Chapter 1.

In the nearly three thousand years since man had begun to travel through space, not a lot of new planets had been colonised. About thirty had been found with life abounding, but none with intelligent life, or none that had survived and been recognised. There were a few tantalising signs of races which had flourished perhaps millenia ago, but none seemed to have survived. A few planets had been terraformed, but this was not easy, and generally the changes to a planet's surface and ecology would leave it tectonically unstable for thousands of years. But it had been done, and companies owned those planets, and would one day profit from them.
Man himself had changed. New findings about his genetic code had enabled the lifespan to be extended significantly, so that the expected span was now nearly three hundred terrestrial years. This was fortunate, because nothing in space travel happened quickly. These changes included those required to make life more pleasant, even possible, on the worlds discovered. On the down side, since few changes depended on a single gene, some races gained less pleasant characteristics, such as the large tusks of the indigenous Argonauts. On the up side, some abilities had been enhanced. Carla Smith, the ships morale officer, and part-time psychiatrist, had such a sensitive sense of smell that she could detect variations in the pheromones given off by someone near her, a talent she used to good effect in her counseling. It was only useful when she was alone in a closed room with her client. However she also had a hypersensitive ability to pick up behaviour cues from those around her, including cues which were generally invisible to others.
Ships had been built which could attain speeds of a significant fraction of the speed of light, but that still left years of travel between stops. To those aboard a ship the time of travel might be only months, but for a planet sending a message off for supplies and waiting for them, the wait could become decades.
Aboard the ships communities grew. They might be subjectively together for months at a time, but whenever they returned to a place they had visited previously all their previous acquaintance were old or dead. So the planets remained isolated, or in groups which were reasonably close, and the ships became worlds.
Not all ships were large. Some were exploratory, and would go off with a small crew to seek fortunes. But the Sieve of the Jumblies was enormous.
It had been named on a whim. Some mathematician had named a ship the Sieve of Eratosthenes, and a wag among the designers had followed with Sieve of the Jumblies. The origin of the name had faded with time, because ships tended to have long lives, being built onto rather than scrapped. The present Captain, Jack Normington, often wondered who Sieve had been, and what had happened to his family, the Jumblies. The ship's librarian could have told him, had he ever asked.
There was no large main bridge. The ship was shaped like a torus, so that an artificial gravity could be maintained, and the small crew operated from a small office. The leading edge of the ship was protected with metres-thick metal, and a repulsive field ahead of it. The only effect of the field on larger objects was to slow them if they were head-on, but it could deflect them otherwise. The frontal area was used mainly as storage, and was divided into many individually sealed areas.
At the moment the Sieve of the Jumblies was on approach to the planet Argonaut. Jack sat lost in thought, and his first mate, Vad Arres, spoke.
"A penny for your thoughts, Jack," he said.
Jack jerked to attention. "Oh, sorry, Vad. I was just lost in thought for a moment. I have these occasional moments when I feel a bit of depression, but I know they'll pass."
"Depression?" asked Vad thoughtfully. "It's not something I notice about you much."
"Oh, very mild." Jack smiled. "I've never noticed it about you, either. No, just sometimes when I have nothing to do but sit for a while, something lowers my spirits momentarily. But it never lasts long."
"Anything in particular this time?"
"I think it's probably a mood that just comes and goes," shrugged Jack, "but this time I was thinking about our passengers."
"The ones we're picking up on Argonaut?"
"Yes. Over two hundred persons going off an enormous distance in hopes of finding their El Dorado. A story told a thousand times. They never find it. Usually just toil and danger, and the riches never come."
"I can't believe you," grinned Vad. "You, of all people, to pity people for going out to explore the unknown frontiers!"
Jack smiled thinly. "I know. But we keep going, looking at new things. They are going to be stuck on an unknown planet, an enormous distance from the main byways. They'll probably just farm and build, and the tourists and scientists they expect to make them wealthy will never come because it's too far."
