The Starship Hanoi by Lawrence R. Dagstine [sci-fi]

The Starship Hanoi by Lawrence R. Dagstine

The wet season was supposed to be approaching, and the city was hot and humid and absolutely stifling. At times, we found ourselves in the path of the solar flares. In addition to that, three days a week the androids cut the power, plunging Hanoi into a soporific, heat-soaked darkness. Even the ancient paddle fans stopped turning. All energy remained in the rockets, which surrounded every side of this once magnificent city, now floating millions of miles above an inferno of a world we knew only in pictures and, for the old citizens, through memory.

Half the population of Hanoi—now better known as the Vietnam Life Cycle—took this as just another indication of the inefficiency of the Vietnamese government, replacing humans with machines, refusing help from neighboring starships like the US or China. An entirely new wave of communists couldn’t even provide enough fusion or old-fashioned electricity to keep the city going. They insisted that they did not possess the reserves. The other half of the population believed just as firmly that the androids were programmed a certain way, that it was a way of punishing them for being on the wrong side centuries earlier. I figured there was a little truth in both theories.

I had waited until we were far enough away from the Sun’s rays. The inferno died down from a broil to a boil before I went out. There were oxygen meters every two blocks, boxes that read numbers. The numbers read 68. Stable. As I headed back toward the hotel, the streetlights came on, casting weak puddles of light at irregular intervals. I used to think traffic aboard the Starship New York was bad, until I was leaving for the molecular tramway at Beijing, where the traffic stops completely, sometimes for hours on end, often to let the old people and district sellers sort themselves out. Hanoi, it could be said, with its strict laws of recycling and use of ancient vehicles, added a whole other dimension to interspatial traffic. Not that it was crazy or congested as New York; it was just more lethal.

There were about two dozen or so working traffic lights in Hanoi, only a few discernible traffic cops, and millions of 21st century Hondas with upgrades all going at warp speed. Very rarely, the traffic stopped for pedestrians. You had to plunge into the midst of that mayhem and hope it changed its pattern and weaved around you as you worked your way across. Most of the time it worked, but it was frightening. Factor in a few hundred thousand bicycles and cyclos, women with pole baskets and rice jugs, and a few horse-drawn carts, and you had traffic that was not only uncontrolled, but uncontrollable.

For me, it was an accident waiting to happen. Unfortunately, I could see it coming—and was powerless to stop it. I was on my way back one day from sightseeing in a gray-bearded man’s cyclo. He was pedaling leisurely along what was once Ham Nghi Street, in the homestretch, en route to the hotel. Ahead of us, another cyclo driver was likewise pedaling methodically down the street. I saw one of his cheap rubber thongs fall off and float to the ground. I saw that driver ahead of us give a jerk, then wheel over to go back and retrieve it. That sent my cyclo into an invasive action, which sent us directly into the path of a speeding Honda that had come up barreling behind us. It crashed smack into my cyclo and sped off down the street. There was a confusing jumble, and I heard a loud cr-a-a-a-ack! as something hard hit the pavement.

It was my head.

The next thing I knew, I was being helped to my feet. Blood was running down my face and spilling onto my dress. I could dimly hear a roaring sound, and the way my ears were ringing I figured it was my brains splashing onto the street. Then I realized the entire neighborhood had turned out. At first there was fear in their eyes, then they started shouting and yelling at one another. After all, there was an American on their starship! And she was bleeding! All over the street! I wondered if all this hoopla was because of the androids who watched from sentry-like towers above.

The two cyclo drivers were a little bloodied. The gray-bearded one had cut his toe; the other driver had a gash on his leg. They, too, were also frozen with horror. They stood there gaping. Meanwhile, the other passenger was trying to chase down some ducks that had slipped out of her grip when we all went down together, and I was rummaging in my bag for a rag. A woman from a nearby shop came rushing through the crowd with a long armload of cotton, which she held out to me. We bowed to each other, and I could have sworn I saw one of the androids peeking out from the doorway of her shop. I remember wondering just what she and her family would sleep on that night, since I obviously now had their sleeping mat stuck to my head. I had certainly provided just the break needed in an otherwise dull and ordinary day, because by this time, the crowd was enormous.

There were whispers among the neighbors and they were forced to make a decision: the American woman will go to the hospital. I kicked and screamed and protested, but my benefactors would have none of it. My self-appointed Florence Nightingale changed the mattress on my head, and we all shoved off to the nearest emergency room. Our group included the other cyclo driver and his passenger, who by this time had rounded up all her ducks. There was nothing wrong with her, but she cheerfully insisted on accompanying us, obviously not wanting to miss a minute of fun. But I had the feeling she was forced to come with us, and that I was being watched.

