests denuded, its mountains replaced by steaming slag heaps. Not a single human soul remained behind. Well, nobody this story concerns itself with, anyway.

Of course, many of those 700,000 ships were very poorly equipped. But you’d be surprised how quickly a bit of space piracy sorts the wolves from the lambs. And the lambs? Into the pot they would go; after all, protein is protein.

Mankind cheated, stole, murdered, and indeed, screwed its way across the universe. Some are still doing that now. Others have settled, and perhaps, in 10,000 years or so, will need once again to flee the burnt embers of their resource-stripped planets.

But they’ll keep doing it, keep despoiling their homes and seeking new ones, spreading like a virulent disease to every habitable body. And woe betide any sentient species whose path they cross, for this crusade carries with it seven devastating weapons: seven evolutionary survival strategies for every conceivable eventuality, seven terrible vices that make them so undeniably human.

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