"In other words," said Vad, "they'll be in much the same situation as humans were before we became aware there were other worlds out there."
"True," admitted Jack, "but they do know. There will only be a small band of them, technologically handicapped, and they will know that there is a larger universe, to which they will have only limited access. And they're not on a world on which they evolved. Simple things may be dangerous. The food may be inedible."
"Do you know much about this world?" asked Vad. "It may be paradise."
"No," Jack conceded, "I haven't studied it yet. Our job is simply to take them there. It may be interesting to find out what I can. I believe that one of their hopes is to attract archaeologists, so it may be interesting to study while we are there. Actually, I may not be able to find out a lot. The science vessel which found the place suffered a minor computer breakdown, and had to return without investigating too deeply."
"A computer breakdown?" said Vad with a frown. "That's unfortunate."
He meant that it was disturbing. Computer breakdowns were very rare because they had reached a level of sophistication that included deep levels of redundancy, so there should always be backups. But computers had become so complex there was always something could go wrong that had not been considered by the manufacturers, and a computer breakdown could leave a ship helpless. Even a small malfunction would have led the scientists to abort their mission and return to a starbase.
Aboard the Sieve the computer ran everything. It was a sophisticated neural network which looked after all the life support, the navigation, and supplies. It could be interfaced with, and requests made, but this was like the conscious mind compared with the unconscious. There were sensors in every area, continually monitoring the vital signs of the inhabitants. If a worker were to collapse with a heart attack in some isolated area, the computer would immediately alert a medical team. It had the curious effect that when you were aboard you need never feel alone. Each crew member had an affinity with the vessel even closer that that which used to exist between ocean-going ships and their crews.
"Anyway," he continued, "the best thing for a depressed mood is to get out and do something. What about a general inspection?"
"That would mean making the whole ship suffer for my mood," said Jack, "but it is a good suggestion. There are parts of the ship I rarely visit. A walk around would be useful. Would you like to come?"
"Certainly," replied Vad heartily. He traversed much more of the ship in the course of his duties than the captain, but he liked to walk around and keep an eye on things. "The colonists are going to be housed on the ship. Let's have a look at some suitable sites."
"It's Briony's province to organize those," said Jack, "but it's as good as any. The bridge can look after itself for a while."
The Sieve of the Jumblies provided gravitation by spinning, and to avoid the unsettling view of the corridors swinging up into the sky they were made somewhat zigzag, so that there was not generally any far horizon.
Jack always enjoyed any part of the Sieve, but tended to avoid those parts with children. As he and Vad strolled along a young girl came around a corner, scowling to herself, and nearly walked into them. She jerked to a halt, looked at Jack in alarm, and fled past them.
"Well, it's nice to know I make some impression on the passengers," said Jack with a rueful smile.
"We have a shortage of trolls, hobgoblins and boogeymen on board," grinned Vad, "so parents have to use you. 'If you don't behave the Captain will get you'!"
"It's reassuring to know that I still have a useful function to perform on the ship," said Jack sardonically.
Alfred Simpkins was one of the newer civilians aboard the Sieve. A qualified teacher, he had applied for the position of schoolmaster aboard the Sieve on a whim, and was startled to win it. After his few years in regular schools he found this job remarkably easy, for the most part. In fact, it tended towards the boring. The children of Sieve personnel tended to be highly intelligent, and very focused on achievement, so discipline was easy. This was a great positive for him, as discipline was not his strong suit, and he was very good at all the other aspects. As the number of children aboard was not large, there were few schoolteachers. He had a mixture of grades three to six.
The other unusual aspect of the job was that he was in constant contact with the parents of his students. In O'Riley's bar he had instituted an informal rule that he would not discuss students as he sat with their parents socially, although he was always interested to hear any gossip about them. He was a rather reserved person, and found that he tended to keep to a small group of friends, rather than mix with everyone, which reduced the problem.
