by Joshua Osto
After a month of moving through suitable systems within a loose range, I came across another ship. The docking bay of the Thaleia was airlocked, a feature popular with women, as opposed to the open bay with a powered environment field that held the air in. The airlock, though slow and difficult to manage, added that extra degree of protection and access to the bay in case of power downs. Elsom had the open bay, which suited me. I would sometimes drift off to sleep with pleasant thoughts of depressurization, a sudden cold chill, silence.
“Hi,” I said. “My name’s Kole.”
“What do you want, Kole?” It was a woman’s voice. Educated but laboured, as if she were slightly sedated. It was normal. The long hours of solitude and unchanging night meant that most people spent at least part of the day self-medicating.
“I want to visit you,” I said. “To talk to you.”
I heard a child in the background.
Mommy, the child called.
It could have been a girl, but at a young age, the voices of boys and girls were hard to distinguish, and it had been years since I had heard either.
“To visit me?” She laughed. She closed down the coms.
I set the constant distance between our ships and primed the pod. In the shower room, I washed and shaved, checking my pupils in the mirror. They were bloodshot, but the scieras did not have the yellow tint that the prolonged use of drugs sometimes gave them, so I could say that with two months on the job, I was physically improving. I sat down in one of the reclining chairs in the recreational area, played music, and dozed. Even though I was waiting, like I was always waiting, at least this time I knew what I was waiting for.
I guessed that Thaleia was, or had been, a science vessel. The ships made changes to themselves over time, based on usage and anticipated functional requirements, so the original design would often be obscured, but the portal windows were common on science vessels, as was the transparent bubble of the viewing gallery that all the portals looked out onto. The lettering in green and the lack of aerodynamic features also supported the case for it having been a science vessel. I could have typed her name into the logs and seen if her pre-exodus history was known, but something about that seemed wrong. I wanted to meet Thaleia with as few preconceptions as possible, an empty history. I distrusted my ability to piece together facts into a person; something about it felt too much a part of the old ways. Instead, I dozed and thought about Guan.
I was lucky to meet Guan. We came to see Earth at the same time. Actually, he spent most of his time there, looking for people he could gather back into his new society. He contacted me on Elsom, much as I had contacted the woman on Thaleia, and said he would like to come on board. I asked him if he drank, and he hesitated for a moment before answering.
“Sure,” he said. So I let him aboard.
“Do you wonder about whether there’s a point to this?” He asked me, both of us drunk, two or three hours later. The red and yellow surface of earth was framed in the window behind him, as thin strips of grey cloud like the remnants of a worn, busted net moved imperceptibly. Our ships recorded everything, and you could speed up footage of planets to see environmental activity, skating clouds, magma eruptions on the surface, desert storms.
“I don’t wonder about it,” I said. “I just cope with the fact there isn’t one.”
“Cope,” he repeated, smiling broadly.
“If that’s the extent of your life.”
The coms light and the low growl of an incoming message woke me from memories.
“Okay, Kole,” she said. “You can come over. I don’t know what you want, but I don’t have it.” This time I could see her face on the monitor. She was in her early forties, unremarkable, grey eyes and greying hair pulled back in a tail, clearly unused to being seen, just like the rest of us.
We fumbled my pod into the airlock, communicating badly and too late at key moments, but at the second attempt, we docked. The door closed behind, and she equalized. The external hazard light still flashed amber on the console.
“Is there oxygen?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said. There was a pause. “Erm…two minutes.”
I sat there in the pod. The airlock went dark, and a few seconds later the lights came back up. She came back on the com.
“It should be alright now,” she said. “I’m not used to this.”
When the inner door slid open, she was standing there, smiling in a nervous kind of way. She was shorter than I expected, pale and slightly plump.
“I must ask you to stay on this level,” she said. “It’s just that I’m not used to people. I have private things….”
It was fine. I agreed, and she relaxed.
“Shall we get something to eat? It seems to make talking easier.”
“It’s not really enough just to draw them in,” Guan had said at our final meeting.
He sighed, which unsettled me. He had become my touchstone for a future. The thought came to me that, as far as I knew, Guan’s society only included the two of us.
“It’s not enough to draw them in; we need to reach out as well. If there’s good we can do. If we can make things better. If we can earn trust. Do you see? If you see any way we can do this, that we can show our value, then you must…. You must do something, or let me know. We must have a purpose.”
“How many of us are there?” I asked.
He shook his head slowly.
“There will be more,” he said.
“I’m Dina,” she said.
I ate another blue circle. The blue circles were my favourite.
