The loudspeaker blared, “All hands for Ves-3 please report to the cafeteria deck for final briefing at 14:00.”

It was the usual pre-drop announcement, Cindra had heard it a before, three times, but never before like this. This time it was for her. Tomorrow at 14:00 some 6 dozen colonists would be jam packed into reentry capsules along with 5x their mass of support gear (just about anything anybody wanted, subject to the weight limits) the mothership would drop out of hyperspace, and they would be dumped into a hyperbolic orbit guaranteed only to impact the atmosphere at just thus and such an angle. They would all de-orbit together, or perhaps go up in smoke together, if the lander didn't work.

Meanwhile, there would be one final briefing, half review, half goodbye, half ceremony. Sometimes Cindra thought it was how the rest of the crew got to closure on what was basically the same thing as losing 20% of all the people they knew, forever. There had been three groups dropped already, and there would be three more, before this ship continued, empty, on whatever irrelevant ballistic trajectory remained to it before it plowed into some gravity well out there.

The USS Niven was a colonization "seed ship," launced from earth along with 8 others in the last extremity, in the twilight of civilization, and they, Cindra and her peers, were the seeds. People all over the earth could tell that the clocks were running down: out of fuel, out of air, out of ozone and clean water and arable land and trees to cut for shelter and oil, there was nothing left but solar power and the foamed concrete eeked slowly thereby, as though from the sun's very furnace. Precious fuels and metals were squandered on these 9 colonization birds, each the same, each with about 450 souls aboard, and 5 to 8 stops to make seeding hopeful star systems before beginning a final irrelevant leg of their endless journeys. Each ship was named after a fanciful sci-fi author.

Tomorrow they would go down. Cindra's group had drawn a very fertile, friendly planet. It might have fauna and certainly there were a lot of plants: that much was apparent from the telescope surveys conducted from earth. Not much would be needed to eke out a living on the surface. But there was more: long studies had been held to try to give the 60 new societies the best possible toehold in their new worlds, to create, as much as possible, a new world in the image of but better than, the old one. The group would have some special advantages, she thought hopefully of these while drifting off to sleep.

Next day passed quickly, checking and rechecking hear she'd stowed and made sure of a dozen times already. In no time it was 2:00PM and time for the meeting. All the colonists sat together in the front of the caffeteria, wearing dark green acceleration suits they'd not take off until they had landed, while most of the rest of the crew clustered around to hear the last speeches.

First there were the obligatory goodbyes and pronouncements of high hopes and expectations. Soon, their leader, Captain Thomas, took the podium, wearing her own green jumpsuit, and began announcing a private catechism Cindra and her peers already mostly knew.

“As you know," she said, "our group of colonists is not taking piles of lasers and microcomputers with us to the surface. We have the lowest gear mass allotment of any group on the ship, something I expect you all to thank us for while you're eating that extra ration of chocolate ice cream you got budgeted into YOUR drop shipment!” A pause here for applause was effective, though sardonic: groups with higher mass allotments generally had harsher planets to deal with, such as those without oxygen, or worse: nobody was actually dropping with chocolate ice cream, although there was plenty shipboard, and Thomas took a healthy lick as she said this, to dramatize it the fact.

“Instead, we are taking something special, something that will make us only marginally human, really, a tiny improvement.” Thomas was on a roll now. People settled down to hear the rest of her talk.

“The whole idea came from studying Neanderthals, our distant distant dumb stepbrothers. Or so we like to think. Archaeological evidence actually seems to suggest that they were bigger, stronger AND smarter than we were. That's something you may not all know. Why then, (our scientists put themselves this question, I'm told...) were WE the evolutionary winners instead of the Neanderthals? Well the more recent evidence has given us some exciting clues to ponder about this.”

You could've heard a pin drop as Thomas paused to emphasize her grip on the audience.

“The Neanderthals, it turns out had a disadvantage, and it was one you wouldn't thinkof very highly: they were fertile.”

“Fertile? How does THAT get to be a disadvantage, you want to ask! Well consider this: we have a species that is getting successful, and one of its key characteristics is how it cares for its offspring, how WE raise and nurture our young, to make them all they can be, help them even at our own expense. The Neanderthals were this way too. Take this burgeoning success and this devotion to offspring, combine them with fecundity, and what do you get? Overpopulation, that's what. A characteristic that's helpful to a butterfly who simply leaves her young behind becomes an actual burden to a cavemother who absolutely won't. Put it together, imagine having babies every nine months like clockwork, and trying to get all those kids fed, and sheltered, and moved to the new hunting grounds! You get the picture. Add to that that half the people, the women would be incapacitated half the time and nursing the other half, and you get a species competing at half power. Maybe it would work if you lost two of every three kids to the dinosaurs, but add successful nurturing to the recipe, and you've got hardship resulting from success. That's the unfair catch-22 the Neanderthals struggled with.”

“Meanwhile, our ancestors had a relative advantage: sparse fecundity. As you all know all too well, we (well those of us who are female) are fertile just a few days each month and noone can tell (without very close inpection indeed) whether we are or not. A baby's not certain every time you dive under the bearskins, and if you're nursing it's highly unlikely. This fact has not only made it quite easy to tame the less intelligent portion of the species (plenty of guffaws here) pretty handily through sexual manipulation, but reduced the popluation pressure our tribes felt when we were a young species. The low birth rates also equalized a physical disadvantage, and made us really partners with our men. I'd like to think that partnership had something to do with beating the Neanderthals, but the reproductive dissimilarity certainly did. With less kids to take care of, we did better as a species.”

“You could argue the whole thing played out again in the 21st century back home, only cultural preferences and birth control created the advantage when even LESS fecundity was needed in the face of longer lifetimes, greater educational burden and more population pressure. That social pressure worked against those who felt it most though, because others of the same species were meanwhile breeding to beat the band, and that put pressure on us all, arguably the very reason for these seed ships we're riding in now. How can we break that cycle in our next try? This was the problem our planning group chose to focus on.”

“The solution is clear with hindsight: we will take our advantage over the Neanderthals and multiply it. In particular, we will genetically alter ourselves, in fact HAVE already altered ourselves to bear less children. Each of the women you see before you is reproductively fertile only for a few days a year, and only she knows approximately when. This change makes us (we women) more nearly equal in our ability to contribute, we've been chosen for size and strength too, but most importantly, we should bring our tribe an immeasurable benefit, that of not facing an overpopulation problem of our own making!” There were some shocked gasps: this aspect of the fourth drop team's mission had not been overtly known.

“Now you may ask 'why now, in the fragile first stages of colonization?' and my answer would be that you are right: there's no place in the first several generations for limited growth, and in fact for just that reason we have thousands of doses of fertility drugs, which WE must take in order to approach the monthly fertility YOU all take for granted. But those drugs will run out in a few generations, and then we will have our new, utopian society to nurture. Then too, like all of our groups we are preponderantly women, for obvious reasons: we want to breed successfully and often at first (Thomas paused here for lusty cheering from the men and boys) but generations hence our growth will taper. Our computer simulations promise good outcomes from this strategy. Now is the time for you to wish us the same, as we take our turn to try to establish a beachhead for humanity on this new earth, here around the star, our Sun, the star known back home only as VES-3!”

Cheers all around, some light drinking, and Cindra went to bed to await the drop.