He was one of those persons referred to by Darras, perhaps like Darras, who liked to stand apart, and be life's observer. When he came to leave all those he loved, and depart for the stars, he found that there was nobody he loved, at least enough to regret leaving them. He got on well with everyone, but never became emotionally involved. So he had fitted in as usual, liked by all, but a peripheral character. He would be a part of the ship's crew until it was time to leave, and afterwards he would look back nostalgically, but there would be no wrench as he went.
He stood now, with the class waiting expectantly, looking at the last empty seat. He sometimes thought the job a bit boring, but there was always a Celeste Moulton to keep him on his toes. She exploded through the door, slightly late, and stumped to her seat. It was not worth the trauma of reprimanding her, so he began the lesson. She sat alone as usual, but school on the Sieve was not a social occasion, so it was simply a choice she made.
The lesson was on English, and in this case consisted of some formal grammar, and studies of poetry. He had a sufficiently small class that he was able to keep the level of work up to the abilities of the individual students. The grade six students were able to grasp quite good poetry, and the younger students were studying some of the forms and techniques. As focused on success as they were, they were 'learning' poetry rather than enjoying it, but he knew that the enjoyment would come later for some.
Celeste was not disruptive. It was a difficult class to disrupt. But she stubbornly worked alone, and volunteered nothing, and did no more than required. She was a challenge, but he felt he was making little progress. Still, she had been with them only a few months.
The formal work was generally done in the mornings. When they were finished they put away their computers, which were all tied into the central computer, and prepared for lunch.
"After lunch we are going to continue in the Sim, and we'll experience some of the times relating to earth's earlier religions. Later we'll be investigating vulcanology in a volcano, actually recorded on Erebus 2."
"Which Sim, Mister Simpkins?" interrupted Celeste sweetly, and the other students looked at her tolerantly.
"The same Sim we've been going to for the last four months, Celeste," he sighed. "Number three."
"Just checking," she said.
Serena Moulton finished Security duty in the medical section of the Sieve, and sighed as she strolled back to her quarters. Celeste would still be at afternoon school, and she had a half hour to herself before her daughter flounced into the room and began making demands.
Why had David volunteered for the mission on Brandis? Celeste needed a father, and now she did not have one. And somehow she blames me for it. Why don't children come with an instruction book? she thought, unoriginally. David had been gone three years now, and it might be time to look around, but she was aware that, in her late thirties, a bad-tempered nine-year-old daughter was not an inducement to romantic approach.
She sighed again, and blamed herself for thinking so about her beautiful daughter. It was not Celeste's fault. She was just a bad mother.
The Sieve had an intercommunication system which was used for ship-wide announcements, but which was not over-used. Her ruminations were interrupted by the voice of Commander Vad.
"Attention all hands! As you know, we will soon be at our destination, the planet Argonaut. We will be remaining there ten days, while some diplomatic sessions take place, so all hands will have some opportunity for extended shore leave.
"You are aware that all planets are autonomous, and Argonaut has a very simple legal system. It is not the ship, so we have no redress if you get into trouble with the law. They have a group called the Planetary Patrol, who are the law. They have absolute discretion. There are no judges and juries or appeals. If they decide you are guilty they put you in jail, or execute you on the spot, if it's that serious. It is not as bad as it sounds, because they are very efficient and scientific, but don't do anything wrong. If you have a problem, stay in the Sieve compound where we have our own jurisdiction.
"When we leave we are taking two groups of colonists to Regula IV, so that will be our next destination. The trip should be about two weeks. The colonists are already on Argonaut, so you'll have a chance to meet them socially planetside. We are having all non-essential personnel take shore leave, while the ship is overhauled. Vad out."
Vad had a good communication technique, saying what needed to be said, and stopping. The Captain was not so good, and people had a tendency to sigh when his voice came over the air, and go on doing what they were doing without paying much attention. If it was anything important, Vad would repeat it later. Jack was a good captain, but he should never be let near a microphone, she thought.