We arrived at the emergency room—two cyclo drivers, a woman with an armload of ducks, my own personal medical technician, a small delegation of eyewitnesses and oh, yes—me. The hospital staff was astounded, but as comical as it all seemed, they swung into action. As for the hospital itself, it was old and quiet and dark. In fact, there was not a light on in the whole place except one, but the lack of power—or “recycling”, as the androids called it—only served to give it a cool atmosphere. Long exterior corridors embraced the inner workings of the hospital: the examination rooms, wards, supply rooms, operating rooms spoke of another century. The floors were tiled and mildew crept up the walls, where hospitals on other starships were advanced and made of the newer alloys. I was ushered into an examination room, where members of my entourage took turns giving the doctor a spirited account of my immediate medical history.

“Just out of curiosity,” I asked the woman from the shop when they finally finished telling the doctor in their native language what happened, “what did you tell them?”

“Others don’t know,” she said. “I tell him you fall down, tourist go boom, much blood.” That seemed to cover it.

The first thing the doctor in charge of my case did was assure me that the water he was using to clean up the dried blood and cotton stuck to my head was distilled. It came from a special faucet and box on the wall. Like much of the energy in Hanoi, the androids controlled the precipitation and water supply. If the starship needed rain, only the androids would provide the rain. If the starship needed drinking water, only the androids provided drinking water. I wondered what all this recycling was for. Then I noticed the doctor’s gloves he put on came from what appeared to be a miniature clothes rack standing on a table over in the corner, only instead of coats and hats, it was festooned with rubber gloves. Then I realized—first with shock, then with dismay and, finally, with sadness—the hospital’s examination gloves were not disposable. They had been washed. They were stuck on that rack to be dried and reused.

Thankfully, I didn’t require any stitches. It was just your basic head wound that bled like crazy. As for medicine, I dug around my bag and came up with a tube of Mercurochrome. At first, there was a look of awe. Then there was a rush of medical personnel when they saw it. Likewise for the painkillers, the topical antiseptic, the dissolvable antibiotics, and bandages that were also floating around in there. They saw I traveled light, but tourists are certainly well stocked in case of an emergency. Finally, I took out a small pen-shaped booster shot to plant inside my arm. This would surely prevent infection.

“No!” the doctor said. He held his hand up to a small metallic device in his ear. It wasn’t a hearing aid. “I get in trouble. It is regulation we give you clean shot.”

“I understand,” I said, “but everybody carries these around these days. It prevents viruses, cleanses the body, and protects the cells from—”

“No. In Hanoi we give you preventive medicine.” This doctor was very serious about it. He held his hand up to his ear again. “I have right shot. I must give you. It won’t hurt.”

“Well, all right. If you say it’ll work. I mean what harm could—” By the time I tried finishing my sentence, he had stuck an inoculation laser into my neck. “Oww!”

“Sorry. You get better now. Wound clear up faster.”

I grabbed my neck. “If you say so.”

The inoculation laser was just one of very few things I had seen on my trip to the Starship Hanoi that was of this time period.

Then he just said to lay back and relax for a while. I could even close my eyes if I wanted to. My vision was blurry, but I felt too weak to complain about it. As I turned my head to the right, the other cyclo passenger had misplaced one duck, but someone cornered it in another examination room across the hall. I was nice and relaxed. As my entourage prepared to leave, the doctor whispered in my ear, “Never get sick in Hanoi.” Then he paused and held my head, gently putting it down on the table. “I give you mild sedative. Think nice thoughts, like big forest or pretty stream.”

All life was going on outside: cars, cyclos, people. I could hear it, but I could not see it. I could not see the Earth or feel the trees, because there was no more Earth. No more trees.

A moment later, I was asleep.

***

When I woke up, I did not remember much. I looked around and saw that I was in a small white room. The overhead lights were dim and far off. My eyesight had also returned to normal. Everything in the room was old and scratched or bent or battered in some way. But it was oddly comforting, too. The women doctors were reassuring as they calmly went about their business of bringing new babies into this universe. It was only then that I realized I had stumbled into some kind of maternity ward.

“You okay?” a doctor asked anxiously. “You look dizzy.” She came over and put her hands solicitously on my shoulder. She had left a woman in mid-push, over on a nearby delivery table.

I assured her I was fine. But I couldn’t help myself. The more this woman pushed, the more I wheezed and whistled. The more she grunted and groaned, the more I panted and sucked in air and blew it out again. I was making so much noise that even the pregnant woman raised her head and looked at me with a puzzled look on her face.

Finally, things reached their normal crescendo. There was a last-minute hustle and bustle, a piercing shout, and then some excited confusion. There was a general air of jubilation in the room as the doctor held up a brand-new baby boy, who proceeded to yell and turn red. I was as excited as everyone else at the sight of the mother’s ecstatic face and that tiny baby boy. And as I took one last look at them—and at all the blood and all those other precious bodily fluids—I felt my own stomach and fainted dead away on the floor.

