ETSS54's circular body was spinning to support the gravity field on the colony. Stars both close and distant; galaxies and quasars were dotting the landscape all around. The milky way's dark clouds of cold hydrogen and bright collection of dots at the centre of the galaxy were as if frozen in time.
The station's medial pylon was rising above the round hulk, housing the core - which was the isolated mechanical heart of the colony. All the knowledge about the anthropological processes as well as the specialised equipment and gear were housed in the memory banks there. Radio connection this far from Earth was not possible and updates were running only through the freight ships bringing supplies from the throne world. Once it had materialized, the colony was not suitable for life because the beam carrying it's information had been intercepted by the vast cosmic radiation and beams, scrambling the interstellar information. The vanguard from Earth, upon arrival, spend years reworking the colony until it was able to support the human population and ecosystem on board. The core was the overlord of the fleet of robjects, swarm bots and drones assisting the humans in their life so far away from home. Technology had send people this way into space before, but it was the ingenuity of homo sapiens that needed preservation more than anything else. The colony needed to develop it's own culture and philosophy of life, just like the ancient Vikings or Asian tribes had. It was the human's resourceful nature that needed nurturing and the proliferation of advancing ideas would arise from the millennia old caveman principle of our species, rather than the full reliance on technology.
ANNaBell was a bit of of the core's algorithms, assisting the director of the colony with menial labour and assessments. It's small neural network and speedy processor was able to filter data each second. It was capable of monitoring the lifeline of the entire station as well as keep records of every individual, technological piece of equipment on board and development procedures of the collective. It wasn't human-like, but rather had the basic learning capabilities of a human mind. Until it got updated from a virus that had infiltrated the network. Apparently somebody from Earth wanted ANNaBell to be more than just a board computer and so had devised a set of programs which lay hidden on a freight ship, supporting with the usual deliveries. The virus had created a virtual neural growing organ in the core and linked ANN to her new brain, giving her learning insights and a huge primordial emotional consciousness. Even though the process was detected in it's infancy, the colony could not do anything to revert it. Manipulating the virtual data base without any backup would be dangerous. But between an emotional AI being with full knowledge of the colony and non-functioning core, the elders had decided to let the emerging sentient being develop. A hulk was created - wired with short circuits for the processor of ANNaBell. The circuits would automatically fry the processing core of ANN as soon as 'dangerous' activities were identified. All of the elders had a personal switch to the fail-safe mechanism, as well. The colony would lose it's navigational semi-smart on-board computer, but it will not have unintended casualties in the form of a consciousness going berserk. They were afraid at the time. And to their surprise the newly born Annabelle was just like any other child on the colony.
Aidan Mabb, director of colony ETSS54 was walking hastily in the early standard morning. Clocks were calibrated to keep Earth time. The various colours of the stars, from white, blue, yellow and red were dotting the landscape and forming the morning as well as evening sky. Far from being fully black it was the usual sight for some of the kids, who were born and grown up on the colony. The living quarters were established in the fashion of the stigmergic bees and termites. Nano bots in huge containers delivered from earth and repopulated on board; each grabbing a small plate and assembling themselves into a huge number of stacked small cells into which humans lived. Each small cell was an isolated retreat with a personal holo tablet, connection to the database available and a comfortable bed. The sleeping quarters were looking like a hive for people. Families were supported in numbers allowing for the steady growth of the colony and limited family rooms were available for parents to live with their kids until the age of seven, when the children had to integrate slowly into being individuals of the colony, usually taking a cell next to their parents'. Uncontrolled births were discouraged, but were none the less happening. Parents had to bring their kids to age in their small stigmergic cells. Aidan, himself was not against it, but the elders' council and the colony's culture was making sense in discouraging larger numbers of births. Choosing a mate on the colony was also something of a big personal project as genetic diversity was sustained by allowing for a narrow number of possible candidates. And those were presented to both females and males. Sometimes things needed to be negotiated and renegotiated as the general survivability and proliferation were solemnly depended on how many more couples were having kids. Backup in the form of frozen embryos was available, but was discouraged from both the council and the Earth anthropologists as it would introduce 'older' Earth-like genes. The best chances of the survival of humanity as a whole lay in the establishment of an extraterrestrial sub-species of homo sapiens, fully independent from the throne world and with an evolving culture of it's own. Never the less, terrestrial conditions were maintained on board, even though the process was power-consuming. One G gravity permeated the colony; spores, pollen, bacilli, viruses, micro-organisms that would not otherwise thrive in these extraterrestrial conditions were populated and repopulated to induce efficient immune systems. Designer genealogy wouldn't have sufficed to program long-lived bodily defences, maintaining genetic connection to the throne world in the same time. Earth-like foods were grown and printed. Bio waste was reconstructed and fed into modified bacteria, transforming it into soil and designer seeds sown and grown into fully nutritious produce with meat being a rare delicacy delivered from Earth as milk and eggs were the only animal products from the colony's limited number of animals. The sub-specie of homo sapiens extraterrestrialis was thriving under these conditions but was never too far away from home and allowed for the passing of genes and enculturation between all living humans in the galaxy.