Serena tidied up the room, which didn't need it, and put on some quiet music. Her peace did not last long, as Celeste stormed in. Fortunately one cannot slam a sliding automatic door.
Celeste was potentially a very attractive nine-year-old girl. She had her mother's blonde hair, and had inherited her good looks, but her face was always in a pout or a sulk. On the bright side, she did not scream or have tantrums. But she was not a happy person.
"How was school, dear?" Serena asked. It was one of those form questions she used in trying to establish some intimacy with her daughter.
"We were doing something about early religions on earth," said Celeste exasperatedly. "Stories the old people used to tell about the creation of the earth. The Bible, the dreamtime, and some others. What do they matter when you're stuck out in space? And we did more poetry. Mister Simpkins does all this complicated stuff that spoils interesting poems."
"What sort of things?"
"Parts of speech, similes, and so on. I'm having trouble just reading the words, and we have to analyse things!"
This did sound somewhat advanced for fourth grade, and Serena resolved to approach the teacher about his expectations. Meanwhile, she asked whether Celeste had any homework.
"I have to call up a poem and look for metaphors."
"Any poem?"
"I got a list. It'd be easier if it was similes. You just haveta look for 'like'. Metaphors are hard."
Serena relaxed a little. If Celeste understood the difference, obviously it was not too hard.
"I'm not using my terminal tonight," she said. "You can have it any time. Do you want to go to the play area later?"
"It's still just a room on a space ship," said Celeste sullenly. "Even on the Sim, you know it's not real."
"I'm sorry, dear, if you don't like this life. But it's what I do. I've worked hard to get this position, and I want to do well. It's only a few weeks so far. You may come to like it."
"Never!" said Celeste determinedly.
Serena decided that a session with the ship's psychiatrist might not go astray. Her daughter and she had been aboard four months now, and Celeste had not made friends. She thought this was probably unnatural for a nine-year-old, although she had little knowledge of psychology. Celeste had not internalised the idea that this was her home now, although she had been aboard some months.
"At least we can go ashore for a couple of weeks," she commented. Celeste looked interested. The broadcast had been shipwide, but Celeste had shown the innate ability of the young to totally ignore announcements.
Celeste went to the computer terminal and called up a description of Argonaut, after Serena had told her the name. It was a non-descript place, with an atmosphere able to be breathed by humans, but not comfortably. It was slightly more massive than earth, so she would be slightly heavier. But it was off the ship. She cheered up a bit. She did not study its politics or law.
Finally she opened up her diary, and, using the keyboard, entered her highly colored, and in some parts fictitious, account of the day's events.
In the briefing room, Jack sat with his senior staff.
"Good morning, everyone," he said. "It is time to bring you all up to date with our mission. As you have heard, we are picking up colonists for Regula IV. The planet has been opened up for colonization recently, after a survey. There were no native animals, but plenty of vegetation. There seems to have been an earlier civilization which died out completely, in some sort of ecological disaster, but the vegetation seems to have recovered. The colonies will concentrate on setting up farming and textiles, but the immediate interest in the place will be archaeological, and they will anticipate making their living for some time from visiting teams."
"An earlier civilisation?" asked Briony Lahey, with a frown. "That's rare enough! Why aren't there swarms of scientists?"
"Because it has just been found," answered Jack. "The word hasn't spread far, and people from two nearby worlds have decided to grab the opportunity."
"Why are there two sets of colonists?" asked one of the crew, as Jack paused for a moment. "That seems unusual."
"It is," admitted Jack. "Two planets put in bids, and they were almost identical which would have made it necessary to arbitrate, except that the planet has two large continents on either side. So they decided to take both, each on one continent. There will be an overall council, selected from both camps."
Arbitration would have been difficult, of course, as there was no central body to do so. There was no central control of the human race, as there was no barrier to expansion, and communications took years. It was more accurate to say that there were two groups which simultaneously booked passage on the only ship large enough to take them, and Jack was not going to arbitrate - especially as both parties would be paying.
