During the deceleration phase, it is difficult to maintain contact with the colony at Epsilon Indi. A brilliant glowing plume of white- hot exhaust issues from the motors at the bottom of the ship; we feel the vibrations through our feet as the ship creates its own gravity with its thrust. Far below us and off to one side is the tiny spark of the colony planet, Tierra del Fuego. Harlan is engaged in sending medical details of our various casualties via laser to the colony, and in attempting to make sense of their answers.
I have been working with him to tune the message laser so that the signal can be distinguished from the light of the rocket's glare. The best results have been obtained by using drone relay transmitters sent out far from the ship, but each drone falls ahead of the ship rapidly and eventually we lose contact with it, so we have to fabricate new ones and send them out at regular intervals. However the replies we have so far received have been short, vague and lacking in details.
"They probably don't have the facilities to handle the worst cases. Feh- we should plan to be living in temps for the first few years, as we don't know if they can even handle our able-bodied."
"We have better technology on the Starlark than the original colonists took with them,” I said. “There are some good temporary habitat designs in the database; all the Indis will have to do is shovel raw materials into the fab and it will manufacture them.”
“No doubt they'll be getting us to do that for them, we'll be expected to work for a living."] We have nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of hard graft on an inhospitable planet, Elanor, old girl. Oh, such joy. I can't wait. Life on the new frontier is always nasty, and brutal, if not necessarily short."
Ania was perched nearby, watching our efforts with some interest; now and then she moved her lips as if subvocalising. I guessed she was in contact with someone elsewhere on the ship, via net implants.
I saw her say something like `I don't know- I'll ask them," then she said (out loud) to us, "How many of them are there? Have they told you that?"
"Well, that's the damnedest thing," Harlan said. "They say they have twenty thousand people living on the planet and a few thousand in orbit. So there are a few more of them than there are of us."
"We could probably squeeze in without too much construction work," I said. "And of course the temps can be put up quite rapidly. But somehow we'll have to nearly double the output of food on that world > down there, or we'll all go hungry
"They must be used to having a rapidly growing population," Harlan said, shaking his head. "They have already increased their population by three hundred thousand percent”
"What are you saying?" said Ania. "Do you mean to say their population is three thousand times as large as it was when they arrived?" She muttered something into mid-air, obviously to the person she was in communication with. "Yes, I know, I'm not stupid." She continued, talking to us now, " There are only twenty thousand of them on the planet. Where are all the rest? The ship that brought them there carried fifty thousand people."
"Like I said, that's the mystery. When I told them that we have hundreds of statics that we can't revive, and many more with memory impairment, they were off-hand. Apparently, out of fifty thousand, they lost all but seven."
"Seven thousand?" That still doesn't add up," I said, calculating in my head.
Harland pulled a wry face. "Nope; seven. Only seven survivors out of fifty thousand. And somehow they've built their population up to more than twenty thou in a hundred and forty years."
"By Astraea!" I exclaimed. "That is some impressive birth rate" I was suddenly reminded that I have never yet had a child myself. As a Parthene, I could self-replicate at will, just by thinking about it. But so far, I had never found the time. After all, the process takes nine Lunar months, just to make a newborn. "How, in the name of all the stars, have the Indi colonists managed to produce so many people in just a century and a half?"
"Perhaps they have genetically engineered themselves so that each woman has ten wombs, or something. I imagine something like a giant human queen ant, with a massive belly and lines of babies on breasts." Harlan gave an evil grin.
Ania threw her hands up. "That's disgusting," and left the comms-deck.
"Actually, the original colonists were sent out by a faction opposed to germ-line engineering," Harlan said, after the bulkhead door flowed shut." So I doubt we will be greeted by human ant hybrids. As I said, it is a bit of a puzzle; but hopefully we'll find the answer soon enough