“You’re alone?” I asked.
“You like the blue circles,” she said. “Thaleia calls them apricots.”
“And the red squares,” I said, helping myself.
“I had a daughter,” Dina told me. “Mary. She died. The red squares don’t have a name. I just call them reds.”
“No other red shapes then?”
“Circles, but they are called bananas, and we don’t really enjoy them. Too sweet.”
Then she collapsed into her hand, closing her eyes, exhausted. I understood how she felt.
“We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to,” I said, and she smiled up at me, wearily, from across the table.
Sometimes, when you were alone, you might hear someone talking and find out that the voice was only in your head. Other times, you think the voices are in your head, and you realise the voice is your own, or you have left a screen on. Sometimes you forget what the words mean. After time, you seem to exist apart from your senses, careful not to make noise, and the sound of your own voice shocks you.
Conversation becomes tiring. Your brain floods with all the different inputs you need to sustain interaction, and it is quickly overwhelming. When people travel down to the surface of planets, they sometimes panic. Agoraphobia. The space above them, the sky, is terrifying. These things we have forgotten. My grandmother lived half her life in this way, and it was taking them away that crushed her. Me, my generation, cannot imagine another way of living.
Dina and I finished the meal in silence, wary smiles when we forgot not to meet each others eye.
“Will you leave now?” Dina asked.
“I want to talk to you about something, something good, but it’s…difficult.”
She shrugged and looked down.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You can come back.”
Back in my ship, I injected myself and watched the stars bleed into the dark spaces. There was a sun not so far away. We still used rocks and stars to plot our meetings. Though mostly what we needed was a number on three axis, to set the numbers you still needed a centre, a zero point: Earth.
We left Earth a ruin, scarred and infected. It was an exodus, and as gravity fell away so did the semblance of order. There was something stamped onto the unconscious mind of all those that were forced to abandon their home. I am third generation. I remember the fanatical mantras of my father: “Never follow, Kole. Never follow another man. Every decision is yours; your role in the universe. Never let someone else define it for you.”
My grandmother was more subdued, but her broken recollections, her obvious pain when talking about the past, the long silences and the wide, empty spaces of her depression, gave colour and meaning to my father’s words. This is where abdication, group-think, could lead. The usefulness of leadership had run its course. Each human being had the knowledge and the power they needed to be self-governing, to determine their own moral version of the universe. More than this, it was our duty to be self-governing, to avoid a repeat.
Each human unit lived symbiotically with their ship, and when attempts were made to categorize and track each ship, the reaction was a second exodus away from the centre, away from authority. My mother was more circumspect than my father. “It’s a new beginning,” she said. “Time will tell.” And then: “We don’t deserve to survive.”
After she had killed herself, there was only my father’s voice.
“Your morals are your own. Take everything, and wipe it away.”
After such a long period of mental inaction, my time alone, it was difficult to piece things together while they were actually happening. No oxygen in the loading bay. The child’s voice on the com exchange, Mommy. The closed sections of the ship. “We don’t really enjoy them.”
Reluctantly, I typed in “Thaleia” and the ship’s serial number, hesitating momentarily before committing it to the log. She was a science vessel, a cloning vessel, organs and simple tissue. I compared the charts that were in the log with the ship I could see through the window. She was larger now, and there was a single observation platform where originally there had been four. There was additional cabling running along the outside, concentrated around the upper decks. As I watched, I could see one of the ships drones high up on the outer hull, presumably carrying out some kind of repair or augmentation of this area.
We don’t like them.
Dina had taken no pleasure in my being there, had grown tired quickly. I had not moved away after the first, dismissive com, so maybe it was just the best way she could think of to get rid of me. She had seemed to resist connection, something more than awkwardness or caution. There must have been more than what I could immediately imagine: that she had cloned her daughter. If that was it, why not just introduce her? Say, “This is Mary” and continue as normal. Something must have gone wrong; self-augmentation of the ship’s systems might have not been sufficient, although every ship had a complete record of known technology. Maybe the child was deformed or mentally impaired. We could help her. She needed us. We could support her, help her to belong again.
I opened up coms.
“Dina,” I said. “I know about Mary. I can help. Will you let me on board?”
There was no reply, but I kept asking until my voice started to crack, and then I saw the outer doors of the Thaleia’s docking bay open. I rushed to the pod, and Elsom started launch protocols.