"Such an arrangement could be a bit unstable," commented Saviour Bliss. "Two separate civilisations on one planet are likely to come into conflict. Are they compatible?"
"Both are basically farmers," said Jack. "They have developed different ways, but both are still genetically the same. I share your concern, but we are simply a taxi service in this instance."
"Close to two weeks layover should get us up and running perfectly, at any rate," said the chief engineer. "The Argonauts have sophisticated technology, and we shouldn't have a problem refitting."
"We can take over two separate decks for the colonists," said Briony, who was basically the captain's organiser. "They may have to get along together on Regula, but they don't have to live in each other's shadows there, so we might avoid too much propinquity here."
"What sort of numbers are we talking about?" asked Vad, for the benefit of the others.
"About a hundred in each group," replied Jack. "The Sieve is going to be a bit crowded for the trip, but it won't be long. We may have to leave most of the recreational facilities to them for the time. We won't make any restrictions on their mixing, unless some problem arises. But if they want to keep themselves to themselves, Briony's idea seems sound."
"Two groups could be a good thing," said Briony. "One group could already be a bit inbred. The two groups might provide a bit of genetic diversity."
There was more discussion, and the group broke up, and went about preparing their areas. Saviour Bliss, the curiously-named Protocol officer, was concerned simply with organising extra security in case there was any conflict between the groups. He was basically the chief of police on board. There was not a lot of police work most times, so his security force spent a lot of their time assisting elsewhere unless there were important dignitaries being transported.
The Sieve duly arrived at Argonaut, and took up orbit. Transport in this case was by large shuttle, as the colonists would be bringing a lot of material with them. A series of smaller shuttles would be more comfortable for the humans otherwise.
Serena and Celeste gathered at the shuttle bay, with a group of other Security officers. Celeste had met them occasionally when she walked with Serena to work, on her way to school, but here they were different. They were simply waiting around, and were more relaxed. She noticed that her mother was less rigid, and was slightly more.. girlish? She focused on the catalyst for this erratic behavior. It was Andrew. She didn't know his other name.
Andrew was flirting with her mother, she decided, although he did not pay Celeste much attention.
If I was dead, she thought with interest, he might marry her. This did not imply any inclination towards suicide. She had a romantic idea of death, and daydreamed of herself dying of some fashionable disease - few of which still existed outside the trisoaps - with her weeping parent and friends gathered about her as she smiled her last brave smile. The friends in her daydreams were somewhat nebulous, as they did not exist yet either.
Celeste and Serena said goodbye to Andrew, walked from the shuttle and looked around. The air was a subtly different color from Earth, where they had come from. They struggled for a moment to breathe normally, then their lungs adjusted. Like snorkeling, thought Serena.
They had landed in an airport, and it was the usual featureless flat plain used for that purpose.
The town was large, but not a major city. The spaceports tended to be away from large population centers, and were usually also flat because they doubled as airports. Spaceports did not require large flat areas, as shuttles could generally land vertically, but the passengers would then want to spread out over the planet, thus requiring aeroplanes of some sort.
Beyond their immediate confines they could see some spectacular ranges of mountains, quite high considering the stronger gravity. Trees grew in the distance in some profusion, but not much in the township itself. Serena knew that this visit was not only pleasant but necessary. It gave them an opportunity to focus their eyes at a distance on something real. The sims were efficient three dimensional representations, and somewhat interactive, but they did not focus the eyes quite as well as reality.
They had not brought too much with them, and they moved into a small room. After they had unpacked, and put everything in its place, Serena began to explore her surroundings almost immediately, a reflex from her time as a security officer. She walked down the main street with her daughter, and explored the shops. All of the things they saw could be created aboard, if you had the specifications, but it was a different pleasure to walk around actual shops, and see things you might not have thought of. As well, Serena had a built-in desire to get to know the layout of her environment immediately.