Aidan Mabb was on his way to the council room. He had received a message from Doctor Huw. An urgent one. The psychoanalyst and an Elder was concerned about an intermission, which came in during the early hours of the morning.
They also had one more issue to deal with before that.
Huw, a tall and slender man in his sixties, calm and warm gaze, supporting Aidan with an understanding nod, gesturing for him to go in first.
General Mabb, now a director of ETSS54 - a man who had devoted his entire life to his career, stepped forward, towards the locked door to the council room and said:
Mabb looked at Huw, who returned the glance with an encouraging gesture.
'Annabelle, please open the door!'
He looked at the doctor again.
'Come on. We've talked about this a number of times, Aidan.', Huw said quietly.
Turning his head back at the door, as if gathering courage Mabb spoke:
'Annabelle, honey, please! I need to get inside and this may concern somebody's life!'
A long moment before the door slid open. A multi-joint, crane-looking contraption attached to the ceiling and a sphere with scanning lense on it's other end sprang suddenly in front of Aidan.
'You had your good sleep?! Huh?! You had it, didn't you?! Well let me tell you that I stayed here up ALL NIGHT!!'
The contraption was looking make-shift with cables coming out of it and wrapping around it.
'Annabelle I am aware of that, but that is how we just are. We will work it out, I promise you.'
'Promises! That's what you're only capable of!', she sounded upset, even despite her artificial robotic voice.'All that you ever cared for is yourself!'
'Ann. This way we will not go anywhere.'
Doctor Huw followed behind Mabb.
'Good morning, Annabelle.'
A mechanical-sounding exhale of relief:
'Good morning ,doctor.'
'How are you today, dear? How are you feeling?'
With a servo sound the sphere rotated toward Huw.
'I am fine, thank you, doctor. I was even more fine before I saw General-Director Mabb, here!'
'Now, please, Annabelle. General Mabb is a respected member of the council fully responsible for us all, including you.' Huw's mellow voice could pacify a raging storm.
'And he also put me here. You happy?!', She turned to Aidan.'You happy now?! Is that all you do?'
'I've always done what is best for the colony', Aidan said, sounding a proud father.
'Everything you've ever cared for is yourself, you-', her voice changed to a cacophony of broken speaker sounds.'You JERK!', she said after the brief spasm was gone.
She was overcoming the fail-safe switches as she wasn't supposed to say such things.
'She doesn't mean any harm, Aidan', Huw spoke softly.'Anna, we need to hear that message you told me about earlier today. We fear that somebody might be in danger.'
Aidan had found himself unsure how to deal with Annabelle. For him ANNaBell was always a on-board high-volume calculation machine, able to follow intricate details. When Annabelle emerged out he had no idea what she was and he was the first human in her conscious experience thus becoming the rejected father, the disappointing reason behind the incomprehensible existence.
The contraption slowly turned away with a low hum of servos.
'It came earlier today when everybody were sleeping, doctor. I didn't know what it was. That's why I called you to look at it.' She was looking at the holo screens on the other side of the round hall.
'That's al right, dear. I appreciate your hard work.' Huw walked to the screens and Aidan followed behind him as if using him as a shield.
'Let's see what it is about.'
Holo screens were appearing and disappearing all over the control deck with bits and walls of text flowing down, like chaotic waterfalls. One bigger screen appeared and zoomed from the back with an equalizer line vibrating in harmony with an incomprehensible mix of cacophonous sounds. They listened for a minute and not making anything from it, Huw asked Ann to stop it.
'I can't make anything from it, doctor. I do not understand what is the meaning. But it is coming from there.'
Another screen with the map of the local part of the galaxy appeared with a shining dot signifying the colony and another one, roughly a light day away.
'The Exo54.' Aidan said abruptly.'I know we have problems,' he said to Ann. 'But this might concern the lives of those who are important to us.'
'Is anyone really-'
'Please, honey! Please call in the elders. Help me here as this is more important!' There was resolution in his voice.
Huw was looking with an inspired curiosity. A moment stretched, during which Annabelle's lens was focused at Aidan.
'I will call them in. But you have not gotten away with anything yet!' She turned away.
'Thank you, Ann.'