It was a short flight, about a kilometre. As I neared the Thaleia, I glanced upward, to where I had seen the drone. Now that I was closer, I realised that it was not a drone but the white, frozen body of a small girl between three and five years old. The crystals that sparkled from her body caught the starlight like metal. The slow motion of the ship in orbit held her in place, the two travelling together, though any change in course would have dislodged her. She could have been there for a minute or for a year, it was impossible to tell. The outer seal of the airlock moved around the pod and the glare of electric light filled the cockpit. I lost her from view, but her voice, “Mommy”, echoed in my mind. I heard it as I had heard it that first time, a faint cry for attention.
I thought that I could help here, but events were changing reality again. Was Dina a murderer? Had she been trying to kill me, that first time in the docking bay? I had been so close to opening the doors, loosing the pod’s oxygen, dead in two short minutes. It had seemed like carelessness, but would she have released the oxygen? Would she try to kill me now?
Once gravity or oxygen had been supplied to the airlock, she would not be able to open the outer doors again without resetting. But, if she did neither, she could close the outer doors, and I would be trapped with no way to move from the bay into the ship. These were standard safety protocols and could not be overridden. As long as she adjusted the atmosphere I could leave the pod safely. If she tried to reset once I was outside, I would have sufficient time to make it back. I just had to wait and hope.
The docking bay doors closed behind me, and, after a time, the pod informed me of the atmospheric change: gravity and oxygen. I opened the hatch, and the inner doors of the bay slid open. This time Dina was not there.
There was no sign of her on the lower deck, either in the rec room, the server room, or the control centre. I took the hatch to the second deck, avoiding the lift. Immediately, the atmosphere of the ship changed. All of the lights were on a dim setting so that it took me time to adjust, and most of the doors were sealed. These would have mostly been bunks and living quarters originally, and occasionally, I thought I could hear someone moving around inside one of the rooms. Without a key, I could not open the doors, and when I called out, there were no further sounds.
At the far end of the third deck, there was a brighter light and an open door. I made my way towards it. As I moved around the corner and the room, a laboratory, opened up, I had to change my reality again.
There were two bodies. One was in pieces, held in liquid in different cylinders. An arm, intestines, a free-floating face, unattached to a skull. This was not a corpse but a collection of parts for a person that had never seen life, an unassembled jigsaw of the dead girl from outside the ship, the same dead girl who I could see again at the far end of the laboratory. Mary. She was frozen, contained by one of the deep sleepers which had been set to a lower than usual temperature. She looked asleep, and I would have thought that she was still alive if it were not for the trauma you could see to the side of her head and the way she had been arranged.
The trauma showed that she had died as the result of some violent impact, possibly a fall. Around the base of the deep sleeper had been arranged children’s toys, clothes, a cutting of hair. There was a letter, written in the old way, with “Mary” on the envelope. I did not need to read it to know what it would say, that it would be full of apologies and regret, love, and hopeless pleas for forgiveness.
The girl outside, the dead Mary, had been a clone. It was not ending. The sin, whatever it was, was repeating itself through time, as if expiation were possible through continuing a crime, an accident, a moment of madness, continually. In solitude, we were all close to this kind of madness. It was easy, took no effort, to understand Dina’s situation.
I found her in the observation gallery with Mary, another Mary, this time covered in blood. In her right hand, Dina held an electrical saw, presumably taken off one of the drones. She had used it to slit Mary’s wrists, and her daughter lay dead, again, at her feet. It looked like an offering, a sacrifice.
“This isn’t my daughter,” she said. Her eyes were bright, vivid, and I could not work out what she was looking at, what she was seeing. “None of them are my daughter. I tried to bring her back, tried to love them all the same way, use the same words, but they were all…. Empty.”
Now she looked at me. I recognised some kind of hope, perhaps for understanding, but then she was torn down by some inner agony.
“They remind me of her, but they aren’t her,” she said. “These things. I can’t…. They want too much. They’re different. I don’t want to forget who she was. I can’t understand them. They’re empty. Empty.”
I held out a hand, a golden light rising up from inside me, an invisible bond suddenly present between her being, her soul, and mine. She pushed me away, took the sharp edge of the saw, and ran it across her throat. There was a shower of warm blood, and I lunged towards her.
“It’s okay,” I told her, holding her pale, radiant face in my hands. “I killed my father. No one can judge us.”
She seemed to smile, or perhaps it was my imagination, but then she was gone. Her head in my hands was just a thing, and the weight of her body pulled it down, sinking away from me, her hair running through my fingers like sand.
I looked up at the portal windows leaning over us. There were faces, the same face, repeated over and over again, each with the same horrified expression, calling out the same, silent cry: Mommy – the only word I had ever heard the child say.
Back to Issue 18
Back to Issue 18