Some of the shops were remarkably cheap, and Celeste soon found a place with a variety of toys and dolls. Some of the other children from the ship were there, as well as some other human children, whom Serena assumed were from the colonists. She noted with some concern that, as usual, Celeste did not mix, although they made tentative overtures.
The shop owner was quite a handsome man, though a bit older than she, and he noticed her look of concern.
"Your child?" he asked, and she nodded. "What's the matter?"
We have a tendency to open up to strangers, on trains, in foreign places. Perhaps it is because we know we will never meet them again to be embarrassed by our revelations. Serena found herself gossiping with the stranger about her fears for Celeste, and her own problems. Like a bartender he appeared to be sympathetic and let her pour out her worries. Just to keep us in his shop, no doubt, she thought somewhat cynically. But she enjoyed the moment of release.
"She has no friends," said Serena eventually. "It's not natural at her age."
"It's nothing," he assured her. "Some people are by nature solitary. She may not need friends."
"Everyone needs friends," said Serena. "I think I may take her to the ship's psych- counselor."
"That might do more harm than good," he suggested. "It may give her an idea that there is something wrong with her."
"Perhaps," said Serena. "But she is rejecting me, too. She doesn't like even me to touch her!"
"That's not pathological, you know," said the shopkeeper. "Some people don't like physical contact. They are the observers in life. They live perfectly happy lives, preferring to be always in the background. Sometimes the manipulators, sometimes just the watchers. Perhaps she will be a writer."
"It isn't right for a small child," said Serena doggedly. But she was a bit happier.
"You're quite welcome to leave her here while you shop," he said. "A lot of the children spend hours in here. I'll keep an eye on her."
Serena thanked him, and Celeste seemed happy to stay. She left Celeste with the other children, and did some of her own shopping, then came back for her after a few hours. The others had left, but Celeste was still exploring the shop.
"Well, enough for today, young lady," she said cheerfully. "You have nearly two weeks to explore, so you can come back if you want."
Celeste looked at her watch.
"Wow! I didn't think I'd been here so long."
"Is there anything you couldn't find?" asked the owner. "I could get it."
"I'd love to have a Kritonian panda," said Celeste.
"I might manage a toy one," he said. "I doubt I could get the real thing!"
"Oh, could you?" she said. "I'd love it!"
"Pop in later in the week," he said. "I'll see what I can do. Is there anything I can get for your mother?"
"No thanks," Serena smiled. "If you can make Celeste happy you'll make me happy."
He smiled, and went off to fuss over his shop. Serena and Celeste moved out, and a figure moved out of the shadows.
"You don't have to hide, you know," said Darras. "You have every right to be in a shop. Slinking about just looks suspicious."
"Ah, well," said the other, "I like to feel safe, and I haven't made my appearance yet. How is the merchandise going?"
"I am about to put the finishing touches to it in the next few days. It will be ready by the time you leave. Our problem then is to get it aboard. I think I have that in hand."
"Doesn't it bore you, running a dinky shop all day?" asked the client.
"Not at all," replied Darras. "It is an excellent cover, and I enjoy it. Besides, it's not dinky. It's a good shop. I'm proud of it. It has its little challenges, like coming up with rare presents for discerning customers."
"I am a bit surprised you deal with your customers in person," commented the client. "I thought you might have preferred to be more anonymous."
"I would distinguish between clients and customers," laughed Darras. "They have no cause to remember me. In your case, you wonder that I would reveal myself to you? I assure you, you have no idea what I really look or sound like. Do you think I would be capable of creating life-like androids, and not be capable of altering my own appearance? After all, you may be just talking to an android now!"
The client looked sharply at him.
"I doubt that," he said. "I can't see you putting your own personality into an android. Something might go wrong, and they'd have you."
"You may know me too well already," smiled Darras. "You're partly right. It's because there is still planning to do, and I wouldn't want my surrogate doing my planning for me. All the fun is in the planning, and seizing the opportunities."

On to Chapter 2, or back to square one.