The next thing I knew, I was being helped to my feet by an army of concerned healthcare professionals. It was very important that I was all right—crucial! As my eyes focused, I could see the boy’s mother. She was stranded, alone and abandoned on that delivery cart. She held a newborn baby in one arm, and with the other she was holding herself up so she could look at me. Her eyes spoke apologetically. She had a look of absolute disbelief on her face. The doctors were propping me up on a stool in the corner, leaving the mother and her newborn to fend for themselves. All that was important was me.

One of the pediatricians gave me some water and offered to take me on a tour of the neonatal unit. The crowd of nurses and doctors dispersed, and with a flick of her arm she was gesturing to a large room overflowing with premature infants. They were lying in incubators that looked as if they belonged in a museum.

“Look at those incubators,” I cried angrily. “They’re two hundred years old. I have remedial technology and equipment much greater than this back home!” Energy was being preserved, I was told. Some of those premature newborns lay two and three to an incubator, stacked there like tiny dolls in a child’s playroom. There was only one light on, and most of the incubators weren’t even plugged into a generator. They appeared to be there simply as storage bins. I looked more closely at those tiny, wizened infants. Their I.D. tags were little pieces of cloth tied to their birdlike wrists, their names scratched in with pens. They were all wearing paper towels instead of dissolvable diapers. The environment was archaic and crude. I counted at least fifty babies in that premature nursery, while across the hall, in intensive care, there were at least a hundred more. I was told there were a few others down the hall.

I was both appalled and moved by what I was seeing, but after my trip to Hanoi, I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel, pack, and transport out of there. “Why are there so many preemies?” I asked.

“We have terrible problems here in Hanoi.” By this time, we were sitting downstairs, drinking good old-fashioned tea. “The androids salvage the necessary resources and won’t let us advance. They are up to something which they say is for the good of the starship. We have no choice but to believe them. The starship is broke. These women are so uneducated and so poor, they don’t get the proper care when they’re pregnant, so their babies are born early. Most women don’t even know to ask for hospitalization or care. And of course”—she shrugged—“there are drugs and prostitution. Some things never change.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “some things never do.”

Early 23rd century Hanoi, for all its reeducation facilities, never stamped out drug abuse or prostitution. Detox centers were unheard of, just as it was unheard of to ask for permission when it came to abundant amounts of water or electricity or fuel. A rocket-powered chunk of a city with no funding and no help from outside the Life Cycle. And as the doctor further explained, malnutrition and undernutrition. Abysmal prenatal care and lack of funds throughout the cycle meant thousands of premature infants flooded hospitals that were not equipped to deal with them.

Often they picked up more than malnutrition or drug addictions. In a city cruising amongst the stars that hadn’t even stamped out polio, where human life was usually taken for granted, where people still died of tuberculosis and malaria, I wondered what happen next. I shut my eyes. I couldn’t even imagine the pain and suffering. I could have blamed it on manmade machines watching and salvaging from above, refusing to share what belonged to the people, but for now, I blamed it on overpopulation.

I visited the mother and her baby the next day, just before I was ready to leave Hanoi and just before they were to be discharged. There was reason to celebrate. They had applied for documentation to leave the starship and it was ready. They were all just waiting to be put on a molecular transport like myself. All so this healthy newborn of hers would grow up on one of the many American starships.

“We thank you so much, Mama,” the mother said as I helped the pediatrician load them into a cyclo. Then the mother held up her baby. “We call him your name,” she insisted. Oh, my God, I thought. Is this poor boy going to arrive aboard a new starship with a name like Miriam?

“We call him My, for short.”

My. Well, I was certainly relieved. And puzzled. I allowed as how that was a very pretty name, but still I was confused.

“Him name My. It mean ‘American.’”

Yes, it was a very pretty name.

The sponsors would meet them at the gateway and help them through those first few weeks in their new starship: finding a state to live, enrolling in language and technology-training courses, maybe finding entry-level work aboard a station.

It was time for me to leave. Sometimes you feel it in your bones. Sometimes you smell it in the processed air. I could see it: the cyclos were disappearing. Or just about.

In Hanoi, they have a philosophy; we often have only attitude. Aboard this starship, I saw strength of will and the grace of spirit that allowed people to continue to celebrate the most precious belief of all—life. Perhaps that was why the androids were necessary and functioned the way they did. Preservation.

I began to look homeward. That really made me stop dead in my tracks and think about these people. I could only imagine the complicated and uncertain future the Starship Hanoi would face as it marked its path across the universe.

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