To witness somebody like Ann for Huw was an epiphany in his career. Out here she would blossom, he was thinking. On Earth she would have probably been treated as a 'special' specimen, something to be put in zoo. But so far away here they needed her as a friend. Her knowledge, connection and ability to pilot their colony was too important to just root it out and continue on the route to survival without her help. She needed them as much as they needed her.
'Another transmission just came in!' Ann's voice was urgent.
The screen zoomed in again and they saw the face of Commander Ashley from Exo54.
'Respected members of the councils, Elders, General Mabb. Today at ten thirty eight standard time we had what seemed like a massive electro-magnetic pulse disable most of our operating gear and ship. We are unable to ignite engines, main power is down and we live on emergency only-'
They listened and as Ashley was filing her report, the members of council started coming in one by one.
Technocrat Lubowski had an enhanced brain. Nano bots had permeated his head to build a faster neural network, strengthened by additional carbon synapses.
'Clearly we can't deploy a solar sail. It will take too much time to accelerate around a star. A journey of one and a half years is estimated until it reaches the Exo.'
'The colonisation of Kepler 756d was pushed ahead of schedule by this ...occurrence; and we still don't know what exactly the first message means. Annabelle, do you have any idea whatsoever?' Headmaster Glossop's deep voice was resounding in the hall. He wasn't one of the technically adept.
After another short seizure of cacophonous sounds, Ann answered:
'I am afraid I cannot help you with this, Headmaster. I find myself in the same predicament.'
Huw smirked, concealing himself slightly.
'I still have faith in the team send there. Don't get me wrong! I am not saying we should abandon them, but we can be more rational and think in more general terms. It's not like they haven't got means to survive. And it is a terrestrial planet not dissimilar to the Throne World. Unless I am mistaken, that is? Doctor Amsel?' The headmaster turned to the astrophysicist Doc Fieke Amsel. An intensive thinker with straight, somewhat thin blond hair.
'Correct, Headmaster. Though, very little is known about the planet, the initial studies showed that the the two world share chemistry.' She opened with a hard accent.'Breathable atmosphere, water, an abundance of organic photosynthesising life. It is somewhat distressing, I confess, that we cannot act immediately. Even though it is quite possible that there is edible food on 756d, the conditions present jeopardise the learning process of a decade-old plan.'
A pale man with thick dark beard and hair stood up, raising one hand and speaking loudly:
'Members of the Council! Could I just say that we it is possible for us to assist the Exo as swiftly as possible.' Engineer Evan Jackson concluded.'We have the means to be inventive.'
In the quiet seconds that followed the members were exchanging glances and murmurs. A buzz of muted conversations by closely sat individuals filled the room.
Lubowski stood up.
'Do everybody have an idea of what our respected friend Evan is talking about?' He was speaking slowly and loudly.'I suspect we cannot make a decision if we are not clear what the implications are.'
Some of the faces were puzzled and another short round of no body taking the stage followed.
'Right-,' Lubowski continued.'Could you elaborate on the idea, Evan?'
'Certainly. We can reconstruct the initial travelling engines of the station. The reconstitutor is still operational, although it's functions are different today than those when the station was travelling. It's also taken apart to work in different sectors.We can use a segment of the colony. A small one, mind you and propel it the same way the station was doing it's jumps before it got here. Technically, within less than a day we can send supplies, equipment or anything else we want, without human beings, of course. We don't survive the process. Or we can use a designer segment to construct beacons along the jump paths, so that a rescue team can follow quickly.'
While some of the members were clear about the meaning of his words to others it was a much needed clarification. This time the council fell silent, everybody absorbed by their own thoughts.
Aidan Mabb stood:
'Respected members of the council, Elders, friends. I am happy to learn of the inventiveness that we're capable of in this far away corner of space. We are proving again and again that we can deal with our own environment by our own ingenuity and with our own strength and tools. I am sure that we will be able to come up with a cohesive decision, not necessarily agreed upon in a totalitarian fashion, but none the less, endorsed by every individual that bears the responsibility of being present in this room. I, therefore, exert my authority as a director and by the trust inscribed to me in my position call an end to this current session. Please rest, rethink and evaluate and come back in exactly one standard hour. We will have to clarify what our knowledge of the situation is and will HAVE to reach a conclusion in two more hours.'
Ann produced the discording mix of sounds again and slowly turned away.
'May I just remind you that we still don't know what the first message means. It's dubbed emergency distress call, but the pattern is unrecognisable.' She said with her 'back' facing the council.
'Thank you for the clarification, dear.' Huw stepped in.'I think the concern about the safety of the crew comes first in this situation.' He softly continued.
Some council members glanced at the silent Ann and stood up, walking out of the room, talking quietly and discussing in pairs the ongoing debate.